Sometimes, in the midst of our comings and goings, pausing to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we find ourselves, serves as a reminder: It matters how we choose to live, and how those choices can impact the lives of others. Such a walk down memory lane happened at the 61st Wedding Anniversary for Apache & Joy Adams of Bronte, Texas on Saturday September 21st, 2019. Cowboy story-telling (a central theme of the occasion), good eats, impressive displays of historic photos and newspaper clippings, hosted in a hall big enough to accommodate hundreds of well-wishers, set the backdrop for a well-planned celebration embracing extended family and closely bonded “work ‘til it’s done” hands.
As a last-minute guest arriving ahead of the pack, after dodging Edge-of-Night skies coming south through the Texas Panhandle, a sign entering town greeted at least one wayfaring stranger: “Welcome to Bronte Where Living is a Pleasure!” Expectations for the day ahead could only be positive from that point on! Crossing over North Kickapoo Creek, another whimsical sign for “Southern Fried Sisters”, a local restaurant, kicked another smile into forward motion. Stopping at a Stripes gas station for directional assurances, stepping down into dirt with red ants and sticky burrs was quickly compensated for by two corn dogs, an egg ‘n potato wrap, and Cherry Coke in a can. (Two dogs in tow agreed that corn-dogs anywhere in Texas taste better than McDonalds burgers or Chicken Nuggets nationwide.) After identifying the Bronte water-tower as a landmark and directional guide, a few minutes later we pulled into an open parking lot near the “Singing Winds” Golf Course up on a hill where a shady spot under a Texas sized Mesquite tree seemed to waive us in.
Identifying a rancher who’d extended the invitation was easy. He was sitting near other hands diligently cutting lean goat meat off bones, skillfully focused as they bantered. David Adams, who’d accompanied and protected a group of canoeist and rafters on a Lower Canyons float trip down the Rio Grande in 1975, was soon introducing legends of the west sitting around long folding tables in cowboy hats, whose freshly sharpened knives prepared a ranch-hand delicacy for deep frying. Inside a nearby community hall, ladies busied themselves setting up buffet-style tables for various side dishes and desserts arriving as guests appeared throughout the afternoon. Story-telling circles became a kind of “rope and release” rodeo of words and hugs and head-nodding handshakes, as the aroma of history gained momentum at the Adams’ celebration corral.
Metal tubs holding water bottles nestled in ice under shade trees, offered outside circles of folding-chair story-tellers and their impromptu audiences some reprieve from the Texas heat. Pick-up trucks began filling the parking lot, as storm clouds appeared on the horizon only to dissipate, but not before mercifully contributing steady breezes like an attic fan on high, tussling mesquite tree limbs fanning the tenders of sizzling deep-fryers.
One family set up tables to lasso onions, lemons, garlic, and Cajun seasoning into mesh bags, then immersed them in garden-hose filled hot water baths, along with potatoes, corn on the cob, sausages, and the biggest shrimp available. It was at this preparation station I learned “Crawdads take longer to absorb spices than shrimp”. Timers stood by to check the simmering stew, before it was drained into coolers and hot melted butter was poured over the top, ahead of serving. Three young teenage cowgirls, who’d just returned from a rodeo where they’d competed in leading, roping, and barrel-racing showed off their shiny belt buckles and explained details of their craft. While anticipating the finished culinary delight simmering in front of them, they matter-of-factly described the thrill of competition to a more than middle aged Mom, who’d only dreamed of doing what they were experiencing as youth, accompanied by horses they loved.
Apache Adams, who was celebrating 61 years of marriage to his wife Joy (a legend in her own right known as a strong and savvy businesswoman), had been hired as a 19 year old cowboy to manage the “remuda” (herd of broke horses) during the 1958 filming of “The Alamo”, starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett. Born on 9-11, he was also celebrating 82 years in the saddle from birth, it was said. Apache’s biographer, Don Caddon of Alpine, who is a poet and musician as well, stood by with his wife, Pam, nodding assurances as others shared their versions of stories about which he’d already written.
Joy, the wife with whom he was celebrating over 60 years of marriage, had been captivated by the charismatic Apache when she married him at 16 year old. Until he whisked her away to a ranch with hungry farm hands, she’d never cooked in her life. Not only would she learn to cook, but Joy would go on to nurse a resilient but not unbreakable husband back to health when “cowboying” tested his physical limits, time and again. Apache, himself, told about a time he’d put the reigns of a horse he was breaking in his mouth, and how when the horse began bucking most of his teeth came out! A trip to Mexico to have his remaining teeth pulled, and a new complete set of teeth made overnight, was the pragmatic solution to him, in consideration of the high cost of dental work in the states. “I lost ten pounds on that trip!”, he confided. A loving son, Dustin, recounted a day his mother had driven a pick-up over to a horse breaking pen where her determined husband, Apache, had mounted a horse, against doctor’s orders to let his spine and ribcage heal. Her exasperated instructions included: “Shoot the animal if he falls again.” (and she wasn’t referring to the bucking horse). One example of many, demonstrating how “grit to get to the pearl” had earned them this anniversary.
Talk about breaking horses brought up: “Once we used to just throw a saddle on an unbroke horse, turn him loose, and when he came back at night after running crazy a few hours in the open, he was considered ‘broke and fit to ride’. Now that’s considered inhumane and in some places it’s just flat out illegal!” (followed by a guffah). The term “smok’in rope” came up as what Hispanic cowboys introduced after a long day of work when they’d cut off ends of hemp rope to smoke around a campfire. Recycle, reuse seemed like a contemporary theme, as well.
A first-hand account of the infamous “Wild Jenny Rodeo” days was told by a young man, Cody Northcutt, who described accompanying his Dad, Rick Northcutt, on wild jenny roundups. Powered by an ’85 Chevy 4 WD single cab pickup fitted with military issued tires to handle the rough terrain they’d traverse to accomplish their mission, the round up sometimes took two weeks ahead of the annual “Wild Jenny Rodeo”. It was an Internationally famous event hosted for 16 years on the Adams Ranch. It had drawn cowboys from all over the world, who were willing to pay for an opportunity to participate in unique events like: “Wild Jenny Milking” (into Coors Lite bottles), “Wild Jenny Dressing” (bloomers and all), “Wild Jenny Bareback Racing”, and “Wild Jenny Team Roping”. During the annual one-day event in Marathon, Texas the father and son team would prepare and serve food from a home built “Laughin Jack Association” bar-b-que grill they’d made. Among the imaginative events earning winners a cash prize, one awarded a shiny belt buckle to the cowboy who roped the most feral donkeys in a prescribed time. “Legitimately”, it was said, Apache Adams earned eleven out of sixteen of those one-of-a-kind buckles, over the sixteen year Wild Jenny Rodeo run. When asked what he did with so many big buckles, he answered: “Change ‘em out and wear ‘em!”
Observing the right hand of Apache’s best friend, Dean Ward, as it rested on a cane with a curved handle, his explanation for the end of the missing digit was that he’d “dallied too long” during a team rope. Basically, this meant his thumb had gotten caught between a rope and saddlehorn after being first to “tie off” the head, before his team-mate came in to rope the rear legs and drop the steer. Evidently, you can always tell old team-ropers, because many have the end of their right thumb missing. Apache had been a proponent of tying “hard and fast”, meaning you had to fight to the end, even with a run-away wild bull. Other cowboys from southern California and Mexico had eventually introduced “break-away slack roping”, which gave the cowboy a chance to release a catch if it got too wild and wooly, thereby safe-guarding certain parts of a cowboy’s valuable hands. For veterans like Dean Ward, though, it now seemed like a badge of courage to be missing a part of his thumb.
More serious conversations followed, about lawsuits filed against power companies where dried brush had been allowed to accumulate around transformers and spark wildfires that had consumed homes and thousands of acres of grasslands used to pasture cattle, more recently.
A father and son recounted their efforts to drag firelines and soak ranch structures with water pumped from wells, sparing them the devastation of wildfires others had not successfully quelled.
While fryers tended their vats of flour and salt-coated goat meat, David Adams stood by to be a taste tester. Not wasting a lick of time, he introduced his college-days friend, Alonso Robbins from Bronte, Texas. David said he owed his life to Alonso, who’d saved him doing CPR after a metal cul-de-sac pipe contacted a power line as they were lifting it up so his older brother, Apache, could pull a rabbit out of the pipe for his dog. Having just celebrated his 80th birthday, David had nothing but gratitude to offer his life-long friend.
A young man, accompanied by his wife, shared about being taken in by the Adams when he had no place to go or live, as a teenager. His appreciation for having been taken under wing and taught real life skills on a working ranch could not be diminished, even in the presence of living legends hearing his testimony.
Blessings over the meal by a local pastor summarized what all had already been demonstrated by those in attendance: “Come with an Attitude of Gratitude”. Finally, the buffet-style food tables had lines of family, friends, and extended family waiting patiently for supper that seemed like a full dinner. A husband and wife team played and sang favorite country songs from a low stage near the Anniversary Party’s table. Conversations at other tables included: “Neighbors become family working cattle”, and “He’s good for his word”. Some took advantage of the open space near the stage to dance the Texas Two-step or slow waltzes. (As an unofficial photo-journalist for the occasion, I even had the privilege of dancing a short piece with David Adams, on whose back I’d shot a boulder rapids 44 years ago in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, on yet another historic group adventure.) Jean Prescott sang a yet-to-be recorded song, “She sang when she felt like it, and she felt like it a lot”, before closing with an original tribute to Apache and Joy Adams, whose daughter, Robin, had put together a top-notch celebration for her parents.
Closing out the evening, among the many gifts present on a table near the entrance to the hall, a plaque summed it all up for those who had been reassured of the value of community:
“Together We Are Home”
(Epiphanies come at the most unexpected times, and in places some might consider detours on the long road of life. My personal “Thanks” go out to David Adams, Apache and Joy, and all of their extended family who readily accepted the presence of a stranger with a camera and questions at every turn. It was a day in a virtual “candy shop” for me. One I won’t soon forget as a Traveler and collector of peoples’ stories.)