GUN BARREL CITY, Texas — Did you know that my oldest brother was a cowboy? Not the phony, Dallas-bound, $300 cowboy boots kind, or a ya’ll machine who likes to call himself a cowboy. No, Gary is a true cowboy, having bred and raised paint horses for years and now, at the age of 77, still riding horses on his 75-acre ranch.
And how about the name of that town? Could a gun-totin’ Texas cowboy ask for a hometown with a better moniker? OK, so Gary lives in the town next door. I just couldn’t resist going with that dateline.
He’s been down this way for more than 35 years and has come to Vermont four times over that span, so I figured it was time to take a flight to Texas. Texas is bigger than your imagination, an immense place, listed as the second state, by size, in the country.
When I left on Oct. 6 for a 6 a.m. flight out of Albany, New York, it was 30 degrees. Six hours later, in Dallas, the thermometer was at 90 degrees.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t come here in September,” Gary says when he picks me up in Dallas. There is no phony Texas drawl in his talk, like those Vermonters we know who left St. Johnsbury years ago and now talk with a deep Southern drawl. “It was a lot hotter then.” It climbed to 92 that day and hit 95 a few days later.
At age 77, Gary is in fantastic physical condition and lives alone. Well, not really, if you count two dogs, a cat and a blue-and-gold macaw that he has had for more than 30 years. That bird was both unsettling and entertaining, calling out, often and at random times, “hello,” “come in,” another 10 lines, has a laugh that sounds like an 90-year-old woman and, believe it or not, rolls over, again and again, on command.
But the bird does not like strangers, and Gary believes it becomes jealous with people around, particularly females.
Looking over the land, the broad green fields and the abundance of acorns on the ground just outside his home, the habitat looks ideal for whitetail deer and wild turkeys. Gary said that, on very rare occasions, he will see deer and has never seen a wild turkey since he moved to the area. We rode around and visited neighbors, both ranchers and just regular folks, for hours. One morning, traveling down a good road on one ranch, I spotted a deer running just along the edge of a field. Gary commented that what I had seen was a rare sight indeed.
While deer are scarce and turkeys aren’t around, the place is a haven for predators. Gary has raised pigeons since he was a kid and there were a dozen or so, hanging around at their coop or flying about. There used to be more. He also has big ducks, and once raised chickens for their eggs. The chickens are now gone and the duck population has dropped by nearly a dozen.
Snakes sometimes slip into the duck cage and swallow their eggs. One morning during my visit, he found one egg where, the night before, eight eggs were in a nest. Hawks, owls and raccoons raid and kill his pigeons, coyotes abound, and one young bobcat was found — and this Gary found unsettling — dead by electrocution on his hot-wired fence, designed to keep his horses in and predators out.
“I pretty much have given up,” he told me one day. “You just can’t win a battle against all these predators.”
The people I met, longtime neighbors and strangers alike, were very friendly. But make no mistake about this part of the country, about an hour-and-a-half southeast of Dallas: This is Trump country. One day, while searching store after store for gifts to take back home and a baseball cap with the words “Gun Barrel City” (and what country boy wouldn’t love to own that hat?), I noticed stacks of “Trump” hats.
Like me, Gary is a country boy. Unlike me, he doesn’t hunt, never had the desire to do so, and went out just once, as a teen, with some friends hunting pheasants.
An outstanding amateur boxer in his teens, he will watch pro tennis but, unlike me, has no interest in football, basketball or baseball. But give him credit for sitting along with me as my beloved Packers pounded Dallas 34-24 on TV, on the night I arrived.
It’s funny, how brothers can be so different. We have little in common except for the fact that, growing up as city boys, we settled in the country. We stayed away from politics and religion, although one day Gary admitted he voted for Trump and now regrets that vote.
We took a leisurely truck ride to the Texas hill country, more than five hours away, going for mile after mile in what was desolate cattle country and big hills, marked by chalky-colored rock and cactus. Then we drove to and spent the night in the stunning, cosmopolitan city of San Antonio.
It was a great trip with a great guy who just happens to be my big brother.
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.