Stories from a Wanderer – Comanche Peak

More than any other place I’ve lived, north Texas has looming figures that play about the scenery of the place from the (not too) distant past, sort of keeping watch and commanding some attention. Some of these people are: Goodnight and Loving and Ikard (iconic cattlemen), John Justin (Justin Boots), Jim Bowie (the Bowie knife), Jesse Chisholm (the Chisholm trail), Quanah Parker (the “Last Chief of the Comanches” and a cattleman in his own right). They are almost like permanent, physical features.

A looming feature of the local geography is the odd-shaped limestone mesa called Comanche Peak – said to have been called “The Sleeping Lady” by some Native Americans and called Que Ta To Yah (“Rocky Butte”) by the Comanche. It can be found on the oldest Spanish maps. It is longer than it is wide, running north to south and has a dipping valley toward one roundish and hump-backed end. I imagine it must look like an exclamation mark from above. It is about 1229 feet above sea level and looms 700 feet over the river valley below. It can be seen from a dozen counties with the right angles of elevation. It is the key feature of the central valley of the winding Brazos River. Many tens of millions of years ago, as Texas was rising out of a retreating shallow sea, this sturdy patch of limestone became an island, the compressed layers of fossils battered and chipped but standing firm as tides and storms and then gushing inlets and rivers, now tamed by successive reservoirs, sought to erode it away. It is easier to understand the steep carving of the mesa when one considers that only 100 years ago the Brazos raged and flooded on a regular basis. Every few decades it flooded parts of the basin up to six miles wide, its tributaries engorged and even its course sometimes changed at its mouth south of Houston. Of course, this being Texas, a bunch of people got to work building dams and canals, gentling its excesses.

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Because it is such a prominent feature, Comanche Peak was a gathering place for indigenous people for many thousands of years and most recently for the Comanche. It is easy to picture Comanche warriors and hunters coming from many directions to this rendezvous point; disappearing into the safety of the oaks and other hardwoods that covered the peak in the centuries before white agriculture and ranching changed the composition of its flora and fauna. It next became a place used for white government communications. When Texas won its independence from Mexico and later when Texas became a state, the official announcements were made at gatherings on the peak. It was also a place for treaty signings between whites and Indians in the nineteenth century.

There are other bits and pieces of information I’ve found in my internet wanderings, some of which are plausible and some that strike one as being closer to lore than history. There are reports of deep caves with Indian pictographs and a tale of an underground river too wide and deep for a man to cross. There are reports of the deeper caves being closed with dynamite by one or more ranchers because his cows or goats would stray into them and become lost. Of course, there is a rumor of hidden gold. There are visitors’ names and dates carved into the limestone cap rock dating back to the early 1800s. Some believe this is where the young Quanah Parker went on his vision quest, perhaps involving peyote cactus.

I went to Comanche Peak to get a closer look at this place I’ve seen from afar and to enjoy a well-deserved drive and ice cream cone after a long work week. The sky was powder blue with a whiff of high clouds and a strong warm breeze came up from the south. Comanche Peak is one of those features that can be seen clearly from far away, but is often obscured by even gentle grades and stands of trees as you come within a few miles. Among the winding roads of Hood County, I suspect more planned by deer and cattle than by man, the mesa appears and disappears, popping up when and where you least expect – one moment in front of you, the next looking over your shoulder.

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As I approached and then circled the lower parts of the mesa I found it covered in parts with cedar and juniper, with other parts open fields for grazing and hay. The preponderance of the mesa and its higher elevations are owned by one or more ranches who graze cattle on it. It is almost all privately owned and has been for more than a century and a half. Beyond a certain point it is all behind gates so it is not possible for a simple wanderer, in her SUV and nursing her ice cream cone, to verify any of the more intriguing stories of Comanche Peak.

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Some lower parts of the mesa are scarred by obvious development; but much of it remains undeveloped. Its “foothills,” if they can be called such, are populated in an eclectic and especially Texan way, with tiny shacks next to small mansions, and mid-century mobile homes on teensy plots surrounded by gleaming barndominiums. If I were decorating the mesa myself, as one would a Christmas tree, this would not be my style. The mesa has had many different looks over the centuries and millennia and I’m sure it will be “renovated” again with time.

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From a distance, it is ancient and timeless and a bit mysterious. Every now and then, I’ve read, the mesa is opened up for a historical society event or battlefield re-enactment, so I may have a chance to explore more someday. That will have to suffice.

greta ode
Greta Ode is currently enjoying “tiny house” living in Weatherford, Texas. She has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and is an editor and contributor to Tandeta Journal. Her work can be found on Substack at “Ramble, Bramble.”

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