Our plans changed quickly. Jagged winter rain cut off our initial contacts with the Pease River, the first of 11 West Texas waterways that we had intended to trace on this 8-day trip. By the time we reached our evening retreat, Amarillo, it was snowing hard. We huddled, instead, over a Trader Joe’s picnic in our room.
Unblinking sun melted most of the snow and ice the next day, so we embarked on the course of the Canadian River, which rises in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, slices across the Texas Panhandle, then descends into Oklahoma to join the Arkansas River.
We headed to what we thought was San Jo, Texas, which turned out to be San Jo, N.M. There, we turned north to Ute Lake, which stores the Canadian’s clear water behind a mesa and a dam. No boaters on the lake this day and only a few hardy coots — the feathered variety — on the water. But we could examine the iron-rich rocks that would give the Canadian its rusty colors downstream.
In Texas, the river cuts through a wide, rugged canyon that offered us few points of entry. We wound through beautiful badlands, then griddle-flat cotton fields, then rolling ranch land.
Virtually not a soul on the horizon. A lot more varied terrain than we expected, with plenty of wildlife. Our next contact with the river was at Boys Ranch, Tex., where the Canadian is shallow, red and sandy.
The trip to our third stop took us all the way back into Amarillo’s gravitational field. It was then we realized that the city of 200,000 or so stood on a fairly narrow plateau between two steep canyons, the other being the more spectacular Palo Duro, formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, previously explored. The rough territory of the more northerly Canadian nudges right into Amarillo proper.
We explored a grassy haunted area on the river’s banks just off U.S. 87 not near any settled town. Riven with off-road tracks and careless litter, it was the type of place where you’d hear the ominous sounds of target practice — and we did. So we hurried north, then east to the verges of Lake Meredith, which lies in a magnificent, broad-shouldered canyon.
But first we stopped at Blue Creek to photograph the place where it enters the Canadian’s big lake. Here, seen from above, the tracks in the sand formed arabesques in the creek sand.
Reached on a narrow road atop a high, curving dam, our next look-out was perched near the water authority’s inevitable headquarters on a watchful hill. Although the light was fading, our adventure was far from over. After steering through Stinnett, we spied a sign for "Adobe Walls," the famed fort and trading post founded in the 1840s and the site for two major battles during the Indian Wars of the 1860s and ’70s. How many times would we be in this remote spot — two guys who read every historical marker — so we journeyed down poorly marked county roads, past little canyons cut into the cap rock. Yet once we hit a stretch slushy, slippery gravel, we turned around.
We chased the light across skinny roads and snowy fields along the rim of the Canadian Canyon to reach — where else? — Canadian, Tex.
This railroad town sits on a wide gorge and, at dusk, we walked quite a distance across its historic wagon bridge to catch the last glimmers on our river before it headed off to Oklahoma.
Night enveloped the two-hour trip back to our room. The irregular, tree-lined lanes along U.S. 60 — formerly part of the famed Route 66 — followed Red Deer Creek, until we ascended back onto the Llano Estacado near Pampa. That site is also very near one source of the Red River, we had learned on an earlier trip. Soon enough, we were back in Amarillo for our second night of sound sleep.
NOTE: Joe Starr and Michael Barnes are putting together a guidebook, "Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot."