Oak Finish

Illustration by Michael Witte

There are things you expect to discover when you travel: new restaurants, unfamiliar expressions, off road attractions. I like to search out people’s stories. Some are small, quiet. Others are ripsnorters. The best are passionate tales of personal bests, quests, discoveries. Outside the city limits of Graham, Texas, I found one worthy of conversion into an epic poem.

Just over an hour northwest of Fort Worth, the Texas Prairie and Pineywood Trail buckles up into mesas with long view bragging rights to big oil, big cattle and big history. It is a landscape that witnessed the wild west dramas celebrated in Technicolor classics: the blazing of the Goodnight-Loving partnership, wagon raids, jail breaks, massacres and more than one trail of tears.

My search for insights into the area’s character began with a bartender. It’s not unusual to find a barkeep to be a deep source for local lore. Sometimes they hold close the back stories of generations of characters. That’s not a bad reason to begin a journey with a raised glass. I had just settled into the historic Wildcatter Ranch when, over a nightcap, the story of local booster and historian Jay Burkett unfurled. I had to meet him.

Calls were made and the next day a blue-eyed and passionate Jay Burkett came to meet me, a scrapbook thick as a phone book under his arm. He cut short a family reunion to tell me the best tale of my visit: How one man dedicated himself to winning honor for a tree long denied its due. From the day he first saw the wizened specimen casting a broad shadow across an Atwood Ranch cow pasture, Burkett knew the live oak to be a giant among, well, live oaks. Humbled by the centuries, its limbs splayed with age, the tree was long known by locals to be monumental. But because rancher Jack Atwood would broach no strangers ogling it, its story was untold. When Jack died, his widow agreed to allow Burkett full access to the tree.

Burkett made countless phone calls to the Texas forestry office in Abilene suggesting someone official should come and see his treasure. The insistent calls were met by incredulity. If there were a giant tree in Young County, surely someone would already know about it. A less tenacious man would have given up. Tenacity teamed with stubbornness and tempered by righteous indignation fueled Burkett to redouble his efforts. He made phone calls to everyone he could imagine might even remotely care about crowning this tree.

Then he connected with a brand new forestry employee. The man, happy for an excuse to learn more about his territory, agreed one icy cold day to drive over for a look-see. It was a whim that cost him some sleet in the teeth as three full revolutions of the tree (just to be sure) proved that Jay Burkett was right. Several official measurements later it was confirmed. At a height of 48 feet and a circumference of 361 inches, the Atwood Ranch tree was the largest live oak in Texas. Not only that, the Texas live oak made its debut on the list of American Forests Champion Trees in 2002—the largest known tree of its species in the country.

Burkett took me to see the live oak during my visit almost a decade ago. Everything about the tree seemed extra large, from the bower of ivy that draped it to the vast splotches of cow pies that acted as its first line of defense. In the droning heat time seemed to stand still as we stared up at the arthritic limbs and tried to imagine what the tree might have seen in its 500-750 years of life. No longer elegant, split and deformed by its own weight, it was more reminiscent of a dinosaur’s hobbled appendage than a tree. And yet it commanded respect, accolades it would never been given, but for Jay Burkett.

The lessons in that visit were many. Titles come and go, championships are won and lost but it is always worth the good fight to give credit where credit is due. On every journey there’s something unexpected that deserves exploration, a fresh look, an extra minute. Make a few queries of the bartender or innkeep or waitress to ask, “What should I not miss before I leave this place?”

On that trip I left the Atwood oak hunkered down, frozen in its deep bow, silhouetted in the hero light that makes everything better. It’s possible that by now the tree has fallen to time or lost its official title. I don’t want to know. Because in my memory it forever it wears the crown. And the live oak was not the only champion in the story. Here’s to all the Jay Burketts who fight to create for all things deserving, one special day in the sun.

Get more Texas in your inbox

Sign up for our newsletters and never miss a moment of what’s happening around the state.