(I want to begin this post by thanking the inimitable Joshua Schank for helping me migrate my blog to nolanmeister.com. I ran through all of the storage allowed by the OU Create server which, but for his generosity and technical support, would have been the end of a blog that helped me maintain my sanity through a long year of quarantine. I have much to catch up on from my month away, and hope to write about the winter storm of 2021 and finish my Colorado 2020 series shortly after this, but with storm chasing season fast approaching I make no guarantees.)
Scipio is now over half a year old, and while he is still in many ways very much a puppy, he’s starting to become reliable enough to bring on trips or leave at home for short periods. Elizabeth and I wanted to normalize him to the idea of camping, so we brought him out to Palo Duro Canyon last Friday night for a quick overnight trip.
The trip, in fact, may have been a bit *too* quickly-thought-out. We did not pack particularly early or particularly efficiently, and spent most of Friday morning scrambling for things like paper towel or garbage bags from around the apartment. It wasn’t until close to 10:00 that we finally had everything out in the car and ready to go – minus a few things we needed to pick up from Walmart, chief among them a small propane tank for our new camping stove. Propane, as it turned out, was not an easy thing to find – the winter storm from a month before and associated power troubles had pretty much driven it out of stock. So we tried to make the best of the situation and figured we could get firewood closer to the Panhandle to cook dinner with.
We stopped for a brief lunch in the car at the Elk City Wendy’s. Fast food has certainly gotten more complex since we adopted a dog – one person eats in the front seat, while the other either walks the dog outside or sits with him in the back. Then you trade places. It really takes the “fast” out of fast food.
Despite the early snafus, our moods were gradually improving by the time we got into the Panhandle. After all, this was the home of the wide-open Plains and the Caprock. So many fond storm chasing memories had been made here. My mood was further uplifted when Elizabeth found an Ace Hardware on the south side of Amarillo that had 16 oz propane tanks. We picked up two. Our camping stove was back in play.
Then things started to go a little bit wrong again. Right before entering the park, we realized that Elizabeth’s car needed gas, and had to backtrack into Canyon to get it. Then, as we were entering the park, we discovered large “BURN BAN” signs everywhere. Thank god we had gotten the propane or there would have been no way to cook.
Our campsite was at the Sagebrush Campground, in the northern part of Palo Duro right after you enter the canyon floor. The campground was reasonably busy with mostly RV traffic, but each site was large enough that it didn’t feel crowded. Our site had a nice sheltered picnic area, and a clear patch in the far back corner that seemed perfect for a tent. It had a nice view of the canyon walls in each direction, as well.
Scipio was relatively wary of what was going on. There were other humans on either side of us, including a family with loud kids on our south side. On the other hand, nobody was holding his leash and there were lots of sticks on the ground for him to investigate and possibly chew. It was funny to watch him warm up to the idea of partial freedom as we set up our campsite.
Since we had gotten to Palo Duro so late, it was nearly 5:00 by the time we finally completed setting up our campsite. That obviously didn’t leave enough time for a pre-sunset hike in early March. However, it did leave enough time to explore a feature called Palo Duro Caves. Not far down the road from our campsite, there was a little pull-off into a tiny parking lot. Not a single other car was present, which was good because Scipio briefly got loose and thought we were playing a game of “chase dog”. Once we’d leashed him, we got on the trail to the caves – a loosely defined trail following a wash up one of the many side canyons inside of Palo Duro. The dog dragged Elizabeth along while I followed, directly into the setting sun. After a short (10 minutes or so) walk, we arrived at the first feature – a cave/slot canyon hybrid in the canyon wall. At first, I accidentally led Elizabeth up the actual canyon face instead of into the cave. She got mad at me, but the picture I took of her and the dog (unfortunately, on her phone) is her background picture now, so who’s the real winner? We quickly backtracked to the bottom, and this time picked our way through the cave-y thing. Elizabeth and Scipio stopped once it reached a sheer wall about 8-10 feet in height, but of course I had to climb it. Here’s the view from the top.
But wait, there’s a surprise waiting back in the cave!
I made my way back down to the canyon floor where the other two were waiting – in the dog’s case, anxiously waiting. The trail had one more feature of note – a deep, deep cave a little further down. We wandered back to it and peered inside. It was lit up by the occasional hole in the cave ceiling, but I certainly couldn’t see the end of it. Elizabeth didn’t want to go too deep into the cave with the dog and have him get eaten by a rattlesnake, which is understandable. So I only explored where I was within his sight range.
Once the dog had had enough of that, we began the short walk back toward the car, just as the sun began setting around the rim of Palo Duro. We decided with Golden Hour upon us that we would head up to a canyon overlook and get some pictures there. This turned out to be a good decision.
And with sunset upon us, we headed back down to our campsite to try and figure out how to use a propane grill. It went more smoothly than I expected, with the biggest issue being a few anxiety-inducing moments before the lighter caught the stove and flames began. Once that had happened, however, I knew we were – literally – cooking with gas. Elizabeth and I had homemade our own burger patties earlier in the day. Despite the fact that I had forgotten a spatula and only brought tongs, the relaxing nature of camping started to seep back in for me. The burgers hissed on my cast iron while I pulled out a beer and watched the daylight fade from the sky. Even Scipio got in on the enjoyment, although he started to shiver as the warmth receded from the day.
The burgers took longer than I expected, but were 100% worth the wait.
By this point even Elizabeth, who had been worrying about all of our minor mishaps throughout the day, found cause to relax and cook a Jiffy Pop over the camping stove. Scipio snuggled in with her as night fell and a pretty incredible star show developed over us. We looked up and saw all of the late winter constellations, including Ursa Major and Orion (I found Orion’s belt first. This is very important information.) We didn’t stay outside too long, though. The dog began shivering and Elizabeth wasn’t far behind. As all camping trips tend to go, we huddled into our tent well before 9:00.
At first, Scipio wasn’t sure what to do inside the tent. He needed to explore it in all of its glory (which, given the fact that it is 70% covered by our air mattress didn’t take long), before he decided to lay down at the end of the mattress. I conscientiously made sure to cover him with a blanket to keep him from freezing to death in our ever-chilling tent. And then, with the gentle sound of Elizabeth’s snores to egg me on, I fell asleep at 9:30.
It would have been a perfect night, except I woke up several hours later, too cold to sleep. The sweatshirt/sweatpants combo I had chosen wasn’t stacking up, even with my sleeping bag fully zipped up and a blanket to cover my head. I tossed and turned for a while, then finally solved my issue by grabbing the dog and placing him in between Elizabeth and me as a space heater, then stealing Elizabeth’s comforter. It took forever and was uneasy, but I did finally manage to get back to sleep.
We all awoke in the morning before sunrise to a shocking sight – Palo Duro Canyon was covered in frost. Scipio’s water dish had frozen solid overnight, and there was frost on every exterior inch of our tent. That made me feel better about how cold I had been, at least. After huddling under blankets for warmth for a while, we finally ventured out into the cold (with my blanket draped over my shoulders). Fortunately, the sunrise helped usher in a rapidly warming morning. Elizabeth and I utilized our fancy-schmancy gas stove for the second time to cook up some homemade home fries as frost dripped off of our picnic roof. I chatted amiably with the two dudes from Dallas camping next to us, and then we packed up the car at a leisurely pace. Scipio, by now accustomed to nobody holding his leash while at the campsite, was happily munching on sticks everywhere they could be found. Yesterday had been a rough day, but with the sun coming up there was an opportunity to leave the roughness behind.
So of course Elizabeth’s car didn’t start.
I guess we’d left the doors open and the lights inside on for too long, and that killed it? Doesn’t seem like that along would be enough, so maybe the cold morning had an effect too. Either way, for the second time in the last 12 months, I had to go find the camp host and ask for a jump. When I did, one of our neighbors overheard and immediately volunteered to jump us. He kindly pulled his truck around, and we were back running just 10 minutes later. No long-term damage done, except to our already stretched nerves.
The main attraction Elizabeth and I had come to Palo Duro for this time was the Rock Garden Trail, located southeast of our campsite deep into the back part of the state park. The Rock Garden Trail was so named for the ancient rockslide in this corner of the canyon that left boulders strewn among the canyon floor. At 5 miles and 777 feet of elevation gain, it made for a good workout to prepare for some of the plans Elizabeth and I have this summer, and promised to be a good test of our early-season shape. Also, a test of Scipio’s preparedness. We turned off the car with some trepidation, I took a quick potty break, and the dog yanked us up onto the trail.
The boulders were dotted among the landscape and huge! I wish I had taken a picture of them, but I understand why it’s considered a garden of rocks. We had gotten there ahead of the crowds, and outside of a few people wandering loosely in the trail area among the boulders, there weren’t a whole lot of hikers at first. The first mile up the canyon wall was pretty strenuous. By that point, though, we were high enough to have a great view of the entire valley.
Elizabeth and I switched off the leash at this point, and I took a long shift of walking Scipio. Combining that with her Camelbak on my back was unfortunate, because we started to encounter people coming back down the trail. Furthermore, the trail narrowed as it began to wind through junipers and patches of cactus, and my puppy is not known for his overwhelming spatial awareness. It took everything I had to keep him from lunging right into a cactus pretty much every time someone passed us. Don’t even get me started on what happened when we saw dogs.
After a little while winding through the trees, the trail emerged into one more side canyon, where Elizabeth and I once again had to work to gain elevation. By this point, she was complaining of hunger, so I was already in “hardcore hike” mode moreso than “enjoy the view”. The trail switchbacked a few more times before cresting at the actual top of the canyon, with a little trail that led along the very cliffy rim to an overlook. The overlook was crowded with people and dogs, so we had to matriculate carefully with our not-yet-socialized puppy.
By now, Elizabeth had to go to the bathroom in addition to being hungry, so we made record time down the trail. Toward the bottom, I was counting off each tenth of a mile marker for Elizabeth while she alternated complaints about her feet getting blisters, having to go to the bathroom, and hunger. And Scipio was about to tear my arm off because he was walking down the hill so fast. When I put it like that, the hike doesn’t sound very fun, but I actually really enjoyed it! I discovered that we needed to get in better shape, but Scipio did such a good job with a pretty difficult hike. He sat like a very good boy the whole way down the canyon wall anytime we passed the (increasing) number of hikers going the other way. The wildlife wasn’t quite in bloom yet, but would be soon. As my pictures show, the views were worth the hike. The day had warmed up into the mid-60s with sunshine, which you really couldn’t ask for anything better. Still, it was one of those hikes where I was glad to see the bottom.
We made it to the nearest bathroom at the Mesquite Camp Area, the far corner of the park. While Elizabeth was in the bathroom, I made a peanut butter sandwich and washed it down with lots of water and Oreos. Then Elizabeth and I traded roles and she did the same thing. Mercifully, Scipio was so tired that outside of drinking water, he didn’t have the energy to do anything.
We’d reached the point where it was time to leave the park. In spite of everything that had gone wrong throughout the weekend, I’d had a pretty good time! I think Elizabeth and Scipio had too. And then, for the first time, fortune smiled our way. A few years ago when we’d visited for the first time, in the parking lot of the most famous trail, the Lighthouse Trail**, there was a snow-cone place in the parking lot. As we drove past it on the way out this time, Elizabeth saw it. I immediately whipped her car on the shoulder and moved to sit in the back with Scipio while she got herself a snow-cone. She was kind enough to bring me a strawberry-pina colada one. Meanwhile:
When you consider that, there’s no way to think of the trip as anything other than a successful First Camping Trip for Scipio.
**Literally one week later, hikers would go missing (although fortunately they turned up later) on the Lighthouse Trail as a wedge tornado passed by. Ironically, Elizabeth and I were waiting just on the north side of the canyon for that tornado, which damaged the entrance station. You’ll see that blog post soon, I assume.