Out on the west Texas plains the grasslands split open into a 120 mile long by 6 mile wide gouge in the earth rolling like a good, warn quilt patch worked with golden mesquite, red maple and the deep forest greens of juniper. Southeast of Amarillo, surrounded by towns with names like Hereford, Happy and Goodnight sits the majestic Palo Duro Canyon, Grand Canyon of Texas and I can tell you it is full of grandeur. Just driving into its’ depths feels a bit like driving into a giant bucket full of legend. It’s the kind of place that inspires and has inspired such greats as Georgia O’Keefe who painted landscapes of the red cliff walls. Evidence of the first human inhabitants to the canyon dates back approximately 10000 years to Native Americans who were attracted to the resources of water and game and the canyon has been inhabited continuously sense. During the American Indian campaigns of the early 1800’s the military gained a continuing sense of control over the western United States. Families from the east began to feel a sense of ease about traveling and settling what had been reported as an uncivilized and untamed country. John Parker was a man who felt such ease as he moved west with his family and established a fortified position known as Fort Parker. It was an overconfidence that would prove disastrous. On May 19, 1836, a force of about 500 Comanche, Kiowa and Kichai, who felt threatened by the intruding settlers attacked the stronghold, burning families alive in their quarters and killing men, women and children who were caught in the open. The raiders took John Parker, his granddaughter Cynthia Ann Parker and a few others alive. The elder Parker was brutally tortured and murdered while Cynthia Ann would be kept alive to spend the next twenty-five years with the Comanche. She would later go on to become the wife of Chief Peta Nocona and the mother of legendary Comanche leader Quanah Parker. As an accomplished army scout and Indian fighter a young Texas Ranger named Charlie Goodnight became quite familiar with the canyon and would eventually form and lead a posse on a raid against a band of Comanche. This posse located the camp where a blue-eyed white woman was living with her husband. She was discovered to be none other than Cynthia Ann Parker. Against her wishes, Cynthia was forced to return to her maternal family. Due to depression over the separation from her children she refused to eat and eventually died. Palo Duro canyon remained under American Indian control until a military action led by Colonel Ranald McKenzie was initiated in 1874. McKenzie and his men were sent to round up all Indian occupants and remove them to reservations in Oklahoma. McKenzie developed a strategy to break the backbone of the Indian stronghold. He would focus on eliminating their advantage. He would focus on their horses. McKenzie and his men rounded up and drove a herd of nearly 1200 to nearby Tule canyon and pushed them over a cliff. Demoralized and denied their main weapon and source for livelihood, the Comanche and Kiowa eventually left the area.
Though the Comanche and Kiowa left the canyon, Charles Goodnight never really could. He was fast becoming a respected cattle man driving feral Texas Longhorns northward the railroads. He would later take advantage of Palo Duro Canyon’s supply of water, grass, timber and game by establishing the JA cattle ranch on the floor of the canyon. The JA became a chief supplier of cattle to the United States Army. Goodnight’s innovative techniques in ranching and his inventions, such as the chuck wagon would make the JA a success and turn him into one of the greatest cattle men the west has ever known and his legendary friendship with fellow rancher, Oliver Loving would inspire Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning characters, Texas Rangers Capt. Augustus McCrae and Capt. Woodrow Call of Lonesome Dove.
Today Palo Duro Canyon is quiet. No raiding war parties or thriving cattle companies just a landscape that will take your breath and a sense of adventure that will inspire your creativity. Wandering through the canyon, I found myself turning off my cell phone. Couldn’t get a good signal anyway and thought to myself, there actually are still some places in the world that technology hasn’t quite reached. Where technology maybe doesn’t really even belong. Places where wild turkey roam through juniper trees and red hawk circle the cottonwoods searching for a rabbit or field mouse for supper. I thought of Goodnight and Georgia O’Keefe, Augustus and Woodrow and the passion that this canyon has conjured up and I must say I felt a bit of it myself. And for a moment the simple and joyful escape from our modern world almost felt like time travel.