Into the Great Wide Open
The former secretary at the Comanche National Grassland office in Springfield, Colorado, was just a young girl when the first terrifying storm of the dust bowl unleashed its dark, gritty fury onto this shortgrass prairie. "We called them the black days," she says of the three-day ordeal. "My older brother was out riding broncs at the rodeo arena when it hit. All the people there just sort of huddled together, thinking that it was the end of the world. Some were crying. A lot were praying." Dust was so thick that it was hard to see your hand in front of your face. Men went around with wet kerchiefs held against their noses and mouths, choking and coughing as they called out the names of brothers or fathers or ranch hands lost in the storm. The nostrils of the range cattle clogged, and many ended up dead in piles of dust. "For days we had to keep covers on all our food," recalls the secretary. "When it came time to eat we'd stick our hands underneath and grab whatever we could."
Here in Picture Canyon, now one of the most scenic sections of the Comanche, the dust sifted down day after day. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, some of the ranchers in the area were able to hang on, a fact that to this day is a source of immense pride for them. But for others it was too much. When government agents came in offering to buy this land from homesteaders in order to remove it from further agricultural use, they found that a great many of the farms and ranches had simply been abandoned, more than a few with pictures still hanging on the walls, with cribs and dressers and wooden dolls all left to the raging prairie winds.
Day Hike in Picture Canyon
The road begins in typical eastern Colorado grassland fare, with clumps of blue grama, buffalo, and cheatgrass dotting the landscape, as well as snakeweed, narrowleaf yucca, and the sticky yellow heads of gumweed. There is a peaceful tranquility to this walk as you slowly curl southward toward the mouth of the canyon, carved flat and wide out of the warm, brown sandstones and shales. Later on the right side of the road you'll see erosion-resistant cap rock sitting on top of the sandstone, a feature which offers protection from the ravages of the weather. In places these cap stones sit atop striking collections of towers and parapets, a medieval fantasy land complete with clusters of junipers huddling like green-robed monks in the castle wings.
At 1 mile you'll cross a wash, its surface wet during enough of the year to give rise to moisture-loving plants like willow. Also in this area are blue flax, blazing star, and wild prairie rose. Start listening at this wash crossing for the sad lilt of the mourning dove and, to a lesser extent, the cricket trills of the rock wren. This latter bird has the strange habit of constructing a pathway of small stones leading up to a well-hidden nest.
In 1.6 miles the road will fork. Stay left, and work your way to the base of a long cliff. Here in this pocket is a small supply of permanent water, giving rise to a tremendous collection of plant life. On the lower walls of this canyon face is an expansive panel of rock art. Though their claim is very controversial, some researchers assert that the vertically incised lines you see here are actually Ogam, an ancient language thought to have originated in the British Isles. If this is true, then the "words" you see on these rocks may well have been inscribed by a Celtic traveler some 1,500 years ago.
While you're studying the possibilities of this rock panel, notice the rings of mud from old cliff-swallow nests, as well as the frequent signs of woodrats in the narrow, protected crevices. Woodrats (or packrats) are incurable collectors, creating gargantuan nest areas filled with everything from barbed wire to pieces of Indian pottery, shotgun shells to bits of handkerchiefs, rope and leather gloves. Woodrats store large quantities of leaves to sustain them during the winter months. The notion that these animals "trade" an item for one that they take is somewhat misleading; in fact they load themselves up with so many treasures that they usually have to abandon one in order to gain the other.
The Comanche National Grassland has started to develop a comprehensive trail system through other parts of the reserve, including plans for a fine interpretive path that will give visitors a good look into the region's history. If you'd like to spend more time in this beautiful area, call or stop by the grassland office in Springfield for additional suggestions on where to go.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication