Our river tracings have produced a few minor misadventures: Wrong turns, muddy hikes, missed sightings. The latest, on the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, actually could have turned disastrous.
But first: The PDTF of the Red River accumulates in an astonishingly green bowl of creeks and vegetation just outside Canyon, the university town just south of Amarillo. The water quickly pools up along tree-shrouded banks (above!), before spilling — I don’t know just how — into broad, steep, storied Palo Duro Canyon (below!).
The upstream pooling may explain some of the flash flooding and ancient erosion that created the mammoth canyon. Camping and picnicking at Palo Duro Canyon State Park is clearly in season, despite warnings about the frequent flooding.
Our potentially threatening wrong turn happened on what was supposed to be a short hike with the Labs down the lush central riverbottom, with its cottonwoods, rushes and wildflowers, leading upland to junipers, prickly pears and desert grasses.
Insanely, we brought along no water, which we never forget on hikes. At a suitable resting point, Joe and I left Kip and dogs to retrieve the car, but took a long loop back, the backtracked over two trails, harassed all the way by sand flies and the midday sun. All was well by mid-afternoon, but we learned our lesson and left behind the upper canyon.
Lower down the canyon, past the brilliant red folds of sandstone and sparkling gypsum, we viewed the ranchlands made famous by cattlemen and investors Charles Goodnight and John Adair, then later by painter Georgia O’Keefe.
Also the redoubts of the Indians routed in the one-sided Battle of Palo Duro Canyon (1874).
Downstream of the canyon, the PDTF of the Red River spreads out over low, broad riverbeds into dozens of shallow, meandering rivulets.
As is the case all over West Texas, the river crossings are few and the one-lane backroads through widely spaced ranches are exceptionally lonely.
I find much of this land piercingly beautiful, but I recognize how bleak it must seem to others, with long stretches between water, so little shelter and virtually no forgiving trees.