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Michael Barnes

Upper Red River flows from a flat field to a muddy profusion

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This record of our adventures on the Upper Red River was first posted in 2012.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

It starts out as a small green depression in a flat Panhandle field. It leaves Texas a mighty river — broad, swift, reddish brown and lined with sandy bluffs, fertile fields and thick trees.

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The upper forks of the Red River, the wriggling border between Texas and Oklahoma, rise in the Llano Estacado, as do those of the Colorado and Brazos rivers. In a previous tracing, Joe Starr Kip Keller and I followed the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River from above the town of Canyon though Palo Duro Canyon and across the Osage Prairies to the Oklahoma border.

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The North Fork is a lesser tributary but no less impressive for variety of character. First we headed from Austin to Amarillo, crossing fields of wheat and marveling at the spring-wet greenery. We stopped in railroad towns along US 183, including the slowly reviving Rising Star, where Joe posed with a poster that recalls the days of tent circuits and rail-transported vaudeville, when those towns were full of energy and promise.

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We noticed right away that many of the towns were trim and thriving, just as the farms and ranches were tidy and prospering. Credit the first to the oil and gas boom, which has flushed rural Texas with cash. These areas are also bouncing back from the worst of the drought. Not that anyone cares, but I predict that hay has been over-planted and livestock populations will not return to normal levels quickly, despite the ready feed and full stock ponds.

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During the nine-hour drive, Joe perfected his method for photographing and identifying wildflowers. Some of his scientific methods are based on which plants came with the most flamboyant names. It’s still spring in North Texas, and Amarillo even turned chilly. We didn’t complain.

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After passing through the religiously ambitious Panhandle burg of Clarendon, we snuck a peek at the Salt Fork of the Red River. A small reservoir waits near its source, southeast of Amarillo. We explored an area of sandy hills, little oxbow lakes and bird-filled grasslands below the dam. I found the landscape, haunted by aimless recreation seekers, a bit creepy. Not quite “No Country for Old Men,” but it gave me the creeps.

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Our first order of business once in downtown Amarillo was to check into the amazingly cheap ($45) and convenient Civic Center Motor Inn. The grounds came with the usual odd characters that might have made less experienced Texas road-trippers uneasy. Undeterred, Joe surveyed places to photograph the annular eclipse, settling on a bank building’s parking garage with some shutterbugging locals.

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I tell you what: Downtown Amarillo, despite its broad and pristine streets, is deader than dead on a Sunday night. Not a soul on the streets. Not a single restaurant open. So much for the convenient motor inn. We wandered by car through the suburbs and along the freeway — cursing inaccurate Internet reports — for something, anything that was open at 7 p.m. and stumbled on Kushi Yama, a high-end Asian fusion spot on the interstate. Its decor, including a long, pebbled waterfull, was lavish and the food was well spiced. But only one other table was in service.

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The next morning, we broke our fast at an institution: the Nu-Castle Diner on the edge of downtown. Crammed with Coca-Cola mementos, the resolutely old-fashioned spot comes with bright service, hearty food and tables of old-timers catching up on dedades of gossip. The procession out of town, however, was marred by detritus on US 60, formerly on Route 66, where tourist traps from many decades ago now compete to see which can rust away completely. On the upside, the buildings were occupied by reps of every culture imaginable in Amarillo.

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The precise geographic source of the North Fork is about a mile southeast of White Deer (high school teams: Bucks and Does). Amid the stubble of winter wheat and aside workers erecting power lines to transmit energy from nearby wind farms, we found the damp circle credited with originating the fork. Of course, the river’s watershed extends as far as New Mexico, but that’s evident only during major floods.

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A mile directly east, the flat plains fall off into Caprock cliffs. Below, we found the first bridge over the dry riverbed, amidst the clutter of oilfield equipment. We swiftly moved on to the village of Lefors, where the North Fork is suddenly very wet, and marshy sandbanks lead to giant trees, including thirsty cottonwoods and willows. Here we encountered our first contingent of cliff swallows, who nest under Texas bridges. Not pleased, they swarmed around our heads. Thank goodness they don’t actually attack.

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Further stops on the rolling prairies — where mesquite seems under control — introduced all sorts of birds — great white herons, night herons, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, spotted sandpipers, red-winged blackbirds, horned larks, western kingbirds, phoebes, various hawks, buzzards and falcons, some unidentifiable ducks, along with the usual crowds of mockingbirds, grackles, starlings, sparrows and such near the towns.

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The North Fork is red by the time it reaches the Oklahoma border, near Interstate 40. We jumped up to the town of Sayre, where the floodplain broadens impressively. But the real treat in southwestern Oklahoma — a complete surprise — was Quartz Mountain State Park. On a Comanche-Apache-Kiowa reservation, a granite uplift has created a tiny chain of rugged mountains, graced by a man-made lake as striking as any in Central Texas. It’s beautiful.

Swollen by storms, the North Fork becomes insistent below the park’s dam. For the first time, I felt the river’s power and danger. For all our time on Texas rivers, I’m respectful unto reverent about the destructive potential of flowing water, not to mention snakes, quicksand and unstable banks.

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From here, the river heads due south to the Texas border, where it joins the Prairie Dog Town Fork to become the Red. One fact I had missed previously: The Oklahoma border starts not in the middle of the river, but on the south bank. Two Supreme Court cases confirmed that our neighbor owns the riverbed and, thus, its mineral riches.

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We ate crispy catfish in Vernon, Texas, a classic micropolis. This was a new word for us, taken from a historical atlas of Texas. Apprarently, the government classifies towns and surrounding areas with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 as micropolitan areas. Our other new word: “distributary,” referring to a river that siphons off water from the main stem.

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Now following the Red River proper, we headed to Wichita Falls, which was our destination when we traced the Wichita River. This perplexing metropolitan area — rating more than 100,000 souls — snared us again in its confusing freeway system. We found snacks, however, at Aldi’s, a steeply discounted British grocery chain that sells moslty European brands. Our entire evening meal cost us $14.

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We pressed on to Henrietta, where we stayed in a palatial, three-story faux-tel with a curving lobby staircase and a room the size of our house, still a bargain at less than $90. Some clever writer someday will explain the spread of these two-, three- and four-story hybrids between a roadside motel and an urban hotel. Some are amazingly comfortable and classy. But why in towns like Henrietta, population little more than 3,000?