When I took a sabbatical from the financial services field, I never imagined that it would be permanent. Walking away from knowledge and skills I had spent most of my adult life accumulating and honing seemed, well, dumb, even incomprehensible.
But my list of things to do before I die included a few things that I might be too old to do before long. So I rationalized my sabbatical as a chance to check off a few things on that list while I still had the physical stamina and desire to do them. I’m glad I checked them off, because I don’t think I have the energy now.
Shortly after I extricated myself from most of the entanglements of my profession, I got a call at home one night from cousin Shep challenging me to retrace our grandparents’ and parents’ journey across Texas in a covered wagon in 1918. To his surprise, I accepted.
That trip changed my life for the better. I chronicled that trip in Biscuits Across the Brazos.
It gave me the confidence to pursue a few other dreams that were starting to look a little less plausible. After that, anything seemed possible.
I have posted here about my horse packing trip in Wyoming (taken while I still had to go to work every day). You can see that a lot of my dreams had to do with fulfilling the cowboy life I had imagined for myself as a boy, but had put aside to make a living and support a family.
With newfound freedom, it was not unusual for me to choose a dream one day and leave to fulfill it the next. In other words, I was having the time of my life. On a whim, I drove to Alpine for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in cold February. One day, I will write about the morning legendary author and story-teller Paul Patterson brushed away snow on a bench at a chuckwagon breakfast and sat down beside me.
Paul told me that he was a good friend of Elmer Kelton’s and that Kelton had illustrated and written the foreword to one of Paul’s books. At that time, Kelton was the most prolific and beloved writer of westerns alive, but I had not known that he was also a talented artist. Friend Robbie Plunkett is a big fan of Patterson’s books.
Before leaving the Big Bend area, I dropped in on Ft. Davis, Marfa, Marathon and the Gage Motel, and Terlingua, home of the Chili Cook off. I still marvel at the carefree freedom I felt as neither distance nor obstacles seemed to matter. I was hungry for different experiences after being tied to schedules, desks and telephones for thirty years.
I became a regular at the Abilene Western Heritage Classic. I enjoyed sitting alone in the stands for hours watching ranch cowboys show their ranch horses. I marveled not only at their horsemanship, but their style, the tall-topped boots, big spurs, colorful wild rags, and big hats.
Always a lover of tack, I relished watching what they put on their horses’ backs and heads and in their mouths. I was fascinated by romel reins, bosals, mecates, and the little grass ropes that the cowboys tucked under their belts. I was intrigued by the pull harnesses that replaced breast harnesses. Many years earlier, my fascination with tack and love for good boots had inspired me to open a western wear store called Chute I.
On my second trip to the Abilene Classic, I was sitting in the stands watching ranch team roping when I heard a deep voice holler, “Yeah!” as a roping team made a clean run with two feet caught. The voice seemed like an echo from my past. I looked around for the source, but could not find him.
As the competition drew to a close and the winning team was announced, I heard the voice again. It was a distinctive voice, one I knew I had heard before, but I just could not place it. It came from a mouth that seemed to be full of something like bubble gum or chewing tobacco. A throaty, bass sound, almost slurred.
On the third cheer, I saw a large man stand with a clenched fist, a sign of approval for the ranch team in the arena. He wore a hat that matched his size. When he walked past me, the large hat kept his face shadowed, but I knew who he was.
The voice was older, mellower, like it was emerging from the long, dark, tunnel of my past and just waking up from a long sleep. I followed him and another cowboy out of the arena, waiting for a break in a conversation that seemed very serious, but they entered a room open only to ranch rodeo contestants before I could approach.
I waited almost an hour for him to reappear, still engaged in deep conversation with the same cowboy. I followed behind them, enjoying myself, taking time to observe everything he wore from the tall riding heels on his boots, the large spur rowels, and the huge palm leaf hat, looking for a sign of the seventy-pounds-lighter boy I once knew.
Finally, the other cowboy peeled off and I stepped beside my old friend, matching him stride for stride, looking straight ahead. He glanced in my direction, nodded and kept walking.
For a second, I thought I had made a mistake. I had not seen him or spoken to him in almost forty years. But no, this had to be Calvin.
I purposely bumped him enough to take him off stride. He turned again. I smiled and he put out his hand. “Well, damn, Jimmy Ainsworth, you got old, didn’t you?”
“Tried to stop it, but it just took hold.”
He patted his stomach. “Guess I’ve changed a little myself.”
“You have, but I recognized your voice.”
We talked a few minutes, trying to cover forty years, recalling raucous tales from our teen years, but he had a team of ranch cowboys and stock to look after and had to prepare for the ranch rodeo that night. He introduced me to his ranch hands from the Quien Sabe Ranch. I watched as they tended their horses and checked their tack for the events that night.
Calvin had been ranch manager at Quien Sabe for more than twenty years. I was surprised. I had always thought of my old friend as a wheat and milo farmer. But when I thought back, he had a black horse he called “Old Stud” and hired out to do daywork as a cowboy when his family could spare him from the farm.
I watched his team compete that night and saw how the years had made him into a genuine ranch cowboy, an occupation I had aspired to during our years of roaming the Panhandle countryside and playing sports together. I thought I could best him team roping, but he had me beat in all the other events. He had both horse sense and cattle sense, and was clearly the leader of the team in that arena. The other cowboys, mostly younger, obviously looked up to him.
About two years after meeting Calvin in Abilene, I completed the first draft of my first novel. I had read a lot of books about writing and decided to attend my first writers’ conference and try to connect with real authors. My expectations were low, but I hoped to discover if what I had written was anything close to worthwhile. I chose Amarillo because I wanted to see the Quien Sabe and my old home place. I would be a trip I would never forget.