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.