12.13.2008,7:36 AM
"On the Road Again..."

You can get there from here. Now. Less then one hundred years ago, getting lost on the Llano and in the canyons was easy and common.

Lacking the most basic form of orientation and association, landmarks, the long flat horizon of the plateau seems to our mock human deficiencies in sense of direction. Nowadays we rely too much on modern technology to guide us places -through the mazes of city streets, on crisscrossing highways, and dirt tracks and trails. Back then, all they had as guides were landforms and the stellar bodies; the sun, moon and stars.

The open and vast expanse of the Llano has a psychological effect on people. It's vastness and mirages play tricks on perception and mind. Newcomers, having no experience in the absence of landmarks, usually lost their way and died of thirst or hunger. Spaniards crossing it from the pueblo villages in New Mexico used Indian guides. Like the natives in Maine who will tell you “You can’t get theyah from heyah” and smirk after you turn away, many Indian guides would purposely lead their ‘sheep’ astray, sometimes in circles. The most famous case is the Indian that guided Coronado’s bunch astray for his own purpose of returning back to his people from which he was captured. Upon discovering his ruse, Coronado had him executed.

Natives of the lands bordering the Llano figured out the simplest way to ‘get there from here’ was to use the sun’s path across the sky and follow the trails of their four-footed friends. All the animals, large and small, knew were water and food was. Since the Indians needed water, too, and the animals were their food, they followed their trails across the expanse of waist-high grass.

For some reason –European-imprinted lack of instinct? Cultural denial? Stupidity?- the Spaniards and most of the Euroamericans couldn’t figure out the same method of navigation. Oddly enough, the French were the most adept at traveling and living in the wilds of the New America. They also had fewer cultural taboos in fraternizing and even integrating themselves with the native population. They were by far the best scouts, guides and trappers. (But they also disliked other Europeans)

Because of their distrust of the natives (with good reason), the Spaniards and those that followed adopted several strategies of finding their way across the Llano. Regardless, many still went insane or died. (reports exist from early journals and diaries where Spanish soldiers went insane from the empty expanse of the plains and the sudden contrast of the canyons)

Myths are born of facts that get diluted and altered along the course of time and human exchange. Thus history has two faces: what actually occurred and accounts that are passed along from person to person, generation to generation over time and distance. Several anecdotes are recorded of how travelers found their way across the plains. Of course, no one really knows if they are true or not. To add salt and sugar to this, these stories became the explanation offered for how the Southern High Plains was known as the 'Llano Estacado.'

No one really knows how the great pancake of grass was named. Or by whom. A perfect example of a social meme (Richard Dawkin’s term for a contagious idea exponentially passed from person to person, like a virus, eventually passing through the cultural and social sphere to become the norm, or, regardless of the truth).

Llano is Spanish for ‘flat’ or ‘level’. It is also the word for an expanse of level grassy land, the plains (derived from French). That’s as descriptive as one can get. Now the fun starts. Estacado is Spanish for a ‘stake’, or ‘stay immobile’ (estacar). The combination of the Staked Plains, or Llano Estacado, is often offered as the origin. The question is: Where did that come from?

The myths are many, most theoretically originate with the New Mexicans and Spaniards. Captain R. B. Marcy reported, "I was told in New Mexico that many years since the Mexicans marked out a route with stakes across this Plain where they found water; and hence the name by which it is known throughout Mexico of El Llano Estacado or Staked Plains." (Marcy's Explorations of Red River)

H.P. Thrall, in his 1876 book, History of Texas, wrote: “It is conjectured that in 1734, when the fathers from Santa Fe visited San Saba to establish a fort and mission they set up stakes with buffalo heads on them, so that others might follow Estacado to the plateau crossed." (Neither of these explanations jive with dates/facts)

In Coronado's journal of his trip in 1541, he writes of crossing a great plain "where there were a great many oxen with bent backs, and small animals living in burrows in the ground, and that the Indians killed many of these oxen and made tents of their skins." He further writes that "there were no trees by which to make their way, and in order that they might be able to find their way back, they built great heaps of ox dung to mark their way. " This may have given rise to the prevailing name in New Mexico that on an expedition to the Indian country they carried stakes and drove them in the ground.

One account published in the Dallas paper in the late 1800's:
"The Indians crossing into New—then a part of Old -Mexico in any kind of weather used neither guide nor compass, but the Mexicans attempting the same in buffalo hunting and trading expeditions would invariably get lost and frequently perish. To avoid this they drove down a stake estaca-at the edge of the plain, another further on, from which the first could be plainly seen, and so on, ad infinitum, so that they could retrace their path in case they found no water… Of course after the trails by the principal water holes became distinctly worn the stake system was discontinued, but the name survived. I was told this by an old Mexican living at Puerto de Luna (Doorof the Moon) and who had crossed the Plains long ere Stephen F. Austin ever set foot on Texas soil."

One alternative and valid explantation:
“Yet another theory is that it was so named from the fact that there are high escarpments on three sides of it, which at a distance have the appearance of huge fortifications.

It is suggested that the word from which our Staked Plains is derived is not the one that was originally used. That instead of Llano Estacado it ought to be Llano Estacada. Estacado is the perfect participle of estacar, which means staked plains. Estacada in the Spanish language means a palisade, and it is supposed that the term was used in reference to the Staked Plains in the accommodated sense in which we use the term palisade in the English language.

It is supposed that the two words became confounded and changed at some later period, and that some one in attempting to explain the origin of the then used term estacado invented the theory of putting stakes across the Plains as guides.”
(Report on the Geography, Topography, and Geology of the Llano Estacado or Staked Plains with Notes on the Geology of the Country West of the Plains. W. F. Cummins.)

Finally, the Navajos used a name associated more with the bioregion than human activity: the Horizontal Yellow, a landscape characterized by tall yellow grass stretching out in all four directions and beyond the horizons.

Because of my penchant for learning the origins, etymology and psychology of names, especially those applied to places and landmarks, you will see comments about them throughout most of my travelogues. Or maybe it is because of my inherent inability to remember names (what I refer to as Name Amnesia) and that they reveal much about a culture and people. If you read enough of my writing you’ll learn why.

Now, in a cage of metal, powered by an engine fed by dead dinosaurs and plants, our bikes safely secured on our ‘wagon’, we rode on manicured trails long since covered with hard surfaces unlike those used by deer, wolves, bison and native peoples. But our penchant for stakes –street signs, telephone posts, billboards, you’ve seen them all- remain. Over a hundred years later, they do the same things; they just look different.

Life goes by quickly at seventy miles an hour. It sometimes assumes an abstract or surreal effect. Like you are watching a movie and not really experiencing what you see. Our goal that afternoon and evening was to get to the park as fast as possible. We knew we would be setting up camp in the dark. So, like a little kid, my face was often gawking out the front or side windows. Finally I couldn’t restrain myself and grabbed the camera, rolled the window down to the windy cold and shot life as it rolled by.

Sometimes the land seems separate from the sky when you are speeding down the highway. Clouds and stellar bodies stay still while the land rolls along underneath it.

For a period in Texas, actually most of the South, the land was carpeted by white fields of cotton. Reminded of snow, it's an oxymoron for my Yankee brain that responds to white landscapes with a chilling shiver. In north Texas, cotton still carpets vast stretches.

Remnants of our frontier still remain: the railroads. Transporting anything long distances on iron wheels and rails, it still seems the most logical and efficient use of resources. Other countries make extensive use of their railroad system for transporting public (people) and commodities. Perhaps we should re-evaluate our reliance on tractor trailers and the highways, using them only for connecting the dots where the RRs can't. A common landmark, if you will, of north Texas: the railroads and cars full of more dead dinosaurs and plants: coal.

I love going through and stopping in Small Town America. You see the most amazing things and meet such wonderful people. The real people of this country. One of the many things I look closely at is the local architecture. I caught this one out the window at over 40 mph. Two fellow riders share that interest and I sometimes photograph examples for them. Although Chuck's interest is primarily courthouses, I think he shares the same curiosity I do, and I know Tony is an architect involved with preservation.

The photo below was captured out the window at 40 mph. Not a bad attempt.

Dark descended upon us as we made our way northwest. Although I enjoy riding and driving at night, being isolated from the views of the environment this time detracted from the enjoyment. It was also a long drive; I was ready to arrive at the park and unwheel myself.

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posted by Macrobe
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