If a visitor never strayed from I-40 through the Texas Panhandle, she could be forgiven for thinking that the entire region was governed by the vast and open flatness that surrounds the highway. But those who turn south in Amarillo and follow the tumbleweeds for about thirty minutes will see the earth abruptly fracture and open into the second largest canyon in the United States. The Palo Duro Canyon is part of the Staked Plains region — el Llano Estacado — an immense expanse of flatland about the size of Indiana, on which the Comanches lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. We stopped at the canyon on our way to New Mexico. We meant to make it a quick trip, but we ended up spending half an afternoon. I could easily have spent another four days.
Palo Duro has been the site of human habitation and activity for more than 10,000 years. Generations of American Indians used the canyon, enjoying the waters of the Red River, abundant game, and protection offered by the canyon’s natural features. The final battle of the Red River War, a campaign by the United States to forcibly remove the American Indians from their homes and onto reservations in Oklahoma, occurred in the canyon in 1874.
Nowadays, the canyon is a park owned by the state of Texas, and people mountain bike and hike and gawk at the scenery. Standing on the rim of the canyon, the ferocious, arid wind stripped the moisture from my lips. I had to plant my feet apart to stay upright as I looked into the chasm. Almost a century and a half ago, U.S. soldiers stood on the rim of the canyon and saw the lodges of the Indians they were determined to defeat, an alliance of Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. By the end of that day, scores of them would be dead.
Even though a road winds through the canyon now, it’s hard not to get a whiff of the past, and the lives and deaths that unfolded there, and the wrenching sea changes of people and cultures.
Decades after the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, in the early 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe found her muse here, falling in love with the Texas plains and the canyon. “It is a burning, seething cauldron,” she wrote of Palo Duro, “filled with dramatic light and color.”
I’ll be back.