In a square mile of West Texas, Chris Colin finds a family and traces his roots back to a wilder America.
This had been happening: Person At A Party Or Something: Neat, travel writing! Which country are you going to next?
Me: Texas. West Texas, actually. The Panhandle.
P.A.A.P.O.S.: . . . [painful grimace, anxious scanning for exit]
I understood. For many, Texas is a caricature. It’s coarse and uncouth. It’s faux-folksy and one-dimensional—700 miles wide, but an inch deep on the important indices. I thought of my wife’s stepdad, whose buddy sold manure bags in Texas for a living. So straight and endless were the highways that he’d prop a novel atop the steering wheel and read his way across the state. Surely it was a deeper monotony that had driven this man to letters.
Me, I grew up on the East Coast and settled on the West Coast. But the Lone Star State spat and lassoed and yes-ma’am’ed all through my DNA—particularly a tiny town called Silverton, which my ancestors helped found. As a younger person I ignored those genes. Asked about my roots, I would array the more exotic Ukrainian Jewish ones. The dusty forebears on my mother’s side were an afterthought to my adolescent mind. While the rest of the world was discovering quantum physics and erecting skyscrapers, it seemed my people had been living as savages in the dirt. As I would learn, that wasn’t the extent of it. Turns out they’d also lived in a cave.
“Playse lave uh mayuhsage,” Tom’s outgoing voice mail message had instructed me. I left some meandering sputtering instead.
“I’m your grandnephew, I think,” I said into the phone. “Or your great-grandnephew? Ann’s grandson, out in California. I think we met many years ago?”
It’s axiomatic that addressing a bona fide cattleman will arouse one’s inner coastal wuss. But I also had a burn in me, and found my way to my point: I wanted to see Silverton. My antecedents had helped cause 640 acres of dust and weeds to become a true dot on the map. That bit of conjuring—no dot, then dot—told a larger story, one that’s still unfolding, it turns out. I didn’t know any of that yet.
A couple of days later the phone rang. I recognized the loping drawl instantly.
“Chreeus, it’s To-om Burson.”
Syllables in West Texas are stretched into two when possible. I delivered Tom an abbreviated autobiography, we caught up on family well-being, and at last I declared my interest in making a pilgrimage to the ancestral homeland.
Tom is the sort to take grand pronouncements in stride.
“Well, come on,” he said.
I emitted some enthusiastic gratitude, then started searching around my desk for my calendar.
“Come any tahm,” he added plainly. “Ah don’t keep a book.”
Future home of Wylie Implement and Spray Center, read the sign near the modest Amarillo airport, indicating an empty lot. I didn’t see any implement and spray centers coming soon. West Texas has been walloped not just by the recession but by a record-breaking, farm-annihilating drought, too. I drove my little rental car past empty equipment stores, a faded gentlemen’s club, and half a dozen vacant-looking motels. And then, like that, Amarillo was through, and I was slicing south across empty mesa. Civilization feels anomalous in these parts.
I drove, but did not prop a book atop the steering wheel. The sheer featurelessness of the Panhandle was too wild to require literature. Somewhere in the state, per stereotype, slick oilmen, hissing evangelists, and snarling border vigilantes must have been doing their unsavory swagger. But here on the Panhandle I was already getting different vibrations. This was not the cartoon Texas I’d pictured. It was grander and stranger. Ten miles outside Tulia the sky went brown. Either the wind was whipping dry earth into the air or West Texas was making an elaborate point about entering a whole new reality.
Sensing a small-town mellowness around scheduling and such, I’d done precious little planning for this trip. In the tiny town of Happy, I finally phoned Uncle Tom for his address.
“Address? When you get to Silverton, just turn left before the town square,” he said. His address was, he’d be standing in his yard.
Let’s just get this out of the way. You were picturing Friday Night Lights, right? Small Texas town equals angsty cauldron of teen lust and locker-room salvation? Not even. People in a ranching community just . . . ranch. Tend the cattle, ponder rain, go to bed, repeat. Even if the lifestyle somehow left room for all that squeaky drama, the cast and location couldn’t support it. There are 11 boys and one girl in Silverton High School’s senior class. The town is one square mile, population 611.
Upon arriving, I went right to my hotel. My hotel was Uncle Tom’s spare bedroom, in the modest ranch house he shares with Dukie, who goes by Deirdre when it feels right. A while back, Dukie was investigating a well motor and a rattlesnake darted out, fangs first. Got her on the eyeball, and now she’s entirely blind. Walks into the furniture. Dukie is a rescued Italian greyhound.
Tom, 59, is a rancher, and among the last of the worthless nieces and nephews. Nobody seems to recall how this batch of Bursons got that sobriquet, but everyone liked it, so it stuck. Here I must soberly clarify that Tom is not, actually, worthless. Neither is his brother John, with whom he shares ownership of the Burson Cattle Company; no kinder men have lived in these parts or anywhere else. Both have the pleasingly weathered look one desires in a cattleman. Tom is wry and modest and wistful, given to adage. “I don’t mind saying the cow ate the cabbage,” he’d let me know, then go on to lay out a particularly forthright thought. After one of his many digressions, he’d apologize and explain that he’s “always chasing rabbits.”
John, for his part, cuts an imposing figure—over six feet tall, big hat, inscrutable expression, mustache curled frowningly over his mouth—and maintains a keep-your-powder-dry approach to chitchat. One afternoon during my visit, some folks were debating whether fish heads would keep rattlesnakes out of a garden. “I wouldn’t even know where to find a fish head,” a young woman remarked. John looked off in the distance. “They’re at the end of the fish,” he finally said.
The brothers took me under their wing without any questions, and let me join them as a Silvertonian for a week. Mostly, this meant driving around, chatting with folks, checking on stuff. After breakfast the first morning, Tom, Dukie, and I piled into Tom’s old pickup and rolled through town. Within a minute we’d shot out the other side.
There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County.
Tiny town, but we drove everywhere during my week’s visit. If we needed to go a block, we drove. Where’s your vayhickle? Tom was always asking John, or vice versa. Left it under the hill. OK, climb in. If we needed to eat, we ate boldly. Burgers; ham, Velveeta, and Miracle Whip sandwiches; chicken fried steak with gravy; fries and Tater Tots; chips and Velveeta dip; more burgers and lemon bars, always accompanied by huge Styrofoam cups of sweet tea. Tom did everything with the unflappability that must come only from a lifetime among large mammals. Periodically I’d notice we were driving on the wrong side of the yellow line. “I always liked the left side,” he reflected thoughtfully the one time I mentioned it.
Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed. Then Tom remembered a pivot sprinkler that needed to be moved. We climbed back in the truck. There’s always something.
During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street. I pictured music, fresh pie, and chatty neighbors everywhere, all the better for their origins: There’d been nothing here. The settlers built it each day—a home, kids, a business, more kids, another business, the first flush toilet. A former chunk of arid earth transformed into multiple square-dance clubs, regular dance clubs, study clubs, and no fewer than five bridge clubs. Imagine the thrill of taming the wild emptiness such that bridge clubs come into being. I can barely operate a mechanical pencil.
Great-grandmother Bethel had written a fastidiously researched account of growing up here, and I read it each night. The years after the Civil War had ticked backward in West Texas. By the 1880s, the Transcontinental Railroad had already been built, the Gold Rush had come and gone, but on the Southern Plains the push across the continent had stalled. Other Native American tribes had been methodically driven from their lands, but the Comanche were actually shoving back the settlements. “The western frontier was an open and bleeding wound,” S.C. Gwynne writes in his history of the Comanche, Empire of the Summer Moon, “a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys, a place where anarchy and torture killings had replaced the rule of law.”
To a certain breed, that description would have been tantamount to a travel brochure. Which brings me to Jonathan Burson, my great-great-grandfather. JNO, as he was called, had run cattle throughout East Texas in the late 19th century. He was stern and pious, as cowboys go, with a hard face and a primitive existence. He fried and ate a simple bread plus whatever he shot: squirrel, prairie chickens, rabbit, antelope. His saddle was his pillow. Drifting the plains alongside him were fellow cowboys, homesteaders, and part-time outlaws.
Maybe like everyone who went west, JNO was trying to get out from under something. His father had been an itinerant preacher who felt the call whenever work needed doing around the family farm; JNO held himself to a higher standard. When he got the opportunity to file a claim on a homestead in grassy West Texas, he did so, in what would eventually become Briscoe County.
When JNO arrived in the late 1880s, he found nothing. Not nothing-ish—nothing. No civilization, no trees for building a home, not even a hill for partial shelter. So he started digging. In 1890, the great New York World Building went up in Manhattan. Twenty stories. That same year JNO moved into an underground dugout, as they were called. His home was just hollowed-out earth.
Around this time, a young woman named Una Watson arrived in the area with her family. The Watsons had fled Georgia after the Civil War, aiming for Oregon. They got as far as West Texas. Five feet of pluck and intelligence—I think they called it “flinty intelligence” back then—Una was a spark plug. She and JNO met at a spelling bee, more or less the raves of 1890s Texas. They married soon after.
During the savage winters, JNO would move their cattle into the brakes, the broken canyon land below the higher plains. In 1897, he found a cave there, likely an abandoned Indian shelter. He moved in, and Una and their first two children, Roy and Ada, soon joined him— out of their dugout hole in the ground and into the side of a cliff, their door just a blanket. On nights when JNO was off tending the cattle, Una and the children kept the fire going as the gray wolves and coyotes cried outside and the occasional panther screamed.
The cave-dwelling Bursons upgraded the next year to a frame house not far from where a scattering of other farmer and rancher families were building their homes. Gradually the scattering grew and took a shape. By 1900 there were 400 people, a blacksmith shop, and a handful of stores. Briscoe County had been organized at this point, and Silverton was the county seat. JNO settled into an entrepreneurial mode, and Una, something closer to Little House on the Prairie: growing gooseberries, turnips, and potatoes, and planting a vast fruit orchard. Roy, their oldest child—a cheerful boy with straight blond hair and bright blue eyes, the apple of JNO’s eye—could manage his own horse by the age of 5.
Of course, that bucolic vision tells only half the story. They suffered deeply, too. One evening during his sixth year, Roy complained of a sore throat. Within hours a fever was rising. JNO set off on horseback for the nearest doctor, hours away. When at last the two men returned, Roy was climbing the walls. Diphtheria, the doctor said. There was nothing for the parents to do but watch their child writhe in agony. He died before sunrise.
“That night after losing Roy,” JNO would tell my great-grandmother Bethel many years later, “I walked out into the pasture, simply out of my mind. I looked up at the stars on that cold, clear night and I raised my fist and I cursed God. I cursed him for taking an innocent child who had only begun to live—a bright, happy little boy.”
After Roy’s death, a darkness came over the house. JNO withdrew, but it was perhaps Ada, Roy’s younger sister and dearest companion, who took it the worst. A well-meaning family friend told her that her brother had gone to a happy place. Ada longed to join Roy there. When, months later, diphtheria came for her, too, she did not struggle. At the end she simply turned to the wall and waited.
Over the years, the darkness lifted, and Silverton’s light rose, too. Actually, it exploded. From a pokey collection of random ventures it became a proper town. The Bursons weren’t the only family, but they were a central one. In 1909, JNO established the town’s first bank, and later he built the first drugstore, with offices for a doctor and lawyer upstairs. In the 1920s, the family opened a Ford dealership, selling the Model T, then the Model A. JNO put in the first long-distance phone line, connecting to nearby Quitaque; the line was made of barbed wire. He and Una went on to raise a total of six children, including my great-grandmother, and Tom and John’s grandfather, True.
At 85, Jonnie Weaver remembers a lot of this—she’s Una’s great-niece. I’d come to regard those early 20th-century lives as the last of a certain kind in this country, and Jonnie’s life overlapped with them. Uncle John arranged for me to pay her a visit. Her house was a block from Tom’s. I walked.
Before I could finish knocking, Jonnie beckoned me inside. I followed her to a couch that was surrounded by Jesus paraphernalia and a small herd of cats. Jonnie’s husband, Shafe, had died some years earlier. An old episode of The Waltons played quietly in the background. Foolishly, I’d wondered how to get her talking about the old days. I saw now that conversation is simply a local specialty, like risotto in certain Italian villages. Within a minute we’d time-warped to her childhood in the 1930s.
“There’s nowhere like it on the whole planet,” Jonnie told me, the subject of Silverton bringing a special glow to her sparkling countenance. “If a rancher got thrown from his horse and broke his arm, Silverton would step up to work his cattle. If someone got sick, the whole town fell in.” Her history of the place was Norman Rockwell stuff—not schmaltzy, though, just cozy and warm. She described all-day picnics that lasted till dark, and the picture show that lured old and young from miles away with a movie, a hamburger, and popcorn, all for a quarter.
Jonnie still looks after the neighborhood kids. Her door is always open for Coke and cookies. She makes regular use of the “prayer chain” phone tree taped inside her cabinet door: If someone in the community is in trouble, she solicits prayers from all the names on the list. But she concedes that the social interconnectedness has ebbed since Silverton’s heyday in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. People visit less, keep to themselves more. Maybe it was TV. Maybe it was the newer cars that made it easier to drive to a larger grocery store 30 miles away. Maybe it was the dwindling population, which fell as unemployment rose.
Jonnie and I eventually said farewell, and she assured me she could weather whatever came down the pike. “I’ve got two arms, two legs, and a big mouth. I’ve got the world by the tail,” she declared. Only as I was leaving did it come out that she’d never gotten the message about who I was, or about the story I was writing. She had just opened the door and started chatting with a complete stranger.
The following afternoon, after mending an irrigation pipe, John came by Tom’s house to make himself a ham sandwich. Later, he’d go see about a vise somewhere. He sat with me outside the house in his socks. We talked about the rain. Everyone talks about the rain, and whether it will come. Without rain all this goes away. The current drought has been a death knell for many of the area’s small ranchers and the way of life that rose up around them since the frontier days. Without water cattle have no grass. Ranchers must then hand-feed their livestock, and that costs money, and soon they are selling their animals. Already, other Bursons were leaving the family business. The jobs go away, the people go away, the grocery stores go away, and that deep sense of community, well, it abides. But it’s tested.
John eyed some fluffy white clouds to the north.
“Might be rain in there.”
I said those clouds were a thousand miles from having a drop of rain in them. He chuckled. We talked about the future of Silverton and places like it. Survival isn’t a recurring theme in the story of West Texas—it’s the story itself. From the bison to the American Indians to the homesteaders who took their place, a constant struggle for existence has pervaded everything. It is jarring to today’s traveler. One tends to vacation where survival is not just assumed, its refinements are flaunted. A wine region, a tony museum district, a snorkeling paradise: These are playgrounds of the existentially unconcerned. In West Texas, I found a realm of true uncertainty more striking than any exotic locale I’ve visited.
John took his sunglasses off, then put them back on.
“There’s this wind power deal that could happen,” he said. “That would make a lot of jobs, bring a bunch of money to the county.”
“And if it doesn’t happen?”
“Looks pretty bleak, don’t it?” he said. But he said it with a chuckle.
Sometimes there’s nothing to do but knife off a pair of testicles. Five days into my Silvertonian life, Tom and I rose early and drove over to a cattle pen at the edge of town. A swirl of dust rose on the pink horizon. It was cowboys, hired for the day to help castrate and brand the current crop of youngsters. Over the next few hours these men efficiently lassoed each male calf by his rear legs, dragged him moaning across the pen, held him down and permanently altered him: castration, earmarking, and branding. I tried my hand at this last procedure. (If you’re imagining a pleasant seared-steak smell, add a thick yellow cloud of burnt-hair smoke to that bouquet.)
It was oddly reassuring. Life since the early 20th century may have veered too far from growing food and helping neighbors, gotten too thick into social media and, I don’t know, sexting. But at least in some places, balls still get sliced off with an old blade, and branding still means jabbing red-hot iron against a poor calf ’s flank.
The next day I stopped in at the Malt Shop Cafe for lunch. A new thumbtack or two might’ve gone up on the old lacquered walls since the place opened in 1955, but otherwise not a lot of energy has been wasted on remodeling. I took a seat in the back and opened my copy of Working Ranch magazine (“Nothing is sweeter than a round bale rolling out the back end of a well-maintained machine. . . .”). The place was a sea of dusty John Deere caps and cowboy hats, each of which rotated to check out the guy with the notepad. The kind woman who took my order—burger and fried okra—also runs the struggling town newspaper. You’ve got to double up on duties when there are so few humans to go around.
After lunch, I walked down Main Street again. I wandered past one empty shop after another, where all that life used to be. I thought of my great-grandmother, strolling in the dress her family had scrimped and saved for. I thought of her father, JNO, building many of those buildings in the first place.
Gloomy as the emptiness was, I found myself heartened at the same time. These days, even the most foreign places look disconcertingly like home. We all secretly do that half-squint thing, where we pretend not to notice that Starbucks alongside the ancient temple, or the outback villager wearing the Snooki T-shirt. Not once did I have to do that here.
That also means the town is about as tourism-ready as a parking lot. No gift shop, no hotels, no Silverton T-shirts. Which is what makes it so refreshingly itself. Dial into the local wavelength and suddenly you’re invested in dramas you’d otherwise miss: The coach of another town’s baseball team was saying “Lord almighty” and didn’t care who was offended. Some portion of the town had gone to see its high schoolers put on a one-act play about a teenager who gets leukemia, and her friends urge her to tell her boyfriend, but she isn’t sure.
My last day in Silverton fell on Easter, and after church a small battalion of tucked-away Bursons swarmed in for the holiday. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and more cousins, from points north, south, east, and west. There was only one place to go.
The sun was high as we bounced out of town and into the baking acres below where the plateau drops off. A series of dirt roads led us deeper in. Then, there it was. The place where we all began. The dugout had been built up over the years, first by JNO and Una, then by later generations. The living space was no longer underground; the ground around it had been carved away. Picture a primitive cellar on the ground floor, with a wood-frame second story tacked on above. We swept away spiderwebs, and Tom started the generator that powered a basic kitchen on the ground floor. As accommodations go, it was spartan. As a picnic headquarters it was killer. Tom is not given to sentimentality, but being here did something to him. “This is our pride and joy. I never manage to spend a minute here, but it’s my favorite place in the world. It’s country,” he said.
For the next five hours, broader-shouldered and hardier versions of myself grilled meat, sipped tea, fired rifles at cans, and robustly shot the breeze. I was a novelty among the younger cousins, inexplicably unschooled in firearms and ATVs and ranch life. My older relatives asked a little about my life in California, but not too much. Tom and John, once the scrawny great-grandchildren of JNO and Una, now loomed wry and wise as patriarchs.
In big cities you’re lucky if you get to put your initials in a wet sidewalk at some point in your childhood. Out here, I thought, people like my relatives not only built the sidewalk, they settled the ground around it. Seeing all these descendants of JNO and Una, I was moved by the simple genetic fact of them—of us—and how broadly we’d dispersed ourselves from that one hole in the earth. One of my aunts is a judge in a nearby town. A cousin is a show rider at a big ranch. Another cousin grows flowers in Iraq with some kind of charity. I would’ve liked to tell the forebears that last one, just to see the look on their faces.
It was the end of my trip, and I started reflecting on the story I’d be writing. Specifically, I wondered if I was writing a sad one. The rise and fall of a small town? That didn’t feel right. I grabbed some tea and wandered up the dirt road to ponder this. (And to pee. No bathroom in the dugout.) As the road crested, the sweep of the land opened up: 100,000 scrubby mesquite and cedar trees that Tom and John would remove in the months ahead, which would return months after that. Sad story? The drought is sad. The ever-narrowing survival margins for a small ranching business are sad. The fate of the Plains Indians is sad. The bison? Sad. Ada and Roy and all the heartbreak that’s poured into the foundation of any town? Sad.
But, I realized, as I walked up a little more and looked back on the dugout and the dozen picnicking heirs, the story of Silverton is also profound and wonderful. The ingredients that let other American towns and cities thrive often diminish them, too. To have resisted, perhaps at peril, the homogenizing forces of the modern era is a lovely and rare thing. In a zombie movie, Silverton would be the lone survivor who hid under a car during the rampage. There’s no McDonald’s here, no food truck trend, no skinny jeans or anti–skinny jeans, no talk of apps. Entire modes of being do not be here. Other things fill the space. Kindness, maybe. A kind of contentment.
When it came time to leave, I was ready. I missed my wife and daughter, missed the shallow ease of urban life, missed vegetables. But I was also sad to go—partly because life is better when good people like Tom and John are nearby, and partly because I didn’t know how many more chances I’d get to experience something like this. In the end, this is a place where people built something out of the savagery that is sheer nothingness. Not all that long ago, either. Their grandsons and great-nieces are still here, waiting to see about the rain and the work and whether it all goes back to nothing, or if it presses on, as unlikely and stubborn as ever. A
Photographs by Lucas Foglia. This appeared in the March/April 2013 issue.