John R. Erickson has made a 40-year career out of writing stories about the escapades of a certain cowdog with confidence and ambition the size of Texas, but the self-awareness and instincts of Deputy Barney Fife. Erickson calls Perryton, Texas, his hometown and although he did not grow up on a ranch, he always felt a distinct connection to the Old West and the cowboy lifestyle after hearing his mother’s stories of her family’s ranches around Lubbock and Seminole, Texas.
“Ranching was something I always wanted to do and I had a talent for it,” Erickson said. “I started working on farms and ranches when I was in junior high school.”
Another skill that came naturally to Erickson was writing. After high school graduation, he attended college for several years before deciding to earn his living as a cowboy on ranches in Oklahoma and Texas. He cowboyed from 1974 to 1981, while setting aside several hours each day to write poetry and other stories that he submitted to be published, but none of his writings were printed.
“I know a lot about rejection,” he explained. “When I started out, I wanted to be a famous novelist—Hemingway—but that didn’t work out and I collected hundreds of rejection slips. I thought an author had to write about ‘important’ places like New York, Boston, London, or Paris. After 15 years, either I had to quit or try something else.”
After having bad luck with publishers, he and his wife, Kristine, decided to self-publish Erickson’s work out of their garage in Perryton.
“It was a crazy idea, but it has worked out very well,” he said. “Our first book was a collection of stories I wrote for The Cattleman and Western Horseman. It included two stories narrated by a dog named Hank.”
Erickson said the character is mostly based on a conglomeration of every boneheaded cowdog he ever met; however, he does single out one memorable canine that serves as the chief inspiration for Hank.
“In the mid-1970s I was working on a ranch in Beaver County, Oklahoma, and swapped out cowboy work with a rancher who had an Australian shepherd named Hank,” Erickson said. “He was typical of most of the so-called cowdogs I’d been around. He had instincts to do something with cattle, but nobody had taught him what. When we penned a bunch of cattle, he stood in the gates and barked. The cowboys wanted to cut his throat. He was just trying to do his job, but he was a fool and didn’t know it. I always thought he was a funny character—totally sincere and dedicated to his job, but three bales short of a full load.”
Erickson said he wrote the first Hank story in 1981, which was one of hundreds of articles he wrote for livestock publications. He did not realize the character’s magnetism until he read it aloud for the Perryton Rotary Club.
“They roared with laughter and said, ‘You need to do more with that dog!’ I was shocked.”
Although Erickson once thought his audience only wanted to read stories about big cities and far off places, it became clear to him that a ranch like the ones he had worked on all those years and Hank the “Head of Ranch Security” was the perfect canvas to provide wholesome and hilarious stories for the whole family. The Hank books have proved the rural ranch setting has boundless opportunities to entertain, teach and engage readers with everything from skunks to blizzards to Hank’s love life. The first official book in the Hank the Cowdog series came out in 1983 and Erickson has put out two books every year since. In addition, they are still published through Maverick Books, the company the Ericksons started all those years ago.
“There was never any idea or plan to it,” he said. “It was one of those nice things that falls out of the sky after you’ve been writing every day for 15 years. I had enough sense to listen to my audience. They recognized that Hank was a star, I didn’t.”
Erickson never considered being a children’s author, he had mostly targeted farmers and ranchers with his past writings, but the Hank character appeals to both children and adults.
“When I started writing the first books I didn’t know anything about children’s literature, and I still don’t,” he mused. “Kids started reading their parents’ books and took them to school. It wasn’t a marketing strategy on my part, they did it on their own. Kids often ask, ‘Are you Hank?’ I hope not, but you never know.”
A doggone good life
By 1990, Erickson’s success with the Hank the Cowdog books allowed him to make a down payment on a ranch south of Perryton and the family still resides there today.
“We have nine sections of canyon country north of the Canadian River—a cowboy’s dream, but not the best grass country,” Erickson said. “We run Bonsmara cows, a composite breed from South Africa, and hold our calves as yearlings. That gives us a hedge against drought, such as the one we’re in right now.”
Although Erickson no longer rides his ranch atop a horse, he still enjoys taking care of his operation with help from family and friends, and the ranch gives him ideas for Hank’s adventures. The locale is a particularly good setting for a story because there are so many challenges to living and working on a ranch.
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“Perseverance is built into these stories because they occur on a family ranch on the southern Plains, a sometimes hostile environment for ranchers, cattle, and bankers,” he said. “When we get bucked off, we climb back on. However, I don’t approach the Hank books as a teacher or preacher. I want to make my readers laugh. Genuine, innocent, organic laughter is a scarce commodity these days.”
The books have become the ultimate tool for encouraging children to enjoy reading. Erickson said he sometimes gets fan letters from kids who do not like reading but love the Hank books, and correspondence from parents who thank him for writing books they can trust.
“Teachers and librarians notice when kids read books on their own and teachers became big supporters of the series,” he said.
Erickson has published around 120 books in total. He has written 78 books in the Hank series, and the other 40-plus are on topics such as cowboy humor and nonfiction books on ranching, archeology, wildfires, cowboys, and related topics. The author has several new books coming out, including the 78th Hank the Cowdog book called The Incredible Ice Event, which will be available this fall. The book is about the record cold temperatures in February 2021 that left much of the High Plains without electricity and struggling to break ice for their livestock. Additionally, Erickson has a nonfiction book called Bad Smoke, Good Smoke, that is now available. It is about his experiences with two of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history, which occurred in 2006 and 2017. He said he lost his home and other possessions in the 2012 fire. Porch Talk is another nonfiction book he recently wrote for Texas Tech University Press, which details 20 years of archeological explorations of prehistoric sites on his ranch. Erickson said he has no plans to slow down his literary career or Hank’s crime solving exploits.
“A writer writes, that’s who I am and what I do,” he said. “I write four hours every morning, seven days a week. I wasn’t smart enough to be a plumber and I’m too old to get an honest job. It’s not what I set out to do in my years as an apprentice writer. It’s much better. I work for a dog and he paid off my ranch. I’ve tried to give my readers the gift of innocent laughter and we’ve sold over 10 million Hank books. I’ve never published anything that would shame my mother and I sleep well a night—when I’m not worrying about the drought. I’m still living with the same gal who brung me to the dance 55 years ago, my dogs like me and sometimes I think my kids do too.”
For Erickson, even after years of writing for Hank, it is still a source of joy and he still laughs as he comes up with more mysteries for Hank to solve.
“There is something truly amazing about dogs. They give us a break from the ordeals of being parents, citizens, taxpayers, and bread-winners. They’ve been making their human companions laugh for at least 10,000 years. In the end, I can’t explain the mystery of the creative process or why I’ve received this blessing. Hank was a gift that fell into my lap. Kris and I have spent 40 years trying to protect it and pass it on.”
Erickson will attend the Bulls and Brews social on Aug. 4 at High Plains Journal’s Cattle U & Tradeshow event in Dodge City, Kansas, at the United Wireless Arena. From 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. he will sign autographs, pose for photos, and read a chapter of one of his new books on the tradeshow floor. Hank the Cowdog books will also be available to purchase onsite. The meet and greet is free for attendees with a 2022 Dodge City Days lapel pin. Pins can be purchased online or onsite. Please register at www.cattleu.net/john-r-erickson/. To register for the Cattle U educational event, visit www.cattleu.net and click on the register now tab.
Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].