By Robert Reid
An Okie expat and his 76-year-old uncle aim to summit the Black Mesa in the USA’s most unlucky and unwanted rectangle.
The road’s empty and rising slightly. I lean forward in the driver’s seat and look through the windshield to the biggest skies I’ve ever seen. An immense block of sea-blue smeared in white clouds presses down on fields of cut wheat, peppered in parts with small clumps of trees, a far-off farmhouse, a wind pump. My cellphone signal’s gone, and with it my GPS, so I’m guessing. Is this it?
“It looks different, doesn’t it?,” I ask hopefully, an hour west of Woodward. “Fewer trees, flatter, dryer?”
“It does?,” comes the reply. “Looked about the same to me.”
Riding shotgun is a 76-year-old from Ponca City in a royal-blue polo tucked into navy cargo shorts. A toothpick dangles from his mouth, and a straw fedora leans over his forehead. He pulls out his iPhone and takes a blurry photo of a field we pass at 60mph. This is David Mallory, my uncle.
I zoom past a copse of cottonwoods framing an empty picnic area. Then, thinking twice, I make a wild U-turn in the two-lane road and pull off onto a gravel lot. There stands a 10-foot sign marked with peeling, hand-painted watermelon-red lettering: “NO MAN’S LAND.”
The trip has started.
The Oklahoma Panhandle is America’s last destination. Every other town, peak, park or patch of weeds in the country will make it onto one of those top travel lists before the panhandle does. It’s a snub with history. Native Americans chased bison through its long-gone tall grass, but never settled. When joining the union, Texas simply sliced it from its own chubby panhandle, leaving a literal “No Man’s Land.” It finally joined Oklahoma by default, though many locals still feel disconnected from “down state.”
We’re not on vacation here, we’re on a pilgrimage. To see a 34- by 166-mile rectangle of plains that gave Oklahoma the best shape in the world. Because it’s that panhandle that transforms Oklahoma’s layout into a playground for the beholder’s imagination: a toppled hat to plop on your head, a pot to brew your stew, or a butcher’s cleaver pounding down on Texas. Without it, Oklahoma’s just a down-sized Dakota with a frayed bottom. We’ve seen it by map. Now we’re here to see the real thing.
I’m driving newly energized now, hungrily taking in ever parcel of land we pass, this panhandle land. My uncle, meanwhile, reaches back for some carrot sticks. That’s sort of our deal. I drive for a five-day trip I’ve plotted out. He supplies the car—a scratched-up Lexus with rearview mirror issues—and the cooler of snacks. Plus much of the conversation. “You’ll see some old man stuff on this,” he warns. “Like when I take my teeth out.”
A half-hour in, we pull into the wide Main Street in Beaver, where banks, a gift shop and a surviving Otasco occupy century-old brick buildings. The town’s known for its orangey dunes north of town and its cow-chip throwing contest in April. But we’re here for the cows.
It’s noon on a Tuesday and the parking lot for Beaver’s weekly cow auction is already filled with trucks and trailers with license plates of five states. We park by a neighboring silo and walk into the small auction house, where a plank-board amphitheater bends around a holding pin. A couple cowboys are in there, working hard. “UWP UWP UWP!,” they yell, as a team of heifers charge in, make a few wide-eyed circles in the dirt, then rush out a door on the opposite wall. All the while, the auctioneer calls out a steady plea for bids, his melody bouncing along the low notes before making an occasional unexpected rise.
After a few minutes, we move to the adjoining Sale Barn Café. A handful of bidders crowd a horseshoe bar and eat burgers, open-face roast sandwiches and greasy thin fries from paper plates. We sit next to a white-haired couple, both pushing 90. They’re regulars from Balko, here to price heifers.
“How old are you?,” my uncle finally asks the woman. He’s obsessed with age and health, so I expect this. She does not.
“You’re not supposed to ask a woman that!,” she says, only half-joking. “How old are you?”
“Well, I’m 74.”
Growing up in Tulsa, my family would occasionally goad each other to try something new, “adventurous”—like trying Indian curry for the first time—by saying, “c’mon, Uncle David would do it.” Uncle David always loved a challenge, and our trip’s end goal—the eight-mile hike at Oklahoma’s highest point at the 4974-foot Black Mesa, at the Colorado/New Mexico border—has quickly become “that mountain” to him. He talks about it with everyone on the way. “You can’t just walk eight miles right off,” I warned him a couple months before the trip. After all, it’s been decades since he walk-ran that Tulsa Run. “Build yourself up. First walk a mile, then two…” But he never did. On top of that, he’s had a stent procedure a week before we set off.
This worries me. I really want to climb that mountain too.
~ ~ ~
Most of rural America is shrinking, population-wise, but not the panhandle’s biggest city, where we reach next. Guymon’s grown by 50% in the past dozen years. Short-termers come to work with wind or gas, many new Americans come to settle, often taking jobs at its pork-processing plant. Now the town’s Somali festival is in its third year, and it’s the only town in the state with a Latin-American majority. “Guymon’s like Ellis Island,” one local puts it. “People from all over coming to look for the American dream.”
Guymon quickly shows its diversity. We get goat stew and tacos at a Mexican restaurant made from an old gas station, then look at family rodeo photos at a western wear shop where a 6’3” cowboy named Gabe calls us “sir.” Afterwards we go for a smoothie at a café behind a strip mall that serves Filipino food. One of the employees is Liz McCulloch, is a 27-year-old with rock’n’roll bangs and a British accent. She moved here from the UK when she was a kid. “I like that there’s not much to do here,” she says. “Makes you go find something to do.”
Find something to do. I hear this a lot around the panhandle. After rains, teens like to go “mudding” by driving their trucks through soggy fields. Others just drive, taking random dirt roads, looking at skies, stars, thunderstorms. One local jokes, “the only thing there’s to do is drink and have sex.”
We fill a couple days here roaming the area instead. We peek into an abandoned homestead littered with tumbleweeds, see a double-headed calf at Goodwell’s No Man’s Land Museum, spy a Panhandle State rodeo practice, and after the sun falls, take side roads as the black sky fills with silent flashes of silent lightning.
~ ~ ~
An hour west, Boise City (pronounced “boyze city”) is the only city in the Lower 48 that got bombed in WWII. Air force pilots mistook it for a test site and dropped dud bombs “without definite reason,” as an understated The Boise City News story complained a few days later. No one was hurt, at least, and the pilots felt bad about it. We stop to see a fake bomb planted in the sidewalk by the courthouse, and to stock up on supplies. But at the family-run No Man’s Land Beef Jerky, the mom in her 80s warns us against climbing the Black Mesa. “A family went up once and their teenage son fell off and died,” she says. “And they continued their vacation anyway!”
Riding west from Boise City, the southwest takes over the plains. Distant lines of grayish brown rocks begin as ripples on the horizon, pushing up from a flat scrub brush crossed by ruts from the Santa Fe Trail. The road gently curves, dips, then rises. And the rocks – mostly Dakota sandstone formations – build up, finally topping hillsides like peekaboo crowns that gradually envelop us. Uncle David stares out. “I lived in Ponca City for 50 years and had no idea this was out here.”
We’re getting our first look at the area with a tour from panhandle-lifer Jane Apple, who owns, along with her husband, the Hitching Post B&B Ranch. “You got to know how to handle this country to live here. Because it’s so different,” says Jane, a red-haired 70-year-old with a slow drawl and plenty bounce in her step. “Also you need to have a tough gal. Because it’s a loooong way to Wal Mart.”
Driving us along dusty roads, Jane steers us off the road and up a grassy hillside, swerving around yucca plants, cholla cacti and juniper trees. Before us stands a hulking, crevassed sandstone mass. We get out, and Jane leads us by foot to the far side, where the fine-grained wall is pockmarked with etchings of stick figures, circular patterns, a few words. One seems to read “Coronatto 1541,” supposedly the work of one of Spanish explorer Coronado’s scouts.
~ ~ ~
As a travel writer, I take some pride in my ability to plan trips. But my career began with a disaster: a ski trip I organized for my uncle, dad and myself using an out-of-date Mobil travel guide. When we arrived in the mountains northwest of Denver, we found ourselves at an empty Bible summer resort. Hit with altitude sickness, my dad spent the first day vomiting, so Uncle David and I took off cross-country skiing into single-digit temperatures. Ice pelting our faces, we slipped and fell for several hours, me often stopping to wait for my uncle. Finally reaching the top of a grueling climb, I found a gentle slope heading back towards the van. And I just took off—no looking back. And I’ve never heard the end of it. “We made that turn, and my nephew took off,” as my uncle routinely repeats, often to strangers. “He left me behind to freeze!” I was 11.
The Black Mesa is here now, and I know – even if my uncle doesn’t – that he cannot climb it. He’s walking slower as the trip goes on, and this is eight miles. I go to bed pretty sure I’m going up anyway – even if it means leaving him behind. But in the night, something changes. I wake in darkness. I hear the wind howling outside, and my uncle’s heavy breaths. I lay and think awhile about that ski disaster, being in the panhandle at last, and that mesa out our cabin window. And I decide the top hardly matters. Whatever happens, I’m sticking with my uncle.
For the first time all trip, the morning is cold and gray. At breakfast, Monty Roberts, the curlicue-moustached owner of the Black Mesa B&B, sizes us up and warns us against hiking. “That wind really whips up there. I wouldn’t go today.” Monty’s a tough guy. He fell from a windmill decades ago and never bothered fixing the sharply bent bones of his hand. So I’m not sure he’s serious, but I let it go. Even my uncle, poking at his pancakes, glumly admits, “When an expert says he wouldn’t do it, you better not.”
So, we’re not going. Neither of us.
After so much build-up for the mesa, Kenton, a town of 20 people with three churches and no restaurants, feels anti-climatic at first. We drive to the Tri-State Marker, where Oklahoma meets Colorado and New Mexico; peek at preserved dinosaur footprints left by a prehistoric river bank; then take a long scenic ride, my uncle dozing off a few times. At the tiny Kenton Museum, our fourth (and favorite) museum of the panhandle, 86-year-old volunteer Asa Jones points out barbed-wire displays, dummies in Victorian dresses, found arrowheads, and a century-old photo of a kid moments before he drowned. “Over here is a shot of his funeral.” Uncle David asks about the mesa and Asa answers, “The last time I went up there, I fell right on my face.”
It’s late afternoon now. The wind’s died down. It’s sunny, clear – perfect. And, as if tugged by some unseen force, we find ourselves at the mesa trailhead. And we just start walking. It’s too late to go eight miles, but maybe we’ll take on a mile or so.
“Is that a man up there?,” Uncle David says, looking up at the mesa top, teasingly 800 feet above us. It’s clearly a bush. I know it’s a bush. But I cherish a rare excuse to use my binoculars, so I pull them out to investigate.
“It’s a bush.”
After a mile, we find a bench. We sit, have a sip of wine, bite or two of beef jerky. I ask why he really wanted to climb the mesa anyway.
“I guess, when you get right down to it, it wouldn’t really matter to anyone except me,” he says. “But at 76, I would have loved to be able to say I got to the top of that mountain.”
“What about at 77?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
We head back to the car, soaking up that last golden sun rays before dusk. Everything looks and feels great. I stop to look at the mesa again, then watch him going ahead, impressed. Uncle David always could kick it up a notch. When I catch up, he stops and turns back.
“I’m just glad you didn’t leave me this time.”
Robert Reid is freelance travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN.com and ESPN.com. He’s authored a couple dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks and is currently National Geographic Traveler‘s Digital Nomad. He sometimes blogs, occasionally about his home state of Oklahoma.