Soul of a Cowboy

Greg Hathcock can swear like a sailor and quote the Bible like a preacher.

One moment he was a stranger in a New Mexico Starbucks, the next, he was standing near my table with a smile and earnestness in his eyes. “I needed to come over here and tell you to have a good day.” 

I heard a hint of the South. I sensed kindness. I saw a touch of cowboy.

But there is always more, isn’t there? We all have pieces. We are all a patchwork quilt. We are all a coat of many colors.

For example, there are people who know Greg the quarter horse trainer, but they don’t know Greg the Tennessee farm boy who chopped cotton and pulled corn. They know Greg the Grazing Bull restaurant owner, but they don’t know Greg the 1963 state track champion in the 100 and 220 dash. They know Greg the father of three who has been married for 31 years, but they don’t know Greg who enjoys a mocha alone at the cafe most mornings. They know Greg the jocular sweetheart who will turn 69 in July, but they don’t know Greg the bull rider. They know Greg the high school running back, but they don’t know Greg who broke a mustang. They know Greg who has a soft spot for people, but they don’t know Greg who wants to make a feature film. They know Greg the boy who didn’t like school very much, but they don’t know Greg the boy who suffered regular beatings from his parents at home.

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But there is no self-pity. Just self-reflection. There is no regret. Just determination. There is no speaking of what is not, only of what can be. When you talk with him, you get his passion for horses and for life, and what he has to share may blow you away.

The Track and the Truth

Greg’s fast feet on the track as a kid have been replaced by fast quarter horses as an adult. A trainer for more than 20 years now, he knows the dark side of the race world and it lights a fire in his belly.

“I’ve seen horses drop dead at the finish line. There’s no reason for the horse to drop dead at the finish line…”

Mistreatment of these animals is something he can’t tolerate, and he doesn’t mince words.

“…unless they got shit in him that they ain’t supposed to have in him. That will kill him. I’ve had them come back after they finish the race, and they drop dead right there when they unsaddle them.

“That-should-not-happen! That’s cruel and inhumane and downright un-Christian-like, if you want to know the truth — do an animal that way.” He leans in and locks his eyes on mine. “If you train your animal, and you feed that animal, and you take good care of that animal, they’re gonna wanna run.”

He wants me to understand that no amount of drugs will change a horse’s potential, and he uses racing lingo to make his point: “You can hang every drug in the world in me, and I can’t play basketball like Michael Jordan. You understand? You only got so much speed in that horse.”

You Gotta Have Heart

We sat down over a pot of coffee at his Grazing Bull restaurant in Capitan, New Mexico, and I asked him if he had a philosophy he lives his life by. I could not have hoped for a better response. You might want to sit down.

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“I love setting goals every day to accomplish something. If I’m 80 years old, I’ll still be getting up and going to accomplish something, because you never get too old or too tired to do something.

“No matter what disappointments you have in life, no matter how many failures you have in life, you never quit. Because sooner or later, you’re going to do something that fits. And you will be successful at it.

“But if you are going to say ‘I can’t’, ‘I’m sick’, ‘I don’t feel good’, you’re not gonna accomplish nothing. You gotta get up.

“You gotta have a lot of HEART in this world. Even if you’re going to an eight-to-five job every day, you gotta have heart. That’s all there is to it. So, if you’re gonna have heart, plan a big thing. You show me a dreamer, and I’ll show you a guy that landed on the moon!

“You gotta set goals and you gotta have BIG goals. ‘Cause God will help you accomplish being President of the United States of America as he would the Mayor of Capitan. You set the stage in your mind right there. But you cannot be a quitter. You have got to keep going no matter how many times you fall down. ‘Cause that’s the only way to make it. I’m telling you, you fall down, get up, dust your pants off, and say ‘I’m gonna do it.’

“And I had to do that a lot. I still do it a lot. And a lot of people wonder why I’m doing it at my age, but I don’t ever want to quit. I like LIVING, I like LIFE.

“Be a CAN-do person, not a CAN’T-do person.  No matter what your goal is, the same energy is flowing through you to do a big goal as it is to do a little goal. So set your sights high.

“Get up and say you feel good, ‘I am healthy, I am well, I’m beautiful, I’m talented, I’m empowered.’ You say that every day, and it will work.

“You know, your words are so creat–ive.” He breaks the word, lending it new meaning.

“Life and death are in the tongue. I think it’s Proverbs 18:21. ‘Life and death are in the tongue. And you will reap the fruits thereof.’ LIFE and DEATH. POSITIVE and NEGATIVE. And what your words are are creat–ive.  It’s no question about it.

“If you speak words long enough, I GUARANTEE that’s what’s going to happen. If you want to look at the way your life’s going to be five years from now, see how you’re speaking right now and it’ll be exactly that way.

“You’ve got to fill your brain with the positive. Somewhere in the Bible, ‘think of things that are NOT as if they WERE.’ It’s in there. It’s in the Bible. Job said ‘the thing that I feared has come upon me.’ So if you’re sitting around thinking about negative, fearful things, that’s what you’re creating and breeding in your mind, and it’s going to manifest in your life. I done see it happen too many times!

“It takes EFFORT to be positive. It takes effort to ACCOMPLISH. It takes effort. It takes effort every morning to get up and to FEEL good. But you gotta TELL yourself. Hey, when I feel bad, ‘I feel good.’ The Bible says ‘let the weak say they’re strong.’ Same thing!”

Greg fills our coffee cups again and as he does, he continues.

“If I don’t have somebody around that I can help do something, I feel like I’m lost a lot of times,” he says.

“I like young people. I like youth, and I wish I could just open their brains sometimes and pour into them what I already know.”

Greg’s words draw his 23-year-old waitress and friend Kalyn over to join us at the table. Greg thinks of her like another daughter.

“I’m gonna tell you something else,” he said to me. “And I’ve never told Kalyn this.

“Kalyn’s an inspiration to me. I see such high qualities in her. And if I can do something to motivate her to be more than maybe she’s thinking sometimes, I’ll feel like I hung the moon.”

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Disco Taco

My morning eyes were diverted from the tar of I-70 by a flash of vibrant color painted across a building set back from the road.

“That’s where I’m going for lunch!” I declared to no one.

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The sun was high in the New Mexico sky by the time I returned. As I stepped inside Disco Taco, it took a second for my eyes to adjust, and no sooner, David Medina was standing in front of me with a smile as warm as the southern sun. A few wisps of gray hair brightened his face even more, just below his temples and brushed through his mustache. The little restaurant with the 1970’s-era name exudes warmth — from the friendly welcome to the Mexican food to all eight tables topped with a yellow check cloth and a flower.

Based on the attentive and easy treatment I was given, I would have thought Medina had been taking care of restaurant customers forever. I would have thought he was more than comfortable in his role. I would have thought hospitality had been his line of work for a long time. In addition to his professional manner of speaking, he stood tall, and his tucked-in shirt and shined shoes told me he took pride in his work. On that last point, I would have thought right. But on the assumptions before that, no no no. I would have thought wrong.

David Medina is the manager of this little spot, and has been since 2011. This job is a blessing in his view, and the offer to come work here arrived at just the right time.

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For 31 years, Medina was an engineer in Juarez, Mexico, working at Delphi and making electrical harnesses for automobiles. He had stability. He had status.

Then he was laid off.

That was only part of the cascade of changes to come. At the same time, the small grocery store Medina and his wife had operated for 10 years in the border city was under threat. Juarez was rapidly destabilizing under the stress and violence of Mexican drug cartel activity, and it was not long before intimidating characters showed up at their grocery store. “Bad guys” began demanding money from Medina, and in exchange they would “allow” him to continue to do business. Some people call it protection money. The rest of us call it extortion.

Doors were closing for Medina, and as he and his family faced this new reality, something happened: another door opened, in response to action he’d taken about 14 years prior. Back in the 1990’s, Medina had applied to become a legal U.S. resident. And then at this critical juncture in his life, the paperwork finally came through.

His new life in the U.S. didn’t take off instantly.  He and his wife struggled to find work and a place to live in El Paso, and even though the city was just across the border from Juarez, the new place and the new process felt foreign. Eventually Medina received the offer to come to the little town of Ruidoso Downs, where he had been a customer at Disco Taco on previous visits.

He is 55 years old now and is rebuilding his personal and professional life “from zero.”

“I don’t have any experience with this kind of business. I have experience buying and selling groceries.”

He pauses. “It’s really hard to start again.” While he’s happy that he and his wife have found a new opportunity in the U.S., until his grown children can join them from Mexico, he won’t feel whole.

But his optimism doesn’t fade. He said he feels he is being protected and implies that good things happen to him.

“In Mexico, we have a saying,” he says. “The best school is life.”