High Plains Drifter
By Bill Gann
When Willie Nelson sang that he, “grew up dreaming of being a cowboy," he spoke to the hearts of many boys who have only grown older. Old Western movies caused many Baby Boomers to aspire for the life of a high-riding hero. John Adair is one of the rare dreamers to actually make that fantasy a reality.
Adair was raised in West Texas where any lad with cowpoke dreams has a leg up on those raised in other parts of the country. Adair began to learn real cattle tending at the age of 11. Shucks, the cowboy look is natural in Texas where boots, buckles, jeans, and ten-gallon hats are standard dress for the average Dallas hairdresser. In Adair’s world, being a real cowboy was more or less expected.
John tells of growing up in El Paso and of a ranching cousin coming for a visit his family home. The visitor was his father's cousin, Uncle Al. "He was a real cowboy from Southwestern New Mexico,” Adair remembered. “He and his wife lived on their ranch in the true pioneering spirit," Adair said of his visiting relatives. It was summer and young John was invited to return to the ranch with his Aunt Lena and Uncle Al. That summer visit gave young Adair his first taste of cowboy life, and liked it so much he returned every summer until he graduated from high school.
"I helped break horses, brand cattle, and worked with my uncle on other ranches, doing all-around cowboy stuff. I even rode a bull in the Cliff County Fair," Adair said, telling how Lena and Al, who didn't have any children of their own, so they paid close attention to his proper cowboy upbringing. In addition to cowboy work, Adair helped Aunt Lena put up vegetables, and butcher chickens, turkeys, and rabbits for market. This early exposure to ranch life would have a profound influence on the rest of the cowboy’s life.
Adair was born in 1943 and grew up when young men were expected to join the military as a right of manhood. He joined the Marine Corps in 1962, served, and was honorably discharged in 1966. He started college immediately, got married in 1968, and graduated from the University of Houston in 1970. He had a daughter named Amy, and lived happily every after until 1973. Then his wife ran off and that changed everything.
Devastated by his broken life, John became a pale ghost around Houston for two more years. He became a grey city dweller and working in the polluted city closed in on his soul. In time he tired of Houston’s air castles, and his spirit led him back to country roots. "Aunt Lena was still alive and active on her homestead," Adair said of his return to the country life. "Uncle Al had died while I was overseas, but returning to the open range was like finding my center. I never looked back."
John said a typical cowboy wage was $20 a day in the Seventies. For that pay, he gladly spent long hours roping, branding and shipping cattle. He rented a trailer on Lobo Creek from a local rancher and cooked most meals outside. Since he was college educated, he was asked to substitute at Cliff High School from time to time, but he started spending more and more time going deeper into New Mexico’s wilds.
"I trapped with an old timer one winter and made $800 in fur sales," Adair said of his backcountry wanderings. "I worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a Patrolman in the Gila Wilderness. I’d cover my territory on a horse leading a pack mule. I’d carry five days' provisions into the mountains, and was actually be paid for the pleasure."
Still, in the fall of 1979 wanderlust took hold of Adair. He picked up stakes and traveled west with an old truck and camper. He eventually met and became friends with Larry O'Neil, Bickel’s son in law. Also an ex-Marine, O’Neil taught Adair the trade of tree trimming. In short order O’ Neil took Adair to Bickel Camp where any cowboy would feel quite at home. After all, retired cowboys were living all around the El Paso Mountains back then. One can read the story called “A Taste for Beef” that seemingly speaks of a ghost rider from centuries past.
About the time Adair was discovering Bickel Camp, I was starting to have a rather cocky opinion of myself as a wilderness fellow. In truth, I was a city-dwelling photography teacher at a Fullerton, California junior high school. I did spent most weekends tramping the wilds with a camera. In those days I studied wild crafting, eatable weeds, and survival extensively. I even had a part-time job with the Natural High Program taking gang youth into the backcountry to learn camping skills. I taught young city kids to hunt, fish, make traps, and gather wild foods. I could also tie most any knot. Having been in the Navy, I was especially proud of my knot tying skills.
When I first met Adair, I didn't realize I was shaking the calloused hand of the real deal. For reasons I can’t fathom, I foolishly bragged about my rope skills to a man who had been catching calves since he was a boy. O'Neil, was also quite skilled at marlinspike seamanship, I just didn’t know that yet either. A tree trimmer it turns out also needs to tie special knots on a daily basis.
"I can tie any knot you can name," I cringe as I remember bragging as we stood around Bickel's yard that afternoon. John didn't say much, but Larry immediately challenged me to tie a running bowline. I knew how to tie a bowline but Larry had to show me how one passed the line back the loop to make it a proper running bowline. Larry explained that a running bowline never locks under stress so he uses it when lowering heavy branches from treetops.
Having just learned that I indeed might have a few things to learn, I should have wisely shut up at that point. Stupidly, I goaded Adair into naming another knot for me to tie thinking I could redeem myself. "All right," the shy cowboy said. "Tie a diamond hitch."
Now I had no idea what a diamond hitch was, but thought I could weasel my way out by saying, "I didn't mean some fancy, decorative macramé knot, I meant a working knot." John explained that, while he was leading pack mules into the Gila Wilderness for weeks at a time, the diamond hitch was used to secured gear onto the mule’s back. That bit of information as they say, gave me pause.
So it was I learned my fist lesson from a slow-talking cowboy: Not only is it best to shut up, listen, and learn something, it's probably not wise not to brag at all. John was medium height, dark, and handsome in those days. He had Tom Mix good-guy looks, clear eyes, and shiny black hair. In his mid-thirties, he still had a high school running back build.
John was still grieving the loss of his family back then. One of the first things I remember doing with Adair was helping him write a song that he recorded for his daughter. The only line I remember form this song that talked of his wanderings was, “There’s a daughter back in Texas, Amy is her name….”
He twanged out thoughts and music in a singing-song East Texas accent that put one in mind of a bluegrass song. John's natural voice was slower and softer than what's heard around Dallas or Houston. He had all the time in the world to tell a story, and more to listen. He was also pretty good with a rhyme poetic imagery.
Walt Bickel took an instant liking to young Adair, and invited him to stay on and learn gold mining. So Adair, a cowboy, trapper, mule packer, wilderness guide, folk singer, and high desert drifter parked his truck's camper in Bickel's yard and made home. So it was that Bickel taught Adair yet another 19th century profession.
It became Adair's habit to stay with Bickel for a few weeks, and then drift around a bit. On one trip, he went up to Alaska to work on fishing boats, and came back with great adventures to share. Another time, he went down to Mexico and worked making cobblestone streets. He came back to tell of living a simple peasant’s life on rice, beans and tortillas.
One of my nicknames for Adair was John the Baptist. He is a religious man, but was always reasonable about all that. I remember sitting around camp passing a bottle of whiskey as we exchanged tales of all that had happened between his visits. The spirit suddenly moved John to share his love of the Lord. Soon the preacher was on fire. This happened often, and more than one Bickel camper came to know Jesus from John’s sudden bouts of preaching. It was about then I learned another lesson from John.
I had been recently divorced from my first wife Diane, and had married a young girl. Imagine that. My second wife’s name was Linda, who had barely turned 20 when she traveled from the north woods of New York to California. Her basic plan it seems had been to become a movie star. Her back up plan was to marry a rich man. She was so young and naïve she didn’t know teachers were poor. Sweet Linda had unintentionally gotten pregnant, married me, and was already unhappy with how her life was going. I just hadn’t figured that out yet.
When our son Jimmy was about six months old, we were camping near Bickel Camp. Visiting Last Chance Canyon was something Linda always claimed she loved before we were married. Later she admitted she actually hated sleeping in my old bus out in the wilds.
One day Linda, John, baby Jimmy, and I were exploring lower Last Chance in the bus.
We became stuck in the sand. To Adair and me this was no big deal, as we knew well how to get out of such a mess. To Linda, it seemed like the end of the world. She was hot, tired, had a six-month old baby to think about. She threw a fit.
All the anger she had been suppressing since she had met, gotten pregnant, and married me came exploding out. It was in her furious outburst that she let the world know how she really felt. The poor girl had been tricked into marrying a poor teacher sixteen years her senior who lived like a wild man in the desert.
She grabbed the baby and stormed off on foot into the hot desert summer. It took John and I less time to get out of the sand than it did to catch up to Linda who was stomping with a baby on her hip in the wrong direction. Had we not found her, she could have easily been marching to her and the baby’s death. It was all we could do to get a wet-hen angry young woman to settle down and get back in the van.
It was a silent ride on the way back to Bickel’s. Linda didn’t say much, as she had said plenty already. She sat in the front seat with the baby staring off into the hills. In her outburst secret thoughts had been exposed in the desert light. She didn’t want to be married, and really wasn’t ready to be a mother. She missed her own mother back home and wished she still lived with her large family. She was homesick for the little town of Parishville in New York’s north woods. Most of all, she was sick of me and my cursed hot desert.
I was lost in the thoughts her angry words had generated. Till then, I had been deluding myself. I was beginning to see an end to another life lived happily ever after. John had also known such moments himself, and wanted to say something to help.
“Y’all have that baby to think about, and you both ought to get things right with the Lord,” John said from the back of the bus. He then addressed Linda who humped over the baby like a princess suddenly turned into a toad. “You know Linda,” Adair went on, the Bible says a woman can tear her own house down brick by brick.”
Linda didn’t seem to hear these words but I did. Five months later Linda called me from upstate New York to let me know she was gone. As if I didn’t know my world had been torn down brick by brick. “Got no news, got the blues, I’m tired old shoes,” were the words of a sad country song I wrote and sang to my guitar in sorrow. “There goes my wife, my life, my joy with my baby boy…” I wailed into an empty house.
It was only John Adair’s words about getting right with the Lord that brought a little light to that darkness, I suppose I took my first steps down the long winding road that eventually led me to becoming a Christian. For that, I’ve always wanted to thank John the Baptist.
In all, Adair wandered the West for 25 years after he and his first wife parted. Working as a cowboy, horse wrangler, or dude ranch hand, he was a restless, lonesome traveler. Eventually he did come across a job he wanted on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. It was the kind of work and country the suited the cowboy. He was finally ready to put down roots, but the job deal fell through. He took to the highway again, and set out to Bickel’s to spend time gold mining.
One night Bickel and Adair were playing Yahtzee around the cabin’s wood stove. The men puffed their pipes, and plotted over the dice. Coyotes howled to the starry night in the distant hills. A San Francisco talk station played softly from a portable radio that hung on Bickel’s bed post. Bickel loved early talk radio that in those days was concerned with flying saucers, time travel and the supernatural.
Suddenly, headlights blasting from a truck roaring up the canyon road hit the cabin door. A report was heard of the echoing suspension of fast-moving truck on the wash road. Bickel and Adair knew this as a sure sign of trouble. Both men jumped to their feet as the a rig slid to a stop in the dust of Bickel’s yard.
Johnny Bickel, Walt’s oldest son flew out of the cab calling for his dad. A long distance call had to Johnny’s house from Fort Apache. People Johnny didn’t know were asking about his dad. Johnny somehow got the facts confused. For some reason Johnny assumed something bad had happened to his father out at the remote gold camp. It turned out the call was actually for Adair, and was a job offer for a lonesome cowboy. Johnny’s hurried trip to the camp allowed Adair to call Arizona, take the job, and begin his first steps to settling down. That job gave Adair something to put on a resume other than High Plains Drifter. He now is married and lives quietly in Nevada.
“The good Lord has been tough on me, but also merciful and kind in amazing ways,” Adair said recently of his life. “My new bride, for instance,” Adair considered. “I always thought I would remarry and now God answered my prayers abundantly.” John, now in his sixties, plans to draw Social Security and stay put. To satisfy his taste for freedom, he’s learning to fly Ultra-Light aircraft. He now lives happily ever after with his wife Laura. Their home is near Carson City.
|©Bill Gann Copyright.|