The Palo Duro Canyon and TEXAS
I live in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle, specifically. It is beautiful and has all the natural elements that little girls from the Texas Panhandle dream of: water, mountains, and trees- lots of them. My family and I took a drive to the tulip growing fields of the bulb farmers in Skagit Valley about an hour north of Seattle to see the shocking fields of colorful tulips in bloom. It's like the pictures of Holland on the gardening catalogs that came in the mail which I would use to plan my imaginary estate gardens when I was young. On the way there, I sank into the perspective of my childhood self. I love driving around my new state with my child eyes. All the evergreen trees on the side of the highway remind me of drives to the family cabin in the Colorado Rockies- promising a few days of water, mountains, trees.
The natural beauty of Seattle is the backdrop for man-made beauty in architecture. The city's tagline was dubbed “Metro-natural.” I love this perfect description. I dreamed of big buildings and busy streets full of people when I was a kid too. I remember being about 6 years old and thinking, “I don't think I want to live here.” I cannot put my finger on it, but I just didn't feel like I fit there in Amarillo. I'm not sure anyone would call Amarillo itself “beautiful,” and it's tallest buildings would be the shortest ones here. I haven't been there very much in the last decade or so, but I'm pretty sure that the streets are still not teaming with people. There is so much space available (due to the lack of water, mountains, and trees), that parking lots and roads can be absolutely huge. People drive everywhere. My Amarilloan friends would be quick I'm sure to tell me all the reasons I'm wrong not to adore Amarillo, and I'm not necessarily saying that I don't. It's charms are many, to be sure.
In fact, there are a thousand things to love about the Texas Panhandle. Around the edge of Amarillo, the land is terraced and stepped. Desert plants like Yucca and Prickly Pear Cacti dot the landscape. Scrubby old Mesquite trees that could be a hundred years old look simultaneously perfect and out of place in the fields. Cattle stand and relax before being faced with their end. Some people swear that you can tell if there will be a storm coming by how the cows group together. The sky is in such plain view that to city people it would almost seem indecent- just showing it's whole self for everyone to ogle. I get frustrated in Seattle because for all the abundance of clouds, you can barely see them. Texan clouds are like sculptural blimps. I would stay outside too long for comfort when a storm was blowing up just to watch the how the cloud formations were changing- to watch and see if they'd start spinning. Oh, how I miss that weather! As a Pacific Northwesterner, with children who are native to the region, I appreciate the Texas landscape I grew up in more than ever.
Even when I was a girl, though, I loved the Palo Duro Canyon. The PDC boasts being the second largest canyon in the United States, the “Grand Canyon of Texas.” I've seen the Grand Canyon, and I can confidently say the Palo Duro lives up to it's monikers. The entrance to the canyon is about a 40 minute drive from Amarillo. We would go there for field trips, barbeques, and camping. It is a feast for the eyes and a treasure trove for any rock or fossil hound. On an off-trail hike with my dad, we once found a fossil the shape and size of a bull's horn. A professor sort told Dad that it's likely a sloth toe bone of some kind. My favorite fossils to find are seashells and even coral; imagining that place full of water makes me feel how small I and my place in time are. The Spanish Skirts are festively beautiful- hillsides made from striated dirt and clay in yellow, white, red, and purple. I slipped and fell on my rear more times than I can count when that clay was wet.
The other claim to fame for the Palo Duro Canyon is that it is home to the Pioneer Amphitheater and its resident production, TEXAS, a musical drama that tells the stories of early Texas Panhandle settlers, both farmers and cattlemen. I have no idea what the national impression is of TEXAS, but I do know that locally it is treasured. To me, it might as well have been The Lion King or Phantom of the Opera. I knew many of the performers because the show was mostly cast with members of the West Texas A&M dance, music, and theater departments with whom I performed The Nutcracker and took summer classes. Mr. Hess, my ballet teacher, was the Director. Lucky for me: my dad's band was the pre-show entertainment on the weekends. The Prairie Dogs are a group of buddies who play music together still for fun. I love each one of them like an uncle (or, as the case may be, like a dad).
On Saturday evenings, I would go down to the canyon with my dad and run amok with all the other little band kids who had managed to be brought along on a particular night. There was a small mesa that rose behind the gift shop and barbeque area that we could easily climb and enjoy. It was our wonderland. We named every nook and cranny. We knew every hidey-hole and bluff. We named all the different routes for going up or down. Being little Panhandle kids, we knew how to watch out for snakes and what to do if and when we found them. We would save our allowance money to buy trinkets, cap guns, and rock candy from the gift shop that smelled like all the cedar it contained. My favorite thing to do, though I wasn't bold enough to do it often, was to beg barbeque off the vendor who sold styrofoam plates loaded with deliciousness to the droves of geriatric visitors who came on tour busses. Slow smoked barbeque beef and sausage swimming in Texas-style barbeque sauce, potato salad, coleslaw, beans, thick white bread with preserved apricot topping, sliced sweet onions, and hamburger dill pickles. Sometimes when the line had died down and we knew how much food was left, Joey, the proprietor or one of his managers would let us get a 20-something ounce styrofoam cup and fill it with whatever we wanted. I have put away more potato salad than anyone I know. I'm sure of it. A while ago while my husband was working as a programmer for a website that makes restaurant recommendations, he and his friends began frequenting a new barbeque spot in Wallingford called RoRo. He told me about their “barbeque sundaes,” layered bowls containing barbequed meat, beans, slaw, and hamburger dill pickles. With such a thing on the menu, I figured the place was legit and must be run by a Texan. Thankfully, I was right. A rockabilly styled woman with tiny body and loud, Texan accented mouth is running a place filled with Texas memories. Every time I bite into my “sundae” I am transported to the canyon floor.
My other favorite pastime whilst at “the play TEXAS' was to star watch. Like a Hollywood tourist, I would camp out and wait to catch sight of either Mr. Hess or any of his dancers, my teachers from Dance Camp that I loved so much. These were the only professional dancers I knew about, and I could not wait to join them. Sometimes I would sneak up to the top of the amphitheater to watch the opening number of the show while my dad packed up equipment with the band and then ate their plates of barbeque that Joey had saved for them. I loved everything about what I was seeing, every time. I learned the choreography and would show it off to the dancers whenever I had a chance. I never did dance in TEXAS, something I hugely regret, but I never had the chance. In order to become a ballet dancer, I needed to be away during the summers when I was in highschool to try to be noticed by a professional ballet school. The TEXAS dancers, who by the time I was in highschool were my best friends, were always thrilled for me and encouraged me to go make it in the big time. Some of them went on to be dancers and performers all over the world. Some of them are still running TEXAS. These are the people who taught me how to entertain. Their faces are burned in my memory with expressions that could read all the way at the back of the house. My ballet life didn't allow for me to fully use my facial skills. Once for the Pacific Northwest Ballet School's annual School Performance, I was cast in a leading spot for the finale of the George Balanchine ballet, Who Cares? which is all set to Gershwin classics. To the energetic “I've Got Rhythm,” I gave lots of face while kicking and spinning. It was the most TEXAS moment I had, and I didn't even get reprimanded for being too silly.
My time spent down in the canyon hiking, laughing, and stuffing barbeque holds a place of high honor in my heart. I am so grateful to have stories from the canyon and TEXAS to tell. I miss tornadoes and snakes and fossils by the dozen. I long for the distant pound of the base drum and my dad's harmonica reaching me while I explored. These are the memories that make exotic stories for me to tell my children. They all begin, “Once, in the canyon...” I tell them as though I were on a stage keeping the attention of a huge audience. The rapt listening of my 4 and 6 year old boys is just as much a treasure to me. Now when I walk busy Seattle streets or wade through a soggy day at the playground, there is a little part of me that pridefully claims: “I'm not from around here.”