Rural South Texans have heard these sorts of stories many times. And yet, regardless of how many times the stories are told they always bring a laugh when said anew. The stories usually revolve around some “Yankee” who comes south to work as a government bureaucrat. Whether in the Border Patrol or Fish & Wildlife Service or perhaps the USDA these folks are stationed in the Brushlands and desert regions and to most of them the land is not only foreign and hostile it is also downright weird. Most northerners never assimilate to the territory. Years ago a fellow came from Boston to live in the area and though he was a nice guy he was forever letting us woods and desert rats know how inferior we were when compared to the sophisticated northeastern types. But we liked the guy so we let his constant jabs slide and dismissed the comments as part ignorance and perhaps a little envy. We after all were woodsmen and nature types and he was a “city slicker.” His jabs ceased however on the day we decided to take him into the Brushlands to do some woods roaming. Of course—and not to be sinister or anything like that—we warned him (as we warn everyone) about being careful for rattlesnakes and never picking up a rock or piece of wood without first examining it for scorpions or black widow spiders. So we left the truck and headed into the brush. Everything seemed okay until we’d gone about a hundred yards when our highfalutin buddy stopped cold and said, “Get me out of here.” We turned to him and asked, “Why?” But our friend offered no explanations other than this was far enough and he wanted out! So one of us escorted him back to the truck and two of us remained in the brush. After a few minutes we decided to walk back to the vehicle to see what the problem was and there we found our Boston friend bug-eyed and pale. “What’s wrong?” we asked. The one who had escorted him back to the truck shrugged and Mr. Boston looked at us and said, “I don’t know.” Interestingly, after that episode our Boston buddy never said another demeaning thing about us. Perhaps he realized that every region has its unique characteristics and people develop ways of dealing with their environments. Take me to the big city and I won’t be happy. I spent part of a summer years ago living in Brooklyn and I don’t think I ever adjusted to the place and never would have liked it. Every weekend I’d coax a friend to take his car as far from the city as possible. We’d travel north for a couple of hours but nothing ever quite suited me. I found the region too crowded and besides there weren’t any mesquite trees and nopal cactus. I decided to abandon the subway one afternoon and just walk home and then spent an hour frantically looking for another subway terminal because I was desperately lost. So people can become lost and anxious no matter where they are and if they don’t know the lingo it can get even worse. Take the Cattle Guard for example. Here’s a typical story:
A couple of Border Patrol newbies drive up and say, “We’re looking for this little road that leads west from this road we’re on now. Do you know where that road is exactly?”
“Oh yes,” el woods rat replies. “Just keep going down this road until you get to the cattle guard and the little road that turns west directly after the cattle guard is the road you want.”
“At the cattle guard?” the newbies ask.
“Yup,” the woods rat says.
So onward they go the two newbies from the US Border Patrol in this land of cactus and endless thorns and rattling snakes and miles of miles of miles.
An hour later another woods rat calls the first woods rat on his cell phone and says, “Hey, I’ve got these two Border Patrol guys driving out here looking for the cattle guard. They told me they haven’t seen anyone.”
“My lord,” the first woods rat says. “You’re six miles from here. I was talking about the cattle guard that’s not more than a quarter mile from where I’m at.”
“Well,” the second woods rat says. “These boys thought you were talking about a person.”
And so the story goes. People think a “cattle guard” is a person—a mounted cowpuncher standing guard overlooking yonder wandering moo-things—and so onward they go looking for the lone fellow standing watch. And when they drive over this odd bumpy contraption they give nary a thought that that noisy thing is el cattle guard.
Who named them cattle guards is unknown by this chronicler but perhaps a better name would have been a “cattle barrier.” But “cattle guard” it is and around these parts most Brushland roamers know it as such and don’t think twice about the term. Of course, it can lead to misunderstandings and in some cases people driving for miles searching for the phantom scout standing watch.
But people learn the lingo after a while even if they never fully assimilate to the area. If you weren’t born and raised in South Texas you will never become fully acclimated to the place. Just like if you weren’t born and raised in the Yukon you won’t ever become a genuine part of that country.
Cattle guards are usually made of used drill pipes set a few inches apart and over a pit that dissuades cows from crossing because they can’t negotiate the gaps between the pipes. I’ve seen old railroad railing used instead of pipes or even I-beams placed in the same manner. Cattle guards must be maintained because as soon as the pit fills with dirt or sand it stops functioning as a barrier to keep cows from crossing.
Old cattle guards dot the region.