Jerry BarksdaleFrom the Bar H Ranch we headed southwest across the flat Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) toward Palo Duro Canyon, said to be “Texas’s Best Kept Secret.” Thankfully, Bonnie Pitts had gassed up as there were few stations along the way. During the late 1800’s it was Billy the Kid’s stomping ground. Now it’s ranching and farming country, where endless rows of sorghum grain disappear over the horizon.

“Look!” I pointed to five farm combines buried head first in the ground. The famous “Cadillac Ranch” had apparently inspired yet another yard art display.

The only thing that I knew about Palo Duro Canyon was that Charles Goodnight had established his first ranch there in 1876 and it’s where Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove had killed the half-breed bandit, Blue Duck. My plan was to visit the canyon then cut across the plains to old Ft. Sumner, New Mexico and tour the house where Pat Garrett had shot and killed Billy the Kid on a dark July night in 1881.

Neither Billy the Kid nor Pat Garrett seemed to interest 12-year-old Leslie Pitts, who had never ridden a stick horse across the purple sage like I had done. Nor had he fist fought to defend Roy Roger’s title as “King of the Cowboys” against sissy-pants Gene Autry. Talk about a “lost generation!” I wonder what literary guru Gertrude Stein would say if alive today?

It was scorching hot and dry on the treeless plains when we abruptly arrived at the rim of the canyon.

“Gollee Shazam!” I said to Leslie. “Except for the Grand Canyon, this is the biggest hole I’ve ever seen.” In fact, the Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the U.S., and is a panorama of colors and geologic wonders. We drove down into the canyon on a 16 mile scorching asphalt road and crossed dry stream beds, passed campsites, hiking trails and picnic areas. Hot, dry and awesome. It was a perfect place to train for a short visit to hell, I thought. We were more hungry than inspired.

“Let’s eat at the Big Texan,” Leslie suggested.

“You don’t want to see where Billy the Kid was killed?” I asked.

No response. No kid of my generation would have chosen a restaurant over seeing Billy the Kid’s grave. We headed north to Amarillo and pulled in at the “Big Texan – Home of the 72 oz. Steak.” A horse motel was located out back. Inside it was air conditioned and cool. I ate salmon.

Finally, we saw the real Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo on I-40. Cars were pulled off and folks were photographing the five Cadillacs that a millionaire had buried head first in an open field. Art? Hmmm. We kept on trucking. Route 66, gray and narrow unrolled alongside us. The air grew thinner as we gradually climbed higher across the plains. Leslie occupied himself by announcing the elevation every few miles. East of Clines Corner, New Mexico, he punched his IPhone and announced,“Seventy-one hundred.” My sinuses, which abhor dry air and high elevation had already told me that. A curtain of black clouds loomed off to the south. We rounded a bend in the road and I pointed west. “Look, Leslie. The Rockies! I’d say this is another gollee shazam moment.” The mountains, some 75 – 100 miles in the distance looked like a long, gray worm. At Clines Corner, we turned north and headed to Santa Fe.I had been hankering to see turquoise skies and gray mountains and smell juniper and pinion and here I was, smack dab in the middle of paradise. We drove into Santa Fe, its brown hills dotted with juniper now graying at twilight, and checked in at the El Rey. It’s a fine old motel of adobe-pueblo style built in the 1930’s.

“Never pass through Santa Fe without eating at Maria’s,” I said. “It serves the best New Mexican food in town.” I ate a chicken burrito and beans while watching a lady make tortillas by hand. That night I settled in bed and thought about my first trip to Santa Fe in 1985, when my marriage and world fell apart. Uncannily, the break-up had occurred the same day that my trucker-cousin, Greg was departing for Seattle in his 18-wheeler. I jumped aboard and headed west. In Albuquerque I got out on the interstate, rented a car and drove to Santa Fe, a place I had never visited. The city had inexplicably drawn me to it like a moth to a flame. Many people are drawn there. Of course, the moth always gets burned. Now, I was happy. If only I could breathe. A squirt of Afrin up the nose solved that problem.

-To be Continued –
By: Jerry Barksdale

Athens Shop Local

I exited the shabby motel room into early morning light, and was overwhelmed by the utter vastness of Texas high plains. Nothing but blue sky and flat brown earth.

“Is this a golleeshazam moment?” I asked 12-year-old Leslie Pitts. He grinned.

Needing coffee, I walked to the motel office past two old cars with flat tires.

“No bed bugs? Clean sheets?” asked the Indian inn keeper with a clipped tone.

“Right.”

“Guude place, yeah? Am I guude too?”

I smiled. “You good too.”

Nearby at an abandoned gas station on Route 66, were five VW beetles buried head first in the earth, rear ends sticking up. A sign read “Bug Ranch.” Obviously it was someone’s artistic response to the famed “Cadillac Ranch” west of Amarillo.

Bonnie Pitts pointed the Dodge Caravan south across the northern edge of the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) down narrow asphalt to tiny Claude, Texas where we breakfasted at O. J.’s, a Mexican café and the only eatery in town. It was small, with brown tile floors and red-checkered table cloths, and friendly. I had scrambled egg whites smothered with red chili sauce, sopped up with corn tortillas. Sipping my third cup of coffee, I called “Dee Dee” and got directions to the Bar H Ranch at Clarenton. The road leading there was straight as a pool cue. A small sign along a railroad track announced, “Goodnight.” Across the road was a rambling old ranch house that was of no significance to me at the moment. Later, we turned off asphalt, bumped across a cattle guard, and rattled down a dusty road that cut through mesquite and sagebrush, and ended at a red ranch house. An attractive and smiling middle-age blonde wearing white shorts and trailed by an Australian Shepherd greeted us. “Hi, I’m Dee Dee. Welcome to the Bar H.” Introductions were made. Bonnie, always full of good humor, gave her a back door compliment. “Are you married?” he asked, grinning.

“Yes.”

“How big is your husband?”

“Bigger than you,” she said flatly.

We stored our luggage in the bunk house, and went by bouncing pick-up to the corral where the wrangler, Melissa, and a German couple, Herr and Frau Neurath of Melsback, and their young son were already in the saddle. The dude ranch is 1800 acres of broken country grown over with cholla cactus, juniper, mesquite, sage brush, yucca, buffalo gourds, blue bonnets and along the water’s edge, large cottonwoods. It was rattlesnake and jack rabbit country. The only snake I saw was a large King snake slithering through the brush. “Is this a golleeshazam moment?” I asked Leslie. He grinned. “Yes sir.”

The horseback ride took us past Longhorns and buffalo that watched us suspiciously. Pain radiated down my right hip. That evening we gathered at the ranch house for supper. Dee Dee’s husband, Frank appeared. Bonnie offered his hand. “Your wife said you were bigger than me. And she was right.” Frank’s hard body resembled an oak timber poked into well-worn cowboy boots and sweat-stained jeans. He was a real cowboy, and the fifth generation of Hommels to work the ranch.

We sat at a long bench table, with Tater, the Australian shepherd, at our feet, begging for scraps, while Frank fed us crispy salad, baked potato and a Texas size steak. I learned that the old rambling ranch house I’d seen up the road had once belonged to Charles Goodnight of “Goodnight Trail” fame, and the inventor of the chuck wagon. In 1876, he drove his herd of Longhorns down from Colorado to Palo – Duro Canyon. He and John Adair founded the JA Ranch in 1877, which covered 1.3 million acres, and ran over 100,000 head of cattle. Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove is based on Goodnight’s life.

“Like a beir, ya?” Herr Neurath asked me.

“Sure.”

He fetched a Texas Longneck. Later I offered him a scotch. Alcohol loosens tongues. “Tell me why it is against the law to drink alcohol in America but okay to carry a gun?” he asked. “Makes no sense. Crazy!”

“The Second Amendment guarantees every citizen the right to pack heat,” I said. I further explained that armed citizens give criminals hesitation before breaking into someone’s house; that Americans have an inherent distrust of politicians, and the fact that over 100 million folks own guns, discourages would-be tyrants. Lastly, Southerners especially distrust politicians. “We were invaded in 1861, and that hasn’t been totally forgotten.” Nor forgiven, I should have added.

“America will always be America,” he said.

“Don’t forget that Germany elected Hitler fair and square,” I said. “He consolidated power, disarmed the people and you know the rest of the story. It can happen in America if we aren’t vigilant.”

Melissa, the wrangler, produced a cardboard box filled with homemade wines made by her mother in Tennessee. Leslie began dancing with himself, singing and having a grand time. I was suspicious that he had been imbibing wine. He denied it. When you are 12 years old and happy, I suppose you can throw your own party. That night, I crawled into a lower bunk, rubbed my aching hip and listened to locusts and July flies. Each time I got up to go the bathroom I bumped my head on the upper bunk.

Next morning, while Leslie was horseback riding, Bonnie and I talked to Dee Dee. The Bar H working ranch consists of 64 sections (40,960 acres) where the spring round-up is held around May 1st. Dee Dee invited us out. “It’s five days and four nights camping with the cowboys and helping brand calves,” she said. “The cost is approximately $1,250 with everything furnished.” I was interested, but worried about my hip. “I don’t think I could stay in the saddle all day,” I said.

“You can work on the chuck wagon.”

“Yeah, I learned to peel potatoes in the Army.”

Then I remembered a Rawhide TV episode from years back, when “Wishbone,” the cook, allowed the chuck wagon horses to eat loco weed. They ran over a cliff while pulling the chuck wagon. Rowdy Yates had to rescue Wishbone. I shuddered to think about it. “I won’t have to drive the chuck wagon, will I?” I asked Dee Dee.

“No, just peel potatoes.”

Later that morning, we said goodbye to our wonderful host, Dee Dee and Frank, and Melissa and our new friends from Germany, tugged Tater’s ears, and departed south across the Llano Estacado beneath blue sky.

To be Continued – Jerry Barksdale

The long road beckoned me west. I was hankering to see turquoise skies and gray mountains, smell juniper and pinion and ride through purple sage. And, I wanted to see my daughter, Shannon. It was mid-July and I was headed back to Taos.

On a sultry Tuesday morning before the sun had burned off the haze, we departed Elk River in a Chevy Caravan loaded with suitcases, maps and snacks. Bonnie Pitts of Tanner was behind the wheel. Leslie, his 12-year-old, blue-eyed and red-headed son, (who could model for a Norman Rockwell painting,) was soon asleep as we chased asphalt toward Memphis. My friend and sometimes red-head, Pat, as well as her niece, Penni Pitts, planned to depart Athens Friday after work, and meet us in Taos.

I love history and share it with Leslie, an honor student at Tanner. Near Memphis, I said, “When you see the mighty Mississippi, you’re gonna say ‘Golleee shazam’.” He grinned. As we bumped across the bridge into Arkansas, Leslie, his freckled face to the window, was unimpressed. The great river that once marked the western boundary of the United States prior to the Louisiana Purchase was running 30 feet below normal. We headed west on I-40 where the delta is flat and green as a billiard table. Bonnie looked across the endless rice fields, tugged the brim of his cap, and reminisced.

“When I was 16 or 17 we used to come out here in August and September and pick cotton,” he began. “Daddy had an old black, 1937 Chevy with suicide doors. They opened backward. If you opened them while moving they would jerk you outta the car.”

I love a good story. I reached over and punched off the radio. “When was that?” I asked.

“Ah, about 1957. We lived on Bruce Nelson’s farm near Brownsferry. Daddy would load us four boys up; that was me, the twins, Elwood and Delwood and my older brother, James and we’d leave Ripley about six in the morning. Daddy didn’t have a driver’s license – none of us did.”

The ‘37 Chevy got them to the Harrisburg area, where flat fields and endless rows were white with cotton. They stayed in a long, dorm-type building located on a gravel road that housed several families. Water was drawn from a hand-dug well with a rope and bucket. They shared an outhouse with the other itinerant workers. There was no air conditioning, no fan and no screen doors to keep out hordes of voracious mosquitoes.

“We rested the first day we got there,” Bonnie said. “Daddy got up between 5 and 5:30 and cooked breakfast which was usually biscuits and gravy. Sometimes, we ate bacon and eggs, if we had it.”

“How much were you paid for picking?” I asked.

“Two fifty per hundred pounds. Around Athens they didn’t pay no more than $1.50 to $1.75. We could make some real money in Arkansas.”

Bonnie said he could pick 150 to 160 pounds a day, which came to about $3.25, and his father could pick twice that much. “When my sack was full, (which was about 50 to 60 pounds,) I’d throw it across my shoulders and walk an eighth of a mile to the trailer, and weigh in. Sometimes we were paid right then and didn’t have to wait until quitting time to get our money.”

Just before dinnertime someone drove to the nearest country store and bought lunch. “I’d usually eat two pieces of bologna with crackers, an RC and a Moon Pie for dessert,” said Bonnie. “I’d sit on my sack at the end of the row and eat in thirty minutes or less.”

They knocked off picking between 5 and 6 p.m. and trudged back to the quarters where his father cooked supper. “We’d eat pintos, fried potatoes and cornbread,” he said. “Every once in a while we had milk and occasionally we ate a box of vanilla wafers and a quart of milk for supper.”

“For five people?”

“Yeah.”

Mosquitoes made their lives miserable at night. “We mostly left the door open to catch a breeze and of course didn’t have insect repellant.” He laughed. “The mosquitoes were so big and bad that one fellow got under a cast iron kettle and when they stuck their beaks through, he bent them over so they couldn’t escape.”

“Get outta here,” I said.

Bonnie laughed again. “They were almost that big.”

They picked a half day on Saturdays, then went to tiny Mark Tree or Lapanto where there was a store and movie theater. “We went to a movie one Saturday night in Lapanto, and a Mexican cut another Mexican’s head off. We were too scared to go back. On Sundays, we laid around the house or found a creek to play in.”

I grew quiet, lost in my own thoughts as car tires hummed on the pavement. One of my earliest memories was picking cotton using a Martha White flour sack that Mama had made for me. And I remember the hot, humid nights with no fan, and swarms of hungry mosquitoes feeding on me; the lack of money and the feeling of hopelessness. I don’t ever want to return to those days. But it was subsistence living that motivated both Bonnie and me to seek a better life. I guess that is something to be said for coming up poor.

We chased a setting sun across Oklahoma where the landscape became flat and brown and spotted our first “Big Texan, Home of the 72 ounce steak” sign just west of Oklahoma City. “Are your ears popping?” Bonnie asked.

“We’re on the high plains,” I said.

The sun was setting behind clouds, casting a red hue across the horizon. “We’d better stop at Elk City and find a room,” I said.

We took our chances and continued to Sayre. No rooms available. We crossed into Texas following old Route 66 and pulled off at Shamrock. No rooms except at a flea bag motel. I’ve hosted bed bugs, previously. No more. We ate at Vern’s Steakhouse located on Route 66 and departed at 10:30 p.m. without filling up with gas. Bonnie doesn’t like to gas up until the needle reaches a certain level that is fixed only in his head. We drove toward Amarillo. Near midnight and almost on empty, we exited for gas and spotted a red neon sign, “Conway Inn.”

“Let’s get a room,” said Bonnie. “We’ll gas up in the morning.”

I entered the office, where a small man from India appeared behind a locked door and bullet-proof glass.

“Do you have a room?” I asked.

“Guude room.”

“Are the sheets clean and no bed bugs?”

“Guude room. No bed bug, no complaint in turdy years.”

“What’s the name of this place?” I asked.

“No name. Just crossroads.”

We crashed at midnight. By my calculations we were within a two hour drive for our first planned adventure.

-To be Continued –

By: Jerry Barksdale

The dirt road leading to Taos Pueblo was rough and dusty, and bordered with chamisa and sage brush. Across the vast flats was Taos Peak, and the gray and looming Sangre de Cristo Mountains that rose up against blue sky.  Ahead was a round brush-arbor surrounded by tents, pick-up trucks, vendor stands and hundreds of Native Americans.

The 27th Annual Pow-Wow sponsored by Taos Pueblo was underway, and Native Americans from across the country had come to dance, socialize and celebrate their culture.  Leslie Pitts, age 12, a freckled face red-head and beginning 6th grader at Tanner High had his face stuck to the window of the Chevy Caravan as his father, Bonnie pulled onto a grassy spot and parked. We had driven to Taos to attend the Pow-Wow and visit my daughter, Shannon, after first stopping off at a Dude Ranch in the Texas Panhandle.

The sound of drums and singing in a language that I didn’t comprehend came from the direction of the brush-arbor.  We walked over and stood in a shady spot among mostly native spectators.  In the center of the arbor circle was a small fly tent that protected a handful of young Comanche drummers and singers from the hot sun.  Drumming and singing began. Men dressed in colorful regalia of beads, moccasins, feathers and scarves entered the outside of the circle. Each held a gourd in one hand and feathers in the other. They began a “Ho yah, ho yah,” chant to the rhythm of the drums and rattled their gourds as they slowly danced toward the center of the circle.  Most of the dancers displayed Armed Forces patches on their colorful scarves. Several were Marines.

Women dancers wearing long skirts stood at the back of the circle and danced in place, moving their feet to the beat of the drums. The closer the male dancers got to the center of the circle, the louder the drumming and singing.  I found it mesmerizing.  The announcer said that it was the Kiowa gourd dance and the circle represented earth and the four directions. He explained that the women stood at the back out of respect for the men. Traditionally they didn’t participate at all, he said.  But the women’s movement had changed that. Go girls!

Afterwards, I strolled off to find food. “I’ll take one of those chicken tacos,” I said to a tall white woman who was wiping sweat from her face.  She dumped a cup full of grilled chicken strips into a big tortilla, threw in onions, poured on red chili sauce and rolled it up like a newspaper.

“Do you want a roasted green chili on the side?” she asked.

“Heck yeah, why not?”  I bit off a chunk and swallowed it.  “Mmmmm pretty tasty.  I took another bite.  A fire ignited in my mouth and quickly spread to my stomach.

“Oooooh weeee.  Hog dog almighty!  Do you sell bottled water?”

“Sure, two bucks.”

I didn’t care if it cost ten bucks.  “Gimme two of ‘em.”

Folks, an Alabama gringo’s stomach is designed to process watermelons and cornbread, not fire bombs.  Later, I wandered off to visit other vendors. I spotted an old native man, his face bronze and wrinkled, sitting stoically behind a table beneath a fly tent. Books were stacked on the table. I walked over to check them out.    The old man wore an open collared yellow shirt with military sleeve patches and a red bill cap.  Pinned to the front of the cap was a Marine anchor and globe. Stitched across the front in bold yellow letters was “Navajo Code Talker.”

I offered my hand.  “Sir, I honor you for your service to our Country.”  He nodded, smiled slightly, but said nothing. His grip was firm for a ninety-year-old man. I had just met Chester Nez, the last survivor of the original 29 World War II Navajo Code Talkers. He was reared in a hogan in New Mexico, jerked from his happy home at a young age, and sent off to a white man’s school where his name was changed, and he was punished for speaking his native language. It was his unwritten language that helped America win the war against the Japanese in the Pacific. He fought at Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Bouganville and Guam.

Leslie walked up.  “Leslie, I want you to meet a real American hero,” I said.  “One day you can tell your grandchildren about him.”

Leslie’s freckled face beamed as he shook hands.  “Good to meet you sir.”

This time the old man smiled and spoke.  “Good – to – meet – you -.”

Judith S. Avila, co-author of Code Talker was present. It’s the first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.  I had to have a copy.

“Would you like it signed?” she asked.

“Absolutely.”

And it was.  “To Jerry Barksdale – Walk in beauty!  Cpl. Chester Nez.”

The book is excellent reading and published by Penguin Group, 300 pages and includes the actual Navajo Code and rare photographs. It sells for $26.05. I recommend it. I also recommend attending the Taos Pueblo Pow-Wow if you get the chance. It’s usually held during the second week of July.  And go for the chicken taco.  But do not – I repeat – do not eat the roasted green chili pepper!
By: Jerry Barksdale

 

Tired of the hustle-bustle urban life in Athens? I recommend a therapeutic day trip to tiny Aliceville in Pickens County, Alabama where life
is slow and folks are friendly. Recently I accompanied Athens residents Bill Ward and Jerry Crabtree there to visit the Aliceville Museum, touted as “Home of the Largest World War II German POW Camp Collection in the U.S.” Bill, a board member of the Alabama Veterans Museum, is a native of Pickens County. Jerry Crabtree is President of the Veterans Museum, and a retired Athens cop. I soon learned that when Bill Ward is driving, having a cop onboard is mighty handy.

We departed Athens at 7 a.m. and drove to Moulton, where I hoped to have a fine breakfast to sustain me during the 3-hour drive. When we headed down scenic Alabama 33, (that meanders through Bankhead Forest,) my stomach growled in protest. There would be no breakfast. At Double Springs, a blue and white cruiser did a U-turn, and flashed on blue lights.

“Sir, you were doing 65 in a 35,” the young cop said, pulling out his ticket book.

“Yes sir, I’m awfully sorry,” said Bill apologizing. I’ve never witnessed such boot licking in my life, but it worked!

“Well, I’ll just give you a warning ticket,” the cop finally said.

That’s when Jerry Crabtree flashed his cop card and the officer wilted like a vampire before a cross.

“Ya’ll have a nice day,” he said, and we sped off.

“Just professional courtesy,” quipped Crabtree.

My stomach growled. “I’m hungry.”

“After touring the museum we’ll eat at the Plantation House in Aliceville,” Bill said. “It’s a fine place.”

A hungry man doesn’t care how fine a restaurant is; he wants food, now! Bill pulled in at Barbara Ann’s place, a logger’s hangout. While he
pumped gas, I gourged down a giant chicken biscuit. My stomach stopped complaining and converted into a grease trap.

At Carrollton, we stopped at the courthouse to see “the face in the window.” According to Bill, after being arrested for burning the courthouse in 1876, Henry Wells was placed in the garret of the newly-built courthouse for safe keeping from a mob. While looking out at the mob, lightning struck and imprinted his likeness on the glass. I didn‘t believe it. We stood in the middle of the street in a rain shower looking up.

“Look!” said Bill. “Do you see it?”

“Well, I’ll be doggone,” I said, seeing a face. Whether it was Henry Wells, I can’t say, but the face is there.

At the Aliceville Museum, housed in a 1940’s Coca- Cola bottling plant, we were welcomed by a friendly brunette named Bobbie Renee Unruh, its Director. By the way, admission is only $5.00 for adults, and $4 for senior adults, Military and students.

After Rommel’s proud Afrika Corps crumbled before British forces advancing across North Africa in 1942, 6,000 German POWs arrived by train in tiny Aliceville on June 2, 1943. There they were confined behind barbed wire on 400 acres. The Geneva Convention
was strictly followed. Officers didn’t work, and, if the enlisted men chose to work outside the camp, they were paid 10? an hour. They were fed foods that many Americans couldn’t obtain because of rationing. Peanut butter on white bread, something that they had never heard of, was their favorite. The POWs organized an orchestra, produced plays and concerts, wrote poetry, and promoted the arts. The walls of the museum display drawings, portraits and paintings, and in the courtyard are three sculptures. The museum is also chocked full of American military memorabilia, and for the record, Pickens County boasts two Medal of Honor recipients. Remarkable!

Finally, Bill decided it was dinner time and took us to the Plantation House, a roomy, two-story former family home that has been converted into a restaurant. A salad bar and large buffet of fried chicken and such made the waiting worthwhile. The museum is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4p.m and by appointment on Saturday. The Plantation House is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

So, get out of your rut and visit the Aliceville Museum. Remember, there is no Cracker Barrel in Bank Head Forest and don’t dare speed in Double Springs – that is, unless you have a cop card! A plate of fried chicken at the Plantation House will make your trip worthwhile.
By Jerry Barksdale