In the still of the night, the only sounds are the tent fly flapping in the plains wind, raindrops pattering above your head and your own breathing. In and out, the warmth of your breath brushes up past your nose, escapes out the lips of the warm down cocoon and into the darkness.
A night on the canyon floor is like having stepped through the Looking Glass, leaving the modern world on the caprock hundreds of feet above you, surrounded by a labyrinth of walls on fire and of rock that can speak, and immersed in world that takes you back fifty, hundreds, millions of years ago.
Coyotes yip and bark in the distance, or so you think; the wind tosses the sound like fallen leaves. They sound simultaneously close and far. Large wings swoosh in the darkness followed by four hoots as their signature. Naked mesquite and hackberry branches dance in the wind, their scratching broken only by the individual pattering of scattered raindrops.
You are grateful for the cozy dry warmth of your sleeping bag and the fabric of your tent, the only separation between you and the wet blackness. The slight edge of unfamiliarity feeds a sense of adventure inside making you feel alive, while the solitude of the night soothes you into a restful slumber.
You’re in a different world. One that has experienced changes that we can’t even imagine. Changes at times tumultuous or imperceptibly slow. You are laying on tiny pieces of an old mountain range over a thousand miles away, carried by water and wind to be deposited as mud and broken rock in an inland sea. Another upthrust from colliding continental plates changed the course of rivers, which, with the wind, gouged through millions of years of hardened mud, sand and clay to lay bare the history book in which you lay.
“Long ago, it is said,” as the Comanches would begin a story……. “long ago, the land was a sea of grasses bounded by a line of mountains. A great bird used his claws to reach the top of the mountains, but the earth gave way, falling to the base and carried away by water and wind. The angry earth rose and stood; more earth fell, reaching far and wide. The eagle tried to cling to the mountains, but as the earth began to tilt his claws dug deep and gouged the land. The mountains cried and their tears became the rivers that flowed down these gouges, making them deeper and wider. Here, they still bleed red. And the eagle flew away leaving the wind under its wings to stay.
But out of the depth of the mountains came the great beasts, the buffalo, and it is their thunder that we followed out of the North to this sea of grass and red gouges flowing with water.”
You are laying on scored and shattered rock from the old Rocky Mountains, eroded by water and wind, carried thousands of miles away to be deposited in basins. This is the foundation of the Southern Great Plains, the red earth that still travels east and south in three rivers. It is the same as the more well-known canyons in Utah and Colorado. But here in Texas, this island of slanting plateau, this irregular pancake on a plate, is known as the Panhandle, the Llano Estacado, the Horizontal Yellow, and its eastern edge, the Caprock Escarpment. Here, the earth is exposed to tell stories over the past 250 million years.
Geologists say that rocks can speak. Here in these canyons is a textbook with its pages laid wide open. It begs you to listen to its stories. Here is a window into Deep Time: geologic history, incidental history of life, and our perceptions of real and absolute time. More than that, these canyons, and plateau that they ring, can tell us about life as it was before the Shoshonean tribes left the deserts of Utah on horses to follow the buffalo, before the Europeans imposed their fear against all things wild, before the plows, poison and barbed wire extinguished the grasses and other native life, and thousands of cattle replaced the buffalo. Because, to understand the land and people as they are now, you have to know about their past. And the life that passed before them.
The first time I rode into one of the canyons of the Eastern Escarpment, I was awestruck. The bands of colors –red, yellow, lavendar, green- underneath a blue dome was like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Recently returning from Utah and New Mexico for two weeks, this was icing on the cake. The Great Daddy of Canyons in Arizona may be deeper, but this one captured me with its vibrant colors and sensuous shapes. The canyon floor made me feel like a hobbit in another world and I explored every nook and cranny I could for three days.
I didn’t want to leave; I was not satiated yet. I wanted to learn more stories and hike into the very depths and secret places the entire forty-mile length. I satisfied myself with hiking one day on the canyon floor and then on top of the rim and out to a tabletop that overlooked down the big gash in the earth. I felt like an eagle then and wished I could fly. There is energy there, as in all canyons, that is intoxicating.
This time I returned with the smaller bike, combining hiking and riding the back roads on the caprock, hopefully riding down into the canyon further east of the park. The weather was not entirely cooperative in reaching that goal, but my time there was enjoyable just the same (except for riding in chilling wet wind and damp gear).
This time I learned more about the caprock; the land, ecology, people and places. It added another dimension to my cumulative experiences there. In some ways it was disheartening, in other ways stirred admiration. Above all, the four days in the region increased my understanding of both the land and the people, the natural and human history, and made it all more real than the myths that are perpetuated in and outside of Texas.
Most people complain that the Llano Estacado is flat, boring and empty. It is anything but. The region boasts a unique natural history and ecology that can teach us many lessons. It can also teach us about ourselves. Even Charles Goodnight, the entrepreneurial cattlebaron that decimated hundreds of native wildlife off the high prairie, was eventually captivated by the canyons and devoted himself in his later years to restoring and conserving the land and the beasts that roamed it before his cows.
Like the region in Big Bend, the wildness on the Great Plains and in its canyons tended to unsettle people; they feared anything wild. People still do fear it. They are unable to see the beauty of it, even amidst the harshness and danger. But that’s part of being alive. We don’t have to conquer everything to prove we are alive. We adapt in co-existence.
Dan Flores, a historian of the West and a native of West Texas (although he wasn’t born there), eloquently comments about differences in perception “…the plains hunters somehow recognized what we have such difficulty with: our search is not really for the meaning of the universe but, rather, for the euphoria of knowing that we are alive and a part of it.”
Like Dan, there are those of us that cannot let it go. I’m one of them, too.
My travelogue will be abridged to save everyone the pain of reading a long narrative. But when I ride, on either the blue endurance steed or the little wild green pony, I travel to immerse myself in the country I travel through. So my stories and photographs are what I see through my mind’s eye.