Working on the King Ranch

The Texas Story Project.

The summer of my 25th year, I was hired to build a one room house for one of the long-time workers on the San Chicago hunting camp. The camp is leased from King Ranch outside of Kingsville, Texas.

It was a three-man, or really a two-man and one-woman crew: me, my friend Richard, and the camp manager's 16-year-old son. On the six-hour drive from Austin, I got the novel version of the history of the ranch and a run-down of the camp, which is privately leased and managed year round. Sometime in the 1920s, Nilgai antelope were introduced from India, and they took off in south Texas. This is the main draw for the camp, as the bucks can get up to 500-600 pounds, along with quail, turkey, and, out of necessity, wild pig.

The first day on the job, the camp manager came by before lunch and was gruff and unfriendly to me. I could tell he didn't think I was hired based on my building skills or work ethic. I had been warned that he was a fair but tough character and didn't suffer much of anything. I ignored him and went about my work laying out and putting together walls. The next day, he came by again while his son and I were standing the walls we had put together the day prior. By nine in the morning, it was 90 degrees and rising and the 100% humidity made the sand and the salt from the nearby Gulf cling to us. We moved through it, ignoring the heat and his critical stare. By day three, we were making steady progress. The walls were standing, and I was exhausted, but feeling proud when our work day ended at five in the evening. Richard and I were sitting in the soon-to-be living and bed room when the camp manager came by with three wine glasses and a bottle of wine and asked me my story.

After that, we were invited to join him on most evenings to drink margaritas and ride on the back of his open-air hunting truck through the dirt roads the hunters' would take through the camp. We saw wild turkeys roosting in trees, and quail startled by the truck explode from the brush. And once, I saw the elusive nilgai, which makes wide circles over acres, hemming in their territory. It was big, even from a distance, and was shaped like no other creature I've ever seen. It gave me the feeling that I was in a whole other country. I guess Texas is like that, big enough to feel like there are countries within its borders. I haven't been back since, but Richard still brings me ground nilgai meat, wild pig, and the occasional rattlesnake to cook up when he's Austin, so I still get a little taste of south Texas.

Mariposa Lopez is an event coordinator and carpenter who resides in Austin.

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