The Caprock Escarpment
A formidable mesa defines this slice of northwestern Texas.
By Russell A. Graves
In the blackness of the early morning, the rhythmic flashing of dozens of red lights atop a large wind farm catches my eye as I drive through the badlands near Matador.
To the east, millions of acres of Rolling Plains scrublands spread out across a sparsely populated landscape. To the west, the lights blinking in the distance span across a broad plain that rises well above my location. For those who have not witnessed it, the abrupt change in elevation over such a narrow linear path is foreign — especially for Texas. Mountains and plateaus rise predictably from the surrounding plain, while much of the rest of Texas retains a topographic similarity as far as the pitch and roll of the landscape go. For a thin slice of northwestern Texas, however, the landscape breaks all the rules.
Primarily running along a longitudinal line, the Caprock Escarpment (or Caprock, as it is colloquially known) is a relatively narrow slice of land that separates the flat plains to the west and the broken and rough rolling plains to the east. Shaded relief maps will give you an idea of how the country transitions from west to east, but it’s best understood in person.
For the earliest of travelers, the escarpment was a formidable physical barrier. Deep canyons and steep gorges made transitioning from the plains to the areas below (and vice versa) tough. From a distance, its eastern-facing wall looks like a big mesa that extends from horizon to horizon. It’s such a defining feature in the landscape that locals describe where they live or where they are going by referring to their location as “on top of” or “below” the cap.
As the sun rises, I’m just west of Matador and turning into a gate that will lead me through the hills and arroyos below the Caprock and onto the Mott Creek Ranch. In the soft dawn light, a thunderstorm up on the plains intermittently spits lightning that flashes with enough intensity to cause static on my truck radio. The rain that falls on the titled plain above is what caused the canyons before me.
For millions of years the soil and rock succumbed to the erosional forces of wind and water to create the western Texas canyon complexes. It’s a ruggedly beautiful area of which, arguably, most Texans have no intimate understanding.
A giant sandstone fin rises above the boulder-strewn landscape of Tule Canyon near Silverton.
A Geologic History
The Caprock Escarpment is a geographic demarcation line that divides one ecosystem from the other. Technically, the escarpment lies both in Texas and New Mexico as it flanks each side of the grand mesa known as the Southern High Plains. The most dramatic example of the escarpment, however, is a 250-mile-long stretch of canyonlands, mesas and rough country that extends from around Post in the south to near Canadian in the north.
In many places, the escarpment is subtle and is represented by a collection of low-lying hills. In others, it rises dramatically from the surrounding landscape. In places, the distance from the canyon floors to the High Plains above is a thousand feet or more. If you drive Texas Highway 86 from Estelline to Turkey, the giant palisade of earth looms strangely to the west; its formidable size and scale are apparent.
The eroded soil at the edge of the High Plains is a study in the geologic history of the region. On top is a tough, hard, calcitic rock that protects the underlying soil from continual erosion. This “caprock” layer is what gives rise to the name of the formation. Below the Caprock (depending on the location along the escarpment), the soil color varies from tan to red and is a geologic record of epochs that have long since passed. Occasionally a mammoth or some other notable fossil is found. Subtle clues to the changes that the region has undergone are found in the gray patches of soil that are interspersed in the overwhelmingly red soil beds. These gray patches are remnant wetlands that date back millions of years ago when the region had a wetter climate. Dig even further into the soil or walk the eroded creeks of the escarpment and you’ll start to see crystalline ribbons of gypsum laced prominently in 1- or 2-inch layers. This gypsum — or “gyp rock” — is the remnant of an ancient seabed.
The moon begins to set behind red-rock badlands along the escarpment.
While many of the mountains or hills in Texas are the result of volcanic activity or some sort of uplift event, the elevation change along the Caprock came about through an erosional process. For millions of years, water and sediment flowed from the Rocky Mountains. These alluvial deposits fanned over a broad, mid-continent region and formed the Great Plains. The plains in Texas aren’t as flat as you’d think. The great tableland tilts from west to east and drops in elevation at the rate of about 10 feet per mile.
Even though the region is arid, rains do fall. As rain fell on the Texas plains, the water, over time, created draws. As the draws cleaved through the weaker areas of the Caprock, canyons were formed, creating Texas’ most prominent river systems. The Colorado, Brazos and Red rivers all have their beginnings along the Caprock Escarpment. These rivers flowed to the Gulf of Mexico and gave rise to the modern civilization that we know today.
Some of these rivers begin in immense canyons, with names familiar to Texans like Caprock or Palo Duro. Other canyons — like Blanco, Tule, Cita or Lingos — are more obscure.
With each snow or thunderstorm, the waters that flow from these meteorological events continue to erode and shape the escarpment. The weather is a constant force that also shapes the lives of people who live along the canyonlands.
“The most consistent thing about the weather out here,” a longtime resident once told me, “is its inconsistency.” The summers are hot, the winters are cold, and the rainfall is far too fickle for most.
A Place in Time
Marisue Potts, matriarch of the Mott Creek Ranch, understands the region and its nuances as well as anyone. She’s lived most of her life on a sprawling ranch that was once part of the vast Matador Land and Cattle Company empire. In the 1950s, her dad pieced this place together and moved her family to an old frame house that was once used as a line camp for one of the state’s great and historic ranches. She was barely a teenager when they moved there from their irrigated farm a few miles away, up on the plains in Floyd County. As such, she understands the syncopated rhythms of living in the shadow of the Llano Estacado.
A crack of lightning streaks across the sky as a storm brews over the Caprock.
“There is a unique character down here below the plains,” says Potts as we sit in her Western-inspired living room while her rescue dog, Gypsy, paces around the room, pining to be let outside. “Not only culturally but geographically, as you’ll find a lot of Appalachian influence in many of the original families who settled this area.”
Her assessment is spot on. Down the road at the Matador and other area cemeteries, you’ll find graves of Confederate soldiers and other Southerners who made their way west after the Civil War to work on some of the big cattle operations or farm the dryland soil.
“When my grandmother talked, she used words like people from North Carolina use,” says Potts as she describes her ancestors coming to Texas in the early 20th century in a covered wagon.
“Life was tough then,” Potts says. “She came to Texas pregnant and with two small children and her husband. When they stopped here in Motley County, this is where they made their home.”
She explains that unlike the plains above, the land that’s nestled along the escarpment has always been more hospitable. The cragged breaks provide a respite from the punishing winds and blizzards that still wreak havoc on the plains that are just a few miles to the west and as much as a thousand feet higher in elevation. Below the Caprock, water was plentiful as the springs of the Ogallala Aquifer seeped from the edge of the canyons. With the water came trees for building shelter and game that provided meat. The same provisions that fed the pioneers also fed the Comanche, who, for generations, made this area their home.
For two centuries the Comanche made the plains and canyonlands their dominion as they led a nomadic existence, epitomizing the Plains Indians equine culture. While as many as 13 bands made up the 18th and 19th century Comanche people, the Quahadis dominated the Southern Plains. In the final days of their time on the plains, the Quahadis were most notably led by Quanah Parker — the half-Comanche, half-Anglo war chief whose mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was famously captured in a raid on the Parker family fort near present-day Mexia and recaptured by Texas Rangers a quarter-century later along the Pease River near Crowell.
Every now and then, Comanche artifacts are still discovered as rain uncovers flint or steel arrow points or the location of a bison kill.
The late-evening sun casts a glow over a bison and the prairie grasses at Caprock Canyons State Park.
Lamenting the Changes
As we walk amongst the big cottonwoods near the line camp where Marisue Potts was raised, she reflects on her time here as a girl.
“When I was young I could walk along the creek and feel the influence of something that I couldn’t explain,” she says. “There was a presence of the people who have been here before us. That presence is still here.”
In the old house she unveils artifacts that she’s found on the ranch. Curated by subject matter, the bones, bullet fragments, spear points and pottery chards tell a story of human habitation here without any lengthy explanation. My mind is my guide, and I wonder (as I always do) about the people who used these artifacts.
Silently, I agree with Potts: The presence of the people who’ve been here before is palpable.
She quietly walks around the house where she first made her home more than six decades ago. She’s comfortable living where the pace of cultural change barely outpaces the seasonal influences. However, she’s concerned about what our hunger for energy is doing to the landscape.
“We are making an industrial park of the area,” she says, motioning in the direction of the big wind farm on top of the Caprock that I saw flashing in the dark earlier this morning. She’s had chances to accept the monetary windfall that playing host to the behemoth energy producers would provide. But she can’t see the beauty of her ranch and her beloved escarpment being scarred by something she describes as being a fad that will soon pass.
“Being free of that kind of encumbrance is something we’ve always had,” she says. “We had natural scenery and a wild beauty. I’m afraid with transmission lines and these vast wind farms, those days might be over.”
Forever stalwart, she believes in the toughness of the people of the region despite five decades of depopulation. The great migration from small-town West Texas to bigger cities is a natural progression, one that’s played out in small towns across Texas. The people who see beauty in the region, however, remain. For better or for worse, they hang on.
“The soul of this region is the people. They are friendly and open,” Potts says, smiling. “Our isolation is also our blessing. We depend on each other. We may fight like crazy, but when times get tough, we take care of each other. That’s just the way we are.”