Palo Duro Canyon is my Happy Place
Early on Friday morning I creep through the cabin of the RV with my dogs startled and delighted, leash them as silently as possible and open the door to the fresh hot mountain air of Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Off in the distance a dog is barking rhythmically, like an alarm. My dogs ears prick as I coax them along towards a path running off the campsite road. A small outdoor amphitheater is laid out on our left as we make our way down the path towards the creek at Gulpha’s Gorge. Once we get to the creek we hop across on large stones laid out just before the water tumbles down hill and we make it safely into the forest beyond. Now that we’re safely across the water and away from the sounds of the barking dogs and morning campers, I take the dogs off their leashes. Together the three of us move silently into the forest. The dogs showing their excitement by running ahead a little.
My excitement is hidden.
I don’t even smile too large because I don’t want to scare away the awe that I am feeling. My pup Samantha, who looks just like a german shepherd that’s been shrunk by about 50% and crossed with an adorable bunny rabbit, starts smelling the edge of the path, only running to catch up with me when I call her away from her discoveries. Libby, my little chihuahua mix is about 15 feet ahead of me. When there’s a path that descends back down to the creek on our left, she pauses and waits for me, showing me yet again how much intelligence and trust is packed in her tiny little body. We keep moving straight on the same path as it immediately turns to the right and starts moving steeply up the side of the gorge. A few paces on there are stone and wood steps built into the path to help with climbing. We make it about halfway up before I start sweating (I didn’t wake up quite THAT early) and so, knowing I won’t be able to shower before we hit the road, I call the dogs and turn around. The dogs, hot now and thirsty as well, run ahead back down to the creek and begin drinking. Samantha wades into the water a little above her ankles and greedily drinks. Libby, aware of the current’s power against her tiny 9 lb body, stands gingerly at the edge and sips what little she can reach, before trying another spot. Eventually I call them and we take the path the other direction up the creek. This path is flat and follows the edge of the creek, about 7 or 8 feet above it. The campground is not visible from here. We walk for about 10 more minutes and then turn around. I know this is all I will get of this national park, but I feel satisfied. Even the smallest of walks in the woods with my dogs off their leashes, running beside me, enjoying the sounds and smells and feel of it as much as I am, this is the wild experience I am craving. The one that reminds me I am free.
We pull out of the campground, everyone but me bewildered by my choice of this remote Arkansas location, and my husband makes a choice to follow the country roads through Arkansas and up to Oklahoma which takes us the breadth of the Ouchita National Forest, through Whitesboro, Arkansas (my kids joke that they are home, which isn’t completely silly since the rolling hills, farm after farm, intermittent small towns with its name proudly displayed on the firehouse, the school and the general store, with the occasional vista of distant mountains, feels a lot like a scenic drive on Route 20 in New York State where we live) and into the Chactaw Nation, before turning north on Indian Nation Turnpike and back to our most traveled road this trip, Interstate 40 (which both parallels and joins the historic RT 66 and guides us along most of the first half of our trip). Michael is loving driving these mountain roads. Winding gently along we go up to the top of a hill and then back down, like the rocking of a baby, the motion of waves. After a morning delayed by 3 Arkansonians who took almost a full hour to decide that their propane tank wasn’t working to fill ours… because it was empty, I might have agreed with Michael’s joke that Arkansas should be paved over completely, put to better use and promptly taken off our maps… but these mountains in their green fields and wooded beauty, whisper to me of hundreds of years of peoples who love and cherish this land.
Oklahoma brings us nothing but flat farms. We are back on the highway now, giving us the flattest passage through the center of the state. This is nothing like home. We see a crop growing at one of our stops for gas that resembles corn, except that it is only about knee high and topped with a plume of whitish greenish seed pods. I figoole out that this is Sorghum, a crop many farmers have switched to growing for livestock feed because of its high resistance to drought and extreme temperatures. As we reach the western end of Oklahoma, the farms begin to switch over to Ranches, or maybe that happened in Arkansas, and I didn’t notice, or maybe that didn’t happen until we reached the Panhandle of Texas, it all runs together… it was then, as much as it is now (I’m writing this on day 8, Tuesday, August.. don’t ask me what date, I have no idea… about day 4, last Friday) a bit of a blur.
And in all of that writing, we’ve crossed into Oklahoma, through Oklahoma City, which appears huge, but probably isn’t, however the land is so flat you can see the entire city all at once from the ticky tacky housed outskirts where I-40 cuts through, all the way to skyscrapered downtown (fun fact, tallest building in Oklahoma is Devon Energy Center in Oklahoma city, which is just over half the height of the Empire State Building, which is now only the 7th tallest building in NYC according to Wikipedia. I know nothing else about Oklahoma City, except how to spell it thanks to my high school musical days), made a pit stop where I meet some fellow RVers admiring our rig’s resemblance to one they used to drive, and learn that Oklahoma has the best weather service in the whole country (according to this stranger) because of the Tornado watches (immediately after which I ask if this is tornado season… which had just occurred to me a few miles earlier… and no, it isn’t) and all the way to the Texas/Oklahoma state line.
It’s Texas where I leave my heart. We arrive in Amarillo, a spralling west Texas city with more farm stores than coffee stops, and one with lights that can be seen for hundreds of miles around, not because of the brightness of the city, but because of the flatness of the land. In Amarillo we head south as dusk is upon us. Our destination is the bottom of a canyon, 800 feet deep, 120 miles long and 20 miles wide, descending from it’s entrance at 3,500 feet above sea level.
I’ve been out in this part of the country once before. My sister treated my son and I to a week long visit in Albuquerque, New Mexico (a destination I loved so much, I was happy to appease my Breaking Bad fan step son and include a 2 day layover there for this trip). Albuquerque is about 5,500 ft above sea level, and it boasts of volcanic mesas on its western border, but along its Eastern border is the 10,000 foot Sandia Crest, a chain of mountains that will simultaneously take your break away, try to blow you off it’s peaks… and give you altitude sickness. I loved visiting Albuquerque, but I felt a little bit sick from the altitude the whole time I was there.
This time around, we are slowly climbing, our bodies adjusting bit by bit, mile by mile. Which reminds me to explain the experience of crossing time zones into the past. I’m the navigator for the entirety of this trip. Even for the very short snippets when I am driving, my husband is taking the chance to shut his eyes, in which case either my daughter takes over (she’s gotten very good at turn by turn directions) or I have my google maps set to tell me exactly where to go. At around 11 am on Thursday, on our way to Nashville, Tennessee, I leave the cockpit to go into the cabin and give one of the kids a chance to be up front. I set my alarm for 12:30 pm, so that I’ll be up front in time to navigate us into our landing spot in the city. I head to the table and benches in the back of the RV and begin to write, my back to the road… Maybe 45 minutes or so goes by and I look at my phone.
At first I don’t know what’s wrong, I panic momentarily.
I look at my watch, same answer. It’s approaching 11am… time has stopped and suddenly I don’t know where we are and for a second, I question who I am. Thank god I looked up in time. My alarm had been set for about an hour and a half down the road… that was a time formerly known as 12:30, but when you cross into a new timezone, you will be an hour past your destination before you realize what time it really is, or how far lost you are.
Here’s another fun road trip vignette. During the day, we conserve all the battery life we can (actually, it’s more about not running the generator which is the only source of 120V electricity available while driving, which is something I now understand because as I mentioned, I will be a certified RV electrician by the end of trip, but for ease of explanation, let’s just assume we’re generally conserving energy) so the only light in the bathroom is through the skylight… so when you’re in the little RV bathroom and the vehicle goes under a bridge… Well, just don’t do your makeup while driving.
Ah, West Texas, flat, wild, sky all around, and this time of year, in the 90s. We turn south at Amarillo and head towards the Palo Duro Canyon, which will be our resting place tonight. We are literally chasing the sunlight as we head toward the state park’s entrance, and the 800 foot drop full of hairpin turns on the edges of the canyon walls. Just as we enter the canyon, the last of the light gives out, and my husband expertly navigates down the canyon with only physics, his feel for the road, and the headlights to guide him
I had read in a review of the campsite that one camper was excited to spot 2 lizards and a tarantula… this was probably my most shared fact with the kids before we hit the road to take this epic adventure. So when we actually land at our campsite at the bottom of this canyon, the first thing the kids do, even though it’s dark and we’ve been on the road for 12 hours and everyone is tired… is look for strange animals. Within minutes of stepping out of the camper, my step son finds a 5 inch long, ½ thick, greasy black millipede (I think?) and soon after a bright green grasshopper the size of our chihuahua Libby’s snout (small for a dog… huge for a grasshopper) and wielding them on the ends of sticks, sets them on a flat rock to do battle. (The flat rock was located just outside the RV’s main door, perfect for unloading flashlights, dog bowls and the citronella incense that my husband took one look at and bellowed “Texas bugs are not going to even be fazed by your citronella!” The campsite had several of these perfectly flat rocks situated around the perfectly level concrete hookup site for the RV, as well a several smaller flat rocks situated around the fire pit, an adjustable grill grate inside the pit, a beautiful, landscape-fitting wooden lattice lean-to with an aluminum roof and steel poles to provide shade and rain cover for the clean, sturdy aluminum picnic table. But the pièce de résistance… a wooden outlined, stone filled area that creates a natural drain beneath the water spicket keeping the campsite mud free as we wash our dishes outdoors the next morning. This may all seem unexciting to you if you’re reading this while sitting at your kitchen table, cozied into your bed or relaxing on your couch… but to us, after all these days on the road, spending everything from $30 – $300 for a campsite, most being in the range of $50-$60, and this one being a solid $35, these little details are almost equal to the breathtaking beauty of the canyon itself… one of the reasons we want to make a return trip directly to this same spot… or if this campsite is any indication of the general quality of Texas State Parks, we’d easily spend months of our lives (some day) exploring the state, one park at a time.
I had been looking forward to this campsite at the bottom of a canyon that no one outside of West Texas has ever heard of (I know this because I talked about it for the rest of the trip and always received a quizzical face… a canyon? In Texas?), more than any other beautiful place I’d researched, planned and reserved. As the sky descended into complete darkness, we finished checking out the immaculately clean bathrooms (except a dead spider hear or there), taking the dogs for a short walk down paths we hoped were not hiding chihuahua eating snakes, playing with large bugs and hooking up the rig to water and electricity (what are these amenities doing at the bottom of a canyon?! Modern civilization is a wonder all it’s own) I follow my daughter up the ladder at the back of the RV and though the moon is bright in the south western sky, the rest of the land is a deep grey. From above the treeline on the RV’s roof (as we drive west the land gets bigger, the temperature hotter and dryer, but the trees get smaller) I see canyon walls completely encircling me, and above the black line of land at the top of the canyon… is sky, everywhere.
I find a spot with my daughter to lay down. We had started looking at the stars during our trek through treacherous dark paths exploring our immediate surroundings, but now, safely on the manmade ground of our mobile home, we can actually lay down and look up. It takes me a moment to adjust, but once I find the big dipper, all the surrounding stars and constellations that I know so well, but haven’t looked at in too many years, reveal themselves to me easily. I point out Cassiopeia, the north star, and I search (and never find, I have to look up why) for the little dipper. My daughter tires of the hard bed on the roof and goes to her inside bed. I get my son to come up and look, but he is too tired to relax and won’t lie down next to me and be still, so I send him to bed as well. Then I am alone. The night gets blacker, more stars come out, the fullness of the sky is carrying me into its mystery and I drift off for a moment. When I wake up, I see a star. I look at this one star, the feeling of familiarity is overwhelming, though I’m not aware of it yet in the liminal state between sleep and wakefulness. Then I see the cross of Cygnus.
And I remember.
I am 17 years old, deeply in love with my best friend (who fell in love with someone else the following year, ended up marrying her and now has four beautiful children), lying next to him on the grass in the front yard of my childhood home in New Hampshire. Our hands are tightly clenched together in silent, physical acknowledgement of our shared awe and love for the night sky. We find Cygnus, Cassiopeia, Orion, his belt, the big and little dipper, and more I can’t remember now (he was the astronomy nerd – tin foil hat and suit for Halloween and all – I was just his groupie). Watching patiently, knowing that if we keep our eyes fixed on the night sky, every ten minutes or so, we will see a shooting star. Some of them, maybe one or two a sitting, seem to shoot across the whole sky in our vision, from one pine tree lined horizon to the other. One night we decided to pick out stars of our own. He will have his own personal star, and I will have mine. I don’t remember except vaguely which star was his, but I do know mine. My star is found by first finding the the cross of Cygnus, which was always upside down in the summers in New Hampshire, when we had time and comfort to look, and then following the 3 stars of the short line of the cross off to your right (which I believe is East, but really have no idea, and a terrible problem with getting confused and all turned around when it comes to that kind of orientation) and there is a much less bright, and therefore easily hidden, fourth star that is almost exactly in line with the three that are easy to see.
And there I am, just waking up and my 17 year old, in love for the first time, unrequited and full of passion, self, is lying there with me, in the warm Texas night, at the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon, looking up at the stars, remembering the one that is my star, and sobbing.