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.

Many of the backroads on this route are groomed and accessible to a wide range of vehicles.

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.

Motorcycle & Gear

2011 BMW R 1200 GS Adventure

Helmets: Shoei Hornet, Arai XD-4
Jackets: KLIM Badlands Pro, Spidi Venture H2OUT
Pants: KLIM Badlands Pro, Spidi Glance
Gloves: KLIM Mojave Pro, Tour Master
Boots: SIDI Adventure GORE-TEX, BMW Santiago
Luggage: Touratech Zega Pro Panniers, Enduristan Typhoon waterproof duffel

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.

This fading sign in Cache, OK, marks the entry to the derelict amusement park where Quanah Parker's Star House is located.

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.

The Lighthouse formation prominently marks the end of the trail by the same name in Palo Duro Canyon.

South of the refuge is the Star House, final home of Quanah Parker. It was built around 1890 for the Comanche leader with the help of Texas cattlemen, and is a testament to the respect he commanded. Quanah was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured by Comanches in the 1830s, and Comanche leader Peta Nocona. He balanced his role as leader of his people with his function as an emissary to white culture. Quanah entertained notables as diverse as Geronimo and British Ambassador Lord Bryce at the long dining room table still present in the deteriorating structure.

The colorful collared lizard is common to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

A tour of the house requires an appointment and a visit to a trading post on a lonesome highway intersection, where we are led into the ghost town of Eagle Park, an abandoned amusement park where the Star House was moved in the mid-20th century. We walk through and photograph the parlor, dining room, and bedrooms on the first floor, but the upper story is inaccessible, and likely dangerous because of the building’s poor condition. The roof and walls are sagging, but the building retains a haunting beauty, crouched in the deep green grass canopied by cottonwoods.