My young wife cried when we moved to Motley County, Texas in 2004. It was a seventy-mile drive through canyons, ranch land, and farmland from our home in Clarendon to our new home in Matador.
Even in Texas, people ask, “Where’s Matador?” I like to answer with, “North of Spur, east of Floydada, south of Turkey, and west of Paducah.” Until I say sixty-five miles northeast of Lubbock, they have no idea where I’m talking about.
Matador is the county seat of Motley County. The population is around 800, which is most of the population of the entire county, but it is steadily declining. Motley County is listed as the 10th least populated county in the state (out of 254), which is really saying something considering how large it is—990 square miles. The one school in the county—Motley County ISD—has less than 200 students K-12.
There are few businesses in Matador. A café. A small grocery store which is okay for emergencies, but you better check those dates. A hardware store. A general store. Moore Maker knives. If I remember correctly, the sheriff was the lone ranger when it came to county law-enforcement.
A Roy Rogers movie, Mackentosh and T.J., was filmed in Matador in 1975. Aside from there being more open businesses in the movie, nothing had changed in Matador during the 30 years from the filming until I moved there.
When both of my daughters were born, we drove to Amarillo, which was two hours away, for a decent hospital. When we needed groceries, my wife made the sixty-five-mile trip to Lubbock. If I wanted a haircut from a real barber, I drove forty-five miles south to Spur. But, other than the tumbleweeds, jackrabbits, mule-deer, and coyotes, there was never much traffic.
We bought a little rock home on nearly an acre with seven pecan trees for the price of a new car. It was on Main Street, so I could walk to work, the hardware store, the post office, or bank, or anywhere else in Matador. Our main form of entertainment was to take walks and push the stroller around town or pick up pecans in the fall.
When you drive north out of Matador, you will see cotton fields, and some that are over 1,000 acres. Driving west is a thirty-mile climb until you are on top of the cap rock, which is what most people imagine when they think of the Texas Panhandle—hundreds of miles of flat nothingness. You may remember it from Lonesome Dove.
Laurie: “Where are we, Gus?”
Gus: “Adobe Walls, Darlin.”
Laurie: “They shouldn’t a took me, Gus.”
Gus: “I know, Darlin, but they did. They did.”
When you drive east or south, you are heading for serious ranch country. The Matador Ranch. The 6666. The Pitchfork Ranch. And many others.
If you stop in for gas or a chicken fried steak, you are likely to see real ranch cowboys with their jeans in their boots, spurs still on, with still saddled horses in tow in the parking lot.
Here are some of the characters we knew in Motley County:
Ronald Clay was an old cowboy who enjoyed cracking rattlesnakes like a whip to pop their heads off. He once sewed a rattlesnake’s mouth shut and threw it into the crowded Flomot cotton gin office.
Mary Maeson was my 92 year-old-neighbor. She was a school teacher in the county during the Dust Bowl, and her father had been friends with the Comanche war chief, Quanah Parker.
Harold Campbell lived by himself on a large ranch in the county. He was a direct descendant from the first white family in Motley County, and he still hated farmers, just like the ranchers in the old westerns.
Dude Barton also lived by herself on a large ranch in the county. Not only was she one of the toughest and best ranchers in the county, but she was also inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame for her rodeo accomplishments.
Life in Motley County is slow and peaceful. Just like she did when we moved there, my wife cried when we left, and on the rare occasions when I drive through, I wonder why we ever did.