This is the biggest sky you will ever see. Twenty minutes south of Amarillo, running down the backbone of the southern High Plains on Interstate 27, the land is so prodigiously, stupendously flat that at its margins, at the milky-blue line where sky meets earth, it doesn’t end as much as it seems to dissolve. It is so empty of the usual monuments of civilization that structures like grain elevators and cotton gins loom up from the green-brown farmland like medieval fortresses.
You are heading toward lovely, nearly vacant country that, if you pay close enough attention, will teach you a great deal about the High Plains, one of the most peculiar and physically stunning parts of the American West and the last major geographic part of continental America to be colonized. It was conquered and settled in the late 1800’s, in spite of a brutally inhospitable climate and a superabundance of hostile and highly motivated Comanches. I have chosen I-27 as the starting point because it offers a breathtaking and instructive view of the agricultural plains. Not only that, but it skirts the east side of Canyon, just south of Amarillo, where you can start your day at the superb Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, a repository of easy-to-absorb information on the history, geology, and economy of the exotic world you are going to see. If the wind is right, Canyon is also where you will get your first whiff of the giant cattle feedlots of the Panhandle. Locals say it is the smell of money, and they are right, for whatever comfort that gives them.
On the way to Tulia, 32 miles south of Canyon, you get your first visual lesson in why this place is different: There are very few trees. That is because there is virtually no water; the average annual rainfall is only 21.5 inches. Indeed, there are very few trees on the entire 500-by-1,800-mile expanse of the Great Plains. When the first pioneers emerged from the dense, primeval forest that extended from the East Coast uninterrupted to a line running, roughly, directly north from Houston, they were horrified at the stark, unsheltered emptiness before them. It was nearly impossible for them to imagine farming without water or wood in a climate characterized by scorching summer heat, lethal winter blizzards, tornadoes, dust storms, frequent droughts, and hail the size of baseballs. They had a name for this vast expanse of buffalo-dotted grassland: the Great American Desert.
Considering all that, you may find yourself wondering why the Panhandle Plains are full of prosperous, horizon-spanning farms these days. Lesson two: The settlers solved the water problem. In the 1880’s, windmills allowed them to pump water from wells in upland areas and thus move both their homes and their livestock away from the banks of the only two rivers in the Panhandle: the Canadian and the Red. Then, in the past century, they figured out how to drill down into an enormous, 156,000-acre underground body of water called the Ogallala Aquifer. The farms you see are intensively irrigated—so intensively that they are quickly sucking the aquifer dry.
As you head to Tulia, there are several things to take note of. Giant center-pivot irrigating machines, which stretch the length of football fields, are everywhere. They all use water from the Ogallala. Notice the playas, shallow, clay-bottomed lakes that form all over this country and