Associate editor Christian Wallace, the author of this issue’s cover story, first laid eyes on John R. Erickson, creator of Hank the Cowdog, when the author delivered a reading in Christian’s hometown of Andrews, in West Texas. Christian was about five at the time, in 1993, and several elements of that encounter seared themselves into his tender memory.
For one thing, the reading was held at the local amphitheater, a rustic venue located in an old caliche rock pit. It had to be cleared of rattlesnakes before the arrival of about 450 fans. Then, the day before the event, Erickson got kicked in the head by a mustang he was training on his ranch in the Panhandle, so he showed up in Andrews with stitches in his face. Finally, as he told his stories in the voices of Hank and Pete the barn cat and other denizens of his fictional world, his performance was periodically interrupted by dramatic lightning and booming thunder from a nearby storm.
Christian’s fondest memory was of his dad, Scott, crafting the show’s stage decorations: human-size cardboard cutouts of Hank and the other characters. After Erickson’s performance, the Hank cutout found a home in Christian’s bedroom and enjoyed frequent trips outdoors to join in games with the neighborhood kids. In contrast to the school-issued storybooks that showed snowy scenes and verdant forests, “Hank was ours,” Christian said. “The landscape was familiar, as was Erickson’s depiction of the ranching life and the critters and the accents in the recordings.”
A few years later, in Seattle, a second-grader named Lauren Larson was introduced to Hank through books brought home by parents who had no ties to the Lone Star State but were fans of several Texas writers, including Larry McMurtry. “I thought everybody had Hank,” said Lauren. And who knows? Maybe he subtly influenced her choice to focus on agriculture as a beat when she was in journalism school. Lauren went on to work at Chicago magazine and at GQ, in New York City. We recruited her to Texas Monthly in February of last year to edit mostly longform features such as this month’s cover story.
Like many fans of Hank tales, Lauren has found them “soothing” amid all our current anxieties—and working on Christian’s story had a similar effect. “I enjoyed getting an inside look at Erickson,” she says, “and at the values that come through in his stories underneath the humor—values that transcend anyone’s political views.”
Christian first pitched a story about Erickson and Hank five years ago but says he couldn’t drum up much interest until he had two more of the author’s fans on the staff: Lauren, and me. My wife and I were introduced to Hank and company more than two decades ago, when our sons were young, and a friend gave us a box full of cassette tapes of Erickson reading his handiwork. The discursive style of storytelling matched the one I’d grown up hearing in Mississippi.
All of us quickly developed a fondness for Hank and his world. We were living in Connecticut at the time, and those tapes got us through long road trips for camping vacations and visits to relatives across the South. Every dog we’ve had since then has been designated the Head of Ranch Security. And each has learned the hard way, just like Hank, that in this life, you don’t always get your eggs scrambled.
I hope you enjoy Christian’s profile, the cover and story layout by design director Emily Kimbro and art director Victoria Millner, and the rest of this issue of Texas Monthly.