On a Saturday in late February, where the grass grows rich and fiercely green, you walk around to the back of an old ranch house, into a yard decorated with picnic tables. Dirty jeans sit side by side on bench seats, cowboy hats and shades obscure faces as the hum of conversation and laughter rises up through the old trees standing sentinel around history being made and remembered.
This isn’t my home, but it feels like it. Weathered barns, and drifting cattle, tables laden with food, and the late afternoon sun reflecting off the Coors Light cans held in tired, callused hands. People scoot down and make room, thanking you for making time to come by, and eat their food. And you wonder if this kind of generosity, this easy kindness grows best here in the fertile soil alongside the alfalfa fields, under the Spanish moss, romanticizing the brittle branches of drought tolerant trees. Where friends and strangers alike come early for a hard day’s work. Where a meal instead of money is payment enough; because before ‘pay it forward’ was a trending hashtag on Twitter it was lived out here, for a hundred years or more.
A German short haired pointer mills inquiring around table legs, and scuffed boots, nudging the elbows of strangers for a pat on the head. Between bites rookies tell of their mistakes from the morning branding pen – cold irons and shots misplaced. The experienced nod and tell them they ‘did a fine job,’ and they both smile at their plates, the newly proud, and the worn out teacher.
You walk through a beautiful house, glowing banisters too short to hold; and hardwood floors worn smooth by time. The faded wallpaper creates a muted backdrop for the rows of black and white photos that tell a story of the lives lived here, generations lined up in proud succession. You recognize them, although the faces and names are strange, hard working, and family oriented, generous, and steadfast. You’ve seen their photos treasured and displayed in homes around the country – the stoic, and the joyful, posed, and slightly blurred, with an undercurrent of pride and satisfaction from a job well done, of things overcome, radiating in vivid clarity.
The sun pours through the kitchen window onto the women in the ranch house on branding day, moving in a time honed rhythm, swatting kids as they pass and chatting over the top of one another. They work with equal efficiency to their male counterparts, never seeing it as less important, this job of feeding, and filling, rewarding and restoring the worn out bodies. There’s pride in this, this necessity. There’s art and heart in filling a table, which never goes unappreciated by the hungry crowds milling beyond the screen door.
You walk down the dirt road, the sounds of the bbq dimming with each step. And you repeat names of the older generations and squint to see property lines gestured to in sweeping motions. Barn doors swing on newly oiled hinges; sunlight blooms golden through the boards and bathes everything in musty warmth. Tractors and trucks lined up neatly in a row, the hours and use represented in the dings, and dust, chips, and rust.
You linger to hear of repairs, and water tanks, of leases and wildlife, of cattle known by their notches and tags. You lean on board fences and watch the bulls — the feisty and the mellow eyeing each other as they mull over their new bachelor corral accommodations.
You notice a marked steadiness, and kindness out here; qualities that grow dim as these places recede in the rearview mirror. These small towns and long distance neighbors have their faults too but the wrong things stand out here like thistle in a hay field. Maybe because they drive slow enough to see it, and they’re diligent enough to hoe it, spray it, and get it gone before it ruins the whole crop. And maybe we go too fast when we leave here, the hustle blurring our sight to the things that shouldn’t be allowed to take root.
Here you hold your breath and remember what quiet is, and something eases inside of you, something you didn’t know was wound up tight. The dust billows up behind the truck and your face is toward the sun, you breathe deep and there’s no questioning that this is where we’re supposed to be. And I’ll never believe that heaven could be anything other than this: sleek cattle on rolling hills blanketed by new grass, the murmur of water bubbling over rocks in the river, and a meal under the oak trees after a hard day’s work.