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 the first Anglo-Saxon women to settle in the Panhandle, and he grew up on his family’s ranch north of Borger. Raised on horseback, he now has a middle-aged devotion to mules that has both its romantic and its practical sides. To someone of his troglodytic natures, it doesn’t hurt mules’ cause at all that population curves indicated that the hybrid beasts should have been extinct in this country by 1958. Lots of times Selden feels practically extinct himself. But he has also found that mules better suit his needs than horses. He likes to hunt high in the Rockies or ride for days through rugged sections of the Big Bend, the Davis Mountains, and Palo Duro, seeking a sense of the lost frontier. And mules are the perfect vehicle. With tremendous power in their hindquarters, mules are disproportionately stronger than horses, and they can recover from exhaustion in a single night. Their narrow hooves, short step, and relatively long front legs enable them to traverse steep terrain that makes stumblebums of horses, which evolved, in all fairness, on the open plains. Also, mules keep their heads and concentrate better when rocks start to slide. Man’s observation of these rough-country traits goes as far back as Homer, who wrote in the Iliad: “And before them went the mules; /And ever upward, downward, sideward and aslant they fare.”

In preparing us for Palo Duro’s steep terrain, however, Selden had warned that riding mules requires more patience than traveling on horseback does. Reins laid on the right side of a horse’s neck signal a desired left turn. To communicate the same request to a mule you have to extend your left arm far out and slowly pull its head around—the difference, roughly, between steering a power-everything Oldsmobile and steering a dump truck. Stopping a mule requires just as much effort. “Lean back in the saddle, pull back on the reins, then release,” he briefed us. “Lean back, pull back, and release. All the time, you’re saying, ‘Whoa.’ That’s important. Say, ‘Whooooa.’”

Because of my weight and the length of my legs, Selden had lent me his own favorite mount, Stagger Lee, a big black mule with an unusual white splash on his haunch. “Great name,” I said, patting the mule’s thick neck. “The old blues song.”

“That,” our guide mumbled vaguely, “and, uh, well, he does have a little stagger in his step.”

After making sure the cinches were tight, Selden eyed the canyon floor and told us to follow the example of those bulldozer operators: “Kick your feet out of the stirrups and let the mules have their heads. If it looks like you’re going to get some action, don’t be afraid to jump off.”

Noting the length and sobriety of our exchanged stares, he decided wisely that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for that. Leaving the “scenic route” for another time, he led the strawberry-roan pack mule, Pumpkin, and disappeared around the switchbacks astride the sorrel. Reddy. Dorothy and I stumbled and slipped afoot and clung to our mules’ reins. The best thing I can say about that hike is that it didn’t take very long. At times I clawed at rocks with my gloved left hand and tried to fend off Stagger Lee’s sixfold weight with my right. (Pulling rank on the chain of being, I let him have the ledge.) He huffed and puffed in chorus with me and staggered often, misstepping with his right front hoof. “He’s going to step on me and crush me and kill me for sure,” I kept thinking, though in fact his occasional pressure was as tentative and considerate as a cat’s. Dorothy and her beast, Fat Mule, descended in the same heart-thumping fashion. I asked her later what she had been thinking. Her reply: “I am Lila’s only mother.”

A Hole That Consumes Itself

My first impression of the floor was the extraordinary redness of the exposed bedrock and soil. Interlaced with shining white veins of gypsum, which suggest the evaporation of a landlocked sea, the dominant brick-red shale is characteristic of the Quartermaster formation that geologists place in the Permian Age, about 390 million years ago. A third of the way up the walls the bedrock shale variegates into maroon, gray, and lavender patterns called the Spanish Skirts. The multicolored bluffs belong to the Tecovas formation, which derived from sediments of jungle swamps and streams. Together with the quartz and sandstone in the overlying Trujillo formation, the Tecovas shales contain much of Palo Duro’s wealth of fossils. Toward the rim the blond quartz, sandstone, and caliche represent the Ogallala formation. These youngest rocks are often the most resistant to erosion, which accounts for all the long-necked buttes and balanced pedestal rocks that geologists call hoodoos. Despite the jabbering excitement that marked our safe descent, as we rode across the canyon floor Dorothy and I both fell silent and simply stared. Palo Duro’s geological trademark is a three-hundred-foot pillar named the Lighthouse because of its shape. Always beyond some ridge, the Lighthouse vanished and reappeared as mysteriously as the moon.

Like the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro dug itself into being with the help of flowing water. Springs and red clay gullies make intermittent creeks and flood ravines that become a running stream, the Prairie Dog Town Fork; the Red River’s two-thousand-mile trek toward the Mississippi is born. Over 90 million years the Panhandle’s incessant wind has also played a part. But the erosion of Palo Duro is distinctive because so much of it works straight down. In a process called piping, surface water percolates downward, weakening and undercutting porous layers, removing grains of sand. Eventually the formations cave in on themselves. Boulders propped on the steep grades above the floor have the appearance of a stop-action landslide, and the effect is no illusion. In this form of erosion, the debris creeps, slips, and flows. The rapidity of the vertical erosion was apparent in the sad state of this ranch’s fences. Long sections sagged and twisted into strands of barbed-wire rope because the supporting soil had fallen away from the cedar posts. Palo Duro is a giant hole in the ground, forever consuming itself.

Yet for all its alluvial origins and oasis-like flora, Palo Duro suffers the scarcity of water so obvious on the plains. Rainfall averages only twenty inches a year; rock hounds liken the canyon to the Painted Desert. Still, Palo Duro makes splendid use of what little moisture it has. Scrub oak, catclaw, and mountain mahogany were abundant enough in the draws that to keep Fat Mule moving, my wife had to bang him often with her heels—befitting his name, he had a keen eye for delectable nibbles along the way. Though mesquite and occasional willows thrive on the canyon floor, the dark jade of juniper dominates the woodland hue. And it’s not just the pestilent growth that we call scrub cedar; that brush chokes the higher ravines and clings to the canyon walls. On the floor, Rocky Mountain junipers make splendid shade trees with trunks several feet thick. Palo Duro’s water supply is meager, but the seep springs are easy to spot. Set above and against the dark juniper, the cottonwoods’ green stands out as bright and cheery as clover. The cottonwood is the plains equivalent of its relative the mountain aspen. If you find cottonwoods on the arid plains, you find water, the roosts of wild turkeys, the soothing clatter of waxen leaves in the evening breeze.

The floor produces a strangely inverted sense of well-being. The ages of its habitation almost whisper. Coronado’s men, after making their own harrowing descent, encountered Teyas Indians, who hunted buffalo on foot, used dogs as pack animals, and foraged plums, berries, and grapes on the canyon’s floor. According to Coronado’s chroniclers, the aborigines were neither hostile nor friendly. They stared a lot. On one of the first evenings, the Spaniards watched storm clouds turn the green of copper above the canyon walls. The storm destroyed equipment, stampeded horses, and sent hailstones, which one writer claimed were as large as bowls, bouncing off the men’s plumed helmets. Still, the Spaniards never doubted that they were better off in the canyon than up there on the featureless plain. Running short of provisions during that fortnight, the bravest among them ventured out on the prairie and hunted buffalo, which the Teyas helped them make into jerky. Afterward, the Spaniards often crouched beside the carcasses until the sun’s descent created shadow—and direction—from the slain forms. At night their colleagues blew trumpets and lit fires on the canyon’s rim so the crazed hunters could find their way back. One of the friars with Coronado, Juan de Padilla, proposed a service thanking God for His mercy and bounty. He said the Palo Duro mass eighty years before the Pilgrims celebrated their Thanksgiving near Plymouth Rock.

Full-Tilt Boogie

The hunting shack that served as our base camp was nestled under cliffs in a thick grove of junipers and cottonwoods. Our mules approached a pool of the rust-colored creek thirstily enough but soon confirmed their reputation as finicky drinkers, turning up their noses at the gypsum taste. Nearing the house, Dorothy’s mule threw one of those balks that have won its kind fame or infamy, depending upon which lore you buy.

I helped Selden unload Pumpkin, whose initial performance as a pack mule had warmed her new owner’s heart. Once the saddles, traces, and pack frames come off, mules always like to take good roll in the dirt; even old U.S. Army manuals advised teamsters to indulge that whim. Because it wasn’t possible to corral Pumpkin, Selden’s fears of a fugitive mule weighed heavy on his mind, so he tied her to a tree. The prospect of an afternoon off wasn’t enough to diminish her mulish pique, though, and she pitched a lunging, heel-kicking fit that succeeded only in making shackles of the halter rope. “Are you through now?” Selden yelled at her, as she struggled to regain her feet. “Will that do?” Throughout our brief acquaintance, the mules had remained totally mute, except for the occasional, exerted snufflings of equine lips. But now, while we lunched on dried fruit and granola bars, Reddy extended his neck, bared his buck teeth, and voiced the cry that prompted Westerners to nickname mules Rocky Mountain canaries.

On the way out of the camp, Selden spurred Reddy across the shallows of the creek. “I wish I could have lived a hundred years ago,” he told us, then smiled at the quaintness of his remark. “As long as they’d let me keep penicillin.”

We came upon a windmill that hadn’t pumped water in a long time. Oases behind us, the absence of moisture thinned and stunted the trees. As the canyon widened and the sky paled with midday heat, the desolation of the rock formations seemed almost lunar. Though a few Herefords chewed their cuds and stared, the apparent lack of other animal life was unsettling. A lone buzzard lazed on the updraft. The wildlife was there, but in the presence of humans it tried to go unseen.

“Godamighty,” erupted Selden. “What an eye!”

He swung down off Reddy and snatched a fragment from the strew of rocks. It was an unfinished but well-crafted arrowhead that would have been used for large game. To the original inhabitants, much of Palo Duro’s magic lay in its splendor as a hunting ground. Ice Age Paleo-Indians hunted mammoths and giant bison here more than 12,000 years ago. Archaics established their culture about 5000 B.C., supplementing a diet of half-raw meat with vegetation foraged on the canyon floor. During the time of the early Christians, Neo-Americans hunted in Palo Duro but also made pottery and cultivated crops. As often happened, the barbaric villagers lost the choice domain to more warlike nomads. Apaches claimed Palo Duro for three hundred years before losing it in turn to their blood enemies, the Comanches. Both tribes relied wholly on buffalo, but hunting bison on foot was no easy task. The Indians were forever starting range fires, hoping to stampede the herds over cliffs. Palo Duro offered both a place to trap buffalo and a secure base camp for the hunts and warring sorties on the plains. The arrival of Spaniards on horseback revolutionized the lives of the Apaches. In addition to making them even more warlike, the borrowed horse culture meant they could match the mobility of their countless prey. They thought they would never go hungry again.

In an enervated way, our culture maintains that tradition. Hunters start leasing the ranches of Palo Duro about the time the golden eagles arrive with the northers. Selden, who doesn’t need much excuse to head for Palo Duro, volunteers to guide the hunters too. He loves to see them coming in their camouflage windbreakers from Abercrombie and Fitch. They are often unprepared for the excruciating cold of the nights—Palo Duro’s windbreak qualities are offset by the cliff-shortened days and restricted quota of warming sun. The autumn hunters take some wild turkeys but mostly train their scopes on the canyon’s mule deer. After those seasons expire, the hunters return in January for the trophy horns of the aoudads, exotics from North Africa that were first introduced in Palo Duro during the late fifties. Numbering several hundred now, the nimble Barbary sheep are best seen about sundown along the canyon’s rim. Enterprising sorts, they clamber up the rock walls and dine on nearby fields of wheat.

Our ride wore on with telling effects. The mules were lathered and gaunt. Dorothy’s carriage in the saddle reflected ample hours of youthful riding experience, but she was up against the friction of her denim seams. Blue jeans are blue jeans, right? Wrong. She quickly discovered why the inside seams of Levi’s are sewn outward and ride far back against the inner thighs. The more sightly, hidden seams of her Liz Claibornes rode precisely on the contact points of her saddle and knees, scraping two large and painful strawberries. My ouchy sacroiliac was batted like a Ping-Pong ball every time Stagger Lee broke a trot. Still, I was getting the hang of it. The mule’s natural gait is a driving, long-stepping walk. The saddle rhythm is comfortable, almost sensual. Circling back toward the hunting shack, we rode through a broad dry creek with chopped rock walls. A characteristic formation of great intrigue to Palo Duro geologists, the exposed gypsum sagged and buckled like a worn-out mattress. We paused and commented on the prettiness of a salt cedar in frail lavender bloom. A songbird twittered.

I was thinking that it takes a long while to begin to hear the quiet. In the city your hearing throws up a selective barricade against the freeways and trucks and all intrusive sound. On the way to the airport the day before, I had come close to my first fistfight in seventeen years. My opponent was an earnest young man with all the right liberal causes on his bumper stickers, and the serious issue in question was whether I had any right to honk my horn at a van backing blindly from a post office parking space. “Civilization!” I was thinking, “By golly, rural is better.” As we came up out of the creek bed, I slouched in the saddle, enjoying the mule’s rhythm. Slow dance, Stagger lee. I removed my gimme cap and wiped my brow, holding the reins loosely with the other hand. I was writing, as writers are wont to do—gone to the Bahamas, my wife puts it. I was writing this paragraph, without the least suspicion of how it was about to end.

It may have been a rattlesnake. Perhaps it was the urban vibes and prose style. But all at once the long black ears jumped erect, swung about, flared with alarm, and I was off to the races on a runaway mule. Stagger Lee’s full-tilt boogie caught me by such surprise that I lost one rein, which hardly enhanced pulling him up. I’m not sure how the gimme cap wound up back on my head. But leaning over his neck, trying to grab the flopping rein, I had mortal vision of how much this fall was going to hurt. The hard ground and pointed rocks may in fact have kept me aboard. I’m certain the adrenaline helped. For at least five seconds, I rode the hell out of that mule. All the time, I was yelling, “Hyeeeaaah! Hyeeeaaah!” having once found the method effective in the discouragement of an overwrought Doberman pinscher.

“Try ‘Whoooooa!’” our guide suggested from afar.

With both reins finally in hand, I leaned back, pulled back, and released not much at all. “Whoa,” I soothed Stagger Lee, who shuddered and rolled his eyes unhappily. “It’s alright. Whoa.”

“‘Hyeeeaaah.’” Selden chided, grinning at my wife. “I think that’s Samurai for ‘giddyup.’”

That Comanche Moon and This One

Long after the cottonwoods and hunting shack fell deep in shadow, the sun was resplendent on the blond cliffs. Dorothy and I dragged our chairs outside and eased our soreness with whiskey scavenged from hunters’ trash. Watching the darkness gather, Selden told us about his great-grandparents, who settled in the Panhandle in the late 1870’s. Preparing for bed one pleasant spring night, they laid an infant niece in her crib and cracked the door to let some air in. Attracted by the light, a rabid skunk ran inside and attacked the child. The shattered man wrapped his niece in a blanket and, using two horses, rode nearly two hundred miles without stopping to the nearest doctor, in Dodge City, Kansas. The doctor told him there was nothing to be done. He returned home but kept on riding, far south into Texas, to locate a madstone, a hairball found in the stomach of a buffalo. Plains Indians believed that the hairballs had magic medicinal properties. The child died, of course. It was a sad story, movingly told. Selden’s point, I think, was that we have a rather petulant way of exaggerating our hardships now. Somewhere off in the woods a whippoorwill sang its blue cry. We propped our chairs back and admired the orange rise of a big moon, almost full. Little more than a hundred years ago, that benign romantic vision would have struck terror in our souls. A Comanche moon.

The Comanches started out as Shoshones—short, thick, broad-jawed people who lived in the Rocky Mountains and were despised for their crude tribal lore and pitiable dietary pursuits by their more lordly neighbors, like the Sioux. In 1705 the Spaniards first encountered these people, who had feuded with kinsmen and moved down onto the plains. That meeting of cultures revised the status of Comanches almost overnight. They became the continents elite horsemen. At the peak of the tribe’s prestige and power, an ordinary Comanche male might own 250 horses, his war chief 1500. Because of their skill at breeding and stealing horses—and pack mules—their Shoshone dialect became the trade language of the aboriginal plains. Raiding deep into Texas and Mexico, they like to ride in the warm months, when the grass was long and rich in nourishment. They timed their raids to coincide with the waxing moon; with plenty of light, they could attack the settlers while they slept and then be fifty miles away by dawn. Hence the chilling term “Comanche moon.” Comanches didn’t just kill and scalp. They stole children, raped and mutilated women, slowly tortured men to death. Paramilitary bands of Texas Rangers fought back with blood and atrocity in their own eyes. Among other things, the Comanche wars perfected the new American art of proximate murder by handgun. Five national governments made various claims on the Southern plains, but savages on horseback blocked settlement for 150 years. The Spanish term stated reality in that 240,000-square-mile area—“Comanchería.”

But by the summer of 1874 Comanchería had dwindled to a string of renegade encampments in Palo Duro Canyon. Quanah Parker, the young firebrand whose mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was the most famous of the children stolen and raised in Comanche captivity, led one band of kinsmen, but probably there were Kiowas and Cheyennes as well. Palo Duro had become the badlands stronghold of all warriors on outlaw leave from the Oklahoma reservations. They were hiding out from soldiers under the command of General William T. Sherman, better known for his Civil War march to the sea. Sherman had applied his theory of attacking the enemy’s commissary to the Indian campaigns. In violation of an 1868 treaty that had first brought the Comanches into the reservation, Sherman authorized buffalo hunters in Kansas, who were busily meeting the demand for cheap leather back East, to kill bison wherever they found them. Even in the Texas Legislature, conservationist voices were raised against the wanton slaughter, but Sherman knew that if the hostile tribes lost their ancient food supply, they would have to accept their fate as farmers and wards of the state. Quanah Parker’s beleaguered gang understood commissary too. Because of its sheer rock walls, Palo Duro was one of only three places on the Southern plains where buffalo in any numbers had escaped the hide hunters’ .50-caliber guns.

Within a generation, Comanches as a cultural entity would cease to exist. They had no written record of themselves, and ethnologists asked no questions until it was too late. Though Comanches held Palo Duro for most of two centuries, we don’t even know what they called it. Comanche faith was individualistic; they had taboos but no dogma or respected priestly caste. Comanches invoked visions to discover their names and forever sought the magic that would bolster their natural strength. Particularly toward the end, warfare was their religion. However awed and stirred they may have been by the look of the place, it is unlikely that Comanches ever attached to Palo Duro the kind of totemic significance that, say, the Sioux ascribed to the Black Hills. Had Comanches discovered some of the mammoth fossils in Palo Duro, that surely would have inspired earnest mystical conversation. They believed that mammoth bones were the remains of their horrific tribal bogey, the Great Cannibal Owl. But Comanches seem to have been practical folks. They chose Palo Duro as the base camp for their last stand because of the military security that comes with inaccessibility. They knew the only safe trail down—in the Tule branch of the canyon, a few miles southeast of our borrowed hunting shack.

Under a moon that was just past full in late September 1874, a column of the 4th Calvary approached Palo Duro from the south. Colonel Ranald Mackenzie had ascertained the hostile bands’ whereabouts from a Comanchero trader, after stretching him around a wagon wheel. The engagement came at the end of a twelve-hour forced march; tired soldiers peeked down over the rim at the Indian encampments just as dawn began to streak the sky. Over the centuries, first introductions to Palo Duro don’t change much. “The whole command dismounted,” Sergeant Robert Carter wrote in his vivid frontier memoir, “and each officer and man, leading his horse in single file, took the narrow zig-zag path, which was apparently used by nothing but Indian ponies and buffalo. Men and horses slipping down the steepest places, stumbling and sliding, one by one we reached the bottom.” Stretched out 110 years later on a surplus Army bunk, listening to Dorothy sleep, my joints were on fire from a mere five-hour ride. But I figured we had shared at least one thought with those bluecoats waiting to take their turn: “That thing is the trail?”

Surprised warriors emerged from their tepees with wives and children in tow, grabbed what they could, and ran like mountain goats for higher ground. Though the battle lasted all day, the only verified casualties were three dead Indians and one wounded Army trumpeter. Mackenzie set the Indian teepees, belongings, and provision on fire, and his men managed to herd more than 1500 captured horses and mules out of Palo Duro. Several miles out on the plains, his infantry set about the gory task of shooting all the animals that their Indian guides didn’t want to keep. It took them all day to kill 1100 head. (The vast pile of bones lay out there for years, until farmers finally hauled them off in wagons and sold them as fertilizer for $20 a ton.) With the Panhandle winter coming on, for the de-horsed Indians it was over, just like that. Subsisting on nuts, grubs, and rodents, Quanah Parkers’ band held out the longest, and that was little more than a year. Other Comanche warriors straggled on foot into Fort Sill, where they were locked in miserable compounds and thrown raw meat over the fence.

It was one of the choice ironies of Western U.S. history—with information procured by torture, the soldiers had sneaked up on the war’s last major engagement under a Comanche moon and struck the telling blow by resorting to the horst-thieving ways of the enemy. Of course, Mackenzie’s soldiers had no idea they had won the war. They were happy enough not to have broken their necks trying to get down to the fight. After camping one night in a buffalo wallow, they staked their horses and mules under guard near Palo Duro’s rim. The Indians had vanished. Admiring the scenic vistas below, the soldiers spread along the rim and consumed the usual field breakfast of fried bacon, black coffee, and sourdough biscuits baked in Dutch ovens over coals.

Visionary and Throwback

We woke up in the hunting shack with anticipations of the same meal steaming in our appetites and minds. The owner of this ranch, Tom Christian, retains a chuck wagon cook to prepare regular breakfasts for tourists and civic groups. Arriving on a bus chartered by the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, they ride out to the canyon rim in the horse-drawn wagons and absorb a bit of Palo Duro lore from ranch hands who show up for the occasion, which Christian calls Old Cowboy Morning. He had invited us to join the party. As we rode out across the floor, some of the rancher’s Herefords scattered before us with inquisitive bawls and clattering hooves. Selden, in tune with his origins, blames farmers for the deterioration of the grassland plains. He says they based their hopes and dreams on the good years of rain, not the insufficient average. But the stark floor of Palo Duro lends testimony to the damage done by cattleman as well. As we crossed one particularly bare patch of red soil, Selden said he wished that the ranchers could find a way to let the canyon rest four or five years—at least see if it’s capable of ever coming back.

Drawing on my reading, I observed that when Charles Goodnight turned Palo Duro into the Panhandle’s first cattle ranch, the grassy dells were luxuriant enough to support 10,000 buffalo. Goodnight said that with the help of rifle shots ricocheted off the cliffs, he and two cowboys drove the bison herd fifteen miles up the canyon to make room for the cattle, creating a cloud of red dust that rose a thousand feet in the air. Selden squinted at the high draws and incredibly broken terrain, speculating on the difficulty of the drovers’ task. “I never quite knew whether to believe that story,” he said, with an irreverent cluck of his tongue.

Charles Goodnight was a rigid moralist. Yet in staking his claim to Palo Duro, he negotiated a nonaggression pact with the notorious highwayman Dutch Henry. He cut a similar deal with nomadic Mexican sheepherders, dividing the entire Panhandle approximately in half. The very scale of Goodnight’s life strains contemporary imagination. Migrating with him family from Illinois the year Texas joined the Union, he rode 800 miles bareback at the age of nine. In 1860, while raiding a Comanche encampment, he recognized Cynthia Ann Parker as an Anglo and saved her from the Rangers’ undiscriminating fire. During the cattle-market glut that afflicted Texas after the Civil War, Goodnight hatched the idea of driving Longhorns to the nearest rail depots in Kansas. While blazing four cattle-drive trails, he designed the first chuck wagon, lost a partner (Oliver Loving) to the Indians, and once yielded right-of-way to a buffalo herd that he estimated was 125 miles long and 25 miles across.

Nearing forty, he anticipated a life of genteel returns on that investment. Dug in and prosperous, he irrigated crops, planted apple orchards, and owned stock in the opera house of Pueblo, Colorado. But the bank panic of 1873 wiped him out. With 1600 Longhorns left to his name, Goodnight, who had never laid eyes on Palo Duro Canyon but had heard reports of the renegade Comanches’ demise, sensed the enormity of the resulting power vacuum. When he found the old Comanche trail and packed disassembled wagons and the first winter’s provisions down on mules in 1875, his closest neighbor was 100 miles away, the nearest store 250. It’s a measure of Goodnight’s character that he could be that far down on his luck and simultaneously determine that he was just the man to fill that vacuum. He seized Palo Duro because of its water, sheltered pastures, and ready-made corrals of those sheer rock walls. With the end of the free range already in sight, think of all the fence-building labor he saved.

To certify his vast homestead claim, Goodnight persuaded John Adair, an English investor, to secure the deeds to 12,000 acres the first year. Paying money its due, Goodnight named his dream ranch the JA. Adair drove a hard bargain: on a salary of $2500 a year, the famous trailblazer had to return his haughty partner’s investment at the end of five years, plus interest and two thirds of the profit. Goodnight assembled the Panhandle’s first great cattle ranch by snookering the speculators who held the paper title to Palo Duro. With no other buyers in view, they accepted his offers of 20 to 75 cents an acre. By 1882 Goodnight held 93,000 acres and went right on buying. As a cattle king he functioned like a stern Baptist overlord. Decreeing prohibition forty years before the idea caught on nationwide, he fired or blacklisted any cowhand caught drinking, gambling, or fighting. At the same time, he rewarded employees such as Tom Christian’s grandfather with bargain-price homesteads of their own. Goodnight asserted that during the years of his management, the JA books showed a 72 per cent profit. But the eighties brought another economic depression, and Goodnight foresaw the demise of the huge cattle ranches. In 1887 he sold his share of the JA to Adair’s widow and settled on a smaller ranch a few miles out from Palo Duro.

On that ranch Goodnight participated in a poignant ritual: paunchy and winded Comanche horsemen, whose absence from the reservation no longer threatened anybody, visited so they could run down a few head of his buffalo in the old way. Goodnight became the friend of Quanah Parker, by then a celebrity who partied with cattlemen in Fort Worth and hunted wolves with Teddy Roosevelt. An amateur naturalist, Goodnight maintained one of the country’s largest herds of buffalo, which he shared with the national parks and zoos. He devoted his last years to the breeding of cattalo, a cross of Polled Angus cattle and American bison that he ballyhooed, to a rather skeptical international audience, as the solution to world hunger. Late in life Goodnight allowed a photographer to juxtapose his white-haired and —goateed profile against that of a buffalo. Except for the darker figure’s horns, the resemblance was uncanny. Visionary and throwback, Goodnight died in 1929.

Though much of the original acreage has been sold off, the JA Ranch sails on with continuity and stability today under the management of one of Adair’s descendants, M. W. H. Richie. On some of the Palo Duro spreads, around the turn of the century an ambitious breed of cedar choppers tried to exploit the canyon’s juniper for the growing needs of Amarillo. Timber never boomed, because of logistics; to get the logs up those cliffs, the men had to use unwieldy pulleys and derricks. Oil, of course, was the industry that could have changed Palo Duro forever. A sign in the state park recalls the 1919 drilling project that reached a depth of 26,000 feet. With a roar of Pleistocene repudiation, an air pocket blew the bit and drill stem up through the derrick with such violence that people heard the ruckus nine miles away. The wildcatters scrapped that project fast. Palo Duro has a way of taking care of itself. Human claimants tend to be incidental.

Palo Duro acreage with a remote-control gate may be the rustic choice of Amarillo’s affluent, but they need good weather, a four-wheel-drive Jeep, and a brave heart to make use of the canyon floor. There is little danger of cul-de-sacs and ranchette subdivisions finding their way here. Still, leaving the canyon in the hands of private ranchers exacts a price beyond the stubborn overgrazing. Despite its recreational potential, only the ranchers’ hunting clients and lucky acquaintances really get to enjoy it in the wild. Acquired in 1933, the state park is large, handsome, and tastefully designed. But the Panhandle’s shortage of public nature retreats is so extreme that in the summer, Palo Duro State Park resembles Coney Island. Also, the park’s designers may have erred on the side of restraint. After a drive through the park, I came away a bit empty and disgruntled. It needs to be more than a place to throw a Frisbee under the cottonwood trees.

So what am I suggesting? Explanatory billboards? The park offers two state historical markers, a replica of Goodnight’s dugout, a tour-guide train, and the amphitheater musical Texas, which dramatizes much of the narrative related here. I just wish that the state had posted beneath the best example of the lower half of the Spanish Skirts—called, for quite literal reasons, the Devil’s Slide—something other than a marker directing attention to the nearest latrine. Besides, the state park is confined to the mouth of the canyon. The creeks have converged, and the Prairie Dog Town Fork is actually the headquarters of the Red River. Though the cliffs are impressive, within the park Palo Duro is more broad river valley than broken desert canyon. History makes the best distinction. Goodnight used what was probably the Panhandle’s first barbed wire to separate the present parkland from the rest of the canyon. He reserved the lush grass along the river for John Adair’s herd of purebred English cattle. Beyond the wire, Goodnight turned his Longhorns loose.

Back to the Flatland

From the hunting shack’s cottonwood grove we had climbed several hundred feet of jumbled plateaus. Selden pointed out a V-shaped line etched on the rock wall’s shadowed face. That, he said, was our destination—the scenic route. Dorothy slid me one of her patented frank looks. We dismounted and rested on the last grassy level. Putting up pencils, tightening saddle straps, swigging water from our plastic canteens, we chatted with a calm I could not have imagined 24 hours earlier. The black mule lowered his head meanwhile and, with shy insistence, began to nudge my leather chink with his snout.

“Awww,” said our guide, grinning sentimentally. “Stagger Lee’s in love.” Considering the fright we’d given each other the previous day, I could have thrown my arms around the big thing’s neck.

As we started up, Dorothy peeked at the distant treetops below and grimly shook her head. The path was wide, scraped, and regular enough to qualify as more than a livestock trail, but in comparison, yesterday’s bulldozed switchbacks were a country club boulevard. I rocked forward in the saddle and placed as much weight as possible directly above Stagger Lee’s shoulders. Wedged below in recesses of eastward cliffs, high shaded dells glistened with dew. It would take an agile and determined cow to overgraze that grass, I have never felt more suspended between the easy, mundane present and a far more difficult but colorful past. As often as it seemed safe, I craned my neck and stared. Motionless on one of the low mesas, a big dark-brown steer watched us climb.

A friend who is a historian tells me, without meaning to offend, that Texas is almost ahistoric. He implies that our habitation of this terrain has been too sporadic and too recent to make much difference in the world scheme of things. Driving through our ugly shopping centers and more-desolate small towns, I find it hard to argue with him, but for me Palo Duro belies that allegation of impoverished human experience. I know. Our insignificant little adventure had lasted not quite one day—it was silly and presumptuous of me to insert that passage in a drama that’s gone on for thousands of years. I suspect that participants in an archeological dig feel just as dwarfed and stirred. It’s not just what you find. It’s what the resonance of that hole in the ground makes you think.

Selden pulled up and tightened his grip on the pack mule’s halter rope. Before us the red clay turned into a stratum of dusty white caliche, roughly three hundred yards across, that looked very loose in composition and angled up the cliff at a grade of about 45 degrees. The ledge on the right pitched straight down, out of sight. “One at a time,” Selden told us. “When I reach the end of that dirt, then you start.” Letting Pumpkin trail behind, he spurred Reddy’s flank and rode ahead.

“I’m next,” my wife announced, without a hint of compromise. I knew her game. If she came off backward, I was to play shortstop to her rolling ball. She hung on fine, but Fat Mule paid for his gluttony and girth. Twice during that climb, the mule had to stop and rest. Dorothy endured those delays with a petrified stoicism, though in acknowledgement of the rightward chasm she directed her gaze slightly to the left. I wouldn’t have been much help if needed. I was yanking reins, jerking Stagger Lee’s head, yelling, “Whoa!” Mules desire nothing as much as the company of other mules. Witnessing the departure of his mates, Stagger Lee was snorting and stomping and dying to go.

At last I called of the fight and let him have his head. Raising my knees and clamping them tight, I hunkered over his neck and found that sure spot of rhythmic balance. Though I may have resembled a hybrid of Willie Shoemaker and Ichabod Crane, I didn’t have to grab the saddle horn once. In retrospect, that may have been a show of dumb bravado, but my confidence in that beast of burden was absolute. The slobber of Stagger Lee’s exertion foamed over the bridle bit and hung in a light green string from his chin. With his head down, he thrust with his hindquarters, drove with his shoulders, and sent waves of brute strength right through me. We cleared the dangerous caliche and reached a gate, the end of our climb. With exhilarated hoots we burst over the canyon rim, fresh upon the placid scene of Old Cowboy Morning. What status! Tom Christian’s cowhands raised jovial halloos at the sight of Selden, their favorite criminal lawyer. The guests, members of a Young Leadership group in Amarillo, gaped at us from the picnic tables, some with aluminum forks poised. Sex, maybe…I’m sure that’s better.

Walking somewhat bowlegged in our thorn-scraped chinks, we carried our blue metal coffee cups and plates to an unoccupied table. Dorothy and I laid our gimme caps aside and made a mild show of ordering our dirty, matted hair. Such are the powers of human recovery; it’s downright amazing how one night’s saddle-sore dudes can turn into the new day’s grizzled hands. Baked over mesquite coals in large Dutch ovens, in the manner of Mackenzie’s troopers, those biscuits may have been the best that ever soaked in gravy. A bank president and regent at West Texas State, Tom Christian wore a hat that looked like a cross between a Stetson and a bowler. Telling stories about his grandfather’s employment by Old Man Goodnight, he tried to make sure everybody was entertained and had plenty to eat. Sartorially, Amarillo’s young leaders ran to starched jeans, shined boots, silk scarves tied like bandannas. Pleasant folks.

With peals of glee, a couple of women were throwing cow chips. After each Frisbeelike toss, they brushed and clapped their hands fastidiously. A larger group of women hung on the words of the volunteer cowhands, particularly Roger Johnson, the one with the clipped moustache, nice shoulders, and gleaming white shirt. With just the right amount of courtly restraint, he sidled against the posterior of an attractive woman and showed her how to twirl his lariat. Excusing himself with a forefinger touched to his hat, Roger walked over to our table and took a seat on the bench. “Who are these people?” asked Selden, shoving his plate away. “They’re from Amarillo? I don’t know a one.”

Roger grinned and flicked Marlboro ash into Selden’s gravy. “Hell, no,” he quipped, reminding our guide of his law practice back in town. “There ain’t no murderers.”

Everyone seemed to recall the work day at once. Tom’s cook soaped dishes and used suds to douse the fire. Our mules appeared to know that within the hour they’d be back in their paddock, rolling in the delicious dirt. They picked their way through the flatland’s mesquites in a fast walk. Sighting Selden’s pickup and gooseneck trailer, they broke into that god-awful jouncing trot and finally achieved an ungainly canter.

To our right, the teamed of blindered horses hitched to the tourist wagon overtook us on the road. The young leaders stared at us through a great billow of dust. Choosing not to eat that dirt, Roger spurred ahead on a well-bred chestnut quarter horse. It stretched out easily with arched neck and tail, a flash of white stockings. No doubt about it—the horse is the lovelier beast. Roger cupped his hand beside his mouth and shouted, “What are you going to plant with those things? Go get yourself a plow!”

Historic snobberies. Selden grinned and turned up his nose, having none of it. We knew what our animals were good for. With pressing appointments in the civilized present—airplanes taking off, clients in jail—we galloped our mules in the fair morning sun.