Gone Summering, July 1998
Say you're driving south from Amarillo on the high plains of the Texas panhandle. The monochrome sky hangs darkly over the monochrome earth and a storm-bearing norther stirs dust devils across the prairie. If you are me, you sigh. This is not the panhandle of your imagination.
I expected great herds of cattle. Horseback cowboys. Grass. I didn't expect a plowed and irrigated landscape of cotton fields, straight-line roads, and farmhouses bleached colorless as the drifting skies. But then the dun-colored earth cracks open and I see a great declivity, brilliant with the colors of fire: Palo Duro Canyon.
At its widest, this fissure in the plains spreads eight miles across; then it turns northwest, cut by Palo Duro Creek into a gorge only two miles from wall to wall. The erosion-resistant caprock is sculpted into gigantic palisades mottled in eggshell whites. Softer layers slope below it in brick-red shales dotted with brush. And down in its dim depths are badlands striped in ochers, siennas, and the lemony hues of sandstone.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park marks the entrance to this gorge. From here, a two-lane road runs down a steep grade past the Goodnight Riding Stables, Goodnight Trading Post, and Goodnight Dugout, all named in honor of Charles Goodnight, who once ran 100,000 cattle here. But Goodnight's greatest fame was saving the buffalo. The members of the small wild herd that he corralled were the last on the plains. They became breeding stock for the iconic beasts we marvel at now all over the West.
No bison roam the park these days. It's a place to please people. You can bed down in campgrounds named Sagebrush, Hackberry, Sunflower, and Cactus. You can ride horses and bikes, run, hike. There's a rugged nine-mile trail along a high redrock ridge. And midway down the gorge, a maze of easy, sandy trails will lead you up a side canyon to Lighthouse, the great eroded stack that is the park's landmark formation.
One evening, I take a sunset hike along one of those trails. Water-carved walls enclose the box canyon, and the air is soft and still as I amble past peach-colored cones and striated humps of gypsum. Then I notice heaps of fresh, berry-rich scat piled among the junipers and willows along the creek's edge. Only a bear could produce droppings of such amplitude, I imagine. Suddenly, I'm alert.
The wind kicks up, reminding me of the ghosts who inhabit the canyon. They are Comanches, women, children, and old men trapped here in 1874 by U.S. Cavalry troops who burned their villages and slaughtered 1,048 horses. Imagine the screams. The bloody, broken, writhing piles — horse on horse. Soldiers ordered to shoot the animals are said to have turned away, vomiting in disgust. It was enough horror to break the spirit of tough Comanche warriors. Enough to end the Red River War.
I leave Palo Duro Canyon reaffirmed in my belief that there is no such thing as scenery. The beauty I encountered is a mix of rosy clay and red blood, of caprock and memory, of the spirits of Comanches and of Charlie Goodnight's resurrected bison. It is also a black bear who stands hidden in junipers, and a red trail that holds my footprints.
Annick Smith is a frequent contributor to Outside.
Illustration by Jason Schneider