By Russell A. Graves
Travel time from:
AUSTIN - 8 hours / BROWNSVILLE - 13 hours / DALLAS - 6 hours / EL PASO - 7 hours / HOUSTON - 10 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 8 hours / LUBBOCK - 2 hours
With a spectacular canyon and an ancient flint-knapping site, the short grass prairie offers surprises.
Heading north on Texas Highway 136 with the Amarillo skyline shrinking in my mirror, I’ve got George Strait’s country standard, “Amarillo by Morning,” floating through my head. It’s late July and cumulus clouds drift in and out of the sun, creating a mosaic of shade and light on the short-grass prairie.
My destination is Alibates National Monument, a site where, for 12,000 years, native people quarried flint for making points and tools. On the walking path to this ancient site, ranger Rhonda Terry of the National Park Service points out the rainbow-hued flint indigenous only to a 10-square-mile area surrounding the monument. The artifacts made from this flint were traded widely and have been found all over the Great Plains and Southwest.
We pause for a moment on the path to look at a collared lizard sunning itself on one of the dolomitic rocks that dominate the area. Dolomite is a carbon-based sedimentary rock that is a by-product of the sedimentary forces of an ancient and long-receded ocean. Through a slow chemical process, veins of dolomite changed to agatized Alibates flint. Millions of multi-colored flint chips, the spoils of the point-making process, surround small depressions dug in the soil by the ancients to mine the flint. It is impressive to think of the ancient peoples who have come here for this once-essential, beautiful stone.
Traveling from the Alibates quarries back to Amarillo, I detour onto old Route 66 and drive west through northern Amarillo. Driving the “Mother Road” is as close as I’ll ever come to seeing what Amarillo looked like in the 1950s. Many of the old motels and gas stations still stand, complete with their original signage.
My destination is the Polk Street Historic District, an area of restored homes built by prominent citizens around the turn of the 20th century. I have a room at the Galbraith House, built in 1912 and lovingly kept. Innkeeper Kathy Rawls is typical of Panhandle people – affable and hospitable – and is a great source of conversation when I come back to regroup and plan a trip to one of the most beautiful places in Texas in which to witness a sunrise: Palo Duro Canyon.
The next morning I’m at the rim of the canyon, watching golden sunlight brighten the pastel strata while birds and mammals stir in the early light. I’m also enjoying breakfast. For the past quarter century, the Cowboy Morning Breakfast has served western breakfast cooked in Dutch ovens off the back of a chuckwagon.
After a ride to the breakfast site in horse-drawn wagons, a jovial crowd of 150 or so anticipates the feast, savoring the mesquite smoke as it wafts from the fire pit. After sourdough biscuits, sausage and gravy, a few of the patrons scatter to take pictures while others practice their roping skills on a dummy steer or take a horseback ride.
Horses are an essential part of the Amarillo-area ranching heritage. This is where you’ll find the headquarters for the world’s most popular horse breed, the American quarter horse. An interactive museum presents the history of the quarter horse from its beginning as a cow horse in the southwestern United States to today’s versatile breed that dominates the range as well as the show ring and the race track.
At the museum, my family and I watch a movie about the breed and learn about its great sires. Our daughter climbs upon toy horses and saddles pretending she’s a cowgirl. We spend an hour browsing the displays before heading southwest to the Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Buffalo Lake is a bit of a misnomer for the refuge. There is no lake and no buffalo but, instead, an excellent example of shortgrass Panhandle habitat. Blades of grama and bluestem stretch across the horizon and sway in the light breeze. Across the refuge’s fence stretches the muddy bottom of a shallow playa lake. Dry during the summer, the lake fills up with autumn’s rains and attracts waterfowl by the thousands. The caliche road winds leisurely through the refuge and along the way, a couple of mule deer bucks — complete with velveted antlers — pick their way through a meadow. As I roll up my window, I glimpse a yellow bird. My field guide indicates a yellow warbler — the first I’ve ever seen. On the way out of the refuge, I stop at the southeastern side and peer at a small colony of prairie dogs. Their playful and animated antics are a joy to watch.
I can’t stay long, though. I am scheduled to finish my day at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. About a 30-mile drive east of the refuge, the giant chasm abruptly slices though the Llano Estacado, the “Staked Plains.” Known as the “grand canyon” of Texas, Palo Duro Canyon is 1,000 feet deep and 15 miles long, a geologic wonder that changes people’s minds about the bleakness of the Texas Panhandle. Even in the cloud-diffused evening light, the canyon’s hues glow brightly.
Like many visiting the park, we are here to see the nightly musical drama featured in the Pioneer Amphitheater. Every summer for more than two decades, the Paul Green production Texas! played to millions of fans. For the past two summers, a new play, Texas Legacies, is acknowledged as a hit. Based on historic events, the play — complete with song-and-dance numbers, flag presentations and fireworks — chronicles a fictional rancher and his bid to settle the plains. We leave the canyon with a renewed appreciation of the struggles of pioneers and their quest to settle a sometimes inhospitable land.
At sunrise, I am just west of town at the famed Cadillac Ranch, an outdoor art exhibit of 10 luxury cars planted hood-down in a wheat field. Commis-sioned by a local businessman in 1974 as a tribute to the American automobile, Cadillac Ranch has become an icon for the area. I can’t say that I understand the installation but I am impressed with its scale and creativity.
My final stop is at a square-mile patch of ground just northwest of the city limits. The Wildcat Bluff Nature Center is a privately funded, non-profit educational center for the Texas Panhandle ecosystem. Around the center’s headquarters, paved trails crisscross small patches of grass and native plants. Half a dozen cottontail rabbits sport in the area, and a scaled quail calls from a cedar fencepost. In a few steps I see half a dozen songbirds and vivid displays of prairie verbena and annual sunflowers. Soon the heat will send the wildlife to cooler places. The lyrics of the song will drift through my mind on the drive back: “Amarillo by morning, Amarillo is where I’ll be…”
But other music lingers as well, the “white” of a bobwhite calling from the mesquite and the tell-tale barks of black-tailed prairie dogs.