Going to Ground

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Hoodoos, Dr. Martens, screech owls, mirages, the Red River War, determined trees, caliche, Percy Shelley, gristle, Charles Goodnight, the Cenozoic, spindly trilobites & the Panhandle.

It was snowing. I didn’t know it snowed in Texas. I stood in the doorway of our little pop-up camper, my back warm from the electric heater and my face cold in the night, watching the snow softly settle on the sage. A white flash of lightning strobed on the canyon walls. Thunder rattled off the Llano Estacado and fell over the rim. It tumbled down the sandstone cliffs and splashed into the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Normally, someone would have yelled at me for standing with the door open, but tonight we huddled together and watched the thunder snow.

At night it was quiet. The kind of quiet I’d never heard. Occasionally the coyotes would yap down in the mesquite, making Tuffy’s ears perk up. Their wild chatter filled Palo Duro Canyon like they had us surrounded. Tuffy wasn’t allowed off her leash after dark and we stayed close to the camper when we went out. Coyotes won’t normally bother a person, but a nice, tasty Labrador is a different story. There was a pair of screech owls living in the electric post above us. We had sold our TV, so we listened to the owls trill Spanish r’s all night.

The camper was seventeen feet long. It was my grandparents’ and it smelled like the 1970s. As soon as we arrived, my dad stretched a khaki tarp over it to help keep the weather out, giving it the appearance of a giant cardboard box. When retirement RVs, some the size of tour buses, parked beside us, our little pop-up felt even more cramped with three people and a dog. We kept most of the food outside in an ice chest to save space in the camper and only cooked meals easily prepared in a single pot. There were two beds at each end, a single and a double. In the middle was a mini-fridge and a small stove, a two-person bench with a cushion, and some cabinets. My mom, Tuffy and I slept in the double bed and my dad slept on the other end. He tossed and turned all night, rocking the camper back and forth like we were at sea. Sometimes it felt like the whole thing could break apart.

I remember the rust-colored ribs and soft sand like the color of Earth’s torn flesh.

I never spent much time in the pop-up except when doing my homework. After school, Tuffy and I ran along the creek, dodging prickly pears and mesquite thorns. We were always on the lookout for a rattler and a sudden buzzing in the brush. It’s a sound you recognize instantly, even if you’ve never heard it before. I knew a snakebite could kill you out here, but at twelve years old, that concept was hazy and faraway like a desert mirage. We explored the nooks and crannies of our new backyard, scaring up jackrabbits and families of bobwhite quail. They’d dart across the trail one after the other, the last one catching some air as he hurried to keep up.

Whenever I felt restless, Tuffy and I would sprint across the campground and straight up a narrow dirt track through the Permian, up the Triassic Period, over the Pliocene and finally across the Cenozoic to the top of the canyon. Well, to the top of a mesa inside the canyon. Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest in the United States, is well over six miles across and cuts a seventy-mile gash across the Texas Panhandle. It’s like falling off the horizon when you finally see it after driving for hours across flat, dusty ranchland.

It took us two days to reach the canyon from our home in Central Texas. We were attacked by skunks on the first night. Ten of them came into our campsite right at dusk. They trapped my mom and me in the camper with Tuffy. Dad climbed onto the picnic table and gazed down at the invaders nervously. One false move and we could be gassed instantly by ten skunks. He tried scaring them away with quiet shoos and pssts. They snuffled around oblivious to our plight, sniffing at the peanut shells some previous campers had left carelessly on the ground. Tuffy jumped and pawed at the door, whining in excitement. I tried to shush her, hoping the skunks wouldn’t hear. They have terrible eyesight, but skunks certainly aren’t hard of hearing. I peered from the window to see what was going on. Dad quietly snuck down from the picnic table and crept past the skunks to the Suburban. He eased the door open and turned the ignition. Ten striped tails flagged into the air and the skunks trundled away in the headlights, without letting rip.

He tossed and turned all night, rocking the camper back and forth like we were at sea.

We arrived at Palo Duro Canyon just as the busy tourist season was winding down. The state park is enormous, rivaled in size only by New York’s Adirondack Park (but don’t tell that to a Texan). Even then, in the late 1990s, it was as well developed as many of the West’s great national parks and far more than most state parks. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps was put to work building the narrow, twisting road to the canyon floor, hiking in and out of the steep canyon every day. Today there are cabins, an interpretive center and an amphitheater where one could, if one were so inclined, watch the musical Texas every summer with a plate of pork and beans.

One weekend, not long after we arrived, we hiked to a hoodoo called the Lighthouse. Hoodoo: it was a brilliant new word, rife with wonder and mystery. There were place names, too: Devil’s Slide and Spanish Skirts. The desert landscape deeply unsettled me, eroding my frame of reference for the world I inhabited. Palo Duro Canyon is a roiling sea of red mesas and sandy cliffs cresting with scrubby juniper and yucca. The Lighthouse rises from this tumultuous landscape on a pillar of rusty shale, like an old chimney in a field. Hoodoos would become one of my favorite features of the desert. Sculpted by water and time, they are formed when the softer rock beneath a harder stone is washed away, leaving a top-heavy tower. The Lighthouse, as well as the rest of the canyon, was cut away by the Red River over the course of two hundred fifty million years. It’s impossible to fathom that this natural sculpture will never be a completed work of art. The river will continue to refine its shape and features long after our Instagram accounts dissolve into the ether.

At the bottom of the canyon where we made camp, the oldest layers of the formation are visible. Red and grey layers of shale and sandstone are stacked on top of one another, interlaced with white veins of gypsum. I remember the rust-colored ribs and soft sand like the color of Earth’s torn flesh. Above is the Tecovas Formation, a quiet contrast to the vermillion ground floor. White and occasionally lavender sandstone intrudes like a thick layer of icing in a carrot cake. There are fossils here from an ancient sea, spindly trilobites and shells. Mastodons, saber-toothed cats and giant reptiles, too. The Tecovas is followed by another slab of dusty orange sandstone and then capped at the rim by a coating of crunchy caliche, like crumbs.

The boys, just like their dads and granddads, wore tight Wranglers with a Skoal circle on the back pocket.…Some of the girls, even the pretty ones, already had tobacco stains on their teeth.

The confined interior of the camper forced me outdoors. The only standing rules were to be safe and be back before dark. I liked to sit down in the salt cedar by the creek and watch the hillsides, hoping for a glimpse of the Barbary sheep. They’re as exotic as they sound, imported from Africa in the 1950s for big-game hunters to shoot at. With enormous Viking drinking cups curling from their heads, the Barbary sheep are not dissimilar to the native bighorns once found in the area. I never did spot one, though—just plenty of mule deer nibbling at clumps of buffalo grass and grama. Sometimes a flock of turkeys would strut through camp in the evening, their heads bopping in sync like a boy band.

The camper didn’t have a commode or a shower, so we would walk across the campground to the public restroom for the toilet. I remember trying to put makeup on before school, but the restroom was so dim and the mirror so grey and warped that I could hardly see what I was doing. Not that I really knew anyway. It was the off-season, so the restroom was rarely used by anyone else. In a way, it was becoming my own, along with the deserted campsites and empty trails. But that’s a false conceit. Places like this are never anyone’s own.

Palo Duro Canyon has been a home, a shelter and a refuge for twelve thousand years. Paleo-Indians were the first inhabitants, though there are few traces of their existence now—only a few stone tools and artifacts found about the canyon. They lived under low rock shelters and in shallow caves, hunting the prehistoric bison and mastodon. With the Red River as an abundant source of water, Palo Duro Canyon must have been quite the desert oasis—a sanctuary, even. Centuries later, in 1541, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado became the first white man to lay eyes upon it. He and his men supposedly camped here on their quest for gold and the Seven Cities of Cibola. He named it “hardwood,” Palo Duro, for the dry and determined trees clinging to the canyon walls. Three hundred years later, in an ironic twist of fate, the descendants of the first people to live in the canyon fought their last stand here.

Compass Rose

It was always a rush in the morning to get from the bottom of the canyon to the top where I caught the school bus. Above the rim was a world of anxieties, expectations and fears. The sense of what was genuine and real lay trapped within the walls of Palo Duro Canyon. Mom usually drove so she could check her new cellphone for messages when we reached the top. For the most part, she picked up jobs substitute teaching in Amarillo, thirty miles away. I was relieved that she never got a call for my school in Canyon. I was usually the first on the bus. Not many people live in a state park, after all. I made myself small at the back of the bus and kept my head down, never making eye contact with the other kids. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me, much less consider my existence. To talk would mean to reveal answers to questions I didn’t want asked, like why was I so far from home, hiding in a hole in the ground?

The road into Canyon was a straight shot from the state park. Just about everything in the Panhandle is a straight shot from somewhere. The pavement stretches for miles and miles with neither a crook nor a turn. Years later, when I had my driver’s license, I took my hands off the wheel to see how far I could go without steering. It was far enough to get tired of the game. Out here, you can really see, even though there’s not much to look at. Just dust and wind. Sometimes we’d go out driving, looking for something to let our eyes settle upon.

We were surprised one day to find a colossal pair of brown stone legs standing alone on the prairie. The plaque beside them read that Mary and Percy Shelley found “these ruins” on their 1819 horseback trip across the Great Plains. They were said to be the inspiration for Percy’s sonnet “Ozymandias.” It was a rather odd statement, considering Percy’s poem was published in an 1818 issue of England’s The Examiner and that he never came to America, for that matter.

There had been some contention amongst the chiefs over whether or not they should take refuge in the canyon, but they were swayed when the shaman Maman-ti, who spoke to the skin of an owl he wore on one hand, prophesized they would be safe from the soldiers there.

We later discovered that these giant legs were one of the millionaire Stanley Marsh 3’s (he went by 3, not III) numerous art installations in the Amarillo area. If you spend enough time in this part of Texas, you’ll soon begin to notice colorful road signs that say things like, “THAT SNAKE IN THE GRASS IS BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE,” and “CATS ARE NOT TO BE TRUSTED THIS IS NO JOKE.” I didn’t know it at the time, but old Stanley was accused of sexually abusing young boys. I wonder how that would’ve changed my perception of his guerrilla comedy.[1]

With enough begging, I could persuade my mom to take me to the mall in Amarillo. It was no good asking Dad. He hated shopping even more here than he had back home. There was a store that sold Dr. Martens, and at the time I didn’t feel the least bit guilty convincing Mom to buy me a couple of pairs to wear to my new school. If I was going to be an outcast, I was at least going to be a well-dressed outcast.

There was a restaurant in Amarillo called the Big Texan, home of the free seventy-two-ounce steak. That’s four and a half pounds of meat, gristle and bone. There’s some fine print, however, that comes with eighteen free servings of beef. The steak, as well as a baked potato, shrimp cocktail, salad and a roll, must be consumed in under an hour or else you’re picking up the $72 tab. Even back then, the lack of restraint in our eating habits enthralled and disgusted me. It’s like watching a catastrophe unfold: you want to look away, but can’t take your eyes off it. Every now and then, when the wind was in the wrong direction, it blew the stench over from Dalhart. Dalhart is brown. Brown cows. Brown mud. Brown shit. Brown death. The feedlots where cattle are crammed nose to tail extend for miles along the highway. You can’t not look. I wondered if the seventy-two-ounce steak came from Dalhart.

Cattle have been an unmistakable feature of the Texas landscape since before the Revolution, first on Spanish rancheros and later when the area became a part of Mexico. During the Civil War, Texas supplied the Confederate Army with beef until the Union cut off the Mississippi. With the Eastern markets inaccessible, the number of cattle multiplied across the range. When the war ended in 1865, Texas ranchers were able to export five million head as far as the Canadian border, with more to spare. The big ranches, the legendary ones, were formed and the range swiftly expanded into Indian Territory. Between 1874 and 1875, the US Army engaged in its last significant series of conflicts with the Kiowa, Comanche and Southern Cheyenne in what became known as the Red River War.

He eased the door open and turned the ignition. Ten striped tails flagged into the air and the skunks trundled away in the headlights, without letting rip.

Manifest Destiny, the grand assumption of the white man’s claim to the continent, can be summarized by a long list of broken treaties. Though it was signed but never ratified, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 was intended to create two reservations: one for the Comanche and Kiowa, and one for the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe. The government would provide housing, food, supplies and agricultural tutoring in exchange for a cessation on the raids and attacks on white settlements. That in itself sounds like a raw deal for a people who once roamed the plains freely, but those days were already drawing to a close. When the buffalo hunters began to systematically massacre the great herds, an entire species, with numbers in the millions, was nearly eradicated, as were those who relied on them for subsistence. With their way of life rotting on the prairie, the Plains Indians had no choice but to retaliate.

The Red River War wasn’t much more than a series of skirmishes with few casualties on either side, but the constant warfare was a drain on the Plains Indians’ dwindling resources. The final battle was fought at Palo Duro Canyon in 1874. There had been some contention amongst the chiefs over whether or not they should take refuge in the canyon, but they were swayed when the shaman Maman-ti, who spoke to the skin of an owl he wore on one hand, prophesized they would be safe from the soldiers there.[2] That September, warriors from the four Plains tribes took refuge in the canyon, storing supplies and horses ahead of winter. When Colonel Mackenzie and the Fourth United States Cavalry learned of their whereabouts, the place that had been a haven for centuries became a trap. The fighting broke out on the morning of September 28. It was short and decisive. The majority of the Plains Indians fled, but their villages, supplies and nearly 1,500 horses were captured and destroyed. Mackenzie kept some of the horses, gave roughly three hundred to the Tonkawa scouts and ordered the rest, nearly a thousand, to be taken away and shot.[3] With no food for winter or ground left to fight upon, the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon signaled the end of the free-roaming Plains people.

Two years after the battle, the cowman and former Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight started running cattle in the canyon when he formed the Panhandle’s first ranch. Goodnight, who was the inspiration for Larry McMurtry’s character Woodrow F. Call in the epic western Lonesome Dove, was instrumental in the development of the Panhandle’s ranching economy. Perhaps he felt a sense of sentimentality for the vanishing frontier when he preserved a small herd of bison on his ranch. Descendants of Goodnight’s herd were later introduced into Yellowstone National Park and became one of the most successful conservation projects in recent history.[4]

Compass Rose

One afternoon, while my parents were meeting with the campground host coordinators at the visitor center, I wandered outside and climbed onto a low rock barrier. Beneath me, just on the other side of the wall, was what looked to be a small path leading down a narrow cliff face and into the canyon. I dropped onto it and followed it away from the visitor center until it was out of sight. Because I had spent so much time scrambling around these crumbling cliffs, I confidently assumed I could traverse the steep slope ahead. I began to cross it, carefully, with short steps. The loose caliche slipped underfoot. I couldn’t take another step forward without falling. I tried to turn back, but there wasn’t enough room to maneuver without losing my balance. A new sensation, like that of a bear prowling outside my tent or the chilling whumpf of snow settling before an avalanche, overcame me. I couldn’t go back and I didn’t dare go farther. Below me was a six-hundred-foot drop. I grasped at a large clump of buffalo grass and held it as I shuffled around. There was a mesquite tree, its thorns an inch long, and a patch of prickly pear. I lunged for the mesquite as the gravel beneath me slipped away. Somehow I managed to dodge the worst thorns and was able to pull myself to safer ground with only a few scratches. I put my head between my knees and gasped. I had done stupid things before (and I’ve done plenty since), but this was the first time I realized there were consequences.

I had been at the middle school for nearly three months when a little blonde girl called Paige began talking to me. Her clothes were much more expensive than mine and I was suspicious, but it was good to talk to someone all the same. We didn’t share any classes, but ate lunch together and milled around outside after school with the other kids. The boys, just like their dads and granddads, wore tight Wranglers with a Skoal circle on the back pocket. Kids certainly didn’t chew back home. Some of the girls, even the pretty ones, already had tobacco stains on their teeth. I was quite certain I’d never fit in here.

Looking back, I’ve tried to remember why I didn’t want anyone to know my story. Embarrassment, for sure. Fear of being mocked. But as much as I couldn’t stand someone making fun of me to my face, I hated the idea of anyone feeling sorry for me behind my back. It was easy to keep my secret from the other kids because they were as self-absorbed as I was. The teachers were another story. They always knew more than you thought they did and I began to suspect my science teacher had somehow found me out. He was nice to me and I resented him for it. Perhaps my mother had told the school administrators our story when I enrolled. Or maybe he knew someone at the state park who told him about the family living at the bottom of the canyon.

Every now and then, when the wind was in the wrong direction, it blew the stench over from Dalhart. Dalhart is brown. Brown cows. Brown mud. Brown shit. Brown death.

However he had found out, I believed he knew everything.

About the restaurant that closed. About the bankruptcy. About all the things we sold or gave away. My two other dogs, Conor and Belle, were left at a kennel and eventually sold to people I’d never met. The little white cat, Pepper, was surrendered to the animal shelter and probably put down. And the rabbit with one floppy ear was given to the daughter of a Cajun chef. I must have said goodbye to my best friend, but I’ve blocked it from my memory. We had a long-running, unspoken competition to see who could wear the best clothes, ride in the nicest car, live in the biggest home, and I had lost. Those things mattered a lot to me then. I don’t remember the exact time of day we skipped town, but it felt like it was under cover of darkness. We were running away and I wouldn’t understand why until I was much older.

My parents asked me where I wanted to go. I could have said anywhere, but the first place that came to mind was Canyon, Texas, because the girls’ basketball team had recently won State and I wanted to play for them. We borrowed my grandparents’ camper and drove west, like the pioneers fleeing an old life, searching for a new one. We arrived in Palo Duro Canyon with no intention of camping for more than a few days. I don’t remember how long it was before my parents decided to stay the winter as volunteers. Practically speaking, it was a free place to live while they righted themselves and looked for work. While my mother began substitute teaching and used the library computers to search for more-permanent positions, my dad stayed in the canyon, pretending to be a recent retiree. One look at the faded beige and rusted pop-up camper would have told anyone otherwise.

Many people lose their livelihoods, face bankruptcy, suffer hardships, file for divorce, experience tragedies far greater than this. Not many go to ground. Why didn’t my parents move to another city, rent a cheap apartment and start over? It’s what most in their position would have done. At first, Palo Duro Canyon offered a place to hide and lick our wounds. My parents’ restaurant had been a prominent fixture in the community for many years and people recognized them at the grocery store. There would have been talk, especially as they owed money that never would be repaid. Over time, however, Palo Duro Canyon gained a significance far greater than a free place to stay.

Sometimes we’d go out driving, looking for something to let our eyes settle upon.

Hunted animals go to ground, hiding in burrows, waiting for the danger to pass. In a more colloquial sense, anyone looking to hide from the public eye—celebrities, criminals—goes to ground. There is a slightly different variation of that phrase, one that suits our experience more appropriately: to go to earth. After quite literally casting aside our belongings, we returned to nature. Sure, we didn’t become survivalists, but for a brief period of time we lived a minimalist existence in tune with the rhythms of nature. Rain, wind and snow affected our daily routine in ways that seem incomprehensible from the comfort of a warm living room. Getting dressed and made up for the day often meant trudging through the rain. But on a sunny morning when the sun peaked over the rim and the shadow of night advanced across the canyon floor, when the mourning doves woke us with their soft coo-eee-coo-coos and whistling wings, when a light breeze flowed through the canyon, rustling the cottonwood leaves, I felt a sense of belonging I have only ever experienced in the wild places of the American West.

For all intents and purposes, we were living below the poverty line. Financially, maybe, but we never made that leap mentally, perhaps because the environment in which we found ourselves was so rich. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, the closeness I developed with Palo Duro Canyon was transformative. I can’t speak for my parents, but I’d like to think it was the same for them.

After four months in the canyon, my parents took a job offer in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Before we broke camp one final time, Tuffy and I hiked to our favorite sitting spot, on a mesa overlooking the lower draws of the canyon. I drank the desert air, savoring its taste. It was like a blank canvas waiting to be painted with the scent of cedar and sage. When the sun dipped below the rim above, it cast the cliff faces and rolling hills in a soft purple hue. The painter Georgia O’Keeffe described Palo Duro as a “burning, seething cauldron.” On a cold fall day, we descended into that cauldron of fire as hurt and damaged creatures, and emerged in the spring ready for whatever lay out West.

Margaret Hedderman lives in Colorado. On any given day, she can be found playing in the mountains or sleeping under the desert stars. Her work speaks to the importance of empty, lonely places on the map. She also writes fiction and screenplays.

Lead image: Val Vesa

  1. Numerous lawsuits were filed against Stanley March 3 from the late 1990s until the time of his death in 2014, accusing him of sexual abuse against teenage boys. The suits were settled outside of court.
  2. Handbook of Texas Online, H. Allen Anderson, “Maman-Ti,” accessed January 11, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmacz. 
  3. Handbook of Texas Online, Thomas F. Schilz, “Palo Duro Canyon, Battle Of,” accessed January 11, 2017, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/maman-ti;
  4. “At Home on the Range Again,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, March 2011. http://tpwmagazine.com/archive/2011/mar/ed_2/index.phtml
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1 Comment

  1. Lovely story rich with the sense of place. Liked seeing it through a child’s eyes.

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