West to the Panhandle

I opened the motel room curtains on Wednesday morning and it was sunny and bright outside, like almost every other day since I arrived in Oklahoma City a week earlier.  Had I really been here for a week?  Watching 16 softball games in six days was my limit, so now that I’d visited the wonderfully-named Del City and parked at an official Oklahoma City parking meter, I figured that not only was my life complete, but that it was time to mosey on, as they say here in the Sooner state.  I’d listen to Game 3 of the WCWS between the University of Oklahoma and Auburn tonight on the radio, somewhere out in the Oklahoma panhandle.

Above:  After spending six days in Oklahoma City and watching my fill of softball games, I got on Interstate 40 and headed west, stopping in Clinton and the Washita Battlefield near Cheyenne. That evening I pulled into Black Mesa State Park, in the far western Oklahoma panhandle, during a lively thunderstorm.

I said goodbye to the cheerful staff at the front desk of America’s Best Value Inn and decided that, while it might not be the best value inn in America, it came pretty close.  I was so glad that I decided to stay here for six nights rather than at Lake Thunderbird State Park with its ultra-creepy restroom (see News: June 1, 2016). And by selling my extra softball ticket, I made enough money to cover just about my entire motel bill.  Of course, if the nearby University of Oklahoma hadn’t made it to the WCWS, I would’ve taken a hit.  But like I said before, I didn’t buy the extra ticket to make any money, but rather to give me some seating flexibility – and that it did. 

After packing up my truck, I stopped at a nearby Target to stock up on groceries, then I hit the road – er, turnpike.  Jeez, living on the West Coast and in Qatar for so many years, I hadn’t seen a turnpike since forever.  But after a few miles of dishing out quarters, I got onto Interstate 40 where the driving is free and easy, like a girl I knew in high school.

Heading west on I-40 a few hours later, I saw a sign for a Route 66 museum in the upcoming town of Clinton, Oklahoma, which I thought was a funny name for a town in this part of the country.  Back in the 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain, Oklahoma was the only state in which every county went for McCain, so I shrewdly guessed that Clinton, Oklahoma probably wasn’t named for either Bill or Hillary.  Heck, she probably won't even get a single vote here in November, I figured.  Nope, this is diehard Trump country. Nevertheless, back in the 1930's, U.S. Route 66 came through Clinton, which back then was in the heart of the Dust Bowl, and now there's a Route 66 museum here to commemorate the highway.

I got off Interstate 40 a mile later and drove to the museum, because I’ve been fascinated with Route 66 ever since I first saw the movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” when I was a little kid.  Yes, a little kid.  My parents took me and my brother to watch that bloody, violent movie when I was just a tyke because my Dad thought it was a musical comedy (you know, Sonny & Cher, Bonnie & Clyde – my Dad wasn’t really into pop culture).  And OK, Bonnie and Clyde didn’t actually travel west on Route 66 with the Okies, but they probably could’ve if they wanted.  My fascination with the story of the Okies and Route 66 and the Great Depression continued to grow over the next few years and was indelibly cemented after I read “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school, so I had to stop at this museum and check it out, just as I’ve stopped at every other Route 66 museum that I’ve ever passed.

After paying the $5 admission fee, I spent a half-hour looking at the displays and taking pictures, thoroughly enjoying it all.  Completed in the 1920’s, Route 66 was the first paved highway across America, extending from Chicago to Santa Monica, near Los Angeles, and during the Great Depression in the 1930s, thousands of migrants traveled on it to the golden pastures of California, seeking work and a better way of life.  After 60 years of service, the highway was decommissioned in the 1980s so there is no longer any official segment of roadway with the designation “US Route 66” anymore, though portions of it still exist in various states of repair or disrepair.  In fact, I had visited a portion of it a few weeks earlier in the California desert (see News: May 19, 2016).

At the end of my tour, I hit the Route 66 gift shop and saw, up on the wall, the exact same large, white “Route 66” metal highway sign that I’ve proudly displayed in my house in Portland, and then in my apartment in Qatar, for the past many years.  I bought it about 20 years ago in a Route 66 gift shop in the tiny town of Seligman, Arizona, which like Clinton is located on the original Route 66 highway, and it was forged by the same metal printing press that had stamped the original Route 66 signs back in the 1920s.  Yep, being a geographer with a strong interest in history, I’m a big fan of Route 66 and everything it conjures up.  Like Bonnie & Clyde.

West from Oklahoma City


Black Kettle and White Lightning

The half-hour I spent at the Route 66 museum in Clinton was well worth it, I figured.  After leaving the museum, I got a big Diet Pepsi at a nearby 7-11, got back in the truck, and continued driving west down Interstate 40, exiting at Elk City, Oklahoma and turning north to the town of Cheyenne.   As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been to about half of the 411 units of the National Park System but one place I’d never been was the Battle of the Washita Historic Park, located just outside of Cheyenne, so I had to check it out. 

I’ve actually been wanting to visit this site since 1970 when I first saw the movie “Little Big Man.”  If you've never seen it, “Little Big Man” was a Western drama/comedy starring Dustin Hoffman that recounted, with various degrees of accuracy, the battles between General George Custer (i.e., Custer’s Last Stand) and the Indians of the American West during the 1800s, and was more entertaining than historically accurate.  The movie depicts the Battle of the Washita quite vividly, perhaps the only recounting of that battle in any film, and as a little kid watching it, the battle scene made quite an impression on me.  Kinda like Bonnie & Clyde.

The peaceful Cheyenne Indian chief, Black Kettle, and his people were camping on the snowy banks of the Washita River in November 1868 when they were suddenly attacked and surprised by Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.  As the Park Service ranger in the Visitor Center told me, the battle wasn’t the one-sided massacre by Custer’s troops that’s portrayed in “Little Big Man,” but rather both sides suffered losses.  And by the way, the Visitor Center here is awesome.  It’s quite new and has some great displays.  Being the only visitor there, and probably one of the few of the entire day, I chatted with the ranger at the front desk for 20 minutes, who explained to me the battle in great detail, then I drove over to the battle site to check it out.

The parking lot for the battle site is about a mile from the Visitor Center, and from there a mile-long trail leads to the banks of the Washita River, where the battle actually occurred that snowy morning.  I drove over to the parking lot and took some pictures of the battle site from afar, but drat, after looking at the clock, I realized I didn’t have time to walk out to the site.  I would’ve really liked to see the battle site, especially since there was no one else out here, but I just didn’t have time – something that continued to gnaw on me the rest of the day.  But I paid my respects to the men and women who lost their lives here (on both sides) and continued down the highway, making a promise to myself, just as I had in 1970 when I first saw "Little Big Man," that someday I’d actually visit the site of the battle.  It took me 46 years to get to the parking lot, so I figured it'll take me another 46 years to actually see the battle site – and by then I'll be as old as Jack Crabb in the movie.

It was now about 3 p.m., and after dipping into Texas briefly, I re-entered Oklahoma, this time in the panhandle, which comprises the far western part of the state.  I do believe this was my first visit to the Oklahoma panhandle and my goal for that evening, being the Extreme Geographer, was to drive as far west in Oklahoma as I could, camping at a place on my map called Black Mesa State Park.  I continued through the towns of Guymon and Boise City, Oklahoma, which I’d seen on the map a thousand times and always wondered what they were like.  As I continued west, first on state highways and then on county roads, the pavement continually narrowed as the sun dipped closer to the horizon, and up ahead, the clouds were ominously dark and foreboding, which I thought fit right in with my Oklahoma experience.  You can’t come to Oklahoma, I figured, and not encounter some nasty weather, especially in the late spring.

I pulled into Black Mesa State Park a half-hour after sunset and with lightning starting to strike in the distant hills.  This park was literally at the end of the road, way out in the boondocks of western Oklahoma, so I figured I’d have the whole place to myself.  Wrong.  It was actually pretty crowded, which surprised me given its extremely remote location and given that it was a Wednesday and not the weekend, but I was able to find a campsite.  After my bad experience at Lake Thunderbird State Park, I was hoping the Oklahoma State Parks Department would redeem themselves with this place, and they mostly did.

As I stopped the truck, the wind began rising considerably and I could hear thunder nearby, and continued to see lightning streaks flash across the horizon.  Then the wind really picked up and the skies darkened even more – a real Wizard of Oz scene – and I got back in my truck for safety, not wanting to appear anything like a lightning rod to the skies above.  It was a pretty wicked thunderstorm which lasted over an hour, but fortunately the brunt of it passed a few miles to the south, which allowed me to get out of the truck and take some time-lapse pictures, trying to capture it all on my Canon DSLR. 

The storm finally died down and I ate some dinner in the warm darkness by the light of a lone candle lantern.  It was a thrilling evening, to put it mildly, and I figured that out here, on the far reaches of Oklahoma, the weather Gods were giving me a dramatic send-off before I headed for the Rockies tomorrow.

And by the way, in Game 3 back in Oklahoma City that evening, Oklahoma beat Auburn, 2-1, so the Sooners are the 2016 National Champions in Division 1 college softball.  But I promise that the Oregon Ducks will be there next year.

Far Western Oklahoma




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