Nowadays the Nile-green plain of the Panhandle abounds with distant compass points: windmill, telephone poles, ranch houses with stands of cottonwoods and elms. But when Coronado’s expedition wandered twenty miles south of the present site of Amarillo back in 1541, the Spaniards were lost in a shortgrass sea. No hills, no trees, no shrubs, nothing but moving brown herd of shaggy bison. The only features of terrain were the dry, shallow lake beds now called playas (the Spanish word for shores) but described more vividly in Western lore as buffalo wallows. In those low spots rainwater gathered and stood, the theory goes, and over the ages the buffalo millions deepened the drying sloughs by rolling in the mud. Sweating under the postfuedal armor and Panhandle heat, the conquistadores were, in modern vernacular, as spooked as they could be.
Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, the well-married colonial governor, led a mass migration of cavalry, infantry, priests, and Indians, 1500 of them in all, along with thousands of horses, cattle, and sheep. In search of Quivira, the richest of the seven mythical Cities of Gold (an intoxicating myth, considering that the first had proved to be nothing more than a Zuni pueblo), the Europeans were lured on by a captured Indian slave they called the Turk, because he looked like one. “Just ahead,” he kept telling them. One of Coronado’s officers, Don Rodrigo Maldonado, was dispatched eastward until he could find something—anything—to report. He tried to line his way back to the camp with piles of rocks and buffalo chips. The land offered no inkling of what he was about to see. From a distance of three or four hundred yards, the horizon of pale grass may have shown its first sign of parting, a glimpse of the underlying caliche. And then, suddenly, he was on the stunning brink of it—a vast chasm extending thousands of yards across, a subsoil mountain range snaking and broadening in the distance for miles, dropping off from the prairie five hundred feet and more. Straight down.
The rock cliffs were hued downward in beige and yellow, grays becoming olive and lavender, maroons approaching vermilion on the canyon’s floor. On the walls giant boulders perched at precarious angles. The crags and mesas suggested the profiles of camels, humans, apes. Yet the cheeks of the earth’s rock face wore a stubble of clinging juniper. Among glens of grass, trees grew thick-trunked and tall on the canyon’s floor. The Mexican traders later named the canyon Palo Duro, which means hard wood. Coronado’s scout gaped at a geological fluke that had begun as a simple erosion gully about a million years earlier. The rock formations tell anteceding stories of Ice Age horses, saber-toothed cats, dinosaurs, and the landlocked Permian sea. Don Rodrigo Maldonado had no clear sense of that, of course. He was probably thinking that if they could just find a safe way down, here at last was shelter and water. But after seeing nothing but miles of the eerie uniform plains, standing on the rim of Palo Duro produces a vertigo that suggests the epochs and transcends mere centuries. How could this netherworld of utter contrast possibly be here?
“Mules, Outlaws, Pistols, and Cynicism”
Four hundred forty-three years later, my wife and I sat on saddled mules and peered down over the canyon rim. Ordinarily, we embarked on camping trips with chilled asparagus, a marinated leg of lamb, my stepdaughter, Lila, and the family car. Having left with apologies and a promise of souvenirs to the child, this morning we wore boots, thick shirts, leather work gloves, stylish trim-line chaps called chinks, bandannas, and gimme caps (hers a USS New Jersey, mine a Bell Helicopter)—we were dudes with a mildly daring recreational plan. You can drive through a well-maintained state park at the broad mouth of Palo Duro, but to really appreciate the canyon you have to see the upper regions still owned by private ranchers, one of whom had granted us access. I was a dilettante historian on muleback—not the most swashbuckling self-image—and Dorothy was along for the ride. Against the backdrop of Palo Duro’s past, the cushy triviality of our little adventure already had me feeling sheepish. And now the rock-hard fact of the place had my heart in my throat.
I do not wish to exaggerate the dimensions of Palo Duro Canyon. Seen from the air, it loses much of its mystery. Wrinkled with gullies the plain deteriorates into a raw scrape of erosion, the brakes of the heavily silted and aptly named Red River. The headwater ravines sprawl 120 miles across four counties south of Amarillo. Geologically, Palo Duro’s rock formations are said to approximate those along the rim of the Grand Canyon—a good mile above the massive Arizona canyon’s floor. On the scale of comparison, that will do. But the schizophrenic dislocation and euphoria born of first seeing Palo Duro have not diminished since Coronado’s discovery. Fixed here and there with windmills, the shortgrass plain goes indifferently right to the brink, then picks up and extends with the same monotony beyond the divide; it would not be a good place to stub one’s toe in the dark. While the dry creek and wooded meadows below were handsome, at the moment I couldn’t call them inviting. Our host rancher, like most of his neighbors, had brought in bulldozers to grade crude roads down to the floor. Locally the Caterpillar operators have reputations and renown comparable to those of Alaskan bush pilots. Using the blades for brakes, they essentially skidded down the cliffs, prepared at all times to bail out. Some of that heavy machinery landed upside down on the canyons floor. Safe and easy ways down are Palo Duro’s scarcest feature.
Selden Hale, a laconic man with prematurely gray hair, had volunteered to be our guide and outfitter. Selden practices criminal law in Amarillo, but the inscription on his stationary, “Mules, Outlaws, Pistols, and Cynicism,” suggests his avocation and preferred topics of conversation. His great-grandmother was one of