By Suzanne Cottrell
As my husband and I drove through the Texas Panhandle, the bobbing and clacking of the pump jacks, oil derricks, greeted us. Long-horn steer grazed along miles and miles of fence line. The sparse, windswept vegetation of scrubby, dwarf junipers and mesquite, buffalo grass, and prickly pear and yucca cacti was a stark difference from the abundant green vegetation of Piedmont North Carolina. Occasionally a piece of tumbleweed rolled across the highway. The land appeared barren, harsh, and uninviting.
We checked in at the rangers’ station at the entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, not too far from Amarillo, Texas, and examined the park map. We hadn’t realized previously that Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States. We drove down to our primitive campsite in the Cactus Camp Area for the night. Our car thermometer read 105 degrees. When we stepped out of our car, the dry heat smacked us in the face. Static electrified my fly away hair. I unsuccessfully brushed the clinging hair out of my face; I quickly felt parched and coated with dust.
We unloaded only the essential camping gear for our one night stay. We set up our tent and cots for our sleeping bags. I recalled the park ranger’s unsettling advice: “I do not recommend sleeping on the ground. Remember to shake out your shoes in the morning before you put them on.” My arm hairs bristled, and my muscles tensed as I thought about the possibility of unwanted visitors, Western Diamondback rattlesnakes and scorpions. I questioned our decision to camp out here rather than stay at a hotel in Amarillo, but we were trying to save money. What were we thinking? Calm down. What are the chances of undesirable visitors? I can do this. I’ve always enjoyed camping. This will be another adventure.
We climbed up on the concrete picnic table to eat our supper of cold cut sandwiches and chips. As we drank our bottles of water, we surveyed our campsite, which was void of life. I hoped to see a roadrunner, and perhaps a jack rabbit. Just when I thought I could relax after a full day of driving, “What are all those holes in the ground?”
“They’re too small for prairie dogs, and there are too many to be snake holes,” replied my husband.
“That’s reassuring.” I rubbed my hands together.
As the brilliant, reddish-orange sun set the sky on fire, ripples of red, yellow, brown, and purple coursed through the clay, mud, and sandstone, accented by veins of white gypsum. I recalled a quote by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe about Palo Duro Canyon. “It is a burning, seething cauldron, almost like a blast furnace full of dramatic light and color.” What I initially perceived as a desolate, grim landscape became a mesmerizing tapestry of light and color.
As the evening temperatures cooled, fist-sized, brownish-black, fuzzy spiders emerged from quarter to half dollar sized holes. I didn't know they burrowed in the ground, and I'd never seen a live tarantula before. They extended their bristly-haired legs with prominent black stripes as they scoured the hardened, clay terrain. “They’re huge. They’re everywhere.” Hundreds blanketed the ground. “How will we get to our tent?” Images of a new horror movie, Invasion of the Arachnids, popped into my head. It did not have a happy ending. I slid closer to my husband and clutched his arm. “Sorry, but I’ve, I’ve never seen so many spiders. It makes my skin crawl.” I clutched my knees. “Are they poisonous?”
“I’m sure their bite would get your attention, but I don’t think their bite is life-threatening. Besides, they’re more afraid of you. They’ll move out of your way.”“I’m not so sure about that. I’m wearing open-toed sandals; you’re not.” I envisioned spiders climbing on my feet and up my legs. I cringed.
However, the longer we watched them, the more fascinated I became. Their furry legs appeared to span several inches as they combed their territory methodically like game pieces being moved strategically on a chessboard. Apparently, they were hunting for their evening meal of grasshoppers, beetles, or small lizards. They waited patiently to pounce on unsuspecting prey. As it grew darker, I strained to see the multitude of spiders covering the ground like a bristly, polka dotted blanket. Eventually, the tarantulas began retreating back into their burrows. Feeling we could walk safely to our tent, we followed our flashlight beams and retreated to our tent for the evening. My husband zipped the tent flap closed.
As I approached my cot, I screamed, “What was that?”
“Where?” my husband inquired.
“I saw something scoot under my cot.” I gingerly picked up my feet. My husband cautiously scoured under my cot with his flashlight. “It’s just a little, brown lizard. It looks a little like our fence lizards back home.” Sometimes a fence lizard would sun itself on our front porch steps. “It’s harmless.”
“Well, get it out of here. I don’t want company in my sleeping bag tonight.” I implored. My husband’s attempt to chase the prairie lizard out of our tent became quite comical as they ran in circles. The lightning fast lizard eluded my husband’s efforts. I dodged and then climbed onto my cot to get out of the way. “Get the small tent broom and see if you can sweep it out when I chase it your way,” directed my husband.
“Wait, I need to unzip the tent flap.” I held the tent flap open with my trembling left hand and made a sweeping motion with my right hand. Apparently, the lizard had had enough exercise and excitement too, and it scurried out into the darkness. I tossed the broom down and quickly zipped the flap closed. We collapsed on our cots. I heard the eerie coyote howls echoing through the canyon. “Oh, no, how far is it to the bathroom?” I asked my husband.
The next morning we awoke around 6:00 a.m. to the sharp, high dee-dee-dee of a killdeer; although upon leaving our tent, we never saw it. The orange and amber blaze of the sunrise over the rim of the gorge contrasted the cool morning air. We climbed out of our tent and observed light and shadows shifting on colorful, banded layers of the canyon walls. Mist rose from the canyon floor. We caught a glimpse of a mountain bluebird as it flitted by our tent. We stood amazed at the masterful force of water that created Palo Duro Canyon, a treasure in the Panhandle of Texas.
Suzanne Cottrell lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in rural Piedmont North Carolina. An outdoor enthusiast and retired teacher, she enjoys reading, writing, knitting, hiking, Pilates, and yoga. Her prose has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Bearing Up, Pop Machine, Unwanted Visitors, Empty Silos, Dragon Poet Review, Dual Coast Magazine, Parks and Points, and Nailpolish Stories, A Tiny and Colorful Literary.