“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us.” T. K. Whipple, Study Out the Land

“If I owned Texas and hell I would rent out Texas and live in hell.” General Phil H. Sheridan


Coming from suburban Phoenix in 1968 at 13, the Texas Panhandle seemed to be the end of the world, and yet it became the place which, more than any other defined me – good and bad. Here I discovered the beauty of the Staked Plains as I made multiple horseback journeys, usually alone, but later with several companions. Nearly every weekend I would head down the Rita Blanca Canyon and with winter I would camp in a little cave on Rita Blanca Lake. I shared the cave with a pack rat that, the instant I would sleep or pretend to sleep would come out and climb all over me looking for something he could pack off. In the morning I would have to find his nest in the back of the cave to rescue socks, knife sheath, or any other tiny item he found valuable.

I made the trip to Adobe Walls by myself, a big mistake, as the days were so hot that my dogs abandoned me and became lost and my horse ran off that evening from my camp and left me afoot miles from any town and in the most desolate part of the Panhandle. I was so far removed from civilization that coyotes trotted up to my camp, totally fearless, to get a better look at the two legged intruder.

The next morning there was nothing to be done but to set off walking. I nurtured a placid resignation on these occasions that I think has stayed with me. The lost dogs, the runaway horse, determined that the walk would be made, and the walk itself became part of the point of the journey.

It was not Billy Dixon’s 1000 yard shot which defeated the Comanche, or Quanah Parkers wound, or Kit Carson’s “victory,” that occupied my thoughts but something more prosaic. Sandy, my horse, left an abundance of fresh droppings and I spent some time sitting in the middle of the most famous battlefield of the Panhandle watching a very different struggle. Dozens of tiny creatures were rolling the horse manure into balls. I could not determine the rules of the game they were playing but the balls were so much larger than the creatures that they would occasionally have to assist one another in their rolling efforts. When the ball reached an exact circumference, so that each ball was identical to the dozens of others being created, the bug would begin to dig and maneuver the ball into the hole. Witnessing this bug golf was one of the more magical moments I spent on the prairie but the surprise and enchantment were not unusual. At 14 I had only a vague notion of the history of the place and so I would always associate Adobe Walls with tumble bugs.

I eventually caught my horse and made my way to the headquarters of the Turkey Track Ranch where I was promptly turned away. The man, who I took to be the foreman, was all business and had no interest in my plight. The business of ranching seemed to make the inhabitants oblivious to their surroundings and the bigger the business the more oblivious. Admittedly, I was the most severe sort of elitist, assuming I was the only individual who could truly appreciate the spiritual beauty of the prairie. Usually I would have been content, like Briar Rabbit, to be thrown back into the briar patch of desolation, but the man’s unkindness meant a hard journey.

I was forced to backtrack across the Canadian to Phillips Texas, some 40 miles by road but much less on horseback. The Canadian was not much of a river at that time, but when my horse sank in the sand at the edge of the river I could only sit at the river’s edge to see if Sandy would slowly disappear. I was not sure if it was another of his games – the horse had a lot of personality – which is not necessarily a desirable trait in transportation. Bud, a big Arabian, would have been ideal for this trip, but he was a boring and unreliable companion. Many times though, I wanted for a less interesting horse. Sandy ceased struggling and only the barrel of his body was visible but he also stopped sinking. So we sat, horse and boy, content with the coolness of the river and each of us willing to wait and see what would happen next.  Eventually Sandy either became bored with the game or he gained enough energy, but he was able to lunge to more solid ground. I made it to a pay phone in Phillips where I could call home and have Johnny French, a true cowboy, come and rescue me.

I am not sure how many miles I travelled but the memory of that particular time is firmly woven through the journeys I made. The road, pilgrimage, the journey, or the narrative, constitutes the past, and for me the past that leads to the present is across the Texas prairie.

I could never have worked, Thomistic style, from the being of the prairie to the being of God (analogia entis). It was too desolate and empty, apart from the eyes of faith, to see its beauty. As with the Sheridan quote, hell might seem inviting given the emptiness of the Panhandle. Given the being of God revealed in Christ, the Texas prairie became the first great love of my life. The Staked Plains are just west of the New Jerusalem in my geographical memory.

Barth said he could not become a Catholic due to the analogia entis and develops analogia fidei as a negative counter to the analogy of being. The analogy of faith presumes that human “reality” is a desolate nothing and the Word of God “aims at us and smites us in our existence” (CD I, 1, p.14) and we realize our ontological frailties.[1] Maybe this is why God’s presence seemed clearest to me in the emptiness of the prairie. God’s being cannot be established or revealed in the unreality of the human presumption of “being.” That presumptuousness is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the Texas Panhandle. “We are liable to die, and if nevertheless we live in the midst of death, it is because here and now we are already encountering an eternal redemption through him” (CD I, 2, p. 40).

[1] Timothy Stanley, Protestant Metaphysics after Karl Barth and Martin Heidegger (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010), 225.



  1. Robyn

    When you walked the Adobe Walls/ Turkey Track Rance area.. were you a young boy or were you a grown man? I ask because my son and I are very interested in walking the Canadian River through Adobe walls and the Turkey Track ranch but have yet to find the proper people with which to seek permission. Any help you can send would be appreciated!! 🙂


  2. paulaxton Post author

    This was some 45 years ago and I was about 14. I think since that time they have started an archaeological dig on the site. I was riding a horse, which may have also upset the ranchers as they may have feared the spread of disease.
    Let me know how your journey turns out.



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