With all the polarization and strife in the world, it’s always interesting to me how different paths can lead us to the same destination.
Although I now live in the beautiful Idaho panhandle, I grew up in the Texas panhandle – a flat, treeless, windswept part of the country generally regarded as a wasteland by the majority of people passing through on their way to more scenic destinations.
The wind was almost always blowing, in the winter we would have snowdrifts up to the eaves of the house and in the summer the tumbleweeds would do the same.
The panhandle area was called the Llano Estacado or “the staked plains” by early Spanish explorers, because there were no trees the horses had to be tied to a stake in the ground at night. At first glance, this flat, windy, treeless space wouldn’t seem to be the ideal location to develop a lifelong love of nature and wilderness, but it holds secret landscapes that aren’t apparent to the casual visitor.
The Llano Estacado was the home of the Comanche people, they knew where all the springs, waterholes, and good living areas were. When the Spanish brought horses to the region in the 1500s the Comanche were quick to adapt, they became nearly invincible warriors and were the lords of the plains for 200 years.
One of their strongholds was Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States, which runs for several hundred miles along the caprock in the Texas panhandle.
I discovered the canyon when I was 8 or 9 years old, and it immediately became my favorite place to be growing up. I would pester my mom all week to drop me off there each weekend.
The canyon is a completely different world from the high plains that surround it, thousands of square miles of completely undeveloped and rugged terrain with very few trails. In all the years I wandered its backcountry, I never encountered another human being once I was a few miles away from the park entrance. There are numerous side canyons that branch off from the main canyon, and each one has its own unique ecosystem.
Some side canyons were narrow, steep, and desolate, filled with boulders the size of houses. A very few have the combination of year-round springs and a north-facing which keeps them shaded for much of the day, and they could be filled with ferns, cottonwoods and other vegetation that almost resembled a rain forest.
If you knew where the springs were, you could stay out in the wild for weeks at a time. Otherwise, you were limited by how much water you could carry. Those were also good locations to see the wildlife – deer, turkey, coyote, bobcats and occasional puma. A few areas of the canyon have also reintroduced buffalo herds and you can even find a few beaver ponds.
We climbed cliffs and explored caves and narrowly evaded flash floods, our parents luckily had no idea how adventurous we were and of course, we always minimized the risks we took if they asked.
Somehow, we managed to live through it and eventually developed a little common sense. There is a unique kind of resilience and appreciation of beauty that is only developed by spending time in nature, and I always feel fortunate for that continued opportunity.
David Rennke is a filmmaker, artist, and musician who enjoys exploring the wild places wherever he finds them. He spends his time making music, hiking, kayaking, taking backroad adventure motorcycle trips, and working with climate groups to educate and raise awareness on the dangers of global warming.