Burning Through the Prairie
Oklahoma is deceptive. There came a point last night where I was reaching blindly into the tall grass around my campsite at Turner Falls, hunting for rocks- the bigger the better. Nearby, my bike was on its side and my hammock was being blown sideways. A light drizzle persisted and the only thing I wanted was to find rocks to anchor down my rain tarp. The first attempt seemed fine at first- I found four big enough rocks to tie onto, then piled smaller ones on top. This engineering lasted all of fifteen minutes before the wind defeated it. Lightning crackled next to the wind turbines nearby. My phone is wrecked- it’s led screen illuminated but nothing to show- no response to any buttons or tapping. Rain hits me in the face sideways. I give up. I lay back down in my hammock, wrap the rain tarp around me, and blindly tie it in a knot behind my back. I figured there’s no where else to really go that would be any safer, and close my eyes.
The next morning, I wake up to an unaltered landscape. The wind continued through most of the night, with occasional downpours, but I'm hard pressed to find a drop of water. Did I like dream last night? Even the dirt is dry.
Oklahoma Is Deceptive
The decision to come to Oklahoma for a bike tour has been questioned by pretty much everyone. Much of this planning involved staring at satellite pics all the way zoomed in, determining whether a grey-colored road was sun-bleached pavement or gravel. Central and western Oklahoma’s roads are a grid system, forced to follow the compass rose between square farm lots. After a few days of staring at google maps, finding roads that squiggled off horizontally became an obsession. These outliers were frequently around rivers, buttes, and mountains, and many of them weren’t marked. That I could force a “suggested route” through them with my cursor made me confident I could get my bike through there, and the first test of this theory was in my exit from the Arbuckle Mountains.
A normal person might see Turner Falls having one road out bearing north, and anyone planning to head west would need to head that way, navigate all the way around the Arbuckles, and catch either a road in town or a highway to go west. But for us crazies, the satellite pics of the Arbuckles has taken during the winter- and the bare trees do a poor job of hiding two tire tracks that connect from the Turner Falls’ southern-most campsite, veering off from a section of their Fire Break Trail, through the hills, to an access road for an energy company. If the tracks I saw from space held up, it would be an interesting three or so miles that would save me a good fifteen on pavement. Rolling past a “DO NOT ENTER” sign, the sun shined overhead and a strong gale sat on my back.
The occasional hoof print and cow pie, without any fresh tire tracks or boots print in the dirt and mud, suggested I was just on ranch land, and as long as I didn’t dilly dally things there wouldn’t be anyone around to complain about my presence. Indeed, coming out the other side onto Butterly Road, my only company in the last sixteen hours was whoever sat inside that single prop airplane. Of the gates I passed, not a single one was locked. It’s like they want visitors to come enjoy these backcountry mountains.
I love it when theorized shortcuts work out. To the left you can see my little shortcut road just spitting out onto an actual, bonafide county road. Nice.
From here to my planned campsite for the night is another sixty five miles. It’s, like, 10am by the way. I snack on almonds while cruising the farm roads in a much harder gear than I’d normally use for these conditions. It’s not like they’re giving me super strength or I'm pedaling intensely to keep my mind off of eating a crop that gets a lot of the California drought blame, it’s just this wind. I’ve never had a tour where such strong wind was so on my side, and I love it.
That and, to be fair, the scenery is kinda monotonous. What lies west of the Arbuckles, at first, feels like endless stretches of grass reserved for cattle. Some of the roads I’ve picked out wind me right through their pastures, occasionally leading me right into a herds’ nap time. It’s cute, but ultimately I apologize to them. I feel like we all kinda owe cows an apology in general, but more specifically now, here, when I'm literally making them move.
For the most part, cows and birds are my only companions. I can take photos while I’m rolling, and my lack of stopping is doing wonders for my time. I pass a man on his John Deere, not the talkative type, and a couple of hot shots in white utility trucks with oil company names in vinyl of their doors. I have this thing that I do when a truck is about to blast by me on gravel, unconcerned or unaware of the dust cloud behind them and how that might affect me. I make exaggerated motions to pull my bandana over my face, then shield my eyes and turn my body away from them. I try to do all of this in that sweet spot where the driver is close enough for eye contact, and see how pathetic I look, but far enough away that they might still ease on the brakes out of pity. It rarely, if ever, works.
CLEAR CREEK LAKE
I'm riding in straight line on a gravel road for, I don’t know, let’s say five miles. It feels like an eternity, as this one doesn’t even have trees provide a split second of shade or fenceposts to count. This road does end, abruptly, on a paved road at the edge of Clear Creek Lake. The name was confusing on it’s own, but on the shore of this lake I can look out into the water and see the tops of young trees, with fresh green leaves, sticking out of the water. As per usual, there’s no one around to ask what’s up. The campground is a handful of gravel parking spots with fire rings in tall grass. It’s 2pm, so I cruise around to the other side of the lake and find a boat house, and concession stand with pealing paint and rusting sheetmetal sides. I hear a lawnmower in the distance, but the only locals who’ve come to greet me are horse flies and gnats.
I cool off in the lake and take stock of things. If I stay here, I’ll spend the next six hours sitting on this dock and jumping in the water when I get too hot. Or, I can book it another seventy miles- all of tomorrow’s riding- now and possibly make it to the Wichita Mountains before dark. These mountains, as opposed to the Arbuckles, are undeniably mountains. Their mountain status is taken much more seriously, as a whole wildlife preserve is built within them. So, do I stay at this crappy lake? Or do I head for the mountains?
It's Hella Windy
There are slight shifts in the land leaving Clear Creek Lake for the Wichitas. While only the occasional one would pop up from behind trees, the oil wells have bred like crazy out here. It seems oil’s doing better than cattle, and the land is being repurposed to make that money. My gamble on the squiggly-line roads being more interesting than the straight ones pays off, and I pass through (mostly) wide-open gates onto sketchy, chunky roads that leapfrog from oil well to oil well. Some are still, rusting into oblivion, while the rhythm of the still-revolving ones becomes, at times, hypnotic. The wind, bless it, is still somehow on my back.
Oklahoma Is A Place
With Many Fences,
Yet No Gate Locked.
With Many Cows,
But No Rancher Seen.
The sun now in the evening sky, I see signs for Fort Sill. An army base, it makes up the eastern border of the Wichita Mountains, taking some over the eastern range for a private artillery-blow-up-everything space. I stay to the northern edge of the military base, not knowing how kindly an army base will take to a smelly, sunburnt drifter on a bicycle, and head straight for the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. I speed through the town of Medicine Park, noting its quaint, charming touches but not having any time to stop and take pictures. I take a peak at google maps. There’s one hour left until sunset, but if I can ride five miles and a make a 1200ft climb I can watch the sunset from the top of Mt. Scott.
Or, maybe there won’t be a sunset. The haze is so heavy from up here on can only really see Mt Scott’s slightly smaller neighbor, Mt Sherman. While Im sitting on a boulder, I hear a few car doors shut and engines turn on. To leave fifteen minutes before sunset, even in the haze, is ridiculous.
I spent all day riding through the country, in 90º heat, taking pictures in flat, boring light. When the evening sun came, I put my camera away to make it up to the top of this mountain before sunset. Part of me feels like an idiot for doing so, but I sit and watch. Some kids nearby play on the rocks, not concerned about how photogenic the evening light is or is not. I envy them.
And then it starts.
"WAIT, HOLD UP, WHAT?"
"WAIT, WAIT, HOLY CRAP"
The Wichita Mountains
AS SEEN FROM MT SCOTT
It lasted one minute and nine seconds. I know this because I took a picture every second once I realized that there was just enough of a break in the clouds for a pink sun to blast through, before disappearing into the haze again. It made all of this worth it. And now, with darkness descending fast, I head back down the mountain with a final nine miles to the reserve’s campgrounds.