When American explorers crossed the Texas Panhandle, they dubbed it part of the “Great American Desert.” A “sea of grass,” the llano appeared empty, flat, and barely habitable. Contemporary developments—cell phone towers, oil rigs, and wind turbines—have only added to this stereotype. Yet in this lyrical ecomemoir, Shelley Armitage charts a unique rediscovery of the largely unknown land, a journey at once deeply personal and far-reaching in its exploration of the connections between memory, spirit, and place.
Armitage begins her narrative with the intention to walk the llano from her family farm thirty meandering miles along the Middle Alamosa Creek to the Canadian River. Along the way, she seeks the connection between her father and one of the area’s first settlers, Ysabel Gurule, who built his dugout on the banks of the Canadian. Armitage, who grew up nearby in the small town of Vega, finds this act of walking inseparable from the act of listening and writing. “What does the land say to us?” she asks as she witnesses human alterations to the landscape—perhaps most catastrophic the continued drainage of the land’s most precious resource, the Ogallala Aquifer.
Yet the llano’s wonders persist: dynamic mesas and canyons, vast flora and fauna, diverse wildlife, rich histories. Armitage recovers the voices of ancient, Native, and Hispano peoples, their stories interwoven with her own: her father’s legacy, her mother’s decline, a brother’s love. The llano holds not only the beauty of ecological surprises but a renewed realization of kinship in a world ever changing.
Reminiscent of the work of Terry Tempest Williams and John McPhee, Walking the Llano is both a celebration of an oft-overlooked region and a soaring testimony to the power of the landscape to draw us into greater understanding of ourselves and others by experiencing a deeper connection with the places we inhabit.
“In Walking the Llano, Shelley Armitage does for the Staked Plains what John McPhee did for the Northern Plains in Rising from the Plains. She carefully mines the history, character, and geology of the Llano Estacado and combines it with a compelling personal narrative to create an account that flows with lyricism, authenticity, and wisdom. A splendid and clear-eyed book.”—Nancy Curtis, coeditor of Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West
“With rare insights and in vivid language, Shelley Armitage introduces readers to the northern fringe of the Llano Estacado, the paleowaters of the Ogallala Aquifer, to Queen Anne’s Lace, and monarch butterflies laying their eggs in milkweed. Armitage ruminates with an adulthood attachment on the changing landscape of her childhood home of Vega, Texas, and her family’s farm, ‘a tiny parenthesis within these vast and persistent prairielands.’ There is poignancy in her account of her mother’s tragic final years, and of her father, once steward of his land and its real farm of cattle and sheep and sea of grass, reduced in the end to a place of wind turbines, cell phone towers, and oil wells.”—Dale L. Walker, editor of Westward: A Fictional History of the American West
“Shelley Armitage’s prose is as poetic as it is intelligent. She masterfully weaves together her personal story with the narrative of the Llano, and she does so in a way that begs the question of what lies ahead for the people and the land she loves. If literature is a study of the human heart—and it is—then Walking the Llano is a quiet masterpiece.” —BK Loren, author of Theft: A Novel
“Once you’ve ambled into the lyrical, evocative pages of Shelley Armitage’s Walking the Llano, the Plains will never seem plain again.”—William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest
"An engaging geographer and historian, [Shelley] Armitage takes the pulse of the sacred land spread out before her through luminous memories and photographs, all with an appreciative eye and a nod toward its untapped ecological splendor. [Walking the Llano is] both an intensely lyrical and intimate scrapbook of familial history and a uniquely sublime travelogue of the American Southwestern landscape."—Kirkus
“Both an intensely lyrical and intimate scrapbook of familial history and a uniquely sublime travelogue of the American Southwestern landscape.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review and “The Best Books of 2016”
“Advanced poetics are at play in this work that is both a tribute to the land and a moving exploration of family ties. Beautiful language and wide-ranging musings make Walking the Llano a treasure.”—Foreword Reviews