Spring break was coming, and we were all set to go camping in southern Utah. Redrock! Canyonlands! Ancient ruins! But the weather wasn’t as warm as we hoped it would be. Lows in the 30’s and highs in the 50’s, and cloudy. Not the sunburny spring break weather we were craving, especially since we’d be in a tent.
So we changed plans and decided to head south to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks. Subterranean beauty! Limestone ramparts! Chihuahuan Desert! But the forecast for the region was updated to include “damaging winds”, something our towering family style dome tent might not survive. Not to mention a recent underground fire and bit of a radiation leak at a nearby nuclear waste dump, the cause and effects of which remain a bit mysterious.
Colorado was still buried in snow, so north was out of the question, and Arizona was just a bit too far for our timeframe, which ruled out the southwest. On a whim, I checked the weather at Palo Duro Canyon, a place I’d heard about but never seen: highs in the 80’s, lows in the mid 40’s. Sunburn weather, with zero chance of frost and mere “breezy” conditions. Due to her aversion to cold weather, my wife was surprisingly open to the experience. Palo Duro it was.
For the first time ever, our family was headed to Texas.
The Texas panhandle—that rectangular northern section that comes dangerously close to actually touching Colorado—is famous for three things: tornadoes, the dustbowl, and Texas Tech football. More cultured types might know that Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings were born here, that the region was the last stronghold of the Comanches, and that the XIT ranch consisted of 3 million acres of panhandle shortgrass prairie.
Good stuff, but in reality much of the panhandle is defined by the Llano Estacado, a bone dry, pancake flat tableland so vast that few are aware of its existence, even as they drive across it, even as they live upon it. It is, in essence, a plateau the size of Indiana ringed by escarpments/cliffs ranging from dozens to hundreds of feet high, with thousands of arroyos and a few true canyons cutting into its edges. The longest and deepest of these canyons is Palo Duro, our destination.
But first, we had to get there. Cross the Rocky Mountains. Roll through the foothills. Out onto the plains. I used to think that everything east of the Rockies was “high plains”, at least until you got to the prairie, whatever that was, the whole shebang tilted towards the Mississippi River. Turns out that geographical reality is much more complicated than that. Much of the land east of the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to New Mexico, is, indeed, lacking postcard topography, but that doesn’t mean it’s “flat” or grassy. A closer look reveals a patchwork of swales, hundred mile wide river valleys, rolling sand hills, hidden canyons, wooded bottomlands and much more.
The journey southeast from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico reveals this unexpected diversity quite well, as 13,000 foot peaks and timbered slopes give way not to a layered, broken land of chunky mesas and stacked layers of sedimentary rock cluttered with pinon/juniper forest. The Pecos River appeared here and there as a narrow ribbon of brown tucked between hills and remote ranches. Definitely not flat nor grassy.
By the time you reach Interstate 40, formerly Route 66, grasses do appear, but they are interspersed with shrubs, cacti and scraggly mesquite trees, with cottonwoods along the few reliable watercourses, but the land remains broken and rolling, with distant mesas rising north and south. Even in the best of years this is dry country, but this year it is exceptionally dry due to an intense drought. Yellow grasses await the carelessly tossed cigarette that will ignite the inevitable wildfires, a situation made worse by the spring winds. Humidity hovers in the single digits. Creeks run dry. Trees weaken and are attacked by beetles or disease. There’s been no snow this winter, and the forecast calls for no rain.
I-40 eastbound, across the Pecos at Santa Rosa and into the Canadian River Valley, as revealed by a groovy sign, part of a state program that marks watershed boundaries along major highways. The Canadian is one of the great unknown rivers of the west. It starts on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the NM/Colorado border, and cuts a canyon into plains of northeast New Mexico before bearing eastward into the Texas panhandle, where its erosive powers have created a valley that defines the northern edge of the Llano Estacado. For hundreds of miles, it flows through some of the least populated and least visited lands in the lower 48.
It also flows through some surprisingly scenic lands, Indeed, eastern New Mexico looks like a poor man’s version of Moab or Sedona. And it is poor. All of New Mexico is poor, or nearly all of it, and these arid eastern reaches contains some of the most desolate towns in America. Cultural wreckage is everywhere. Abandoned homesteads. Collapsed motels. Burned out gas stations. Splintered billboards. With the exception of the towering windmills, nothing here is new, and there are no signs of hope. Grim determination carries the day. That and a poverty so grinding that staying is the only option.
Maybe it was the wind, or the dusty haze and the still leafless trees. Perhaps it was the ever present signs of drought, or the ubiquitous crumbling remains of Route 66. Maybe Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” simply scarred me for life. Whatever the cause, gassing up in Tucumcari conjured up feelings of doom. Not impending doom, but inevitable doom. Neon wreckage of yore might be quaint, but utter abandonment of huge truck stops and even chain restaurants hints at something bigger and more sinister than changes wrought by the multi-laned freeway. This thing we have built cannot live forever. That’s what I thought as I slid my credit card and pumped gas. One day the credit card won’t swipe. One day the gas runs out. One day the drought becomes permanent. One day the franchise icons clustered around the interstate off ramp become wind whipped, sun blasted relics of a bygone era when the machine still worked and humans didn’t feast on human flesh.
Tucumcari: City of the Future.
Suddenly: TEXAS. I tell my family to soak up the view: scattered mesquite, bits of mesa, rolling desert, dry and winding creek bottoms. We agree that it is austere and uncluttered, perhaps even boring to the untrained eye. We climb gently up a small hill between mesas, and in an instant all is changed. Utterly flat. Utterly treeless. Instantly agroindustrialized.
We are now rolling across the top of the Llano Estacado. Looking north, I catch a glimpse of the Canadian River valley stretching out beyond the edge of the caprock, but that soon disappears, and we are swallowed up by a monochromatic brownness and monoaltitudinal flatness that stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. County roads and power lines run along cardinal directions before vanishing in the haze. The wind howls and threatens to blow big trucks into our lane. Tumbleweeds bounce across the freeway. Clouds of dust swallow the faded billboards. Trees and power poles lean with the gales.
Grain elevators appear, as do occasional circular, center pivot patches of alfalfa sprouts. The elevators create a rare vertical third dimension, and the occasional field an equally rare bit of fertile color. These are not mirages, for despite all appearances, the Llano Estacado has been prodded into production. Millions of acres of this former Comanche and bison haunted wasteland have been transformed into a billion dollar empire of cotton, soy, wheat and more, mostly thanks to the aquifer that underlies the region, at least for now.
Roadside attraction…none other than Cadillac Ranch, followed by a surprisingly early arrival at our fancy Holiday Inn in “West Amarillo”, code for “corporate franchise exurbia far, far from the actual city of Amarillo.” The buildings, all of them are big and stand alone like forts of yore—tall barricades of particle board and manufactured stone, with electric key cards to keep marauding Comanches from using the elevator or, God forbid, sneaking into the indoor pool. This is, after all, “the good side of town” we were assured when we made our reservation. We swim. We eat. We sleep.