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Deep in the West

Destination: Muleshoe

Travel time from:
Austin – 8 hours
Brownsville – 12.5 hours
Dallas – 7 hours
Houston – 10.5 hours
San Antonio – 8 hours
Lubbock – 1.25 hours
El Paso – 6.5 hours

Once part of the XIT Ranch, Muleshoe is home to sandhill cranes and prairie dogs.

By Dyanne Fry Cortez

Don’t be put off by the name. While it may sound like little more than a dusty hoofprint in a field, Muleshoe offers a colorful history and abundant wildlife opportunities for those who make the trek.

Muleshoe is almost at the edge of Texas, perched on the High Plains of the Panhandle, occupying land that once was part of the vast XIT Ranch. The city is named for the Muleshoe Ranch, owned by E.K. Warren and his son Charles, who bought several pieces of the old XIT. The town sprang up in 1913 when the railroad tracks came through.

Almost a century later, Muleshoe is proud of its ranching heritage and slightly quirky name. At the Cham­ber of Commerce and Agriculture, there’s a life-sized statue and historical marker dedicated to the mule, which is also the school mascot. Giant mule shoes mark the entrance to the Muleshoe Heritage Center, where the old Muleshoe Ranch cookhouse is one of several restored buildings on display.

On this trip, our first stop is the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge 20 miles south of town. Established in 1935, it’s a great place for bird watching. Three saline lakes and a handful of playa lakes provide a winter home for sandhill cranes and a rest area for ducks and geese that travel the North American Central Flyway.

Or they might, if they had any water. We’re visiting in the fall of 2011, a year of exceptional drought. Still, refuge manager Jude Smith isn’t ready to give up on the waterfowl season just yet. The place caught a little rain in August, courtesy of the New Mexico monsoons. Some ducks stopped by in September. A storm front is headed this way, expected to arrive tonight. Everyone hopes it will bring more rain.

Cranes aren’t the only attraction here. There are 320 species on the bird checklist, including the lesser prairie-chicken, which is known to nest in the area. A prairie dog town is popular with visitors.

“The dogs have never been shot at, so they don’t fear people. They’ll sit up and bark at you,” says Smith. The refuge is open every day for bird and wildlife watching. Public roads offer drive-up access to the larger lakes, the prairie dog viewing zone and a picnic/camping area. An additional 20 miles of trails and service roads are reserved for hikers and nonmotorized bikes.

At the visitor center, we meet Sam­mie Simpson, chair of the Bailey County Historical Commission and one of the refuge’s interpretive volunteers.

Simpson doesn’t claim to be a wildlife expert. She’s after the human story. Before settlers moved in, planted crops and learned to pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer, this dry plateau was a forbidding place. Army Capt. R.B. Marcy, commander of the 1849 Santa Fe Exped­ition, described it as “a land where no man, either savage or civilized, permanently abides … even the savages dare not venture to cross it except at two or three places, where they know water can be found.”

One of those routes went from present-day Portales, N.M., to the general vicinity of Lubbock. Known first as the Trail of Living Water, then as the Comanchero trade route and eventually as the Fort Sumner Road, the route was used by prehistoric toolmakers, nomadic Kiowa and Comanche tribes, Army survey crews and other peoples who passed this way.

“It is just an ancient trail,” says Simpson. Local historians have strong evidence that the route went through the refuge at White Lake.

Simpson takes us on a tour of the maintenance barn and manager’s residence, built by the Works Progress Administration in 1938. The barn is still in use. The house is currently unoccupied; historians are restoring two rooms to their original condition. WPA workers also planted trees, built roads and constructed dikes to help retain water in the saline lakes. A small exhibit shows the tools they had to work with: a wheelbarrow and a horse-drawn Fresno Scraper. “The rest was done by hand,” says Simpson.

Walking back to the visitor center, we lean into a strong wind that threatens to push us backward. “Does it blow like this all the time?” I ask.

“No,” says Simpson, “but it does it a lot.” We’d figured on camping here tonight, but we’re having second thoughts. Cooking dinner in this gale would not be fun — and there’s that storm forecast. We decide to drive into town and get a room at the Heritage House Inn.

Heading out, we spy an ornate box turtle crossing the road. It seems untroubled by our truck, but when I lean out the window with a camera, the turtle speeds up and fades into the roadside vegetation.

The storm hits around 2 a.m. Daylight brings chill gray skies and puddles on the parking lot. No problem: we brought jackets.

After a visit to the mule monument, we take a ride up U.S. 84 to Farwell, the last town this side of the Texas-New Mexico state line. We find the Apple Shack, a modern country store with baskets of red apples and shelves stocked with sauces and jams. The front counter tempts us with free samples. We leave with a bottle of jalapeño ketchup and a jar of strawberry preserves.

Back in Muleshoe, we lunch at the Dinner Bell, which has a noon buffet every day of the week. Today it’s fried chicken, mashed potatoes, enchiladas, tostadas, a salad bar, slices of watermelon and a pink cake with cherries on top. The regular menu features sandwiches and charbroiled steaks. I order a patty melt, while my spouse gets a burger and fries. Our plates contain more than enough food to fortify us for an afternoon of sightseeing.

The Muleshoe Heritage Center began with a Santa Fe Railway depot. The station closed in 1982. The railroad offered to donate the depot if the community would pay to move it. Two organizations were born: a Student Community Action Club and the nonprofit Muleshoe Heritage Foundation. The county donated a plot of land, and volunteers got busy fixing up the depot as an office and community meeting hall.

“We thought it was the only building we would have,” says Dolores Harvey, hostess and tour guide at the Heritage Center. It didn’t turn out that way. When the restored depot was dedicated in 1987, the foundation had also acquired the Muleshoe Ranch cookhouse and a two-story house from the John N. Janes ranch east of town. Today, the center is a village of historical structures, most relocated from somewhere in Bailey County. The display includes a one-room schoolhouse, a WPA-era granary, a half dugout and a boarding house that hosted prospective land buyers in the early 1900s.

Buildings look almost lived-in with period furniture and décor, historically appropriate table settings and vintage readers on the schoolhouse desks. Some items come with first-hand memories attached. A former student built a clay model of the outhouse that once stood on the school grounds. A woman who lived with her grandparents in the Figure 4 Ranch house donated her old bedroom suite, with the bedspread she made as a 4-H project years ago.

The Janes house is a grand place with a ballroom upstairs and a walk-in safe in the basement. It was one of the first homes in the area to have indoor bathrooms. Some original fixtures are still there, as is the original kitchen sink. The house was built in 1915 from a mail-order kit. Pre-cut lumber and other components were shipped by rail and assembled on site. Several years after acquiring the house, the foundation located a copy of the original sales order: total cost $2,763.53.

Volunteers have done much of the work at the Heritage Center, but the organizations that support it have also raised money to buy additional land and finance future projects. One major fundraiser is the Tour de Muleshoe, a bike ride held each year on the second Saturday in June. It’s a ride, not a race, Harvey says. Last year, more than 200 riders paid the $25 entry fee.

Leal’s Mexican Restaurant is a Muleshoe landmark. It grew out of Jesse and Irma Leal’s tortilla factory in the 1950s and was the first in a family-owned chain that now operates restaurants in Amarillo, Plainview, Henrietta and Clovis, N.M. Locals tell us it’s a good place to eat, but we never get there. Daylight is waning, and we want to see what’s happening at the wildlife refuge after last night’s rain.

Yesterday’s wind has settled to a refreshing breeze. As we approach Paul’s Lake, a flock of ducks rises from the upstream side of the dike. The depth gauge reads just less than 6 inches. The lower lake is a wide, flat pool, so still that clouds are reflected on its mirror-like surface.

The campground contains a dozen picnic tables set at intervals around a circular drive, three water faucets, barbecue grills of various sizes and two sturdy outhouses. There are a few small trees, none big enough to provide shade, but we don’t need shade just now.

Our weekend wildlife tally includes a covey of barely seen quail, a Harris’s hawk, three box turtles, a half-dozen prairie dogs, some unidentified ducks, a fast-moving coyote, one hairy tarantula and several colonies of red harvester ants going quietly about their business.

Retreating clouds fan across the eastern horizon, turning brilliant pink in the last rays of the setting sun. Stars appear in the clear sky overhead. There’s dampness in the draw below and a smell of sage on the air. I could stay here for days, if the wind didn’t blow too hard.

Details:

• Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, 806-946-3341, www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/muleshoe
• Muleshoe Heritage Center, 806-272-5873, www.muleshoeheritagefoundation.org
• Tour de Muleshoe, 806-272-3487, www.tourdemuleshoe.com
• Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture Visitors Center and National Mule Memorial, 806-272-4248
• Dinner Bell, 806-272-4080
• Leal’s Mexican Restaurant, 806-272-3304
• The Apple Shack, 806-481-8682
• Heritage House Inn, 806-272-7575 or 800-253-5896, www.heritagehouseinn.net


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