Tuesday, June 14, 2011

For Jocelyn

Dear Jocelyn,

Welcome to Oklahoma.  At this time when you are just discovering your hands and the faces, sounds, and smells of those who love you it seems perhaps a little silly to tell you who you are and about this state of which you have just become a part. But I am your grandfather and I think you will forgive me if I have become a little silly at just the reality of your very existence.  As we are all, you have just become a part of something so much bigger than yourself and this is really my way of reflecting on the wondrous way you have come to be.  This Oklahoma is a patchwork of leftovers and smaller pieces of states and territories.  It really did not begin its existence as anything more than a place of refuge for tribes of Native People displaced by the encroachment of settlers in the east.  They were pushed to Indian Territory along what came to be called The Trail of Tears.  It was a terrible hardship that forever changed and shaped the tribes that endured it.  One of those tribes was the Cherokee.  If family lore is correct and I have no reason to believe it is not, you share the heritage of the Cherokee through your Great Great Great Grandmother, Emma Jane Ford Stahl.  By now your Cherokee blood is greatly diluted but even the small portion that courses through your veins links you to those who made that arduous journey and I hope gives you an appreciation for their contribution to the person that you are and the person you shall become.  Grandmother Emma Jane did not make the journey to Indian Territory but, through us and you, she has joined her people in this land.  In the late 1800s, Oklahoma Territory was opened to settlement through a series of land runs and lotteries.  The prospects of land ownership and freedom burned in the hearts and blood of people worldwide who came to Oklahoma seeking new lives and new opportunities.  Italians came to work the mines of southeastern Oklahoma.  Czechs, Germans, and Poles settled the hills and plains of central Oklahoma.  All-Black towns sprang up as former slaves and the children of slaves made new beginnings.  This patchwork state became a patchwork of human diversity, much like you.
From your ancestors you inherit English, German, Irish, Scottish, and Norwegian bloodlines that date back centuries to the Black Forest region of Germany, the cold climes of Scandinavia, and the British Isles, and from your Cherokee roots, the eastern United States.  This is your genetic makeup.  There is much more to you, of course, than your genes. From your father, I hope you inherit his compassion, and his brilliant and artistic mind.  From your mother, I hope you inherit her kind and loving spirit, and her devotion to caring for others.  Your name is Jocelyn Meadow because of your parents' desire to connect you to something green, beautiful, and lasting.  The world is your meadow right now.  You are the result of a caldron of swirling chance and opportunity that brought you to this place in time; more miracle than chance, probably.  You do not know yet that your parents were born in the same hospital and they would not have been if at least one each of your grandparents had not somehow found their way to Oklahoma.  This is not a story entirely exclusive to you.  I know that there are so many similar stories out there but these forces that brought you here bind us all together-all of us-as we make our way through this world.  Oklahoma is no better than its people and as you become a part of it I can not wait to see what you will make of it.  You do not feel the weighty responsibility of it yet so I will delight in the lighter things; watching you grow, telling you stories, taking you fishing, and showing you the wonders of this land that is your home.  It will be the best job I have ever had or ever will.
With love,

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Mystical Prairie Refuge

There are few places in Oklahoma as full of mystery and myth than the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton.  The almost 60,000 acre refuge was established in 1901 and it abounds with Native American lore, stories of Spanish gold mines, lost graves, and hidden treasure. Legends say the James Gang hid stolen gold here.

It was refuge for the Comanches, the Wichita Tribe traces its origins to the mountains, and legendary Kiowa Chief, Lone Wolf may be buried there in an unmarked grave.  The mountains themselves are among the oldest in North America-possibly 500 million years old.  The rocky peaks are rounded by wind and time, huge bouldered stacks more than anything else.
My own fascination with the Wichita Mountains began when I scarcely knew anything else about Oklahoma.  I was living in Wichita Falls, Texas and a visit to the refuge was a welcome diversion from the flat, monotonous landscape of north Texas.  I camped at the base of Mount Scott and climbed the mountain all the way to the top, oblivious to the rattlesnakes I knew inhabited the boulders. The view from Mount Scott is one of the most spectacular in the state.  I wondered at the bison and longhorn cattle that wander unimpeded through the range and visited the prairie dog towns.  I thrilled at the occasional glimpse of the elk, once numerous on the plains, that now, again, inhabit the area.
The refuge is vast and rugged and you can easily lose your perspective in the vastness.  It is worthwhile to take pause from time to time to examine the small things that also add to the tapestry of the Wichitas.  A wonderful place to do that is on the Dogwood Hollow National Recreation Trail.
The trail winds through a very accessible part of the refuge, past meadows and ponds, over rocks and through the woods, encompassing an elegant slice of the ecology of this anomaly of the prairie.  This is where you have a chance to see the little things, the wildflowers, the grain of the rock, so like ribs of the earth.  This is where you see more of the refuge than you will ever see from the window of your car as you pass through.  You can quickly realize that, beyond the grandeur of rocky peaks, the massive bulk of the bison and longhorn, and the vast open meadows, is a smaller world, just as fascinating and just as intricate.  The ecology of the refuge is staggering; 50 mammal, 240 bird, and more than 800 plant species, call this place home for all or part of the year.  You will see many of these creatures and plants on your hike.
Come to the Wichitas to hear the treasure tales if that is your wish  but stay to discover the real treasure, a chance to experience the beauty and mystique of a preserved area of ecology and history that has no equal in Oklahoma.  
All photographs by Ron Stahl
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Lure of the Mother Road

There is nothing in Oklahoma that fascinates me more than the lure of Route 66.  I was mowing my lawn one summer Saturday when three motorcycles pulled into my driveway.  A leather-clad rider stepped off the bike and informed me in French-accented English that he was lost.  He and his two companions had flown to Chicago from Paris, rented Harleys and set out from Chicago to L.A. on Route 66.  He wondered if I could show him the way back to the Mother Road.  Are you kidding me?  Of all the people to stop and ask, he stopped at the home of an employee of the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department.  I fixed them up with maps, travel guides, small plastic compasses with the Oklahoma State Park logo, told them the best places to stop and see between OKC and Amarillo and waved them on their way west.  I'm fairly certain they were thinking every Okie is helpful and friendly.  I hope they thought that anyway.  
I have met many Europeans at stops along Route 66 and I am always amazed that the fire to see the Mother Road burns so brightly among these visitors from another continent.  Sir Paul McCartney even drove the road and spent a few days in Oklahoma.  A Beatle!  Such is the magic of the historic highway.
The road also is a powerful elixir for Americans.  Take Laurel and David Kane, a couple of Route 66 collectors from Connecticut.  In 1999, the Kanes packed up their stuff and set out to find a new home on Route 66.  In Laurel Kane's words, "We just decided that we would pack it all up and, pack up the antique cars and the Route 66 memorabilia and find a place to restore on Route 66.  And we traveled the entire length of Route 66 from Chicago to L.A. in one of the old cars incidentally, and this is the place we found."
The place they found is Afton Station, an historic stop on Route 66 in Afton, Oklahoma since the 1930s.  The antique cars are David's collection of old Packards.  The cars and Laural Kane's collection of Mother Road memorabilia now fill the old station and draw thousands of visitors every year.  You have to admire a love so strong that you leave behind what you know and start over with a leap of faith because, somehow, you know this is where you belong.  But even Laural Kane finds it hard to describe the fascination with the legend of Route 66. "I think people just want to get back to their roots and get out of the rush and the hurry-scurry and see the small towns and see what’s between the small towns and look at cows and goats and silos and not always look at the city", she says. 
And perhaps it's just because some people, like David and Laurel Kane, are simply living in the wrong time.  David's Packard collection is proof that he prefers the olden days of elegance in transportation and the lure of a legend.  "They weren’t built for the masses, I guess", he explains. "They were the type of an automobile that’s a pretty high-end car.  They were the cars that in the old days that the guys at General Motors strived to build a car like it and hence the Cadillac.  Ford got into the Lincolns because of the car like a Packard. And so they were doctors’ and lawyers’ and Indian chief's type of automobile."
If you think that the Kanes are in it for the money, forget it.  Almost nothing in the Afton Station is for sale.  They do what they do for the fun of it, for the love of the road, and for all of us who would love to follow our dreams but do not have the courage to do it.  Such is the lure of Route 66.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Bavinger House: Art Meets Architecture

What happens when an eclectic artist meets an equally eclectic architect?  The answer lies in the Bavinger House in Norman, Oklahoma.  In 1950, artist and teacher Eugene Bavinger asked architect Bruce Goff to design a home that would reflect his artistic spirit- novel and without boundaries.  What resulted is a home unlike any other.  Goff was Chairman of the University of Oklahoma School of Architecture, an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, and he already had the famous Art Deco masterpiece Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa to his credit. His years at the university were during what many consider his creative peak. Bavinger is credited with perfecting an acrylic glass-on-canvas technique that created paintings exceptionally fluid and reflective.  It was preordained that the Bavinger House would be special indeed.  The dream was realized in 1955 when the house was completed.  From ground level, the house tightly spirals toward the heavens around a large iron pipe in the middle. The structure is held together and supported inside and out with cables.  A bridge on one side is a counterbalance to stabilize the house.  Save the bathroom and the kitchen, there are no real rooms in the Bavenger House.  The interior is open throughout, a fish pond winds through the living area.  The bedrooms hang from the ceiling and once featured wrap-around curtains that could be closed for privacy.  The closets are large, round military surplus bomb shipping containers.  The house was finished the year Bob Bavinger was born and it was a Valentine present for his mother.  For a youngster, it was a giant playhouse.  He told me, "If you wanted to be a little monkey and run around, it was truly fun to grow up in. Originally the fish pond that’s here came all the way over and from my two and three year old days, I played with the fish in my stroller in the fish pond, so that was a lot of fun.  We had a duck and it was in the fish pond a lot."  Bavinger admits that it wasn't like everyone's house, but it was a home where one could have as much or as little privacy as they desired.  At times, the house is almost magical.  Goff left the interior rock walls in their natural condition and the ledges of stone in the living area became shelves where orchids were displayed.  Large chunks of green glass are set in the walls and when the sun is right, they glow.
Some consider Bavinger House Goff's finest creation while others wonder if it was even a liveable structure.  Bob Bavinger says it was, and he is fulfilling a promise he made to his mother and father to open the house for tours.  Some of Eugene Bavinger's paintings are displayed in the house and Bob says his parents wanted people to appreciate his father as an artist and Goff as an architect; two incredibly creative people who merged their talents to bring to life one of the world's unique dwellings.  He has created the Bavinger House Conservancy, a non-profit organization to raise money for the upkeep of the landmark home.  He intends, he says, to preserve, "an alternative way to live, compared to what some people call ticky-tacky boxes."
There is no chance that Bavinger House will ever be mistaken for a ticky-tacky box.

All photographs by Ron Stahl
Bavinger House Conservancy

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Walk Through An Ancient Forest

I shall never forget the mortal toil of flesh and spirit and my wanderings through the Cross Timbers. ~Washington Irving.
When Washington Irving wrote about his tour of the American prairie in the 1830's, he was compelled to write about his travails passing through the Cross Timbers, the dense belt of hardwood forest that cinched what would become Oklahoma like a belt.  It was nearly impenetrable to his mounted expedition, slapped by low hanging branches and slowed to a crawl by the dense undergrowth.  The Cross Timbers extended from southern Kansas, across central Oklahoma, and into Texas.  It contained some of our nation's oldest forest growth.  Agriculture soon claimed most of the old Cross Timbers but isolated patches of the old-growth forest still exist.  One part that is easily visited today is the Keystone Ancient Forest, on the shore of Lake Keystone near Sand Springs. 
When I visited, Grant Gerondale, the Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Sand Springs, talked about the age of these trees.  "The oldest tree that’s been found out here is well over 500 years old, so we’re talking about something that goes back to about the time of Christopher Columbus, so where else can you go to see something that was perhaps a seedling or a sapling that was alive the day that Washington Irving passed underneath on horseback."
It is easy to dismiss the importance of the Keystone Ancient Forest at first glance because these are not majestic redwoods or lofty pines, they are gnarly oaks and twisted cedars, shaped by the hardscrabble existence on the rocky hillsides, stunted by drought, their tops knocked off by ice and wind.  In their own way, though, they are majestic.  They are a microcosm of the history of America, a last visage of treasured Native American hunting grounds, and survivors of natural and man-made disasters.  Again, Grant Gerondale, "Well, what you are looking at is the product of hundreds and hundreds of years of undisturbed forest.  We’ve got the Arkansas River to the south and lots of rocky, hilly terrain, and so over the centuries, Native American-set fires have changed the landscape.  These trees have survived."  
The Arkansas River created a barrier between this plot of forest and fires that swept up from Texas.  The land was too hilly and rocky to be desirable to developers, so while the land around the forest surrendered to suburbs, this plot was spared.  These days protection also comes courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.
Trails created in partnership between the City of Sand Springs and the Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department take you through the forest and even to the shore of Lake Keystone.  Guided walks can help you understand better the significance of what you are seeing.  Tours are arraigned through the Sand Springs Parks Department. 
The forest is a wonderful place for hikers, birders, and nature lovers but when you walk the trails, do not just look at these gnarled survivors-see them through the eyes of a bygone past.  Do not look for the beauty, for they are not really beautiful.  Imagine the hunting parties, imagine Washington Irving and his band of explorers fighting their way through the brush, consider the forest as a portrait of the way Oklahoma was, captured for all time by the luck of geography and the care of thoughtful stewards of the land.
  Photos by Ron Stahl

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Racing Back in Time

When I was a youngster I had a subscription to Hot Rod Magazine and every month I went through it like a beaver through a log.  I followed the exploits of hot rod heroes like Gas Ronda, Dyno Don Nicholson, and Wild Bill Elliot.  They blasted through the quarter-mile and around the oval at unbelievable speeds, at least to a kid with a '58 Ford Fairlane.  I loved reading about those guys and most of the kids I hung with were also obsessed with speed.  I grew out of that eventually and most of my friends did, too.  Brent Hajek never did.  Brent owns Hajek Motorsports Museum in Ames, Oklahoma and behind the doors of what was the elementary school in Ames lies every car-buff's dream.  Brent has been collecting hot rods since the 1970's when he started wondering what happened to the cars his  heroes drove.  "Back in the 70’s, after the gas shortage and all that, people were just disregarding these cars", he says.  "And  you could buy them for almost nothing.  We got to looking and said, you know, Dyno Don Nicholson, or Gas Ronda, or whomever, these guys are my heroes, you know.  I said, man, you could go out there and pay a couple of hundred bucks and buy one of Jungle Jim’s old funny cars or Gas Ronda’s Mustang, or something like that.  It was crazy.  It just seemed to me like it was a terrible waste that these cars were just being disregarded and thrown away. You know, I mean it was like walking out to a junk pile and somebody was stirring a trash pile with Mickey Mantle’s bat."
Brent is way too proud of these things to just lock them up and keep them to himself.   He practically invented nostalgia racing.  He took those by-gone glories to tracks all over the country and staged dream races.  After all, he had cars representing more than fifty world championships among them.  He figured other people wanted to see them racing again as much as he did, and he was right.  His biggest thrill might have been at Daytona when they had the 50th anniversary of of the Daytona 500 a few years ago.  He figured out that of only seven surviving Daytona 500 winning cars, he owned three of them.  They got another day in the sun and Brent still gets excited when he talks about it.
"At Daytona, we actually ran the cars around the track.  You know, pre-race ceremony.  That was kind of a cool deal.  And at the same time we had another car, the Gas Ronda Mustang at Pamona at the Winter Nationals.  It was on the west coast at the NHRA Winter Nationals going on at the same time, and we had that car out there doing some exhibition stuff."  You don't have go to Daytona to see these classic cars.  When they are not on loan to other museums or running a nostalgia race somewhere, they're on display at Hajek Motorsports Museum in Ames-a little off the beaten path but definitely worth the trip.  Make an appointment, enjoy some legendary cars and, if you're lucky, meet Brent Hajek, a hot rod freak who grew up, but not out of it.  
Photos by Ron Stahl
Hajek Motorsports Museum link

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Gourdaphile and the Zen Spoon Master

Hungry Holler Art Center is tucked away in a quiet corner of Grand Lake in northeast Oklahoma.  You can find it by looking for the bicycles in the trees on the driveway and the large peace symbol that welcomes you in.  It is home to two of the most interesting and unique artists you will ever meet-Jan Meng, the Gourdaphile, and her husband, Marc Meng, The Zen Spoon Master.  In 1989, the Mengs bought a newspaper in Grove, Oklahoma and settled in the nearby community of Eucha.  After retiring from the newspaper business, they assumed their new identities.  Jan is an artist who shuns the canvas and clay.  She prefers to work with gourds and not just any gourds.  She really loves lagenaria siceraria gourds, large and lumpy specimens that soon sport comic features and bottle cap eyes.  
It's not that she hasn't tried to work with conventional art media.  She says, "In fact, my father is an artist and for a number of years he would send me a canvas for my birthday or Christmas.  He was always trying to paint on something white and flat.  And I’ll tell you what, flat and white is intimidating to me.  I need a curved surface with bumps and imperfections on it.  And I still have those canvases stacked up against a wall in my bedroom."
Jan and Mark grow the gourds in their yard and each year's crop is stockpiled until they become what they would be anyway if nature had Jan's imagination.  
In finding her medium, Jan also became a gourdaphile, an unapologetic champion for gourds. "They’re wonderful.  They’re like the world’s first Tupperware.  I like them because they are organic,  they’re useful.  They are eternal in human scale.  The ones you keep indoors can last thousands of years.  In fact, gourd using cultures consider them heirlooms and they pass them down through generations, their favorite gourds.  And that’s how I feel about them.  So if they’re going to be forever, I want them to be fabulous."
And fabulous they are!
The lawn at Hungry Holler is also an art gallery, strewn with Marc Meng's metal sculptures.  Box fans become large wind catchers that come alive when the breezes blow.  Other found objects are incorporated with small mirrors that change the artwork when sunbeams and reflections become part of the piece.  If it can be welded, soldered, wired, or otherwise connected, it can become art in Marc's clever hands.  Art festival goers, though, probably know Marc Meng by his other name, The Zen Spoon Master.
"The spoons got foisted on me," Marc says.  "Jan asked me to make her a spoon about 15 years ago.  And I was sculpting and as I was sitting making that spoon, I thought, this is the most boring, tedious thing I ever did.  Hope I don’t have to do this for a living.  And I’d say since then I’ve probably made 10 or 15-thousand spoons."
Marc uses more than 80 different kinds of wood, both common and exotic, to carefully create beautiful spoons, creations that are also utilitarian.  To alleviate the boredom, he also produces graceful and lovely wood sculptures, using the natural shapes, grains, and hues of the material to guide him.  After years of dealing with fact in the newspaper business, the Gourdaphile and The Zen Spoon Master have settled into a world of fantasy, turning gourds and blank wood into fanciful works of art.
Photos by Ron Stahl
Hungry Holler Website