I’ve been on the road a great deal recently, traveling with friends or going to a regional history meeting. I’m following old routes, some of the time: rivers, chains of rainwater lakes, little swales in the landscape that catch water and gradually lead to canyons, then to the eastern low plains. Other routes belong to machines rather than ancient men, pathways laid in straight lines from city to city, diverting only to avoid the impossible, or to reach the occasional older market. No dramatic terrain meets the eye, no startling contrast other than that of sky and ground meeting somewhere far, far away.
As I drove down the center of the Llano, I started thinking about how we humans are odd creatures in some ways. We are one of few species that insists on moving into places lacking in our basic needs, in this case water, and promptly remaking them to our liking, or finding fascinating ways to adapt, or improvising possibilities until we find a workable solution. But the High Plains, the Llano Estacado, strikes me as being one of our odder habitats. No culture has, thus far, stayed longer than a few hundred years unless you count the PaleoIndians, perhaps, and even then we don’t know what we don’t know yet. My eye traces the edge of the world, where blue touches brown or green (the winter wheat looks good so far). For fourteen thousand years, or perhaps as many as eighteen thousand years, humans have crossed this area, only rarely attempting to establish a fixed abode. Why waste the effort?
I’m not being edgy or rhetorical. In a world without beasts of burden larger than dogs, without metal tools, where every meal must be hunted, scavenged, or gathered, why expend energy trying to make a permanent home in such a strange place? The well-watered land is too rough to farm well, the main streams are brackish and mucky and prone to disappearing into their beds for miles and weeks at a stretch, and the good farm land has no water. Even before the 20th Century, when water was more plentiful, the region was unforgiving and resources sparse. If you look at the places where settled life developed in the Americas, the only close analogue would be the Four Corners and the Anasazi, Mogollon, and other cultures, and it seems that those areas were lusher when they were settled than they are today. Otherwise people chose well-watered, resource-rich locations with lots to offer. Consider the Mississippi River valley near St. Louis, the heart of the Cahokia-centered plains-woodland culture. Good soil, lots of trees, lots of wildlife, flat but with some elevated areas above flood danger, an abundance of fruit and berries and other edible or otherwise useful plants… Even I know that is a far better place for permanent settlement.
Eventually people tried settling down on the Llano, or on the edges, on Wolf Creek in the northeastern corner, on the Canadian. They may have come from the east and been influenced by trade with the pueblos to the west, because they seem to have retreated east when the rains faded and strangers arrived. We don’t know. We do know that they irrigated from the springs, not the main streams, and that they built houses probably designed to be warm in winter and that happened to be difficult to enter through the main doorway if you were not wanted. I’ve been assured that such entry ways were not defensive, but for cooling air flow in summer and ventilation in winter. Perhaps things were that peaceful. I have a few doubts, but little evidence survives either way. The succeeding peoples living in the area have no oral accounts of warfare with the Antelope Creek Phase peoples, leaving archaeology the only way to learn.
But climate and possibly hostile new arrivals seem to have encouraged the Antelope Creek farmers to leave the Llano. The Apache and Comanche who followed leaned more on hunting and gathering, although the Apache did garden, at least until the Comanche started waiting in ambush for them at those gardens. Once more the long sweep of short grass and sky belonged to nomads, as it seems to have been since humans arrived in the region.
And then European-descended humans appeared, and began molding the land to better fit our idea of what good places should look like. I get a sense that Americans in particular arrived, looked around, and thought “I own this. Now what do I do with it?” Graze cattle, farm, and pray for rain while cursing the floods, according to everything I’ve read. To an extent, the farther south you went from the Canadian and Red Rivers, the easier it was to find groundwater. Shallowater, for example, was named because you only had to dig ten feet, if that much, to find fresh water.
Today, we farm and graze cattle. And pump oil and natural gas, and attempt to turn the wind into electricity while chopping migrating birds and bats into mincemeat. No, I’m not a wind-farm supporter. Four generations of Anglo-Americans have made the Llano our home, attempting to out-stubborn the environment in a place where the sweep of land and sky will humble even the haughtiest. If that doesn’t, fire, snow, and storm certainly will. The land does not suffer fools gladly, be they walking, riding a horse, or driving.
For centuries this was a place to pass through. For many it still is, especially with a 75 MPH speed limit on the main roads. Most people, perhaps smarter than me, look at the long sweeps of nothing and continue to greener places, as people have done for thousands of years. I wonder if they realize the pattern they are part of? Probably not. Perhaps its just as well that we don’t think too much about la longue durre.