We sped down a straight-edge country road across the endless flatness; featureless fields blurred by outside the window – Panhandle scenery at its dullest. Suddenly, the shoulder sank into a ravine that grew deeper as we raced on. The fields retreated on the far side, and the plain gave way to a growing chasm. Finally, we came to a stop and peered over the rim of a miles-wide canyon ringed with the red and orange strata of millions of years of geologic activity.
We switched vehicles, climbing into a jerry-rigged Suburban masquerading as a Jeep. Our guide was an old rancher in a cowboy hat who drove us down precarious dusty paths along the canyon rim, recounting the legends of this land and tales of the heroic Comanche chiefs who once held sway here.
Since moving to the Texas Panhandle a few weeks earlier, I had seen nothing but the flat, sparsely populated horizon of this far-flung corner of Texas. But here was Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest gorge in the country, and a dramatic contrast to the surrounding plain.
The plain is called the Llano Estacado – Spanish for ”Staked Plain” – perched three thousand feet above sea level atop a steep escarpment that cuts across west Texas. The mid-size cities of Lubbock and Amarillo anchor the llano in the south and the north. Amarillo is also the hub of the Panhandle, that rectangular top-hat that gives Texas its characteristic shape.
The history of the Panhandle begins thousands of years ago with the various native peoples who migrated in and out of the region. Tribes such as the Antelope Creek people, the Apaches, and most recently the Comanches made a living hunting the wild animals that roamed the plains. Native people lived here even into the nineteenth century, but American ranching settlers ultimately forced them out of their lands to reservations in Oklahoma.
One boon to the native peoples throughout history was just below the surface: a layer of high quality flint ideal for making arrowheads and other tools. The best flint came from quarries on a few small buttes north of Amarillo known as the Alibates Flint Quarries (part of the National Park Service). Pieces of Alibates flint have been found across the continent, evidence of its high trading value. While I never got the opportunity to take a ranger-led tour in the quarries themselves, I hiked several times within the park to enjoy the rugged terrain that contrasts so starkly with the flat plains above.
Back at Palo Duro Canyon, we got back in the car after a brief stop to admire the view from the rim (and via zip-line!), and headed down the steep switchback road into the Red River valley. I visited the canyon many times while I lived in the region, and became familiar with some of its scenic day-hikes, including my favorite, the landmark ”Lighthouse Trail” that takes you across the dusty red canyon floor dotted with shrubs and up to a pinnacle of stone towering above like a lighthouse over an imaginary sea.
On my first visit, though, a less strenuous attraction awaited us in the form of a barbecue brisket buffet laid out in the shadow of the red canyon walls glowing in the sunset. After dark, those same canyon walls transformed into the backdrop for (of all things) a musical production, aptly named ”Texas!”
Like a Broadway act far from the lights of Manhattan, the musical takes you back in time to the American settlement of the Panhandle, from the motivation to move out west, to the struggles of life on the frontier, tensions with the native tribes, and the challenges of making a life on a plain that Americans once thought uninhabitable.
The theatrical act feels out of place in the stifling Texas summer evening, but the ”on-location” setting makes it a unique experience, with special effects that amplify and highlight the natural surroundings, and incorporate them into the action. The show concludes with a dramatic fireworks display and an all-American burst of (borderline-excessive) patriotism – something you probably won’t find on Broadway, but that feels right at home in the Texas countryside.
Before you go:
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