In 'Walking the Llano,' author makes pitch for the beauty of the flatlands
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
With roads that stretch on seemingly forever, travelers through these flat plains often try to outrun the sun.
"People just speed through here," said author and Vega native Shelley Armitage when we spoke Monday afternoon, bonding over our mutual, acquired appreciation for the beauty of the Llano Estacado.
"I've always thought the flatlands were really kind of profound, the horizon ... just very evocative," Armitage said.
Armitage, a former professor at West Texas A&M University and other schools around the country, tries to slow down and explore her feelings about home, family and the history of the scrub-filled, endless prairies in a new memoir, Walking the Llano, available now. She will sign copies of the book at 2 p.m. July 9 at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 2415 Soncy Road.
But though she knew she wanted to chronicle her 30-mile walk across her family farm and to the banks of the Canadian River, the structure of the book came to her over time.
"I knew it would be the kiss of death if I did it sequentially," Armitage said. "If I chronologically listed the hikes, that would be so boring."
Instead, the book plays fast and loose with chronology, and Armitage's walks (sometimes alone, sometimes with friends and neighbors) begin to be more than about "dense cacti and mesquite flatlands near the Middle Alamosa" and start to tell the story of her family and other early settlers of the region.
Armitage's father, Robert Armitage, came to Vega as a 16-year-old young man with his family in 1926 — "only one generation removed from the 'Old West'," as the author describes it. In town, he befriended a man named Ysabel Gurule, a pastore, or sheepman, who she says was the second non-Native settler in the area.
"My dad's generation was the glue between the earliest settlers and the living generation — ours, people in their sixties and younger," Armitage writes. "For at least these two generations the local stories still make sense. They create a common ground."
In Walking the Llano, Armitage tries to make those stories make sense for future generations.
"I was so interested in trying to reinscribe the disappeared voices — the Mexican pastores, the Comanches — in thinking about our environment and what went on there" Armitage told me. "In the Vega area, it's all about Route 66, and I keep telling people there's more here than 66."
In Walking the Llano, both Armitage's father and mother, Dorothy, both die, and Armitage said she was surprised to find herself so open about her personal losses in her book — her first attempt at a memoir though she taught a class in writing such books at the University of Texas at El Paso.
"I'm a very private person, and I don't think about my life as being interesting to anyone," she said. "I'm really kind of a modest person. ... But I realized it was part of the story, and that all of the stories are important."
But overall, she said, "I wanted it to be about the place and how the (personal) stories resurface along with the stories of the land."
And in telling those stories, Armitage hopes to remind readers of the fragility of the region's natural resources.
"Until we do care about our surroundings, we're not going to take care of them," she said. "We really don't know our own backyard oftentimes, and maybe we would take better care of (the surroundings) if we see what they hold for us."