One evening, not long after my wife and I had returned to the United States from Ecuador, we were having dinner with some old friends who live in the mountains behind Santa Cruz, and my wife was describing the petrifying experience of walking into an American supermarket for the first time in three years. What was by then old hat to every housewife from Maine to California was pretty staggering to a recent arrival, even one who had kept abreast of Nixonomics through Time magazine and Armed Forces radio. The startling fact that no one could afford to buy anything on the supermarket shelf was compounded in my wife's mind by the incredible abundance of things being offered, so that she found herself in the confusing situation of not being able to make up her mind among all of the items that she was not going to be able to buy anyway. I suppose this is called culture shock.
For my part, I was lamenting a number of changes in the life and life-style that I have associated with Santa Cruz, California, since I first began to frequent its beaches back in the early 1950s. It has always been a place for me where simple pleasures and inexpensive living were available to anyone who wanted them. Three years ago the downtown section was a nice, funky, run-down collection of crummy shops owned by Portuguese and Italians who had been around forever. Now it is all gussied up with a mall, and redwood benches that are too low for the old people to sit on, and a mini Ghiradelli Square where you can buy embroidered blouses from Guatemala or French cookware or creative playthings of one kind and another, and where you can walk around in a funny hat with all the other freaks in funny hats and hope that someone notices.
"What ever happened to the United Cigar Store?" I asked Eamon Barrett, my host. "Where are our institutions? What happened to the fun club? What became of living off the land? Why has all the style gone out of our lives?"
"No meat," grunted Eamon. "Man not live by bread alone. No meat, no style. Mysterious forces at work." Eamon is an Irish Indian.
At this moment his wife produced from the oven a roast beef so large and succulent that I began to fidget. Meat was certainly one of the institutions that had died during my absence in South America. Half the people I knew in town had become vegetarians or, at best, Beef Plus casserolarians. "Have no illusions about my affluence," Eamon told me as we sat down to his roast. "This meat is homegrown."
"You grew it?" I said.
"Living off the land," he answered.
"Seriously! You raised a steer?'
"You, too, can raise a steer." Eamon twinkles when he talks. You are never quite sure when he is putting you on.
"Tell me how, man," I said. "Quickly. Spare me the details."
"All you do," he replied, "is you go to the auction in Salinas on a Saturday, you buy yourself a calf for around forty or fifty dollars, bring him back and put him on my pasture until he weighs about a thousand pounds, and you eat him."
"How much land do you have?" I asked.
"It would take us two years to eat a whole cow," my wife said. She could see what was coming.
"I'll go halves with you," Eamon offered. "Or you get a couple guys and we'll buy two calves and split the work four ways."
"Just a little fence-mending."
"Fantastic," I said. "The cattle business. Saddle tramps and riding the range and, all that. Singing songs around the campfire with your buddies. Bringing back the style. Living off the land."
"There's nothing to it," Eamon said.
And that is how it all began. I told Jim Houston and Jim told Forrest Robinson. We had a little meeting, and drank a lot of bourbon, and formed the As Is Cattlemen's Association of Santa Cruz County. Two middle-aged writers, a professor of Renaissance Literature, and an Irish mathematician with thirty-eight acres in. his backyard. We were not completely foolish and irresponsible. We did set ourselves a limit. Thirty bucks apiece, or sixty for a cow. "That's my top dollar," Houston said. "How do you think we can do for sixty dollars, Eamon?"
"We go Saturday," Eamon said. "For sixty bucks we buy herd of buffalo."
That is how it all begins.
E amon's truck is a disgraceful old wreck. The horn doesn't work and the taillights are out; So are the brakes. It's mostly rust and wire, and one fender flaps like a broken wing, but fortunately on Saturday morning the fog is so thick all the way from the coast to the Salinas valley that we don't have to worry about the highway patrol. A good thing too. Once I got a speeding ticket on the way hone from gathering mussels up near Davenport, and the fine ran the price of dinner that night to about five bucks a mussel. You can't live very well off the land, or sea, that way.
About nine o'clock we pull. into the auction grounds and coast to a stop, peer through the mist at the parking lot and the holding pens, both empty and without a sign of life, peer at Eamon, our resident expert, peer at each other. Eamon climbs out of the pickup and shrugs. "Maybe the auction's Sundays," he says.
"We thought you'd been here before," we say.
"On what day were you here before?" we ask.
"I think it was Saturday." He goes into his twinkle routine. "Hey, I remember a coffee shop around the side of that barn. I think. We get some eats, maybe?"
There is, in fact, a coffee shop. And there is, in fact, an auction, only it starts at noon. Eamon reminds us that he did not specify a time, and that, in any case, a self-respecting ranch hand gets up at the crack of dawn. So we should be pleased with ourselves and kindly get the hell off his back. There is no alternative, and we settle down to a glazed doughnut and a cup of coffee.
Cattle trucks start to roll in and unload sometime around ten, and the four of us mosey over to the pens, where a crowd of authentic-looking farmers has gathered to look over today's bill of fare. You really have to see this scene to believe it. Here we are all dressed up in our cowboy hats and boots, talking out of the sides of our mouths and standing around with our thumbs hooked in our Levi pockets, and our thighs sort of thrust forward and out, like we're not too familiar with this thing called walking. I mean, we really look pretty good. In fact, I look a lot like Clint Eastwood. We look as if we know what's happening, as if we do this kind of thing all the time—buying cows, selling cows; we're cattlemen, right? and we're ust out here hanging around the chutes swapping lies before the big action starts inside and we get down to the squint-eyed business of heavy-duty dealing. Houston makes a pretty passable Lee Van Cleef, does he not? Eamon looks like Man Mountain Dean. Robinson . . . well, Robinson has on these, ah . . . tennis shoes. White tennis shoes, with blue stripes down the sides. The rest of us keep moving away.