Better Days Are Coming

Set 5: Various Highways - Amarillo, Texas, to Raton, New Mexico

Text and Photos Copyright ©2002 by Carolyne Butler

Views Through the Windshield Index
PREVIOUS - SET 4: Dallas to Amarillo, Texas
NEXT - SET 6: Raton, New Mexico, to Durango, Colorado (Under Construction)

Some folks might think that the Texas Panhandle is just a big empty space, but there's something about this area that I enjoy driving through. After Amarillo, the landscape begins to vary from the more regular sameness that characterizes the road between Ft. Worth and Amarillo.

The Texas Panhandle north of Amarillo is certainly not a heavily populated section of the country, but it's interesting. The famous XIT ranch was located here. (Click here to read the XIT sign on the Empty Saddle monument in Dalhart.) There are plenty of wild spaces here, and there's a lot of good growing land too. Many of the major seed-growing companies in the country have farms here.

After crossing the state line into eastern New Mexico, the changes in the landscape become even more obvious. The Rocky Mountains are getting nearer.

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Oil well in the Texas Panhandle.

Oh, well, yet another oil well

Yep, this oil well was pumping. It's a funny thing about those wells. I always expect them to see them pumping, and at first glace, just for an instant, they look as if they're moving, even if they're not. Sort of like when looking at a clock with a second hand and thinking I see it moving, only to realize a moment later that the clock is stopped. Perhaps about half the wells I saw on this trip were pumping. They always remind me of those little nodding novelty birds that dip their heads up and down into a cup of water, except these oil pumps look like some giant prehistoric bird on stilty legs dipping its beak slowly up and down, up and down.


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The Canadian River is dry.

The Canadian River, sans water

From whence does its water come, and whither does it go - when it's there?

The Canadian River has nothing to do with Canada. Its waters arise to the west in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico (the direction we're headed). The river flows out of New Mexico and crosses the Texas Panhandle from west to east, and our road crosses the river here (or at least its river bed). I've never seen it with anything more than a puddle or two of water in it. Just east of here, downstream, the not-necessarily-always-flowing river flows into Lake Meredith behind Sanford Dam, then meanders out of the Texas Panhandle and crosses Oklahoma. The Canadian is a tributary of the Arkansas River and is 760 miles long. Its waters eventually end up in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps when we crossed the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge a couple of days earlier, a little bit of the Canadian River had made its way down that far to join the Mississippi and was rolling on its muddy way down to the Gulf.

See more about the Canadian River and surrounding country here:


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Texas ranch.

Ranch in Texas

This looks as if it might be some sort of corral where range cattle are herded up and held so they can be loaded onto a truck for transportation. Perhaps their next stop is a temporary one at a feedlot before they finally become steak-ward bound.


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We were traveling too fast for me to see what animals these were. When I hurriedly aimed and snapped the picture, I thought they were goats. Only later when I looked at the pictures, did I realize they were pronghorn antelope. (Someday, I hope to get some better pictures of some of these animals. Here are some close-up pictures of pronghorn antelopes that someone else took:


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Wind-shapped trees.

Wind-shaped trees

To orient yourself here, first find a tree. You don't even need to get near it to check for moss growing on the north side. Just look at which way the treetop is pointing. It seems that most of the trees in this part of the country grow with their tops pointing approximately northward, away from the prevailing winds that sweep long across the Plains.


— 6 of 11 —

Crop-raising with the help of irrigation equipment.

Crop-raising with the help of irrigation equipment

The variety of crops grown in Texas always amazes me. Before I realized how many crops were raised there, I had thought oil and ranches and space was about all Texas had to offer. How silly of me.

From this part of Texas, it was just a little over an hour's drive to Capulin Volcano in New Mexico. This picture was taken in sight of the state line. Those hills in the distance are in New Mexico.


— 7 of 11 —

Capulin Volcano from the east.

Des Moines, New Mexico, and Capulin Volcano

After driving for mile after mile toward the wide lounging shape of Sierra Grande, then taking a wide swing around it to the north, Capulin Volcano suddenly appears up ahead, its nearly symetrical shape always coming as a surprise.

After crossing from Texas into New Mexico, isolated mountains begin to appear here and there on the horizon. The first large mountain near the highway (US 87), is Sierra Grande. According to this Web site (, Sierra Grande (8,720 feet), which spreads south of Capulin Volcano National Monument, is the largest free-standing mountain in North America, covering an area of 50 square miles. It rises about 2,200 feet above the surounding plains, and is, like Capulin Volcano, also an extinct volcano. CLICK HERE for a view of Sierra Grande as we drove toward it from the east.


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Capulin Volcano.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

Capulin is pronounced cah-poo-LEEN, from the Spanish word for chokecherry. The volcano cone rises 1,200 feet above the surrounding plain (or 1,800 feet according to some sources), enabling a person to see at least four states from its summit. That would be Colorado to the north, the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles to the east, and New Mexico right underneath the sightseer. But I couldn't figure out where one state ended and another one started; someone forgot to draw the divider lines across the landscape.

See more about Capulin Volcano on these Web sites:
and here:
and here:
and here:

Note the road spiraling around the side of the mountain. Once, maybe 30 years ago, we drove to the top, but for the past few years haven't been here at the right time of day to repeat our visit. But this year, thanks to some wicked junk on the Interstate in Texas that punched a BIG HOLE in one of our tires and rearranged our trip schedule, we arrived here at Capulin before lunch on our third day, instead of at the end of the second day as we usually did when we were tired and hunting a campsite further on down the road.

Capulin Volcano is a must-see. I love traveling through this country - so big, so quiet, so beautiful. And the air smells most delicious, scented with juniper and pine and with a wonderful lack of discernable pollution. The water at the picnic area at Capulin is some of the best I've ever tasted, right up alongside some wonderful-tasting water we're found in a few places in Colorado. (I couldn't get enough of it while at Capulin, and hardly had any room left to eat lunch.) Many of the land features in the area are volcanic in origin, and there's a great deal of black lava scattered for miles around Capulin.


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Road to top of Capulin Volcano.

Spiral road to top of Capulin Volcano.

This two-mile-long road completely circles the mountain. For a panoramic view of the surrounding country (left to right, looking approximately southwest to north) from the parking lot atop of Capulin Volcano, CLICK HERE. In the panorama picture, the faint line of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, which runs north and south from Southern Colorado to Santa Fe, can be seen along the horizon at about the middle of picture, above the crossroads. (They are at least 50 miles away, perhaps even a little farther.)


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Approaching the Front Range near Raton, New Mexico.

The Rocky Mountains on the horizon

We're almost to Raton. The Mountain Branch of the old Santa Fe Trail passed through this area, coming down from Bent's Fort in Colorado, southward across Raton Pass, and then heading on southwest to Santa Fe.

See Santa Fe Trail map here:
More about the Santa Fe Trail here:

In this picture, the mountain range where the Rockies begin appears closer than it really is. Telephoto lens do that. Still, it's an impressive sight after driving hundreds of miles across flatland. The elevation of Raton is about 6,650 feet, but the surrounding mountains rise to nearly 14,000 feet. It always sends a shiver through me when I catch my first sight of the Front Range, no matter how distant these mountains seem to be on the horizon. My idea of Paradise always has mountains somewhere on the horizon. Anything less than that, I'd have to think about twice.


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Raton, New Mexico.

Raton, New Mexico

View is looking north along the main north-and-south street (Highway 87) in downtown Raton, New Mexico. Somewhere in that mountain barrier ahead is historic Raton Pass, along the Colorado-New Mexico line.

We camped overnight near here at Sugarite Canyon State Park. More about Sugarite here:

Sugarite Canyon State Park turned out to be a good place to see wildlife (the animal kind). Shortly before dark, we spied a shy deer browsing through the edge of the little meadow around our campsite, but during the night, we had some unwelcome animal visitors that weren't shy one bit.

Just as we were drifting off to sleep, we heard something scraping loudly on the cement. We had set our heavy-duty plastic locker in which we carried camping gear on the cement a few feet from the van. The locker was mounted to a heavy rack that we attached to the trailer hitch of the van when traveling. (You can see the size of the locker in THIS CAMPSITE PICTURE I took before dark when we were setting up camp.) I shone my flashlight through the window and Don shone his, and there was this big bear as large as the locker perched on top of it trying its best to get inside. Don blew the van horn and I banged on the window and shouted, neither of which alarmed the bear one bit. Finally, though, it got the idea of what we were trying to tell it and it ran away. But that particular bear wasn't through with our campground.

Around 3:00 a.m., that bear (or its twin) returned and started shaking the front end of the truck parked next to us. The guy sleeping in the cab woke up and blew his horn and made all sorts of racket, but the bear didn't run off until he cranked up his motor and raced it, uddun! uddun! ROARRRR! Later, he said he had stored his food under the hood on top of the motor, thinking it would be safe there.

Just before midnight, a young bear about two years old broke a window on someone's double-seated truck and crawled inside. There was quite a commotion with guys shouting and circling with vehicles aiming car lights at the truck and banging sticks on it trying to frighten that bear back out. Someone opened the doors on the side of the truck facing our direction and quickly jumped back out of the way, but it still took a good bit of noise and commotion before the bear finally took the hint, hopped out, and loped away. (That truck was parked about 100 yards from us, and I was watching all this through our van window with binoculars.) That bear must have made a mess of the inside of the truck. The people had been sleeping in a tent nearby, but didn't wait around until morning to talk about it with anyone. They weren't there at sunrise, so must have left right afterward to find a calmer place to sleep.

On our next trip we'll hunt a different overnight stop for camping.

At other campgrounds we heard numerous stories of bear encounters, some dangerous and destructive, but some humorous. One was about a nuisance bear who persisted in getting into the campground's trashcans, which were the ordinary kind before they had installed bear-proof trashcans. One of the new rangers had spotted that bear one night about half inside one of the cans he'd overturned, with only his rear end showing. And the ranger, a former Texas Ranger, took aim and fired some rubber bullets at the appropriate target, whereupon the target took off running, trashcan still stuck on its head, bellowing and banging into trees, and it didn't stop running for several miles. After having to hike several miles up a mountain to haul the trashcan back, that ranger wasn't nearly as eager to deal with bears in that manner again.

This was our only bear encounter on the trip, even though the rest of the campgrounds where we stayed in Colorado had posted warnings that it was bear country. I also learned something about bears I didn't know. The ranger told us not even to leave plastic water jugs out. It seems that bears don't have to smell food inside anything plastic before they start tearing into it. Just smelling plastic sets them off, because they've learned that food is usually inside. Sounds like Pavlov bears to me.

We didn't get much sleep that first night camping, thanks to those three bothersome bear visits, but early the next morning we were treated to a visit from a more welcome sort of wildlife - a flock of about 18-20 wild turkeys who were checking out our campground. CLICK HERE for a picture of some of them as they started hurrying into the woods trying to get away from some crazy woman who kept chasing after them with a camera.

More about wild turkeys here:
and here:


Views Through the Windshield Index
PREVIOUS - SET 4: Dallas to Amarillo, Texas
NEXT - SET 6: Raton, New Mexico, to Durango, Colorado