Friday, October 29, 2010

Palo Duro Canyon - A Lesson in Texas History

Recently Kathleen and I visited Palo Duro Canyon State Park, a breathtaking grand-but-smaller version of the world-famous Grand Canyon, located about 25 miles southwest of Amarillo, Texas. We spent an entire morning taking in the wonders along the park's paved road that winds down into the canyon. We slowly drove the entire circuit, and then we went back and drove it again. It's truly one of the most beautiful state parks in the U.S.

After our picnic lunch at the bottom of the canyon, we exited the park and checked into the Elkins Ranch canyon jeep tours. We had already spent hours photographing the canyon, but we thought it would be cool to see it from different perspective.

Our guide was Lee Chappell. As she slowly maneuvered the jeep around the rim of the canyon, she talked nonstop about geology, Texas history and the plants and animals that inhabit the canyon. Then suddenly she wheeled the jeep towards the expanse and our descent got real steep. I thought, "Today would be a good day for no human error."

According to Lee the Elkins Ranch, which consists of several thousand acres next to the park, was originally founded as the JA Ranch over 100 years ago by John Adair and Charles Goodnight, the most famous cattleman in Texas history and "Father of the Texas Panhandle." Also, he and his long-time trail buddy Oliver Loving were the models for Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, the main characters in Larry McMurty's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove.

Towards the end of the 3-hour tour, she told us this story...

Charles Goodnight statue, West Texas A&M
Charles Goodnight is a legendary figure in Texas history. No one knew more about the plains, cattle and ranching than Charles Goodnight.

One day he and some hands were tending cattle on the ranch when a couple of young men rode up. They couldn't have been more than 18 years old, and Goodnight remarked to one of the hands that it was unusual that two boys would be riding horses as fine as these.

"Where'd you get the horses?" he asked.

"A man gave 'em to us," the boldest of the two replied.

"I don't know any man who would give boys like you horses like these."

"Are you calling me a liar, mister?"

"I'm saying I don't anyone who would give you these horses."

"Well if you're going to call me a liar, then we'll be on our way."

In those days, stealing a man's horse was considered as serious a crime as murder, because a man without a horse would not survive more than a few days on the plains. As the two boys rode away, Goodnight noticed that the saddle blankets were askew. Thinking they were hiding something under the blankets, he ordered his hands to bring the boys back.

Sure enough, when they looked under the saddles, they found shortened branding irons, the kind used by thieves to alter the brands.

"Looks like I'm going to have to hang you two," said Goodnight.

"I don't think there'll be any hanging today, mister," said the bold one. "There ain't no trees anywhere around here."

"We don't need a tree," said Goodnight. "We'll just turn this buckboard wagon on it's end and hang you from the yoke."

And that's what they did. They left the two bodies on the ground for the prairie animals, which was how horse thieves were commonly disposed of.

But soon after Goodnight and his men left the area, he told them to return and bury the two boys.

"Why do want us to do that, boss?"

"I just got to thinking. If my wife were to be out riding and find those bodies, I'd be in a heap of trouble."

Just as Lee finished the story, she stopped the jeep. "This is the spot where they buried them. Right here." A small plot rough-marked their graves, right next to a buckboard wagon standing on end.

Those were hard times and it took hard men and women to survive in Indian territory while trying to make homes and bring law and order to the lawless Texas prairie. After that tour, I understood a little bit better what it means to be a Texan.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Photos by Kathleen Scott. Used with permission.)


Kathleen Scott said...

The canyon is magic. When you stand on the rim and look out, the panorama engages every cell in your brain and washes your mind clean.

BizBuyer said...

If you love historical fiction of the Southwest and Texas you might want to read the Elmer Kelton books.