Philosophy of life
Pondering beginnings, endings, and all the in-between moments that make up a lifetime
Author John Erickson needs no introduction: He’s published 76 Hank the Cowdog books along with nonfiction works and monthly pieces in WORLD’s Saturday series. But if you’d like to learn how he and his wife Kris live in the Texas panhandle, please read on.
Let’s put this interview in geographic context: We’re sitting here in the middle of your 9 square miles of rugged but beautiful ranch land. How long have you lived here? We finished our house in ’93, so we’ve lived here for 28 years.
What drew you to this part of the country? I grew up in Perryton about 40 miles north of here. It’s deep canyon country cut by the Canadian River and sparsely populated. I made a 140-mile horseback ride down the Canadian and never dreamed I’d be able to own a piece of the land, because the ranches are large and have been in families 100 years. In 1990 I saw an ad for this ranch, thought it was too much land for us, didn’t think we could afford it. But I went, looked, was smitten, then tormented. At night I’d wake up in fear that I would never get a chance to buy a ranch like this in the Canadian River valley. I had to figure out how to get it off the market. Other nights I woke up in fear that I would get a chance to buy it, and then would have to figure out how to make land payments every year.
What happened? The place came on the market at a very cheap price. My father had died about six months before and had left me some inheritance. I had just enough to make a down payment and take half of it off the market with an option to buy the other half. I began doing Hank programs in every school that would have me and could pay. At the end of two years we were able to make a down payment on the second half, so I kept it out of reach of other buyers. Then three years later, we saved up enough money to build a log house and started living down here full time. Kris homeschooled two of our kids. There’s only one school in Roberts County, and it’s about an hour and a half drive from here, so homeschooling was a great option, and she loved it on top of that.
You’re self-sufficient here in lots of ways. You have your own generator if the power goes out. You have to be self-sufficient to live this far out in the country. The closest neighbor is 7 miles, the next nearest is 12, and the next nearest is 19. People in this part of the country are people who enjoy solitude. I know if I got in trouble I could call my neighbors and they would help me, if they had a signal and were answering their cell phones that day. I see our neighbors maybe once a year.
You don’t have a supermarket around the corner. Kris has to plan her purchases. She has a big pantry and several deep freezes, so we have a pretty large inventory of food items. I buy my fuel in bulk so I don’t have to run to town to get gas or diesel. We have our own supply of water that requires electric pumps, and a wood-burning fireplace that’s airtight.
In what ways is your self-sufficiency limited? Like everybody else in the Western Hemisphere, we’re addicted to electricity. I never wanted to be. I was drawn to the 19th-century use of kerosene lamps and wood heating, but I do most of my correspondence through emails because it’s 40 miles to the nearest mailbox. We’re dependent on having a cell phone signal.
You gave up riding horses when you had knee surgery? Yeah, tore the cartilage getting on a horse, and it never has been as good as it was. In my prime I was a good horseman and did things that were risky. I’ve never been badly hurt by a horse, but when your mind thinks you can do what you did at 35 and you’re 70 years old, it’s only a matter of time before you get yourself hurt.
The fire of 2017 ended that time of self-sufficiency. Yes. Tall vegetation, low humidity, and winds that gusted 70 miles an hour blew down an electric line northwest of us and started a fire, one of 12 that day that burned 1.2 million acres. It’s the largest single fire day in United States history. I got a call from a man in the oil field, went out and saw the smoke, and told Kris it was time to grab a few things and run. We lost our home, my writing office, and everything else we owned, all the clothes except what we had on our backs. That was a lesson in how vulnerable the artifacts of our civilization are to things like humidity and wind speed.
So your cattle amazingly survived, but you lost a wonderful dog named Dixie. Yeah, I lost Dixie and an Arabian horse. She was old and probably couldn’t outrun the flames. We might have lost some calves that we didn’t know about, but we didn’t lose any cows, and it’s amazing to me how they survived a fire as big and as hot as that.
How does your lifestyle affect the way you think about stuff—materialism in the consumer sense? I am not immune to the lure of things. We have our fair share in the form of furniture and clothes, but it’s certainly not extravagant. We learned in 2017 that a lot of those things we had we didn’t need as much as we thought we did. Where I live and the way I live might make me more mindful of nonmaterial things than I might be if I lived in a city.
Would you call yourself an environmentalist? Ranchers seldom, if ever, call themselves environmentalists because it has political overtones, but I’d say most ranchers are environmentalists, and they were before the term ever came about in the media. It’s a philosophy of life that’s built into animal husbandry and agriculture: You have to care for the place where you live and the animals.
You respect the prior inhabitants of your land, the first immigrants who came to this area. Yeah, we have a lot of archaeological sites on this ranch, and have excavated nine houses that belonged to people around A.D. 1300, when this area was more heavily populated than it is now. They had no horses, no wheels, and a limited inventory of tools they made out of flint. They made pottery. They lived close to starvation in a bad year if they weren’t able to gather seeds and edible roots and leaves. If they planted their corn and nothing came up, or the raccoons and coyotes got into it, they faced dire circumstances. They were vulnerable to the weather events we’ve experienced this year.
That polar vortex in February? Temperatures here were 15 below, with chill factors of 30 or 35 below. The only water our cattle had was the water in our stock tanks, and it was frozen. By the third day, it was a foot thick. We couldn’t even chop it with axes. We had to cut it into blocks with chainsaws and lift the blocks out with shovels. Finally it started warming up, but imagine living out on the prairie in a dug-out, earth-covered structure. At 30 degrees below you wouldn’t want to try to find a drink of water in the springs, and it would probably be frozen solid if you tried. They were very resourceful. You have to respect people who can survive in this climate.
What do you think about the new immigrants coming to this area from the south? The people from Mexico who have settled in this area make a great contribution as far as I can tell. When we rebuilt our house after the fire, most of the people who worked on those crews were first-generation English speakers. They were very impressive workers.
They got through sixth grade doing book reports on Hank the Cowdog? The Hank books were fun and allowed them to laugh, just like Tom Sawyer gave me the chance to laugh. They liked building this house for Hank’s dad.
Now that you’re 78, what do you think about death? I open up the local newspaper, the Perryton Herald, and read the obituaries. We have to face the death of our parents, and some of us have to face the death of children or grandchildren.
How did you face the tragic death of your 13-year-old granddaughter? Four years ago, ReAnna was walking in the town of Canadian and had to cross railroad tracks. One train passed, and she stepped out on the rails and didn’t know another one was coming. She was a sweet little girl who learned to play the mandolin. She was a very eager learner, easy to teach. She was very hard to give up, but man knoweth not his time.
How do you contemplate at some point, I hope not soon, your own death? It’s a process that Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and all the apostles went through. I have some satisfaction in thinking I did the best I could to dignify the memory of my parents and the people in my community and my church, and I didn’t shame my wife. I brought some smiles to children and families. I’m going to do that as long as I can.
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