Texas is a state of small towns. I don’t live in one and likely neither do you, since a full 85 percent of us are now urbanites. And yet, it’s the mite-size Mayberrys and the one-horse hamlets that remain the soul of this place. Self-reliance, neighborliness, and a thirst to own a little land are, among a native’s other virtues, all stubborn holdovers from our frontier days. But they can each get a bit crowded out in the big city, which is precisely why, when I get the chance, I head to the back of beyond.
To visit a small town is to feel the tyranny of choice relaxing its grip around your neck. There’s no need to agonize over your itinerary or hustle to snag dinner reservations. You won’t drain your batteries—either literal or figurative—by incessantly consulting your phone for directions and skimming Yelp reviews that cancel one another out. Sightseeing isn’t an act of waiting in line but of navigating unknown back roads and going wherever the wind blows you. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to constrain yourself to one square mile to not feel so damn hemmed in.
That was the cure I was seeking when I drove north to Canadian (population 2,937). Like the best small towns, it’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but broad vistas and other small towns (Miami, Wheeler, Shamrock). The rain that I’d been white-knuckling it through for hours eased up just before U.S. 83 dipped me into the Canadian River Valley, a swath of prairie swells and limestone mesas near the tip-top of the Panhandle, which surprised me with its drama and its greenness. I had brought little more than a copy of a 1970 hand-drawn map of Hemphill County’s historic trails and landmarks, some hiking gear, and the freedom of having no firm plans.
Like many a small town now, Canadian shrewdly welcomes the tourist. Ever since the mid-eighties, when half the population left on the heels of the bust, local boosters have doubled down on promoting the area’s natural attractions. I headed first to the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area, where prairie dogs pop up in the rolling sandhills and rough-legged hawks glide over the marshy bottomlands. In the nearby Black Kettle National Grasslands, which surround Lake Marvin—a favorite haunt of wood ducks and the waterfowlers who love them—I followed trails strewn with pale-yellow soapberries to find a couple of the landmarks I’d circled on my map: a centuries-old cottonwood with a twenty-foot waistline and the site of the old Springer Ranch, established in 1875. If it had been earlier in the season, I could’ve joined the flock of serious birders who arrive every March and April to watch the typically shy lesser prairie chickens do their melodramatic mating dance.
The richness of the landscape wasn’t the only prosperity that took me by surprise. Canadian is one of the wealthiest counties per capita in the state thanks to ranching dynasties and the Anadarko Basin, one of the most productive natural gas fields in the country. But I noticed that wealth, whether it’s old family money or new “mailbox money,” only peeks out like a pocket square. Main Street is an obvious point of civic pride, though. Paved with bricks, it’s lined with shops and businesses that broadcast the wholesomeness of a simpler time—as well as the efforts of deep-pocketed benefactors. The 1909 Palace Theatre, fully restored in 1998 to the tune of $1 million, shows a single first-run blockbuster at a time, but the movie house is one of the only in the state that meet George Lucas’s THX sound certification standards. A few doors down, mannequins of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans stand grinning in the window at Antique Treasures, a repository of high-end collectibles merchandised to the same artful degree as the designer wares at Neiman Marcus. At the Cattle Exchange, where a mesquite-grilled 32-ounce ribeye goes for $59.99 and helpings of homemade bread pudding are free with every meal, the diners are a mix of millionaires and oil-field workers, and good on you if you can tell the difference.
With only so many places to go and things to do, I fell happily into easy routines: morning biscuits at the Bucket, afternoon drives out toward the lake along picturesque FM 2266 or along FM 2388 toward Sweet Ruthie’s River Ranch fruit orchards a few miles east of town. I’d picked up another map—a driving tour of 29 points of interest—and would go cruising around to gawk at the stately exteriors of the many historic manses. One of them, the Citadelle, invites visitors inside. Built in 1910 as the First Baptist Church, it had been sitting vacant for a couple of years when Malouf and Therese Abraham, who are part of one of the oldest families in town, bought it in 1977 for $15,000. As they refashioned it into a home to raise their three boys in, they proudly planted a sign in the front yard that said, “We think you’re crazy too.” In 2007 they refashioned it again, this time into a museum to share their eclectic art collection, which ranges from an original Norman Rockwell to a bust of Josephine Baker.
There was some talk around town of slipping oil prices, but whether I was browsing the clothing at Three Strand Threads or loitering at the Dairy Queen, most of the conversations I had revolved around the three F’s: family, faith, and football, those totems of a small town that even a downturn can’t diminish. Of Canadian’s twelve Christian congregations, it seems they all have God’s ear when it comes to the Wildcats, who are the reigning 2A state champs in both football and boys’ basketball. And it was certainly a family affair at the annual Canadian River Music Festival, where kids with snow-cone mustaches played in the muddy fields and couples two-stepped across the portable dance floor.
After dinner, I would head to the old wagon bridge. When it went up, in 1916, the steel span was the first safe crossing of the Canadian River. Since its restoration, in 2000, it’s become a half-mile hike-and-bike trail. One evening I struck up a conversation with a couple who had stopped to watch the rain-swollen river rushing directly below. They were impressed that I’d come all the way from Austin, and thinking about my impending return brought to mind the ending of Cast Away, which was filmed on a ranch about 25 miles southwest of where we stood. In the final scene, Tom Hanks’s character is standing at the flat intersection of FM 1268 and FM 48, at one of those proverbial crossroads of life, deciding if he’s going to press on west to California or head back east to Memphis. In the last frame, he turns to look up the road, north toward Canadian, and you get the sense he’ll be staying right where he is. It’s the kind of ending I suspect many of us would write for ourselves.
The Wanderer’s To-Do List
Stroll along the 1916 Wagon Bridge that spans the Canadian River. Two miles north on U.S. 83
Tour the Abraham family’s wide-ranging art collection at the Citadelle. 520 E. Nelson Ave, 806-323-8899
Drive scenic FM 2266 out to Lake Marvin for a day hike or campout. 12 miles east of U.S. 83, 580-497-2143
Brush up on area history at the newly renovated River Valley Pioneer Museum. 118 N. 2nd, 806-323-6548
Procure a club membership at the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon to enjoy a cold beer in this dry county. 217 S. 2nd, 806-323-9257