My father once said “You could call this place six-foot country.” He was an Arkansas native, raised among the trees of the Ozark foothills. His most vivid first impression of the Texas Panhandle area was that a six-foot tall man like him could see for ten miles in any direction, although he said that in 1932, there wasn’t really that much to see.
I remember vividly standing in our front yard in our small town and him pointing to the solitary barn lights of farmers whose places were five, maybe ten miles away.
The first white explorers of this vast emptiness we call the High Plains agreed there wasn’t much to see. The leader of a mid-nineteenth century surveying party reportedly wrote across his map that “this is a vast treeless plain, unfit for human habitation.”
In a way, he was right and that was probably the reason the pre-Colombian ancestors of the Comanche saw it as a place to go through, not be of. That attitude didn’t change much when they acquired horses and became some of the best cavalry in the word. It was still a place to go through, but it was also a place where they followed the mammoth herds of buffalo and later their ancestral enemies the Apaches. It became, in a small sense, a place for them to be of.
With the coming of westward expansion, first with wagon trains and then trains on rails, this vast High Plains begrudgingly welcomed the most hearty; those willing for forebear scorching summers with their cattle-killing hail storms and tornadoes and sudden howling blizzards of the winter time. They adapted to the extremes – most did anyway – and made it a place to be of.
Two generations after the coming of the railroads and fence-to-fence wheatfields, that resolve was tested again, with the coming of unforgiving, all enfolding dust blizzards that sometimes lasted for days or weeks. Many who could no longer continence the daily swirling, gritting insult to their stoicism packed their families and heeded the whisper of something better on the far western coast. For them, the High Plains again became a place to be from, not of.
Those who were lucky enough to stay were rewarded with renewed prosperity brought on by a world war, the sustained growth of the agriculture economy and the coming of the petroleum industry. Those prosperities fixed for them a place in the small towns and cities of the Plains and gave rise to subsequent generations of men and women who share a dogged insistence that yes, it may be vast, and for the most part treeless, but it is nevertheless a good place to be both from and of.