Jim Duke

As big as Texas is, you’d think it would be easier to find, especially since I’ve only driven down there about a million times or so.

I knew we should have turned left in Alamosa, but Kathy’s iPhone said to go right. I figured it must know a back road into Raton or something. After a second questionable right turn, it had the gall to announce that the route I had chosen was a couple hours longer than necessary. The route I had chosen!? I didn’t see much point in arguing with a little electronic device so I let it go. I seem to have a techno-glitch that screws up anything electronic within my range.

By the time we hit Taos, I was pretty sure we needed to bear east a little more, so dug out my old atlas. I didn’t really care anyway. I was happy as a clam to be driving my new home down the road going anywhere, clam being an appropriate metaphor because they also take their house around with them. And if we hadn’t got sidetracked we wouldn’t have seen the oldest church in Colorado in Conejos or the oldest town square in New Mexico in Las Vegas.

We were heading to Austin to surprise everyone at my brother’s girlfriend’s 60th birthday, but had several days to get there and hadn’t told anyone we were coming so it wouldn’t be any big deal if we didn’t make it.

We headed east on Highway 84, a wonderfully lonely two-lane highway winding through desert scrub hill country. We were exploring a lot of side roads so when I passed a sign to the Tecolotito post office on a dirt road across a cattle guard almost too narrow for my little hippie van to pass through, I had to turn in to check it out. It dead ended at a couple of broken down adobes, one of which housed several mean looking dogs and I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched through a high powered scope, so I gave up further explorations and headed for the state line.

Crossing into the Panhandle, we were greeted by a large billboard sporting the smiling faces of Trump and Pence, reminding me we had just entered enemy territory and had to be careful with our cargo. While I avoid dealing in legal weed, I had stopped at a dispensary in Leadville for birthday presents where I chastised the employee for not having a single product advertising the fact that it came from the highest city in the United States. They obviously emphasized quality control over marketing.

The Panhandle is the absolute middle of nowhere that nobody travels except to get to somewhere else. It even took country western music a half century to find its way to the Panhandle, not so much for the lack of trains, trucks, drunks, and sob stories, as for the difficulty of trying to rhyme something with Lubbock or Amarillo.

And they have yet to come up with anything better than “tears in my pillow” C’mon y’all, that the best we can do? It was better to keep it at the beginning of the lyric as in “Amarillo by morning.” Bob Wills, the King of Country and born smack dab in the middle of the Panhandle in Turkey, Texas, must be rolling in his grave.

The Panhandle’s a conundrum because it’s the middle of nowhere, but the center of everywhere. It is totally nondescript while at the same time describing so much.

It’s a vast featureless flatland that allows one to not only see for miles and miles, but also to see through years and decades and centuries. It tells the saga of America. It speaks of our history in energy with the old “Aermotor” windmills pumping water into ancient livestock tanks surrounded by oil pumps nodding up and down like teeter totters while monstrous modern wind generators silhouette the horizon beyond. And while Texas was never a slave state, the endless cotton fields remind us of this horrendous chapter in our history.

This is also where the last of the Comanches terrorized the earliest settlers before disappearing into thin air on the endless horizons. It’s where Guanah Parker and his renegades led the best of the Texas Rangers and troops of Calvary into the Palo Duro Canyons and left them chasing themselves in circles like lost cub scouts. One can feel the emptiness that drove settlers crazy while the constant wind moans with the lost souls of the dust bowl years and the migrations of the Grapes of Wrath.

This is where history still lives.

The towns in the Panhandle bear descriptively accurate names; Lamesa, Plainview and Levelland. The endless flats make the Panhandle’s unlikely canyonlands all the more startling and beautiful. They rival the magnificence of Western Colorado and Utah. While no state east of Colorado can compete with all the public lands we enjoy, the 80-plus state parks of Texas are surprisingly impressive.

Palo Duro and Caprock Canyons state parks each offer about 60 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails through red sandstone and clay canyons, spires and hoodoos, horizontally lined with layers of bright white crystalline selenite gypsum and pink alabaster gypsum, as well as the yellow, green and black layers common in Utah’s canyonlands. The Caprock Park also supports a herd of about 100 bison descended from native Panhandle herds gathered and protected by Charles Goodnight, at the request of his wife who was concerned by their diminishing numbers.

I have always avoided contact with iPhones because in addition to being extremely addictive, they also appear to be highly contagious. But I was so impressed with the magnificence of Palo Duro, that I wanted to capture the surrounding beauty, including Kathy’s, without having to be in the picture myself, so I had Kathy show me how to use her phone camera.

Apparently my my phobia was mutual, because the phone almost immediately committed suicide by leaping out of my hands and off a cliff in spite of my fumbling, juggling efforts to save it, during which the evil little thing almost succeeded in its efforts to take me with it. While Kathy was none too happy about this, I was secretly pleased that I wouldn’t have to take any more directions from the nasty little shit.

We hit four state parks in our new hippie van and they were all beautiful and largely deserted this time of year in spite of the beautiful weather. My sister’s family ranch outside of Bastrop, where I had lived and worked while going to the University of Texas part time, was even more beautiful than I had remembered. The catfish and bass fishing in the cow ponds are as good as it gets anywhere and there are an abundance of deer, hogs, and wild turkeys as well as beaver and even river otters in a couple of the ponds.

Some of the woods are mostly loblolly pine, which very much resemble ponderosa pine, giving the place a Colorado feel, while other parts are so thick with huge oaks, cyprus, vines, Spanish moss and the sounds of a rainforest that it looks and sounds like a Louisiana bayou.

While Texans have a bad reputation in Colorado, southern hospitality is still alive and well and the folks are great. If you’re thinking about a visit, I’d recommend Christmas because that’s when all the really obnoxious Texans are at ski areas in Colorado.

I look forward to spending more time down south. In addition to my bucket list of seeing all our national parks, I hope to visit all of more than 80 state parks in Texas over the next few years. As I approach my ambition of becoming a van man trailer trash, I’ve come up with a new personal credo; “Travel all roads once, no roads twice.”

While a hard core Coloradoan, Duke remains barely Texan enough to get away with derogatory jokes. Question: Why don’t they circumcise Texans? Answer: Because they ain’t no end to them pricks! littleasspen@gmail.com