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July 29, 1997

Opportunities for weekend getaways and excursions are plentiful this time of year, so the other day Laura and I joined our local group for one such jaunt. Aboard a comfortable tour bus, we fled to the Texas Panhandle for a look at the unique scenes in and around the queen city of that area, Amarillo.

For years we knew Amarillo primarily as a stopover point on the way to other more touristy places out West, but this trip opened our eyes to some natural wonders that are not that far from this part of north-central Oklahoma. The feature attraction of our tour was the enduring musical pageant titled simply "Texas," and it is a dynamite show. The setting is an amphitheater carved into the Palo Duro Canyon, second in size only to the Grand Canyon. With such a magnificent backdrop to play against, the cast and the score of "Texas" held an outdoor audience of more than 2,100 spellbound.

As true-blue Okies, we could not escape comparing "Texas” with the more familiar "Oklahoma!" which graced first the Broadway stage in the early 1940s and now the hinterlands in regional and community theatres everywhere. Richard Rogers' and Oscar Hammerstein gave us "Oklahoma!" and their esteemed work is not threatened by "Texas," a relative latecomer, but the folks responsible for the production we witnessed also are in a class by themselves. The pageant focuses on the early history and development of the area immediately surrounding Amarillo, but it is far from being simply a local, loving hands at home production. Professionals have created this show.

A soaring cliffside in the distance, sprinked with mesquite bushes, cottonwood, and juniper trees, patches of grass hardy enough to withstand the withering, dry heat of the Panhandle, and the inevitable clumps of cactus provided the backdrop for a large outdoor stage. Interesting rock formations showed signs of earth upheaval and erosion from eons ago. The canyon is estimated to be a million years old. Wings on either side of the stage were used for secondary scenes. A taped orchestral score and/or live musicians accompanied the cast of 80 singers and dancers. Depth of the main stage was not limited to the amphitheater but extended for miles (literally) on the canyon floor and on up to the top of the cliffs. Lightning and thunder were so realistic as special effects, we were momentarily led to think a desert shower was about to douse us. Mounted cowboys, surreys and other accoutrements of the period rode or rolled across the landscape exactly on cue. It's a great show. If you go, make advance reservations for tickets. That will assure you of theater seats and not the bare concrete stage aprons that latecomers have to endure. We had tickets in the center section, close to the stage. It was a great experience.

The city of Amarillo itself is enjoying a surge of population and renaissance, and just as I suspected, it owes a great deal to the Main Street program for this rebirth. Tourism officials say the Main Street effort is beginning to pay off; handsomely. The population has increased from some 150,000 to well over 185,000. The old U.S. 66 highway route is being memorialized with plaques, wider streets and restoration projects along the historic east-west pathway across the city. They are well along into a program just like the one being undertaken here in Perry, and tourism has climbed to the No. 3 industry spot in Amarillo as a result. Believe it or not, no major industries are located there. The Amarillo school district is the city's largest employer.

The Amarillo skyline has only one tall building, a 31-story downtown tower. City fathers have enacted statutes to preserve what they call their greatest asset -- the glorious Panhandle sunsets -- by refusing to allow builders to block out the view by exceeding that arbitrary "skyscraper" limitation. Amarillo has north-south and east-west railroad lines, but no passenger trains. Sound familiar?

The community is blessed in many ways. Wealthy families call it home, and they are generously supplying financial support for many of the city's ambitious growth projects. The landscape for miles around is perfectly flat and virtually treeless. Rainfall is scarce. Winters are cold and summers are intensely hot, but a constant breeze helps to make things livable. Humidity is NOT a problem. Evaporative air conditioners seem to be the norm.

Those are some of the surface observations noted on that weekend hop to visit our Texas neighbors, but we must add that our group of some 50 folks proved remarkably cordial and we formed a palship with some of the Perry area that we really didn't know too well previously. If that bunch gets any more ideas like this, we surely want to be a part of it.