The old man had shut up for a while when we passed through Dallas
. We ate at a chain diner there, and during that whole stop he only spoke to order his eggs and thank the cashier. I thought he was running down, and I sure didn't try to wind him back up, but as soon as we got back off the crowded interstate north of Denton, his monologue started again. It seemed to be linked to the cruise control
As we headed west, and the signal from the UNT college station faded, I punched the radio buttons with only half an ear for the old fool. He rambled on, spitting tobacco juice into a styrofoam cup, oblivious to my nonverbal communication. Dreck and dreck. I settled for a Tejano station that was playing a hot shit accordion polka because he was droning on about some 19th century German settlement off to our south. We had precious few CD's and I knew I'd need to conserve them for the barren wastes ahead.
We were on a two-lane highway, dipping and curving through gently rolling land. I had driven this way before, and I remembered it as a torture-trip, full of slow gravel haulers and tailgating pick-ups, but he had a nice touch for driving it. He was always positioned to take advantage of the climbing lanes, and he made it easy for the dashboard-gnawing traveling salesmen to get around us. He maintained a prim 75, five miles over the speed limit, without stretching or knotting the strand of his lecture. In his honor, I punched up a tune from my oldies CD - Station Man by an early Fleetwood Mac. Steering with a pinkie, he packed another dip into his mouth.
To my eye, this was the only tolerable scenery in this thousand-mile stretch of our journey. The trees were more than twice the height of a tall man, and the towns all had red stone main streets and Victorian frame houses. There were gas stations with Ford Roadsters rusting alongside, pizza joints, and alcohol-free gamerooms with murals painted on the outside walls. The geezer was talking about an indian raid near here back in the 1860's. I picked up a Wichita Falls station that was playing I Cry by Ja Rule.
The old man told a story about a slave whose family was captured by those Kiowa and Comanche raiders. In the story, this slave, Britt Johnson, got friendly with the Indians, living with them for a while until he found his people, then stole them back. By this time I was pretty tired of his crap, and I told him so. He shut up for about five miles, then wheeled into a little tree-shaded turnout where there was a historical marker that talked about that raid and its aftermath. It said that Britt Johnson had been hunted down, then tortured and killed by Comanches for taking his family back, but my companion said that part was bullshit invented by white men years later. As we pulled back out onto the road, I put on Heroes by David Bowie, because I was in no position to argue.
After a while, the towns petered out, and the trees gave way to low mesquite scrub. I could only find one radio station, and it was broadcasting a live, on-scene report from the National FFA Convention in Fort Worth. I wanted to listen to it, because it sounded like high camp to me, but that old man was unfazed by the competing talk-talk. Both he and the countryside were getting pretty dry now, so I put on Yo La Tengo's Flying Lesson and closed my eyes.
...This is all part of a huge alluvial plain that was washed by the runoff from the Rocky Mountains while they were growing up. Sometimes it was a shallow inland sea, but for most of those millions of years ago it was a wetland - plenty of water and plants and dinosaurs around here. That's where all the oil came from. I guess Saudi Arabia must've been a paradise at one time, if you like big lizards. Anyway, that big goddamn flat pond ran from Mexico to Canada, and they call it the Great Plains now. This country here is close enough to the sea to have got some rough treatment from water over the years, so it's all broke down now...
I couldn't feel any sway or break beneath us, so I opened my eyes to see
. This was ranchland - uncultivated, rocky, with low grasses and shrubs. All around us stood flat-topped hills, red and dry. I stuck Blood on the Tracks
by Bob Dylan
into the CD player. I got some sandwiches out of the cooler, but he just used his to signal to imaginary warriors beyond the windshield as he talked.
...They called themselves "Nermernuh", but the Spaniards heard the Ute call them "Komantcia", which was to say "somebody who wants to fight us all the time", so they started calling them "Comanche", and the name stuck. It's a pretty good description, too. This was Apache land back in the 1600's. The Comanche used to all live up north, but when they got the horse, bands of 'em started coming down through here looking for warm weather and Spanish mustangs, and they drove the Apaches right out. That goes to show you how tough those bastards were.
All this area for a few hundred miles around was called the comancheria, and white men couldn't get a toehold here 'till well after the Civil War. That's when the US Cavalry started getting serious about making the plains safe for the buffalo hunters, and they sent the troops in here in force. It was a helluva war, the Red River War, and the army took a lot of beatings that they are still studying today. When it come to fighting on horseback, there was never no match for the Comanche.
By 1874, General Mackenzie had figured out how to hit them where it hurt, and he attacked the main Comanche camp in Palo Duro Canyon at night. He didn't kill many braves, but he got their horses and killed whichever of 'em his Tonkawa scouts didn't want. That was 1500 or 2000 horses, and the pile of bones he left was still there fifty years later.
After that, most of the Comanche bands surrendered or was beat by the troops, but Quanah Parker's people, the Quahadi, held out until a wolf and an eagle came to tell him they was done for, and he took his band up to Fort Sill so they could get put on a reservation. After that, he set out to become the damnedest white man they ever was. He leased out reservation land to white ranchers, lobbied congress and invested in a railroad. 'Course he still kept half a dozen wives and used peyote pretty regular...
While he was telling me all this, we were running through some very big, rich ranches. We passed miles and miles of uniform, painted fence, holding very little that I could see, but there must have been something on that land because every so often we'd see a building in the distance, and it would turn out to be something like an airplane hangar
or an indoor arena
. When we passed those, there was nothing
. There were not even any telephone pole
s out here. I tried the radio again, and discovered continuous hits
. Some woman was sighing and moaning with a rhythm box
, and I let her. She was a pleasing counterpoint to the short, bunchy grasses and ocotillo
shrubs that paved the roadsides. We passed a gourd plant with leaves as big as your head, spread out like a giant starfish on the hillside. I was going to ask him about it, but just then we topped the long rise and he pulled into a roadside rest area.
I gotta pee.
We were stopped at the highest point we had crossed that day, and it was a beautiful spot, in its way. Ahead lay a deep valley with choppy, eroded formations, some in bright red, dotted with white clay and dusty greenery. Beyond that was an ornate
ly distressed red cliff, into which the road wound and disappeared. I brought my camera out for this, and moved along the ridge to get a good angle on the vista. Hundreds of grasshopper
s jumped and swarmed angrily out of my way as I neared the fence. I took my picture, and as I turned back, I noticed a sign tacked to a mesquite fence post:
Buried Fiber Optic Cable
I was taking this information in stride as we got back into the truck, so I put on the System of a Down CD. By the time we hit sixty, it seemed inexplicably small in that landscape, so I killed it and scrabbled around for something that did not try so hard to be large - Hot Tuna - the one with the red-hot centipede art on the cover. We set off into the teeth of the escarpment.
...That's the raw edge of the caprock, son. On top of there it's the Llano Estacado for as far as you can imagine. Ol' Coronado came this way in the sixteenth century, looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. He saw that bluff up there and though it looked like the stakes of a fortress palisade and gave it that name.
Of course you hear all sorts of other stories about that. Most people will tell you he called it the staked plains because they had to put pegs in the ground to mark their way because they's nothin' else to tell you where you are from where you've been, but I don't believe that. In those days there wasn't enough wood up there to make a tent stake, much less to leave scattered all over the prairie...
It didn't take long to cross the valley and climb to the top of the caprock, and I soon saw what he meant. Up there we hit one more little dip, then we came face to face with God's Perfect Creation. There was not a wrinkle, a bump, or a dimple as far as the eye could see. No more ranches, no more mesquite
, no more arroyo
s. We had arrived on the Llano Estacado
, and cotton
had swallowed up everything except the sky.
... This is the south end of the high plains, what the pioneers called the "sea of grass" that stretched from here to Canada. Nobody thought you could farm here. and it was all open cattle country when the buffalo hunters got done, but somebody figured out that there was water underground, and you could pump it out with wind power. They broke up the big ranches, and started pokin' holes all over the prairie. Some of 'em came up oil, and it was a'boomin' around here in the twenties. Then came the great depression and the dust bowl, and it all went straight to hell in a handcart around here.
The second World War was what brought things around. They was pumpin' oil and deep-drillin' water for the war effort, and gettin' rich besides. The oil's about gone now, but as you can see, they're still pumpin' water...
I could see. The low young cotton plants were green to the infinite horizon, but there were gangly irrigation systems floating over them all, like a swarm of giant stick insect
s, each a quarter-mile long. There were a few brave little outposts of wind-break
trees, with their farm houses huddled underneath, but they only rose high enough to show the curvature of the earth in the distance. The afternoon sun was in our eyes now, so I chose among the country stations that constituted our radio fare - I picked the one that was playing Waylon Jennings
singing Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit Has Done Got Out Of Hand
By this time, I was starting to drift in and out, and his voice became a backdrop for sun-drenched dreams. I was an ancient man watering by a brackish lake, a snowflake, a triceratops. I was an oilman, cursing the Ogallala Aquifer. Bison, grey wolf, a hot yellow rattlesnake eye; it was a fitful sleep.
We were planning to stop for a while in Lubbock, and it would be good to wake up a bit. It's a deadly boring drive on into New Mexico, and I was kind of curious to find out what the old guy had to say about Billy the Kid and space aliens. I decided to hold back the Steely Dan.
I have tried to incorporate fairly accurate historical information into this writeup, but it's all been distorted by foreshortening at best, and some of the old geezer's proclamations are open to dispute. For instance, prior to the Civil War, there had been significant progress made in reducing the dominance of the Comanches in West Texas and shrinking the Comancheria. The Civil War was a haitus in Manifest Destiny, and the Comanche took full advantage.
Also, a great many of the fighters in the Red River War of the 1870's were bands who had left reservations to come back and fight again, and a significant portion of them were not Comanche at all, but Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapahoe, among others. On the other hand, the old guy did not do justice to the degree to which the Comanches dominated trade and travel in the region during the Spanish period, so the general impression that he makes probably averages out okay.
His maunderings touch on subjects that beg for about five or six lengthy factual writeups, but I'm reluctant to take on that task, lest somebody start thinking that I'm him. I'm not. Really. I don't dip snuff at all, ever.