I've driven across the Panhandle of Texas almost yearly since I was 32 years old when I first moved out of the Lone Star State. I've felt the region's stern, restless winds toss me six feet away from my RV when I opened its door during a big gust. I've been awed at suddenly coming upon Palo Duro Canyon which hides itself below the flat-as-a-pancake plains. But mostly I've seen this llano landscape as dull and uninteresting, just something to be endured so I can visit family that lives in greener, hillier, and less dusty areas of the state.
But after reading Shelley Armitage's Walking the Llano, I know I will never again view this landscape with the same eyes or mindset.
An English professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, Armitage inherited an aunt and uncle's farm near Vega. Having grown up almost next door, she knows the names of the grasses of the area as well as most people know the flowers that grow in their backyard. While her long walks were a personal pilgrimage to discover more about the landscape where her roots had been planted, it was also one to learn, from the land, about the people who had lived and died in this short-grass prairie thousands of years before she was born.
We are nothing without our stories, she writes, noting that she believes man to be part of the landscape. The lyrical descriptions and ponderings of Armitage, at a difficult time when her mother was dying, brings the llano landscape to life.
Walking these plains...I lean into a north wind. It's winter, a brown-scape tinged in ochre, dried buffalo and gamma grasses, a touch of green in the wintered-over yucca and bear grasses...The side oats gamma wave like sailboat flags, their tiered semaphores flexed in the wind...This early morning, the sky is a washed blue, except for the horizon line, which is indigo, deeper key to the continual changes in the weather.
In her walks, Armitage discovers springs and water slipping through grass like a snake where no one thought water existed. She comes across a small hidden canyon which Billy the Kid supposedly used as a hideout for stolen horses. She finds dugouts of early settlers and numerous flints created by those who lived on the land before them.
She follows washes and dry creek beds and trods along paths created by bison, or what was once part of the Santa Fe Trail. She notes how the creeks changed with the coming of cattle, going from narrow and deep to broad and wide and often drying up between rains.
Armitage also writes about how she is trying to return her ranch to the native grass prairie that it had once been and how she is using the lease money for the giant wind turbines, which have become the Panhandle's new forest, to help pay for conservation projects. While she hates the steel, tree-like fixtures, the associated new roads and traffic they bring to the area, and the impacts on local wildlife, she knows that this landscape, where Georgia O'Keeffe once painted, is ever-changing.
Near the beginning of the book, the author writes that she has wondered for many years what the land would say to us. I'm not sure she has found all the answers—mostly she finds more questions. But questions are what keep us turning pages or looking forward to the next day and the next adventure. Walking the Llano has certainly provided me a new way to look at a landscape I once thought I knew—and found uninteresting. Now I'm actually looking forward to my next drive through the Texas Panhandle.
Shelley Armitage is Professor Emerita of English and American Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her numerous publications include Bones Incandescent: The Pajarito Journals of Peggy Pond Church and John Held, Jr.: Illustrator of the Jazz Age. Visit her website.
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