Aug 18, 2010

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

The world's coolest parking lot on top of Mount Scott

I have a certain amount of disdain for routine. The continual cycle of work and weekly obligations instills within me a certain drive to discover new things. Yet despite this continual quest for new experiences, I find myself looking forward to a handful of annual traditions that cannot be skipped.

One of these said traditions is a visit to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge located outside of Lawton in the south west part of the state. There's a certain magic about this place that draws me back year after year. Its one of those rare places where a person can look out over the expanses of the horizon and really feel comfortable with how existentially insignificant they are in the grand scheme of the universe. Its a cool feeling...

Just a little background; the refuge is 59,000 acres of protected land for buffalo, prairie dogs, longhorn cattle, elk, and deer. It's also home to one of the highest peaks in the state of Oklahoma, Mount Scott, which is 2,464 feet tall! The refuge is part of the Central Great Plains Eco Region, making it a unique setting perfect for hikers, nature lovers, photographers, and anyone else willing to have their mind blown by the beautiful surroundings.

Of all the animals that live on the refuge, this guy somehow ended up being our favorite.

Lacey and I began our yearly visit to the refuge painfully early. We knew we had to get there in the wee hours of the AM, or else the sun would have its very unloving way with us. The payoff was well worth enduring the acidic fast food coffee and maddening grogginess, as we arrived just in time to see the mountains break through the flattened plains in the light of the morning skies.

We stopped right outside the entrance to take a look at some cactus plants that had sprung up on the side of the road. While we were snooping around the goofiest little Ren Hoek dog popped out of nowhere to see what we were doing. We knew we were in for a good trip already...

Where the buffalo roam...

The Refuge itself is an incredible sight. The landscape alternates dramatically between vast plains of wavering tall grass, stone mountains that seem to spring out of nowhere, and curious patches of desert-like earth that seem surrealy out of place.

The landscape seems to change depending on which direction you look

While we didn't catch them on camera, herds of buffalo were meandering about the landscape, honking out peculiar cries that droned into the open sky. We made sure to keep our distance.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Looking out over Mount Scott

The beautiful landscapes are perhaps best appreciated on top of Mount Scott. As mentioned before, Mount Scott is pretty much the highest spot you'll find in Oklahoma, and the view from the top certainly confirms just that.

Of course the mountain top itself is quite beautiful, playing host to a number of unique plants and birds, as well as some of the most vividly colored rocks you'll find in nature.

These rocks are totally psychedelic...

Part of the greatness of Mount Scott lies in the very real danger present in exploring it. Getting around the top of the mountain can require some serious rock climbing, and one clumsy step can lead you careening over the edge in a very permanent way.

Those a little more aware of their mortality can enjoy the view from safe spots, complete with guard rails, that are readily available on the mountain top.


We spent nearly two hours gazing upon the open landscape just hanging out and talking. Being in the presence of something so awe inspiring really gets the mind moving, and is an incredible way to find some inspiration.

Very Tolkien-esque

Eventually the sun began to make its presence well known, so we decided to head out. This year's visit did not disappoint, and I most certainly look forward to returning.


Aug 13, 2010

Showmen's Rest

A large tribute to "All Showmen Under Gods Big Top" located in the center of Showmen's Rest.

As you've hopefully noticed by now, our vision for this blog is to give you authentic perspectives on Oklahoma, as seen through the eyes of everyday travelers. Like our readers, our contributors' voices and personalites are quite different. While Austin, Lacey and I may share the label of twentysomethings (though I will admit, I'm clinging to the last moments of that title), you'll find I seek out experiences I can share with my husband Mike (an adopted Okie hailing originally from Houston) and our two-year-old son Grayson (aka Gray).

That said, our common goal is to let you know about some of the hidden jewels across the state, and one of the first places that came to mind for me was Showmen's Rest in Hugo. Now, exploring cemeteries is not some dark, morbid hobby of mine, but this one is worth checking out the next time you're in far Southeastern Oklahoma.

My family and I were actually on our way down to Beavers Bend State Park when we stopped to stretch our legs in Hugo at the Mount Olive Cemetery. Again, this may seem like a strange choice, but it is not your average cemetery. Inside there is a special section named Showmen's Rest that is dedicated to famous and infamous circus performers.

You see, Hugo is a tiny little town in the southeast corner of the state where dozens of circuses have and currently do spend their winter off-season. It all started with the Miller family decades ago, and word spread about the mild weather and easy rail access so other circus companies began wintering there as well.

I've known about this place for quite some time, but had never experienced it myself. It is said that in addition to the eclectic circus performers, other celebrated personalities rest there too, including several rodeo greats such as Lane Frost, the original Marlboro Man, and Ed Ansley (aka Buster Brown).

As we got out of our car, a local woman happened to drive by and asked if we were visiting family. I told her we were not and that we had heard about Showmen's Rest and happened to be in the area. She quickly seized the opportunity to park her car and proceed to give us the nickel tour. Apparently some of her relatives are buried there and she knew the history of all the different circus companies and many of the notable characters buried there.

She stayed just long enough to give us some interesting insight and then got back into her car as quickly as she appeared, leaving us to explore the intricate and artistic headstones on our own. I've never seen such amazing headstones. It was obvious that great care and planning had gone in to each and every one. The carved stones showcased everything from animal trainers to elephant riders to trapeze artists, but with a common theme of beauty and individuality.

Here are a few snapshots of our visit:

The AG Kelly & Millers Brothers Circus headstone (one of many Miller family plots). This couple owned Miller Brothers circus, one of the first (I believe) to begin wintering in Hugo.

I loved seeing the nicknames that appeared alongside given names. It made the headstones feel very intimate and conveyed the personalities of those they were honoring.

A parade of stone elephant markers set Showmen's Rest apart from the rest of the crowd.

The performers must have loved the thrill of the show and even in death, are still drawing a crowd.


Aug 10, 2010

Okmulgee & Dripping Springs State Park

Okmulgee State Park Scenic Overlook

It's hot right now in Oklahoma, the kind of hot that makes you curse the sky through salty stinging eyelids and clingy jeans. My natural inclination during times like this is to hole up inside my dark living room and catch up on some much needed Mystery Science Theater 3000.

These days however, my attitude's a little different. Sure there's plenty of comfort to be found hiding from the sun in a controlled climate, but there's also a big world out there that needs to be discovered. I can't let something like a little sweat and a scalding car interior stop me from trying to conquer a small portion of it.

So in the spirit of new experiences, Lacey and I decided to beat the heat at it's own game and find somewhere reasonably close to the city were we could go swimming without being shooed away by pesky hotel managers.

After a little research and deliberation, we settled on Okmulgee and Dripping Springs State Parks (The name "Dripping Springs" kind of sells itself when you're talking triple digit heat indexes). The adjacent parks are only about an hour and a half away from OKC, and more importantly, don't cost a thing to get into.

Dripping Spring State Park

The drive out was a blast. We loaded up on iced coffees (our ritualistic road trip drink of choice) and jammed Bathory's Under the Sign of the Black Mark as we careened through the rolling green hills of eastern Oklahoma.

We arrived at the respective parks in good time, but decided to hold off on the swimming until we had gotten a little exploring under our belts.

After pulling over to check out a few scenic overlooks, we made our way out to Dripping Springs Lake. This lake is actually famous to a lot of Oklahomans as being one of the best bass fishing spots in the whole state. Fishing's really not my specialty, so I couldn't really tell you either way, but there were a few people out with fishing poles who seemed to be having a pretty good time.

I was far more interested in the view, which included an array of weathered dead tree tops that stuck out of the lake in an ominous fashion. Perhaps the Bathory had influenced my outlook a little, but I couldn't help but feel I was witnessing the most metal state park Oklahoma has to offer! Lacey disagreed...


After checking out Dripping Springs for a bit, we headed toward the spillway dam we had read about while deciding on swimming spots earlier in the day. Built in the 1920s by the WPA, the Okmulgee State Park Spillway is meant to prevent the lake from flooding during Oklahoma's rainier seasons. Depending on when you visit, the spillway will either be flowing over with water from the lake, or dry like it was when we discovered it.

The top of the spillway

We were a little dumbfounded by how huge the spillway was in person. It has an odd ancient mystique, and is quite beautiful even without water cascading over it. Various mosses and other algae-like plants growing over its dripping surface create vivid streaks of green and orange, while the trickles of water that ease its way through the various cracks make the whole thing shimmer brilliantly in the sunlight.

Okmulgee State Park

I climbed to the top (which I'm actually not 100% sure you're allowed to do) and marveled at the surroundings.

This thing is huge!

Finally, the payoff! After spending a few hours roaming around the park, we finally settled on a great swimming spot at Okmulgee Lake. The water was warm from the summer sun, and we could see turtles peeking their heads above the surface as we lazily floated about. The lake itself was completely surrounded by hills, and made for a great backdrop while seeking refuge from the heat.


It wasn't too long before all we could think about was food. We headed back towards the actual city of Okmulgee after drying off, and settled on the first place we found that had the right amount of charm...

Steak & Eggs, Okmulgee

That place ended up being "Steak & Eggs", a breakfast-centric diner that seemed to cater to the older locals in Okmulgee. While we are not older, nor locals, its still exactly the kind of place we were looking for. Hearty old fashioned cooking made in a place that has been around quite a few years, and has probably served up plenty of hot coffee to many a trucker-hatted old timer .

We both ordered the titular "steak and eggs breakfast", and man was it awesome!

You know you're in Oklahoma when you're drinking out of an enormous plastic Dr. Pepper cup

On our way back home we passed a small music shop called 'Imperial Jewelry and Music' in Henryetta. As odd as the name is, I probably wouldn't have thought too much about popping in, except that I saw a billboard a few blocks away advertising the place as an officially licensed Peavey dealer. Now I know Peavey isn't the first thing most musicians think of when it comes to quality instruments, but I personally have been on a desperate hunt for a Peavey T-40 bass.

Imperial Jewelry and Music, the official Peavey dealers of Henyretta!

We stopped in just to take a look, and lo and behold, the only used instrument in the store was a beautiful white T-40, and at about half the price that they normally go for! The nice old guy running the shop told me the bass belonged to a country musician who had become a bit of a legend playing local gigs in the area for the last 20 years. He even had a photo of the guy playing the bass framed on the counter...

My beautiful T-40 minutes after purchase

So needless to say, the trip was a total success! We got everything we bargained for, and more, and we even made it home in time to catch some MST3K in the air conditioned confines of our home. The T-40 has since been set up masterfully (and afford-ably) by the good folks at Honest Ron's Guitars in OKC, and plays better than any instrument I've ever held.

Lacey has all of her pictures from the trip on the Oklahoma Dispatch's Flickr.