Wanna be a cowboy?

Sunday, July 7, 2002

CLAUDE, Texas -- Dawn breaks evenly above the plain, first white and then gold as the sun flirts with a bank of low clouds. A solitary mare and a faraway windmill punctuate the horizon.

No crowded mall here. No stoplights, either, as the old Claude Highway rolls away from Amarillo. The flat landscape of the Texas Panhandle stretches beyond the eyes' ability to focus, hiding a geological wonder that plunges down instead of up.

There is more than one way to approach the Palo Duro Canyon, a monstrous crevice as odd as it is awesome. Busloads of tourists descend during the summer to an amphitheater for the outdoor pageant "TEXAS," which uses a 600-foot canyon wall as a backdrop. Hikers comb the canyon floor to view the Lighthouse, a natural red pinnacle that was millenniums in the making.

On this morning, with the sun now high in the sky, the Palo Duro unfolds from the western side of Tom Christian's Figure 3 Ranch on a point that was once an Indian camp. To the right is Dry Creek -- "aptly named," Christian comments -- and to the left a rutted trail that winds a mile to the bottom.

Feeding visitors

Christian and his "top hand," a friendly cook named James Robinson, feed 20 to 150 visitors a day with no fuel other than mesquite. The menu: scrambled eggs, sausage, sourdough biscuits, gravy, orange juice and "cowboy" coffee.

"Cowboy Morning" was launched by Christian, a third-generation rancher, and his wife Anne more than two decades ago. Robinson, whose nickname "Biscuit Man" is stitched on his overalls, arrived in the second year. When the 2002 season concludes, between 8,000 and 10,000 people may have trekked to the Figure 3.

With smooth, deft strokes of a spatula, dozens of eggs begin to congeal in the mammoth iron skillet on a grill above a crackling fire.

(Hint: the "secret" ingredient that makes the eggs so creamy is buttermilk.)

Utensils and ingredients are stored in an authentic chuck wagon, a device invented by legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight in 1866 from an Army freight wagon. Goodnight, whose JA Ranch was founded nearby, has another "Cowboy Morning" connection: Christian's grandfather rode west on horseback to join the JA's cowboys and eventually he founded the Figure 3.

A second fire, mostly coals, simmers several feet away in a shallow hole. A spider Dutch oven, a covered kettle with feet, contains the famous sourdough biscuits. What had been 40 pounds of ground sausage is cooked and warming in a pan. In the original skillet, the sausage drippings accept the flour, milk, salt and pepper for what will become a thick, rich gravy.

Competing for attention is the canyon itself, the result of 90 million years of wind and erosion by a tributary of the Red River.

"It seems impossible that a tiny creek could carve this huge canyon," observes painter Bettie Haller in her cameo book about the Palo Duro. "But in a downpour, the stream quickly becomes a powerful river, chiseling deeply into the land."

Palo Duro not famous

Only the Grand Canyon is larger in the United States, but the Palo Duro is far less well known. At its widest, it is two miles across. From one tip to the other is 120 miles, but most of it remains in private hands. The best public access is in the Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Activities include hiking, horseback riding, biking and climbing.

The pageant "TEXAS," first produced in 1966, claims to have drawn more than 3 million spectators. Critics might call some of its dialogue corny and its original version compromised historical fact, but even non-Texans must admit a twinge as the show opens.

Other Texas Panhandle attractions also come in larger-than-life doses.

East of Amarillo on Interstate 40 near the community of Groom stands a 190-foot metal cross that creator Steve Thomas calls "an advertisement for Jesus."

The largest steak at Bobby Lee's Big Texan Steak Ranch weighs 72 ounces, as travelers know from all the Big Texan road signs.

Thousands of pounds of beef are cooked in covered earthen pits at Dalhart's annual XIT Rodeo & Reunion, celebrating the legacy of the XIT Ranch, whose boundaries were once 200 miles apart.

A 50-foot replica of a dinosaur stands next to U.S. 83. A real dinosaur's frame drawfs other exhibits inside the surprising Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon.

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