Despite its name, the “TEXAS Outdoor Musical” at Palo Duro Canyon State Park is not just about the Lone Star State.
The live, outdoor musical, hosted in a 1,600-seat natural rock amphitheater opposite a small face of the second-largest canyon in the United States, is focused on Texas and the struggles faced by settlers in the panhandle in the 1800s. But the show’s message and patriotism extend far beyond the south plains.
Without hyper-focusing on being politically correct and spoon-feeding the hundreds of audience members an overly sanitized version of history, the 55-year old musical was upfront about the tensions among the pro-railroad farmers from the East who dreamed of “the future of Texas,” the conservative cattlemen who wanted to maintain control of the dry land, and the Comanche tribe that once roamed freely with the dwindling number of buffalo but were driven away to government reservations.
Our nation is divided, much like the panhandle was in the 1800s, but fights over race and politics meant nearly nothing to the brave settlers once tragedy struck. Among prairie fires started by lightning (simulated with impressive pyrotechnic displays strategically placed throughout the brush in the canyon backdrop), prolonged drought, fever outbreaks, and an ongoing skirmish between progress and tradition, the Texans fought battles that, while different in context, strongly resemble the struggles Americans face today: hunger, sickness, families torn apart by geography, politics, and even race.
It also showed how warring factions of Texans all united to collectively fight. The anti-change cowboys eventually joined with the pro-railroad community to develop a depot and a school for the ever-growing number of covered wagons coming to the panhandle in search of land and new life. The Native Americans performed medicinal and healing techniques on those bed stricken with fever who were too weak to care for themselves. And the whole community joined together to sing “It Is Well” in front of a white-steepled chapel after it finally rained.
The musical, while cheesy at times, not only showcased the often unrecognized beauty of the dirt and cacti that cover most of the desert plains in an attractive way but capitalized on the importance of an integrated community filled with people willing to forgive past group sins.
“There’s a majesty about the panhandle,” one of the main characters said as she contemplated returning to the Texas plains and her lover, a farmer struggling to come to grips with the seemingly never-ending drought plaguing the land.
The farmer was one of the few characters who boldly acknowledged the conflicts and spoke about his willingness to bring the warring people together.
“We’ve all suffered for this land,” he pointed out, emphasizing the importance of hard work.
While the play largely focused on the themes of American struggle, hard work, family, and freedom, the cast also never missed an opportunity to provide comic relief to the audience. Most of this came through a crotchety and crazy prospector, while young dancers in bright costumes and live animals graced the stage and its background.
One of the main characters, a cattleman whose last name was eventually used to christen the small Texas town and its train depot, called attention to the nationally shared sentiment that two of the most dangerous critters to disgrace the planet are “politicians and attorneys,” especially those who work for the government instead of the people.
The show concluded with Americana tunes and a short-lived yet spectacular fireworks display just above the rim of the canyon, a pair that rivaled any of the Fourth of July celebrations I had ever seen or that my pyrotechnic-loving family has ever attempted. After a short tribute to the state’s health care workers who pushed through the COVID-19 pandemic and those who lost their lives to the virus, a new commemorative addition to the end of the musical, the cast and crowd joined together to sing “America the Beautiful” as the six flags that once reigned over Texas were paraded across the backdrop.
As we sang about the spacious sky that was by then dotted with stars, a lone horsewoman proudly holding the American flag took center stage and smiled softly at the audience of veterans and families of all shapes and colors, who quickly rose to honor the flag and the song’s chorus. Some people in the crowd weren’t from Texas or the United States (the gentleman who won the dinner triangle awarded to the furthest traveler was from Brazil), but every person in the rock amphitheater was standing to celebrate the nation we all choose to love.
It was a beautiful moment that brought tears to my eyes. I gripped my fiancé’s hand tighter as the music swelled and couldn’t help but think about how lucky we were to have grown up in America and how lucky our kids will be to experience the same. The United States is not perfect, but I’m so thankful for the liberty and freedom it affords and all the lessons its history brings.