First off – I would like to introduce y’all to the feller who wrote this story. I met him when he came to cooking school in the spring a few years ago. I noticed right off that he had a great sense of humor when he started making fun of Shannon’s height, which ain’t very big. So right off I knew if this man lived until morning he would be a keeper. You meet people in life that make you think, “Hey I feel like I’ve known this guy for a long time.” He’s an easy man to have around camp, who loved to be outside and eager to learn a new trade whether it be a hobby or a new way of life. He would have the fire built and coffee ready every morning when I got there. You talk about getting on the good side of the teacher! He was on track to be an honor student… if he didn’t make Shannon mad.
Now all kidding aside, Ken Manley is a man of integrity, honor and a veteran. A man who did his part for the great country we live in. We had always stayed in touch with each other after cooking school and after visiting with him on the phone one day he sounded like he could use a get-away. There’s no better therapy than under the fly of my wagon so I asked him if he’d join me cooking for a ranch. He was all in and here is his take on being a camp cook in the great Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. Take it away Ken…
By Ken Manley, Marion, Iowa (photos by Ken Manley)
Coronado, Charlie Goodnight, Quanah Parker (Last leader of the Comanche), Texas Rangers, US Cavalry and countless drifters, settlers and cattlemen wandered this very ground. The Palo Duro Canyon: Canyon of the Hard Wood. Wood so hard the Comanche made arrow heads from it. Cowboys have plied their trade on this ground for well over a hundred years.
It was traversing some of this country that Charlie Goodnight invented the icon of the cattle drive – the chuck wagon. Still used on many ranches and by many folks, it is the essence of simplicity. An all-in-one wagon that housed bedrolls, cooking utensils, medical supplies… you name it. As my friend, Kent Rollins, describes it: “The first meals on wheels”.
I was recently invited by Kent to come help him cook on the 5R Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. God’s country, cowboys, cattle, a chuckwagon and a teepee to sleep in. Sounded like a 5 Star vacation to me. Long drive from Iowa but who cares? I would have the opportunity to cook with a genyouwine chuck wagon cook with honest-to-goodness cowboys on an honest-to-goodness ranch in the Palo Duro!!! There was no discussion, “You are going.” said my wonderful and tolerant wife Ginny.
Now I have to tell you, cooking under the fly with a cook of Kent’s caliber can be intimidating. He is known by these men and it was obvious that they have great admiration for him. Lord, please don’t let me screw up. Kent gave me my head, told me what to cook and went about his business. He was counting on me to not embarrass him amongst these amazing men.
What was it like? Dusty, but having come from Lubbock not as windy as I expected. Beautiful days and cold clear nights. Bertha, Kent’s stove, kept us all warm under the fly. Lantern lit conversations after dinner on topics as varied as fines for overloaded trailers to stories so tall you just had to be there.
The best part? I don’t rightly know. It could have been walking out from under the fly after dark and seeing more stars than you’ve ever seen, so close you could almost reach out and touch them. Or going to sleep in my bedroll with cows and calves bawling you to sleep and coyotes howling in the distance.
It was not hard to imagine yourself back in time 150 years ago. The country has not significantly changed since, nor has the work or the men that do it. No phones, no news at six o’clock, no worries beyond how many calves will we get processed tomorrow and what’s for dinner?
Did we have it better? I don’t see how it can be any better than a cow camp in the Palo Duro. We should all spend some time there. Thank you Kent, for having me along.