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Loco on the Llanos

by Clay Coppedge
The first and only time my grandmother came to Texas she got sick to her stomach. We hit the Llano Estacado on our way back from my parents' home state of Tennessee and it wasn't long before we had to pull over to the side of the road so granny could throw up. It wasn't long before we had to stop again for the same reason.

My first thought was that the so-called food my family always packed for vacation was what made her sick, and I'm still not sure it didn't play a role. Granny had raised and harvested most of her food for most of her life and the Vienna sausages and potted meat sandwiches that we survived on for the better part of two weeks every summer couldn't have done her much good.

But she said it wasn't the food that made her sick but the land itself - all those miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. To a woman who had lived all her life in the Appalachian Mountains, the sudden switch to absolute horizontal was certainly unsettling.

"I know the world ain't flat but out here I get the feeling that it is,' she explained, as embarrassed as she ever allowed herself to become. "It's like we're driving across a tabletop. I have this feeling in my stomach that we're about to drive plumb off the edge."

If I had been a more educated 10-year old I could have assured her that this type of thing has been happening to people on the Llano Estacado for a long time, that even the intrepid explorer Coronado wandered in dazed circles for days on end, lost on what was then a sea of grass. I could have told her that nearly all the early explorers experience some degree of disorientation on the Llano Estacado. I could have told her that she was just what they call landsick, and she would get at least a little bit used to it.

But I wasn't that educated so I just allowed as how, yep, it sure is flat out here. There's no reason to believe this made her feel any better. In El Llano Estacado, author John Miller Morris noted the phenomenon. "As generations of European adventurers and their descendants journeyed across its (the Llano Estacado's) endless horizon, they often perceived an irrational landscape, a strange world full of deception," he wrote. "The sheer enormity of the sky and the plain left so many observers feeling insignificant and very much alone. At times, the monotonous lack of perspective left a sojourner virtually landsick: disoriented, paranoid, perhaps even perceiving the slight roll and pitch of the surface as a seiche, a slow side-to-side rocking of the deep earth itself. It could easily be a land of illusion and subjectivity."

Since I grew up in Lubbock, right smack dab in the middle of the South Plains, flat was nothing new to me. No, it was the mountains that threw me for a loop. The first time I ever saw the moon rise over Clinch Mountain in East Tennessee, when I could just see just the light but not the moon itself, I ran inside and calmly announced to my family that a spaceship was coming over the mountain.

After all, Lubbock was home to one of the country's first series of UFO sightings, the Lubbock Lights. I was used to seeing the sun sink all the way into the horizon and I was fond of watching the moon (and sun) rise the same way. In the mountains, when the sun went behind the mountain, I wondered: Where is it now? Really? Would I still be able to see it if I was on the other side of the mountain?

Old timers on the South Plains used to tell me about seeing mirages and hallucinations in the early days, stories that more often than not reminded me of the song "Ghost Riders In The Sky." Your average run-of-the-mill shimmering mirages I saw with monotonous regularity. But the downright psychedelic displays the old cowboys and farmers talked about always eluded me, to my regret.

Morris wrote about in his book this way: "Nineteenth-century settlers were astonished by the Llano's compelling mirages: twenty-five-foot tall cattle grazing near a fake lake, forty-foot cowboys riding along in the high sky, and sometimes the miraculous appearance of distant towns, floating ethereally above the horizon and down to individual windowpanes."

The closest I ever came to this was when clouds would bank on the horizon in such a way, colored by that empyreal High Plains light to look like mountains. Being an avid fisherman even in that arid land I knew where most of the water was located and so I wasn't often fooled by the shimmering mirages of water that appeared from time to time. But I often looked in vain for those ghost riders in the sky.

Maybe my grandmother saw them. In an attempt to show her that not all the world we lived in was flat and monotonous we took her to the canyons, which she said were "right nice." Once, at sunset, she said they were "colorful."

In the end there was sort of a warped pride in knowing that the land where I lived made my granny sick because she was one of the strongest people I ever knew "Yes, granny, this is big land, and you have to be strong to live here. I live here and I am strong." Not that I ever said that but I wanted to.

For her part, my grandmother came to occasionally appreciate the sublime beauty of the plains, especially the sunrises and sunsets. Then we had a couple of springtime dust storms and she lost all interest in the land and wanted nothing more than to return to her Tennessee mountain home.

My grandmother and I became quite close during her Lubbock sojourn. She understood that this was my land and that I had a certain fondness for it. She asked me once how I could stand the dust and I shrugged and said something like, "At least they don't last forever." I could have told her that this was a land where I could fly but that wasn't something I was allowed to do, so I couldn't tell her that.

That - flying - was my little secret. On certain windy days wen the wind came whistling across the plains and into the Yellow House Canyon, my buddies and I would gather at a certain rim of the canyon. This was winding the Kingston Trio called Mariah but we called Larry. Here the wind collided with the canyon wall and blasted upwards with tremendous force, creating updrafts strong enough to make you fly. It didn't happen often but when it did we went flying.

Of course, you had to do some planning. We took along thin parkas and put them on. Then we would lean out over the edge of the canyon and wait for the updrafts to fill the flimsy coats with enough air to lift us off the ground. I was the lightweight of the bunch and so I flew the highest. Once I took a little unplanned side trip that landed me several feet behind my very impressed friends.

My mother, who envisioned death and destruction in nearly activity, made me promise I would never do that and I promised. But I had my fingers crossed so, in the moral justification of an unstructured childhood, it didn't count.

Since I left the South Plains and tried out many other climes and landscapes I've experienced the best and sometimes the worst those climates and landscapes have to offer. I have caught brook trout on a dry fly in North Carolina and rainbows in New Mexico. I've seen a mountain lion in Big Bend National Park and a beaver pond tucked away in the backwaters of Colorado and made friends with a ringtail in the Texas Hill Country. I've been around a little bit, seen some things, and had some adventures.

But the South Plains was the only place where I ever flew. This might be a land of illusion, as Morris wrote, but when you're several feet off the ground, held aloft by nothing but Larry, it's no illusion. You're flying.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
August 16, 2007 Column

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