The last time I was in this part of Palo Duro Canyon, the authorities were after me, for all I knew with dogs and helicopters. That may be overstating the case, but there were helicopters overhead, and my backpacking companion and I were certainly paranoid that the law was on our tail. We were trespassing—heinous and despicable behavior for which we would eventually be arrested and receive our official comeuppance. But this was back in 1987, when the only way to see this stretch of the canyon was to park alongside Texas Highway 207, duck under a barbed-wire fence, and walk across the plains for three days hoping no one saw you.
Now, twenty years later, I was confessing my crime to Doug Huggins, the assistant superintendent of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which had recently undergone a dramatic and long-awaited expansion of its boundaries. Between 2002 and 2005, the park made two major acquisitions—the 2,036-acre Cañoncita and 7,837-acre Harrell Ranch properties—bringing its total acreage, which had languished for decades at 16,402, up to a healthy 26,275. Among the new lands was the site of my clandestine visit. But I didn’t tell Doug a few of the more incriminating elements of that story, since however sympathetic he seemed, his pickup did say “Police” on its doors.
“Actually,” he told me, “people used to do that quite a bit.”
It’s not hard to understand why. Contrary to the perceptions of many who travel it, the Panhandle is not an endless, flat plain. It actually possesses one of the most shocking moments of yin-yang landscape variation on the continent. What everyone groans at is the top of a mesa so vast that when young Georgia O’Keeffe saw it for the first time, in 1914, she immediately pronounced it the biggest single thing she had seen in her life. But that tabletop has an edge running nearly three hundred miles north and south, an escarpment where the ground suddenly falls away in a series of trapdoors to reveal hidden worlds. The effect is as confusing as a mirage, like stumbling baffled into a brightly hued mountain range in the middle of the Kansas wheat fields. Plunging as deep as one thousand feet below the flat, dull plain is a roar of color and form, a profusion of canyons carrying the headwaters of most of the major rivers that flow across Texas—such a canyonated tangle, in fact, that the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 proclaimed it one of the state’s distinct eco-regions, the newly christened Caprock Canyons, Badlands, and Breaks.
The primary star in this constellation has always been Palo Duro Canyon, a fifty-mile-long technicolor trough of slot canyons and gorges diving through Triassic sandstones. Carved by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River over millions of years, the canyon’s ecology runs the gamut from relict mountain juniper forests to desert badlands. This natural wonder has very likely been astonishing and delighting humans for 12,000 years, but over the past 150, private ownership severely curtailed which portions of it we were legally permitted to enjoy. O’Keeffe once called Palo Duro her “spiritual home.” In Texas, the trouble with making any natural landscape your spiritual home is that there may come a time when there’s a fence around it. Though Palo Duro has been partially accessible to the public since it was established as a state park in 1934, within its expansive watershed the park enclosed fewer than 17,000 acres. And with only this fraction of the total canyon in its possession, Texas Parks and Wildlife opted to manage Palo Duro like some kind of Panhandle amusement park, complete with railroad rides, car camping, and summer performances of Texas, the hokey historical laugher of a melodrama.
The problem began with annexation, in 1845. For a variety of stand-alone reasons—among them U.S. reluctance to assume the foreign debt the Republic of Texas had run up in wars to drive out Indians and Mexicans—Texas, unlike every other Western acquisition, got to keep its public lands, which it proceeded to dispose of in an orgy of surveying and selling, acquiring and privatizing. The state got railroads, canals, and an operating budget and in the process turned property ownership into an eleventh commandment. Like almost every other square foot of Texas, Palo Duro passed into private hands.
When the National Park Service did its first round of evaluations of potential sites in Texas in the early thirties, Palo Duro—with its small state park already in place—was on the docket to become a million-acre “National Park of the Plains.” During a 1934 tour, the NPS’s Roger Toll, who literally laid out the state’s future with recommendations for parks in Big Bend, the Guadalupe Mountains,