This week’s guest author is Jae Clark, undergraduate student at Tulane University and intern with the Socio-Economics Group at Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies.
If you were to skip to any classic country music track you would hear tales of the greats, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, etc…, finding a way of life in the “wild west”. The idealization of a primal space that feels untouched by man brings forth a sense of freedom that is not new to American culture. From “The Great Train Robbery” known in the film world as the first western genre movie created in 1903 to “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, American society has been known to fantasize over exploring uncivilized locations.
In 1970 my Grandfather and Great Uncle purchased around 50 acres of land in Terlingua Texas, an old mining town turned ghost town, located 20 miles west of Big Bend National Park. Since then, it has been a family tradition to spend a week with friends and family on that property with nothing else other than what we bring. Each year around 40 of our closest friends join us there for Thanksgiving, relinquishing ties to the “real world” by leaving cell service, electricity, and running water, to spend time camping in the desert. Activities include hiking the property and Big Bend National Park, campfire cooking, guitar picking, singing, stargazing, and lots of storytelling.
With one or two guitars and many accompanying voices, we recite “Pancho and Lefty”, “The House of the Rising Sun”, and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” like we were born knowing the words. In between choruses, the soft howls of coyotes in the distance harmonize with our ode to western life. When the sun finally disappears, we sit on blankets with our backs pressed against the dusty earth. Grounding ourselves to mother nature, we gaze up at the stars that float undisturbed by neighboring light pollution, unlike the cities we originate from. We recount the things we are thankful for, food, friends, family, but rarely do we credit things we can’t find on the property with us.
Waylon Jennings’ song, “Luckenbach, Texas” has lyrics that detail the beauty of a simplistic lifestyle. He sings, “I don’t need my name in the marquee lights, I got my song and I got you with me tonight, Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love”. Holding my friends and family close as we sing around a campfire fits Jennings’ idea of a beautiful simplistic lifestyle perfectly. I have always found it fitting that we spend Thanksgiving in Terlingua. The land caters itself to the things we truly value and can often neglect in a busy world of working and technology. Something about being in a space so undisturbed provides freedom to sever ties to a demanding society, therefore, allowing for an inward reflection on relationships with others and ourselves.
While westerns are stereotypically accompanied by the classical notion of the wild west, in modern times we see more urban westerns and neo-westerns that demonstrate how the west can be successfully removed from the western while keeping the freedom and livelihood we all love alive. This deviation from classical westerns, that have often proved to be very problematic towards land preservation, provides the genre the ability to grow in healthy ways. Exploring the boundaries of the genre depicts that freedom is not only experienced in wide open spaces. For some, being in a new city with new opportunities, hobbies, and places to explore allows for just as much creative freedom as the wilderness. Taking a walk in your neighborhood or going on a hike with the intention of discovering something new is a great way to exercise exploratory freedom.
For Waylon Jennings, Luckenbach, Texas allows him to “get back to the basics of love”. For me, Terlingua, Texas provides a freedom to explore the things that bring love into my life. The world is full of love presented in many different forms. What places allow you to “get back to the basics of love”?