Place in the Heart

My husband and I spend as much time as possible on our family’s ranch in Bosque County. We work hard, enjoy simple pleasures, and find meaning in each day. The land belongs to us. And, we’ve discovered, we belong to it.

SOUTH OF GLEN ROSE, A STRING OF HILLS CALLED THE SEVEN KNOBS juts out of the rolling plains. To the west, the land rises and falls in waves of rock and cedar. Blue ridges notch the horizon. This land on the edge of West Texas and at the top of the Hill Country is my second home now. Three years ago my in-laws bought some property about 75 miles southwest of Fort Worth, where my husband and I live. But it feels a thousand miles away from the city’s bustling shopping malls and gridlocked freeways. We call the place “the ranch,” although it pales in comparison to the huge spreads of Texas lore. But to us it’s big—121 acres of rocky hills, limestone ledges, cedar, oak, yucca, prickly pear, and a few grassy pastures and meadows. It’s the kind of land that writer John Graves, who lives near Glen Rose, calls “hard scrabble.” Land that’s not “useful” in the sense that you can make a good living off it, but land that—once you spend some time on it, observe it, and become part of it—makes living good.

Getting to know this piece of land has been like getting to know a person. Forming a bond takes time, patience, an open mind, and a sense of humor. It’s a relationship that could easily and pleasantly occupy a lifetime, because land is always and never the same. It is timeless, yet it constantly remakes itself with the seasons, the weather, even the time of day. And as you get to know the plants, the animals, the rocks, and the ever-changing rhythms on a piece of land, you change too.

MY HUSBAND’S PARENTS, GRACE AND CHARLES MALONE, bought the ranch in the summer of 1996. They had been scouting land for several years after Charles, a lanky man with close-cropped white hair, blue-green eyes, and a crinkly smile, retired from his management job with a utility company. Originally they had wanted to buy land near Enchanted Rock, where they’ve had a deer lease for many years. But the Hill Country’s inflated prices drove them farther and farther north, until they ended up in a real estate agent’s office in Meridian.

Like many urbanites longing for a piece of the Texas dream, my husband, Dan Malone, who is also a writer, and I had been looking at land too—but not close to home. We coveted the wide-open spaces around Marathon and Fort Davis or in northern New Mexico. We wanted someplace rocky, rugged, untamed. So did Dan’s parents. The agent knew of exactly such a place: a small ranch in Bosque County between Glen Rose and Walnut Springs. No one had lived there for ten years, and it was rough, all right.

The native grasses stood thigh-high and brambles hung like drapery from the trees. Scrub oak and sumac had spread into the gravel roads, making them barely passable in places. Years of erosion had scoured away the gravel where the roads climbed hills, creating steep, rocky drop-offs. Only high-clearance vehicles could navigate the property. The place was crawling with ticks and snakes. The corral fence was rusted and the stock tanks were drying up. The only living space was a three-bedroom mobile home at the top of a high ridge. It was infested with mice, but it had a splendid view of Flat Top Mountain and the blue ridges beyond.

The land also had a permanent resident: Oscar Newkirk McCash II. He had lived there periodically until his death in 1985, and now his tall, white marble tombstone stands like a sentinel near the gate to the property. “As the dove flies over the horizon, he’s not gone, he’s just out of sight,” reads the inscription. McCash was only 48 when he died. Formerly a professional golfer, he was known to stand on the high ledge at the front of the trailer and knock balls into the western sky. We still find yellowed and rotting golf balls wedged between rocks or caught in a yucca’s spears.

Oscar is kind of a guardian spirit, and his grave is a silent reminder that life is short. Someday he might have some company in his peaceful spot among the redbud trees.

The ranch, which is long and only about a mile wide, sprawls across vastly different types of terrain. Some places are so dry and rocky that only cactus can grow. Other parts are dark, moist, and woodsy, where red mushrooms poke through the layers of leaves. The pastures hold two stock tanks and are planted with coastal bermuda grass; in the summer bluebells and antelope-horn milkweed pop up through the blades. A nearby rancher leases the pastures for his heifers, and we dream of grazing goats and burros there someday.

Because the property isn’t far from home, Dan and I can regularly load up our two big mutts, Pablo and Hadley, our Scottish terrier, Ernest, and our orange tabby, Rufus, and spend long weekends or even a week there. Grace and Charles and their Yorkshire terrier, Brandi, split their time between the ranch and a house in Cedar Hill, south of Dallas. They are building a permanent home on the high ridge, and Dan and I have moved the mobile home to another hill. I never thought I’d like spending so much time in a mobile home, but with front and back decks, new carpeting, new paint, and no mice, it is quite comfortable.

Already our bond with the land is strong. Some of that connection comes from sweat and hard work, but much of it comes from within. The ranch fulfills emotional needs in a way the city never could—a yearning to belong to a place, to feel optimism about the future, to enjoy simple pleasures, to find some meaning in each day. When Charles painted a square piece of sheet metal green, sprayed a black M in the center, and hung it on the ranch’s front gate, a feeling of pride and responsibility welled up inside us

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