Friday, July 17, 2009

The Caprock Escarpment - More than just Palo Duro Canyon


When was the last time you used the word escarpment? Maybe never? It is a geological term and Texas has more than one. In geomorphology, an escarpment is a “transition zone between different physiogeographic provinces that involves a sharp, steep elevation differential, characterized by a cliff or steep slope.” Have I lost you? What we’re talking about is the Caprock Escarpment, the wonderful approach to the high plains of the panhandle of Texas.

Sketched on a map (you might want to pullout your Texas map), the escarpments on the east and west look like castle walls hugging the edges of the Llano Estacado, a flat semi-arid plateau where Amarillo and Lubbock preside over the fortress. It runs 300 miles on each side. Our very own Red River starts up at the Prairie Dog Town Fork, one of the waterways that helped cut and create the canyons and many cliffs.

The most famous part of the Caprock Escarpment is Palo Duro Canyon, a jewel of a canyon and home to Palo Duro Canyon State Park (75 years old this summer) and the musical “Texas”. If you have missed it, go. If you haven’t been there recently, go back. It is that beautiful.

Even though it appears to be a miniature Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon is actually the second largest canyon in the United States. It stretches 120 miles long, 20 miles across at its widest point and up to 800 feet in depth. The state park only includes some of Palo Duro’s most northern canyons. If you’ve ever wanted to live in a canyon, nearby Timbercreek Canyon has a gated community with 500 residents. It was hard to believe I was in Texas as I recently sat on the porch of a friend’s home in Timbercreek with her own canyon wall as a backyard.

An easy way to see a large swath of the lower Palo Duro Canyon is to take highway 207 from Claude to Silverton, crossing the Prairie Dog Town Fork and coming out on the plains. This a lovely drive even if it’s on the way to and from nowhere. It does eventually pass through Tule Canyon with its MacKenzie Reservoir.

Further south is one of the newer parks, Caprock Canyon State Park and Trailway, which has great views of the “scarp”. You can cycle, walk, ride horses or run the 64 miles of the Trailway or any of its six segments you choose. It is the ultimate rails to trails path that runs from Estelline to South Plains, passes over 40 bridges, through a 700 foot tunnel and occasionally follows the top of the escarpment.

The State Park itself is outside of Quitaque (pronounced kitty kway) and located near Turkey. (I’m sure that orients you.) The park also has trails and 30 miles of paved roadways among the surrounding canyon walls. If lucky, you’ll spot the official state buffalo herd which is descended from the original free range southern bison. The Spanish described these creatures as cows with a narrow, short face, and long beards (like goats) and when they ran they threw their heads down with the beard dragging on the ground. No wonder the vast buffalo herds frightened every horse the Spaniards brought. The state herd is the last one left.


In “A Voyage Long and Strange”, author Tony Horowitz tracks Coronado in his search for El Dorado in 1541. The latest archeological discoveries confirm that Coronado must have crossed New Mexico from the west into Texas where he first encountered the plains filled with grass that “straightened up again as soon as it had been trodden down”. He passed near modern day Plainview and Floydada until being startled by a broad ravine about half a mile across and a hundred feet deep - the Caprock Escarpment, what else! According to Horowitz, in 1966, a Spanish gauntlet or chain-mail glove was discovered by a farmer at the edge of the Blanco Canyon. Later excavations found horseshoes, nails, and crockery - a treasure chest of Coronado’s artifacts resting today at ..... the Floydada museum. Amazing.

It’s hard to believe escarpments can be entertaining. Driving from Plainview to Paris across the flattest and best farm land around is a lot more fun knowing that at any moment, the land is going to drop out from under you. On your next trip west, even for a long week-end, try exploring the wonders of the Caprock Escarpment.

For more information on the state parks, places to stay and the escarpment, these sites are helpful.



Hudspeth House - historic Bed and Breakfast in Canyon where Georgia O'Keeffe stayed. Good history of Palo Duro Canyon and article on O'Keefe. http://.www.hudspethinn.com/southernliving.html


Joe Nick Patoski on the Caprock Canyons Trailway
href="http://www.joenickp.com/travel/therealtexas.html ">

Master Naturalist Article on Llano Estacado
href="http://www.llanoestacado.org/masternats/LlanoEstacado.ppt ">

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Celebrating July 4th in the U.S. and Abroad

Celebrating July 4th is a shared tradition for all Americans, whether we were born here or arrived as fast as we could.. We may not agree on religion, politics, or social mores, but we all appreciate our Independence Day. Over this week-end in Paris, we had a parade, fireworks, municipal band concert, and lots of cook-outs at our homes. This was not that different from the first celebrations in 1777 when they spoke, prayed, reviewed the troops and set off fireworks. George Washington even doubled the rum allotment for his men. But what is it like to celebrate our nation’s birth outside Lamar County and even outside our country?

The Northeast seems to have the best celebrations and we were lucky enough one year to watch the fireworks over the capital in Washington, D. C. from a boat on the Potomac river. Volleys of fleeting colors matched the rhythm of the music from the radio. All seemed quite magical until afterwards when we entered the subway station to return to our hosts’ home in Arlington. The crowds that had been scattered on the lawns, boats, and National Mall seemed to have all entered the same station with us. Just imagine the throng leaving Noyes Stadium times 1000. After watching passengers being shoved into already full subway cars, we decided to go the other way and catch a ride on a different line.

In our national travels, we’ve discovered Oregon prohibits the sale of fireworks, leading to “slipping across the border” to the state of Washington to purchase basic roman candles and cherry bombs. Austin’s display over Town Lake is worth the trip. And if you’re really fortunate, time your airline flight for early evening on the 4th and enjoy the bursts of color below your plane.

Being out of the country for the fourth actually gives a heightened awareness of the importance of the day. It’s strange to awaken to just another normal day when all stores are open and life goes on without acknowledgment of our holiday. Nostalgia makes us travelers seek out other Americans who know the words to our patriotic songs and who are just as anxious to find a hamburger.

In the summer of 1969, my family was in Rome, Italy and were happy to discover that the American’s Women Association and the American Men’s Club of Rome sponsored a July 4th outing for any U.S. citizen in town. Of course, everyone else had heard about it. We missed the departure of the first round of buses from the Embassy and arrived late for the event. However, it was as close to home as we had experienced in six weeks of traveling. Hamburgers, hotdogs, fried chicken, potato salad, and chips were served. A watermelon eating contest entertained all until the fireworks in the evening. On the bus back to town, all sang patriotic songs with the windows open.

The country that, understandably, ignores our celebration is England. My husband and I arrived in London on July 4th in 1979 and found little evidence of any celebration or concern over the loss of its former colony. Oddly, I felt uncomfortable asking people about the holiday as if they might still resent the Declaration of Independence over 200 years ago. My husband had no such hesitation but he only got a few replies acknowledging the meaning of the day but without enthusiasm.

I actually prepared for our being in Ecuador for July 4th in 1993. One could never do this today. I bought firecrackers, sparklers and black snakes at home and packed them in our luggage! On the actual holiday, we were in Banos, a small mountain town in the Andes. As an attorney, it did occur to me that I should inquire whether it was legal to set off our stash in the local park. We knew that fireworks were a customary morning greeting for birthdays throughout South America but did that require a permit? After looking up the word for fireworks ( fuegos artificiales, if you’re interested), I asked a store keeper whether we could set off ours. He “thought” it was OK. So we gathered children around and lit the meager selection we had brought. We had no luck finding hotdogs or hamburgers but we still sang a round of Yankee Doodle in the park to the perplexed stares of the crowd..

Our Independence Day is known throughout the world even if it’s not celebrated. Local physician, Agnes Xavier, was born on July 4th in Belgaum, India. As she grew up, she was quite proud that she shared the same birthday as the United States even though she lived thousands of miles away. And today, after becoming an American citizen, she never has to work on her birthday as we all celebrate it with her. I hope everyone had a great birthday.

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