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Below the Canadian River, the open and seemingly endless plains stretch around the beginning of a canyon network that works its way southward for almost 100 miles before it plays out. Along what some would consider a lonely span of highway just north of those canyons and east of Amarillo, it is easy to completely miss the “wide spot in the road” that is home to two different monuments to the same man.
There was no town named Goodnight in 1887 when Charles Goodnight moved his home ranch to this spot. More than a decade before he had founded the first ranch in the Texas Panhandle by moving into Palo Duro Canyon. He had introduced foreign capital into the Texas cattle business in order to recover his own fortunes lost in the Panic of 1873 and branded his cattle with JA to acknowledge his Irish partner, John Adair.
Under Goodnight’s tough management the JA grew and prospered, purchasing and leasing land surrounding Palo Duro and the adjoining plains. The town bearing his name was founded after the master cattleman had divided his share with the Adair heirs and built a two-story house for his Molly (Mary Ann) on what is now the south side of the highway.
Although it could hardly ever been considered a city, even by my creek bank standards, Goodnight did boast a college (naturally Goodnight College, founded by the former country school teacher, Molly Goodnight with help of the local Baptist church), a post office and three churches. Just before WWII, the college was long gone but was home to about 300 souls and a dozen businesses.
By 1963 the town of Goodnight’s population sat at 25. It still does.
It was in ’63 that Goodnight had a moment of the spotlight when the movie Hud was filmed there, a version of Larry McMurtry’s Horseman Pass By, with Paul Newman in the starring role.
The old Goodnight house had fallen to disrepair over the years and I have stopped in front of it many times, even pulled down the lane leading to it and looked at what once was a center of leadership in all areas of Panhandle life but was now an empty shell. Thankfully, that is no longer true.
In less than a decade the house has been restored. Between it and the highway sits the Goodnight Historical Center, all done through donations. As one pulls down that lane now toward the house, they will pass a shop sporting a variety of items as well as a few buffalo penned behind it.
The Goodnight buffalo (or bison if you care to be exact in your terminology) herd was instrumental in preserving this most American of native mammals. It began with Charles roping an orphan buffalo calf (even if it did run through the first loop he threw) and bringing it home for Molly to bottle feed. The bull calf grew to be Old Spike and was the founding bloodline of one of the purest bison lines left on this continent. Most of his extended family now roam the Wichita range of Oklahoma under federal protection.
The Center remembers not just the cowman pioneer but also the cowman historian who best told his story. J. Evetts Haley was a cowman from the ground up but also the foremost historian of the Texas plains, perhaps the best writer among the historians of his time and the man who almost single-handedly put together one of the best collections of pioneer items to be found on the continent for the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas. His Charles Goodnight, Cowman, and Plainsman is not just the final authority on anything Goodnight but also an open window into the values, principles and souls of both men.
Although I can never say that I agree completely with them on everything, these two men help to form quite a bit of my intellectual and personal compass. To travel through the reddish walls of Palo Duro, stand in front of the earthen dug-out where Goodnight spent his first winter in the canyon and walk along the halls of that museum in Canyon, pausing at the old JA chuck wagon is retreading private, special ground for me to be shared only with those whom I would want to have an unspoken glimpse of my private self.
Although less than five years old, the new improvements on the old home ranch site are fitting monuments to both men. But they are not the only ones, and perhaps not the most meaningful ones, to be found in what many would now consider a ghost town. One has to cross the highway to the north to find those.
It is there in a small, wind-swept graveyard that Charles and Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight rest together behind a protective chain link fence. There are, of course, historical markers and headstones. But the more meaningful tributes began several years ago, without any real way of knowing by whom or exactly when.
Tied to the wires of the chain link is a varying number of wild rags. It has become a common way to quietly acknowledge the man resting behind the fence for those who understand his meaning by leaving this token there in the Panhandle wind.
For those who don’t know the term, a wild rag is simply a large silk scarf that cowboys wear as opposed to the better-known term of bandana which is usually cotton. Wild rags can range from solid colors to intricate, complex designs. But they are always bright.
There are different kinds of monuments, all coming with different costs. The ones of brick and stone are important. There are bold physical reminders for us of what we should value.
But those silken tokens symbolize an even deeper monument. They are left by those who don’t just acknowledge the values but put them into practice on a daily basis. For the most part, they are left by those who have chosen a way of life centered on a love of the same things which drove Charles Goodnight. They understand daily risk and the need for focused work. They trust their own skill, luck, and simple pride.
In this very different age, many like me have not driven cattle more than 30 or 40 miles at a time with only a single “night out” but this age was created by the men who drove 1000 miles across stark deserts, swollen rivers, and open plains. Ages simply don’t stay the same. But the qualities necessary for making those ages a positive building block for yet another age stay the same.
The qualities which turned Charles Goodnight from a dirt-poor orphan on a brutal frontier line into the “Father of the Panhandle” and one of the greatest influences on the American ranching industry are the same ones that allow a Southeast Asian displaced by communist tyranny to come to a land (legally) with a strange language, to start life anew with no resources save those same qualities and prosper within a generation. Those people are as American as Charles Goodnight and their stubborn pursuit of their own liberty are living monuments to him and hundreds like him from almost every walk of life. American monuments are not about race, origin or tribe. They are about principles manifested in individual behavior and values. The truest monuments are the living of those principles, the nurturing of them and the passing of them on to a posterity who can then enjoy their benefits even more deeply.
The wild rags left on that fence come from those who this month are spending sleepless nights in northern plains calving barns during sub-zero temperatures, or horsebacking yearlings from one wheat pasture dented by too little moisture to another one almost as bad as the sleet builds on horse’s mane and human’s chaps, or feeding hay to mother cows wintering in cedar breaks, or all of these. Come spring they will work those calves, get the hay equipment ready and then bargain with the banker one more time to stay afloat another year. They are fed by a love for what they do and the independence it brings as well as the individual sensations which burn inside as one looks over a meaningful job done.
The ones who hang those wild rags on the fence are the real monuments to Charles Goodnight as they are to over 200 years of the practice of individual rights – and those who fostered that practice.
I will soon make a track past that “wide spot in the road” to leave an unknown, unseen, unappreciated token by a more northern stream and I plan to turn in and check that fence again. I am sure that the rag I left there before has gone the way of time and wind. But regardless, I will leave another.
If you should pass that way, be sure to stop at that old, majestic house. Certainly, go in the Goodnight Historical Center and review the life of the man. If you are in a spending mood, go across to the shop and look around. If you notice a primitive craft done by a New Mexico hunting guide, purchase it knowing that the proceeds will go to a good cause; or at least to good Irish whiskey. And if you decide to visit a more lonely, windy spot, read the grave marker on Charley and Molly’s resting place. And when you walk by the northwest corner of the fence and notice an emerald green wild rag with some sun-faded corners, you will know that a simple and unworthy admirer has paused there to silently say thanks to one who showed us all how.