Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Weekend in the Wichitas

Katie packs bad luck for airplane flights the same way other people pack a travel pillow or Stephen King paperback. How else to explain why, the day her plane was to land at Tulsa International Airport, lightning struck, knocking out power. So Katie arrived for her Memorial Day vacation to a darkened, powerless, very warm airport.
After meeting at the gate, we had to wait for the baggage handlers to drive their baggage carts from her airplane to the curb in front of the airport. Amid all this, I was trying to reassure her: This is not an omen.

Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains sit in the southwestern corner of the state, rising abruptly from the planes like a row of jagged, broken teeth. Granite, mostly, popping up out of the rolling plains and crosstimber forests, the Wichitas are likely the oldest mountain range in North America. Some geologists consider them the eastern-most foothills of the Rockies.

A century ago, sensing the impending extinction of the bison from the American plains, some men with foresight sought to set aside a refuge for the magnificent beasts. Thus, the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge was established. A small herd of bison was imported, followed by Rocky Mountain Elk, and even longhorn cattle. Other animals were already there, including armadillos, rattlers, bobcats, coyotes, and perhaps the ghostly mountain lion. We don't know for sure about the mountain lion – they excel at not being seen – but the manager of the refuge reported a sighting in 1984.

Katie and I arrived at the refuge midday Friday. We made a driving tour, including up and down Mount Scott, and almost saw a Texan get himself killed by a bison. Then we visited prairie dog town to chat with the cute little guys for a while. A few more minutes, and we were at the trailhead. We paused for photos and a DEET bath, and chatted with a ranger.
Before the trip, I told Katie that the Wichitas were among the most arid places in already-arid Oklahoma. But we'd gotten rain nearly every day for most of the year. So it probably shouldn't have surprised me when the Ranger told us “That bridge is washed out, by the way.”

The rain did wanders for the Wichitas. Wildflowers had exploded on the landscape, blanketing every part of the earth that wasn't granite mountain with brilliant yellows, reds, pale blues, and every other color imaginable. Indian Blanket, Prairie Cone Flower, Horsemint, others we couldn't ever identify: They gave the Wichitas a new face, one I'd never seen before in all my travels there. What wasn't a brilliant yellow color was a lush green. It was amazing.

The hike in was just-tough-enough. It was challenging, especially with the softball-sized rocks that covered the entire earth. Combine that with the crosstimbers, Washington Irving's “Impenetrable forest of wrought-iron,” and you have a tough hike. Still, we wound our way through the terrain, up and over countless little hillocks, eventually finding our campsite.

The campsite was my favorite, one I used every time. This time, it was nearly flooded out from all the rainfall. What wasn't flooded was blanketed in wildflowers, and I would have felt too guilty to camp on those. Eventually, though, we found a patch of grass where we would do less damage. This was our home for the next two days.

That night, Katie and I sat on a rock, eating dinner, listening to the elk bugle at us. The sunset was obscured by rainclouds, but it was still vivid. It took both of us a while to get used to the sound of nothing manmade. It was paradise on earth for that night.

The next day broke casually. We had precisely zero miles we absolutely had to make that day. So after a quick breakfast, we set out for our dayhike. We went up and over the rolling prairie at the western end of Charons Garden Wilderness Area. We spotted five bison on a hill a little ways from us, along with some elk. Then we took a route back south, with the intention of climbing Sunset Peak. Durned if I could figure out a way up there. Instead, we settled on the next highest peak.
Rain looked like it was moving in, so we made our way back to the campsite, getting there about 1 p.m. Seeing as how we were on vacation and all, we figured that we might as well take a nap. So we did. I felt like the laziest hiker ever, and I loved it. After a couple of hours, we roused again, and made some dinner. Sunset came around 8:45, and it was back to bed. We had some fearsome lightning storms come through around 1 a.m., which kept us up for a while, but they left by 2 or so, and back to sleep it was.
The next day consisted of trying to find a new way up and out of the Wichitas. Against all odds and some slight misdirection on my part, we got there, and before long, were back at the trailhead.

The end of a hike in the Wichitas means a lunch at Meers Burgers. Katie, the lil' Yankee, downed a pound of longhorn, fried green tomatoes, and fried okra, washed down by an RC Cola. I was so proud. :)

We went to Oklahoma City that night. Katie and I drank at Toby Keith's bar, walked around, and met up with Lostone and Carmen, his better half, for dinner followed by drinks. Conversation was great, and Katie finally got to meet Lostone. I was happy to see him and Carmen again, too.

The next morning, Memorial Day, we went to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a sight every American needs to see at least once.

That afternoon, back to Broken Arrow along old Route 66, a road every American needs to travel as often as they can.

Tuesday morning, Katie left for Pennsylvania and I'm back alone writing this trip report.
This whole weekend reminded me that truly some of the finest people you'd ever want to meet are on this board. It also reminded me that I'm lucky to live near the Wichitas, and have the opportunity to get out and enjoy them. This has been one of the greatest weekends ever.
All the photos (in reverse order) are here: http://s112.photobucket.com/albums/n174/dustin_hughes/Wichita%20Mountains%20with%20Katie/?start=0

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