High Plains Drifter.

Texas Plains Trail and Palo Duro signs
Since I’m back on the unemployed list, as of last Wednesday, I figured I’d take a quick road trip to relax, enjoy the car, and see some stuff I’ve never seen before. I picked Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Texas Panhandle, just south of Amarillo.

To start the trip, my car’s GPS and Yahoo Maps had a knock-down, drag-out fight about how I should get to Amarillo. My car insisted that I get on I-35W and basically head for Oklahoma City to catch I-40 and go west. I sided with Yahoo and wanted to take US-287, but the car kept trying to force me onto I-35W. I finally had to just get myself west of I-35W and then start the GPS.

I’m glad I did, too, because that was just a lovely drive. The road was so smooth that at one point I hit a minor bump and realized that was the first one in two hours. I stopped for a Coke at the Dairy Queen in Childress and they had some impressively chewy pellet ice. There were tons of wildflowers along the way, mostly Indian Blanket and various tiny yellow daisy-style flowers. I was too nervous to pull over to take pictures, though.

I reached Amarillo and checked in to my hotel at around 6pm and was happy to discover that I was just a couple of exits from Cadillac Ranch and I still had a couple of hours of daylight.

Cadillac Ranch

I drove over and took a few pictures. It’s an interesting installation, but I really wish I had seen it back in the day. Back when it was a row of Cadillacs that looked like cars instead of just car-shaped garishly-painted shells. They make for some colorful shots, though. I’m just not a big fan of the graffiti style of “art.” And, to be honest, it’s a little distressing to see Cadillacs all beat up like that. I don’t object to it as art or as a statement, I just love vintage Cadillacs.

I got up early on Day 2 to hear on the Weather Channel that their official storm chasing team was in Amarillo with me. That wasn’t a good sign. Even though it was raining, I started out toward Palo Duro Canyon hoping it would stop by the time I got there. It didn’t. But it was still worth the trip, and there weren’t any tornadoes.

This part of Texas is part of the high plains and most of it is as flat as a tabletop. I actually find this pretty fascinating to see. I think most people would assume that scenery has to involve dramatic features in or on the landscape, but the lack of features out here is just as dramatic.

I had a friend when I was in college at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. She was from Chicago, and she told me once that the thing she found so fascinating about Norman and the surrounding countryside was that the “sky goes all the way to the ground.” That’s how it is here. The sky is in front of you. And beside you and behind you. It’s not just above you.

The horizon is a straight line and it’s dead ahead. As I drove toward the State Park, there was really no indication that I was coming any closer to anything dramatic.

Just outside Palo Duro Canyon

And then there it was.

Palo Duro Canyon just appears out of nowhere. The tops of the peaks and the bluffs are at ground level. The park road winds to the bottom of the canyon and there are several camping areas. There are even vintage rustic cabins up on the rim (I might have to try one of those next time).

Palo Duro bluffs

Since it was raining, the “water crossings” were something to watch out for. The #6 crossing was closed, in fact. I crossed #4 and it was getting a little iffy, so I turned around. I didn’t want the rain to suddenly get harder and flood that crossing with me on the other side. And the river was extremely red. The dirt in the area is a dark, bold red (it reminds me of the red dirt in Oklahoma – it’s the same stuff, I guess) and when it’s mud and rushing across the road you’re on, it’s kind of scary red.

I took a few camera phone shots so I wouldn’t ruin my real camera, but since I had to turn around, I went on back out of the park and back to the hotel in Amarillo. Of course, by the time I got back there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

So, after a nice barbecue sandwich from the place next door, I trundled back to the Park to see what it looks like in the sun. It looked great.

I got some good shots this time, with some nice blue skies. I drove past even the #5 water crossing, but the #6 was still closed so I had to turn around. The red clay bluffs, striped with the white gypsum, fringed with little groves of shoulder-high mesquites with spring-green leaves really popped against the post-rain blue Texas sky.

Palo Duro Canyon

Someday, I think it would be fun to come back to Palo Duro and stay a night or two in one of the rustic cabins in the canyon. I wonder what a sunset looks like, and I imagine the night sky is full of stars. I’ll have to brace myself for the lack of TV and wi-fi, but if I start early I think I can do it.

On Day 3, my original plan was to just drive home. But I found a brochure on the Texas Plains Trail region (which I was in) and the enclosed map gave me an idea. Maybe I should go shun-piking (as my mom calls it) and take the back way back to US-287. Here’s the route I chose: I-40 east to TX-207, south to TX-86 east, through Silverton to TX-256 east, toward the Caprock Canyons state park, then to US-70 south back to TX-86 east, to US-287, just north of Childress (home of the great Dairy Queen).

That decision turned out to be a great one. I turned south on TX-207 and drove for miles and miles on a pin-straight, tabletop-flat road, with a completely flat horizon all around me. It was actually a fascinating scene. I kept having to remind myself to watch the road instead of the solitary windmill on the horizon.

About 10 or 12 miles south of Claude, TX, I noticed a few more mesquite trees popping up and my inner conversation went like this (okay, some of it was out loud, I admit it):

“The mesquite trees are showing up again. This looks kind of like it did when I was approaching the gate to Palo Duro Can— WHOA!! OH MY GOSH!”

No warning or signs or anything. I just looked to the side and there was a huge gash in the landscape that fell away into the canyon. And then I saw one of those signs alerting drivers to steep grades. I came around that little bend in the road and started heading right down into a canyon that was just as impressive as Palo Duro Canyon. Except nobody was guarding it or anything!

Anonymous beautiful canyons

I drove through it, awestruck, waiting and watching for a place to stop for pictures. A scenic turnout or five. But there weren’t any. I didn’t realize at the time I was the only one on the road, or I would have just stopped in the middle of it to take pictures. As I came up the steep grade on the other side, there was a small turnout where I stopped. I took some video to see if I could capture how quiet it was, with no traffic sounds, but I couldn’t keep the wind out of the microphone. While I was standing there, I heard a car coming so I watched for it, and it took probably three minutes to get there. (And when I say car, I mean pickup. I really was the only car on the road. Probably ever since I left the Interstate.)

Just past that, at the rim where I was leaving the canyon, there was a picnic area. Even the picnic table was cool.

Cool mod picnic shelter on the rim

When I got onto TX-256, I went around Caprocks Canyon park but I still got another eyeful of a smaller, less dramatic, but still fascinating canyon area. This canyon had a formation that looked a lot like the signature Palo Duro Canyon formation that requires a 2-mile hike to reach. Here, it was just along the side of the road. I even saw a deer!

Even after all of that, I was also impressed by the newly-plowed farms along TX-86, because the soil is a bright, violent red and there are huge expanses of it. It’s like the surface of Mars.

Then I was back on US-287 to be re-hypnotized by all the wildflowers.

And that was my first road trip in my Camry.

Feel free to check out my Flickr set for more pictures of the trip.

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    • Elizabeth
    • May 21st, 2010

    You should be a travel agent! Cause now I have to go here and three days ago, I didn’t even know the place existed!

    Great photos and delightful commentary. :)

    • Schnookie
    • May 21st, 2010

    OH.

    MY.

    GOODNESS.

    You know, for all your descriptions of how beautiful this trip was, I didn’t expect it to be THIS gorgeous. Just AMAZING!!! (Enchanting, even! :D) I am so glad you got a chance to take this road trip, and I can’t wait to not be at work so I can study your flickr set. ::dreamy sigh:: That scenery (and your pictures of it) is just so stunning. (And Elizabeth is right — you should be a travel agent. Or a travel writer. I’m all like, “Gotta go hop in the car now!”)

  1. Cause now I have to go here and three days ago, I didn’t even know the place existed!

    I’ll meet you there!

    Thanks y’all! It would be fun to work in travel, wouldn’t it? If you do go there, be sure and tell them to send me a cut of your $5 admittance fee to the park.

    • Barbara
    • May 21st, 2010

    See, I’m not the only one who thinks you should be a writer. And not JUST travel. You can write about anything and hold one’s attention. Lovely trip, beautiful pictures. To make a mothr proud. Love, Mom

  2. Aww. Thanks, Mom!

  3. That was beautiful, Patty! I love Palo Duro! I’m thinking it may not be quite so awesome when we drive out there in mid July for Grace’s band camp. Hee.

  4. It’ll still be pretty, Myra, just very very hot. :D

  1. May 20th, 2010

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