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Texas on a Grand Stage

Palo Duro Canyon State Park features natural majesty and theatric pageantry

Every Texan should visit Palo Duro Canyon State Park and attend Texas, the outdoor musical that’s been performed there every summer since 1966. I’ve seen the performance several times and re-turned last summer so my husband, James, could scratch “the Grand Canyon of Texas” off his bucket list.

Palo Duro Canyon, second in size to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, cuts a crooked swath through the Panhandle High Plains as it meanders for 120 miles and plunges 800 feet deep.

For most of the day, we explore the state park, the state’s second largest at nearly 28,000 acres. Along the half-mile Pioneer Nature Trail, we hike down to the rippling Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River that winds through the canyon. At a nearby nature blind, we spy harvest mice feeding on spilled birdseed. Later, we relax in rocking chairs at the Mack Dick Group Pavilion and absorb the spectacular scenery.

Midafternoon, we freshen up at our hotel in Canyon, 12 miles west of the park. Then we return for the 6 p.m. activities at the 1,600-seat Pioneer Amphitheatre. The outdoor complex was built in the early 1960s by residents who sought to honor early pioneers and promote Palo Duro Canyon as a tourist destination.

Our evening begins with a backstage tour led by guide Rey Montoya, a student at West Texas A&M University. Behind the amphitheater, he points out a cinder-block warehouse where 67 cast members change costumes and repair scenery. We peer inside a wooden horse-drawn wagon, which catches fire during the show with the help of concealed propane burners. A steam locomotive sits on the chassis of a pickup, and a concrete tunnel allows actors to switch sides of the stage.

“The stage is padded like a running track so dancers won’t get hurt if they fall,” Montoya explains as we stand at the back edge, facing the audience. “See those two big, clear globes up there in the control rooms over the seats? Those are intelligent lights that project images onto the surrounding canyon walls. You’ll see those later during the show.”

As a treat, we bought dinner tickets. Inside a metal shed called the Chow Cart, caterers with Feldman’s Wrong Way Diner in Canyon dish up smoked ham, sausage and brisket.

After 8 p.m., we settle into our seats. Overhead, the evening’s first stars twinkle in the darkening sky, and swallows swoop for moths. At 8:30, fireworks explode, signaling the show’s start. Soon, a lone wrangler on horseback, carrying a Texas flag fluttering on a pole, stands high atop a canyon wall. As the sparks fall away, the silhouette races along the ridge’s edge.

On cue, more than five dozen boot-scooting cowboys and their partners in swishy skirts burst onto the stage, singing and high-stepping in time with hoedown songs like Turkey in the Straw. Soon we see character Brandon Dawson, a progressive homesteader who touts fences and railroads, and Col. Henry McLean, a cattle rancher not ready to relinquish the open prairies in the late 1880s. Tension mounts as the two ideologies clash. Several tangled romances thicken the plot.

Mother Nature creates havoc, too, which leads to some thrilling scenes: A simulated lightning bolt strikes a dead tree, and later, real flames light up the canyon as a roaring “prairie fire” threatens homes.

Two hours later, Texas ends with a patriotic grand finale. More fireworks choreographed with an illuminated water show pay tribute to military veterans, fallen heroes and first responders. “Wow, wow, wow!” is all we can say as bursts of rockets, water jets and laser lights accompany a slideshow.

“I want to see that again!” James exclaims as we head for our car. I definitely see more of Texas in our future.

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, a member of Pedernales EC, lives in Blanco.