Have you explored the Ceja of the Llano Estacado?

Published Jan 9th 2011 in Geology & Activities

During the wee hours of New Year’s Day I stepped outside and looked skyward. Scud clouds scooted southward – freezing gusts nipped at my face. Back in the warm house voices lifted in song, harmonies sweet, beautifully fretted by nimble guitar picking. The wind whistled through my bubbly champagne mind and instantly I was transported northwestward , as far northwest as a person can go on the Llano Estacado.

I was transported to a nameless Llano Estacado abandoned farmhouse, with Siberian elms dead and dying, busted windmill screeching on the strongest gusts, the horizon stretching forever under an almost full moon. Why did that image come to mind as I gazed over the quiet street?

Was it the frigid wind? Interstate 40 has been closed twice in the last month due to blizzards, on either side of my visit, two weeks before, when I spent some time exploring the northwestern corner of the Llano Estacado. I had seen that image, as I drove up and down every road that started among mesas and red arroyos lined with dark junipers and ended up on the great flatland stretching for 300 miles homeward.

Locator Map - Quay County, NMWhen I dropped off the llano into the basin of the upper drainage of Alamogordo Creek on NM 158, I was greeted by two golden eagles and several dozen big common ravens playing in the gusty frigid winds. I slowed down, taking photos of the landscape and creatures. I parked several places along the slope of the road as it dropped 150 feet or more in elevation, studying the gold and silver grasses and shrubs under the dark green cedars and scrub oaks. The gravelly soil was networked with stretch marks from frost heave.

A grumpy old silver and black heeler chased my slow moving pickup as I passed one of two ranch compounds in the valley. The road climbed through red and golden beige sandstones dotted with pinions, oaks and junipers, and a few clumps of rabbitbrush. I topped out, 100 feet higher, out on short grass prairie as far as the eye could see.

On top, large flocks of horned larks, bluebirds, and longspurs swirled around the road, going from stocktank to pasture full of sunflower, to shortgrass prairie dotted with the walking skeletons of cane cholla. I had been on this part of the road before, years ago, helping a rancher a bit further south experiment with riparian restoration by planting pole cuttings of cottonwood and debris catching fences of windmill pipe and sheep fencing.

After the trip, I blathered about the Llano Estacado on Craig Anderson’s radio station FM 1070, as I do every Friday morning at 8 a.m. A young cowboy, Cody Scott, had grown up in that very valley, under the northwestern corner of our great plateau was listening. That evening I got a friend request from him on Facebook. He has some great photos of the ranch on Facebook. He graduated from Eastern New Mexico State University in Portales with a degree in public relations – a somewhat surprising but a truly marvelous choice for a fellow with a ranch management career in mind.

I want to learn more about this region because it is the Ceja (eyebrow) of the Llano Estacado that Ciboleros climbed to hunt the buffalo, where Comancheros trailed long carreta trains full of trade goods on their way to Palo Duro, Blanco, and Canon Rescate and beyond. Pastores had to climb La Ceja, too, as they led huge droves of churro sheep as far as Tahoka Lake in the final days of the Commons of the Llano Estacado. Once passed, this great wall was topped with a great nothingness, a great grassland stretching forever, a place where landmarks do not exist (there are no big hills, big creeks, or big anything but immense sky). I want to learn more of the great stories of our home bioregion!

What are the subtle signs that hint at the stories of the ciboleros? The image invoked by the frigid wind on New Year’s Day’s 2 at a.m. was of the broken dreams of the small acre homesteader. Thousands of World War I veterans homesteaded the western llano but the Dust Bowl brought ruin to most. Back then the American dream promised everyone could be a small landholder and have a good life as a gentleman farmer (the goal of the majority of the populace of the United States, even as late as 1930).

What image from the days of the ciboleros, comancheros, or pastores should I imagine when I step outside in the wee hours of a winter night? Should it be a cibolero expedition caught by a snowstorm? A trip with few kills, but with a good trading session with Comanches, involving hundreds of mules that they traded on to traders in Indian Territory, who then traded even further eastward, until the mules reached the cotton fields of the South in 1840s, or the wagon trains of the California 49ers?