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Exploring Amarillo, Texas with Susan McKee

Story and Photos by Susan McKee

Route 66 Amarillo, TexasAmarillo really is best by morning – or so they told me when I got my marching orders. I was to be up early and clothed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, hiking boots and hat — ready to roll.

It was a leisurely drive out into the flat countryside, past gently nodding oil wells and silently turning turbine windmills past miles and miles of mesquite and desert. The vacant landscape gradually changed as we headed toward Elkins Ranch, where I was promised a hearty chuck wagon breakfast in a spectacular setting. The land, suddenly, was no longer absolutely flat. Trees appeared, and the hint of a gorge turned into magnificent canyon vistas.

Amarillo, Palo Duro CanyonPalo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, with a maximum depth of more than 800 feet — all formed by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Who knew this stunning site was hidden below ground level in the panhandle of Texas!

I climbed into a jeep for the rough ride down the canyon roads to the “Cow Camp” chuck wagon. Touted as the “second largest” (after the Grand Canyon), it is a dazzling site – miles of striated rock forming the walls of rugged valleys. The summer rains had left the vegetation green and lush, with wildflowers in profusion — but the scent of breakfast interrupted my reveries.

Texas Canyon CountryThere’s something about food cooked over an open fire. I don’t think I’ve ever had better scrambled eggs, biscuits, sausages or coffee. I’ll bet, however, that the hardscrabble cowboys of the Old West never tasted the watermelon and cantaloupe served that morning.

As I finished my second cup of coffee (and fourth biscuit), local singer and songwriter Ed Montana tuned up his guitar and serenaded the breakfast group, starting with (what else?) “Amarillo By Morning”.

I’d been to Amarillo many times before, but all of my visits were confined to that narrow strip on either side of I-40. If I thought about the city at all, it was as a rest-and-refuel stop on my way driving somewhere else.

How wrong I was, and part of the evidence is visible right from the interstate: the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center Museum, a 36,500-square foot facility showcasing the history and modern activities of the American Quarter Horse.

I had always wondered what happened to the other ¾ of the equine – but the 12-minute introductory video told me the real story behind the name. The horse (the most popular breed in America) was named for the quarter-mile track that it was bred to run back in English Colonial times. The combination of racing and gambling in this country has deep roots.

Quarter Horses moved west with the pioneers, who found them strong, agile and possessing an instinctive understanding of bovine behavior that makes them perfect for cowboys. When you watch rodeos, it’s the horse you see anticipating every move of that calf. There are some 3 million in the United States, according to the American Quarter Horse Association.

horse and saddle shop Richard OliverHorses need saddles, so I wandered over to the Oliver Saddle Shop where I happened to find a member of the third generation – Richard Oliver – hard at work. He said it takes about a week to make a saddle, and he does 45 or 50 a year (there’s a 10-month waiting list). Fortunately, I wasn’t in any hurry for a saddle (priced from $2400 on up, averaging $6000), but the hand-tooled leather belts are to die for.

If there are cowboys, there must be Indians. I didn’t find the real thing in Amarillo, but I did find a great little museum at Kwahadi with a small collection of art and artifacts.

Although it shares its name with an historical group of Comanches, this isn’t an organization of Native Americans. It’s an innovative program begun almost 70 years ago as a Boy Scout troop and now sponsored by Kwahadi Heritage, Inc. The young dancers (girls also participate now) learn the traditional dances of Plains and Pueblo Indians, and perform them in Amarillo and around the world. The digs for a dance troop includes a terrific collection of art and artifacts.

Amarillo Texas MuseumsAnother surprise was the Panhandle-Plains Museum. The magnificent Art Deco building (from 1932) houses an outreach effort of the West Texas A&M University that tells the history of the region. I discovered that Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado named the Palo Duro Canyon in the 16th Century. The name means “hard wood” and refers to the ubiquitous juniper.

Great signage gives a short course in the geology of Texas from Precambrian to the present. A replica of Palo Duro Canyon points out 280 million years of history that entered modern times when Charles Goodnight acquired most of it as a cattle ranch in 1876.

There are the usual collections in the museum – period costumes, guns, buggies and wagons – but my favorite gallery told about oil and gas production in the Texas panhandle.

Don’t forget that Amarillo straddles the iconic American highway: Route 66. Signposts point out the route through town for this legendary U.S. highway, and vestiges of its glory days still can be seen.

The Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council can fill you in on all the details you need to make your own trip to this northernmost part of Texas.

 

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Susan McKee is an independent scholar and freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel.