The sunhasn'tquitecracked the sky, but I'm awake, tucked snug in bed inside a cabin balanced on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon.
The yip-yip-yip of coyotes drifts through the open windows, and I can't help but think of cowboys and Comanches and old cattle trails as I lie here, waiting for the pink smudge of daylight to blot out the night. Finally I peel off the covers, tiptoe out the cabin door and gaze into the cavernous wedge chopped out of the earth, pondering the history this place holds.
I used to think of Amarillo as a gas stop on the way to Colorado. But four days in the Panhandle have taught me better.
Between hiking in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, poking through the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum in nearby Canyon, spray painting my name on a car buried nose-first at Cadillac Ranch, and sampling a bottle of Coca-Cola with a handful of peanuts tossed in, I'm developing a taste for flat land and open pastures.
And the people?
We stopped on the side of a highway to chat with a ranch family putting up a new fence. Met a woman who ran a convenience store and collected Betty Boop stuff. Introduced ourselves to half the residents of the dusty little community of Happy, where grain silos and water towers forge a small-town skyline.
Eager to get a feel for the rugged badlands on which Amarillo blossomed into a city of 200,000 people, we based ourselves in a stone cabin at Palo Duro Canyon our first two nights. It's a quick 45-minute drive from Amarillo International Airport to the state park, where the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River carved a 120-mile gorge some 250 million years ago. At 800 feet deep, it's the second-largest canyon in the country behind the Grand Canyon, and the park covers 25,000 rugged acres.
My first view of the two-room cabin not far from the park entrance was through a rare hailstorm, adding to the drama of the red-and-yellow-tinged cliffs. The cabin was equipped with a microwave and mini-fridge, as well as a spacious bathroom. My only complaint? With such a gorgeous view, why is the cabin surrounded by a view-obstructing chain link fence? The industrial-looking concrete pad on which the picnic table and cabin sit doesn't do much for the ambience, either.
Still, when the sun set, we fired up the grill, pulled out the portable Scrabble board, uncorked a bottle of wine and settled in for an evening of outdoor bliss. When we finished our game, we walked out to the road, where we leaned back on the car and watched shooting stars streak overhead.
It's just so open out here.
If you're a Texas history buff, visions of Cynthia Ann Parker, a pioneer girl kidnapped by Comanches near here, will dance in your head. She grew up in a tribe, married Chief Peta Nocona and had a son named Quanah, who later led the last Comanche band that roamed these lands. Years later, Cynthia Ann was recaptured, against her will, by the Texas Rangers. Charles Goodnight, the legendary cattle rancher, also worked this land, and you can poke your head in a dugout just like the one he lived in during his days in the canyon.
If hiking's your thing, plan half a day for exploring the park's signature Lighthouse formation. We visited in mid-September, when high temperatures hovered at a comfortable 80 degrees on top of the rim. It's always hotter inside the canyon, and you'll need plenty of water for this relatively flat, 6-mile round-trip trek.
It took about an hour and a half of walking along a winding trail to reach the namesake rock. Along the way, we paused to watch dung beetles do their work and admired a couple of centipedes that marched across the trail. The land, peppered with cacti and grasses, looked hardscrabble and baked, despite recent rains that kept part of the park closed during our visit.
It was wonderfully quiet, too.
At the Lighthouse, we scrambled up a treacherous trail to the 310-foot pinnacle of rock, which was designated a National Natural Monument by the National Park Service. From there, we sipped water from our hydration packs and peered off into a vista that hasn't changed much since the days of the Comanches. After snapping a few pictures, we picked our way back down the pinnacle and unpacked apples and peanut butter sandwiches at a picnic table.
Back at the car, we spent another hour motoring along the narrow park road, checking the view and admiring the cerulean sky overhead. We splashed through river crossings, watched a dozen wild turkeys parade through a campground and finally had to turn around when we reached a spot where mud covered the road in front of us.
This is the Texas you dream about as a kid, the one you sometimes wonder if it's disappeared. I would have missed it all if I were only stopping for gas on my way to Colorado.