I began to learn that the land was lyric. If there was no poet of the plains, there was a poetry of the plains.
One of my favorite childhood books was The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman. It had a special place on the porch among my mother’s Reader’s Digest books, ordered monthly. I liked this novel because it was the only one I knew of set in the Texas Panhandle and it focused on a young married homesteading couple. Hardly the adventure script of the male western, it was a woman’s story, realistic rather than romantic. The title intrigued me even then, and now the frayed cover on my bookshelf reminds me of the question May Sarton posed after falling in love with the expansive Southwest. Why has this llano region not inspired significant literature? Why is there no poet of the plains?
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.
Why indeed? I think of Mike Harter’s maps and an article he wrote called “The Highways of the Plains.” In it he explained how the Llano Estacado, the so-called Staked Plains, is a vast, flat plain that sheds its water stingily, mostly into playa sinks but also into draws that, he says, “are one of the few real drainages to be found here.” Several theories exist about the origin and meaning of the llano, of which the caprock is a part, but they all agree this “sea of grass” was formidable to travel, with miles and miles of seemingly featureless prairie and precious few water sources. These great conduits, the draws, were water highways holding water below the surface, and during cloudbursts, conveying water downstream in instant floods called “high rises.” More, they were highways for Native peoples, prehistoric and historic, because they provided shelter, possible water and food, and a route to water, as they held spring sites and culminated in the Canadian River. If pursued, a person could disappear into them.
In college I started jogging for fitness. I jogged five miles a day for 30 years. I sought out softer soils for running, and when home, I always ran at the farm. It became a local joke. “You still running?” someone would ask at the post office, eyeing my dusty shoes and worn out leggings. But the running taught me something. I began to learn that the land was lyric. If there was no poet of the plains, there was a poetry of the plains. I could feel the rhythm of its shape come into my legs, up into my chest and heart, and out my mouth as breath.
Later it came out as writing.
Mostly I ran along the edges of the draws, the more level wheat and milo fields on one side, the draws on the other. Later the asphalt of urban Honolulu claimed me after years of teaching and running there; arthroscopic surgery and worn out knees reduced me to a walk. To my surprise, walking was even more sonorous than running. I noticed things I had never seen before. Each walk was different. I felt like Barry Lopez, who says that after his 30 years of living on the same patch of land in Oregon he still finds something new. I took to the highway of draws.
This highway, I discovered, had a name. On Mike’s map it was labeled the Middle Alamosa Creek. Further checking of topographic maps and a large land map at the county courthouse revealed it as an “intermittent creek.” The Middle Alamosa is the central branch and largest of three Canadian River tributaries that empty into the Canadian River about 20 miles north, near the site of Tascosa.
There was one “alamosa”—or cottonwood—on our South Place, right in the middle of the widest expanse of the draw. And I knew along the Canadian and its valleys there were plenty of cottonwoods, some purposely planted by the early pastores for shade. Perhaps the Middle Alamosa got its name from the denser stand of trees near the river. Our single cottonwood was in its death throes. The standing water that sometimes surrounded it had no doubt rotted the roots. A porcupine would sometimes be seen napping on an upper limb—right about the raw strips where he had gnawed the bark, thus further weakening the hapless tree. Nevertheless, it was a testimony to water.
Middle Alamosa. I was amazed. According to the maps it headed on our land, right at what was Interstate 40—in the draw. What would I discover if I walked its 30-something meandering miles to the Canadian River?
This explained the cracked concrete one-lane overpass near that highway. Parallel to what is now the interstate was a one-lane road called the Ozark Trail, starting in St. Louis and running to California, a precursor of Route 66. The overpass must have served as a water crossing. Earlier it had been an Indian trail, the Indians originating the best overland routes. I occasionally found flint from the Alibates Flint Quarry, northeast of Amarillo, suggesting this was a trade route—the red, white, and purple-streaked dolomite highly valued for its strength and beauty. The Ozark Trail was built and used primarily in the l920s. The prehistoric and historic Indians traded from as early as the Clovis period (1500 B.C.E.) to the l880s. Likely the Armitages traveled the Ozark Highway when it was the only roadway from Arkansas west into Vega. On one walk there I leaned over the pipe barrier on top and checked the swallows’ nests underneath. After rains cattle liked to stomp around in the shaded pooling underneath; tracks of antelope and skunk suggested other visitors. I liked to imagine what went on here at night when no one was looking.
Downstream, now that I could imagine it as one, the creek widened and a Civilian Conservation Corps dam, concrete and native stone, hung perilously over eroded banks. Some corpsman had scratched “l936” into the concrete on top. I liked to swab up the Triops that slew in the muddy areas below. Their date of origin: circa 300 million years ago to the present, Jurassic survivors. Dinosaur shrimp some people call them. A living fossil, they hardly have changed since the Jurassic period. Their eggs remain dormant for years, hatching only when there is sufficient water and proper temperature. Pentimento, you remind us that something always lives below, contemporary life a remnant in your twirling tentacles.
Catching and keeping: that’s what folks tried to do with the water. My dad built yet another dam more recently behind the aging CCC one. Part of the reason was conservation for watering cattle, but he also stocked the pond with catfish, building a feeder he could send into the waters, like Moses’s basket into the bulrushes. After my dad’s death, the rusting of the feeder, and droughts that dried the pond for years, I had forgotten the catfish. But after a rain, Triops-like, I saw them flopping over the check dam, resurfacing in a wet season. I tried to catch them with an old fishnet rummaged out of the garage to return them to the now-full pond. When most of them got away, I realized you can’t stop the flow.
And yet the settlers had tried. Dams and fences and corrals and railroads and country roads. I, too, wanted to save something of my father, the emblem of his love of this place, by keeping the catfish from escaping with the water downstream. Tom Green, on the ranch just north, had a one-room camp where he used to escape to nap and read Paris Match. He had cookouts there and sometimes invited us out. The iron cook stove was a beauty and so heavy it took three men to wrestle it into its place. During one of the high rises—Tom’s retreat is on the Middle Alamosa—the iron stove was washed away, later discovered mired in the muddy banks of the Canadian.
Water will have its way.
When my father died our family’s relationship to the land shifted. I still ran the roads but touched ground like a worry stone. My mother and I looked at each other and wondered how we would run the farm. My brother was in Omaha and later Houston, far away, and already removed from the necessary knowledge of farm programs, grazing leases, and grain prices. I had only indirect experience. Mother had driven a grain truck during the first harvests in the l930s, grinding the gears in such a way that Dad said she took two inches off the roadway.
Hers was a mostly rosy view of the particulars—sun-baked skin, cow piss, and broken machinery—of running a small farm. When a PBS film crew came to record interviews with local survivors of the Dust Bowl, my mom’s story was not the expected page out of The Grapes of Wrath. Rather than remember dust pneumonia, jack rabbit roundups, and Black Sundays, she told love stories. Her favorite (and mine): to get the farm work done Dad had to plow by the tractor lights late at night, after he had gotten off work from the bank. She lovingly wound herself around his feet on the tractor platform, behind the pedals, to keep him company, sleeping as he wheeled through the dust into the night.
So for a while she manned the desk, running the farm by rarely going there. I went out to the farm with George Ramos, our hired hand, whose knowledge of the place was the only way we made it through the years after Dad died.
“See that soil,” George would say, pointing to the course red soil in the North Place fields. George was a strong, barrel-chested man, but his gentle voice comforted me. “It’s different from the highway place, balls up in the plow, harder to get a crop up on. It’s great for grass, though,” he laughed, “and bindweed and every other crawling thing that’s not supposed to be in this field.” We both knew the llano wanted to be grass and still resisted the plowing, spraying, and planting that made the nighthawks flee. I plowed and George planted—his, the more precise art—and somehow we made it through the first season.
Sitting atop a tractor gave me a new perspective, maybe something like when white western women first sat a horse. It was an equalizer of sorts, but the view also made me think about how the North Draw had been the scene of deprivation, kidnapping, and murder. There was pain here, mainly to do with animals. Dad had shot a cow once, with a .30-06, a powerful hunting rifle displayed in the gun cabinet and never used. We had spent the winter keeping her alive after she breach-birthed a large calf, born dead, which paralyzed her. Dad tried everything: cattle prod, ropes to pull her up, feed left a few feet away. Nothing worked, and by spring she had lost her will. The sight of him pulling the calf from her, then stuffing the bloody womb back inside, stuck with me, later punctuated by the snap of her head at the rifle shot.
Another time we had to trick one of Roy’s Holstein milk cows into the trailer so we could take her to the farm. Her name was Blue because her black spots were faded; she was like a family pet and had been raised in the lot behind our house. She trusted us and when the men released her on the farm she bawled and ran, chased by the other cattle who smelled a stranger in their midst. I remember sitting between my brother and Dad as the pickup pulled away. They looked straight ahead, pointed toward their futures; I looked back, silently crying in the cab.
Down in the draw was another scene of pain, also born of love, both intensifying the other. Two days before he died, Dad had been shoring up the eroding banks there with broken concrete and what we called “river rocks.” Feeling bad, he went back into town, thinking he had heat exhaustion. Two days later he died instantly of a heart attack while taking a shower. He and Mother were planning a trip, and she had called out to him. No answer. The so-called river I now knew to be part of the Middle Alamosa Creek—the putty-colored rocks a remembrance of eruptions that made the Rocky Mountains and sealed off the llano, creating the Ogallala Aquifer. The seepage of draws.
I take these rocks to be a shrine, the last work he did on our place.
He was a man of few words, Bob Armitage—quiet, inscrutable. Sometimes he appeared a total mystery. Yet he was a great storyteller and in his own way convivial, certainly well-liked and respected. He could tell a story, straight-faced, and if it was funny or ironic, could keep that poker face to the very end—even though tears of laughter welled in his eyes, giving him away. My own yearning to communicate with him I connect with that pull I feel beyond the draws to the distant canyons and the Canadian River, both seemingly out of reach. Now I know my father and I had a wordless bond—that of looking caringly at the object of our affections, the land before us. The silence and the space it inhabited was our story. And ours, such a modest place—those draws—our own habit of landscape.
The plowing made me see time differently: looking back while moving forward. I checked over my shoulder to see if the rows were coming out straight while at the same time I moved ahead through the unplowed ground creating them. These comings and goings connect like the wishbone of draws joined out north. Memory isn’t about the past, it’s about the process of shaping a continuity. I got off, shimmed down the creek bank, where I parted the barbed wire, and climbed over.
Header photo of Caprock Canyon State Park and Trailway by Zack Frank, courtesy Shutterstock.