Friendly Advice on Just About Anything from the Hill Country’s Happiest Songwriter

By Al Barlow

(LSM Jan/Feb 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 1)

Dear Al,
Happy New Year! So, according to the Mayan Calendar — or at least according to some people’s interpretations of the Mayan Calendar — 2012 is supposed to be like, the end of time or something. I’m not saying I believe that, but in the event that we’ve only got 12 months left, what are the top three things still on your bucket list? Also, if you could be anywhere in the world when the world ends, where would you want to be? — Garry, Austin

Dear Garry,
Hope you had a happy New Year, too! Maybe the Mayans were right. This might very well be the year of the big one. Who knows? As for myself, I’m not worried about it. There’s no reason to freak out about something we have no control over. If 2012 is my last year, I sure do hope it’s a happy one. I’m going to do everything within my power to make it happy, too. As far as my “bucket list” goes, I’ve pretty much got it completed. As the old saying goes, “My cup runneth over.” If I could be anywhere on earth when the end comes, I’d want to be playing music in the beautiful Big Bend region of Texas. That way, I’d already be halfway to heaven!

Dear Al,
I’ve been playing guitar (acoustic) now for about 12 years. I’m not looking to go out and play in public or anything, and I don’t really write songs — I just like playing around at home or with friends. Lately I’ve been thinking about getting either a mandolin or a banjo, but I’m having a hard time selling my wife on the idea. You got any advice on which instrument might be the most fun to learn for an amateur like me, and — more importantly! — how to convince my better half that she needs a banjo or mandolin player in her life in addition to a guitar player? — Ethan, Sequin

Greetings, Ethan!
I’m glad you’re picking guitar around your house, and I think playing music is one of the healthiest and most inspirational things we can do for ourselves. As you may know, I really enjoy performing and playing my songs in public, and sharing my music with other folks. But, believe me, the process begins at home. It’s especially great when you’ve got someone to “pick” with, too. Your wife will thank you (someday) if you turn her on to playing music. As far as I’m concerned, a mandolin is the perfect instrument for her. It’s somewhat more versatile than a banjo, and it’s easier to learn. I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see your little wife’s eyes light up when she plays her first song with you! Remember: The family that plays together, stays together!

Hey, Al Barlow!
I hear that you’re friends with Pablo Menudo, the extraordinary singer-songwriter from Terlingua. What can you tell me about him? Is he for real? — Judy, Blanco

Dear Judy,
Oh, yes, I know Pablo Menudo well. He is not only an amazing musician and all around Texas character, but he also happens to be a great friend of mine. Pablo is the kind of man that legends are made of.

Several years ago I happened to be in the Big Bend with him during the historic Blizzard of ’06. My good friend, Eric Morales, had accompanied me to the Rancho Menudo (near Terlingua) for a planned weekend visit. The three of us played music and sang songs and were having a wonderful time in the desert. The weather was nice, and we had plenty of supplies on hand, so the 10 miles to the main road didn’t seem far at all. We had it all planned. My daughter, Christina, had dropped us off at Pablo Menudo’s Ranch that Thursday before she headed back to her house in El Paso. Come Monday morning, Pablo was to take Eric and me to Alpine to catch the train back to San Antonio. However, the trouble began around midnight that Saturday night. That’s when the great blizzard began blowing in. Of course, we were warm and toasty inside the house, had plenty of beer (and other important supplies), so there was no need to worry. In fact, my initial thought was, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”

Well, it did snow. And snowed. And then it snowed some more. Temperatures dropped just as quickly as the snowdrifts mounted alongside the house. First, we ran out of beer. Oh, well. No problem. We could always go get some more the next day. Besides, we’d had enough beer for one night, anyway. We decided to just go to bed and determine what to do about our declining supplies come sunrise.

It wasn’t the sunlight streaming through the half shut window that woke me up, though. It was the bitter, bitter cold! When I opened my eyes, I saw a pile of snow next to my pillow on the floor. What happened? Hollering at Eric, I startled him awake and found him equally alarmed. All the commotion woke Pablo Menudo up, and he stumbled out of his bed and ran to turn up the heater. He was as surprised as we were to discover that the Rancho Menudo had completely run out of propane!

The snow continued to fall. The wind was howling like a panther as it blew across the frosted desert. We had no way to warm our last remaining food supplies, but we managed to choke down some cold potted meat and crackers for breakfast. At the breakfast table we discussed our growing concerns about our perilous situation. At least Pablo still had a few cigarettes, but they were going up in smoke pretty quickly. There were three of four wieners left and a half a loaf of bread, but “frankly” the food issue was beginning to look pretty dismal. It was around 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon when Pablo finally decided to make a run for supplies.

“Please don’t risk driving in this terrible weather,” I insisted. “Let’s just wait until morning.” Pablo stood up from his chair. “If anyone knows South County Road, it’s me! I’m sure I can make it to the Terlingua Store on the highway and get back alright.” Eric and I handed Pablo Menudo some money and wished him godspeed. We agreed that he definitely could make the 20-mile round trip, and that we’d all be very happy about his expedient, safe return.

Darkness fell upon the desert around 6 o’clock that evening, and Pablo hadn’t returned. Eric and I sat as close to the old fireplace as we could in order to stay warm. There wasn’t much firewood left, either, and what we did have was a couple of sticks of driftwood Pablo had accumulated from along the banks of Terlingua Creek earlier in the year. With each passing hour the snow seemed to fall heavier and heavier outside, and we became more and more concerned about Pablo’s safety.

By 8 o’clock that evening, I really began to worry. Thankfully, the telephone was still in working order, so I rang the Terlingua Store and inquired about Pablo’s whereabouts. Yes, Delia had seen Pablo earlier that evening — around 5 o’clock. He seemed fine. He had bought some groceries, beer, and other essentials, and then headed back for the Rancho Menudo, she thought. I voiced my sincere concern for Pablo’s well being, and she tried to ease my fears. Yes, the roads were treacherous and icy. Yes, the main highway heading into Alpine had been closed down. Yes, this was, indeed the worst storm in recorded Big Bend history. But, she was confident that Pablo was OK. “He knows to stay with his truck if he should happen to get stuck or breaks down or something,” Delia assured me. “Don’t worry about him. Pablo’s tougher than old boot leather.” I knew that she was right.

But three hours later, Pablo was still missing. I had turned on all the lights in the house to, hopefully, help him navigate his old truck in the blizzard. Eric and I kept a small, conservative fire going in the fireplace and wondered what we should do. It was idiotic to even think about walking out into the night to search for him. I called everyone I knew in the area to solicit information, but nobody knew anything concerning his whereabouts.

At 2 a.m. Pablo burst through the door of the ranch house, hollering like a wounded coyote! I leapt to my feet and hurried to his aid. Ice and snow caked his beard, and mud covered his entire body. A look of terror shone in his eyes, and he stumbled to the fireplace, where Eric was furiously adding driftwood to the fire. Pablo pulled his wet, stiff gloves off and held his trembling hands to the fire. After 10 or 15 minutes we managed to get his slippery, muddy boots off, and to get him thawed out a bit.

The story he related to us was compelling, and is yet another reason Pablo Menudo is revered as a legend in his own time. Indeed, not since the days of Davy Crockett has there been an individual so brave and heroic.

Here is his story of what happened that hideous night in the middle of the desert during the Blizzard of Aught Six:

After loading up with supplies at the Terlingua Store, he bade his farewell to Delia and headed back for home. This was about 5:30 p.m. or so. The snow was falling so hard that he could barely see the road, but he continued driving ever so cautiously down the muddy South County Road. Pablo knows this road well, and he felt confident that within a few minutes he and Eric and I would be celebrating his safe return, and rejoicing about our new stock of groceries and beer!

Fate had different plans.

When Pablo reached (what he thought was) the turnoff to the Rancho Menudo, his old truck suddenly sank in the mud all the way up to the hubcaps. He tried pulling forward, but sank deeper into the muck. He tried reversing the truck and gunning the engine, but it only made matters worse. He didn’t know just exactly where he was. It was now nightfall and the driving snow prevented him from being able to discern his whereabouts.

Pablo decided to smoke a cigarette, enjoy a Lone Star, and ponder over what he should do.

At this point, Pablo exited the truck and walked to the rear of the vehicle. He had left the lights on in the truck, and left the heater running in the cab while he tried — in vain — to ascertain his location. He said he had only walked 10 or 15 steps from the truck when he realized that he could not see it anymore. It was as though the truck had disappeared. All Pablo could see was total darkness, and he could feel the bitter sting of the driving snow on his face. He searched and searched for the truck, but to no avail. For several minutes he held his hands out before him and groped for the truck. He took another step forward and immediately found himself falling down into a steep arroyo. The fall crushed his ankle and filled his coat and hat with cactus needles and mud. Somehow, he managed to pull himself from the mire and climb out of the arroyo. That’s when he saw a single light way off in the distance.

“Hooray!” Pablo thought. “Maybe that’s my house!” He hobbled closer and closer to the light until he came up to a light shining on the porch of his neighbor, Old Man McKenzie. Thank God! Pablo banged on the door, pleading for help. No answer. He continued knocking on the door and shouting, but apparently no one was home. With survival foremost in his mind, Pablo hurried to his neighbor’s truck under the carport and helped himself to the relative shelter of the cab. There, for an hour or more, Pablo huddled in his neighbor’s truck, praying that daylight would come sooner than his demise.

At last, he eased out of the truck and made one more attempt to arouse McKenzie. He again knocked on the door. Suddenly the door of the house flew open and Pablo found himself looking down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun.

“You’ve got about 60 seconds to clear out of my place, or I’m gonna shoot you and leave your body out back for the coyotes to tote off!” shouted McKenzie.

Pablo pleaded with his neighbor for mercy. “Please, McKenzie, don’t shoot! It’s me — your neighbor, Pablo!”

“Oh, I know who you are, but I don’t care who you are! If you want to live, you better leave right now, or I’ll kill you!” Pablo said it was about this moment when he realized that McKenzie wasn’t very neighborly.

Again, Pablo struck off into the night. In vain he stumbled around in the desert searching for his home. At one point he fell into another arroyo, but again managed to climb out and resume his search. Finally he saw the lights of his house in the distance. Through the snow and ice he drug his bangled leg, climbing over piercing cactus and slippery rock. At last, Pablo made it back to the Rancho Menudo! Eric and I were SO happy to see him, although we were appalled by his terrifying condition.

Of course, Eric had just one more question to ask Pablo as we huddled by the fire: “Is the beer still in the truck?”

Believe me, Judy, this is a very abbreviated account of Pablo Menudo and the Blizzard of Aught Six. But since you asked …

Happy New Year!