Despite a night where the sound of heavy traffic about thirty yards from our window never ceases, we both sleep well. The lobby is full of cowboys all heading to the rodeo in some large civic building. There’s a sign on the back of the fire door of the main staircase informing residents that it’s a federal offence to carry hand guns in the hotel. Luckily theses cowboys seem to have left their guns and horses at home. Instead they sip coffee and stand, feet the standard three feet apart, and discuss different brands of horse feed.
The suburbs of Amarillo stretch out for miles. We pass a dozens of small ranches with horses grazing outside and then, much to our amusement, a large shed which proclaims it is a Cowboy Church.
The Palo Duro Canyon is about half an hour’s drive south through miles of flat and featureless farm land. It comes as a surprise, a deep crack in the land exposing red rock covered with the the smoky pale green of sage bush and cactus. Three turkey vultures circle above as we start to descend. Down at the bottom, as well as picnic areas and playgrounds, a few crumbling buildings reveal the early white settlers. It was here, the visitors centre tells us, that white Americans fought with the native Americans. Rounding up 1000 of their horses, the Army slaughtered the lot and the tribe had no choice but to surrender. It only took, another board informs, six years to wipe out all the buffalo.
We manage to navigate the road system a little better and head back into Amarillo and then north towards Oklahoma. The land begins to change, gently starting to roll into grasslands. We pass a huge wind farm and then dozens of small oil wells that pump up and down. At a town called Dumas, which is nothing more than one more strip lined with hotel chains and fast food places, we find a history musuem. Funded by local businesses and filled with donations by local people, there are replicas of prairie houses complete with patchwork quilts and rocking chairs, old tractors and even a perfectly preserved Model T Ford from 1925. In a recreation of a bank, a huge safe from the last century lies open beside a ledger book where someone has meticulously recorded every transaction in 1922. There is no mention of the original inhabitants.
As soon as we enter Oklahoma, the road changes, the surface, uneven and the hard shoulder gone. Here apart from a few ranches the land seems endlessly empty. But it too keeps changing; the crops to scrubland, until we top a rise and look down on to huge undulating expanse where a few strange looking hillocks rise up. The sun comes out from behind the haze and shines golden yellow. It is one of the most beautiful wild place I have ever seen. A few miles later I spot a small track leading around the side of a slope. According to the map, it’s part of the old Santa Fe Trail where white settlers in wagons headed west.
I originally intended to stay in Boise City, a place I’d read about. It was one of those towns which did a hard sell in the East and advertised itself with pictures of tree lined avenues. Dozens of people bought land and moved out here only to find that there are no trees and it isn’t a city. It was hit badly by the dust storms in the thirties and the whole town was practically buried under drifts of sand. Today it is still a pretty sad place with boarded up shops and no hotel. It does have a civic building right in the middle which you have to drive round to get out of town. And so it was on to Colorado and a town called Springfield.
Unfortunately we arrive the night before the season opens for pheasant shooting. All the hotels might be full, a lady at the Stage Coach Stop hotel tells us. Luckily we find a room at the Starlight hotel. Just as well. The road we intend to take next, through the Commache Grasslands, the lady tells us, is pretty desolate. Take supplies, she tells us. It’s a long way to the next town.