It’s nearly the end of the semester. It’s that part of the spring that finds me sitting in one class, worrying about what I’m not getting done in another. I’ve been looking forward to spending a whole weekend at home, doing labs for structural geology. So of course, on Thursday night, when Bryan suggests that we pack up and leave on Friday for the Wichita Mountains in western Oklahoma, I think that sounds fine.
I do love the Wichitas, and he knows it. It’s been several years since we’ve been there and he also knows that I’m a sucker for a good road trip. By the time I walk out of my Thursday-night class, our plans are made: we’ll stay up late packing, pick up Kathy after work on Friday, and meet Mitch and his kids along the way.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, we roll across the cattle guards into the wildlife reserve. Kathy mumbles herself awake to find longhorn cattle wandering in the road in front of us. A short distance further, we pass a buffalo on the shoulder of the highway in the night. The caretaker at Camp Doris has left the gates open, so we’re able to drive in and find a campsite. I think we’re mostly asleep before we finish setting up our tents and hanging our hammocks.
Saturday morning, we move our camp across the road to a better site on the shore of Quanah Parker Lake before heading to Cache to eat breakfast at the Dirty Diner (aka The Trading Post ). The Dirty Diner is, in fact, an important part of our trips to the Wichitas. It’s gross, really awful, and it’s always the same. The door is held together with duct tape. There are old recliners and washing machines, under piles of newspapers, in the entryway. And a wheelbarrow. With a dirty bucket in it. Inside, late on a busy morning, none of the empty tables have been cleared. The plates don’t match, and the coffee cups are from any number of churches and schools and muffler shops. The walls are concrete block and the windowsills are peeling and dirty. In the corner there are crusty flyswatters and an old shelf full of some kind of bedraggled vines. The exciting new feature on this visit is sugar shakers with ants inside. The ants are pretty quiet, for the most part, but when the shakers were moved they get excited and start crawling around everywhere. The other breakfast-eaters are of this place, and are at home here, reading the Choctaw newspaper, spilling things, talking with each other. We’re from off, and we all know it, but they’re not unkind.
We like the Dirty Diner, and we always eat here. The food is simple and genuinely good, especially the omelets and the pancakes and the biscuits. There’s plenty to eat, and it’s cheap. The skinny middle-aged waitress is pleasant. Nobody we know has ever actually been sick after eating here. And there’s some charm in the place, too. Though there are many different kinds of plates and cups in the room, the waitress makes sure that what’s on each table matches: three amber plastic cups at our table, a couple of smooth blue glasses at the next table over. Outside, an old man tells me about the short-legged, chunky blue heeler in the parking lot. “His name’s Caddy. On account of he was born in an old Cadillac over there. Won’t find a better cattle dog. He’s retired now, and lives here, and his life’s pretty damned good.” The old man continues. “Came down to get some breakfast for the wife. Now I don’t have to cook!” Pleased with this idea, he gets into a red Prius and drives off.
The Dirty Diner will surprise you like that, if you let it.
Charon’s Garden Wilderness is our hiking project for the day, and we grab our bags and get on the trail quickly. We head off toward Elk Slabs, a good climbing area a few miles off. The day is pretty and blue, and the terrain so much different from home that we can’t help but enjoy it. The trail’s not clear but we never get far off. At the little waterfall, I remember: this is the place we brought Mandy the spring after she broke her leg. She’d been out of the wheelchair for awhile but had only been off her crutches for a couple of weeks. While she was cautious about scrambling, she was also overjoyed to have regained some freedom. Is that why she loves the Wichitas so much? Is it because somehow, without meaning to, she remembers that this is the place where she learned to hike again?
Near Elk Slabs, we eat lunch at the rock shelter under tumbled, big-as-a-house boulders. Under one, in a pool, Kathy sees a discarded water bottle. Crash crawls through an impossible crack to get into the space underneath. After handing the bottle out to Monkey, she shoves herself back up through the hole but gets stuck. It takes some caving skill and some patience to back up, wiggle around, and move some smaller rocks around, but finally she gets through.
The last hiking stop of the afternoon is the parallel ‘forest.’ Years ago, the man who owned this land planted cedars to use as fence posts. Before they were mature, the government bought the property, and let the cedars stand. Now there are acres and acres of hundred-year-old cedars, planted in parallel rows.
Nick and Rachel want to see the Holy City of the Wichitas. The Holy City is mostly a series of outdoor ‘sets,’ made of native granite, for an annual Easter Play. The kids enjoyed playing around on Pontius Pilate’s throne room. Nick tried to be serious, on his cross. It’s hard to do with his sister on the next cross over, singing Monty Python songs.
Supper on Saturday night is at the Riverside in Medicine Park. The food is good but unremarkable; the thing I like about this restaurant is that, when they expanded, they built AROUND the big trees on the riverbank. The lobby and part of the dining area have big tree trunks coming up through the floor and out through the ceiling.
Medicine Park is built almost entirely of ‘cannonballs’, chunks of granite weathered into spheres when their temperature dropped quickly as they were exposed at the surface. There are lots of these rocks in the Medicine Park area, so when people needed construction materials for the outside of homes and businesses, this is what they chose. The newer buildings are sided with cannonballs, too. Medicine Park feels pretty touristy, so it’s not my favorite place, but there’s a nice little riverfront walk, and an entertainingly explicit buffalo sculpture.
Sunday morning, Kathy decides to stay in camp to do some schoolwork, while the rest of us visit the Forty Foot Hole area. This may be my favorite part of the refuge, and after today, I’m certain it’ll be Monkey’s favorite part, too. Nick (now named The Goat) scrambled around on the rocks just behind his sister. The two of them covered a lot of ground, up, down, and around, while we grownups stayed closer to the river itself.
Mandy carried her camera on Sunday and spent some time taking photos of her friends. She used to say she wanted to grow up into a National Geographic photographer. I spent some summer days watching her with her camera, thinking that I’d end up with some postcards on my walls of my cheap-ass room in the nursing home.
On the way back to pick up Kathy, we get sidetracked by the trail to French Lake. The footbridge just past the parking lot has washed out, but the park has thoughtfully installed a rail instead. Monkey gets most of the way across before losing her balance and finishing the trip crawling UNDER the rail, sloth-style. Nick makes it partway and then scootches across on his butt. Mandy makes it across upright, finally, but by that time we’ve all wandered off and nobody’s really paying attention anymore.
Decades ago, when a lot of CCC work happened in the area, the French Lake Dam was designed to include a very nice fish ladder. The guidebook we have indicates that the ladder was a failure “because there are no species of migratory fish native to western Oklahoma.” The French Lake Dam is overengineering at its finest.
After a stop at our campground to gather up Kathy and her gear, we head home. It’s a 100% Signorelli two-car road trip with ibuprofen and truck stops and ice cream and lessons on how to moon other vehicles. Remember how I’d meant to use this weekend to catch up on schoolwork? I’ll bet you know how much I got done. None. None at all. And I’m not the least little bit sorry.