A Winter Reverie

When you live west of the 100th Meridian, “running a quick errand” sometimes driving for an hour or so. In this case, it was forty-five minutes, browse then chat then pay, and forty-five minutes to return to RedQuarters. In my defense, 1) the truck needed highway miles and 2) this time of year, it’s easier to fetch then have shipped when distances are so small*.

Given the construction on the main highway, which is extensive, ever-changing, and nerve-wracking to drive through when surrounded by semis, I took a series of county two-lane roads to my destination. These are Texas Farm to Market (FM) roads, so the speed limit is the same as the highways. Prudence and good sense apply, and doing 75 on a twisting, snow-packed road is generally frowned upon by the laws of Newton. That day we’d gotten “it won’t happen” snow overnight, but the roads were dry by the time I headed out of town. The first few miles were mildly interesting because of the mix of vehicles and the people turning into and out of roadside businesses. However, once past the Last Traffic Light, the cars and trucks disappeared. I saw a total of four on my first long leg. Since you can see traffic coming at least two miles away, relaxing and glancing at the sky and the sides of the road is safe**.

It was 39 F when I left town, and bright sunshine. The clouds that had come with the snow formed a white line far to the south and east, low on the horizon. There’s a different sort of look to retreating snow clouds, sort of soft on the edges and glowing under the blue top edge that separates cloud and clear sky. It probably comes from refracted light and their proximity to the ground. These were stratus, low and flat, not too thick. Soft blue arced from horizon to horizon, untroubled by contrails or clouds. The wind rested, although the forecast had that changing at some point in the day. A few golden brown tumbleweeds moved on the edges of the road, but only when a passing vehicle stirred the air.

I kept one eye on the black trail stretching before me, and another on the brown, dark brown, and occasionally bright green land to the sides of the road. New houses have sprouted up here and there as people build subdivisions “to get away from other people.” No, I don’t really understand it, and I’m not fond of it, but it’s not my money being spent (yet). However, past a certain distance and pasture replaced structure. The short, prickly, dark brown remains of cotton plants filled one former wheat field, explaining the globs and small tufts of “snow” that appeared in the ditch from that field into the next town. The winter wheat varied from very good looking (and irrigated) to barely holding down the soil, a faint green fuzz on the dark dirt. We need snow for the wheat. Rain is good, and almost no one objects to more rain, but snow protects and insulates the wheat, helping it survive truly cold temperatures. Pasture grasses catch the snow, holding it so that it melts into the soil and doesn’t drift (much.) Ranchers are fond of snow in moderation, and don’t really like rain after the grasses go dormant. It “washes the goodness out,” leaching out nutrients from the dry grasses. But rain fills the natural ponds and eases the need to irrigate or pump water, so . . . No, farmers and ranchers are never really happy, and certainly almost never happy at the same time.

Some of the grass looked very good. There were several large swaths of native grass pasture along the road, all well cared for. No cactus intruded, no mesquite poked up, and the grazing had been light and even. The lack of grazing’s not a great sign, because one reason for that is that local ranchers have been reducing their herds while prices are decent. The three years of drought are taking a toll on everyone. The road I took passes through an area that was blessed with more rain than other spots, and a little standing water lingered in the folds and pockets of the land. The only growing plants were the winter wehat. The native grasses are warm-season plants, able to tolerate higher temps and drier soils than the cool season grasses back east. Most of what I saw was western wheat-grass, grama grasses, and some un-grazed buffalo grass. Yes, buffalo grass will look like a nice carpet if it isn’t heavily grazed. Otherwise it is a very typical bunch grass, forming lumps and clumps for self defense. What I saw, with one exception, was pretty good. The one exception had been badly managed in the past, and a few cactus are still holding on despite the good grass cover. There’s one other “bad” place, but it is around a water hole, and has been used to stage construction materials and road equipment in the past, so weeds took over.

The trip passed quietly. I browsed through the shop and as usual left with more than I’d come for. I did not succumb to the lure of the beaver pelts (plews), although it wasn’t for lack of interest. I can justify books and Christmas gifts. A beaver fur for classroom use? Um, not so much. Nor could I justify a vintage men’s XL buffalo coat. For one thing, it was longer than I am tall, almost. Nor did I sign the list for the quarter beef give-away the local ranchers’ group is sponsoring. I have no freezer space, alas. A hair-on gun-rug almost followed me home, but I refrained. The shop owner and I chuckled at people who fussed about the real long-horn head “not looking like a real longhorn.” The visitor then pointed toward the African cattle*** grazing at the edge of town. The lady did not argue with her customers.

On the way back, clouds began filling the sky. Rows and clumps of winter grey dotted the sky, growing thicker as I drove back toward town. A few tumbleweeds danced across the road, chased from north to south. The wind had arrived. The sky reminded me of dollops of dough on a biscuit-topped cobbler. Some times, after being in a place for a few years, you just know what a “winter sky” or “spring sky” look like. This was winter, white and blue-grey stratus sheep grazing their way eastwards over the tawny-coated land.

Two more pickups came into view and then disappeared. Traffic was light on the back road, and light on the little bit of highway I traveled as well. Some schools are still in session, and the Christmas travel rush has not begun yet. Ranchers worked away from the road, and no farm work needed to be done outside, in the cold.

It was a good day to get away and rest my eyes on the land. The world is a lot larger than it feels, some days. It’s good to be reminded of that.

*Small being less than an hour one way at highway speed on dry pavement.

** As safe as looking around at 70 MPH on a rural road ever is.

*** If the horns curve up in a dramatic half-circle, it’s not a native Texas longhorn. You can also tell by body shape and size, and horn spread in some cases. But some things are not worth arguing about.


4 thoughts on “A Winter Reverie

  1. Green isn’t a ground color I expect to see around here in winter, but the white coverage we’ve had for weeks is welcome and preferable to brown. The blotch of Exceptional drought has shrunk, and we’re down to Extreme. It’s a bad sign when that’s good news. (Looks at drought dot gov and notices Oklahoma, and winces.) Still, we have a long way to go to replenish the aquifers.

    Where the road (county highway) goes through the national forest, the pines shade the pavement enough so that we have a persistent layer of ice. Once past that, to managed forest and pasture, the road is clear as is the state highway. On that route into town, I have to go 35 miles to the first traffic signal, in the small city. The roads twist enough so that 60 mph is reasonable for people not on Urgent Business (just ask them!). The limit is 55, and Newton has claimed a few scofflaws this year.

    The beef cattle herds have largely been sold off or shipped south to grazing land, though the bulls and pregnant cows are still around. The dairy cattle have some form of shelter, so they do all right. The strawberry plants were shipped south last fall, potatoes harvested. The hay crops and the cover rotation are biding their time. The snow now has a crust on top, and should be a decent insulator. Useful when we have several mornings below zero.

  2. I enjoy take the occasional turn through back roads when I am out doing errands. It seems as if there is a more of a connection to your surroundings on two lane roads. As RCPete mentions, you do have to exercise a bit more caution when traveling on roads where the sun doesn’t reach the pavement.

    The ranchers in my area have sold off a bunch of cattle but there are still quite a few in the fields near my house. The rancher across the street used to run real Texas longhorns but I haven’t seen them since this summer. They are either in another field somewhere or have been sold off. He does rotate the cattle and horses through different fields so maybe just sold off.

  3. LOL, don’t ya love the ‘interwebz’ experts??? Glad you got some time out and did some back roads travel. That’s always fun!

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