I enjoy windshield time on Texas highways. On a recent drive, I turned West off of US Route 77 onto Texas State Highway 285. The range on either side of this desolate 22-mile stretch between Riviera and Falfurrias is riddled with gnarled mesquite trees.
Call me crazy, but I like mesquite trees. The mesquite is the tree of my youth — the first tree I learned to identify and the first tree I climbed as a kid. We had little grass on the lawn of our home in the small town of Mission, but we had plenty of mesquite trees. I had many an adventure in and around these trees and many fond memories as a result.
The name of the tree is an Hispanicized version of the Aztec word mizquiti. This hardy tree refuses to grow straight and has a disposition as defiant as the rugged environment where it thrives. And, its gnarled wood is as hard as the vaqueros, the cowboys, that settled South Texas. The mesquite is one tough tree — certainly harder to kill than any weed.
The mesquite tree is a survivor that laughs in the face of drought. It has a tap root that can reach depths in excess of a hundred feet and lateral roots that spread in all directions, each designed to drink in the life-giving moisture that enables it to survive in harsh environments. South Texas ranchers either love them or hate them, but there is no middle ground.
Texas writer J. Frank Dobie loved mesquite trees. He wrote, “I could ask for no better monument over my grave than a good mesquite tree, its roots down deep like those of people who belong to the soil, its hardy branches, leaves and fruit holding memories of the soil.” However, pioneer Texas rancher W.T. Waggoner called the mesquite “the devil with roots,” adding “It scabs my cows, spooks my horses, and gives little shade.”
I like the ubiquitous mesquite tree. I always know that I am a little closer to home when I catch sight of their gnarled trunks in the distance and see them waving to me with their feathery leaves when I turn on to Highway 285 to begin the final leg of my journey home. It is the tree of my youth — a tough tree that reminds me to always persevere.