From the Bar H Ranch we headed southwest across the flat Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) toward Palo Duro Canyon, said to be “Texas’s Best Kept Secret.” Thankfully, Bonnie Pitts had gassed up as there were few stations along the way. During the late 1800’s it was Billy the Kid’s stomping ground. Now it’s ranching and farming country, where endless rows of sorghum grain disappear over the horizon.
“Look!” I pointed to five farm combines buried head first in the ground. The famous “Cadillac Ranch” had apparently inspired yet another yard art display.
The only thing that I knew about Palo Duro Canyon was that Charles Goodnight had established his first ranch there in 1876 and it’s where Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove had killed the half-breed bandit, Blue Duck. My plan was to visit the canyon then cut across the plains to old Ft. Sumner, New Mexico and tour the house where Pat Garrett had shot and killed Billy the Kid on a dark July night in 1881.
Neither Billy the Kid nor Pat Garrett seemed to interest 12-year-old Leslie Pitts, who had never ridden a stick horse across the purple sage like I had done. Nor had he fist fought to defend Roy Roger’s title as “King of the Cowboys” against sissy-pants Gene Autry. Talk about a “lost generation!” I wonder what literary guru Gertrude Stein would say if alive today?
It was scorching hot and dry on the treeless plains when we abruptly arrived at the rim of the canyon.
“Gollee Shazam!” I said to Leslie. “Except for the Grand Canyon, this is the biggest hole I’ve ever seen.” In fact, the Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the U.S., and is a panorama of colors and geologic wonders. We drove down into the canyon on a 16 mile scorching asphalt road and crossed dry stream beds, passed campsites, hiking trails and picnic areas. Hot, dry and awesome. It was a perfect place to train for a short visit to hell, I thought. We were more hungry than inspired.
“Let’s eat at the Big Texan,” Leslie suggested.
“You don’t want to see where Billy the Kid was killed?” I asked.
No response. No kid of my generation would have chosen a restaurant over seeing Billy the Kid’s grave. We headed north to Amarillo and pulled in at the “Big Texan – Home of the 72 oz. Steak.” A horse motel was located out back. Inside it was air conditioned and cool. I ate salmon.
Finally, we saw the real Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo on I-40. Cars were pulled off and folks were photographing the five Cadillacs that a millionaire had buried head first in an open field. Art? Hmmm. We kept on trucking. Route 66, gray and narrow unrolled alongside us. The air grew thinner as we gradually climbed higher across the plains. Leslie occupied himself by announcing the elevation every few miles. East of Clines Corner, New Mexico, he punched his IPhone and announced,“Seventy-one hundred.” My sinuses, which abhor dry air and high elevation had already told me that. A curtain of black clouds loomed off to the south. We rounded a bend in the road and I pointed west. “Look, Leslie. The Rockies! I’d say this is another gollee shazam moment.” The mountains, some 75 – 100 miles in the distance looked like a long, gray worm. At Clines Corner, we turned north and headed to Santa Fe.I had been hankering to see turquoise skies and gray mountains and smell juniper and pinion and here I was, smack dab in the middle of paradise. We drove into Santa Fe, its brown hills dotted with juniper now graying at twilight, and checked in at the El Rey. It’s a fine old motel of adobe-pueblo style built in the 1930’s.
“Never pass through Santa Fe without eating at Maria’s,” I said. “It serves the best New Mexican food in town.” I ate a chicken burrito and beans while watching a lady make tortillas by hand. That night I settled in bed and thought about my first trip to Santa Fe in 1985, when my marriage and world fell apart. Uncannily, the break-up had occurred the same day that my trucker-cousin, Greg was departing for Seattle in his 18-wheeler. I jumped aboard and headed west. In Albuquerque I got out on the interstate, rented a car and drove to Santa Fe, a place I had never visited. The city had inexplicably drawn me to it like a moth to a flame. Many people are drawn there. Of course, the moth always gets burned. Now, I was happy. If only I could breathe. A squirt of Afrin up the nose solved that problem.
-To be Continued –
By: Jerry Barksdale