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Monday, January 21, 2008

Caprock Canyons State Park

"It's clear over Lubbock but it looks like rain everywhere else" said Mark as soon as we were up at 6:30am. That news wasn't going to stop me from another hike, this time in Caprock Canyons State Park .

"I will be wearing my wind/rain jacket" I replied. And even though I smelled rain when I packed up the van, once we were on I-27 going north to Tulia, the sky began calming down. Although there was a dark layer of clouds over us, once we turned east on Tx86 toward Quitaque the blue sky was back.
And just when I was getting bored with the flatlands, the mountains and canyons opened up and a "WOW!" came out of our mouths. Yesterday the land simply opened up from below with a small, deep canyon that slowly widened, but today the land opened both upward and downward.

Mark annoyed me for a little bit when once again he was more fixated on the GPS than on helping me navigate around. My mistake was that I was relying on him when I should have looked on the map to see what roads to take. TX86 does not come off I-27; one has to get off US87 south of Tulia. US87 parallels the interstate but veers off slightly to the northeast toward Tulia and from downtown one picks up TX86. We lost some time driving and didn't get to the park until almost 11am.

I like to stop at the Visitor's Center to grab a map and learn other things important to the hike: trail conditions, wildlife warnings, etc. The ranger was very helpful but couldn't recommend just one trail as there are so many good ones. We opted to explore at first and decide on a trail later. We had all day and were under no time warp.
Our first exploration was around Theo Lake, where an old bison grave and arrowheads were discovered. We explored the shore but found it too fragile and steep. By 11:18am I was back at the van waiting for Mark, who came up ten minutes later. From the lake we went to the last camping site and began the South Prong Trail, a trail I though was an easy four-mile valley loop surrounded by steep pinnacles. We started out the hike at 11:47am from the southern end of the park, facing red cliffs that dated back to the Permian age 280-250 million years ago.

I was wrong. The trail started out along washes and trickly creeks, but then ascended a steep climb up a 3200' mesa. I lost Mark almost at the start at the hike when I stopped to remove my yellow rain jacket and black fleece. I never did catch up to him.

I was alone and wasn't comfortable like that. I had no map, but I had plenty of water and enough chips to keep my hunger down. All I knew was that there were few trails along this loop, and if I just stayed on the main trail and eventually head to where I started, I would be fine. But it sure did feel like a very long four-mile trek!
I wasn't sure I was going to make the climb. Although the vistas were spectacular, with steep red rock pinnacles in front of me, shallow red creeks below me, and scrub oak and juniper all around me, my heart was pounding heavily and had me worried. I told myself if I don't find a familiar trail junction by 2pm, I was turning back. The prettiest views were halfway up the steep part and looking back toward where we came, from the southwest.

My worries were luckily unfounded. Just before 2pm I saw a car drive down a road that was hidden behind view. That had to be a park road, as there were no roads nearby that I remembered. That meant that civilization wasn't that far off. I was going to hike toward the road and walk the pavement down to the parking lot.

All that wasn't necessary. I came to a T-junction where Mark left a note for me on paper "CONNIE I TOOK THE RIGHT" which answered my doubts. From here the trail followed along the high mesa plains of yuccas and more scrub oak and junipers. I startled some deer that I thought were something more vicious at first. Stupid deer! Had the deer not jumped in front of me, I never would have noticed them behind the scrub.

Then I heard my voice called out. It was Mark, and he sounded like he was ahead of me finally, but he was really behind me and his voice had bounced off a canyon. He had taken the left instead of the right and had to run almost two miles to catch up to me. We thus hiked the last two miles together, finally.
Why he didn't just wait for me at an intersection or somewhere in the shade I will never understand. I know that when I hike with someone I practice the buddy system. We may not hike side-by-side but I will always try to keep that buddy within sight. You never know what could happen that would require immediate buddy aid: a sprained ankle, a sudden headache, a lack of water, or, god forbid, a big hungry animal with giant claws and teeth attacks. I was too tired to scold Mark for his lack of risk assessment.

We hiked down the Haynes Ridge Trail down to the North Prong Campsite, with breath-taking views of more spectacular redrock. The trail down was badly eroded and treacherous, but back on the pavement I was glad to be on familiar ground again. We had hiked a total of 6.81 miles in 3:20 hours.

We stopped as a courtesy back at the ranger station to let the people there know the signs along the trail were in need of replacing. They were aware of all that. We chatted about the 65-head of bison in the park, the State's official Bison herd (three which were given from Ted Turner). The ranger proudly stated that "This place is prettier than Palo Duro...because of the red rock." But I find them both worthy of further exploration. Both state parks are in the same geographic formation escarpment; judging one over the other seems ludicrous.

But other than the bison behind the fence, we saw little wildlife. Two startled deer ran across my path. I saw a few titmice and some other birds, but that was it. The rangers told us in the summer the rattlesnakes get out of hand. Pronghorn antelope also call the Caprock Canyons their home but they, too were in hiding.
It was a lovely day for a strenuous hike. My van registered 61F in the afternoon with little wind. I never put my wind breaker/rain jacket or black fleece jacket on the rest of the day.
We left the park at 4:30pm. By now we were getting hungry. We agreed that a repeat dinner at Triple J was in order, as we returned to Lubbock via TX207 south, passing grain towns like South Plains, Floydada and Blanco Mountain where a Historical Marker stated that Coronado most likely camped in the area based on artifacts found around the mountain that were from 16th-century Spain. Coronado was allegedly going crazy from the vast plains, and at that vantage point he certainly didn't have a positive view. The Plains did not help him with directions, he was reportedly to have written in his travel journal.
The drive and looking at either side of me reminded me of the high plains of Nebraska or Kansas. Here the terrain was as flat as can be and the sky as wide as can be. But I was more exhausted than I thought, staring out at the road ahead of me.
"Wow, look at that black soil!" I said at one point. The fields were all harvested and light brown, and then I came across a rich black field.
"That was a field fire" explained Mark.
Once we reached US62 east of Lubbock we were driving into the blinding sunset. Dark grain elevators spotted the skyline ahead of me. Out of the blue Mark asked me "Who do you think will win the election?" and he was referring to the on-going presidential campaign of both Republican and Democratic parties. The commentary on the radio was all about the latest victories.
Mark and I don't normally talk politics, so I was momentarily thrown off-course. "I honestly don't know. Senator Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, but the GOP is still out trying to find its voice" I replied. "I have no idea who will win the GOP nomination. McCain would get elected only because many voters now regret voting for his then rival GWB in 2000. Romney would be elected to continue the Bush Legacy, and many people already have strong feelings about the Bush Legacy. Romney is a businessman and so is Bush. Remember when Bush and Cheney promised the American people they would run this country like a business?"
"Yes, I do remember that."
"A year ago I was ready to accept Guiliani but he hasn't even started campaigning," I went on, "and it may be too late now to get ahead in Florida next weekend. He's a strong moderate but he also has a lot of skeletons in his closet, and made a lot of corrupt deals with other officials. New Yorkers remember that."
"I like Huckabee" said Mark. "I also like Fred Thompson."
"I like Huckabee too and wouldn't mind him getting elected, as long as he stays on the moderate side and not go right-wing on his constituents and take away women's rights to chose. I like a lot of what Fred says but he comes across as grumpy with no real agenda, much like Senator Obama."
So in the end we agreed that there were no front-runners in the GOP campaign and that we would have to wait until Super Tuesday to find out. And then the conversation veered back to food and beer.
We got back to Lubbock and the brewery at 6:30pm and much to our relief Monday's is $1.50 pints all day. I had a Dos Czechies and a Windmill Wheat with lemon along with a salad and a veggie pizza. It was another delicious meal and our only meal all day. We each had a pizza (I took three slices home for tomorrow's breakfast) and I ordered a salad and a second beer.
Our conversation centered around the pretty terrain we had hiked through earlier, and possible future trips together or solo.
"What kind of trips would you like to do?" I asked Mark.
"I'd like to travel the Pacific Highway from Washington down to Baja."
"I've done parts of that" I replied, remembering my California days. "That would be one scenic road trip. What other trips would you like to do?"
"I've always wanted to drive up the Al-Can!" said Mark.
"Yeah, me too. I've always wanted to see the Golden Eagles dive for fish in Alaska." It's also a trip Kevin has wanted to do, too.
"I'd like to travel to Cuba as soon as we can" I added, "I'd like to see Cuba before the American hotels take over the island and ruin old-style Havanna" and to that Mark got interested and we finished off a lively topic on Fidel and Raul Castro.

We capped off our meal with ice cream at Dairy Queen before heading back to his place. Tara, Mark' roommate was back from work but quietly working in her room, Mark was busy in his room downloading the day's photographs and I was on my guest cot in the living room. The house was so quiet because there was no TV on.

It was a quiet ending to a great hiking weekend. I will leave first thing in the morning and head toward Abilene, taking a slightly different route back.

I have learned so much about Texas' South Plains. There is more to the Panhandle than just flat prairie, and what is here is awe-inspiring. I looked out northward into those canyons and wondered what was on the other side. If I were to come down from Oklahoma, what would I see?
I would love to come back to this park and hike the entire perimeter, a 13-mile endeavor. That would require a camp-out and an early start in the morning. Could I even manage a 13-mile hike? It's been a few years since I've done something that strenuous on a hiking trail.
(The picture of me hiking away from the camera was taken by Mark, as I was hiking the North Prong Trail in front of him.)

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