A Ranch Fit for the Steinbecks

Friday, 05 November 2010 03:21 PM Written by 

APPALOOSA, LA. -- McDonalds

For the record, as we say in the news biz, let's clean up the confusion about that fancy ranch John, Elaine and Charley Steinbeck went to for a prolonged, orgiastic Thanksgiving vacation in 1960.

First, it is not this place -- which I found all by my slightly trespassing self Wednesday afternoon:DSC_0798_copy_copy

This lovely white stone house with eight barking dogs, a few vehicles and nobody home was seven miles inside a ranch in Moore County north of Amarillo.

Because it was once owned by the family of Zachary Scott, the actor who was Elaine Steinbeck's first husband, I thought it was the place I was seeking.1578068371

If I had been on the ball, or if I still trusted anything Steinbeck wrote in "Travels With Charley," I would have re-read how he described the place.

Steinbeck described it as "a beautiful ranch, rich in water and trees and grazing land." The one-story brick house "stood in a grove of cottonwoods on a little eminence over a pool made by a dammed-up spring."

Hmm. Cottonwoods and a pond.

If I had re-read that passage beforehand I would have realized right away that the white house was not the right one.

Steinbeck provides lots of concrete detail about the Thanksgiving place. As you can see below in the photos I took of it yesterday afternoon on my self-guided tour, it is not your typical cabin in the woods.

It wasn't until Thursday morning -- after I had driven 140 miles south to Lubbock -- that I was reminded why presumption is a mortal sin in journalism.

A man who was once a member of the family that owned the ranch when the Steinbecks stayed there called me back and told me I was looking for the Bitter Creek Ranch.DSC_0863

He gave me the new owner's name. I called him, gave him my traveling journalist/Steinbeck pitch and as fast as you can say "Texas hospitality" he gave me directions to the ranch.

The bad news was that the place was 156 miles from where I was parked in Lubbock.

It was located in the middle of a medium-sized cattle ranch --  about 40,000 acres -- east of Amarillo near Clarendon, Texas.

I had only been off by 120 miles, two hours and two counties. In the Texas system of measuring, though, that's a near miss -- just 3.5 cattle ranches. DSC_0876_copy_copy_copy_copy

When I drove through the gate to the ranch compound about 2 p.m., there were four or five cars and trucks parked, several brick houses, a maintenance garage with the lights on, horses in a corral -- but no one home.

Though two buildings are new, and there have been upgrades to roofs and plumbing, the place is much as it was in the fall of 1960.

The main structure has a big screened-in porch overlooking a pond and three bedrooms, each with a door to the outside. It is like a little motel, only in 1960 the regular guests were usually members of Texas richest cattle families. The porch furniture is worth more than Dormont.

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I poked around taking my photos, enjoying the sun and wind and parklike setting.

I didn't have to imagine what it was like to hang out there for a week or 10 days, because Steinbeck did a thorough job of doing that in "Charley."

After having the ranch and its ghosts to myself for half an hour, I did what I had to do -- hit the Steinbeck Highway for New Orleans.

PS: I've since learned the ranch was never actually owned by the Scott family, which I was led to believe in a way which I don't remember. But the owners and the Scotts -- including ex-Scott-by-marriage Elaine -- were all intertwined by marriage and money, which, according to one of my new sources in the cattle sector, is the way things work in the upper demographics of Texas.

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