I think we’ve purchased each of these books at least three times because I keep slipping them into people hands before they can say no and I know I’ve forcibly suggested them to many more. Yes, these books are that good. And, I’m going to say it, and it may sound a little preachy here, but they are books that are important to read. Each one tells the human experiences of this area. Experiences that are so influenced by natural forces that it’s almost as if the Earth could be described as a central figure.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
In this book about the Dust Bowl, we follow the progression of the booming American economy and westward expansion that begins in the 1880s. We learn about cultural and economic shifts that set the stage for the great plow-up on which so many European immigrants pinned their hopes. We follow several families through multiple generations as they arrive in the CO/OK/TX/NM grasslands in a time of plentiful rain and when demand for wheat has exploded. Then fortunes change when the sky literally turns black. Egan chronicles the changes in weather and economic markets and the tolls they take on the precarious existence of several families.
OK, so I have to admit to you all that as a student of environmental studies with a passion for soil ecology, I was woefully under-informed about the Dust Bowl in my formative years. I mean, it was dirt blowing around, right? Oh! but it was so much more than that. And it lasted a long time. Like… really long. And you can still see the effects of it today. The odd rises along fence lines that mark where soil settled in drifts are still visible here. I’ll never be able to look at a tumbleweed without thinking how bad it must taste pickled, after which I immediately feel blessed that we don’t have to eat it to survive. Maybe it was growing up in the Upper Midwest (where we were focused on very different environmental and social crises), but the Dust Bowl serves as a crucial warning to people in every part of the country… every part of the world. The stories of the people who lived it are unforgettable and should you find yourself on a glamping trip through or in the area, understanding the natural and human forces that have swept through before you just adds so much perspective. So grab a copy. You will like it. I KNOW YOU WILL. Ha!
Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne
I bet you’ve heard of the Comanches before, but do you really know their story? What about Quannah Parker? This well-written and brutally descriptive book follows the rise and fall of the power of the Commanche nation during the American expansion of the west. Gwynne does not romanticize the west, but rather presents the unique perspectives of many peoples clashing in the struggle to attain control over the Oklahoma-Texas borderlands. Prior to the American government’s push to attain manifest destinty, the Comanches were a loosely organized nation of bands living nomadically across the southwest. As other tribes saw populations dwindle through disease and/or conflict with whites, the Comanches begin to centralize power. The story of Quannah Parker’s mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, is just amazing. She was a white girl living in Texas when a Commanche tribe raided her family’s compound and abducted her. As she ages, Cynthia Ann becomes Comanche, she marries a powerful leader, bears children, and when she is “rescued” by whites, she fights with all her will to escape back to her people. Her son, Quannah, becomes the first (and last) true Commanche chief, and unites his people as they first fight for freedom from the white government and then transition to the new reservation system the American government imposes on all native tribes.
Gwynne’s book is a remarkable accounting of social changes that happened not so long ago. Quannah Parker’s “star house” is still standing in Cache, OK. Many of the places mentioned in the book are now parks, and we’ve glamped at several of them. It is reading books like this that brings that sense of melancholy when viewing a canyon land that would otherwise just be a pretty picture. Its that mix of sadness and hopefulness that makes glamping more than just hanging out in a campground: its connecting with place.