A Western Adventure in Amarillo, Texas
really is best by morning - or so they told me when I got
my marching orders. I was to be up early and clothed in jeans,
a long-sleeved shirt, hiking boots and hat -- ready to roll.
was a leisurely drive out into the flat countryside, past
gently nodding oil wells and silently turning turbine windmills
past miles and miles of mesquite and desert. The vacant landscape
gradually changed as we headed toward Elkins Ranch, where
I was promised a hearty chuck wagon breakfast in a spectacular
setting. The land, suddenly, was no longer absolutely flat.
Trees appeared, and the hint of a gorge turned into magnificent
Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, with
a maximum depth of more than 800 feet -- all formed by water
erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Who
knew this stunning site was hidden below ground level just
south of Amarillo!
climbed into a jeep for the rough ride down the canyon roads
to the "Cow Camp" chuck wagon. Touted as the "second
largest" (after the Grand Canyon), it is a dazzling site
- miles of striated rock forming the walls of rugged valleys.
The summer rains had left the vegetation green and lush, with
wildflowers in profusion -- but the scent of breakfast interrupted
something about food cooked over an open fire. I don't think
I've ever had better scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausages or
coffee. I'll bet, however, that the hardscrabble cowboys of
the Old West never tasted the selection of melons served that
I finished my second cup of coffee (and fourth biscuit), local
singer and songwriter Ed Montana tuned up his guitar and serenaded
the breakfast group, starting with (what else?) "Amarillo
been to Amarillo many times before, but all of my visits were
confined to that narrow strip on either side of I-40. If I
thought about the city at all, it was as a rest-and-refuel
stop on my way driving somewhere else.
wrong I was, and part of the evidence is visible right from
the interstate: the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center
& Museum, a 36,500-square foot facility showcasing the
history and modern activities of the American Quarter Horse.
I had always wondered what happened to the other ¾ of the equine - but the 12-minute introductory video told me the real story behind the name. The horse (the most popular breed in America) was named for the quarter-mile track that it was bred to run back in English Colonial times. The combination of racing and gambling in this country has deep roots.
Quarter Horses moved west with the pioneers, who found them strong, agile and possessing an instinctive understanding of bovine behavior that makes them perfect for cowboys. When you watch rodeos, it's the horse you see anticipating every move of that calf. There are some 3 million in the United States, according to the American Quarter Horse Association.
Horses need saddles, so I wandered over to the Oliver Saddle Shop where I happened to find Richard Oliver, a third generation saddle maker, hard at work. He said it takes about a week to make a saddle, and he does 45 or 50 a year (there's a 10-month waiting list). Fortunately, I wasn't in any hurry for a saddle (priced from $2400 on up, averaging $6000), but the hand-tooled leather belts are to die for.
If there are cowboys, there must certainly be Indians. I didn't find the real thing in Amarillo, but I did find a great little museum at Kwahadi. Although it shares its name with an historical group of Comanches, this isn't an organization of Native Americans. It's an innovative program begun some sixty years ago as a Boy Scout troop and now sponsored by Kwahadi Heritage, Inc. The young dancers (girls also participate now) learn the traditional dances of Plains and Pueblo Indians, and perform them in Amarillo and around the world. The new digs for a dance troop includes a terrific collection of art and artifacts.
Another surprise was the Panhandle-Plains Museum. The magnificent Art Deco building (from 1932) houses an outreach effort of the West Texas A&M University that tells the history of the region. I discovered that Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado named the Palo Duro Canyon in the 16th Century. The name means "hard wood" and refers to the ubiquitous juniper.
Great signage gives a short course in the geology of Texas from Precambrian to the present. A replica of Palo Duro Canyon points out 280 million years of history that entered modern times when Charles Goodnight acquired most of it as a cattle ranch in 1876.
There are the usual collections in the museum - period costumes, guns, buggies and wagons - but my favorite gallery told about oil and gas production in the Texas panhandle.
IF YOU GO: