Selecting Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and Palo Duro Canyon State Park as destinations for this road trip was based on geography, geology, and convenience. We wanted to camp, we wanted to avoid I-40 as much as possible while heading in a somewhat direct east-west direction, and we wanted to experience natural grandeur. Other than those criteria, there was no other connection.
Oh, silly, silly me. I should know better by now. EVERYTHING is connected. Every. Thing.
How? Get comfortable and I’ll tell you a story.
It was the mid-1870s and a band of Comanches, Kiowa, and Cheyenne was making its last stand. They were trying to protect their way of life. For millennia indigenous peoples had taken advantage of the bounty along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, an oasis hidden 800 feet below the high arid plains. Twelve thousand years ago it was home to hunters of giant bison and mammoths. Six hundred years ago Spaniards stumbled into its riches, and the Apaches who lived there, while searching for Coronado’s fabled seven cities of gold. A century and a half after that Comanches and Kiowas used the canyon as a home base, or as much of a base as these Plains Nomads required. This continued until the settlers began moving ever westward.
By the end of the Civil War the bison that had sustained the tribes were nearly extinct. The white settlers had decimated the population, killing the herds for their own consumption as well as a preventative tactic to remove the Indian threat. They knew that without the bison, the Indians would lose clothing, shelter, and food. They would lose everything.
After the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, they did.
In September of 1874 a U.S. Army regiment led by Ranald S. Mackenzie routed the Indians from their safe haven and sent them back to their reservations in Indian Territory. The battle wasn’t considered truly over, however, until Comanche Chief Quanah Parker surrendered the next year.
Parker was known as a fierce warrior, but he was also known because his mother was Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl who’d been kidnapped by the Comanche when she was nine years old. She became part of the tribe, married a chief, and had three children before she was “rescued,” found by a scouting team that included a man by the name of Charles Goodnight. She and her daughter were brought back to civilization, but Quanah and his brother remained with their father. Quanah succeeded his dad as chief. When he surrendered, he and his fellow Comanche were settled in southwestern Indian Territory, near what is now the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
The night before our visit to Palo Duro Canyon, our campsite at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was on Quanah Parker Lake.
That’s a connection, yes, but not the connection that blew my mind. Here’s where it gets butterfly in China causes avalanche in Manitoba connection.
After the Indians were routed the canyon was, for all intents and purposes, available, so an enterprising rancher by the name of Charles Goodnight, the very same Goodnight who had been part of that scouting team, drove a herd of cattle into the canyon. With his partner John Adair he created the JA Ranch (which is still around, by the way) and raised cattle. It was all about the beef, but Goodnight’s wife had a soft spot for bison and urged her husband to breed the nearly extinct buffalo and try to bring them back to life.
Boy, did they ever.
Not only did the Goodnight Buffalo Ranch grow to about 200 head, it was able to start giving bison away to other breeding programs, including the New York Zoological Society, now known as the Bronx Zoo.
The same breeding program that, in 1907, shipped fifteen bison to the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve, which later became the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
And guess who was there to greet the bison when they arrived?
Now, if you know the history of the area this all may come as no surprise. As a Midwesterner, when I realized that the bison we’d seen in the Wichita Mountains could be traced directly to the bison of Palo Duro Canyon by way of the Bronx Zoo, and there was one man who had a direct line between Wichita Mountains and Palo Duro Canyon, well. I got a little excited. If you look on a map the two places don’t seem that far apart. But this is the land of vast empty spaces, and they’re separated by a drive of four hours at speeds of 60+ miles per hour. They ain’t neighbors. So when I made the connection, “JIM!” I shouted, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE THIS!” and then I went on a nearly incoherent rambling of how the two places were connected and Goodnight’s wife Mary loved the baby bison and he said good thing they’re not named Goodrich and I told him how my mind was blown and even went so far as to do the “mind - blown” thing you do when you make a fist near your head and then expand all your fingers to show your brain exploding.
I’m the sort that searches for connections and meanings to reduce the random. I know this. I also know that sometimes a coincidence is just that, but when traveling I find there are more coincidences and seemingly random happenstances than are statistically possible. I’m not saying there was some divine reason that we ended up at those two specific and specifically intertwined places. What I am saying, is that when you look into the history of a place, of a region, you see that it isn’t and never has been static. Archaeologists have found artifacts in Cahokia that originated in what is now New Mexico. Bison in Oklahoma were born in New York from parents who were born in Texas.
What I’m saying is, when you travel, dig a little deeper and you’ll find connections you never expected. Maybe they’ll even blow your mind.