Apache

El Llano Estacado

By W. F. Strong

The Llano Estacado is an enormous mesa. It covers more than 37-thousand square miles of Texas and New Mexico. On this side of the state border it starts north of Amarillo and ends south of Odessa. But how did it get its name and what exactly does it mean? Turns out, there are about five different theories about that.

Today, the Llano Estacado has been immortalized in art. Just think of this song from Gary P. Nunn: “It’s the Llano Estacado, It’s the Brazos and the Colorado; Spirit of the people down here who share this land!”

One thing all the theories about its origin story agree on is that there’s a reason the name is Spanish. It’s credited at least in part to conquistador Francisco Coronado who called the area “Los Llanos” — the plains. And that’s where the stories begin to diverge.

The most common one is that Llano Estacado means “staked plains” because “estacado” is the past participle of “estacar,” a verb meaning “to stake” or “to stake out.” The belief was that the vast spaces of the mesa were so disorienting that early explorers and settlers needed to leave stakes in the ground to navigate in a straight line, and to have a direct line of retreat should they need it. Even Coronado’s Native American guides would shoot an arrow straight ahead and then walk to the arrow, and repeat the process over and over to keep from going in a circle. 

But others say that in the time of Coronado, the term “estacar” had a different meaning. It meant “palisaded plains,” or “stockaded plains,” looking like a fort. If you approach the caprock as Coronado did, and as I have done myself, west of Amarillo along the Canadian breaks, from a distance of 20 miles, the rise onto the caprock does indeed look like a fortress stretching as far as one can see. 

But here’s another bit of the puzzle — the great geographer and historian John Miller Morris tells us that Coronado never wrote the words “Llano Estacado.” But Coronado did leave us a detailed description of Lo Llano in a letter to the King of Spain: “…there is not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.” This brings us to Morris’s most compelling theory about the name. With no trees and shrubs available, explorers and hunters needed to “stake out” or hobble their horses at night or they’d be gone in the morning. 

All of the theories have their appeals.  But I doubt the origin of the name will ever be settled. Just like its name, the infinite flat land, the ocean of grass that once supported millions of buffalo, remains a romanticized landscape of mystery to this day.   

There’s a sublime book by Shelley Armitage called Walking the Llano. Ms. Armitage has lived on the Llano off and on most of her life and her book reminds me of magical works like Desert Solitaire and Goodbye to a River. She writes, “There’s been no poet of these plains . . . but there is a poetry of the plains. This part of the Llano exists . . . as a shape of time, requiring the rhythm of a habit of landscape, of the repetition of experiencing.” She quotes Mary Austin, “It’s the land that wants to be said.”

Ms. Armitage also ran on the Llano. She writes, “The running taught me something. I began to learn that the land is lyric. I could feel the rhythm of the land come into my legs, up into my chest and heart, and out my mouth as breath. Later it came out as writing.” Perhaps Shelley Armitage is the very poet of the plains she claims does not exist.  

Armitage also tells of the advice of an elder of the White Mountain Apaches, who said, 

“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. . .  You must remember everything about [places]. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. 

Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise.”

We must do this for the Llano Estacado, in poetry and prose and song.

Three Texas Myths That Won’t Die

In my travels around the state I run into people now and then who have deeply held convictions about Texas that are simply untrue. They hold to myths that have been nurtured by well-intentioned souls since San Jacinto days, and it breaks my heart to tell them they are mistaken, but not for long. I soon realize, you see, that they are not saddened by their error, but by mine. As one man told me, “Son, you need to get out more. Try reading a book or two.”

With that caveat staring me icily in the face like Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, I will forge ahead and tell you about three such myths that just won’t die.

First up is the widely held belief that Texas is the only state in the union that was its own country first. This is not so. Four years before California became a state it was the California Republic, for about 3 weeks. True, there was no armed revolution—no Alamo—no grand battle, like San Jacinto, where they defeated a maniacal dictator, but nonetheless, it was a bonafide republic for an ever so brief time. It didn’t have a constitution, but it did have a flag, and according to Eddie Izzard’s law of nation building, the flag is more important. The flag showed a grizzly bear and a lone red star, influenced by the white lone star on the Texas flag. The Republic didn’t survive, but the flag did. It became the basis of California’s modern state flag.

Hawaii was both a kingdom and a republic before becoming a state, though Hawaiians were not as enthusiastic about statehood as were Texans and Californians. For four years, Florida was an independent country called Muskogee, and Vermont, for 14 years, was an independent republic as well, beating Texas’ record by four years.

Another widespread myth is that Texas can, by law, divorce herself from the U.S. anytime she wants. Many insist that this is in the Texas Constitution or in what some call the “Treaty of Annexation” papers. But it’s not there. I’ve looked, with a magnifying glass and searched the marginalia of both documents. I’ve searched for the smallest of print. It’s not there. No hint of such an idea. But, we can divide ourselves into up to five states if we wish. We would get ten senators that way. Wonder what we’d name those five states were we to do it? Probably just North, South, East, West, and Central Texas. Though we could get creative? I’m against doing it, but I’ll take hypothetical suggestions?

A third myth I hear about quite often is that Texas should have kept her wealth and remained an independent country. Well, it’s a romantic idea that I’ve often longed for myself, but it wasn’t practical. First, in the 1840s, we were poor, dirt poor—better known as land poor. Sure we had oil and gas, but nobody knew about that yet and there was no market for it anyway. All we had was vast amounts of land to manage—300 thousand square miles—and a population of 50,000 people to try to protect it. No money, no treasury, no military to speak of. The Republic could barely pay the Texas Rangers, and was often quite late in paying them. Mexico regularly sent armies into the state to rattle their sabers and terrorize the citizens, making them feel that Mexico could retake Texas at any moment. The Comanches and Apaches were often on the warpath across the Western frontier. Texans wanted security and investment and jobs and capital. The fastest way to get it was to join the United States. So they did, with 94 percent of Texans voting in favor of it. Ultimately, we became rich by virtue of joining the union. And so did the U.S.

One other widely held belief is that a real Texan doesn’t put beans in chili. This one is actually absolutely correct. You can put beans in chili if you want to, but you cannot then legitimately call it Texas chili. You don’t mess with Texas and you don’t mess with Texas chili.

Texas Standard: September 8, 2016

After 9/11 she left New York for Galveston. Her mission today: to get permission to sue the Saudis for the death of her husband, we’ll explore. Also voter ID restrictions in Texas. You thought they’d been overturned? Now the state’s back in court over the issue. What it means as election day fast approaches. And there’s oil near them there hills: a surprise find in far west Texas and an 8 Billion dollar would-be windfall that’s got the world talking. Plus nursing homes in Texas: reports of violations on the rise. An embarrassment to be sure, so why’s the industry almost trumpeting the bad news? Those stories and lots more today on the Texas Standard: