In 1542, Father Juan Padilla wrote “the sky is so vast and unchanging that it resembles a great blue bowl turned upside down on the landscape.” He was one of the chroniclers of the ill-fated expedition led Francisco Vasquez Coronado across the High Plains.
Coronado’s trek, along with the others led by fellow conquistadores during the Spanish exploration of the New World was never meant to just gain knowledge of the endless prairie. The days they spent on the trackless grassland were a means to an end; the sacking of the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola and the forced conversion of the natives they encountered. Coronado came to the New World determined to spread Catholicism, impose the Spanish regal system on all they met and most important, take all the gold they could find. They set about to abolish tribal systems in place since the Neolithic, to give those peoples no choice but to be assimilated, dominated or die.
Their view of their destiny in the wider world, their sense of place, was dictated by countless decades of a rigid caste system that doomed the lowborn to short lives of grinding poverty and virtual multi-generational serfdom. The conquistadores and their heirs brought that attitude, that way of being, to the New World.
It’s ironic that the children of Europe who moved into the vacuum left by the dispossession came to feel comfortable and comforted by the endless horizon that so distressed the conquerors. Future generations found homes on the plains, drawing substance from the fertile soil.
They were followed by the early white settlers who came the open plains to escape the heritage of civil, religious and social systems. They created their own caste system, also tied inextricably to the land they tilled and grazed. Wide open spaces, eventually defined by endless strands of barbed wire was their chief sacrament.
As the years pass, fewer and fewer of the settlers’ heirs take up stewardship of the land. The small towns where they were educated, where they we born, baptized, betrothed and buried are slowly being absorbed by the prairies and farmlands that sustained them. Yet, there are those determined few who endure.
Some of their children have brief flirtations with the world beyond county lines yet a few feel themselves drawn back to the land so flat a six-foot tall man can see ten miles at all points of the compass. For all, the High Plains is a shared experience, requiring a kind of gentle stubborn arrogance borne out of individualism, of being different and occasionally solitary.
That sense of place is always deep within the core of their being. It is affirmed around the seasons by the presence of Padilla’s overturned blue bowl. As days end, when the sun does its last and the crickets announce the coming night, and join their song with the whisper of the ever-present wind, the heirs of the plains are reassured their place is meant to be.