So This Is Palo Duro Canyon
We arrived yesterday to the stunning Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the West Texas panhandle, after a five-hour drive from Albuquerque propelled by Texas Tunes CD’s (thanks Mike!), the Best Travel Writers 2003 audiobook, and a borrowed GPS (thanks Robert!). If you are one of my four subscribers, you’ll recall that we came here to see the former homeland of the Comanche on our way to Nebraska, where our grandmother/great-grandmother, Jessie, has already begun looking out her window for us (she told me this a few days ago). As mentioned previously, I knew nothing about the Comanche before reading Empire of the Summer Moon last year. Because SC Gwynne has done such an incredible job at telling their tale, I will mostly quote from his book to share some of what I have learned about the former Lords of the Plains, and accompany with pictures taken yesterday and a few of my own words. Welcome to the second largest canyon in the US.
The Comanche were the descendants of the primitive hunters who had crossed the land bridge from Asia to America in successive migrations between 11,000 and 5,000 BC, and in the millennia that followed they had scarcely advanced at all. They were in most ways typical hunter-gatherers. But even among such peoples, the Comanches had a remarkably simple culture. They had no agriculture and had never felled trees or woven baskets or made pottery or built houses. They had little or no social organization beyond the hunting band.
Their culture contained no warrior societies, no permanent priest class. In social development they were culturally aeons behind the dazzlingly urban Aztecs, or the stratified, highly organized, clan-based Iroquois; they were in all ways utterly unlike the tribes from the American southeast, who in the period from AD 700 to 100 built sophisticated cultures around maize agriculture that featured large towns, priest-chiefs, clans, and matrilineal descent.
From the scant evidence we have, they were considered a tribe of little or no significance. They had been driven to this harsh, difficult land on the eastern slope of the Rockies by other tribes–meaning that, in addition to everything else they were not good at, the Comanches were not very good at war, either.
What happened to the tribe between roughly 1625 and 1750 was one of the great social and military transformations in history. Few nations have ever progressed with such breathtaking speed from the status of skulking pariah to dominant power. The change was total and irrevocable, and it was accompanied by a complete reordering of the balance of power on the American plains. The agent of this astonishing change was the horse.
In the next post, I’ll continue the story of the Comanche and their transformation into the most powerful Indian tribe in American history, along with the history of the horse in the West and their incredible relationship to the Comanche. As for the park visit yesterday, I must say that it was amazing. I have always loved the contradictory subtle + stark, colorful palette of the West; the reddish-brown, yellow and gypsum-laced sandstone of Palo Duro, carved out by wind and water over thousands of years, was a spectacular vision. Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived and worked in Amarillo and Canyon in the early 1900’s, described, “It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” She must have been there in the summer. It was perfect yesterday.
We found the “river” (more like a ditch/stream), meadows of beautiful 4′-5′ grass that looked like flames on stems, and hiked halfway to a formation called the Lighthouse.
Oh, and looking at everything through my fancy new overpriced sunglasses (thanks, mom!) bumped the contrast even more.
But I only used them half the time (the sunny half).
Palo Duro reminded me a little of Canyonlands in Utah, but without as many grandiose formations. The entire park is drivable (like Canyonlands) and you can get out and hike or bike the many trails. Unfortunately, the site of the Palo Duro Battle, the number one spot I wanted to see, is not accessible by road and not on any of the maps. Maybe one day I can come back and hike there to see for myself this site of such significance in ending traditional Comanche way of life once and for all.
After exploring the three hours, we left the park at sunset
and drove 1.5 hours north to Dumas, Texas, which was surprisingly civilized*. We stayed at the pet-friendly (no extra charge!) La Quinta, where we encountered a newly remodeled pool/hot tub populated by Texans on their way to… yes, the ski slopes of New Mexico and southern Colorado! (What did I tell you!?) We had a late dinner at the 287 Roadhouse whose exotic offerings included breaded and deep-fried pickles, fried alligator bits, and “Juicy Juevos,” which is I suppose more elegant than “Fried Calf Balls.”
*Perks Espresso is right up the street from the hotel
Now I’m tired, so I’ll say good night from Limon, Colorado. More after we get to Nebraska—