I have been cooking for along time, 33 years to be exact, and built many a fire and slept in some really bad weather. And from experience, I am here to tell you that the cold is far better than the hot and the snow is better than the rain but to me, the worst of all is the wind and dirt. It’s not only hard to cook in but even worse to try and sleep in. It rumbles in like a freight train, blowing down teepees, flapping tarps and scraping that old stove pipe of Bertha’s up and down the metal vent in the fly. It’s like trying to sleep through a tornado in a junkyard, and when it’s like that you can guess it’s going to be a long night.
Of all the days and nights that I’ve spent with my old wagon on ranches the worst stretch of time, in terms of Mother Nature’s wrath, was in December of 2003 in the Pala Duro Canyon. I was working for old Rex Glover who had a bunch of country leased of off the J.A.’s. I set up camp on November 29th and fed the usual crew of 12, all Panhandle boys and seasoned hands. A crew not just in it for the money, they probably would have worked for half the wage, but did it for the love of the job and the lifestyle. Now all of the years I’d been cooking for Rex, the day we set up was always windy, cold and just plain nasty. But this particular day in November was just a prelude of things to come that long 3 weeks of fall works.
The first week the weather was decent. The mornings were cold but the afternoons and evenings would warm to the 40’s which is prime cow-hunting weather. It also is pretty nice to build a fire in. But we soon found out that the peace wasn’t going to last. Sort of like doing dental work on a snapping turtle… eventually he’s going to bite.
Seven days in and 21 meals fed, we broke camp and moved about 1o miles to the Mallard Trap. It was a great day to set up camp, not a breath of air or cloud in the sky. After the wagon was set, fly up and all teepees in their new home, Rex decided to be generous enough to allow all the fellers to go home, do some laundry and be back for supper the next day. Sounded good to us!
Well this was a bit of a dilema for me. Of the 23 years cooking off the wagon, I have never ran off and left her and old Bertha unattended. But Rex assured me, “The wind ain’t going to blow that hard…them weather man lie about their predictions all the time.” Anxious for a soft place to land and a hot shower I stayed at Rex’s house that evening.
At about 3 a.m. that old blue norther came a callin’ and she wasn’t just knocking she was breaking down the door! Rex’s little double-wide was rocking back and forth like a ship at sea. I later found out the wind gusts were peaking at 67 mph, that doesn’t like much from being a Category 1 Hurricane! But instead of rain it was dirt.
After a morning of feeding and sorting cows, Rex and I headed to camp to assess the damage. We pulled into camp and found several teepees down, and more with holes in them. When I turned to look at the wagon, my heart sank. The fly had ripped plum in two. There it stood with just two halves flapping. The only thing I could think to do was pull the whole thing down before the tears got worse.
Without that fly, I couldn’t attached the walls which kept the cold wind and dust out. It sure is hard to have a house with no walls and at this point I sure didn’t know if I could do it. Could I sew up that fly while still feeding cowboys 3 meals a day? Sewing up a 14′ x 26′ canvas fly is no easy feat to tackle… even in good weather and with a machine. All I had was a harness needle, some waxed nylon and a good 35 mph gentle breeze.
Three days later, I finally got the fly stitched up. And if I can say without bragging, to sew up a gash like that would make any heart surgeon blush and run backwards. During those days I was sewing, it was sure cold but the good news was there wasn’t much wind. I remembered old Chris Morton saying we would have to pay for these nice days. I just grimaced and hoped he was wrong.
I keep an old battery operated radio in camp to keep up with the outside world but mostly for the weather and occasional Bob Wills tune. That morning at about 4:15 a.m., the weather man came on and said, “Chances are a cold north wind will come in and some snow flurries with possible wind gusts to 60 mph.” What did he mean by chances are? Was someone going to hold up a winshield before it got down here in the canyon? It would have been more accurate if he would have said, “Tie things down and bring the chickens in the house it’s fixin’ to blow!” Well the day this was all supposed to take place was exacly one week after the first big storm. Somebody needs to shut that door up there and keep this breeze out of my kitchen!
After knocking the stakes of the wagon tent one more notch I headed to bed…surely it can’t blow no worse than it did a week ago.
We woke up December 15th, to a breeze of 25 mph… and it was just getting started. After breakfast before the boys rode out, I told them all to put a rock in their pockets and not to use the stampede string on their hats ’cause if their hat blows off it will either choke ’em to death or beat ’em like a red-headed step child!
By noon, when them fellers came by to partake in the feast I had layed out, the dirt was darkening the sky like a slow moving solar eclipse. As they road out into the red rain, I remember telling them that if I didn’t get blowed away or get a better offer I’d see them for supper.
Now, I didn’t live through the dust bowl but my dad did and I heard him tell stories about it. The sky would get so dark by mid-afternoon that them old chickens would go to roost and the dirt would drift in like snow. Well for the first time, I lit a lantern at 3 in the afternoon. I put all four walls of the tent up to keep out the elements, but anytime I had to leave to get wood or water I felt like I was being sandblasted. I could see about 50 yards ahead of me, but beyond that was just a thick curtain of red dirt. A heard of buffalo could have stampeded camp before I could have ever seen them coming. If I had it bad, I knew them hands on horseback had it a whole lot worse.
As an old-timer once said to me, “Ain’t no romance left in this story.”
There was a dirty, hazy, choking dust all in my kitchen. I poured the leftover dishwater out of them wreck on to the floor just to try and keep the dirt down but there wasn’t enough water in Armstrong County to get that done. Them hands came back at about 4:30 and old Cody Lewis said, “Good thing you had a lantern lit, Cookie we might have missed camp!” I told them fellers supper would be a little late, I wanted to wait for the breeze to subside a tad before we started it. I don’t like dirt in my food, and them boys sure weren’t going to grind their teeth trying to sift out the good from the bad.
It was the first time in my career that we ate a meal late, but it was hot and good and their bellies needed it. Ole Chris and Cody did the supper dishes for me and and we all discussed and cussed the days events, the wind being the main topic. In the meantime, we had all gotten so busy and wrapped up in one of Bobby Crosslan’s yarns that we didn’t even hear it happen.
About 9:15 p.m. (which is an hour and half past curfew in my kitchen), old Chis stepped out from under the fly and said, “Ya’ll be quite and listen!” I eased out and stood by the water barrel that’s strapped to the side of the wagon. “Do you here it?” Chris asked. “Loud and clear,” I said. It was the sound of calm and quiet. The sky had cleared up and the moon and stars were shining so bright I didn’t need a lantern to gather wood that night.
With no tarps flapping, we slept pretty good. We had survived that three weeks deep in the Palo Duro Canyon and had a better understanding of what it takes to pull through.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “When you find yourself at the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” Well folks, if we hadn’t double knotted ours, we would have been blown down to Houston by now.
If the chances are the wind is going to blow, then hang on. And chances are that a bunch of good cowboys and a cook quite possibly survived the second coming of the Dust Bowl that winter of ’03.