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Kickin' Up Dust in Amarillo


Strumming a battered guitar, the lean-framed cowboy whose Wrangler jeans are so tight he must have wiggled into them lying down, claims in a voice as unpolished as his boots, that he has seen "miles and miles of Texas." He and I have that in common. We've both seen miles and miles of Texas, but one part I had not seen much of until I was invited to throw on my giddy-up camp shirt and warm a bleacher seat at the World Championship Ranch Rodeo was Amarillo and the Panhandle.

 

Opening ceremonies at the World Championship Ranch Rodeo. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999Like Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado in 1541, an untold number of cattlemen and sheepherders, hotrod drivers on old Route 66, and the singing cowboy who lost a wife and girlfriend between San Antonio and Santa Fe, I have passed through Amarillo many times without really seeing it. It has been a crossroads of trails, rails, and highways for centuries.

On this visit I slowed down and looked around. After two days I concluded that this flourishing City of the Plains and Panhandle has the deepest canyons, meanest steers, biggest steaks, and skinniest cowboys I've ever seen except in movies. Not the least of its attractions for people who live and work in Amarillo is that rush "hour" lasts about a minute. It is the perfect place to experience the heritage of the Old West in a real, unreconstructed environment.

Shortly after I returned from my visit to the Panhandle, Amarillo writer Kimberly Willis Holt won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. The city hasn't had so much attention from the media since Oprah left town.

The cattle ranchers, who took Oprah to court for allegedly demeaning their product, may have lost the legal battle but they have won the war. Beef consumption, after being flat for 20 years, is on the rise. For the cantankerous cattlemen, it is back to roundups, rodeos and lonesome trails.

It is not surprising that working cowboys compete for top honors in Amarillo, while professional rodeo cowboys hold their final competition in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the smell of money is in the stage shows and slot machines. In Amarillo, it's in the stockyards.

Seated on a barstool on a bare stage, bathed in a halo of light, his Stetson pulled low over his forehead to hide a receding hairline, the middle-aged cowboy poet has roped in a standing-room-only audience at the Amarillo Civic Center. Wrangling his words in a soft twang, he laments in perfectly rhymed stanzas, that cowboys are a dying breed. No one would deny that the Old West and its traditions are threatened by rhinestone cowboys on their hobby ranches, strident environmentalists who want to tell ranchers how to conserve land and water, and agricultural corporations that make it tough for the individual rancher to make a living.

Less than a hundred yards from the stage where the poet is reciting his mournful words, the top working cowboys in the business are milling around the rodeo arena on horseback, champing at the bit to begin the final round of the championship. These are real cowboys who make little distinction between work and play, between herding cattle on the range or in the arena. The passion to be a cowboy, and increasingly, cowgirl, runs in their blood and is often generations deep.

As I watch the cowboys compete in critically timed riding and roping events, I conclude that poetry with lines that actually rhyme is in greater danger of extinction than the American cowboy. The sport of ranch rodeo is the fastest growing team sport in America today, according to The Working Ranch Cowboys Association (WRCA), an organization that inaugurated the World Championship Ranch Rodeo four years ago.

"Don't do it the cowboy way; do it the easy way," my grandmother used to say every time she caught me making a simple task complicated. After watching a three-man team on horseback fly into action to cut three designated calves from a herd and pen them at the opposite end of the arena in less than 60 seconds, I can verify that the cowboy way is the easy way. The subtle synergy between cowboy and cutting horse is an elegant athletic performance based on economy of movement.

 

Cowboys beat the clock in penning competition. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999Since the day my willful pony bucked me off into a swarm of bumblebees when I was five years old, I have admired horses mostly from a distance. The fiberglass replica of "America's Fastest Athlete" in the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center & Museum was made for little kids and people like me. You can climb aboard and imagine you are riding in the All-American Futurity. That is just one of the many hands-on, interactive exhibits in this state-of-the-art museum located next to the American Quarter Horse Association's international headquarters in Amarillo.

After the excitement of the rodeo, I drag myself out of bed before dawn to drive 25 miles south to Palo Duro Canyon. I want to see the panoramic sunrise in these wide-open spaces. The canyon is a 120-mile long, 1,000-foot-deep symphony of rocks and color formed millions of years ago by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River cutting into the limestone caprock. Native Americans lived there in peace with nature for almost 12,000 years.

View of Palo Duro Canyon framed by an open window in old stone shelter. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999It is so quiet on the rim of the canyon I can almost hear the hoof beats of the 1,000 horses that were slaughtered by the United States' Calvary in 1874 to drive out the indigenous peoples who depended on their horses for survival. In a ceremony held every October, descendants of the Calvary present a horse, symbol of their apology, to descendants of the Native Americans who were forced out of the Southern plains onto reservations in Oklahoma.

Geologists, naturalists, hikers and photographers are some of those attracted to the canyon each year. Painter Georgia O'Keeffe took her paints and brushes to Palo Duro when she was an art and home economics teacher in West Texas State Normal College in the nearby town of Canyon from 1916-1918. Renamed West Texas A&M University, the campus is home to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. I found only one of O'Keeffe's paintings in the museum, an early, unremarkable example of her work. O'Keeffe paintings aside, the museum is full of art and artifacts from the early days of the ranching and petroleum industries and is about to undergo a complete renovation to enhance the way its collection is showcased.

Famous cattle brands displayed above the door of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999The 12-mile highway between Palo Duro Canyon and the Panhandle-Plains Museum has been designated The Charles Goodnight Memorial Trail. Colonel Goodnight, a former Texas Ranger, with his partner Oliver Loving, blazed a 2,000 mile cattle trail from Texas to Montana. Col. Goodnight later drove the buffalo out of Palo Duro Canyon and replaced them with a Longhorn-Hereford mixed-breed. The million-acre ranch he founded was one of the largest cattle operations in the world. Texas writer Larry McMurtry recaptured the drama of the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, which later became a popular television mini-series.

Birders, hikers, water sports enthusiasts, and nature lovers in general, will want to keep their foot in the stirrup long enough to visit the nearby Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument and Lake Meredith.

After a few days in Amarillo, I knew I was born to be a cowgirl. As soon as I got home I flipped on a Jim "Curly" Musgrave CD and ordered a John Wayne non-firing commemorative Carbine to strap to my saddlebag -- in case I ever buy a horse.

WHEN YOU GO:

 

Red rock bluffs on the flanks of Palo Duro Canyon. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999Getting there: Amarillo International Airport is served by American Airlines, American Eagle, Continental Express, Southwest Airlines and United Express. It is located on Interstate 40, a major east-west highway.

Tours: City slickers who idealize the American cowboy and long for wide open spaces can give a holler to Daphne Adkins, whose company Daphne's can set you up with a customized tour. Riding instructions, and an invitation to a cattle drive or pack trip are among the options. If you just want to kick around and see the sights, she can arrange that, too. Tel: 806-372-3535, Fax: 806-372-8484.

Working Ranch Cowboys Association -- To learn more about WRCA or to receive a Year 2000 WRCA Sanctioned Rodeo Schedule, call 806-374-9722, or visit their website at www.wrca.org.

American Quarter Horse Heritage Center & Museum -- Located at 2601 I-40 East at Quarter Horse Drive. Call 806-376-5181 or 888-209-8322.

Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum -- 2401 Fourth Ave., Canyon, TX. Tel: 806-651-2244 or 806-651-2250.

Historic Route 66 Association -- Amarillo is the only major Texas city along the famous Route 66 and much of the nostalgia remains. Call 806-372-8766. Nostalgia is dispensed thicker than catsup at RN Root Beer drive-in where the root beer is made fresh daily and you will definitely know where the beef is in the hamburgers. Located at 3900 Olsen. Tel: 806-355-4391.

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument -- Located 30 miles north of Amarillo on Highway 136, the quarries are Texas' only national monument. For centuries, Native Americans quarried the prized flint for weapons and tools. Petroglyphs and the remains of early Indian pueblos are found in the area. Park rangers lead guided tours. Call 806-847-3151 for information.

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area -- Boating, water skiing, sailing, swimming, camping, scuba diving and wind surfing are among the variety of water sports available on the lake. Call 806-857-3151.

Amarillo Convention & Visitor Council -- Tel: 806-374-1497, Fax: 806-373-3909, websites: www.armarillo-cvb.org or www.visitamarillotx.org.

Big Texan Steak Ranch & Opry -- Main attraction is the internationally hyped 72-ounce steak dinner, free to anyone who can eat it in an hour. For appetizers, try a plate of genuine diamondback rattlesnake of breaded mountain oysters. (If you need to ask what part of the calf mountain oysters come from, call yourself a dude and not a cowboy.) For more information and reservations, call 806-372-7000, or visit their website at www.amaonline.com/bigtexan.

Accommodations -- Oprah stayed at Adaberry Inn, a we-have-it-all including spectacular views, bed and breakfast inn that caters to business travelers and weekenders. Located at 6818 Plum Creek Drive. Tel: 806-352-0022, Fax: 806-356-0248. Other bed and breakfast choices are Auntie's House, located at 1712 S. Polk, the historic cattle baron's row, Tel: 806-371-8054; and Galbraith House, 1710 S. Polk, Tel: 806-374-0237. The Holiday Inn, 1911 I-40 East at Ross has updated rooms and suites and an attractive inner courtyard and pool. Tel: 1-806-372-8741, Fax: 806-372-2913.

"Don't do it the cowboy way; do it the easy way," my grandmother used to say every time she caught me making a simple task complicated. After watching a three-man team on horseback fly into action to cut three designated calves from a herd and pen them at the opposite end of the arena in less than 60 seconds, I can verify that the cowboy way is the easy way. The subtle synergy between cowboy and cutting horse is an elegant athletic performance based on economy of movement.

Cowboys beat the clock in penning competition. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999Since the day my willful pony bucked me off into a swarm of bumblebees when I was five years old, I have admired horses mostly from a distance. The fiberglass replica of "America's Fastest Athlete" in the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center & Museum was made for little kids and people like me. You can climb aboard and imagine you are riding in the All-American Futurity. That is just one of the many hands-on, interactive exhibits in this state-of-the-art museum located next to the American Quarter Horse Association's international headquarters in Amarillo.

After the excitement of the rodeo, I drag myself out of bed before dawn to drive 25 miles south to Palo Duro Canyon. I want to see the panoramic sunrise in these wide-open spaces. The canyon is a 120-mile long, 1,000-foot-deep symphony of rocks and color formed millions of years ago by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River cutting into the limestone caprock. Native Americans lived there in peace with nature for almost 12,000 years.

View of Palo Duro Canyon framed by an open window in old stone shelter. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999It is so quiet on the rim of the canyon I can almost hear the hoof beats of the 1,000 horses that were slaughtered by the United States' Calvary in 1874 to drive out the indigenous peoples who depended on their horses for survival. In a ceremony held every October, descendants of the Calvary present a horse, symbol of their apology, to descendants of the Native Americans who were forced out of the Southern plains onto reservations in Oklahoma.

Geologists, naturalists, hikers and photographers are some of those attracted to the canyon each year. Painter Georgia O'Keeffe took her paints and brushes to Palo Duro when she was an art and home economics teacher in West Texas State Normal College in the nearby town of Canyon from 1916-1918. Renamed West Texas A&M University, the campus is home to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. I found only one of O'Keeffe's paintings in the museum, an early, unremarkable example of her work. O'Keeffe paintings aside, the museum is full of art and artifacts from the early days of the ranching and petroleum industries and is about to undergo a complete renovation to enhance the way its collection is showcased.

Famous cattle brands displayed above the door of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999The 12-mile highway between Palo Duro Canyon and the Panhandle-Plains Museum has been designated The Charles Goodnight Memorial Trail. Colonel Goodnight, a former Texas Ranger, with his partner Oliver Loving, blazed a 2,000 mile cattle trail from Texas to Montana. Col. Goodnight later drove the buffalo out of Palo Duro Canyon and replaced them with a Longhorn-Hereford mixed-breed. The million-acre ranch he founded was one of the largest cattle operations in the world. Texas writer Larry McMurtry recaptured the drama of the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, which later became a popular television mini-series.

Birders, hikers, water sports enthusiasts, and nature lovers in general, will want to keep their foot in the stirrup long enough to visit the nearby Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument and Lake Meredith.

After a few days in Amarillo, I knew I was born to be a cowgirl. As soon as I got home I flipped on a Jim "Curly" Musgrave CD and ordered a John Wayne non-firing commemorative Carbine to strap to my saddlebag -- in case I ever buy a horse.

WHEN YOU GO:

Red rock bluffs on the flanks of Palo Duro Canyon. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 1999Getting there: Amarillo International Airport is served by American Airlines, American Eagle, Continental Express, Southwest Airlines and United Express. It is located on Interstate 40, a major east-west highway.

Tours: City slickers who idealize the American cowboy and long for wide open spaces can give a holler to Daphne Adkins, whose company Daphne's can set you up with a customized tour. Riding instructions, and an invitation to a cattle drive or pack trip are among the options. If you just want to kick around and see the sights, she can arrange that, too. Tel: 806-372-3535, Fax: 806-372-8484.

Working Ranch Cowboys Association -- To learn more about WRCA or to receive a Year 2000 WRCA Sanctioned Rodeo Schedule, call 806-374-9722, or visit their website at www.wrca.org.

American Quarter Horse Heritage Center & Museum -- Located at 2601 I-40 East at Quarter Horse Drive. Call 806-376-5181 or 888-209-8322.

Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum -- 2401 Fourth Ave., Canyon, TX. Tel: 806-651-2244 or 806-651-2250.

Historic Route 66 Association -- Amarillo is the only major Texas city along the famous Route 66 and much of the nostalgia remains. Call 806-372-8766. Nostalgia is dispensed thicker than catsup at RN Root Beer drive-in where the root beer is made fresh daily and you will definitely know where the beef is in the hamburgers. Located at 3900 Olsen. Tel: 806-355-4391.

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument -- Located 30 miles north of Amarillo on Highway 136, the quarries are Texas' only national monument. For centuries, Native Americans quarried the prized flint for weapons and tools. Petroglyphs and the remains of early Indian pueblos are found in the area. Park rangers lead guided tours. Call 806-847-3151 for information.

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area -- Boating, water skiing, sailing, swimming, camping, scuba diving and wind surfing are among the variety of water sports available on the lake. Call 806-857-3151.

Amarillo Convention & Visitor Council -- Tel: 806-374-1497, Fax: 806-373-3909, websites: www.armarillo-cvb.org or www.visitamarillotx.org.

Big Texan Steak Ranch & Opry -- Main attraction is the internationally hyped 72-ounce steak dinner, free to anyone who can eat it in an hour. For appetizers, try a plate of genuine diamondback rattlesnake of breaded mountain oysters. (If you need to ask what part of the calf mountain oysters come from, call yourself a dude and not a cowboy.) For more information and reservations, call 806-372-7000, or visit their website at www.amaonline.com/bigtexan.

Accommodations -- Oprah stayed at Adaberry Inn, a we-have-it-all including spectacular views, bed and breakfast inn that caters to business travelers and weekenders. Located at 6818 Plum Creek Drive. Tel: 806-352-0022, Fax: 806-356-0248. Other bed and breakfast choices are Auntie's House, located at 1712 S. Polk, the historic cattle baron's row, Tel: 806-371-8054; and Galbraith House, 1710 S. Polk, Tel: 806-374-0237. The Holiday Inn, 1911 I-40 East at Ross has updated rooms and suites and an attractive inner courtyard and pool. Tel: 1-806-372-8741, Fax: 806-372-2913.