His name is Wesley Hopkins, but I’ll always think of him as the Marlboro Man. Not because he smoked (he didn’t), but because of the careworn creases in his cheek, the no-nonsense cowboy hat and gravely, matter-of-fact demeanor. It took me the better part of an hour to reach the sprawling acres of Southwest Randolph County he called home, but within seconds of shaking Mr. Hopkins leathery hand, I knew it was worth the trip. Before I could even crawl out of my news unit, the veteran rancher began pointing out facets of his compound previously unnoticed. The split rail fence in the distance, the thatch of junipers over there, the stone inlay of a winding walking path - all carefully constructed by the 65 year old grandfather using his grade school education and his complete mastery of the rolling, wooded land. As the old chap showed me a small but beautiful chapel he built from the parts of a storm-damaged church, I smiled and nodded - thinking how it took me all weekend to organize my garage.
But I hadn’t traveled so out of my way to compare job-jars; I was there on business. Mr. Hopkins knew it too and agreed to ride with me to the pasture where the dreadful thing happened. A half mile from his modest house, this land-rich patriarch pointed me to a narrow, rutted path. He made grandfatherly small talk as I steered the Ford Explorer around the deep impressions in the gravel. Right around the middle of nowhere, Mr. Hopkins motioned for me to stop, hopped out rather spry-like for a man of his vintage, and unfastened a drooping metal rope from a post the size of a flag pole. Before I could tell him my citified SUV was only two -wheel drive, the grizzled landsman pointed to a ridge across a grassy field. Glancing down at the fuel gage needle as slipped below the bright shining ‘E”, I picked a path through the tire-high grass of the sloping terrain and hoped I had enough juice to get back to the nearest gas station - wherever the hell that might be.
From the top of the grassy ridge I could make out the silhouettes of a couple dozen black cows against the meadow. They took in my presence with their usual languor, but the sight of the man in the cowboy hat caused their heads to bob and their moos to thicken. As the herd began sauntering over in hopes of something to eat, Hopkins pointed to a spot of land near an electric fence.
“We found him right here...”
With little to no emotion, the old farmer told me of hearing tires screech just after dusk on Saturday, of checking on his 250 head of cattle, of finding a black angus bull shot through the heart with a bow and arrow. “I ‘spect it was hunters. They problem hunted all day and just wanted to kill something.” The bull in question was long gone, buried by Hopkins and his Bobcat the day before. Sheriff deputies had recovered the arrow and too it away to dust for prints. All I was left to shoot were the remaining cows, a beautiful rolling pasture and a taciturn landsman. While I framed up shots and hit the ‘Record’ button, Hopkins pointed out more features of the land. Every stump, rock and patch of trees had a back story - a hard-earned tale of sweat, labor and innovation. Where as I looked around and saw an inert meadow, Hopkins saw the breathing living components of a lifetime of labor. That impressed me and I told him so. He laughed as I remarked how all his efforts put a younger man like me to shame. Then he really looked at me for the first time, taking in my battered tripod, tropical shirt, my logo’d news unit idling in the background.
“Man, ride around, take pictures all day...you ain’t got NOTHIN’ to do…”