Soon we are cresting a hill, overlooking a raging river with the sun high in the sky. The conversation turns to books, and you will be in no way surprised to learn of Jay’s fondness for Cormac McCarthy, plus a whole swathe of similarly masculine authors, chroniclers of the storied south. The great irony of the cowboy genre is that the real cowboys only existed for maybe twenty years and pretty much everything we think we know about them is wrong. They were essentially glorified truck drivers who moved cattle to warmer climes when the seasons changed. “A lot of them were pretty unpleasant characters too”, says Jay, “They were the kinda guys who couldn’t get a job doing much else. Their lives probably sucked.” But that was a long time ago, and it’s not the reality we’re interested in anyway. It’s the idea. An idea that sprouted legs and grew out of the squalid desert to make a home in our books and movies and minds. The legend is bigger than the reality. But that’s enough reflection for now; it’s time to shoot something.
I won’t pretend that a few days in Texas gives me any expertise on the conservative American psyche, but it certainly hammers home how intractable the gun issue is. With the exception of one deranged cab driver (who believed global terrorism would be best solved by “dropping twelve nukes on, let’s say, Afghanistan” or, presumably, any vaguely brown country), I have yet to meet an out-and-out stereotypical redneck, Trump fan.
“A horse is like a toddler – smart, but not that smart, impulsive, moody, skittish or playful. The difference is that this toddler weighs as much as a car.”
My corrected impression of Texans is that these are nice, warm, friendly, reasonable people, for whom the idea of not owning a gun is every bit as crazy as owning one seems to us. When they talk about liberals, it isn’t with scorn, so much as bemusement, as though discussing some exotic, little understood species. It makes me think of Jon Stewart and those other media satirists and the futility of mocking people you disagree with. All it does is alienate them further, further entrench them into an ‘us vs them’ mentality, in this case, the sneering, east coast elitists vs the honest, hard-working southerners. We touch on this – tentatively at first, like poking a sore tooth – on the drive to Jay’s personal shooting range, where I will fire a gun, as part of this Wildcatter experience, for the first time in my life.
“A Japanese general once said the reason they didn’t invade here is that they knew there’d be a loaded pistol behind every tree,” says Jay, as he sets up a target, runs through the safety protocols, hands me some earplugs and a gun. I’m suddenly very aware that I’m alone in the wilderness with an expert marksman and several firearms. So it’s a testament to how much I’ve warmed to my Wildcatter host, that a panic attack is not forthcoming. And yes, If you try to detach from all political context and just see shooting at target as a task, it’s pretty satisfying. But for Texans, it’s not an abstract task; it’s practice. Jay takes my target down afterwards, the one I’ve been shooting, and holds it over his chest. “Pretty good,” he says, “All of those would have been centre mass.”
It’s a jarring moment, one of several I’ve experienced. A day earlier, discussing open-carry laws with another rancher, the guy confessed that they tended to make fun of people who open carried (that is to say, those who wear their gun in plain view rather than concealing it). “Why’s that?” I asked. “Well,” he snorted, “when the bad guys show up, who’s the first one they’re gonna shoot?” The point being, for me this is an abstract exercise in physics, a bit of real-life computer gaming. For these guys, it’s a rehearsal, and it’s your civic duty to do it.
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Poignantly, it is one hundred years almost to the day since my country, Ireland, staged its own rebellion against the British with guns and bombs. It paved the way for our independence a few short years later. But unlike America, we weren’t left believing we still needed guns in case someone tried to take our freedom away again. I’m still trying to grasp why that narrative runs so deep here. All I know is it’s the kind of thing best discussed over a beer or ten, and Jay still owes me one. So we pile into the end-of- the-world-mobile and drive to the bar.
“I don’t wanna like Trump, but I can’t like Hillary,” he says. We’re about four of those beers in and getting to the crux of things. I’m a pretty staunch conservative but, for example, if my friend or family member said they were gay, I’d say that’s great, you be you. I think people should be allowed to marry who they love. This comes from a respected man’s-man, albeit in pink heart-shaped spurs, but I wasn’t going to bring that up again. And it is a common refrain among the Texans I’ve met and pressed on the subject. I’m sure the caricature of the homophobic, bible-bashing, bigoted redneck exists somewhere, I just haven’t met any and I’m actually pretty sure that I won’t here in Graham. It’s wrong to label them as bigots, just because their views don’t synchronise with yours. It’s just that here, other issues override the social ones – basically, guns and taxes. They want to hold on to the former and pay as little as possible of the latter. The separation between Federal and local governments is key to understanding the tax part. In the UK, even if we don’t like paying taxes, we know they build the roads, pay the police, keep the country functioning. In America, these are all local government issues. So the Fed is just this sinister “other” that raids your pockets to wage strange wars in dusty countries and spy on you. Now add to that the mythology of the gun as a symbol of freedom and self-reliance, a way of protecting your family, something that’s passed on to you when you’re still a little kid, and a picture starts to form.
“I’m suddenly very aware that I’m alone in the wilderness with an expert marksman and several firearms – so it’s testament to how much I’ve warmed to my Wildcatter host.”
It’s not that I agree. It’s not that I would ever, for one second, want American gun laws in Europe. But that was never my goal. I just wanted to get to know, understand and like somebody who does. And I like Jay a lot. He’s an honest, funny guy who loves his life here and symbolises everything that is right about Texas and an experience at Wildcatter. He’s aware of the Texan cliches he embodies and isn’t above making fun of them, but he loves them all the same. As he leaves, he refuses to let me pay, and I imagine that even if we’d seen that baby calf that day, he’d have done the same.
I started this journey because I was feeling disconnected in what is supposedly a connected age. In this digitally curated world, we are being pushed down ever-narrowing corridors of taste. We are social gardeners pruning our friendship group, weeding out dissenting voices from our Twitter feeds with a simple ‘Block’. That’s why now more than ever we need to sit in a room with a living, breathing human being who stridently disagrees with us. Not a faceless avatar to be deleted, not a cartoonish caricature in the latest searing think-piece of some news website. A person.
Beyond the horse riding, the shooting, how to feed a longhorn and just what the hell chicken fried steak is, this is the real lesson I learned at Wildcatter Ranch.
As my cowboy experience draws to a close, I think of that scar running through Cool, that twister trail slashing the town in two. That scar will eventually be repaired, but the ideological split down the centre of America may never be. But what certainly won’t help is each side caricaturing and demonizing the other. They’d be much better off sharing a beer.
Zack was guest of the majestic Wildcatter Ranch, a luxurious, escapist, authentic Texas ranch experience.
Photography courtesy of Wildcatter Ranch and by Jakob Owens (via Unsplash)
Get out there
… have a junk food blowout at Whataburger when not dining at the Dinner Bell restaurant at Wildcatter Ranch. It’s Texas’s equivalent of L.A.’s In-N-Out, and somewhat of a quintessential experience, fast food lover or not.
… dump your scruples and shoot something. Whether it’s skeet (clay pigeon) shooting or a pistol range, it’s crucial to the Texas experience.
… remember Texans think a hundred years is a long time. Brits think a hundred miles is a long way. In Texas, ‘a short drive away’ can mean hours. Plan your journeys and airport transfers well.
… leave town without a cowboy hat and some boots – looking the part is very much essential to the experience.
… miss out on watching The Cowboys, the local (American) football team, who are unavoidable here. You don’t even have to pretend to understand it, but going to a game is a spectacle like nothing else.
… forget about Dallas, the nearest big city, which is ‘a short drive away’. Home to one of the largest gay Texan communities, a must-visit is Roundup in the gaybourhood of Cedar Springs, where line-dancing is often the order of the evening.