At first glance, Archer City looks like just another struggling small Texas town amidst unforgiving country. Rusting pumpjacks and giant windmills fill the western horizon, while rattlesnakes and scorpions make their homes among the rocks. It’s a hard place where only the toughest individuals survive the elements’ onslaught. And yet this harsh environment has produced one of America’s greatest storytellers and a growing community of new literary and artistic expressionists who found their muse among the cowboys and cowgirls, the oilfield workers, and the storytellers who call this place home.
With corporations (and dilettante millionaires) taking over cattleraising, the family-owned ranch may soon ride into the sunset
By J.K. Nickell (2011 writer)
While most people his age are kicking back on retirement, Alvin Parrish, 70, still gets up for work just as the sun peeks over the horizon in Archer City, Texas. He climbs into his pearly white Chevy pickup and pulls away from the ivy-covered ranch house built by his father in 1925. He turns off Parrish Ranch Road, clouds of rust-colored dust billowing in his wake, as he rumbles across back roads to check on his herds of cattle – at least what remains.
Read more of Nickell’s Last Round-Ups>
Also read Nickell’s On Skinny Dipping in the West>
by Annette Nevins (2012 writer)
Inching ahead one deliberate step at a time, Lona Lewis hunches over the frame of a black metal walker and shuffles down Walnut Street in Archer City, Texas. Bone-thin hands grip the handles for balance. With each stiff stride, elastic bands of knee-high stockings peek in and out from the hem of her blue cotton dress.
A pebble breaks the pace. She slows down and maneuvers her clunky orthotic shoes around a crack in the asphalt, crunching gravel with each turn of the wheels.
At 102 years old, Lona’s not in a hurry. A woman crossing the street motions to her with a cane. Lona’s blue eyes remain fixed ahead. Men in western hats wave from pickups. They know better than to offer Lona a ride. She always turns them down.
You may also read how Lona impacted Annette as a writer in The Wind is Changing>
by Brantley Hargrove
Archer County, TX. — As my Explorer bounces along a gravel road that seems headed for nowhere, it kicks up a cloud of dust that swirls across the rocky mesas, dried out ravines and gangly mesquite thickets of this hardscrabble landscape.
When the dust clears, I find myself at a crossroads bordering two locally famous ranches in this part of Texas: The Prideaux family, the first to settle in this county, and the McMurtrys, who raised a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of western epics.
The stark landscape stretched out in front of me looks harsh, hostile, deadly. Buzzards wheel overhead. The bleached bones of dead cattle lay in dried out ravines. Red boulders shaped like tombstones conceal rattlesnakes and scorpions. But for Larry McMurtry, this parched land is fertile for his literary imagination, and has produced one of the West’s most acclaimed storytellers.
As I look across this arid terrain, I sense that this place will become my physical passageway into both the history of the region and the fecund mind of its most famous living writer.
I step out of my dust-covered truck and crawl under a barbed wire fence. It feels like I’m stepping back 150 years – crossing a threshold into the Old West described so vividly in his novels – a wild frontier teeming with herds of buffalo…
Read more of Hargrove’s Trails to the Sacred>
Brantley Hargrove (2005 writer) currently writes for the Dallas Observer.
by Michael Mooney
Chris Aultman’s Dodge Ram fishtails out of the American Legion parking lot, slapping a white wave of rocks through the air. In the truck our knees jam together. Four across in the back. Three in the front.
Within minutes we’re on the back roads. It’s a purple night. A soft trail of dust billows behind us. Barbed wire fences, dandelions and sleeping cows glide by the open windows at 15 mph. And once the lights of Archer City glow faint like candles on the horizon, the truck stops and everyone piles out to gather around the ice chest like drovers around a campfire.
Read more of Mooney’s One Last Ride>
Mike Mooney (2005 writer) is now an award-winning journalist who writes for D Magazine.
by Sarah Wyman
The noose hangs above the trap door, faded and frayed.
This hank of looped rope was justice in the Old West for horse thieves, cattle rustlers, cheating spouses and a litany of other crimes neatly written up in the leather-bound charge book for this defunct jailhouse.
I’m on the third floor of the Archer County Museum, which has occupied the old jail building since 1974, standing on the pale hardwood floor, an open space meant for anyone willing to view the gruesome spectacle.
I lived forty years in England. My knowledge of the Old West comes largely from books and movies. My first hand experience zero. I came to Archer City for a three-week writing course centered around Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer prize winner, and the West’s most acclaimed living writer, who was born here.
I arrived at the Archer County Museum hoping to find a display or plaque honoring McMurtry. I found neither. In fact, when I got to this three-story, solidly square, sandstone building, it looked abandoned. The doors were locked and the lights off. As I was walking away a man pulled up in a rusted pickup, said he saw me snooping around and unlocked the doors.
Standing by the noose, I see the cruelty and violence of the Old West in a way no history book could explain. Soon, I’d realize…
Read more of Wyman’s And the Dust Remains the Same>
Sarah Wyman (2005 writer) is a British storyteller and former literary-cattle-wrangler for the Mayborn Literary Conference.
by Paul Knight
There’s a newspaper cartoon taped to the wall here – the American Legion in Archer City. It’s black and white, a drawing of a haggard man at a bar with an intravenous line from a beer tap plunged in his elbow. Scrawled under the cartoon in pencil: “C.S. Green.”
The real C.S. Green sits at the corner of the real bar, about ten feet from the drawing. He’s seventy-three and arthritic, slumped on his barstool like a whipped boxer between rounds.
Green’s never been married. Never found work he much liked. He lived twenty-five years in Amarillo, did some work as a window washer, then moved to Archer City in 1984 to drive a tanker truck for Wade’s Well Service. There’s not much good he says about the “outside.” In fact, Green doesn’t say much at all.
But inside the American Legion bar he can sit in silence and sip Miller Lite from the can. And when it’s empty, the others in the bar argue for the $2-right of buying his next round.
For Green and the other American Legion regulars, this bar is a place of solace. A place to feel like a king. It’s the Brokeback Mountain Bar, otherwise known as the American Legion, a place filled with the characters of Larry McMurtry’s Broken West.
They’re divorced, bankrupt and lonely. Broken, in a word. Broken dreams. Broken hopes. Broken lives. They feel the world stands against them, but at the Legion, they’re not alone.
At the bar, Green has found a family he never had. A brotherhood. A few months back, he left the American Legion and drove home, collapsed in his front yard and passed out. He wasn’t found until…
Read more of Knight’s The Broken Brotherhood>
Paul Knight (2005 writer) is now an editor for Texas Monthly.