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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hiking in Palo Duro Canyon State Park

We both got up early (5am) but ended up not leaving until 7:30am because the sun refused to rise and it was in the low 20s. The 120-mile drive to the state park took us two hours, driving north on I-27 from Lubbock, turning east on Tx213 for 12 miles to the park entrance.

On the radio we learned that actress Susanne Pleshette, who starred with Bob Newhart in a comedy series in the early 1970s, playing a psychiatrist's witty wife, died of a lung disease in her CA home. She was 70 years old. Her death prompted a short conversation of 1970s TV shows, most of which I can't remember by name. I just remember the Bob Newhart show was intelligently written and Pleshette's role was that of a strong, well-balanced woman. She didn't play a big-boobed bimbo.

The drive north was over high plains, empty fields with golden stalks or plowed fields of red soil. From the interstate there is no clue that just 15 miles east are the canyons. Cows grazed right off the highway, grain elevators dotted the skyline and train tracks followed the interstate around Plainview, 40 miles north of Lubbock and a major grain processing town, the only other town besides Canyon on our drive up to the state park.

The drive for the first 11 miles was dull, but then the first narrow canyon split open from the earth, right off the road. It wasa view worth stopping for, as the valley below faded in the morning mist. Little did we know that from that point on it was all valley. We had reached our destination.

The Palo Duro Canyon is aprroximately 120 miles long and travels in a southeasterly direction along the Red River which borders with Oklahoma. The canyon is 20 miles wide and 800 feet deep. It was a popularbuffalo hunting ground for the Native Americans until they were chased out of the area and forced on reservations in Oklahoma in the mid 1870s.

The rock formation is over 250 million years, starting with the Cloud Chief Gypsum, then Quartermaster Formation (the red sandstone), and Tecovas formation, the grey/yellow sandstone that is prominent on the upper layers. White gypsum is everywhere and in some places easily visible in layers with the sandstone.

The roads and all the native stone buildings were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s.

We were some of the first visitors to the park. Another couple also in a van came in right after us, and the woman, who went inside to ask about good trails (while her husband waited in the van) had no clue what to see or do in the park (She hadn't done her homework like I had!) overheard me ask the park ranger about the Lighthouse Trail. "It's the most scenic trail in the park" she said, but not necessarily the most popular.

We took our time getting to the trailhead, as we stopped at every scenic overlook to take photos. We met a couple from Taiwan hiking with their two boys at the first overlook. They looked dressed more for an urban walk, not a hike in the steep vallies.

As soon as we got out of the van to peek over the look, we were overcome with the smell of horseshit. Fresh horseshit. Below us out of view by the rocky overhang, was a horse corral.

The Lighthouse trail it was, a hike with a 75-foot sandstone pillar jutting up from the red rock below. Five miles from the park entrance, along scenic vistas and then down a steep grade, we got to the trailhead at 10:05am for our six-mile hike around Capitol Peak, Castle Rock and finally, the last 1/4 mile, up a steep, slippery grade to the majestic pinnacles.

We made it to the Lighthouse at 11:30am, and I thought that was a rather slow route for 2.2 miles. Later we learned it's really more a three-mile trail o/w.

I was worried about Mark and his pulmonary edema he developed in Iraq a few years ago. He talked almost too much about his Iraq tour, and in fact he talked adnauseum. I had to tell him he didn't have to entertain me with his voice all the time, that I prefer to hike in silence and enjoy the sounds of nature. I didn't want to be rude, but Mark took it in stride.

Sometimes, though, his irrelevant rants were annoying. "Dirt is nothing more than decomposed rock" he said at one point going out to the Lighthouse, "and rock is heat-compressed dirt." I didn't need to hear that! I'd rather the conversation centered around the sights and observations along the trail, and not trivial stuff that just showed his collection of trivial knowledge. No doubt Mark is a gifted and smart biologist/naturalist medical expert, but his constant ramblings come across as demeaning.

I also hope my preferred silence was not annoying to him, either.

Mark also talked endlessly about his GPS that he brought along, an older hand-held Garmin model. He kept pressing buttons and widgets and I have no idea what else he did with that thing and I really didn't care at any given moment how far we were on the trail or how high we were up. I just wanted to enjoy the walk, take in the scenery, and take photographs.

Shortly after we got to the Lighthouse we were joined by runners, then more hikers, groups and families with young kids and dogs. We were on the return trip by now, and it was on our descent down the Lighthouse that we met the couple we first saw at the park station. "We followed you!" they said. The man also told me he liked my bumper sticker.
We also met up again with a Taiwanese family driving through the park. Dressed in casual clothes, the family of four trekked up to the pinnacles. The mother wore a colorful blue shawl around her shoulders.

We passed beautiful red rock, feldspar, granite, quartz, juniper trees, washes, hackberries. The area looked more like Sedona than Northern West Texas. And the region was so beautiful! The trail was easy-to-moderate over had-packed red sand, turning more sugarly after we passed the first major wash. We could see the trail we had taken from the Lighthouse.

The blustery wind never materialized. And if it did, my yellow Gore-Tex jacket over my running cap kept my head and ears warm. I wore my tactical pants, a polypro t-shirt under a cotton-poly long-sleeved t-shirt under my old black army fleece jacket under my yellow Gore-Tex. I just had to be careful my cap didn't fly away up and over a canyon. The temperature at the start of our hike was in the upper 20s. It was in the low 50s when we left a few hours later.

When we got back to the van there were 17 cars in the parking lot, when we were the first ones there. People were still coming to start the hike when we drove on further via the Park Road, read a historical sign at the far southern point in the park, depicting the 1874 Palo Duro Indian war fought there that September. Nothing remains of the battle site now, but it was around that location where Colonel MacKenzie and his men attacked the Indian camps in the area, stole all their 1400 horses and kept only those that they needed and killing the rest so that the Natives couldn't herd them back. Without horses as their means to escape, the Indians were forced to surrender and gave up their way of life and freedom with it.

I photographed more creeks, more butes,more red rock. A quick stop at a snack bar (where burgers and fries were over $6) I bought a pretty brown t-shirt of "Palo Duro Canyon State Park, a Texas Adventure."

Both Mark and I were impressed with the beauty of the place. The day ended up being a perfect day for an outdoor get-away. I was even chilled from the sweat when, at 1:30pm, we stopped at the Visitor's Center to buy some soda.

Instead, we were in the center for over 30 minutes where we spoke with Leo and Helena Reed. Helena is a petite woman with short grey hair styled in curls around her face. Her round face opened widely when she smiled. She is a retired school teacher from Clifton, NJ, who came to TX over 40 years ago to visit a girl friend and go with her to Mexcio. "This was in the 1960s, you didn't have to worry about drug traffickers!"

Instead, she met and married Leo, a Homeboy from Amarillo. "We have been married now 40 years."

"But I don't detect a Jersey accent!" I told her rather ruefully.

"Oh, I've kind of lost that over the years, but when I talk to my sisters over the phone it comes back to me, and it takes me 20 minutes before Leo can understand me again."

Leo, a much taller man when standing next to the deminutive Helena, offered us a broad smile that matched his broad chest. White sideburns etched his face. He was a park volunteer, and like his wife was a Texas Naturalist and Gardener and loves to share his knowledge of all things natural with the young visitors who come to the Visitor's Center. He kept us entertained, and Mark interested, in old army weapons he fired with back in 1962 when he was stationed at the small Air Force field near Fort Hood, when "the army didn't move its people by air."

By now we moved out of the state park, admiring the two official Texas Longhorn cattle near the park exit. We were hungry now and ready for a meal.

There was nothing in the first big town of Canyon. Helena had recommended a Mexican restaurant off the main street, Pepitas, but the place was closed. One restaurant in town, Feldman's, didn't serve neither pasta nor beer "We're in a dry counter" apologized the young hostess as we went inside to inquire. She recommended Macaroni Joe's in Amarillo, off I-40 and Georgia Street, and we drove the 15 miles north to eat...and that place was closed too.

A lot of restaurants in town were closed today. The entire downtown area looked shut down. But I wasn't ready to commit defeat as I know from all my travels that there is always one or two good restaurants in a downtown area and they are noticable by the many cars parked around the diner. And we finally found one, Acapulco Restaurant, on a block that had two other small eateries and which was perhaps Amarillo's restaurant row.

The place was authentic Mexican and excellent. The meals were fairly priced and portioned. My margarita slid down smoothly. My sour-cream chicken enchiladas were creamy and tasty and the ideal recommendation by Eric, our young but industrious server who was also a student at nearby Amarillo College, studying nursing and hoping to work in a cardiac ward in six years.

The meal was a mere $23. Wow! I love excellent finds and I'm sure I won't forget that place any time soon. Even Mark liked his taco platter.

Amarillo didn't strike me as a very wealthy town, even though it had more high rises than Lubbock. The one thing going for it, besides its many limestone government buildings, were its "Amarillo Horses," a collection of plastic horse molds painted by local artists and displayed all over the downtown area. Each horse has a different name. We only saw about seven of them, and my favorite was "Patriotic Pony" with a head full of blue stars and a body full of red and white stripes. The colorful horses stick out at street corners and add some life to the otherwise hues of brown in town. The horses reminded me of Harrisburg's Cow Parade back in 2004, a collction of over 50 cows in several molds, painted and decorated by local artists, displayed in town along the river for a few weeks, and then auctioned off to businesses. The cows brought tourists to town who then were tempted to walk the entire course finding, rating and judging the cows.

With our bellies full, we drove the 120 miles back to Lubbock, but not before stopping at a Hasting's in south Amarillo for a decent cup of coffee. The server, who looked either Spanish or Italian, asked me if I wanted a wet or dry cappuccino. Huh? I thought all cappuccinos were wet!
A wet cappuccino has more milk than a dry one; a dry one has more frothy milk. The coffee was tasty and accompanied me back to Lubbock on the darkened highway. The near fullmoon rose behind us.

A gas station off I-17 in Lubbock is now selling unleaded gasoline for $2.79, the cheapest I've seen anywhere this year. That's another two-cent drop in town, which was already the cheapest I've seen in Texas. (Later I learned that a barel dropped below $89 on the world market.)

We were back on our way to Lubbock and made it home by 9pm. I showered at 9:30pm and it was the first hot SHOWER I've had since coming back from Indiana, as my apartment's shower head still doesn't work properly.

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