Going Up the Country

Had I known what lay ahead, I might have chosen a pith helmet and khakis for my evening attire.  Instead, I opted for what I imagined to be Country Casual: a denim skirt, a white piqué blouse, and turquoise bracelets.

After years of sweating through the swamp-like heat and humidity of Houston, I’d already experienced one benefit to living with more earth and less concrete. Country air seemed to cool more quickly after sunset, making the sweater I’d already thrown into the car a reasonable accessory.

Plucking the directions I’d been given from the side of the refrigerator, I re-read them before tucking them into my bag and heading off to dinner. Written in a neat, almost pinched hand on paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook, they seemed straightforward enough.

Head east on the highway — about 20 miles. Go past the Community Center, turn right at the gas station. Go through town & keep on the blacktop. When you see a gravel road on your right, turn right and go past two cattle guards.
You’ll pass a big mott, then a cattle guard and an arched gate on your left.  Pass that gate, and we’re the next house on the left. It’s 3.5 miles from the corner, so if you go 4, you’ve gone too far.
We’ll have the gate open. Come on in and park by the clothesline. Don’t mind the dog. He just likes to say hello.

Today, such detailed directions would seem anachronistic.  Cell phones, smart phones, and GPS have made it possible to pull to the side of the road and make a call, or double-check a location’s coordinates. At the time, the only option was a pay phone at the local gas station or ice house. 

On the other hand, with no phone number included in the directions I’d been given, there was no phoning of any sort to be done. The suggestion seemed to be that, if I felt lost and decided to stop at the gas station, I might as well just ask the clerk.

The truth is, I was less concerned with making phone calls than I was with finding the mott. Halfway to my destination, I realized I had no idea what a “mott” looked like. Since it had been described as “big,” I assumed it would be easy enough to spot in the middle of the pastures and corn fields I was passing, but I was more curious than worried. Besides, if I missed the mott, the arched gate nearby would do for a landmark.

As the miles clicked off, all was well. I passed the Community Center, made my turn, found the gravel road, and began looking for the mott. The only thing that seemed big, apart from some farm equipment and a hay shed, were the trees. When I passed a particularly nice grove of live oaks, it occurred to me that “mott” might be Texas-speak for “grove, and I began looking for the cattle guard and gate.

Perhaps I was inattentive. Perhaps I was too interested in the scenery, or the handsome cattle grazing in the field. However it happened, I glanced down at the odometer and saw I’d traveled just over four miles. In the process, I’d missed the cattle guards, the arched gate, the second gate, and the house.

Turning around at a wide spot in the road, I started back, looking again for the open gate. Since I still didn’t see it, I decided to make use of the extra travel time I’d built into my plans. I went back to the intersection where I’d turned off the blacktop, and headed up the gravel road again, muttering to myself as I did.

The second time, I spotted the live oaks and arched gate with no trouble at all and found the second gate easily, even though I still hadn’t noticed any cattle guards.

Turning into the lane, I followed its curve toward the house, where I found the clothesline hidden behind a hedge of red-tipped photinia. Two cars already were parked in the graveled space next to it, guarded by an exuberant dog who seemed intent on alerting the entire county to a new arrival.

I was only halfway to the porch when my hostess met me on the path, wiping her hands on the edge of her apron and smiling. “We thought that might have been your dust we saw. Had to turn around, did you?”

“Sure did,” I said. “But I think I figured something out. Is that big bunch of live oaks what you meant by the mott?” Laughing, she assured me I was right. Then she asked, “But didn’t you see the gate and the cattle guards?”  “I saw the arched gate the second time,” I said. “But I never saw any cattle guards. There wasn’t anyone out there, as far as I could tell.”

The hum of cicadas rose and expanded, filling the air as she stopped to look at me with an expression impossible to decipher. The silence seemed to stretch on forever, until she ended it by asking, “You were looking for people?” Feeling as though I’d just stepped off an unseen cliff, I confessed it was true. I had been looking for people: two-legged guards keeping an eye on the four-legged cattle.

She was gracious enough not to laugh too loudly, or too long. She still was in the process of explaining cattle guards — parallel metal pipes set into the ground to keep cattle from roaming — when her husband walked up.

“Merle,” she said, “I believe this girl’s going to need some educating.”

For months, the story made its way through the gas stations and domino parties where the story-tellers held court. Eventually, it faded away, replaced by newer and better stories. I did wonder from time to time if some kind soul had hastened its demise by saying, “Let the poor girl be.” What I knew for certain was that I was relieved to have it gone, and I hoped it was forgotten.

Years later, shortly before I moved back to the Houston area, I spent a companionable evening with some of the same people who’d met me on the night of that first, confusing trip to the country.

As the evening was coming to an end, someone said, “You’ll be coming back to see us now, won’t you?”  “I’ll be back for sure,” I said, “and when I come back, I won’t have such a hard time finding my way around.”

“No, I figure you won’t,” he said. Reaching for another beer, his eyes crinkled with the beginnings of a smile. “Matter of fact, I suspect you’ll do just fine. Next time, we’re fixin’ to put those cattle guards of yours into some uniforms.”


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82 thoughts on “Going Up the Country

  1. Linda,

    You were able to get a big smile on my face with your story about finding yourself around in the great state of Texas. I for one, had no idea what a “cattle guard” was all about. Literally it means somebody who looks out to protect cattle similar to shepherds who take care of sheep.

    The uniform joke of the cattle guards added to the humorist side of the story.

    Now you understand how difficult it for me to understand the English language.



    1. Well, Omar, before this little experience, I didn’t know what a cattle guard was, either. One of my friends emailed after I posted this and said, “What? Iowa born-and-bred, and you didn’t know what a cattle guard was?” I’ve given that some thought, and really can’t figure it out, except that my friends who lived on farms came from corn-raising families, rather than cattle raising.

      Just so you know, there are many names for the same device. In Alberta, Canada, they’re often called “Texas Gates.” Other names include stock gap and stock grid, and, in New Zealand, a cattle stop. One technology, many names.

      I’m glad it gave you a smile!


  2. I’ve heard it said that literal-minded people have high IQ’s!
    There you have it.

    Also, the directions were perfectly cast for a woman.
    Studies show that directions based on landmarks instead of north east south west mileage ( you get the point ) which men follow better, are best for us girls .

    When giving driving direction to our home, my husband directs people to drive 3.4 miles.
    I tell them to look for the 4th house after the hairpin turn.

    1. I’m not so sure about gender-based differences when it comes to directions, Cheri, but there’s no question differences exist.

      I’ve always had a terrific sense of north, south, east and west, but my poor mother had zilch. She lived her whole life 180 degrees off. Even when she’d leave my place after having dinner, she’d turn the wrong way to get back to her apartment. Every time. My poor dad finally gave up asking her to read a map.

      When I was sailing and navigating, precision was critical, and it was quite a change for me. It was fun, too, but now that I’m back on land, I’m more likely to prefer visual directions. In fact, I wonder if it’s visual learners who do best with things like “the 4th house after the hairpin turn”? Interesting questions!


      1. It should be easy enough to do a study to find out whether, on average, there is a gender difference in the preferred style for giving directions. I emphasize on average because even if there is an overall preference for each gender, individuals of either gender may still fall into either camp.

        Another consideration is which culture we’re talking about. My impression is that people in so-called third-world countries, regardless of gender, are more likely than Americans to resort to directions via landmarks. After all, in those countries many houses don’t even have numbers on them, as I expect you found in Liberia.

        1. Culture and environment play tremendous roles. If we put my nicely-gridded Iowa town on one end of a spectrum and the bush paths hacked out of the Liberian rain forest on the other, it’s clear that different forms of direction-giving are going to be necessary.

          Connection to a community makes a difference, too. Stopping at a gas station doesn’t always provide good information these days, since many clerks don’t live in the town where the store’s located. Even the ones who do aren’t always attuned to the world around them. One young clerk responded to my query about the Brazoria Museum by saying, “We got a museum here?”

          Then there’s age and history. My favorites are directions to “go three blocks past the old Singer place.” After some sorting, you discover the Singers decamped for California around 1900, and there hasn’t been a single Singer in the county since.

    2. Something kept nagging at me about your husband’s directions, and I just figured out what it is. Odometers rarely have tenth of a mile indicators any more – everything is in whole miles. Without the 1/10th divisions, it’s really hard to give accurate directions using mileage.

      We used to check our odometers by posts along the side of the road. I can’t remember the last time I saw those, either.

    1. Teresa Evangeline, what good’s a story if we keep it to ourselves? I’ve thought of this one from time to time, and finally decided it was time to share it.

      Motts may be a Texas/Oklahoma thing. There are towns with “mott” in their name, like Longmott, Round Mott, and Mustang Mott. You have to be careful, though. Mott, Texas was named for a person, and not a clump of trees.

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you’re still chuckling.


    1. It’s really interesting to hear how people like to give and receive directions. I think where we live and what we become accustomed to makes a difference, too.

      When I was growing up in Iowa, our town was laid out on a grid, east/west and north/south. Addresses told you exactly where a house was. Our first address was 516 East 8th Street North — eight blocks east of the town square, and five blocks north. Then, we moved to 912 South 13th Avenue West — nine blocks south, and 13 blocks west.

      It was easy as could be. Then I landed in a town with curving streets and no rhyme or reason to the names, and I began appreciating things like your blue house on the right!

      Thanks for stopping by – I’m so glad you liked the story.


      1. When I moved to Utah for a short time the streets were numbered as in your above addresses. They really threw me for a curve.. Names of trees or flowers works for me..lol!

  3. I reckon .. that’s North Carolina “country” talk – nice story – I probably first was “educated” on cattle guards in Montana where my spouse’s sister lives (Chester, population 900 — actually five miles out of town).

    1. I’ve been through Chester, Bob, though I don’t remember muich about it. Long ago I drove Route 2 from Minnesota out to the Pacific coast. What I remember most is the sky. “Big Sky County” is apt.

      There’s a good bit of reckoning that goes on in the country around here, too. I don’t know why I love “I reckon” and “fixin’ to” as much as I do, but they’re great expressions. I still remember the first time I heard The Last Judgment referred to as The Great Reckoning. It made me smile, for sure.


  4. Oh, here I had thought the weeds were grown up or it was an old neglected cattle guard and almost invisible in the sand. Had to laugh. (Great picture!) But mott did have me stumped. We would have said “woods.”

    I still think of directions like that – GPS just isn’t the same – you don’t have to pay attention and really see the scenery if you don’t use the old way. Being observant and really seeing might be a useful skill to have even now?

    Great story (every house used to have that dog and clothes line!)

    1. Phil, I’ll bet you’ve heard “mott” as a part of a town name without thinking about it. Long Mott comes to mind. I wouldn’t be surprised to know some people hear that one as “Longmont,” like Longmont, Colorado.

      I’ve never felt the need for GPS, since I seem to get where I’m going just fine. I did try it once, out in the middle of Kansas. It identified the gravel road I was looking for and got me to the road just fine. The only problem was that the bridge was out. It didn’t tell me that. A farmer in a pickup happened by and told me how to avoid the bridge and get to my destination.

      Speaking of farmers and ways of traveling through the world, I can’t help thinking of these favorite lines from Wendell Berry:

      “As soon as the generals and the politicos
      can predict the motions of your mind,
      lose it. Leave it as a sign
      to mark the false trail, the way
      you didn’t go.

      Be like the fox
      who makes more tracks than necessary,
      some in the wrong direction.
      Practice resurrection”

      And don’t hit your head on that clothesline.


      1. Great lines! (well on the way to the 3rd line here?)
        Foxes are thought clever for so many reasons. There’s a reason Indians closely observed/admired animals and their behaviors.
        Not to wrap things up, duck. (Quackers for sure)

  5. I like directions that combine landmarks and measurements! Yes, tell me I’m heading west and when I turn, it’ll be to the north. But also tell me that’s about 3 miles, and I should look for the cemetery on the right side of the road!

    Very good story, tender-hearted for yourself and those you were visiting. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I like the combinations, too, Melanie. It’s more than just having extra information. It’s as though the different sorts of information reinforce each other, and make the directions easier to remember.

      Foibles, mistakes and misunderstandings often make great stories, and it can be just as much fun to tell them on ourselves as to tell them about others. I certainly enjoyed shaping this one, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.


    2. I’m kind of slow getting to this post. I made a wrong turn back there somewhere. I had no idea what a mott was.

      I just wanted to comment that Melanie has left and right issues as well. Giving directions should not include them. Landmarks, she is good with them.

      My experience with rural IL and IA has fixed a grid into my brain.

      Lastly, this xkcd seems a good addition for this post.

      1. As often as we played Blind Man’s Bluff when I was a kid, Jim, I ought to do pretty well with that xkcd GPS. Thanks for adding it.To be quite frank, I’ll occasionally refer to my way of finding places as the homing pigeon approach. I circle around until I land in the right spot.

        When I first started sailing, there was so much to learn, and I had a little trouble with port and starboard. Then, my instructor pointed out that starboard/right both have more letters than port/left. Worked like a charm.

    1. Thirty years after the fact, I know what a cattle guard is. Now, I often wonder, “What else is right in front of my nose that I’ve misinterpreted or misunderstood?” I know it’s there. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t find myself standing around, saying, “Really? No kidding!”

      As for motts, I know there’s a discussion about them in the comments on another post. The word’s related to the Spanish “mata,” which helps to explain why I’d never heard the word until coming to Texas.

      I wondered if I could find a literary reference, and was tickled to find this, from a short story by O. Henry titled, “Hygeia at the Solito.”

      “They were rolling southward on the International. The timber was huddling into little, dense green motts at rare distances before the inundation of the downright, vert prairies.”

      Of course, O. Henry moved to Texas in 1882, and to Houston in 1895, after a little unpleasantness in Austin. He spent time on a sheep ranch, around Spanish workers, and may have picked up the word there.

      What tickled me most in the bio I linked was the fact that he got many of his story ideas “…by loitering in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to people there.” Let’s hear it for loitering and talking.


      1. I will have to tell Dr. Advice he is validated in regard to loitering and talking. Now he has O. Henry as well as Steinbeck on his side. Steinbeck used to go to the hardware store for a simple item and spend an hour or more talking. Maybe that’s where he got so many good stories.

  6. What a great story! Where in the world did you find the artwork to match? If you did that in photoshop, you, my friend, impress me beyond belief! I would have known what the cattle guards were, but the mott would have truly had me stumped! Love it!

    1. BW, I’d impress myself beyond belief if I’d done that kind of photoshop work. That’s not my thing. But if you click on the image, it will take you to the artist’s page on FineArtAmerica, where she has her work listed. I laughed when I saw her comment about the painting: “Everytime I see a cattle guard sign ,this is what my whimsical mind sees.” I’m not alone.

      I found the image through a search. I wondered if anyone might have had the same literal interpretation of a cattle guard, and there, in the midst of all those metal gratings, was the painting. I was thrilled.

      I’m not surprised you’re not familiar with motts. On the other hand, you have your oak cheniers. The first time I heard that word, all I could think of was Clifton!


  7. Mott would have had me stumped, but I do know what a cattle guard is and have since we lived on a dairy farm when I was first married. It all depends on experience and perspective.

    Good story! When we lived in the South, many of the directions included things such as go ‘down the road apiece past where June used to live and turn at the old gas station’ (nobody mentioning that the gas station is now a vacant lot!) Such an adventure.

    1. Ruth, that’s just so true. Where ties among family and friends remain unbroken over generations, and collective memory is strong, it’s quite common for directions to include a few assumptions.

      Your mention of landmarks turning into vacant lots reminded me of one of my favorite bluegrass songs — those “old home places” are so important, and not only as landmarks for direction-givers.

      A dairy farm? We may have been learning about cattle guards about the same time, since this little episode took place a very long time ago.


      1. My ex and I lived on a dairy farm for a while in the early 70s. That’s also when I learned not to touch that little wire that keeps the cows on the path from pasture to milking barn!!

  8. I’ve not heard of Mott, but I would have known what a cattle guard is. This reminds me of my inner-city, Detroit-raised husband. On one of his first farm visits for International Harvester, his first job out of college, he walked in the barn with a farmer and proceded to step right into a full gutter. (He was wearing a nice suit and dress shoes!). He never expected a gutter in the floor, especially not one filled with cow poop. Hah!

    1. Live and learn, as they say. Who hasn’t had one or two — or a dozen or two — of those memorable and embarassing experiences? They do have their value. How would we learn resilience without being stretched a little by life?

      I imagine stepping into one of those gutters to be much like falling off a dock into the water. One minute all is well, the next you’ve found yourself in — well, a mess. The good news is that, most of the time. it’s our pride that’s most wounded.


  9. You had me laughing, Linda. I was wondering, how in the heck you could miss seeing a cattle guard, or certainly feel the bump, bump, bump. And then you dropped your punchline.

    As for a mott, I was right there with you.

    Cattle guards, BTW, are often made with old rails. They may even be painted on roads. If cattle have experienced the real thing, they won’t cross over the painted lines.

    Bicyclists have to be really careful of cattle guards. It’s easy to turn your wheels and get them caught. You can imagine the results, especially if someone is traveling at 20 miles per hour. When I led bike treks, I always wrote them into the directions. Fortunately, my trekkers knew what they were. :) –Curt

    1. Ah, yes. But for every cow that stops at a painted stripe, Curt, there’s another who, with her friends, has decided she’s not going to pay attention to any stinking cattle guard.

      What I don’t know, because it’s lost in the mists of time, is whether I experienced cattle guards without knowing the name for them. I’m sure I probably did. But my goodness — I’d never thought of the kind of hazard they could pose for cyclists. And I didn’t realize, until I got to Kansas, that they sometimes are part of a public road, particularly where there’s open range.

      The photo at the top was taken on a county road in Kansas, but I also found a few photos from Canada where the “Texas gates” were part of regular highways. It’s really an interesting technology, with more variations than I would have thought possible. But being used even as a part of paved roads brings my thoughts back to bike trekkers. It was good of you to include those hazards in the directions.


      1. Our directions to trekkers were quite detailed. One of my jobs was to always drive roads before treks. Conditions such as shoulders, steepness, curves, loose gravel and traffic were all factored in. Of the different types of treks I led, backpacking, bicycling, canoeing, and snow camping, I considered bike treks to be far the most dangerous.

        BTW… there’s a cattle guard less than a mile from our house on Upper Applegate Road. –Curt

  10. In Alberta we called them “Texas gates.” I’m not sure what they are called in Ontario, but then again I haven’t seen them around here. The farms in Ontario are small. You can usually see your neighbor’s house. In our area, many farms were settled by Mennonites and Amish from Pennsylvania. Many still drive horse and buggy. We will see them plowing the land with work horses. Of course, some have modernized (in fact all have in their dairy barns).

    All the same, farm culture is not universal, although there does seem to be plenty of overlap in values: care for the land and animals, an appreciation for hard work, and an interest in the neighbor. Sounds like these friends of yours fit the bill. Thanks, as well, for teaching me what a mott is!

    1. Allen, I’d never heard cattle guards called “Texas gates” until I started digging around a little in the process of writing this. In fact, at one point I was going to use this photo from Alberta. In the end, it just didn’t fit, but at least I can show it to you!

      Of course, without cattle (and perhaps sheep — I’m not sure) cattle guards wouldn’t be necessary. Trees aren’t given to escaping their orchards, or crops their fields, though if one did, that would be a story worth writing, too.

      It’s interesting to know that the Amish and Mennonites have modernized their dairy barns. Was this by choice, or a result of governmental pressure? The raw milk battles are being fought down here, and the government has shut down some Amish farms. In Texas, raw milk can be purchased only from farms — no offsite retail sales are allowed, although I hear there are a few ways to work around the rules.

      I have a great fondness for those values embodied in farm life. I hope they endure.


      1. Holy Cow, what a great picture! I have never seen a sign announcing it as such. A shame they didn’t extend this courtesy to you in Texas.

        Modernization on Mennonite and Amish farms is very complicated, and it depends on the group. But in the main, the barn bit comes from government regulations. Having said that, you used to see little sheds out at the edge of driveways, which had a phone. Phones were not allowed in either house or barn. Now, you will see people in buggies with cell phones, although there are probably rubrics about when use is permitted. Interesting business!

  11. Ah, cattle guards. Do you know, if I remember rightly, cattle guards are a marker for getting to Friko’s!

    I don’t recall when I learned they were metal grids, but for a long time, I couldn’t fathom what these grids were doing so far out in the countryside. It is quite a thing, living in the country, and telling directions by the second hawthorne on the right. I try to point out sometimes up here that the roads actually do have route numbers, but no one wants to go by that!

    1. In England, I see they’re called cattle grids, or stock grids, and they’re used not only on private land but also to keep animals in (or out of?) park areas. I did see that some used in the American west have to be made differently, because animals like bison, with larger feet, can walk across a standard cattle guard.

      Your comment about route numbers reminded me of the confusion that ensues around here when people refer to street names. When I first moved here, the primary road closest to my place was FM (Farm to Market) 2094 and it connected to FM518. They were two lane roads, and the landscape looked like the country.

      Now the powers that be have given fancy names to those streets, and newcomers know them only by those names. Say “2094” to many people, and they think you’re referring to some event eighty years in the future. Ask me the name of the street, and I have to think for a few seconds before I can come up with it.


  12. The motte I would have been looking for would have been a hill suitable for building a castle keep on. You’d think a grove of trees would be what I’d look for since it’s a word used in the Southwestern US, but then again, we don’t have all that many trees up here in the flatlands, and the ones we do have are pretty much all “tame” ones — in people’s yards and part of the landscaping of businesses and school campuses. They just don’t grow wild up here, in mottes or otherwise.

    We tend to forget how many words in our everyday language are “one of those you have to be there.” Having lived most of my rememberable life in farming and ranching country, it seems I’ve always known what a cattle guard is, though I’m sure there was a point when I learned it. My mother’s brother in Pearland had one between what became Yost Road and where you turned into his place, as he raised some cows in addition to growing oranges, raising a garden, and working for Humble Oil (which later became Exxon). Of course, the landscape of memory is unrecognizeable now, and the oystershell paved Yost road of my memories is nothing like the Boulevard it has become.

    I think there is a real difference in how women and men give and interpret directions. I always ask, do you want the guy directions (involving compass directions and mileage –go west three miles on Whatever Avenue, and turn south on Some Street) or the girl directions (involving landmarks — Go down Whatever Avenue til you get to the MacDonald’s. Turn left on Some Street until you see the house with the white picket fence . . .)

    1. Many people don’t realize how different one part of Texas can be from another. National forests in the east, Palo Duro in your area, coastal prairie, the hill county — it really is amazing. As a matter of fact, you’d have a pretty hard time finding a good hill around your place. Canyons, yes, But who wants a castle in a canyon?

      I was out at a farm in Dickinson last week, picking blackberries. I noticed that they have a fairly good-sized line of fig trees there, along with their sweet corn and tomatoes. I’ve always enjoyed Froberg’s, but the chance to do my own picking is delightful. It would have been fun to be around here back in the day of those oystershell roads and your uncle’s place.

      I’ll use “guy directions” for macro purposes (chunks of miles), but I tend to give directions in terms of landmarks most of the time. When you get right down to it, as long as we can get from point A to point B, the system worked.


  13. I paused when I read ‘mott’ and thought,’I should check the dictionary on that right now,’ then thought, ‘if I keep reading, I will probably find out what a ‘mott’ is.’

    The cattle guard? Yes, I knew that one,but I thought maybe it had receded into the gravel road after a dozen or so years of use.

    I loved the illustration of the cattle guards!

    1. I thought you’d like the painting of the Cattle Guards, Z. They have the same humor and joie de vivre as so many of your illustrations and paintings. They may be cows, but they’d get along just fine with your geckos and lizards.

      I didn’t know that cattle guards are so common in Mississippi, but I found some evidence they clearly are, especially along the levees and the land inside them. It’s the same lesson: don’t stereotype, don’t assume. Just as Texas is more than cows, Mississippi is more than cotton. Well, cotton and the Blues.


  14. What a great story! I love the picture of the “cattle guards”!
    I’ve also been given some rather strange directions too. One of my favorites was “turn right two miles before you get to the big red barn”.

    1. montucky, those directions are priceless. They’re the sort that stop you in your tracks while you take a little time to think them over.

      At least you could actually follow the directions, even if you had to make that two mile jaunt up to the big red barn and back-track. A friend sent me an example of some Google driving directions (from Kansas to Colorado) that required a kayak.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the tale.


  15. Seems like I’ve known the term cattle guard “forever,” so it never occurred to me to take it literally as a guardian of cattle. The Random House Dictionary dates the origin of the term to the period from 1835 to 1845. In any case, you’ve got a good story there.

    1. What surprised me was discovering that Canadians (or at least those in Alberta) call the device a “Texas gate.”

      What’s even better is that there’s a decades-long history of people using the double meaning of the phrase to make jokes about political administrations. I found a rather substantial entry over at Snopes this afternoon.

      It involves the claim that a U.S. government official ordered the firing of half the cattle guards in Colorado.

      The entire series of stories is funny, but this tickled me.

      “Similar slaps involving a rube’s misunderstanding of what “cattle guards” are have been made by and at other politicians. Former Democratic state senator Kent Hance of Texas, for example, has been known to tell the following story:

      ‘I was on a ranch in Dimmitt during my high school days, and a guy drove up and asked for directions to the next ranch. I said, ‘Go north five miles, turn and go east five miles, then turn again after you pass a cattle guard.’ As the guy turned around, I noticed he had Connecticut license plates. He stopped and said, ‘Just one more question. What color uniform will that cattle guard be wearing?'”

      I think it would have been better to use the term “city slicker” instead of “rube” for the fellow from Connecticut, but otherwise, it’s perfect.


  16. Splendid story….I love that you figured out the rather more difficult (in my view) mott but missed the more straight forward interpretation(again in my view) of cattle guards.

    Of course, in another time and/or place, the cattle guards were the cowboys, the herd boys, etc. Cattle were protected by people, not by fences and rails and metal guards and still are in certain countries.

    1. Gallivanta, I can’t say for sure. It’s been too long ago. But when I was traveling down that country road, I’m not sure I ever saw those metal cattle guards. Not seeing them, I couldn’t interpret them. I couldn’t even think, “I wonder if THOSE are the cattle guards.” They had to be in my field of vision, but they might as well have been invisible.

      Thinking back on it now, I remember — and appreciate — a little passage from Annie Dillard. She says:

      “I see what I expect. I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it, even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions.
      Finally I asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against. The thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.”

      And you’re absolutely right that in other times and places, the cattle were herded and sorted and driven by a different sort of guard. Even today, the great drives continue in places where those guards still hold sway — even in Australia. I think you’ll enjoy the video. There’s some great photography.


      1. Lovely photography! On the subject of seeing and expecting; I would hope that those seeing this video do not expect the cattle drive to be a serene experience, minus dust, noise and flies ;)

    1. A little humor’s good for the soul, and stories that start out “Remember when…?” can be a rich source of humor.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. thanks for stopping by, and for the nice comment. You’re always welcome.


  17. Having lived in Texas for several years, I know what a cattle guard is (and couldn’t understand why it seemed to perplex you!) Forgive me for having a good laugh at your naivety!

    Taking an idea from the cattle guards, I regularly walk my dog just to the edge of the railroad tracks here. Could he walk across them? Probably. Do I want him to? Definitely not. I’m being optimistic, I suppose, but I hope that, should he ever manage to get loose, he won’t go any farther than those tracks (making my job at “capturing” him that much easier!

    Thanks for showing us another slice of how different things are in different parts of this big country!

    1. If I minded you laughing, Debbie, I wouldn’t have told the story!

      As for naiveté, you have to remember — this was my first taste of actually living in rural Texas. Before I arrived, I’d been mostly in Houston, Liberia, and Berkeley. There weren’t many cattle guards of any sort in those places. And, even though I grew up in Iowa and did some of the standard Iowa things, like being in 4-H and detassling corn, I was a town kid, and spent more time practicing my clarinet than raising chickens. When I hit the country, I was good for more than a few laughs.

      That’s a good idea, teaching Dallas that the tracks are a boundary.
      You don’t want him to get hurt, and you certainly don’t need to be running forever to get him back.

      I was amazed to read Curt’s comment that cows who’ve learned not to cross cattle guards will refuse to cross “guards” that are just painted on the road. That seems to support your idea about putting the idea of “don’t cross” into Dallas’s head.

      We’re a big country, for sure. There’s so much to explore, and to enjoy.


  18. Gee, Linda, I haven’t laughed this much in a long time. In fact, I’m still smiling. At that time you were indeed a “city slicker.” When I left the farm for nursing school, I was a country bumpkin and as “green as grass.” It boils down to how and where we grew up and what we were exposed to during our formative years. I still think of myself as a “hick from the sticks” since I’m not all that fond of urban living but living in the city has been my home for around 55 years plus. We have a small town off I-35 called Elm Mott so I suppose that name came from a huge grove of elm trees.

    At any rate, I loved your story. I am surprised the instructions didn’t use the word go north or south or whatever for a “piece” after you pass the gass station. A “piece” is often used as part of some kind of direction by oldtimers. But now there are few oldtimers left so that old word usage will soon be forgotten.


    1. Yvonne, I’m so glad I made you laugh. It really was something, figuring out how to keep the story going without giving away the punchline. One of the first things I realized was that I had to put the painting of the cows at the bottom, not at the top, or everyone would figure it out in the first five seconds.

      You’re so right about the importance of our formative years. We grow up believing things are just the way they are. Then, we get out into the world and discover all sorts of “ways” out there. Some we embrace, some we don’t. But learning how to sort through them is an important part of growing up.

      The truth is, people who go from home to a school that’s just like home to a job that’s just like school never have their bubble broken — they rarely get to experience a completely different world. The way I figure it, if we experience different worlds, we’re better able to choose which one(s) we want to live in.

      You raised an interesting point with your reference to sayings like “down the road a piece.” I often hear it in spoken conversation, especially outside Houston, but don’t see it in writing. I use it, and so do some of my friends. It’s a very handy phrase.

      Another old-fashioned one is “skosh”, like adding a skosh of vanilla to whipping cream. What’s funny is that I don’t have a clue how to spell skosh (scoosh? skoosh?) because I’ve never written it or seen it written. It’s been a part of my vocabulary since childhood, but only as a spoken word. I’ll have to figure that out.


      1. Linda, I jumped over to sir Google and this is what I found.

        Skosh: a small amount; a little. I’ve heard the word maybe 1-2 times. I tend to use the word smidgen and for some reason skosh sounds funny to me. I rather like “smidgen.” Come to think of it the word just might be a fitting name for a small dog or cat.

        But oh my gosh, skosh sounds really good too. :-)

  19. Absolutely delightful, and so well written that I was along for the ride.

    Two issues with your story from here. We call them cattle grids, not guards, so if they had had the British name, you would never have missed them the first time round. The word mott, sometimes spelled motte, (BTW, my helpful neighbour’s surname is Mott), is not a group of trees here, it is a large mound, surrounded by a large ditch, which usually had a caste or ‘keep’ on top.

    1. Sandi, you’re exactly right. If the term had been “cattle grid,” there probably wouldn’t have been a bit of confusion. On the other hand, there wouldn’t have been a story, either.

      I saw another commenter spelling mott with an “e”, and had wondered if that was the British way of things. Clearly, it is. And when I went over to learn a little more about a keep, I found it’s meaning as the “innermost stronghold of a tower” is from c.1580s. Of course there are various keepers, too — gamekeepers, gatekeepers, and so on. But here’s something neat: “bookkeeper” is one of the few English words with three doubled vowels.

      Here in the US, we have a long-established company called Motts that makes apple juice, applesauce, and so on. It was founded in 1842 by Samuel R. Mott in Bouckville, New York. I wouldn’t be surprised to know he came from England (or his ancestors did), although I couldn’t find any information. Here’s the link to the company’s history, if your neighbor would be interested.

      So nice to see you! Thanks for stopping by.


  20. Reading the part about the detailed directions, Linda, immediately brought to mind being in Japan a little over twenty years ago. As buildings are numbered there by the order of when they were built in an area, instructions were like an urban version of yours here. And I hadn’t thought about how this must have changed now in the age of smartphones with GPS, either.

    And by the way, those are “cattle grids” in British and Australian English.

    1. Oh, my goodness, Andrew. I can’t even imagine a numbering system based on construction dates. I suppose people who live with it become accustomed to it, just as we eventually slide into the routines of finding our way around new territory. Still, that’s pretty remarkable.

      I’ve loved learning the various terms for the same technology. We have cattle guards, you have grids. The only grids we have are the electric grids — funny to think that my last post was about what happens when that sort of grid doesn’t work.


  21. Did the cattle guards have on uniforms the next time you went? Hahahooha…

    I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.

    You didn’t know.

    That reminds me of the time Hubby and I were up at Dad’s one weekend, after Mom passed and before he remarried.

    A retired AF Colonel from down the street came to the house and asked Dad about going to the TEC farm to get some peanuts to boil. As we were getting ready to go, Hubby asked what the shovels were for. I replied, “We’re going to get peanuts.”

    Hubby said he understood that. “‘But what are the shovels for?”

    It turned out that he had no idea you had to dig the peanuts up. He thought you walked down the rows, picking them off the bush. Poor ole city boy.

    I hate to say it but the Colonel, Dad, Larry and I all cracked up laughing. Hubby still gets a bit indignant if I bring it up.

    I’m going to have that Canned Heat song stuck in my head for the next few days.

    P.S. Where did you find that Cattle Guards painting? I LOVE it!

    1. Gué, I’d gotten all the way to Liberia, where they call peanuts “groundpeas,” before I learned that they aren’t a bush crop. At that point, all I knew about peanuts was that they came in a can, and people ate them when they played bridge. So you can tell Hubby he wasn’t alone.

      I’m a little surprised you’re the first one to bring up Canned Heat. At one point, I tried and tried to find a way to include the song in the post, but it just didn’t fit. Truth to tell, there probably weren’t very many in that neighborhood that would have known the song, either, so better to just leave it alone. But it’s been playing in my head for a couple of weeks. It really is a great song.

      If you click the image of the painting, it will take you right to the artist’s page. I was hoping to find a photo of someone “standing guard” by a gate when I went looking. When I found those uniformed cows, I just cracked up. How often in this life do we get perfection? That painting was it!


  22. This story put me to mind of the first trip my son and I made to Iceland. Knowing very little about the country, we rented a car and just set off driving the “ring road” which more or less parallels the circumference of the island. More than 80 percent of the population lives in Reykjavik, so we were soon in the wide open spaces.

    We noticed along the road many crossings such as you describe here as “cattle guards.” We questioned local people and learned that these grates were there to control the wanderings of the ubiquitous sheep which are driven off the farms in the spring — to keep them from grazing where the hay is growing for the next winter — and rounded up again in the fall.

    1. It’s been interesting to discover how widespread these gratings are, Charles. I’ve always associated them solely with cattle, and more recently with bison. Since we haven’t so many sheep and goats around here, it just never had occurred to me they’d be useful in controlling those creatures, too.

      I’d read that some cattle and bison manage to walk across them because of their larger hooves. I assumed sheep simply wouldn’t be able to do it. And in fact, that seems to be the case.

      However! sheep certainly do have other ways of crossing. Over at Wisegeek, I found that “Some animals can figure out a way around a cattle guard: sheep, for example, have been known to roll across guards of up to three feet (one meter) across.” And then there are the jumpers.


      1. There is a farm about a mile and a half from our house that maintains a herd of about 140 bison. When the owners first established the farm, they discovered to their chagrin that a bison, while it may look as if it can’t get out of its own way, can jump over a five-foot fence. One such incident was enough. The fences are higher than that now.

        1. As the saying has it, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I was fairly well astonished the first time I witnessed bison running full tilt. They’re surprising creatures.

  23. You have me smiling this early Monday morning, Linda. And those cattle in uniform… priceless. I remember the first time driving up to visit my friends in Cambria. “When you come to the T in the road, watch for the yellow dog napping and turn left.” Sure enough, there was a lazy lab in the shady intersection, placidly ignoring me as I drove around him.

    1. nikkipolani, I once was given directions that included, “Go past the goat…” Sure enough, there he was, lying atop the roof of his shed. Like your yellow lab, that’s local knowledge to the nth degree.

      Such directions say a lot about someone’s immersion in the country, too. When we don’t understand them at all, we’re newcomers. When we follow them without having to ask a lot of questions, we’ve been around for a while. When we start telling other people to “watch for the yellow dog napping and turn left,” we’re at home.


  24. There’s a grid to the entrance to my property, but also a gate which is kept closed, as I’m told some of the cattle can’t be trusted to respect the grid. Next time I pass over it, I’ll think of the cattle in guard uniform :-)

    Mind you, I’m sure most of us have fallen foul of local terminology at some point in our lives – unless of course, we’ve not moved far from home.

    1. Local terminology, local foods, local customs — leaving our backyards can be “broadening,” as they say, but it also can be disorienting for a time. On the other hand, some of the best stories are “country boy goes to the city,” or “city girl moves to the country.” If nothing else, we gain some opportunities to laugh at ourselves!

      I suppose the grids wouldn’t be much of an obstacle to kangaroos, would they?


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