Oh, how I envy Jeff Wilson.
The Texas Monthly contributing photographer has shot a number of memorable images for the magazine over the years, of subjects ranging from Houston rapper Bun B to dance halls in tiny towns. But this month’s cover story on our favorite places, “Land That We Love,” was an assignment like no other: Wilson traveled 5,651 miles (including 16 by bicycle!) to capture spots ranging from the widely known to the intensely personal: Santa Elena Canyon, in Big Bend; H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, in El Paso; and a ranch outside Spicewood that happens to belong to Willie Nelson.
I hope the photo essay will get you thinking about where your favorite place is, because it certainly had me thinking about mine. It was a hard list to narrow down, but I kept coming back to the land my wife’s parents bought in Grayson County more than two decades ago. Noel and Nancy had grown up in the area—he was raised on a dairy in Pottsboro and she grew up in Denison—and they spent a significant part of their lives there. They named the property River Bluff because of its proximity to the Red River, and they used it to run cattle and raise cutting horses. Noel even built an arena so that he could practice for events like the Futurity, in Fort Worth. It’s the place where I asked them for permission to marry their daughter, and it’s the place where my daughter learned to ride a pony and fish in ponds and build campfires near the creek. I remember so many conversations we had underneath the stars at River Bluff, about family, jobs, church, and problems large and small. For me, it’s where I feel most like a Texan.
The ranch is a little quieter these days. Noel lost a brave fight with ALS four years ago, and our family continues to struggle with the loss. But we still explore those pastures, and we still play touch football every Thanksgiving and Christmas in front of the house. The land holds a power over our memory that makes the past seem not so distant, and we know that Noel’s still there somewhere, saddling a paint horse or repairing a section of fence. We just have to know the right place to look.