The TAT through Oklahoma is a bit daunting: 675 miles of rural roads. While navigationally not so challenging in the western section due to the tidy grid pattern, it demands your attention in the East where this changes and becomes more serpentine. Sam Correro who developed the TAT is emphatic about not trying to attempt the trail from West to East as we are. Since we are using his roll charts which were written for an East to West path, we must reset our trip odometer at every trail marker on his chart, verify GPS coordinates and try to think like “Contrarians” as we translate every left turn into a right turn and vice-a-versa. We can only fathom that attempting the route in this direction traveling solo would be very demanding. Meeting our goal of 200 miles a day is elusive even with two heads reverse engineering the route.
What is remarkable about the Oklahoma Panhandle is the unremarkable landscape that was center stage for the dustbowl of the 1930’s. It is immense and flat. The remnants of past dreams in the form of decaying farmhouses around which today’s smarter farmers work the land serve as reminders, afraid to disturb the ghosts of the past. This history documented in the book “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan is an important part of our nation’s identity and experience.
Left-right-left-right….we work our way through the seemingly endless flat ocean of prairie grass. Eventually the terrain starts to develop some bumps in the topography as we near the end of the day and need to find a campsite. Oklahoma unlike our home states has little public land on which you can boondock. We peruse our maps and the logical place for us to camp is about 8 miles off our route at the Great Salt Plains State Park. Again, another eerie place…the Ranger Station is closed when we arrive and the campground is empty. The adjacent town of Vining appears abandoned and there is absolutely no one in the park. There are inhabitants though…thousands of pelicans, egrets, whooping cranes, cormorants, buzzards and crows! The water is saline like an inland sea and home to all the same birds we would expect to see on the Pacific Ocean coast. It seems very strange to us indeed.
We pick a campsite near the spillway and furthest from the road. We have a snack based dinner of chips, salsa and guacamole before exploring the huge dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers and the shore of this National Wildlife Preserve established in 1930. In the southern sky we can see that a storm is brewing and we decide to check in on the weather. We learn that thunderstorms are predicated for 3 AM so we hunker down for the night. At 10 PM the “far-off” lightning flashes start….then the thunder get closer….closer still…before we know it, the sound of heavy cannon fire is above our heads and the sky lights up with super nova bright flashes of light! The rain pours down. Lew, hiding in the “safety” of his sleeping bag and has removed his hearing aid for the night, covers his ears because the thunder is so loud. Never in our lives have we experienced thunder so immediate and that continues to rumble for 15-20 seconds like hunger pangs of an angry beast. The sky manifests its displeasure with us mere mortals for the next two hours until it slowly moves on to torment others…..exhausted by the experience, we finally fall asleep….thankfully.