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by C. Jeanette Tyson


I did not venture west of the Mississippi until I was in my twenties, but I knew exactly what it would be like for I had read Zane Grey. There, on flat, sandy ground, pressed low by damp skies and hovering pines, I fell in love with the West, or my determined vision of it.


The West would, of course, be wide open. Huge skies where the clouds rode high and storms charged the air. Life would be simple (one cup, one tin plate), yet never dull (rattlesnakes in the bedroll). Men would be men but so would the women, there being little energy for societal complexities and much need for things like firewood and water. There would be good guys and bad guys but itíd be easy to tell which was which and although a few people would get hurt, the bad guys would never win.  The rocks would be red and ragged and the sage purple as the prose.
Out West, God would remind you on a daily basis who sat taller in the saddle. But as long as you understood that, you were free to do whatever you wanted, whatever you could think of. Back then I couldnít distinguish Utah from Wyoming from Texas but it didnít matter. I knew Iíd be home where the antelope roamed.

I donít know why my father introduced me to Zane Grey. He lived his entire life within a five- or six-state radius, all original colonies. But heíd once come close to being an adventurer; heíd joined the army. And though that career ended for him just after basic training, he was given a GI bill which opened up other frontiers, which were, perhaps, enough. Or maybe not.

Flash forward twenty or thirty years. Iíve been northwest, southwest, Iíve been to California! and now Iím in Austin, Texas, in a restaurant with its name writ large by a rattlesnake: Ranch 616.
There are horns mounted on the walls and taxidermy. There are news clippings and faded photographs and one of Bob Wadeís painted photographs of a 1930ís Western swing band. Flotsam from the Austin prairie has piled up in the corners over the years.

A few chuckwagon-sized booths line the wall, with smaller tables huddled in the middle of the floor, although there are fewer tables on Tuesday and Thursday when Lucas Hudgins and the First Cousins, a five-piece band that includes pedal steele, rocks the joint with rollicking Texas honkytonk.
On a Thursday night, the place is full of beautiful people: a commercial real estate developer entertaining colleagues from San Diego, a landscape architect scribbling out plans, a bachelorís party, an advertising executive and her nephew visiting from Florida, a rich guy everyone seems to know, his splendid wife and her very blonde friends. And soon enough, not a cowboy hat in sight, the place nonetheless becomes a dancehall.

People, of course, also come for the grub. There is beef on the menu but also plenty of opportunities to order off the ranch: talapia spiced up with a mango salsa, fish tacos that could have benefited from less cabbage and more sauce. There are Gulf shrimp wrapped in apple-smoked bacon, sea bass and duck. But what I recommend most highly is a cold beer and the best fried oysters Iíve ever put in my mouth; that, my friend, is the big yeehaa at Ranch 616.

On a recent Saturday night with no music, and with, apparently, most of the men in town at home watching the Final Four, things were a bit quieter. We could actually hear ourselves talk in our big corner booth. The conversation revolved around opening up frontiers.  There is a new friend at the table, just in from San Diego. She quit her lucrative and secure corporate job, her lovely three-bedroom house, saddled up the car and came to Austin. Sheís still formulating whatís next. Others have more concrete ideas in the works: a book, a business, a change of neighborhoods. In the past months, in all our lives, ties have been broken and there is more of that to come. There are trepidations, big things to work out. But what struck me was the look of calm, peace and pure excitement in the faces around the table that night, and far beyond it.

In her book Gifts of the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh speaks of the restless and troubled state of the adolescent as she anticipates what her life will become. Lindbergh believed the same state re-occurs when women get past the acquisition stage, the ambitious, nest-feathering stage, and begin to distill whatís truly necessary in their lives, to find whatís real within themselves and to follow that.  This period of searching isnít limited to women, of course, and in middle age this restlessness isnít tolerated as well. But it should be, as it gives rise, when the time is right, to new life and fresh ideas, to brave forgings of snake-infested rivers, to the staking of new territory.  It gives rise to conversations over dinner at Ranch 616 about coming west -- or east -- and changing your life, then some lively kicking up of heels.

I believe part of what people like about Austin is that they rarely see a cowboy hat here. Nevertheless, there are big skies and a charged atmosphere. Maybe wide-open is just a state of mind.

Itís all so Zane Grey.
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C. Jeanette Tyson is a freelance writer blessed with four-year-old twins and wacky friends willing to re-enact the hustle on local sidewalks. Maybe it was the oysters. Ranch 616 is at 616 Nueces. 512.479.7616.
     

      

I I I I I I I  

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