When American explorers crossed the Texas Panhandle, they dubbed it part of the “Great American Desert.” A “sea of grass,” the llano appeared empty, flat, and barely habitable. Contemporary developments—cell phone towers, oil rigs, and wind turbines—have only added to this stereotype. Yet in this lyrical ecomemoir, Shelley Armitage charts a unique rediscovery of the largely unknown land, a journey at once deeply personal and far-reaching in its exploration of the connections between memory, spirit, and place.
Armitage begins her narrative with the intention to walk the llano from her family farm thirty meandering miles along the Middle Alamosa Creek to the Canadian River. Along the way, she seeks the connection between her father and one of the area’s first settlers, Ysabel Gurule, who built his dugout on the banks of the Canadian. Armitage, who grew up nearby in the small town of Vega, finds this act of walking inseparable from the act of listening and writing. “What does the land say to us?” she asks as she witnesses human alterations to the landscape—perhaps most catastrophic the continued drainage of the land’s most precious resource, the Ogallala Aquifer.
Yet the llano’s wonders persist: dynamic mesas and canyons, vast flora and fauna, diverse wildlife, rich histories. Armitage recovers the voices of ancient, Native, and Hispano peoples, their stories interwoven with her own: her father’s legacy, her mother’s decline, a brother’s love. The llano holds not only the beauty of ecological surprises but a renewed realization of kinship in a world ever changing.
Reminiscent of the work of Terry Tempest Williams and John McPhee, Walking the Llano is both a celebration of an oft-overlooked region and a soaring testimony to the power of the landscape to draw us into greater understanding of ourselves and others by experiencing a deeper connection with the places we inhabit.
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Walking the Llano
A Texas Memoir of Place
By Shelley Armitage
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Ed could as well have been whittling away on a spare twig as running the snake down the hole at the side of my house: the gesture was the same. Years back his daddy, slim pocket knife in hand, had shaped an after-lunch toothpick from a tree limb along with stories in front of Swanson's grocery store — a regular. Now his son shucked the black line into the sewer. He said: "Yeah. Your mom is a wonderful woman. She was my Sunday school teacher, you know."
I knew. This was an Ed-repeat, an old story, one he cherished telling and retelling. Probably no one knew exactly what it meant, but for Ed, motherless and gay in the conservative Texas Panhandle, it meant he was loved. And he loved my mother.
My dad had recommended Ed even though he was the only plumber in town. He had warned me too.
"Don't let him come in the house if some of those guys are with him."
"But Dad, most plumbers have to work inside your house."
"Well, what I mean is, don't let those guys he drags along in."
Dad was referring to Ed's habit of bailing out attractive young men from the Amarillo jail and putting them to work for him.
Ed was round as an apple, dressed in a red jumpsuit, and about half the height of the two gaunt young men who fetched tools for him from his truck.
We had managed to be mostly outside, Ed sitting on my back deck, legs dangling above the ground, lacing orders in between reminiscences.
"She helped me with the newspaper too." He was turning earnest now, no humor intended, though most folks familiar with the long-gone Oldham County News might smile if it were compared to a real newspaper. Small town newspapers covered births, deaths, Saturday afternoon baseball leagues, and garage sales. Even the current Vega paper sported a front page "The Sheriff's Report," detailing what thugs had been apprehended along Route 66 and how. "Sheriff and deputies pursued the suspect along the service road at high speeds until an arrest could be made" ... or something like that.
I could feel safe about Route 66, now Interstate 40, which bordered my property on the south. A supposed meth lab, rumored to be located somewhere in Vega, worried me more.
"You remember Cleve Pattengail?" Maybe now Ed was warming to some gossip or another time-worn story.
"Yes, Daddy said he used to come in the bank."
"Yep. He carried a tow sack full of money and once a month walked to town to deposit it in the bank. He had a baby grand piano in that old country shack he lived in, and he let the animals on his place come and go. Last time I was there, the chickens were roosting on the piano."
I tried to image the old bachelor hunched into the wind, sack over his shoulder, walking the two miles from out in the country, plopping the bag down on my dad's desk at the bank to make a deposit. Cleve was dead now, and only a derelict, broken-bladed windmill stood by his collapsing shotgun house.
"What about Dutch Ruhl? Seems like he was an interesting old guy too?"
"Oh, Dutch. If he didn't like you he would bray like a donkey. If he did like you he did the same thing. He would just open his mouth as wide as he could and let out a holler. But that newspaper. Now there were some stories ..."
I saw the first stages of the tearing down of Ed's old press office years later, after Ed had passed and when I was back in town for the summer vacation from university teaching. James was at it — forcing a tractor blade into one leaning wall. He was my high school boyfriend, the one who'd refused to help cut down the basketball net when his team, from nearby Adrian, beat Vega in district — all because we were dating. He's straddled loyalties ever since, working in both towns, but now it was part of Vega he was taking down. Though small — with barely enough room for the stout handpress — the building resisted. This had been the Oldham County News, the one Ed talked about.
A few months later, I drove past the vacant and weed-choked lot. Already an imitation "barn" building, made of pressed wood with faux carriage house appointments, sat for sale, fronting Ed's dilapidated barn out back. Ed's press ended up at the hardware store, where owner Randy Roark collects Oldham County antiques. Ed's estate is as enigmatic as his habits were. A stranger from out of town, said to be his partner, was named in his will to inherit everything.
Maybe that's what happened to his tombstone. A few years ago I saw it — a large decorative gray stone with his name big enough to be seen from the street — in front of an antique store in Amarillo. For sale. The fact is, Ed had two headstones. One is at the Vega cemetery where he is buried. The other was out in the country north of town on a piece of farmland he owned. You could see it from the highway. He wanted to be buried out there, but state law prohibited it. Had he bought two gravestones to be sure? Had his lover hocked the country stone, which originally faced toward the Canadian River breaks north of town, to sell to a dealer on tourized Route 66 in Amarillo? It seemed oddly appropriate to round the corner onto that street of the old Mother Road and see Ed's name among the antiques, memorabilia, the forgotten stories.
Ed was right about the newspaper business and stories. One summer when I was fourteen, I got a job at the Vega Enterprise for the summer, working with a college intern, Gretchen Pollard. Gretchen came the five hundred miles from Austin in her orange Opal Cadette. When my parents and I welcomed her the night of her arrival, she remarked she was thrilled that Vega was large enough to have a high-rise building. We looked at each other, then couldn't contain our laughter. "Gretchen," my dad said sobering, "that's a grain elevator." From then on my dad's nickname for Gretchen was "Dizzy Blond." Gretchen, a petite but well-endowed, outspoken, dusky-voiced bleached blond (she was a smoker), lived up to her name all summer. Like the time we invited her to New Mexico with us. She waved from her Opal and pulled off the road. My dad turned around and went back to where Gretchen stood with the car hood up.
"Uncle Bob" (that's what she called him), "there's smoke coming out I guess from under here." She took a drag from her cigarette and laughed a kind of deep embarrassed utterance.
"Have you checked the oil?"
Sure enough, there was almost no oil left when he checked it. Gretchen confessed that this was the first time she had ever checked her oil — or even looked under the hood.
Gretchen and I thought we were crack reporters. I had my own column, "The Teenage View," green banner head and all. We scoured the roadways of Oldham County for story possibilities — such exciting features as interviews with ministers, old-timers, and almost anyone who would talk to us. The Vega weekly was run by a capable but alcoholic editor and his equally inebriated ad man, so that the copy was left to us, with a little help from Dolly Stone, an older woman whose main job was to man the front desk and telephone. If Gretchen was a dizzy blond, Dolly was the proverbial battle axe. We feared her and took our morning tea breaks at Ollie's café across the street, returning right on the dot. Dolly came from a big family so she knew how to manage things. "Mighty, Dolly, Madge, and May, Marguerite, and Lula Clay," her father would intone, to remember the birth order of his six sizeable daughters.
One day when Bob, the editor, had actually come in to pick up copy, we had some questions and, not seeing him, asked where he had gone. Dolly huffed: "How would I know? He left out of here liked a ruptured duck."
Ruptured duck? We never figured out what that meant. And Bob never showed up again that day.
But these days, with Ed and his paper gone and the current Vega Enterprise moved down the street — managed by a woman who serves as owner, operator, reporter, and ad person — who remembers such stories? Or tells them? Where are they — and we — grounded?
Leslie Marmon Silko, the Laguna Pueblo writer, says "We are nothing without the stories." I think she means, literally, that if we don't know our cultural stories, we don't exist. But more: if we don't know where we fit into our cultural stories, then we have no identity, or "place." We are ungrounded. The southwestern writer Mary Austin famously created in her autobiography the "I-Mary," an identity realized when as a girl she understood her nature separate from her mother, relating intimately to her surrounding environment. Perhaps identity is founded upon our awareness of the "I" as we perceive it, not solely within but outside of ourselves: seeing ourselves in a larger story.
When I drive the three miles northwest of Vega to the family farm — a combination of farmed and native grassland — I sometimes catch the stoned looks of passersby, setting their cruise controls for top speed. The long horizon, 360 degrees of earth and sky, mostly grass, offends, disgusts, or just simply bores many people. Once when I was living in Albuquerque, a visiting friend from back East surveyed the then largely undeveloped northeast heights area and remarked: "Shelley, we've got to fill all this in."
I rock along in my 1987 Jeep Comanche pickup, aware that the perceived flatness is really, at four thousand feet, one of the largest plateaus in North America. Larger than the state of Illinois and encompassing parts of New Mexico and Texas and east almost into Oklahoma, from the Canadian River north to almost the Edwards Plateau south, the caprock (as it is called for the caliche-like Ogallala formation) was laid down in the Pleistocene. It's going to be quite a challenge to fill all this in. Within it, Oldham County, one of the larger in Texas, covers fifteen hundred square miles.
It's not some low-lying flatness, but a mountain of sorts, this plateau. Just to the north and farther west, the land slopes into draws, then shallow canyons, and finally deep cuts through time — inverted mountains. The sublime western landscape of mountainous New Mexico, Arizona, and especially California — possibly the destinations of these escaping tourists — is simply plunged into the earth here. What was substance, rising above, is now space slicing, yawning below. So locals know a thing or two the exasperated I-40 travelers don't: there's something out there. Space, yes, but it's not "empty" — rather it is filled with the mysteries of mountains turned upside down. Mainly, we know it's not flat.
But if the landscape is boring to those just passing through, wouldn't the local stories be boring too? Are our stories at most understories? Most passers-through stories are about the weather. "Oh yeah, Vega. I was caught there in the most god-awful blizzard." "Yeah, my car broke down there. The one garage was closed on Saturday and Sunday. Wind blowing like hell." "OMG, that's the place we spent two days in somebody's home, put up with the other travelers when the two motels filled up."
I usually respond with an apologetic yes, then my house, built in 1920, is the one along the highway with the red roofed barn — one of the few wooden barns left in the county, but break off, losing my nerve to balance the stereotypes. Located on Interstate 40 or old route 66 and the intersecting state highway 385, which goes to Colorado, Vega is the last stop between Amarillo and Tucumcari, New Mexico, almost at the midpoint of Route 66. A Spanish name meaning meadow or pasture, Vega suggests why snowstorms can be dangerous here. Drifts and blinding snow frighten most visitors away. Old-timers and travelers agree on the well-worn tome: "There's nothing between here and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence." Or if they've been here a really long time, they like to brag about walking to school from out in the country, the snow so high they walked over fence posts without knowing it.
I lived through two massive blizzards myself in the 1950s. Stranded travelers filled schools and homes. One girl was airlifted out of a local home by helicopter due to complications with her polio. Local ranchers worried about their livestock. For kids like me a blizzard meant staying at home from school and making lots of snow ice cream, since all my brother and I had to do was open his bedroom window and scoop up the snow. The house was buried in snow all the way up to the windowsills.
Donnie Allred, the county judge, likes to tell about his grandfather who lived south of Wildorado, a town of about 180 people east of Vega. One of his stories recalls a time when his grandfather's young wife was pregnant with their first child. He took the train to Amarillo to get some supplies, planning to stay overnight. But a severe snowstorm hit while he was gone. This is characteristic of an area where it's not uncommon to see daily fifty-degree swings in the temperature. When he tried to get back home, the train was not running. He tried renting a horse from a livery stable but no one would let a horse in that kind of weather.
Finally, in order to get back to his wife, Donnie's grandfather decided to walk from Amarillo, some twenty miles today by interstate. By that time, the storm was really a blizzard: snow accumulating, low visibility. To keep from getting lost, he counted the steps between the first two telephone poles, which ran along the railroad. He then counted his steps between each successive pole. If he reached the end of his steps and there was no pole, he knew he was lost. He would then retrace his steps and try again.
When he got home, he was snow-blind for three days. "Some Indian who worked out at Gray's ranch north of Wildorado got wind of his ailment," Donnie added. "He came in and made a poultice and Granddad got his vision back."
Donnie made a good point the day I sat in his judge's office, with local brands displayed and spurs hanging on the wall. The people of Oldham County and Vega are only one generation removed from the "Old West." My dad's generation was the glue between the earliest settlers and the living generation — ours, people in their sixties and younger. For at least these two generations the local stories still make sense. They create a common ground.
One reason might be the compression of time here. Unlike New England or other areas of the Southwest, here the settlement pattern is recent. Until the 1880s, there was no incorporated town or county seat in Oldham County. Vega was incorporated as a town in 1904; Tascosa in 1880 as the original county seat. The end of the so-called Old West and the burgeoning wind energy generation are separated by a little more than one hundred years.
Turns out my dad knew the second non-Native settler in the area — Ysabel Gurule, who came from Anton Chico, New Mexico (then the Territory of New Mexico) as one of the first pastores, sheepmen who discovered the Canadian River Valley, north of Vega about twenty miles. Born in 1863, Ysabel came when he was sixteen, traveling with his cousin and family from the Pecos River Valley. When he built his dugout near the Canadian banks, America had hardly survived the Civil War. The last Native holdouts from the reservation in Oklahoma — a small band of Comanche, some Kiowa — still threatened settlers, though the tribes had been broken by Ranald Mackenzie's surprise attack of the then three thousand remaining Comanche, Kiowa, and other tribes in nearby Palo Duro Canyon. Ysabel's cousin was killed by Indians near the Canadian and his wife returned to Anton Chico, but Ysabel stayed. In the free unfenced grasslands of that time, the pastores sought out the rich grasses in the valleys along the Canadian, establishing their plazas near springs.
Dad also came to the Panhandle when he was sixteen. Forced from their farm near the confluence of the White and the Buffalo Rivers in the Mississippi flood of 1926, the Armitages resettled in Vega, coming for the promise of the rich wheat harvests in the recently broken out prairie in the western Panhandle. Ysabel must have been around sixty-three years old when the Armitages moved to Vega, still a cowhand at the LS ranch. He died in 1936. By that time, Dad was a teller at First State Bank. What transpired between them I'll never know.
What I do know is Dad talked a lot about Ysabel; maybe he identified his own new start with Ysabel's. Bit by bit Dad had begun buying farm and grassland — land that went for three dollars an acre then — beginning in 1929. Ysabel witnessed the conversion of the vast free grasslands, still shared by buffalo, into large fenced ranches and smaller farms. The conversion of the open plains to private ownership meant the end of the pastores, who mostly returned to New Mexico. Ysabel stayed and became a crack cowboy. I think Dad saw in Ysabel the embodiment of the spirit of adventure and also his knack for adapting to the changes.
He might have had a bit of the old-time West in him too, my dad. At twenty-one, then a new teller at the First State Bank in Vega, he was to be married on November 24, 1932, to eighteen-year-old Dorothy Mae Dunn from Amarillo, Texas. At noon, on November 15, he was kidnapped during a bank robbery. Most of the employees had gone to lunch and Dad was locking up to join them. Two armed, masked (yes!) men came in, took the cash available at the teller's cages, locked two employees in the bank vault, blindfolded Dad, bound his hands behind his back with rope, and threw him into the back of their automobile. The get-away ensued, the robbers finally stopping the car about nine miles southeast of Amarillo. There was mumbling in the front seat, then a slamming of doors. Dad heard another car start up and drive away.
Excerpted from Walking the Llano by Shelley Armitage. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
INTRODUCTION: Writing Llano,
CHAPTER ONE: Draws,
CHAPTER TWO: Springs,
CHAPTER THREE: Refuge,
CHAPTER FOUR: Circling,
CHAPTER FIVE: Rocks and Remnants,
CHAPTER SIX: Prairie Interrupted,
CHAPTER SEVEN: Dwelling,
CHAPTER EIGHT: Middle Alamosa, Middle Stories,
EPILOGUE: The Suspended Pool,