12.13.2008,8:07 AM
Palo Duro Canyon: Trails through time
"It's absurb how much I love this country." - Georgia O'Keeffe

"Now that we’d confirmed Palo Duro’s existence, we found ourselves wanting to keep it a secret." -Jim Atkinson, New York Times

There's two perspective of canyons: in the bottoms and on the upper rims. On the rim and looking down, you feel as though you are looking into a big diorama built by a giant. Scales and distances seem so uncomprehending that they're abstract and distorted. "Are those little green dots down there trees?"

In the bottoms of canyons, you are a little hobbit in a land of giants. Trees, grasses, flowers, and burbling streams soften the starkness of the hard walls towering over you. Craning your neck up, searching for the vast forever horizon you know is up there. Somewhere. It's like another world.

Palo Duro was the ancestral camping grounds for the Comanches, many times joined by the Kiowas (but never the Apaches). Thousands of bison and thousands of Indian ponies grazed the canyon floor. Here was where the arid and wind-swept high prairie relented to trees, shrubs, and other plants watered by streams and rivers, and where all life was sheltered from north and western winds. In many ways, it was a sanctuary.

I decided that today it was going to be my sanctuary, too.

After camp coffee, Ed and I had a lazy breakfast and prepared for a day-long trek through the canyon floor. It was fun to share this place with someone who had never visited it before.

Just a few feet from the campsite was a shortcut to the Rio Grande Trail which winds along a cliff side and along one of the many streams that feeds the river which sculpted the canyon. Here were my old friends, prickly pear cactus (keep in mind to watch where you squat in the dark), mesquite trees, christmas cholla, lovely cottonwoods and tall grasses.

The path offers an intimate exposure with the typical cliff geology, the red Mars-like clay that is the basic foundation and oldest soils of the Great Plains.

You can see thin white bands running the length of the cliffs. This is gypsum, hard compacted calcium. In places the bands of gypsum are wide enough that in the distance it seems as though a giant scratched a fat white chalk line as he walked next to the cliffs. Where the trail has eroded sections of these layers, you can pick up a piece and see closely how they are white brittle vertical layers.

Landmarks (or signs) of coyotes were everywhere. A tasty treat for many of the wildlife in the canyon are the fruit of the christmas cholla, a cactus that looks like unchecked growth of green pencils with thorns (photo above). Although I didn't test them to confirm, the red fruits are purported to be tasty. Even the Indians ate them.

Plants evolved to disseminate their seed and thus propagate by making the seed indigestible. The trails and roads were spotted with regurgitated blobs of red seed deposited by coyotes and what ever else ate them. Even the bird poop contained red seeds. Several of the coyotes 'offerings' were still wet, indicating the distressed stomach that threw the mess up had passed on the same trail just before we did.

I remember during my first hike in the canyon the other offerings by coyotes. You can't hike more than a few hundred feet and not see coyote scat in the middle of the path. In fact, I wondered if they played a game on us humans by trying to tease us or make us scared of their presence. Maybe they just don't like squatting down in the prickly stuff just as much as we don't. It didn't scare me, and I found myself giggling once imagining the coyotes as the mischievous creatures of Indian myths laying down 'tracks' to turn us from their territory.

If you look closely, you can see what nearly all the deposits indicate: rabbit for the last meal.

The day was mostly overcast and threatening rain, except for an occasional peek of the sun through parting clouds. Not a good day for photographing the contrasting colors, but all the same, still lovely. I really enjoy the tall grasses as the foreground for the colorful and majestic canyon walls, a natural contrast in life form and geology.

There's always something to fixate on. The colored layers, bands of limestone, the caprock, slickrock, it's all fantastic.

We met a few small groups of people that stopped to chat, including two parents from Michigan with their son, an entomologist in graduate school, and his girlfriend, an ornithologist. Nice to chat with fellow biologists in such surroundings. We also met (twice) a couple from Holland, now living in Houston, with their charming companion, Ginger. She carried her own pack and delighted in it. She was a real sweetie.

Several mountain bikers where tacking the trail. All the time we kept thinking how nice and fun it would be to take the little 250cc's on this trail. It was hard not to think about that, the urge calls you and you can almost feel the movement of the terrain under your seat, hands and feet.

Nearly five miles into the hike and the toughest challenge was yet to come.

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posted by Macrobe
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