Oklahoma and Texas: The Comanche Trail

Oklahoma and Texas: The Comanche Trail
A single dust plume trails behind us like an earthbound jet stream. Narrow leaving the rear tire, it eventually fills our mirrors as I glance back at Susan, riding pillion on our BMW R 1200 GS Adventure. We’ve covered hundreds of miles of dirt here in this vast emptiness, seeking the spirits of the Lords of the South Plains in the remote reaches of the Llano Estacado.

We stop and hike to the flat summit of a butte, taking shelter from the stiff south wind in the lee of a stand of cedars, and look west into Texas. Time rewinds 150 years and we are hunters, sentinels of the Antelope Hills. Then, the moving mass of a bison herd would have darkened the horizon, dust obscuring the sky as the animals thundered across the ancient plain. The day when this land was ruled by the Comanches seems close at hand as we look out upon its open prairie and fiery sunsets.

In 1706, the Comanches were a small tribe of hunter-gatherers living on the northern frontier of New Mexico. They launched an explosive expansion, plundering horses and reinventing themselves as ferocious mounted warriors. Forcing their way onto the southern plains, they carved out a vast territory larger than the entire European-controlled area north of the Rio Grande at the time. Although they successfully forestalled white settlement there for many years, the Comanche empire would ultimately diminish, culminating in surrender at Fort Sill in June 1875. Their transition into a new way of life was led by Chief Quanah Parker.

Canyons, Creeks, and Grasslands

With thunderheads 10 miles high and canyons appearing from nowhere, this is Comancheria, a place of visual infinity centered on the Texas Panhandle and extending into several adjoining states. We are here to experience those canyons, creeks, and grasslands. From our home in Norman, OK, we’re heading west to string together a trail through the Comancheria of western Oklahoma and Texas. That trail begins in the Wichita Mountains, an ancient range sculpted through the ages by climatic forces into the knobs and domes of today. The Wichitas offered the tribe hiding places, hunting grounds, and encampment. On their eastern edge, within Fort Sill, jut the Medicine Bluffs, a site sacred to the Comanches and an appropriate starting point for our journey. We stop in the shade along the cool, clear waters of Medicine Creek, flowing beneath the 320-foot bluff. Large Comanche encampments once filled this valley full of legends.

From Fort Sill we ride west through the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, where bison and longhorns graze on the open range. The park’s roads offer a smooth, twisting ride with mountain views and multiple stopping points for hiking and picnicking. The foot trail to the summit of Elk Mountain is one of the refuge’s most popular and yields access to caves and “rock rooms” perfect for a day of exploring. A motorized ride up the winding road to the top of Mount Scott to watch the sunset over the Oklahoma Plains is a bonus.