At the last house on the right a moss-covered steer scull hangs in an oak just past the fence posts that are adorned with worn out cowboy boots. From the size of the boot Doyle didn't look like a big man, but Bob made it clear that his size wasn't an indication of his character or ability to throw a cow and hold is own at the local saloon.
The massive steel gate to the Flying Eagle Ranch scraped the gravel hump in the road and spun a white whirlwind of dust into the scrub oak forest…dry enough to choke even the most hardened cowboy. Just beyond the paddle locked gate a canopy of huge oak limbs shaded a greenway that once grazed a cattle herd and several wild horses that my host, Cowboy Bob, tended to for over 35 years.While riding in the air-conditioned confines of a modern vehicle I found it hard to imagine a cowboy’s lifestyle of horseback riding, herding cattle, and fence tending as part of a days work. Bob’s face always lit up when talking about his mentor Doyle Tyndal a.k.a. "Old Cowboy". He passed into greener pastures a few years back and now Cowboy Bob keeps his spirit alive with vivid story telling, like when he had to retrieve a big red bull from a neck-deep swamp out in the back forty. Using tried-and-true tactics of lassoing and bareback riding really worked for getting him to move, but getting the bull to willingly jump into the back of a pickup truck is where the real cowboy whisperer’s’ secrets remain!
The slow rolling ride down the lane and over the old wooden planks that bridge Moccasin Slough often skidded to a graveling halt out of respect for a passing snake or endangered tortoise. Stories of Seminole Indian skirmishes that took place here so long ago are clear in Bob’s imagination and his ability to translate the images are magical! Hell… my stampeding imagination saw them , the Seminole scouts that is, sitting in the giant cypress trees that still stand today...oh what the trees can reveal when the wind blows just right! Over the years Bob discovered some arrowheads, tools and artifacts and relishes the day when he'll discover some cave drawings in an old under ground river cave. This fascinating rock formation fed the Withlacoochee a century back and led early paddleboats down the flow. I think he’ll stumble onto the burial grounds of the great ones and find what he’s looking for someday...here in natural Florida!
Into the night and back to the modern trailer fully equipped with a/c, running water, and myriad of trinkets. The twang of country music played low in the background - fitting for this museum. Pictures of the Old Cowboy hung on the wall. Cowboy poetry books & novels stacked on the shelves. Hat racks made from deer antlers & steer horns. Guns of old and new in every corner and a fridge loaded to the hilt with cowboy food...meat! Turkey feathers were used to prop window dressings back made sense for this long time recycler of found items. Outside the cool confines of the trailer far, far, from civilization the stars drew my eyes deep into the Milky Way galaxy well beyond the full moon. I realized a man could get lost in this world, this civilization that most people will never see or hear about if not for cowboys like Bob.
Bob was certain for me to witness the sunrise in his wonderful wilderness. His early morning wake up call lassoed me from a night of sweet dreams about days of old. The bold smell of cowboy coffee, a really thick batch, was poured from a pot and pancake syrup was used for sweetener. (Honestly I’d have never thought of this one but it was quite good!) Hat in hand and boots untied he booted me out the door and into the darkness to an observation tower that resembled an old windmill, but in place of the wind vane was a box with windows. Inside was a nice leather office chair that swiveled 360 degrees. The plethora of green tree frogs and throngs of mosquitoes kept me busy till daylight!
The Cardinal birds were the first to welcome the day with their distinct sound. Pairs of them darted through the scrub cover and caught a glimpse of me several times, but didn't mind. Lots of squirrels, a fleeting pair of woodpeckers, then 20 turkey made their way past me in the half light of a harvest moon. The moo of a distant cow reminded me that I was in an old overgrown pasture - now forest. Hoot Owls called from distant roosts and squadrons of sand hill cranes cruised overhead. Do they fly and sound like prehistoric birds to you, or is it just me? I’ve always been a big fan of the whitetail deer and I’d try and communicate with whistles and small bleats at a doe and her fawn. A foot stomp here, a head bob there, a nasal snort and the white tail flash and they were gone.
When the scorching sun started wilting the newly planted feed grass I knew it was time to head back to camp. Bob was sitting comfortably in the a/c reading a novel. He had done the dishes, made more coffee and was taking inventory of the fridge's meat stash. "Want some bre-fas…you must be hungry?" he asked. Not being a breakfast eater I declined, as I was more interested in the collection of old trailers that sit in the camp yard. One in particular, perhaps a 1950 (or older) Airstream, had my attention. It turns out it belonged to Old Cowboy and has been here for decades. Bob’s family used it for weekend retreats for years until, as he says it, “we just flat-wore it out!” It was the first trailer to be moved here and will likely remain forever.
My favorite story was of a night Bob spent in camp alone. It went something like this:
It was along about mid-night when the TV signal on Letterman began to fizzle and fade. We put the TV in place of the old window shaker a/c when it died. Well the TV wiggled a bit and I thought it to be odd, then in one sudden sucking whoosh the TV went straight out the window!
Well…hell, we had stretched the sagging antennae wire up a nearby post for a signal. And a bull, with horns like you'd see on the hood of a Texans Cadillac wandered between the posts and got his horns tangled in the wire and jerked the TV straight out the window!!
Now I don't know about ya’ll, but a stampeding bull with a TV tangled in his horns isn’t something you’d see everyday here on the coast…hell, I’ve never even heard of anything like that, but Bob will be quick to tell you “That’s no bull!”
So if you find yourself wandering down Moccasin Slough Road just East of Inverness and see the cowboy boots on the fence and the steer skull on the tree… you’re almost there! And if you see a bull with a TV in tow… you’re beyond the last house on the right.
Kurt Zuelsdorf. Writer, Urban Tracker, Outdoor Enthusiast at Kayak Nature Adventures kayak and sup rentals