Paean to the Panhandle

Date posted: 5/3/2014

From Mike McCrary

Normal disclaimer:  No offense to anyone, living or dead; or who’s from, or who lives in, or who even knows anyone from or living in, the Panhandle of Texas.  And this is a cultural exchange, not necessarily a Texas geography lesson (although it’ll probably help some).

Having grown up in North and West Texas and attended Tech (the “Texas” in front of it is not usually needed here), I’ve driven a lot of miles across that part of the state.  A lot.  You cross or skirt the plains to get from North Texas to Amarillo or Lubbock or Odessa or just about anywhere in the southwest, meaning you go through the rugged and beautiful areas situated along the eastern and southeastern edge of the Llano Estacado.  In West Texas speak, the CAPROCK.  But I was always on the way to somewhere else, and didn’t take the time to travel the back roads, ride, take photos, or even stop and read the historical markers.

We’ve heard them “Rave On” (which happens to be a Buddy Holly song, and everyone knows Buddy was from, and is memorialized in bronze, in Lubbock) about the Eastern Panhandle.  By “them”, I mean ‘FJRt’ Zeitz and Kevin ‘Johnny B’ Good, who at various times have waxed lyrical about the rugged edge of the caprock, as well as the canyons formed by the Red River and its branches southeast of Amarillo.  That of course includes Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyons State Parks.  There’s a dramatic rise when approaching the plains from the east, but if you’re already on the plains and heading east toward the ‘downhill’ edge of the caprock, the sudden drop into the canyonlands is dramatic and beautiful.

To make a long, boring story short (but it may still be boring to those who ain’t from Texas!), Dan and I share a serious condition – retired (in Dan’s case) and pretty much retired (in my case) - so thought we’d take a mid-week ride to the Panhandle.  Air out the new vasserboxers.  Shoot some photos.  Maybe get some movie footage using the GoPro.  As it turns out, however, the Panhandle is long and wide and standing still except when the wind blows (which is more or less all the time), so a long-winded handlebar video would be a waste of time.  But shooting in black and white might accurately capture the “panhandleian” ambience. [Full disclosure - in today’s digital world, “shooting black and white” is a figure of speech.]  Think Peter Bogdanovich’s film of Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” - same idea, except the small town in the movie was in North Texas, not the Panhandle.  But there are still similarities – Texas landscapes - small towns that are in various stages of desiccation – red dirt (not that you can tell in black & white, but trust us, in both cases it’s red) - big sky (sometimes blue, sometimes reddish-brown) – hard working people, at least those who are still there.  And don’t forget the wind.

Our destination Tuesday was Turkey, NE of Lubbock, and Dan, with Ms Garmin’s help, led us on a motorcycle-friendly route from Austin through Lampasas to Goldthwaite, then Texas 16 to Comanche, followed by Texas Highway 36 to Abilene. “Direct” was not an objective. Texas 36 is one of the great two-lane rural highways, extending diagonally across Texas from Freeport on the Gulf Coast to Abilene.  From Abilene we took US 83 to Aspermont, 380 to Jayton, then Texas 70 north to Turkey.  We had a continual, strong headwind, not difficult riding, but gas mileage dropped precipitously once north of Abilene.  Around Anson, we saw and felt a definite change – the sky went from partly cloudy blue and grey, to a solid reddish-greyish brown.  The wind was carrying a lot of soil… from the Northern Panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas, you name it.  Welcome to the plains.

Wednesday’s sightseeing ride was a rectangular loop that included Palo Duro Canyon, then Caprock Canyons, then through Quitaque (not “quit ache”, but kit-a-kay) and back to Turkey from the west.  A couple of the legs captured the edge of the caprock and the river canyons, as well as the state parks.  As maps show, roads in the Panhandle run N-S and E-W, except right in the canyons or along the caprock edge, where they squiggle a little.  To get from Turkey to Palo Duro Canyon, we rode north to Clarendon (temp in the 30’s Wednesday morning), west almost to Amarillo, south to Canyon, then east to Palo Duro.  We then reversed the last eastern leg, turned south, then east again to complete the rectangle.

Going north from Turkey, Hwy 70 is a great ride as it crosses the rugged river beds and southern edge of the plains.  At Clarendon, we turned west on US 287.  The north wind that prevailed on Tuesday still prevailed.  You know the one – that strong, cold, counter-steering, leaning, buffeting, arm-aching, head-twisting, eye-watering north wind.  Welcome [again] to the plains.  We enjoyed a similar experience each time the farm roads took us west or east.  Dan, in my rear view mirror, looked like he was trying to get Marc Marquez’s lean on… just to keep it in a straight line.

Palo Duro Canyon meant a stop at the overlook, then down to the river bed and through the park, taking the opportunity to hike and look around.  After a tour there, we made a quick stop in Canyon for coffee, then it was [straight] FM this and [straight] FM that, to get us to Caprock Canyons for another welcome respite from the plains.  Finally, back toward Turkey.  Dan headed for the hotel, and I decided to take a dual sport detour south of town.  It started off packed gravel…turned to sand in the low spots…more and deepening sand…and, after it bucked me off, I got my first opportunity to practice lifting the new GS.  Soft sand meant no damage (to me or the bike) – and it’s now it’s been suitably initiated into the dual sport club.

We stayed at the 1927-vintage Turkey Hotel for two nights.  It’s a little long in the tooth to put it kindly, but we had hot showers, soft beds, and good breakfasts during our stay, so no complaints.  The only café in town served, in the words of the man in the hotel, “Spanish” food.  It was actually pretty good Tex-Mex.

On Thursday, we had breakfast early and reversed our route back to Abilene, then returned to Austin via Coleman, Santa Anna, Brady, and Llano.  Good, un-crowded roads, sunshine, and mild temperatures meant we had a great ride and were able to peel off layers of insulation as the day wore on.

All in all, a good ride and a fantastic way to spend part of a “work week”.

Bob Wills, of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys fame, was from Turkey, and his classic “Faded Love” (by fiddle rather than in Texas Swing style), is a fitting soundtrack for a short montage.  It may sum up the ride around the Panhandle better than all the verbiage.  But it doesn’t have the geography lesson.

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