Beatrice Colin - Author
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A Grand Feast of Emptiness – travel feature about our epic road trip through Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.

‘Need some help?’ A pick-up truck pulls up and a farmer with whiskers and a baseball cap leans out of the window. Our rented car is parked at the side of the road and we’ve stopped to look out at an area formerly known as No Man’s Land. Ahead and behind us, the road runs straight for thirty miles or more in each direction through the Oklahoma Panhandle, a wedge on the map between Texas and Colorado. The farmer’s truck is the first vehicle we’ve seen for hours.

‘No thanks,’ we tell him. ‘We’re just looking at the view.’ The farmer gives us that look, that look that says, crazy foreigners, and pulls off in a cloud of dust.

If you ignore the telegraph poles that seem to stretch into infinity and the occasional wooden fence, it’s easy to imagine the Great Plains of America as the first European settlers might have seen them. Pale green sagebrush and bright red prairie fire are glanced by a golden sunlight. A bird of prey hovers on a thermal above. The sky billows with cloud and the wind blows hard and cold and tastes of snow.

We are standing on the land once roamed across by the Comanche, an Indian tribe who were known as fearless and fearsome warriors. After a summer hunting buffalo, they would set off under a September Moon, when the grass was high and the moon was full, to ride all the way to Mexico. The prairie that once spread for thousands of miles from Canada to Texas are nearly all gone but of the 2% that remain, either restored or in so-called pre-settlement state, many areas being turned into national parks or are under conservation orders. Every year more and more people come an area that was once known as the Great American Desert, to hike, to hunt pheasant and deer, or simply to lose themselves.

I’d seen it in the films of Terence Mallick, read anything I could find by Annie Proux and listened to the songs of Woody Guthrie. The towns and landmarks I’d pinpointed on a map; Cimarron, Dalhart, Boise City and McNees Crossing all had a sense of rugged glamour, of optimism from another time. Nothing had prepared me, however, for the sheer scale, for the sheer emptiness of the American prairie. Looking out at across the land, it feels like looking across a vast ocean, unchanging, unyielding.

Many miles from the Interstate and predictably far from an airport, the Oklahoma Panhandle is way off the beaten track. We decided to fly to New Mexico and then drive in a huge loop to take in three states; Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado. As we flew towards Albuquerque in New Mexico, tiny rectangles of farmland below are replaced by huge irrigated discs of wheat, corn and cotton. The industrial-sized farms suddenly stop as the land below changes again; now it looks like creased brown paper with the occasional scrawled black line of a canyon or a cliff. For about an hour of flying time, for several hundred miles at least, we fly over this bleak and empty place, a land that looks virtually uninhabited; no farms, no towns, just miles and miles of flattened brown. The roads, and there are a few, are always dead straight, Roman in their single-mindedness to get somewhere. I suddenly feel a little apprehensive. Where on earth are we going?

There’s snow on the Rockies. But the air in Albuquerque is fairly warm. It’s a long way to Amarillo in Texas, our first stop, five hours on the Interstate. Far from being the slightly quaint cowboy town I’d imagined, Amarillo is a huge city, sliced up by the freeway. Strip malls line the side of the road, dazzling in their attempt to distract the eye with bargain motel rates and eat all you can buffets. We drive around looking for the centre but can’t seem to find it. It doesn’t seem to have a centre, just dozens of roads all leading out of Amarillo.

Despite a night where the sound of heavy traffic about thirty yards from our window never ceases, we sleep well. The next morning, the lobby is full of cowboys all heading to the rodeo in some large civic building. There’s a sign informing residents that it’s a federal offence to carry hand-guns. Hopefully these cowboys have left their guns at home. Instead they sip stewed coffee and stand, feet the standard three feet apart, while they discuss different brands of horse feed.

Heading north towards Oklahoma, the land begins to change from enormous fields, to rolling grasslands. We pass wind farms and then dozens of small oil wells whose elbows pump up and down all day. I spot a small track leading around the side of a slope. According to the map, it’s part of the old Santa Fe Trail where white settlers in wagons headed west. It’s not flat at all either and after hours of driving north, we top a rise and look down on to huge undulating expanse where flat-topped hillocks, or mesas, they are known, rise up on the horizon. This is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I have ever seen. This is No Man’s Land.

And yet in the last one hundred and fifty years, the High Plains, as they are also known, have been the site of some of most shameful, devastating and irreversible acts of the modern age as successive waves of white settlers laid claim to the land. Once the buffalo had all been slaughtered, the Native Americans tribes had been decimated by European diseases and herded into reservations, the American Government organised Land Runs. In the late 1890s, on crack of a musket fired by a US soldier, ten of thousands of prospective homesteaders would race on horseback to stake their claim on prairie that had formerly been Indian land. Towns like Guthrie, were created almost instantly when ten thousand new residents literally arrived on the same afternoon.

The new settlers tried to use the Great Plains for raising cattle. The weather, however, was too extreme, and most of the livestock died in the severe winters. For a few decades, this part of the world was used as hideout for outlaws and desperados. There was plenty of room to simply disappear.

Food shortages after the Great War and innovations in agricultural machinery changed everything in the 1920s. Millions of acres of virgin prairie from Texas all the way to South Dakota were ploughed up by so-called ‘suitcase farmers,’ who, using the new-fangled tractors, bought up the land cheaply, planted wheat and made a fortune. In a few short years, however, it was all over, the Great Plains hit by a mixture of drought and the effects of the collapse of the banking system. Thousands of farmers lost everything. But there was worse to come.

Left fallow and without the dense scrub that had been grazed on for millions of years by buffalo to keep it in place, the land they had ploughed up simply turned into dust and blew away. In the early 1930, millions of tons of earth were blown across America in so-called ‘dusters’ turning the sky black and entombing everything in it’s path in thick suffocating grit. Cattle died, houses were buried and even the snow that fell was grey. In New York, thousands of miles away, they woke one day to find that they too were enveloped in clouds of Oklahoma dust. In the Dirty Thirties, as they were known, thousands of Okkies, as they were known, left Oklahoma and headed West to California where as migrants they lived in abject poverty in vast tented enclaves.

“When the dust gets high,’ sings Woody Guthrie on our car CD player, in the song Dust Bowl Blues. ‘You can’t even see the sky.’

The sky above, however, is clear and of the most vivid blue. As the sun starts to go down and the light turns to the gold, it’s easy to see how the Native Americans and the White settlers after them must have believed that they’d discovered the Promised Land.

We find a motel room in a small town just across the state border in Colorado. The road we intend to take next, through the Comanche Grasslands, is pretty desolate. Take supplies, we are told. It’s wild out there. The next morning, a mist descends and it starts to rain very softly. Now we can see virtually nothing, just the skeletal shapes of abandoned ranches looming out of the white. Suddenly we drive out of the cloud and into another vast panorama of rocky gullies and small dried-up streambeds. Up ahead, the palest of blue at first, the Rockies appear.

And yet for all its sublime beauty, the Great Plains never let you forget that they are almost impossible to own, to tame. The optimistically named Boise City, a tiny town that was almost completely buried in the Dust Storms of the 1930s, is a place of ghosts today, filled with boarded-up shops and empty buildings. As we drive towards Taos in New Mexico with the mountains on one side and a sublime stretch of breathtaking emptiness on the other, the Santa Fe trail runs alongside. At one point, under a small tree, I spot two small slabs of upright rock, memorials for the ones who didn’t make it.

 Published in The Herald 30 Jan 2010


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