Things are big in Texas, and Texans are proud of it. The largest of the lower 48, the Lone Star state has it all: tall hats, tall tales, 72-ounce steaks, longhorns, and cattle ranches that extend as far as the eye can see. One thing you probably didn't know is that Texas is also home to the second largest canyon in North America, the Palo Duro, and it is home to some fantastic four-wheeling. We recently caught up with Larry McLean and the crew from Jeep Exclusive 4WD club, based in Amarillo, Texas, for the 13th annual Palo Duro Jeep Jamboree; it was a real experience.
Once referred to as the great American desert, the Texas panhandle was one of the last major geographic regions of the country to be surveyed and settled. Most of the settlers heading west just wanted to get to the other side without getting scalped or becoming lean cuisine on the local vulture menu, but a federal survey and open land brought homesteaders in droves.
In 1888, traveling by horseback and buckboard wagons, the Christian family was one of the first to homestead the Amarillo/Palo Duro Canyon area. Staking claim to more than 7,000 acres, the Figure 3 Ranch was formed and the foundation laid for more than 100 years and five generations of cattle ranching. Tom Christian now runs the operation, and luckily for us, Tom loves four-wheeling--four-wheeling in Jeeps, to be precise. Vast, wide-open vistas, sweeping canyons of juniper and mesquite, and endless dirt two-tracks traversing deep arroyos made the Figure 3 a perfect site for some great four-wheeling fun.
When we said things are big in Texas, that goes for rain as well. The day prior to the event, thunderclouds prodded by a hurricane in the Gulf of California swept across the Texas panhandle, dumping more than 10 inches of rain on the normally dry region. In a few hours, the canyon arroyos filled with muddy water.
The access route, a narrow two-track that traverses an escarpment, became inaccessible. An attempt would have undoubtedly resulted in several rigs going over the side. For safety reasons, the first day's plan was changed and most folks spent the day making tracks along the sandy banks of the Canadian River. As the first rays of light hit the canyon walls the following morning, 150 Jeeps lined up for the slippery descent into the canyon. The clouds had broken and a steady north wind had dried out the trail just enough to make it safe. The hard-core groups headed down first to pack down the trail. The normally dry, dusty silt had turned into slippery muck with the texture of clay mixed with water and oil.
Once everyone was safely on the canyon floor, the groups of 20 slogged off into the maze of canyon shoots and ladders. It didn't matter if you were on the hard-core trails or not; you were going to be slipping and sliding all day. We caught a ride with Danny, leader of the blue group, and dropped into a muddy wash. A metal ring from an old wagon wheel marks the turn for the Okie-Brokie Wash trail. A series of steep hill climbs, most of which set you up for long, uncontrolled gravity-fed descents, kept everyone awake and frosty. Several sections of the route had been washed out, leaving vehicle-swallowing crevasses, but improvisation prevailed and several railroad ties were used to bridge the gaps. The Figure 3 Ranch is still a working operation, and we found range cattle and longhorn steer wandering in the canyon. Jack rabbits darted through the Mesquite, and the occasional longhorn, arm's length from the Jeeps, gave us good reason to stay indoors at times. After a long day of canyon crawling, our appetites were primed for some serious Texas grub.
Ranch hands on the Figure 3 took care of all the meals, which were prepared old-fashioned Texas-style. The aroma of 300 steaks sizzling on an open grill filled the canyon as everyone meandered back to camp. A huge mesquite barbeque and Dutch ovens were used to prepare everything from T-bone steaks and Texas ranch beans to fresh biscuits and mouth-watering apple cobbler. As night fell across the canyon, the participants gathered in a natural amphitheater for an evening of karaoke around the campfire, but not before the Jeep Jamboree crew raffled off sets of Goodyear tires, a Ramsey winch, and some great stuff from ARB, Hi-Lift, and many others.
If you're interested in attending next year's Palo Duro Jeep Jamboree or one of 30 other Jeep Jamboree events held across the country, contact: Jeep Jamboree USA, Dept. 4WDSU, P.O. Box 1601, 2776 Sourdough Flat, Georgetown, CA 95634, www.jeepjamboreeusa.com.