Adios UFOs; Hello Pecos Bill… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

The Western United States still rings with the legends of cowboys such as the mythical Pecos Bill and the very real Judge Roy Beam. Cowboy lore lives on today in modern rodeos.

The Western United States still celebrates the legends of cowboys such as the mythical Pecos Bill and the very real Judge Roy Bean. Cowboy lore lives on today in modern rodeos. Metal art in Tatum New Mexico has captured many of the themes of the West.

 

“Hang ’em first, try ’em later.” Judge Roy Bean

 

As I said goodbye to aliens and UFOs and pedaled out of Roswell on Highway 380, my thoughts turned to the Pecos River, about ten miles away. Like the Rio Grande, it was another river of cowboy fame. This was the land of the mythical Pecos Bill, who could accomplish such prodigious feats as lassoing a whole herd of cattle at one time. He carried a rattle snake for a whip and was said to ride cyclones and mountain lions as well as his horse, Widow Maker, who feasted on dynamite with the same relish that Peggy eats dark chocolate.

Judge Roy Bean, a Justice of the Peace and saloon keeper, was another legend of the Pecos. He was the real thing, however, a ‘hanging judge’ who billed himself as the ‘last law west of the Pecos.’ Cowboys could stop off at his place for whiskey or justice, depending on their needs.  His courtroom/saloon was down on the Texas border with Mexico, far south of where I would be crossing the Pecos, however.

Most of my knowledge of the Pecos came from Westerns. Between ages 11 and 13, I read every Zane Grey, Luke Short and Max Brand book I could lay my hands on. When I was off riding the range, punching cattle, and chasing outlaws, not even the call to dinner could pull me off the great stallion I rode. I carried my own brand of justice, blazing six-guns. And I was lightning fast. Step aside Billy the Kid. (No wonder Americans are so gun-crazy, given the legacy of the West.)

My roads in the west were always disappearing over the horizon. This is New Mexico 380 dropping down into the Pecos river and climbing out the other side.

My roads out-west were always disappearing over the horizon. This is New Mexico 380 dropping down into the Pecos River (lined with trees) and climbing out the other side.

I paused at the Pecos and threw a rock into the water as a symbolic gesture to my youth. Then I returned to the present and checked out a hill I had to climb on the other side. It wasn’t much. I had passed the 1500-mile mark on my journey and was on my way to 2000. My legs and lungs now laughed at such obstacles.

What did bother me was that I was saying goodbye to the West I loved, the west of towering mountains. I would soon be biking across land that was flatter than the proverbial pancake. Yes, rivers and streams cut through these lands, there would be canyons and steep ups and downs, there would even be impressive hills as I made my way east. This land had a beauty and personality of its own. But I wouldn’t see another mountain until I reached Gatlinburg, Tennessee and started over the Smoky Mountains. And they don’t tower.

I would have to return to the west to get views like this. The Rocky Mountains would be waiting for me in Montana.

I would have to return to the west to get views like this. The Rocky Mountains would be waiting for me in Montana.

Does land really get any later and featureless than this?

Here’s what I would find in eastern New Mexico and western Texas. Does land really get any flatter?

I was soon cycling across the flat plains and the mountains were receding into the west. This was sagebrush and cattle country. What trees existed were small, little more than tall bushes in comparison to their far western counterparts. In the distance I could see a long escarpment that signified the beginning of the Llano Estacado, one of the largest tablelands in North America. Between the road and the escarpment, I was surprised to see sand dunes. Later I learned that they were the Mescalero Sand Dunes, apparently an ATV paradise. (The dunes took their name from the Mescalero Apaches. Maybe their ghosts hassle the four-wheelers for disturbing the peace.)

The looms in the distance. The tan line that seems to be at the base is the Mescalero Dunes.

The Llano Estacado looms in the distance. The tan line at their base is the Mescalero Dunes.

I climbed up onto the Llano, passed through the non-town of Caprock, and eventually reached Tatum, New Mexico. As I approached the community, I started noticing metal art, everywhere, scads of it. It seems that everyone in town and for miles around supported the local artist. There were cowboys, buffalo, coyotes and other western themes, each simply and clearly outlined, dark shadows against the sky and countryside. Figuring I had found a town that supported art, I just had to spend the night.

It wasn't surprising that the Welcome to Tatum sig would feature a cowboy, windmill and cattle, representative symbols of the Old West. But note the oil well on the lower right, a symbol of the new/old west that has been given a whole new life with fracking.

It wasn’t surprising that the Welcome to Tatum sign would feature a coyote, cowboy, windmill and cattle— representative symbols of the Old West. But note the oil well on the lower right, a symbol of the West that has been given a whole new life with fracking. Welcome to earthquake country!

Check out the horizon here. Those are oil wells pumping away.

Check out the horizon here. Those are oil wells pumping away.

A close up rendered in black and white. To me, these pumps appear as some type of primitive bird, forever pecking away.

A close up rendered in black and white. To me, these pumps appear as some type of primitive bird, forever pecking away.

More of Tatum's metal art. I am thinking gossip.

More of Tatum’s metal art. I am thinking gossip. “Did you hear that they found more oil south of 380? We are all going to be rich, oil rich!”

Who better to represent the vanished Old West than the buffalo. Fortunately, they are making something of a comeback, but never again will millions wander across the unfenced plains.

Who better to represent the vanished Old West than the buffalo. Fortunately, they are making something of a comeback, but never again will millions wander across the unfenced plains.

Coyotes are survivors, ultimately adaptable to their environment. Have the rabbits been wiped out? "Here kitty, kitty, kitty."

Coyotes are survivors, ultimately adaptable to their environment. Have the rabbits been wiped out? “Here kitty, kitty, kitty.”

For my final photo of the day, this mural adorned the side of a business in Tatum. The spirit of the Old West lives on.

This mural adorned the side of a business in Tatum. The spirit of the Old West lives on as cowboys rope and brand cattle. We had our own touch of the Old West a few miles away from where Peggy and I live in Oregon a couple of weeks ago. A thief stole a bicycle. A local cowboy jumped on his horse, rode after him and lassoed him. Imagine what might have happened if he’d had a branding iron…

NEXT BLOG: I enter the forever state of Texas and prepare for my first tornado watch— with a six-pack of beer.

17 comments on “Adios UFOs; Hello Pecos Bill… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

    • Checked out your blog, Andrew. Good overview! My homework was always done by Sunday night because that was when Bonanza came on… and I never missed an episode. 🙂 The Lone Ranger got his name, BTW, because he was the last man standing in an attack on the Texas Rangers. –Curt

  1. I love all the metal art Curt. Clever and describing the country to a T. Much like the large black bulls adorning the hills in Spain. Much as I love the Southwest, you can’t deny the beauty of the hills and greenery further north.

  2. Those oil wells and its pumping action are called ‘ja knikkers’ in Dutch. Translated as ‘yes nodding.’ Don’t ever expect a ‘no’ from an oil well. Even flatter than Western Texas is Holland.

  3. Back to the real world! Blimey, that is flat country…we have a couple of counties in the UK which are notoriously flat, Norfolk and Lincolnshire, but then I realised that compared they are not that expansive and soon hit the hills or North Sea. I love the metal art work and your photo of the oil well, strangely emotional. So, did you try any lassoing? See any buffalo? As young I was mad on anything Cowboys and when my mother got me a real cowboy hat from USA I was over the moon and still have it!

    • When I was growing up in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, we called the people who lived down in the Sacramento Valley “Flatlanders.” It was not meant nicely. (grin) Later I would live in the Valley for years but never felt truly at home. But at least an hour’s drive could get you into the mountains. I was at the local county fair in Southern Oregon a couple of years ago. They had a lassoing area set up with a wooden cow. I tried my luck. The cow had nothing to worry about. I didn’t see any buffalo in Texas although they are probably raised on ranches. I’ve see them wandering around in National Parks and along the Alaska Highway. Fun about you and your hat, Annika. And it says something in the fact that you still have it. 🙂 –Curt

  4. I’m wondering if you happened to go through Levelland, Texas. I lived here for some time before I got the joke with the name. All that flat, hot, and dry can do something to the mind. Maybe I need to bring out those naked Pentecostals again, for a summer re-run.

    Before hurricane Ike, there was a fabulous metal silhouette display south of here: life-sized cowboys, buffalo, and such. it disappeared for a while, and now is back. I’m not sure if it was washed away and re-done, or if the pieces were found and replaced. In any event, it’s some of my favorite art. Ranches often have some neat pieces at the main gates.

    The Trans-Pecos always has had some allure for me, even though I got stranded out there once with a broken radiator hose. A nice trucker fixed me up, and gave me kudos for having some gallons of water in the trunk. The other thing that area’s famous for is Pecos melons — cantaloupe. They’re the sweetest and best in the world in a good year.

    I made my first drive across 80 after a year in Salt Lake City, with the Wasatch around me. I had something resembling vertigo, with no mountains on the horizon. Eventually, I learned to let clouds be my mountains.

    • Clouds can do it, Linda, seriously. And they can be spectacular in Texas. I am a sucker for photographing them, wherever they are found. In Texas, however, I am also thinking weather; the more spectacular the cloud the more likely it is to be bringing hail, downpours, or tornados. Sometimes I feel like I am playing a game of chicken with the clouds. But such clouds don’t cluck. They go boom!
      I found the same thing with ranches and gates. The metal art adds a lot.
      Didn’t make it to level land but I appreciate the sentiment. 🙂 –Curt

    • Great metal charm if your throw in the Benin Bronzes! Lots of branding. It’s how the cowboys kept their cows separate. Many an outlaw, not to mention future cattle barons got their start by learning to modify the brands, and thus the ownership. 🙂 –Curt

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