June 1, 2014
The Texas Panhandle offers the flatlands of the Low Plains and the really, really flatlands of the High Plains.
By Bill Langer
Today, we resume our trip along historic Route 66 starting at Texola, Okla., and head west across the Texas Panhandle. Those of you who enjoy a slow pace can ride along 150 miles of the original 178 miles of Route 66 that crossed Texas. We choose to take I-40, which parallels old Route 66 across the Panhandle.
Many of the towns along Route 66 survived the decline of the oil and gas industry, the dust bowl, and loss of Route 66 business. A few towns were doomed to extinction when I-40 attracted tourists, just like us, away from Route 66. I feel a pang of conscience as we forsake those towns for the speed and convenience of the interstate. But we press on.
Geographically, the Panhandle is divided into the Low Plains on the east and High Plains on the west. Separating them is a feature called the “Caprock Escarpment.” A caprock is a hard rock that resists erosion while the underlying softer rocks are eroded away. This results in a cliff or escarpment. However, there is no escarpment along Route 66 in the northeast Texas Panhandle because there are no big rivers to sweep away the sediment from the base of the caprock.
We leave I-40/Route 66 at Amarillo and travel 27 miles southeast to Palo Duro Canyon. The canyon was formed by the Red River’s Prairie Dog Town Fork, which, over the millennia, eroded through the caprock and transported the underlying sediment downstream. Voilá, an escarpment!
The buttes, mesas, and pinnacles of Palo Duro Canyon are protected by the caprock. The steep canyon sides consist of bright layers of orange, red, brown, yellow, grey, maroon, and white rocks from four geologic periods spanning more than 240 million years. In places, the canyon is 20 miles wide and more than 800 feet deep. It is worth the visit.
We resume our westward journey on I-40/Route 66. While the Low Plains were pretty flat, the High Plains are really, really flat. Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was the first European to see the vast open spaces of the Texas Panhandle. Coronado approached the area from the west where it is bounded by the Mescalero Escarpment and named it the Llano Estacado (pronounced yano esta ka’do), commonly known as the “Staked Plains,” but more accurately as the “Palisaded Plains.” (Palisades are high cliffs like the Mescalero Escarpment.)
Members of the Coronado expedition recorded their impressions of the Llano:
“[The expedition] encountered a land level like the sea. ***The land is so level that men became lost when they were separated by half a league [a Spanish league was about 2.6 miles]. ***[S]ince the land is so flat, if at midday [the men] have wandered foolishly following their prey from one place to another, they must stay calmly near their prey until the sun lowers, in order to see by what course they must return to where they departed from.”
There are no hills, no valleys, no road cuts along the interstate. Aggregate is scarcer than hens’ teeth around here, so some of the tallest things we see are the stockpiles of crushed stone shipped in from distant sources.
We exit I-40 and drive through Adrian, which is located midway between Los Angeles and Chicago — 1,139 miles either way. We are half way through our journey and are anxious to see what awaits us on the other side of Adrian.
Hopefully it is not FLAT.
Bill Langer is a consulting research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey before starting his own business. He can be reached at Bill_Langer@hotmail.com
Editor’s note: To read about other stops on the Route 66 tour, click here.