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  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Art of Family

For Cherokee artist Bill Rabbit, finding inspiration was as easy as a childhood romp.  As a youngster growing up in Wyoming, he saw the shapes of animals and people in the clouds over the sagebrush prairie and he reveled in the colors of the western sunsets.  Those colors infuse his paintings with a vibrancy that borders on psychedelia-see the skeleton on the wall behind him.  He told me, "I’ve never seen a rainbow I didn’t like.  So think of the flowers, the trees, just the world full of color.  I tell you, all you have to do is decide what you want to use and how do you want to use it.  I guess I’m really in love with color, the brighter the better, and, you know, I’m just so fortunate there are people out there that like what I do." 
Fortunate, indeed.  Among Cherokee artists, Bill Rabbit is one of the most noted.  His work hangs on the walls of collectors and in private galleries all over the world, and in tribal galleries and buildings throughout the Cherokee Nation.  
One of his greatest works of art, though, may be flesh and blood; his daughter, Traci.  From their studio in Pryor, Oklahoma, Bill and Traci Rabbit are practicing the business and creativity of art and basking in the love of family tradition.
While Bill Rabbit's inspiration came easily and almost as an afterthought, Traci Rabbit's own muse was somewhat harder to find.  Her father encouraged her when she was a small child by giving her brushes and canvas but her style took time and courage to emerge from her father's broad shadow.  
She says, "When I first started painting, inspiration was difficult to come.  I had probably in-the-shadow syndrome; that I couldn’t create enough or couldn’t do it well enough or come up with my own ideas.  And then as I finally started coming into my own, I realized that it was okay because I was being taught.  I was being taught what my dad knew. And then I kind of let go of that disappointment within myself and just kind of let it start flowing."
What flowed out was a gentle stream of Traci's muted portrayals of contemporary Native American women, as visually soft as her father's paintings are jarring-as subtle as evening shadows are to the shock of the noonday sun.
Traci brings something of her own to the family art, a business degree, and it has become invaluable. There are a billion starving artists in the world who cannot make a living, but art from the Rabbit Gallery is available for almost any price range and it sells.  Collectors with a few thousand dollars can have an original to hang on the wall but fans with no great fortune can also take something home for just a few dollars.  The art is on prints, tiles, cups, cards, and jewelry.   The successful marketing efforts allow the Rabbits the freedom to follow their artistic urges and expand.  They have recently become involved in collaborative efforts that are also becoming noticed.  It is this development that brings the most joy to Traci.  "Yes, it’s funny when I started out, being Bill Rabbit’s daughter, people wanted some of my work, being his collectors.  And then as my work grew over the years, I have collectors who only collect my work, not his, and visa-versa.  Now, with our collaboration works, we’re kind of finding a new little area of collectors that like the idea that we’re a father-daughter working together."
The key word is "together" in this family enterprise of art and love. 
Photos by Ron Stahl

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Real Cowboy

A facebook friend of mine recently asked me where she could introduce some foreign exchange students to a real cowboy.  I gave her the short and convenient answer-Stockyards City on sale day.  What I really wanted to tell her was to seek out Kent Rollins.

The first time I became aware of Kent Rollins was 13 or so years ago.  I was watching a video of Kent on a cable TV cooking show.  He was demonstrating his famous Sparklin' Beans recipe for the show host.  She heard him say, "Now, add a can of Sprat."  She said "Spart, what's that?"  He said, "Sprat, sprat, you know, sody pop."  Of course, it was Sprite.  After my laughter ceased and I got up off the floor, I knew I had to meet this guy.  When I finally got the chance I reminded him of the incident and he said, "Yeah, some folks don't understand cowboy."
In a world of guys with big hats and no cattle, Kent Rollins is the real deal, an authentic, born-a-century-too-late cowboy.  He owns the Red River Ranch outside of Hollis in southwest Oklahoma.  It is a working cattle ranch and his hat isn't big, but it is well-worn, with sweat stains honestly earned, and creases no hat maker applied.  He is also a poet and humorist, but his real passion is cowboy cooking.  Real cowboy cooking-Dutch ovens over open flames and smoking coals.  Twice a year, in spring and fall, he brings students to the edge of the Red River to learn the Cowboy Way.
He explains it this way.  "People that come, we’ve had all types.  We’ve had people that are chefs and we’ve had people that are outdoors people but people come away with a different aspect of life as to how they, people, actually cooked back in the 1880’s.  And to learn to cook something in a Dutch oven that you can cook in a conventional oven, they think it’s one of the greatest things in the world."
At the Red River Ranch, students live in tepees, rise at the crack of dawn, fix breakfast, lunch and dinner the way it used to be done and get a chance to experience some cowboy learnin'.  Rollins is a throwback to the time when cowboys lived all day in the saddle and it was the camp cookie who was king on the trail.  The cowboy life was working, eating, and sleeping.  The chuck wagon and the cook's creations were the only things to look forward to at the end of the day.  Bad cooks didn't keep their jobs long.  Good cooks were the stuff of legend. 
In the world of chuckwagon chow, Kent Rollins is a star.  He's gone head-to-head with the likes of Chef Bobby Flay and he travels America teaching eager students that there is nothing you can't cook in a Dutch oven...mostly.  I'll let him tell you in his own words.
"We were doing schools on the coast of Alabama one time and I tell ‘em when we get through every day, Somebody bring something to cook tomorrow and I don’t care what it is, we’ll cook it in a Dutch oven.’   And a lady brought something the next day in an ice chest and she brought it up there and I said, ‘Ma’am, what’d you bring us to cook and she said calamari, and I said what, and she said calamari, and I said Ma’am, if I can’t spell it, I ain’t gonna cook it, I promise ya’.’  I didn’t have a clue what it was and she dug it out of there and I said, ‘No ma’am, we ain’t puttin’ that in none of my cast iron, I promise you.’
So, forget about the calamari but by the time his students finish the course, they have learned that it doesn't take a modern kitchen to produce outstanding food, that you don't need your cellphone or your IPad to learn something exciting, and that there are still some real cowboys out there.  Kent Rollins not only cooks like a cowboy, he ambles the walk, drawls the talk, and recreates a way of life that might disappear if it were not for the likes of him.
He told me, "I can sit out here beside this river 365 days a year and not ever have to go to town, not ever see nothin’, but I’m glad that changes have been made.  Not all of them have been for the better, but I’m glad that I was raised up in an era that I know what it used to be like and them values are still important to me today."
 Photos by Ron Stahl
Kent Rollins' next Cowboy Cooking School is set for March 23-27 at the Red River Ranch.  You could probably find no better use of your time...and you get to meet a real cowboy.
Kent Rollins website  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Heaven on a Plate

I have eaten some spectacular meals at some of the finest restaurants in Oklahoma, but if you want to find the way to my heart through my stomach, make me a cheeseburger.  It is, in my humble opinion, the perfect food.  Got protein, got some carbs, and, with lettuce and tomato..a salad.  Culinary balance in one delicious package.  Oh yes! I am salivating right now.  Don't just take my word for it, look to Jimmy Buffett for advise on how to reach Paradise on a plate.  Or, consider this, when Waylon Jennings asked his wife, Jessi Coulter, where she wanted her 25th anniversary dinner, she told him Hank's Hamburgers in Tulsa.  Hank's is one of Oklahoma's great burger joints, boasting a giant four-patty monster, The Big Okie.
The Big Okie burger is not for the fainthearted or the diet-conscious but it could provide four days rations in case of emergency.  If that isn't enough, if you ask them, they will make one bigger than that.  Oh my!
Around lunch time in Mangum, Oklahoma, the town square fills with wonderful smells radiating from the Hamburger Inn.  The aroma of grilling meat is an intoxicating path to the Inn and makes it almost impossible not to follow your nose.  In fact, you might find that your feet don't touch the ground as you are pulled toward the source.  Mangum's Hamburger Inn has been feeding hungry folks for 80 years and was the first in what became a chain of Hamburger Inns around the state.  
 Bonnie Parker & Amy Darden show the Hamburger Inn's creations
Owner Bonnie Parker and her crew know how to turn out near-perfection on a bun.  The restaurant has expanded far beyond the original 15X15 space and added an extensive menu that includes lots of other things besides burgers, but the burger is still king here and you can have it your way.
Hamburger Inn, Mangum, Oklahoma 
You can't mention hamburgers in Oklahoma without talking about the legendary Meersburger.  The community of Meers, on the north side of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, consists really of only one thing, the Meers Store and Restaurant.  The Meersburger will stun you when they deliver it to your table, totally covering the plate and cut into four pieces because it really is that big.  It also is made with longhorn beef, 97% lean, so you get a modicum of healthful intentions.  As big as it is, it really is only 8 ounces of meat-longhorn beef doesn't shrizzle, so it is an honest 8 ounces.  Owner Joe Maronto has a legitimate claim to serving the best burger in Oklahoma and one of the best in America-really.
Meers Store & Restaurant  
There are some outstanding Oklahoma-grown burger chains that serve mouthwatering burgers.  Sonic, on a large scale, (come on, admit it, Sonic makes some tasty burgers), Ron's Hamburgers and Chili, born in Tulsa and expanding, and Irma's Burger Shack in Oklahoma City.  Ron's features a gigantic big-as-a-plate burger, half beef, half sausage, covered in award-winning chili and topped with cheese.  Gut-buster, indeed!
Ron's Burgers & Chili 
 Irma's Burgers
The signature Irma's burger is made from all-natural beef from the No-Name Ranch.  The two Irma's locations in Oklahoma City are packed for lunch and, yes, despite all the other things on the menu, the burgers are the most popular.  Irma's has transformed a simple dish into art.
Irma's Burger Shack
These are just a few of Oklahoma's outstanding burger joints and there are far too many to write about in one short blog.  For instance, I didn't even touch El Reno's famous onion burger spots.  I'll save that for another time.
People ask me all the time about my favorite restaurants and I find it hard to answer that question because it all depends on where I am when I get hungry. 
There is no hesitation when I am cornered about my favorite food, though.  I love to wrap my hands around a bun filled with ground beef, topped with cheese, garnished with lettuce, tomatoes and onions, dripping just slightly with enough grease to add flavor...I think I just killed any latent vegetarian thoughts I might harbor.  RIP veggie burgers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Disappearing Dance of Life

It may still be winter but beneath the howl of the frigid wind you can almost hear the stirring of the heart of spring in northwest Oklahoma.  In about 60 days, the lesser prairie chicken breeding season will begin and so will a mating ritual older than recorded history.

     Historical journals tell us that when settlers arrived in Oklahoma lesser prairie chickens were so numerous that wagons could not avoid crushing nests along the trail.  Loss of habitat, red cedar encroachment, over-hunting in the early days, and predation have reduced the distribution of the creature to southwestern Kansas, a portion of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, and a small area of west Texas.  In Oklahoma, the lesser prairie chicken population may be just over 2,000 birds and they are nearing the brink of extinction in our state.
     The Selman Ranch, near Buffalo, north of Woodward, is one area where you can see the lesser prairie chicken in a natural habitat.  The mating season can begin in late March and continue through April and into mid-May.  Owner Sue Selman conducts tours to see the birds as their mating ritual plays out in the leks, or booming grounds, on her property.  It is a spectacle that can be life-changing. 
     Selman says, “It’s hard to describe what it’s like, sitting there in the blind and listening to them come in in the dark and seeing them dance and prance.  They’re beautiful little birds and they’re so fun to watch, and it’s a very unique experience. You have to be there to truly appreciate it.”
     Selman’s tours are generally conducted through the month of April when the mating season is in its peak.  Visitors sit in blinds in the lek while the prairie chicken roosters bob and weave, dance and pose, in hopes of attracting the attention on an amorous female.  The male birds come back to the same lek year after year and the boundaries were established long before man disturbed the cycle.  
 The dance is familiar and after a while you realize that you have seen it before, even if you have never seen the lesser prairie chicken version.  Plains tribes adopted the intricate steps of the ritual into dance and you see variations of it in Native American dance competitions.
    Sue Selman has marked her fences with white plastic strips so that the birds can avoid flying into them.  She has become a champion for the lesser prairie chicken in Oklahoma.  For her efforts, the Oklahoma Audubon Society named the Selman Ranch as one of the first two Oklahoma Important Birding Areas.  The other was the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge.  She is a woman on a mission to call attention to the plight of these endangered natural treasures.
   “It just really makes me heartsick to think that they would be gone,” she says.  “Some people don’t understand why you care or why should we care but you start losing species, it’s not long before we’re in trouble. And it’s more than just another bird or a bird, it’s a way of life and it’s saying a lot about the way we take care of the land or don’t take care of the land.”
    There are many species of birds on the Selman Ranch and bird watchers and photographers are becoming more aware of its pristine opportunities for filling life lists and photo albums, but the prairie chicken is still the star.
     The prairie chicken viewing tours on the Selman Ranch have drawn visitors all over America to witness this vanishing spectacle and the City of Woodward and the Oklahoma Audubon Society have teamed to create the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival to educate others about the species.  The 2011 festival is set for April 15-21, with field trips and workshops.
    People who come are anxious to see this natural dance of life before it disappears and the call of the lesser prairie chicken is heard no more in the rolling hills of northwestern Oklahoma.
All photos by Ron Stahl

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I Wasn't Born Here But I Was Born To Be Here

This may surprise a lot of people who know me now, but I an not Oklahoman by birth-I am Oklahoman by choice.  This next revelation surprises even me sometimes-I was predestined to be here at this place, in this time.  I was born in Piggot, Arkansas, where the hospital was, and lived the first 18 years of my life in Rector, Arkansas.  Like every boy child who grew up in the time of Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Lash LaRue, I spent a lot of time in a kid cowboy hat, a holster with a cap gun, and riding a stick horse.  My friends and I played Cowboys and Indians-who you were depended on whether you had the cowboy gear or the feathers and tomahawk-and when you tired of one character, you swapped gear and went to the other side.  We imagined ourselves in No Man's Land, it had such a dangerous ring to it, galloping across the Red River, running the banks of the Cimarron, moving cattle along the Chisholm Trail, or chasing bad guys in Indian Territory.  I grew up, I have come to realize, in virtual Oklahoma. But my involvement with Oklahoma was not all kid games.
My father was an Arkansas boy who lied about his age and went early into the Civilian Conservation Corps. He helped build State and National Parks in Idaho and Washington State.  He was a child of the Great Depression and took the route of many dirt-poor children of that age.  The CCC gave him a chance to earn money for himself and his family and it took him beyond the boundaries of northeast Arkansas.  This was fortunate for me.
My mother was an Iowa farm girl who grew up in the country near Cresco, a small town a stones throw from the Minnesota border.  She earned an Associates Degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and taught at a one-room country school when she was barely older than some of her students.  It was a long path between an Arkansas boy and an Iowa girl in those days but that path intersected for them in unlikely times in an unlikely place-Norman, Oklahoma.
World War II forced millions of young Americans to reevaluate their lives and, therefore changed them forever.  Olan Stahl, from Rector, Arkansas, and Dorothy Walker, from Cresco, Iowa, met at Norman Naval Air Station, Norman, Oklahoma.  Dad was in fireman training and went on to the war in the Pacific.  Mom was an aircraft mechanic and had to leave the Navy after she and dad got married.  She waited out the end of the war with her family in Iowa until dad was back in the states.  On one of her last visits to Oklahoma, I drove my mom through the site of the old Navy base in Norman.  She pointed to a building and said, "I was sitting on the steps of that building the first time I saw your dad.  He was marching in a parade and he was so handsome." She told me about dates to go dancing in Oklahoma City, taking the Interurban Trolley there and back and the process of falling in love, the loneliness of waiting for her young sailor to come back and the fear that he would not.  But he did and they raised their six sons and daughters in northeast Arkansas.
Mom and Dad are both gone now, but their oldest son moved to Oklahoma in 1978, married a girl from Norman, raised two Okie children, and made a life in the land of his childhood games and the land that germinated the seeds of love between that Arkansas boy and that Iowa girl. 

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Eye to the Winter Sky

As we now know, winter in Oklahoma can be hit or miss.  One day sub-zero temperatures and a blizzard and then sunny days in the 60's.  The uncertainty of Oklahoma winter weather and the natural wish to avoid it is a direct cause of cabin fever and there is a cure....get out of the cabin once in awhile.  One of the most popular winter activities in Oklahoma is eagle watching.  Some years as many as 2,000 eagles make their way south to the (relatively) warmer climes of Oklahoma from the frozen north.  In the western part of the state, golden eagles cluster around open water and share space with magnificent bald eagles.  In eastern Oklahoma, the bald eagle is predominant. 

Out west, the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge near Jet is home to wintering eagles and many times you don't even have to leave the car to see them.  On one trip, my photographer, Tommy Evans, and I got great video of a mature bald eagle soaring high overhead.  Down the auto trail a bit later, Tommy got out of the car to shot some video of a flock of waterfowl, mostly mallard ducks, on a pond beside the road.  Our naturalist guide and I were standing beside the van when the guide caught my eye and pointed up.  Almost directly over Tommy's head sat an immature bald eagle (no white feathers, yet), in the tree also watching the ducks.  Tommy got some great video of the bird and when it finally got tired of the attention, it launched itself from the tree.  Terrified ducks flew in every direction but the eagle kept on going.  In northeast Oklahoma, the trees below the Keystone Lake dam often hold bald eagles.  The water holds fish, bald eagles love fish, people love to watch eagles.  Everybody's happy...except the fish.  The bottom of the food chain is a place joyless and scary.

  Along the Illinois River near Tahlequah, on some winter days, more than a dozen bald eagles drape tree limbs along the river bank and can be easily seen with little effort on your part.  One of the most spectacular sights I have seen was at Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge near Vian, Oklahoma.  It involved not so much an eagle, but an eagle's nest.  Many people think they have seen eagles only to be fooled by large hawks.  Once you have really seen an eagle you will never be fooled again.   The size of the bird is amazing...massive wingspan..huge body..and then consider the size of the nest this big bird builds.  At Sequoyah, my wife and I gawked at a nest in a tree barely a hundred yards off the road.  With the binoculars you could see a head peek from the nest occasionally (I think..or it might have been my vivid imagination) but the nest alone was awe inspiring.  With the sunset blazing bright orange, flocks of birds flying past, and that massive nest in a skyscraper tree, I took a picture to last a lifetime.  It wouldn't have happened if we hadn't gotten out of the cabin. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Extremes of Oklahoma

Trout Stream Beavers Bend State Park

I am fascinated by the physical extremes of Oklahoma.  I moved from Texas to Oklahoma in 1978 and thought I was moving to a smaller state but I quickly discovered that Oklahoma is not small at all.  If you start in the southeast corner of Oklahoma, Idabel or Broken Bow, you are in pine forests and mountains, with the swampy Red Slough Wildlife Refuge in the extreme southeast.  Red Slough has resident alligators.  Beavers Bend State Park, Broken Bow, Oklahoma, has trout streams and outstanding forest vistas.  It is very easy to believe that you are in Colorado or Wyoming instead of Oklahoma. 
If you get in the car in Broken Bow and drive to Oklahoma City, stop and have lunch, get back in the car and continue through the Oklahoma Panhandle, you will see the landscape undergo an extreme change.  The land becomes flat and on clear days you really can almost see forever.  Highway 3 is straight as an arrow pointing west toward sundown. 
At Boise City in Cimarron County, you angle northwest and head to the highest point in Oklahoma, Black Mesa, near Kenton.  You are almost guaranteed see a herd of antelope along the way.  The flat land gradually changes to mesas and western-movie perfect canyons.  You almost expect to see a posse in pursuit of bandits come galloping over the rise.  At Kenton, you are literally a stone's throw from New Mexico, and from the top of Black Mesa, you can see Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.  How odd that the highest point in Oklahoma is a mesa, not a mountain. 
Black Mesa, Kenton, Oklahoma  
 When you arrive in Kenton, you will have driven twelve hours (counting lunch and potty breaks), gone from the forests and swamps to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains without leaving the state, and when you spend the night, you will fall asleep and awaken in Mountain Time, because the town of Kenton operates in a different zone, in more ways than one.  But that's another story.
Photos of Beavers Bend and Black Mesa by Ron Stahl