12.10.2006,8:48 PM
Texas Canyonlands I: Canyon Rims and Table Top
Canyon Rims and Table Top

From the journal……

The coyotes are quiet now. I hear a flock of geese in the distant while I finish my breakfast and sip the remainder of my coffee. The sun continues competing with the clouds and shadows appear on these pages…….

Gathering hiking clothes and boots together, I added them to the side bags along with sandals, washcloth and the CoolMax bag liner that doubles as a huge towel. I donned gear, warmed up the bike and straddled it, ready to head to the canyon rim today.

After what seemed like half and hour trying to back the bike out of the sand and onto the graveled road in front of my campsite, I was profusely sweating inside my gear and helmet. Swearing profusely, I realized my legs tired quickly, probably from yesterday’s hiking. I sat there trying to determine how I could get out of this mess. I couldn’t ride forward; the big ground pit was in the way; I couldn’t back the bike out with the sand. As much as I didn’t want to, and hated to, I needed a push, or pull.

Looking sideways, I noticed a fellow camper a few sites down sitting in a chair next to his campfire and reading a book, his son sitting nearby at the picnic table. I beeped my horn twice, got their attention and I crooked my finger in a universal signal “Um, would you mind coming here for a minute?”

The two walked over and as I slid my faceshield, I smiled and asked if they could give me a push or a pull out on to the gravel, and pointed in the right direction.

“You know, I always dreamed about buying and riding a motorcycle, but they all seem so tall to me. This thing’s huge!
What is this thing, anyway?”

The obligatory question.

I explained what it was, agreed that it’s tall and I’m short, and that I usually avoid having to back it up. But I didn’t expect to have problems with it this time; it was nearly level. And it wasn’t loaded with gear. But its doubly harder to back up in the sand, and my legs were worn out from hiking all day yesterday. And this bike doesn’t have reverse……

After a few moments of maneuvering it back on to the gravel, we exchanged pleasantries and I thanked them for their help. Shifting down into first, I was off and out onto the park road.

Riding up the serpentine was a gas this time, and I dipped and shifted my way up to the ranger’s station to pay for another night camping. The same two women rangers manned the center and we chatted for a bit. Thus far, all the folks I’ve met in the park were friendly. They assured me there was no problem with keeping the same spot and they suggested I might try the Trading Post for lunch; it was their last day open for the season. The thought of a juicy hamburger was stored in my head for future reference since I was still hungry from yesterdays energy expenditure.

Prepared for what lied ahead, I rode down the steep serpentine road more confidently and enjoying the leans and twists, shifting up and down, gauging my apexes and exits, mindful of oncoming vehicles. I noticed they tend to wander over the centerline often. After the first hairpin, everything clicked and I trusted the bike and my leans, relaxing into the tight turns and grinning from ear to ear. 'Ohhhhhh yeaahhh……'

At the bottom I realized I was having so much fun I missed my turn into the Trading Post. So back up again I went, missed it again, circled around near the park entrance and started down again, this time a bit faster but still in control and chuckling inside my helmet. I was back in Moab and on the high corkscrews of Mesa Verde again; this time without my heart in my throat and my sphincter muscle more relaxed.


Slowly approaching the turn where I expected the turn off to be, I downshifted and rode in the parking lot where there was plenty of room to choose a spot. Pulling my camera out from the tank bag, I readied to take a shot of the colorful mesas on either side of the lot. Pressing the shutter release, I heard a distinct ‘Beep, beep!”

Oh crap. The memory card was full. I filled it up in one day and one morning. And had nothing to download the images to for more room. And had another day yet to take pictures.

Sighing, I turned it off, removed my riding jacket and folded it over the bike seat, left the helmet cushioned on the console and walked inside. Only one other person was inside. I perused the menu and order a hamburger with all the works and chatted with the couple manning the store. I relayed the story of the coyote outside my tent yelling at me to wake up and they laughed. After filling my glass with nice cold soda, I turned around and there on the counter was a small stuffed coyote with a red shirt and “Palo Duro Canyon” printed on the front.

“Ma’am, since that coyote seemed to want to make friends with you, I think it’s fitting that you should take one home with you. This little feller here’s lookin’ for a new home and since we’re closin’ the store at the end of the day, he’s gonna be mighty lonely here for several months.

I think he’s got himself a new friend!”

I was pleasantly surprised and of course accepted to give the little coyote a new home. Thanking them, I placed him on my table and he watched me while I ate, well, inhaled my burger. I smiled at him and he seemed to be smiling back at me.

Sipping my wonderfully cold and fizzy soda, I watched as two park vehicles pulled in and parked. Two rangers, a tall lanky man and a heavy but strong woman walked through the door and placed their orders the counter. They sat at the table next to me and talked amongst themselves.

The tall man turned around in his chair and asked me,
“What kind of a bike is that?”

I now have a standard reply and I started my shpiel, but I noticed instead of the blank stare I usually encounter, he nodded his head and started asking questions that indicated he knew bikes.

“I raced dirt bikes and motocross for several years, but it’s been awhile.”

I smiled; there’s that instant rapport between strangers who ride bikes, or have ridden them, that melts away social awkwardness and ignites conversation about riding, engines, mechanics, brands, styles, you name it.

We talked bikes for awhile and then the conversation turned to the critters that live in the park. A universal trait of all park rangers and caretakers is knowing the regulars, the animals or birds that endear them apart from the others for some reason or another.

“Have you seen Whitey recently? I haven’t seen him in a week or so.”

“Sure, I saw him the other day. He’s still scampering about.”

Whitey, I was to learn, was a white bobcat. An albino? They didn’t know for sure, but he has been a resident in the canyon for many years and is easily distinguishable from his surroundings because of his color.

Then there is “Big B”, an old and huge buck with a majestic rack of horns that seems to evade all the hunters. Learning that there are cougar, cardinals, turkeys, quail and other relatively harmless creatures, I asked the big question:

“Are there bears down here??”

With relief, they shook their heads; no bears. Whew…. I can handle bobcats and feel right at home with coyotes, but bears terrify me.

A few more rangers joined them for lunch along with an older couple living there for the season as park hosts. Lively chatter ensued and I got ready to go. But first a restroom stop. Argh, these layers………

As I left the parking lot was filling up with tourists in their big cars and SUVs. I sat on the bike for awhile since someone was kind enough to block me in my spot. No matter, I spent the time gazing at the canyon walls and mesas nearby until the car pulled out and left.

Table Top

Back up the twisties again, searching for the turn off to the Observation Point and Visitors’ Center, I realized as I approached the park entrance that I missed that turn off, too. Circle around and ride back down. Not that I cared; I was really enjoying those serpentines by now.

The park ranger at the headquarters confirmed the trail map I gleaned off the Internet for the hike to Table Top; she told me the trailhead was at the Observation Point. I parked the bike alongside the outer rim of the turn around and next to a split rail fence. The parking lot was full and I had to wait patiently, not always an easy task for me, for access to the spot and I nodded a ‘Thank you’ to the RV pulling out.

After dismounting, I pulled out jeans, sweat shirt and hiking boots out of the sidecases. With lack of any shelter nearby I unzipped riding pants and boots, pulled off the boots to my stocking feet and pants off down to the UnderArmours underneath. After pulling on the jeans, my feet slid into the hiking boots and I tied them off firmly before tying the red sweatshirt around my waist, finished by the Camelbac. My belt was fed through the back loop of the camera bag allowing free hands and I walked down to the visitors’ center.

Inside the center was a very well-constructed informative display depicting the geological, biological and cultural history of the Palo Duro canyon and surrounding area. I was enormously impressed with the variety and vast collection of books to buy about every aspect of the Panhandle and the entire state of Texas. I found several books I wanted to read and buy but resisted the urge; riding a bike often excludes the gathering of books while on the road, especially since I always throw one or two in the sidecases before I leave for anywhere.

One book that especially tempted me was a thick hardback containing the most complete geological and historical account of the El Llano Estacado. The author, John Morris, is a professor of social geography at a Texas University and shares a passion for history that I harbor. Nevertheless, since finances were tight and space limited this trip I regretfully repressed the impulse to buy it and instead added it to my mental Holiday Wish List.

The gentleman behind the counter asked about my bright yellow long-sleeved shirt sporting the New Mexico Zia sun symbol.

“Does New Mexico pay you to wear that shirt?” he asked with a smile.

“No, but I wear it voluntarily in honor of my visit there two months ago. It puts a smile on my face and sunshine on myself when I wear it.”

“Well, that’s the best reason to wear it.”

We chatted about the canyon and local area. He has served as a camp host for six years or more, camping in one of the campgrounds on the canyon floor and working in several capacities for 20-24 hours a week. The park provides him with free access to services such as water and electricity and a car or truck to patrol the park or travel to the various facilities to work.

“I’d stay here all year the rest of my life if I could. And I would, if my wife weren’t ill and requiring nursing care. Now I stay here a few months of the year and travel back and forth where my wife now stays.

I sure do love it here.”

I smiled and nodded in agreement, “I can see why.”

Leaving the center I found the pathway to the trail despite lack of any sign indicating it. A quick reconnaissance of the cliff edges revealed a narrow foot path leading to the left and downward. Okay, here we go.

According to the information I gleaned off a website, this path is one of the original trails carved and constructed by the CCC back in the early days of the park. It is relatively undeveloped and rated as highly difficult, short of climbing the cliffs. The vistas overlooking the valley and canyon are touted as a worthwhile reward for the strenuous hike.

The trail skims the edge of the rim near the visitors Center, wanders down and around the end of a side canyon, then up and down over several mesas. The vistas, expansive and overlooking the both ends of the canyon and the opposite rim provide a illusion of grandear, depth and field. Here is where I was strong reminded of the Grand Canyon, albeit on a smaller scale.

At one point, the trail overlooks the snakey corkscrew road down, down, down and then twisting this way and that. The perspective from there had me breathing hard in awe and muttering “Holy shit….. I rode that thing???? And have to ride it again!” I repressed mixed feelings of exhilaration and apprehension. Yet intimately knowing in my gut that I loved every adrenaline-fed second of it.

I had to be very judicious in shooting photos on this hike. Since the camera announced “Memory Card Full” when I stopped for lunch. Although I reviewed and deleted half a dozen images from the card, I wound up repeated that twice before the day was over. Added to my Season Wish List: 2MB high-speed memory card. A 1MB is not enough for even two days on an adventure without a media storage device.

Because I took fewer photos, my hike was more brisk than the day before. But not my senses; they were just as keen, soaking in and imprinting all that surrounded me. Like a hawk on the hunt, my head turned side to side as I took everything in. Sometimes at the height of a peak I found myself doing a 360-degree pirouette to absorb the vistas like a movie in my head. ‘Photographic pictures can’t do this justice,’ I thought. Nothing can capture it like our own vision and the impulses sent to the brain at that moment in time and space. More than ever, the quote “No matter where you go, there you are” profoundly relayed the inadequacies of trying to capture the visions before me. Nothing can adequately substitute being here and now, gazing out around me. It was overpowering and I stood there in awe as I soaked it all in.

I was startled by a voice to the side of me “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I turned to see a smiling man with tousled hair and eyes of blazing blue underneath plain black-rimmed glasses, his age undecipherable between his older appearance and his glowing youth inside. His sincerity and enthusiasm caught mine as I smiled and nodded, still unable to catch my tongue. We both stood gazing over the canyon rim, enjoying the breeze and the sun, sharing a silence which spoke more than words.

“I’ve been to the Himalayas, Nepal and the Alps, and this still draws me back every few years,” his gentle voice whispered. “It offers a more intimate character than its larger counterpart in Arizona.”

I agreed.

During conversation, I learned he was a biologist and traveled all over the globe studying mountain wildlife patterns, specifically feline species. He helped tag a few of the cats in this canyon years ago and lived on the floor year round recording their movements and patterns. I was envious that he could integrate his passion with a working lifestyle. Yet realizing that I walked away from a similar career in forestry many decades ago.

After shaking hands and nodding a goodbye, I continued on the hike around an uncanny circular and miniature peak and carefully traversed a natural bridge over a gully. The trail wound through a narrow gap in two stone formations and I met two women, one older with her arm in a sling. I stopped to ask if they were all right and they assured me they were. They chose to stop there in the shade to rest and wait for the rest of the family, a husband and two grandchildren on the trail ahead. I mentioned I would extend my greetings to them if I found them on the trail.

And I did. After another mile or so, I came to a short squat lone hoodoo, sitting all by itself on the edge of a pointed cliff. On the top of the short stalk was a large flat, almost perfectly square block of rock: Table Rock. Standing near the edge was an older man and a young girl with her two brothers. I presumed this was the family I was told about. One of the brothers nervously stood near the pedestal with one hand grasping the edge of the rock above. I heard him proclaim, “I’m not afraid of heights, just the edge of cliffs!”

I stood smiling, waiting patiently until they had their fill and walked toward me.

“It’s a wonderful view out over there.
Isn’t this a grand geological landmark? Too bad it’s been defaced. If humans can get to it, it’s sure to be defaced and abused.”

Looking at the scratching and gouges of initials and letters in the top of the rock, I nodded in agreement and felt that old conflict within regarding wilderness and human access.

“Yes, I know.”

And snippets of Edward Abby’s rants against humans and their disregard for their environment rose up to the surface. But I kept it quiet for later contemplation.

I stood on the tip of the rim near the table rock and gazed below me, alone with my thoughts, the wind, the sun and the hawks flying the breezes nearly level with me. I saw down below me the trees and shrubs carpeting the canyon floor, a vast contrast in scale to what I was surrounded by yesterday. Here the world was below me instead of above me, a different perspective but still the same scale of wonder. This is what fueled my wanderings, this majesty of diverse geography and geology this planet contains. I want to see it all before I die, if I can.

I smiled inside and outside, almost feeling as if I was a bird in flight. Who needs drugs when you have this. And it’s here for everyone to enjoy, if we only take the time to see it; and preserve it.

Edward Abby was profoundly right when he wrote that we need our wilderness, if only to remind us of what it is to be human.

Camp Compatriots

When I finally made it back near the parking lot, I could see my bike next to the fence rail. It was a welcome sight; I realized on this hike that I was out of shape more than I thought. Not being able to work out in the gym due to the dislocated collarbone, my conditioning has lapsed and this hike certainly provided a cardiorespiratory workout.

I heard the rumble of several motorcycles and watched as an incoming line of Harleys boxed in Whee. I groaned knowing that I would have to wait until they moved on before I could leave, but I had to catch my breath and change first anyway. Climbing the edge of the cliff and over the fence, I nodded at the few riders that still gathered themselves off their bikes.

I changed back into my riding gear along with fresh dry socks while they gawked over the edge of the cliff at the observation point. None of them offered any conversation except for one man who’s Harley Low Rider was parked behind Whee. We made small talk about having to don all these layers in the colder weather and pinned for warmer days. I took a picture of the line of bikes with my odd pickle in the middle while I waited. The rest of the riders wandered back, saddled up and rode off. I was alone again and ready to search for a shower.

I rode back to the campsite and waved to the father and son who helped me back out of my spot that morning. Stopping to strategically gauge where to park the bike for loading in the morning, I carefully backed Whee into the campsite and dismounted. While unloading the saddlebags, my campsite neighbor walked down to invite me for desert of campfire blackberry cobbler. I was astonished by the thought of such a treat and graciously accepted the invitation. We agreed that the son would stroll down when it was near ready.

I pulled on my fleece neckwarmer to keep my wet hair off my neck and upper back and keep myself warm. Feeling refreshed by the hot shower and clean clothes, I fired up the camp stove and gobbled my dinner of stew, oatmeal and cocoa as the sun began to set behind the canyon ridge behind me. I set myself up at the table with candle lantern and headlamp to write in the journal and rest my aching left foot.

Announcing that cobbler was nearly ready, I wandered down to the campsite nearby with the son and we chatted about our day’s adventures. I sat in the chair offered to me near the campfire and we made small talk which led to discovering that father and son were from McKinney, north of Dallas.

We shared stories of wandering from state to state; Texas is full of non-native Texans and we seem to share a commonality in relating how we got ‘here from there’. Expressing curiosity, they explained how they made their cobbler; an old Boy Scout ritual.

Inside a very large cast iron Dutch oven, they poured in two packages of thawed and drained blackberries, a can of Seven-Up, and a package of blackberry jello. On top of that was poured several cups of Bisquick. The oven was placed on top of hot coals and the lid was placed on the oven, slightly cracked opened on one side for venting, and hot coals piled on the lid. Progress of baking was checked periodically by carefully lifting the lid for browning of the topping.

When done, it was absolutely delicious and I unapologetically had two helpings. We chatted and related stories before I finally bade goodnight and farewell. The day’s exhaustion finally overwhelmed my desire to stay and visit, so I excused myself and crawled into my sleeping bags. I fell asleep to the howling chorus of coyotes in the distant and answering nearby, and dreamt of an invisible rabbit named Harvey that came to visit me in my sleep.

Leaving Home

From the journal…..

I woke to a now familiar trepidation: time to leave and return to civilization.

That same dread creeps in, the same struggle: I don’t want to leave. I could stay and easily live here.

Nevertheless, a hot shower and my bed hang in front of me like carrots to a starving rabbit.

Knowing I have a long ride ahead of me with the sky strongly hinting at a storm moving in, I reluctantly and methodically packed everything and loaded the bike.

Time to go.

I rode the tarmac snake one more time, passing only one car and a ranger who waved as he passed. A pleasant ride it was, as I flicked the bike from side to side up the twisties, climbing carefree to the rim and out on the flat road.

All seven hours and 338 miles I fought a strong west wind, leaning to the right into its ferocious push. I think I wore down the right side of my tires and I was exhausted and sore by the time I pulled onto my gravel driveway.

Home, unload, hot shower and a pot of coffee.
Life again.

I sent an email to someone to announce my safe arrival home, thanking him for joining me on my adventure and the silent conversations. With the promise of pictures to follow soon, I signed off and crawled into bed, falling instantly into sleep.

I dreamt of canyons, coyotes, hawks, wind and color. As if I never really left there.
Maybe I haven’t. And never will.

I woke the next morning thinking I was in my two sleeping bags.

I was disappointed I wasn’t.


posted by Macrobe
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