If you drive through the coastal plains of Texas, you’ll see a few standard images. Cows behind barbed wire fences. Gas station and barbecue restaurant combos. And around this time of year, you’ll see young suburban families desperately pleading with little Ambreighlynne to LOOK AT THE GOD DAMNED CAMERA as they trespass to get the locally coveted “Toddler Among Bluebonnets” photo.
The state flower of Texas is the bluebonnet. It’s a bright blue wildflower that grows in friendly territory, such as busy highway medians and other people’s land.
Listen here, y’all: do not pick bluebonnets under any circumstances.
Ask any Texan. Or don’t, as “asking” isn’t a prerequisite for getting Texas-specific information from Texans. Posing your cherubic tykes with bluebonnets may be mandatory, but picking bluebonnets is illegal.
When I was a toddler, I never had the pleasure of being propped up in a field of bluebonnets for a photoshoot. At least there’s no photographic evidence of such, which is, after all, the entire point of the frustrating endeavor. Maybe I wasn’t cherubic enough. I’ve since become much more so, for the record. As an adult, I only grew a beard to look less like a cherub.
Fortunately for everyone, picking bluebonnets is not illegal.
“But you just said picking bluebonnets was illegal!”
I know. Texans will randomly spout stuff like “it’s against the law to pick bluebonnets,” and “did y’all know Texas is the only state whose flag can fly at the same level as the US flag?” and you just have to understand that it is straight-up bullshit. That’s because, in Texas, state aggrandizement rivals high school football as the number one pastime. And no state has better high school football than Texas. Just ask any Texan. Or, again, don’t.
So, go ahead, mom and dad. Let her pick the wildflowers if she wants to. The seventy other families doing the same photoshoot in the same pasture will warn you of your impending incarceration, sure. But just ignore them. Let their twangy voices fade into the overwhelming highway noise. You need to truly be there in this precious moment, lest you step into fresh cow manure. Or oncoming traffic.
Are you stressed from standing dangerously close to a rural autobahn while trying to get a two-year-old to cooperate for your next Instagram post, and now you have to listen to people telling you she’s going to get you tossed in jail? Ask your doctor if Ambreighlynne is right for you.
As you wander the Texas backroads in search of bluebonnet backdrops or gas station barbecue, you’ll also see countless yaupon bushes. For those of you who aren’t from the Southeastern United States, the bush’s name is pronounced as if Rocky Balboa was calling out to a chess piece: YO-pawn.
Yaupons grow year-round and in every direction, their brambly branches intertwining to form little impenetrable thickets. Unchecked, the bushes’ constant growth allows them to become enormous—by bush standards, anyway. They’ll grow through barbed wire fences. Take up grazing space. Self-animate and hide Hobbits from Ringwraiths. The cows keep trying to tell you, but it just comes out as “moo.”
The scrubby yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria, which is also the name of my newly-formed death metal band) is having a bit of a renaissance lately, which is why the otherwise random shrubbery might sound familiar. It turns out the yaupon is the only plant native to North America that contains caffeine. Ever wonder why deer are so skittish? Well, you’d be jumpy too if you were jacked out of your gourd on delicious foliage.
As a child, I was insanely lucky to spend countless hours with my grandparents. For most of my formative years, I lived within easy walking distance of their home. They lived and worked on a little cattle ranch that Papa, with his trademark mix of sarcasm and reverence, always called “the Big Spread.” I spent every summer helping with the countless tasks endemic to keeping a cattle operation up and running. I’m quite certain Grannie and Papa would have fared just fine without me—from an actual productivity perspective, anyway. In my earliest years, I was just “underfoot” as Papa would say. Entertaining, I’m sure, but underfoot nonetheless.
Once I was old enough to handle sharp objects and drive a farm truck—you know, like seven or eight years old—I started to become a full-fledged farmhand. We’d wake up early to shovel cow shit. Repair barbed wire fences. Make a run into town to buy a gasket or spark plugs or something, and tune in to hear “the Rest of the Story” on the way home. Drink black coffee. Maybe watch a little Matlock or Tom & Jerry to wait out the worst of the afternoon’s heat, then feed the cows. The hay and range cubes would then make their way through the multiple stomachs of each cow, culminating in tomorrow’s need to wake up early and shovel cow shit all over again.
Note: Please be sure to reserve your copy of my forthcoming treatise on cows’ gastrointestinal functions entitled Cows Sure Do Shit A Lot: Meditations On Bovine Digestion.
Of course, I’m leaving out some of the tasks that were so constant, they faded out of our active attention. Tasks like breathing. Eating. Clearing yaupons.
Yaupons love making mischief in a way that belies their non-sentient status as flora. Their favorite activity is taking over fences. If you don’t stop them, they’ll spiral their way through every strand of barbed wire. They will block you from repairing the breaches they cause, letting the cows wander out into the road. Then, they’ll team up with the now-escaped and emboldened cows to destroy you and every person you love. I’ve seen it happen.
Cutting down a yaupon bush is a tough project. You can’t actually get to the trunk, because the Good Lord made the bush’s limbs tangle around the center in a protective halo. If you’re going to clear the bush, you’re going to need tools: sharp lopping shears, a pruning saw, surplus blood to donate a pint or two from your soon-to-be-sliced-up forearms, and work gloves.
And you’ll need a vocabulary full of what my Grannie would call “non-descriptive adjectives”: words such as “goddamned” and “fucking” and “sonofabitching,” as yauponeering brings out the blind fury in everyone who has ever attempted the endeavor.
Example: “I just rolled my goddamned ankle in a sonofabitching dog hole trying to cut down this fucking yaupon,” said Papa, as Grannie snickered at him.
Done correctly, you can allegedly clear an entire swath of the green bastards before the first ones you cut have fully grown back. To that end, I am not sure we ever did the job correctly.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity. If my understanding of theology is correct, backslidden rural Texans will be forever clearing a fence line of yaupons in the afterlife.
Early one summer, a nursery owner approached Papa with a lucrative proposition. Apparently, long before Whole Foods would stock yaupon tea, suburbanites were planting our scrubby, caffeinated nemeses as landscape ornamentation. They’d plant these gnarly reprobates around their homes, trim them like cute little hedges, and presumably bask in their self-satisfied ignorance while the yaupons plotted destruction of the area’s picket fences.
The nursery man needed yaupons to sell to landscapers, and he guessed correctly that we spent a lot of time begrudgingly clearing yaupons. So, he offered to bring a crew and dig the bushes up for us. Better yet, he was going to pay one dollar per bush for the privilege of doing this for us. Quick math: we were about to have a newly-created plot of grazable pasture and a few hundred bucks. And we weren’t going to have to sweat, bleed, or cuss for either.
A handshake sealed the no-brainer and the job started the next day.
A crew of Mexican men we called “Los Yauponeros”—not to be confused with Ilex Vomitoria’s award-winning Tejano side project of the same name—showed up with sharpened shovels and a tree spade machine. Papa was always enamored with anyone who was genuinely talented at anything, and digging up trees as fast and gracefully as these guys did was a certifiable talent. These guys were chingones. Even more so when compared with the speed and efficiency of two retirees and a child.
The first time we met them, they were shocked and thrilled to find out Papa, el güero viejo, spoke fluent Spanish. He wasn’t just tossing out a random sí or buenos días, but full-on, back-and-forth conversations in their native language. To be fair, everyone in Texas speaks at least un poquito de español (or Spanglish, more accurately). But relatively few white people ever become fluent like Papa.
Of course, the crew would quickly forgive el jefe for learning his Spanish during his career with la migra. Given his age, temperament, and genuine interest in their work, it was pretty clear he was not concerned with the status of their documentation or, more to the point, the almost certain lack thereof.
Each morning, with our schedules now cleared of our most time-consuming task, we’d go down to check on the Yauponeros right after we finished shoveling a herd’s worth of manure.
Work starts early when you live in the naturally-occurring version of a Bikram Yoga studio. It’s already hot and humid by mid-morning, but it’s just going to get worse by the minute.
As such, by 10 a.m., the crew would have already sweated through their clothes. Some of that sweat was from the Texas-based Vietnamese jungle in which they were working. But most of it was due to having twenty bushes already dug up, wrapped in burlap, and on the truck. We’d barely had our second cup of coffee, and they’d done more tree removal than we’d accomplish in a week. Like I said, chingones.
The guys would already have a fire going, making themselves coffee and cooking some lunch, taking turns sharpening their spades for the next round of tree-plucking.
The mid-morning mugginess amplified the aroma of the scene—a heady mélange of an open fire, roasting goat meat, freshly-cut foliage, and four manual laborers’ body odor. It’s a less awful odor than you’d think. In fact, I’m going to pitch it to one of the several companies presently marketing personal hygiene products to the male ego. Why smell like “Victory” or “Beer” when instead you can emit the musk of “Why Yes, I Literally Just Dug Up 20 Yaupon Bushes, Why Do You Ask?”
One morning, at the crossroads of hospitality and “this pudgy white kid looks like he’ll eat anything,” the Yauponeros kindly offered me some of their food. Their friendly offering was welcomed because their wise assessment was wholly accurate, and it was around time for second breakfast.
As a native of Texas and lifelong practitioner of the restaurateuring arts, rife as both arenas are with Latino men, I can attest: the palate of an adult man from Mexico is significantly more attuned to capsaicin than that of a 10-year-old white boy.
In other words, let’s give some spicy shit to el gordito and see what he thinks.
Had my mom been present, I doubt I would have had the chance to partake. Moms are illogically protective of their children regarding normal fun stuff like, say, accepting food cooked outdoors by strangers from other countries. Lame.
Fortunately, Papa, who fought at Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, and Midway, and then spent a career in law enforcement on the Mexican border, wasn’t afraid of much of anything. And he wasn’t afraid of anything on my behalf, either. Especially not something as milquetoast and potentially hilarious as letting me eat some nuclear tacos from itinerate laborers. As he would say, “what the hell, it’ll put some hair on your chest.”
I took a bite. I can still taste those tacos to this day.
In part, I can still taste them because they were outstanding and far better than any of the Tex-Mex food I’d ever eaten. Remarkably flavorful. Cumin, lime, garlic, salt, goat, homemade corn tortillas…just incredible.
Also, I can still taste them because, at a certain Scoville rating, food permanently alters your DNA. I will pass down the ruminating, intense spice of those tacos to my offspring. “Daddy, why does everything I eat taste like I just looked inside the Ark of the Covenant?” they’ll ask. I’ll comfort them, advising them of the hair they’ll soon grow on their chests. My future daughters will be none too pleased, but this is the price one pays for authenticity in re: tacos. Lo siento, mis hijas. Lo siento.
Still, this wasn’t my first brush with spicy food. It was just my most egregious brush. I knew that as long as I kept eating, the pain would at least be mitigated. I also knew better than to drink water; water doesn’t help at all. It just makes it worse. Milk helps, but I wasn’t in the habit of carrying a fresh jug of ice-cold milk with me back then. And our cows weren’t those kind of cows.
Being male, and being the youngest in the group assembled, it was my instinctive obligation to not show pain. My pale skin, sweat glands, and capillaries, however, didn’t get the memo.
The Yauponeros loved the fact that I was enjoying their food and that it was visibly kicking my lily ass. Papa took pride in the fact that his grandson was the 10-year-old version of adventurous and tough, happily chowing down on fire while my peers were getting picky about which shapes of chicken nuggets they’d eat.
And I got some delicious tacos. Plus, unbeknownst to me that day, fodder for an essay I’d write 34 years later: the very essay you’re reading RIGHT NOW. Everyone won.
We jumped back in the pick-up and made our way back up the hill to the Big Spread. We’d watch reruns of The Rockford Files and Simon & Simon while Grannie did the crossword. Drink more black coffee as we let the midday sun pass.
Papa would check the obituaries. “Well, it says here I’m not dead, so I guess we’ll have to work today.” And back to work we’d go.
I don’t care that no one ever snapped a keepsake photo of me lounging in the bluebonnets.
I just wish someone would have gotten a picture of us among the yaupons.
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Need some more Hitting The Trifecta right now? Try this one: There Ain’t No Doubt, I Love This Land. Or how about this one? Life Is What Happens While You’re Busy Watching Big Cats Get Busy. You’ll like this one, too: “A Humble Recommendation” by Guest Author Johnny Quick.