High Plains Drifting

These leisurely drives explore a part of Texas where the vistas are spectacular, the history is rich, and the natives will want you to sit and talk a spell. Best of all, there’s elbow room to spare.

IMAGINE A LAND OF WIDE-OPEN SPACES and breathtaking vistas, a place that’s so rarely visited by tourists the locals haven’t turned cynical, yet is tailor-made for that great American pastime: the road trip. Such a place really does exist—we call it the High Plains of Texas. Long empty miles of uncrowded highways crisscross rolling hills and rugged canyons, offering endless horizons and spectacular panoramas under skies of a majestic vastness. And there’s hardly a billboard in sight. Why spend all that money vacationing in a foreign land just to bring back a photo of the perfect sunset? Go where the movie crews go.

History is relatively fresh here: The Red River War—eight major battles in all—which forced the removal of the area’s Native Americans to reservations in Oklahoma, happened a mere 125 years ago. The region was subsequently inhabited by pioneers, ranchers, pastores (“sheepherders”) from New Mexico, and farmers. Over the ensuing years, a relatively brief period of time, it has seen one eradication after another, from the buffalo to the Indians to family farms and now small towns. The deeper past is unusually rich: Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition of three hundred Spanish conquistadores onto the Llano Estacado in search of the Seven Cities of Gold in the sixteenth century, and Indian occupation can be traced back 12,000 years to the pre-Clovis people, who hunted mammoths and lived around Lubbock Lake, the site of the present Lubbock Reservoir. To get an idea of the way it was, drop by the region’s numerous museums, where each county’s memories are kept. Exhibits on the Red River War are currently on view at museums in Borger, Canadian, Canyon, Clarendon, Claude, Crosbyton, Lipscomb, Pampa, Panhandle, and Tulia.

The summer nights on the High Plains are the coolest in the state. This year’s exceptional spring rains have produced a proliferation of wildflowers (“And not a dang bluebonnet among them,” says Benjamin-based photographer Wyman Meinzer proudly), turning the countryside an emerald green and filling the playa lakes, the shallow basins that dot the prairie. The landscape radiates the same brilliant colors and light that informed the work of onetime Canyon resident Georgia O’Keeffe long before she moved to New Mexico.

The area’s minimum of typical tourist amenities may translate into limited lodging options (no resorts in these parts), uninspired cafe fare, and precious few golf courses, but it also guarantees that there will be hardly any fellow vacationers to compete with for elbow room. With that kind of stress relief in mind, I’ve mapped three drives that let you savor the Texas High Plains to the fullest. Just remember that people out here like to talk and almost always have a story to tell. Come prepared for long conversations, and don’t forget to sign the guest book.

Riding the Cap

Fluvanna to Turkey: a 150-mile crescent from southeast of Lubbock to northeast of Lubbock that can easily be done in a day or two.

The best way to appreciate this rugged place is to follow the brown swath on the official state road map that marks the Caprock Escarpment, which rises off the Permian Basin in the south and the Rolling Prairies in the east to form the Llano Estacado (the Staked Plains), a flattop 4,600 feet above sea level. The journey begins in the South Plains, at the southern terminus of the Caprock. (The South Plains are the southern half of the Texas High Plains—the northern half being the Panhandle; see “ What Is the Panhandle?”) Fourteen miles northwest of Snyder, turn off U.S. 84 onto FM 612 and go west for five miles to the tidy little farming town of Fluvanna. It is dominated by a water tower, where you turn north on FM 1269 toward Post, 28 miles distant. Five miles north of Fluvanna is an overlook where the Cap unfolds in front of you, marking the great geological divide where the coastal plains finally fade away and the American West really begins. The dramatic wide-angle view takes in the southern edge of the Llano Estacado, which is the southern extension of the Great Plains, the sprawling continental heartland that extends 1,600 miles northward into Alberta, Canada. In other words, it all starts here.

FM 1269 rejoins U.S. 84 five miles later. From there, it’s less than twenty minutes northwest into Post. The town was founded in 1907 by cereal king and visionary C. W. Post, who bought 225,000 acres of untilled prairie to prove to the world that free men and the principles of American enterprise were an unbeatable combination. Post was the designated commercial center of a farm colony, which C. W. Post eventually sold to his “colonists.” Later the town acquired a bit of a honky-tonk reputation since it was wet while Lubbock, half an hour north, remained dry. Over the past twenty years, Post has developed an entirely different reputation—as a tourism magnet for the South Plains—largely through its Old Mill Trade Days (Fifth Street and Texas Highway 207, 806-495-3529). A Friday-through-Sunday event on the weekend before the first Monday of every month (July 2—4 and July 30—August 1 this summer), it covers five acres of the old Posttex Cotton Mills, which C. W. Post built for his ideal town in 1911 and was its leading business until Burlington Industries shut the plant down in 1983.

The Trade Days in turn have generated a significant volume of activity in the redbrick storefronts along five blocks of Main Street downtown. On July 5 the Tower Theater (117 Main, 806-894-3552) presents the Post Opry, a free show featuring Rusty Hudelson’s Knights of the West Revue. Hudelson, a professor at South Plains College in Levelland—the first college in the United States to offer a degree in country and western music—pays tribute to Roy Rogers and cowboy music as well as western swing and engages in a yodeling duel with his daughter, Tania. Across the street and one block down, the Garza Theatre (226 E. Main, 806-495-4005) presents live theatrical performances most weekends; July’s play,

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