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After the bear left, it crossed my mind to put the chips in the car, but couldn’t quite bring myself to step outside the tent and possibly face the bruin. The whole scenario repeated one more time, and yet when I woke in the morning, the potato chips were still at my side. I made a mental note to pay more attention in future to the warning signs about bears.
While I was packing away my tent, the English chap came over and invited me to join him and his lady friend for breakfast. We had homemade muffins and Earl Grey tea. There was a definite advantage to traveling alone. It was proving much easier to meet new people, and so far everyone I’d met had been friendly and generous.
After breakfast, I laid out the map and decided to keep heading west. Unlike the pioneers, I had the advantage of a map to forewarn me of the terrain ahead. However, I still didn’t have a visual picture of the land and had no idea what the natives were like. In this case, I learned that Oklahoma was flat and best crossed as quickly as possible. I40 seemed like the way to go, fast and straight. As I passed Oklahoma City I thought of the Oklahoma bombings the year before, and wouldn’t even entertain the thought of stopping there despite the offer of a soft bed, and a good meal in that neighborhood.
Just before the Texas border, I came across Red Rock State Park and decided to stop for the night. However, when I pulled into the park the number of people there amazed me, and the only camp spot left was a Class A Motorhome site, which I couldn’t afford. After pleading my case, the ranger gave me the site for the price of a primitive one. Once again, I was grateful for the compassionate side of human nature. Then I realized that it was a Friday, it was Friday October 4. I’d moved into another month without even realizing it and nine days had passed since I left Indiana.
The whole campground was teeming with boy scouts, noisy and rambunctious. People sat in motorhomes watching television, the flickering screens showing images of newsreaders, flashy cars, whopper burgers, and people dodging explosions and gunshots. It all seemed so unreal and I felt so detached from the material world and found myself fascinated by all the noise and wealth around me. The invasion on my senses was too much, so I escaped to my tent. An owl took up residence on a branch directly above my tent and I focused on the methodical “Whoo, whoo,” as he called to his mate across the camp. Eventually, the sounds of the campground drifted into the background and the silence of sleep took me away from the bedlam around me.
The next day I continued along I40 into Texas. On the radio, the announcer was telling tales about swarms of locusts, intelligent cows and other hilarious tales about life in Texas. Then I saw a field full of cows and goats and every animal was facing the same way. It looked so ridiculous I was unable to stop laughing. At a rest stop, a tourist board showed pictures of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, 15 miles southeast of Amarillo. It looked like a good place to go, but I wanted to check out Amarillo first. I’d heard songs on the radio while growing up, and figured it had to be a special place if someone wrote a song about it. After only five minutes in the town, I couldn’t wait to get out. The Buick was running badly again, so I had the idle and carburetor adjusted, which helped only slightly, and then got it washed by some kids raising money for charity. It took some serious scrubbing to get all that road grime off and they did a great job. I then headed to the second largest canyon in the United States.
The Texas panhandle is flat, very flat! However, I found it appealing in a way, with its huge sky and endless desert. This kind of environment was new and mysterious to me, and it made me feel small and inconsequential. The short grass prairie was vast and overwhelming, yet boring as heck to drive across. I almost found myself wishing for cornfields again when suddenly the earth dropped away and there before me was a rugged vista, a canyon full of color and scenic wonder. “Wow,” was my exclamation at the sight.
My awe intensified as I wound down into the canyon. The walls were banded in red, white, grey and maroon like Christmas ribbons wound around a lumpy gift, and I made the decision to stay here a couple of nights and do some hiking. I was directed to campsite number 87 in the Mesquite camp area, the furthest camp loop into the park.
The park itself was quite busy, and several brightly colored tents stood out against the earthy reds and browns of the canyon walls. Many of the occupants of these tents were scrambling on the rocks nearby. I was feeling very adventurous now and decided it would be fun to scramble up one of the rocky buttes nearby. As I was climbing, I noticed that the rock I was on was not stable. Here and there, I saw holes in the soft rock and sand that appeared to have no bottom to them. Instinctively, I found myself distributing my weight around these holes and I started to get a little nervous about my climb up this steep cliff. I’d never done any climbing of this sort and suddenly realized how stupid it was for me to try. When I was almost at the top I got stuck, and no matter what I tried I couldn’t make it up the last two feet to the safety of the limestone cap. Looking down I saw it was steep and quite a drop, about 25 feet. It looked a lot steeper from up here than it had on the ground. I was afraid, frozen in place, too scared to move. Then the surface part of the rock wall started to crumble beneath my feet. I imagined my embarrassment if I had to be rescued from my perilous grip and the thought of that humiliation put me back into action.
I love a challenge and don’t believe in the words “It can’t be done,” at least not until I’ve tried and exhausted every possible solution, so giving up wasn’t an option. First I needed to create steps, yet when I kicked at the rock it tumbled away and left me with nothing to hold. Then I remembered my knife and used it as a handgrip. I dug it deep into the soft rock and once I was sure it was firm, used it to take most of my weight while I rested my other three appendages on tiny pieces of unstable rock, slowly lowering myself inch by painstaking inch. I feared the black holes and relief flooding my adrenaline pumped body as I crossed each one safely.
Finally, my feet touched the canyon floor. My heart thudded loudly in my ears, and it took a few moments for the sounds of the canyon to come into focus. When my senses did return and my heart slowed, I saw everything with a new sense of clarity. The rock seemed redder, the Cactus and Saw Palmetto greener, the laughter of the children climbing had a touch of underlying fear to it. I saw a lizard just before I stepped on it, its camouflage almost becoming its death sentence. I noticed markings in the soil, tiny mouse-sized footprints, a wavy line from a snake, a boot print from a large, heavy man. Once again, I’d had a narrow escape, and I loved the feeling of having survived it. The sense of danger, the rush of adrenaline and the fear I felt. Never before had I felt more alive.
At the same time, I’d gained respect for this strange land and realized I should be more careful in future. What if I’d fallen, how would I pay the medical costs, assuming I survived. I’d taken precautions to protect my car and my belongings, but what about myself. Did I put no value on my own life? I decided to be more cautious in future, and calculate the risks before I experienced the adventure. I was completely alone and if something happened to me, I would be at the mercy of strangers.
From my tent, I admired the rocky cliff I’d climbed. I knew now that it was from the Quartermaster period, around 250 million years old. I’d also learned that the canyon was 120 miles long and as much as 20 miles wide in places. The whole spectacle had started to form primarily by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. “Two-hundred-and-fifty-million years old,” I rolled the words around on my tongue, trying to imagine that span of time. Here had lived Nomads who hunted mammoth and bison, Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa Indian Tribes. Then came the Spanish explorers and finally white man. Had dinosaurs walked this same patch of land before it eroded into the huge canyon it is now, are their bones buried deep in the rock? I didn’t have all the answers, all I knew was that it was beautiful and wild and I was lucky to be there.
My neighbors introduced themselves later that day and asked if I’d like to join them at their fire for drinks later. Juanita and Paul lived in southern Texas and escaped to the Panhandle for quiet weekends together. They had to drive quite a distance because of racial discrimination. Apparently, the families and friends of Juanita and Paul had a problem with a white police officer dating a Mexican who was 15 years younger than him, and vice versa. Here in the canyon, they could relax and we sat talking and laughing until 11:00 PM, which seemed very late as I’d been going to bed just after dark each night, around 9:00 PM.
The next morning I was up before the first light watching with appreciation as the suns first rays hit the canyon’s rim. As the sun rose, the light slowly traveled down the wall revealing the layers of rock. Deep oranges, reds, browns, yellows, and grays, along with maroon and brilliant white were exposed one by one, an unveiling of time and beauty. By the time my neighbors stepped cautiously from their tent the canyon was full of light, and poor Juanita had to reach for her sunglasses as the brightness intensified her hangover. As Juanita prepared tamales and peppers for our breakfast, Paul rummaged through his SUV and dug out some gifts. He was concerned about me traveling alone and wanted to do something to help. Like a magician pulling things from his hat, Paul started to whip things out of his many bags. First came some road flares, which he explained I could use to help start a fire if I had wet wood. Then he produced a metal mug and some heat tablets from an army surplus store. With these, I could heat up just one mug of coffee at a time. Next, he handed me an army can opener on a string to wear around my neck, a washing line, four pegs, a spoon, a cup and some odd bits of food and the last of their firewood.
We ate breakfast then hugged goodbye as Juanita and Paul had to return to Fort Worth. When the dust from their vehicle settled I was surprised to see that there was only one other camper left, and he too was packing up. It seemed I was going to be alone again, as the chance of another camper joining me on a Sunday was quite slim.
I’d browsed through the brochures the day before and was ready to go on my first hike in the desert. The brochures warned of snakes, heat stroke, and sunburn, so I wore long sleeves, long pants, and a hat. My small pack contained snacks, plenty of water, and the small compass Paul had given me. I’d decided to hike to the Lighthouse, a pinnacle of rock formed by erosion, and probably the most popular trail in the park. Even so, the trail was hard to find because heavy rains the week before had washed much of the trail away. I was getting a little nervous over the possibility of getting lost, but then a couple showed up who knew the trail and asked if I’d like to hike with them.
My long clothes protected me from the sun but did nothing to reduce the boiling point of my blood. I hugged the shadows cast by the lighthouse and drank all my water before heading back. At the car, I decided the desert was beautiful to look a but the hiking should be left to cold-blooded people.
The air conditioning in the car felt heavenly, so I decided to drive to the closest town, Canyon, for supplies. There was a camp store in the park, but when I’d visited it last night I noticed the shelves were almost empty and learned that today it would close for the winter. I needed some sunscreen and insect repellent and was dismayed to learn that the only store in Canyon had returned the sunscreen to the supplier in preparation for winter. What a crock! I thought. It’s ninety degrees out there. I did get insect repellent though and some food.
On my return to camp, I noticed that the park was desolate. The campsites that had signs stating “Camp Host” were barren, the hosts had left with their travel trailers that afternoon. I drove through each loop searching for another camper, but there were none. I was the only person camping in the entire park, and for some reason, this made me nervous.
I was enthralled when a Road Runner paid me a visit near my tent. I’d watched the Road Runner cartoons as a child in England, but never realized they were real birds. This curious little fellow peered at me over a dirt mound and slowly approached, doing a funny little walk that was delightful.
I still had the wood that Juanita and Paul had left me and had collected some when making my rounds, but unbelievably the wood was damp and I couldn’t get it to burn. When the sun started to set my nerves started to jingle, I didn’t want to be here all alone without a fire. Then I remembered the road flares and decided to use one to get the fire going. For a few minutes the canyon glowed from the initial flare, and every animal for miles around was alerted to my presence. When darkness fell and the shadows turned to dense black, I hugged closer to the flames. Coyotes were gathering just over the rise, and they howled their disdain at my presence. As the howls intensified and the number of coyotes increased in my mind from five to ten to twenty, my nervousness increased. I imagined them ganging up, planning their attack. I added more wood to the fire and tried to shake off the ridiculous image of my being torn to shreds by snarling fangs. When I had to pee, I was too afraid to leave the safety of the fire, so I peed right next to it, my butt cheeks turning pink from the heat as I balanced precariously, while trying not to pee on my shoes or undies.
When the wood was all gone, and the fire reduced to coals, I slunk into my tent. The eerie calls of the coyotes moved around the canyon, the sound chilling me with wonder. It was exciting and wild, and at one point the curious creatures checked out my tent, their sniffing noses only inches from where I lay breathless and tingling with excitement.
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