Night 5 of West TX Road Trip
We didn't just end up at the Cowhead Ranch by accident. Don and I discovered the place over a year ago when visiting the Big Bend area.
We spotted the intriguing sign on the 2-lane highway and headed down a dirt road to find a cluster of wooden sheds and shacks as well as the owner, Cowboy Chris. Chris, looked more like a Big Bend hiker than a cowboy in his down vest and cap that day, but we'd heard about this curious fellow (more cowboy than hiker) who came to the land over a decade earlier to build his dream from discarded and donated scraps. He proudly gave us a tour of the saloon, social club, church and bathhouse, pointing out details, as his tiny dogs followed along.
He showed us the guest quarters which had electricity and small air conditioners. Some had bunk beds and one had a double bed. "You need to bring your own bedroll." He reminded.
So in January, when Don and I started planning our road trip, I called Chris and he put us down for a stay on February 24. I called a week before arrival and left a message on his voicemail to remind him we were coming. Late afternoon on the 24th, Don and I drove down the dusty road chuckling to ourselves. We had no idea what our stay would be like, but we were ready for an adventure!
Just as our car came to a halt in the center of the scattered buildings, 5 yapping dogs appeared, followed by a woman in a red visor. "The dogs are giving us quite a welcoming!" I laughed as I shut the car door. The woman's smile looked worried, but it was obvious she'd been expecting us when I heard my name. "I tried to call y'all, Beth." She spoke with a drawl that fit the scenery beautifully. "I've got you set up in the Cow Palace, 'cause it has a double bed. Everything's set, but I have some sad news," She said nervously. "You see, my dad, Chris. Well he passed away." She sort of winced a bit and I stammered my condolences. In the following minutes my head swirled as she explained he had died a month ago...but didn't I talk to him last week? Eventually my nerves settled and the pieces of the story made sense. Chris' daughter, Sunny had found her father (possibly the day I called) in bad shape and got him to the hospital where he died on his birthday 3 days later. She remembered him telling her that he had spoken to me about a February visit.
Stay or Leave?
Sunny insisted we go ahead and stay. "You're the first guests since Dad passed." She said she lived about 20 minutes away. "I'll leave the house open (her dad's mobile home) in case you need anything. I'd stay over, but I can't do that just yet. It's too soon, Beth. Think y'all will be okay out here?"
Unlike some of the little shacks with bunk beds, The Cow Palace was set up for a couple. Sunny referred to it as the honey suite. I removed the plastic covering that revealed a blanket with a pink horse. This was obviously the special room because it had sheets, but Don and I were plenty happy to use our sleeping bags and pillows. A few cowboy themed prints were nailed to the wall and a lamp with cracked shade, welcomed bedtime reading.
Sunny offered to find us a heater to use. A cold front was moving in and rain was expected. "No, we'll be fine!" we assured. I think she was wondering if we would really stay.
Sunny asked if we'd mind if she relaxed a while with a beer before she headed off. She and the 5 dogs settled on one of the long benches by the fire pit and Don and I joined her for a spell. We learned that Sunny had moved from Paris, TX to help he dad 6 or so years ago. You could tell she thought the world of her dad and every now and then she'd pause and take a deep breath. "I don't know, Beth. I don't know if I'm gonna make it." I tried to play my mom role and assure her it would take time, but she just wasn't sure. It helped that her dad's 3 dogs and her own 2 white ones kept her happily distracted. The sweet tan pup had been her dad's favorite. She showed me his tricks.
When Don lets a dog in his lap, you know he's warming up. These funny little critters did break the ice in an amazing way. When we left the car door open and a few took their dusty paws on an entertaining romp throughout the interior, all we could do was laugh. It was nice to see that Sunny had taken over her dad's dogs by spoiling them rotten. "Every night, I get out the ice cream and these old dogs each get a scoop of Bluebell Ice Cream!" she announced proudly.
I lounged with a couple dogs myself as Sunny talked about the worries of taking over the ranch. She hoped to get some services going in the little church and looked forward to some big crowds during spring break. It was hard work she admitted, especially since she spent her days working as a welder. She wasn't sure how she was going to manage. And there were other concerns. "Like last night, I came over to gather the chicken eggs, and there was a guy prowling around with a flashlight. People hear someone died and they just think everything's up for grabs. He saw my car lights and ran off that way." Gulp. Now that was something I really didn't want to hear. As if staying in the middle of nowhere in our little wooden guest shack with the winds blowing in a cold front, wasn't eerie enough!
Then we saw a blond woman wearing red shoes and red top, making her way down a path from a distant house. She greeted Sunny with a big hug, then offered hugs to Don and me. She held a sheet of paper, flapping in the breeze. "Read it over Sunny. Let me know if it's okay." She had written something for Chris' memorial service. Voni turned out to be a delight. Not only did she appear to be a gracious and upbeat neighbor, but she had an interesting claim to fame. Voni had ridden over 1 million miles on a motorcycle! Some might think a million dollar rider would be a quirky, recluse who spent years doing nothing but roaming on her cycle. But Voni was a bright and caring special ed teacher who did a million other things while she racked up a million miles.
Chickens and Other Animals
While Voni visited with us, Sunny went off to collect eggs. She returned announcing she had 48 which is more than the number of hens. I would have liked to have collected a few eggs for the experience, but Sunny warned, "Now you keep your distance from that rooster. He'll attack ya."
Voni bought some eggs and headed home, letting us know if we had any problems that night, she and her husband were "next door." That was actually very encouraging.
What was not so encouraging was when Don made the mistake of asking about the most interesting animal Sunny had seen in the area. She told about the mountain lion that lived near her house. "First time I heard that animal sorta scream, I though some child had got run over by a car!" Then she pointed out to the east. "And we have a black panther that lives out here." She sighed and shook her head. "Oh he is beautiful! His eyes are beautiful! He must be 200 pounds. When you see him, you just gotta respect him and keep away."
About Cowboy Chris
Before Sunny left, she asked us a favor. "Would y'all mind me sharing a slide show?" She took us in the mobile home, where I know she had found her ailing father a month ago. It was surprisingly cozy with checked curtains and a tidy kitchen. She showed us an incredibly touching slideshow on a laptop, with images of her father and his horse, Little Feather. He looked like a character in a movie. "He loved that horse." Sunny said proudly. "Little Feather was killed, though...struck by lightening." There were photos on the wall and on tables, as well. Pictures of him as an award winning auctioneer and one of Sunny (Or Shine as he called her) with her daddy before her parents divorced. Sunny played a recording of her dad singing with his guitar. She wiped tears a couple times, but always managed to find a little bright something to lift her up. "But he's here, watchin'! Before he died he told me when I saw a red-winged hawk it would be him. I saw one earlier today when I was waitin' for y'all."
Sunny put the chickens up for the night so I walked over to visit with one of the few horses left on the ranch. It did make me wonder what our visit would have been like if Chris had been there. Would he have pulled out his guitar around the firepit? What horse stories would he have shared? Sunny said he would have cooked us up a cowboy breakfast for sure. She offered, but we said we'd be off early in the morning.
As the sun slipped behind the distant range, Sunny asked again, "Will y'all be okay?" We assured her we would, and wondered why she kept asking. We were ready to get our evening started, but Sunny insisted on starting up the wood burning stove in the "Social Club", and pointing out the propane burners for cooking. Sunny frowned at the stubborn firewood and gave it another good dose of kerosene. Flames shot through every crack in the stove and a few flames lit some straw on the dirt floor. A little stomping took care of that. "We'll be fine." Don told Sunny.
Sunny gathered the little dogs in the cab of her truck. "I left the light on in the bathroom, Beth." I thanked her, since it would be a short walk down the boardwalk to find it in the dark. "Now, it ain't fancy you know. We don't have one of those fancy Poo-days for washing up...or whatever you call 'em!" She sort of hooted at the humor. "Well, that's okay, Sunny. I'll expect one by next visit, though." "And Don." Sunny grew a bit more serious. "If you by any chance see that guy back here with a flashlight...well, if you're up to it, could you just chase him down and take care of him!" Don laughed and I suddenly was reminded of an important question. "So, is there cell service here?" When she heard we had AT&T, she pointed off to a raised deck and let us know we could probably get service just fine up there.
On Our Own
After thanking Sunny and handing her about double the expected payment, we just laughed as the truck rumbled off down the road. The wind was picking up and every loose piece of material, metal, wood and leather creaked and clanked and squeaked and rattled. We pulled our own camp chairs into the Social Club, that had filled with smoke by now. Don fixed the stove and after a little fanning I told Don I wasn't very hungry, but I might need that bottle of wine from the car.
Inside the club we could feel the warmth of the stove. We made a toast and admired the scribbled walls from visitors over the past decade. Visitors from as far away as Japan and Scotland. An odd thought. I made Don investigate one creepy sound that turned out to be some dripping water. He teased me about being prepared, by sporting a knife necklace!
We decided to give up on the idea of making chili and just grabbed one can of baked beans and a camp spoon from the car. Neither of us had much appetite at this point.
Our tiny stove was hot, but the can of beans was slow to heat...
So, we crunched across the flattened bottle caps to the enjoy the nearby saloon for a bit.
As we stepped through the swinging saloon doors, we remembered when Chris proudly showed us the little bar with a mini pool table and bar.
Chris had pointed out a small TV and let us know they even had wifi! I posed with a hat and one of the bottles behind the bar, before heading back to eat our luke warm beans and head to bed.
The morning was cold and drizzly, but we were glad for it. No surprises in the night.
We left a message, along with all the others on the wall of the Social Club. We packed and drove past the big cow head on the sign. I had to smile at the rock reminding us to be safe and happy, as we turned onto the road.
What was Noteworthy about our stay?
My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to start documenting some of the memorable overnights I've had in some very odd and curious motels and hotels. Like the adventures in my Dining Blog, I have learned to enjoy the surprises that happen when you step out of the comfort zone, far away from the well-known chains.
I began with a few entries recalling my very first home away from home memories from my youth. Then, I started sharing about some of the quirky and unforgettable motels, hotels and inns that my husband and I have discovered in recent years.
The best part about this challenge was making some lists with Don and getting on the road in search of new overnight adventures. I gave myself a 2-year goal to write up 90 stories and the goal was met. Now we just keep on adding!