Magazine | September 11, 2017, Issue

Home on the Ranch

Years ago, as enthusiastic new Texans, my husband and I moseyed into the Lone Star State with a vague and dusty dream: We wanted a ranch.

Here’s where things get tricky, for in Texas, “ranch” can mean a lot of different things. The term is rather fast and loose, a verbal grab bag used to describe everything from small hobby farms to 50-acre “gentlemen’s parcels” to mind-blowing sprawls of land and cattle and oil.

Furthering the confusion, it is widely considered ill-mannered to ask a casual acquaintance how large his ranch might be. This is unfortunate, given that said acquaintance might own something like the King Ranch, an 825,000-acre marvel larger than Rhode Island, or something like Buck’s Ammo Hollow, which would be a few unkempt acres with a yurt, some guns, and a longhorn. (If it’s the former, promptly start weaseling your way into an invitation, because there’s probably a chef and a pool. If it’s the latter, I guess it depends on how you feel about yurts. Who doesn’t love guns and a longhorn?)

In any event, some dreams do come true: We now have a “ranch.” In keeping with the grandest of ranch traditions, I shall shroud its size in mystery. And while I regret to inform you that there is no chef or pool onsite, the ranch does boast one extremely important trait: It is remote enough to make cell-phone service difficult and obtaining Internet access a sometimes fruitless chore.

In other words, in this day and age, it is paradise.

Imagine a summer largely unplugged. Friends, I lived it! At the ranch, I faced no daily dose of Trump-related media panic. I followed no frantic political ten-tweet pileups. When Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci blasted in and out of the public consciousness for approximately ten flaming hilarious seconds — a foul-mouthed Icarus, he was, plummeting from the sun — I paid little heed. When one of my daily political e-mail newsletters informed me that one-third of our nation’s cats have body-image issues thanks to our troubling celebrity culture, did I snap to attention? Please. With my cell service, that e-mail would have taken a full half hour to download, and I don’t even have a cat.

At first I felt unmoored, as any political junkie would. Soon enough, the unmooring became a thing of wonder. As the summer rolled on, I read more books. I hiked. I finished my multi-year backlog of family-photo albums. (Just kidding. That’s an obvious lie.)

I dodged black-widow spiders, found a baby rattlesnake curled up on the front welcome mat, and, on one particularly exciting morning, discovered a startlingly fresh trail of gigantic mountain-lion pawprints leading right up to our front door. Later, I learned that the prints circled the entire house. It was staking out the place, leaving only a muddy trail, like some bizarro wilderness episode of Scooby-Doo.

Nature, as it turns out, does not mess around. Through it all, I kept coming back to a quote from that wise old philosopher, country legend Willie Nelson: “Fortunately, we are not in control.”

Modern technology makes this age-old truth awfully easy to forget. The great outdoors, however, are more than happy to offer frequent reminders. One wonderful example came in the form of America’s recent solar eclipse, which tore through the usual news cycle, inserting some much-needed wonder and awe. “Just when we thought we run the show down here,” MSNBC’s Brian Williams quipped, opening his coverage of the sun’s mesmerizing disappearing act. Indeed we don’t.

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design,” Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Fatal Conceit. Hayek was warning of the folly of command-and-control economies, but man, oh man, when it comes to human hubris, unexpected consequences, and the pitfalls of central planning, he would have had a heck of a time at my ranch this summer.

Want to craft an amazing hiking path? Giant trees will fall, blocking your way. How about a charming little trail of stepping stones crossing a creek? Weeks later, you’ll find you’ve accidentally diverted the entire water flow, sprouting a crop of mysterious tough-as-nails weeds with a gurgling mud pit on the side. I recently read that it takes about $900,000 a year and a staff of two dozen to keep the Grand Canyon National Park looking “natural.” Boy, do I believe it.

“You’ve got to be patient in the country.” I was told this more than once, and it’s certainly true. It’s good advice for just about anywhere. And while my largely unplugged existence was glorious in its own way, my countrified life wasn’t wholly innocent of the hearsay and whosay and wild speculation that currently plague social media.

For instance, on the subject of snakes, I was told the following, each from a seemingly credible source: 1) “Well! One thing to be happy about, there sure aren’t any water moccasins around here!” 2) “Are you kidding? Of course we have water moccasins. They’re all over the place! One fell into my canoe as a kid!” 3) “Lady, all I have to say is this: Watch where you walk. I once almost stumbled into a nest of water moccasins. They were wound into a giant seething ball! Stuff of nightmares! Chased me over land for 20 yards!” 4) “Pffffffffft. A snake ball? Who told you that? You could poke a cottonmouth with a sharp stick 13 times and it still wouldn’t come after you!”

And finally . . . drumroll, please . . .

5) “One thing to be happy about, there sure aren’t any water moccasins around here!”

Political Twitter, eat your heart out. At that one moment, it was like I was never gone.

Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.

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