“Take the hat off,” demanded one half of an Eastern travel writing team on entering a restaurant in Amarillo, Texas. “No one wears a hat inside a restaurant.”
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A quick glance around the interior of the eatery, a local hangout with bare bones decoration, was immediate proof that she was WRONG!
How often does that happen in any happy marriage? This was a moment to savor. Looking around at the men seated, many with both male and female companions was immediate confirmation.
Virtually every male in the place, young and old, wore either a Stetson-style hat or a John Deere baseball cap.
And this was not an anomaly.
With the exception of cities such as Dallas and Houston, Texans wear hats.
And that’s not limited to the men. Although not as common, women frequently wore their more decorated and stylish western hats as well.
Amarillo, the biggest city in the Texas Panhandle, still retains its Old West flavor. You don’t necessarily see cowboys riding down the main drag on horseback, but you’ll see them walking the streets, working in local businesses and eating in the city’s restaurants.
While Amarillo doesn’t run away from modernization, it thrives on its history and ambiance. And it does it well.
One of the biggest draws lies just outside the city proper…Palo Duro Canyon, the second biggest dig by Mother Nature in the country, outsized only by the Grand Canyon.
If you think Florida is flat, wait until you see the Amarillo Plains. Palo Duro is miles from city center, but from the canyon rim you can see the city’s buildings.
A car is the most convenient way to get to the canyon from Amarillo, but once there you have a number of options for the visit. You can drive through by car, starting at the rim. But before heading to the canyon floor, be sure to stop in at the shop at the top, the El Coronado Lodge.
Doesn’t every attraction, natural or man-made, have a gift shop at the entrance or exit? What you have here is a wonderful variety of items from the kitschy to beautiful works of art by Indian craftsmen. You can pick up a copper Brave on horseback or an Indian Chief. Prices are more than fair and the workmanship is exquisite.
Pottery is also for sale and it is quite unique. It’s called “horse hair pottery,” and is made by decorating the pottery with horse hair from the mane or tail prior to “cooking” the green ware. The hair burns into the pottery creating a unique and unusual design.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro doesn’t drop off into eternity. There are the beautiful formations and a deep, but not steep, drop to the canyon floor.
One of the most convenient ways to see the natural wonder is by car. The way down is an easy drive and the roads are smooth and well maintained. There are limitations to this method as you can’t head off into some of the more interesting sections as though you were eon foot or by horseback. But don’t let that phase you.
If your time is limited, auto is the best way to go. You can cover most of the canyon in far less time than if you were on foot or “Cayuse.” Make sure you have your camera at the ready. Don’t bother using your smart phone because much of the photo ops are off at a distance. The rock formations showing strata millions of years old are so picture perfect that only a camera with a decent long lens will do it justice.
There are regular guided hikes through Palo Duro. Remember to wear a good set of laced hiking boots for this one. Check in advance for schedules. The docents leading the hikes are quite knowledgeable about the history and formation of the canyon and offer an incomparable and interesting hike.
The avid biker can ride through, although you’ve got to remember that the way down is a heck of a lot easier than the way back up. There are more than 30 miles of trails for whatever method you choose for the visit.
For those seeking the Old West flavor, sitting in a saddle is the way to go. You can bring your own horse and tack or rent from an on-site stable. There is nothing like riding through the Old West the cowboy way.
The more intrepid can camp overnight in the canyon. There are a limited number of small cabins for rent and several camp sites. Again, make sure you check in advance for availability.
On the way back to Amarillo set aside some time to visit the clothing stores. These emporiums aren’t your typical “Back East” clothing stores. Here you’ll only find Western garb from shirts and hats to a huge assortment of boots. Prices are more than reasonable and you can give in to the urge to dress like a local.
The latest trend in cowboy boots is a squared-off toe that makes the boot look like construction gear. It’s ugly and not traditional. Look for a pair that is more rounded or pointed. They will always be in style.
Rodeo aficionados will find that the Amarillo Working Ranch Cowboys Association is something different than one will find at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The contestants here are real cowboys who work on real ranches.
The events are based on what a cowboy will find in his every day life with the possible exception of the milking contest. This is a wild affair whereby the contestant has to squeeze milk from a very uncooperative cow into a beer bottle and then make his way into a circle to signify he’s done it. The bottle is then turned over by a judge to make sure there’s milk inside.
When a visitor asked a local resident why there was no bull riding competition, the response was: “Real cowboys know better than to get on the back of a bull.”
So “git yir cowboy” on and take the kids to Amarillo. It’ll be the adventure/vacation of a lifetime.
Bob & Sandy Nesoff are members, American Society of Journalists and authors, North American Travel Journalists Association