The idea for this trip came from TV. Mom’s been watching a lot of learning shows about Westerners migrations. Everybody knows about the times when big flocks of Americans flew west on the Oregon Trail and during the Gold Rush, but people forget that there were migrations even after horses stopped pulling the wagons. So this year Mom decided that we would visit a place that only the hardcore western fans would think of.
“Let’s go to Oklahoma,” Mom said. “We can listen to the Grapes of Wrath while we’re driving and imagine what it was like during the dust bowl.”
“What’s in Okra-home-a?” I asked. “Is it a mountain state or a desert state?”
“I’m not sure what’s there. I’ve never been,” Mom said. “But it definitely doesn’t have any mountains, and if it’s a desert it’s not the kind you’re thinking of with canyons and cacti. The area we’re going to is called No Man’s Land, which probably means it’s pretty empty.”
“Then what’s it famous for?” I asked skeptically.
“For environmental destruction and people leaving it, mostly. About a hundred years ago lots of people moved out there and tore up all the grassland for farming. Then there was a drought, and for a few years these huge dust storms blew through and destroyed everything.”
I’d seen rain storms, snow storms and even thunder storms, but I’d never heard of a dust storm. “What’s a dust storm?” I asked, afraid it might involve a vacuum.
“It’s like a regular storm, only instead of being made of wind and water, it’s made of wind and earth. The big storms could dump more than a foot of dust in a single day. It killed all the food crops and a lot of the animals. People were starving, so they left to look for work in California.”
“Oh goody, it sounds like the most exciting place we’ve ever visited!” I said.
It turns out that even though all those people escaped Oklahoma in cars, there aren’t many roads that go there. It must be mostly unexplored country, since it was even hard to find a hiking trail to visit there.
“This trail looks like it’s near Oklahoma,” Mom said, squinting at the mapp and opening it wider to see more details. “Or maybe it’s in Colorado…? It’s hard to tell. Anyway, close enough.”
Since we were traveling from the very left to the very right of Colorado, Mom figured we’d be spending a lot of time on the interstate, where there’s always Witch service and the gas stations have the best snacks. But every time The Witch ordered us to turn, it was onto another small country highway. We drove through mountains so tall that the trees on top were short, and past smudged-over lakes that didn’t reflect the sky or mountains. We drove until The Wagon was hungry, and then Mom had to ask The Witch to find us a path to Wagon food, because we hadn’t seen a gas station for hundreds of miles. Finally we rumbled at freeway speed down the last hour of dirt roads. I was sure that we must be the first explorers to discover this place so far out into the wilder-ness, but when The Witch told us to turn, a sign sprung out of the ground where there had only been cow food and windmills to tell us we were almost there. And when we pulled into the car kennel there were two big trucks and two men already hanging out there.
“You come all the way from California?” the older one asked when we got out. His words were long in strange places, like he was trying to sing but his tongue kept tripping over the words. It was the kind of accent that sounded like he would use the word ‘dad-gum’ a lot.
“Yes! We’ve been listening to a book about what happened when your ancestors came out to visit us. But don’t worry, we’re nicer now…” I assured him.
“Yup,” Mom added. She didn’t say more, and I could smell that she was unsure of what they thought about California, or the families from there.
“What brings you out here?” he asked.
“Well… I’d never been to Oklahoma, so I thought I’d visit,” Mom said. “Looks like I didn’t quite make it, though…”
“Oklahoma’s just right over there,” the man said, pointing with his chin. “You can walk there.”
“That’s what we came to do!” I wagged.
“Have you been to Two Buttes yet?” the younger one asked. “It’s real pretty, and you can jump off the cliffs into a lake.”
“Oh no… You must be confused about what Mom meant by ‘visiting Oklahoma’,” I said. “Boy, this is awkward… We don’t actually mean to spend any time here…”
“I’ll have to check it out…” Mom said. I couldn’t tell for sure if she was lying, but I thought maybe she was. “…Although I probably won’t jump in the lake, since I’m afraid of heights and it’s only about 35 degrees out.”
People in Oklahoma use all the same words, but they must mean different things because the men kept misunderstanding what Mom was saying. Like when Mom said she wouldn’t jump off a cliff, they didn’t know that she wanted to change the subject. Instead, the older one started giving her directions to get there. “You’re on road J here. You find your way over to road M and follow it north…” he said.
“Oh, yeah… I think I was on road M on the way in…!” Mom said like it was a fantastic landmark we’d always wanted to visit.
“Well you just follow that for a ways,” he went on, like he was giving a tourist directions in Downtown City. “You’ll pass…”
He was talking too slow for Mom’s city ears, so she interrupted him in a friendly voice like she was interested. “How long is the drive?” she asked. “Like 20 minutes…? an hour…? 4 hours?”
“Maybe two hours,” the older one said, like he was telling her it was just around the corner.
“From here? Nah, maybe an hour and 20 minutes,” the younger one said. Then he added, “Not far at all.”
“You’re sure lucky you met us and not those ladies from Massachusetts,” I told him. “They sure were meaner than these two Californians…”
The men kept suggesting places that Mom should visit: a place with a spring, and a place with a cave, and other places with canyons just like this one.
“Why would we visit that canyon when we haven’t even visited this one yet?” I asked Mom, but she shushed me.
“They’re proud of where they’re from, and they don’t meet many tourists to tell about it,” Mom thought at me. “Enjoy listening to their perspective on things.” Then, out loud she said, “So where are you guys from?”
“I’m from way up north in Colorado, past Denver,” the younger one said. After crossing Colorado ourselves, I knew that must be very far away indeed.
“I’m from Kansas,” the other one said.
“I hear that they have dogs and Witches in Kansas just like we do in The Wagon,” I said. “Do you want to hear about where I’m from?” But they didn’t ask anything about us, and Mom didn’t tell them.
As we walked, Mom listened to the young one’s stories about all the different places he’s picked up trash, and the old one told us about all the people who lived here before the Americans came.
“Look here at these flint rocks,” he said, showing Mom a handful of rocks that he’d picked up along the way. “They would use these for things like arrowheads and to start fires. They would chip them down using other rocks…”
“Oh, cool,” Mom said, unable to keep herself from interrupting again. “Were they making those rocks into arrowheads?”
“Well no, not these ones…” the man said, dropping his rocks on the ground and stopping his story.
“Oh…” Mom said, a little sad that the story was over already.
“Look! You made him feel bad!” I whispered.
Soon we discovered a cluster of Oscar-height piles of stones. “What are they?” I asked.
“It’s a house. Pioneers used to live here,” Mom said. “Like Laura Ingalls Wilder…”
I wanted to ask our companions if they lived in houses without roofs too, but they had walked right past the stone piles to look into a cave. People from No Man’s Land must live in caves, I concluded. But this cave must have already had someone living in it, because they had blocked the entrance with a cage-like fence.
“What do you think is in there that they need to trap like that?” Mom asked, hoping the answer would be folksy. “Think it’s the chupacabra?”
“Ain’t nothing in there. It’s the drunk folks that they want to keep out so’s they won’t write on the walls,” the older man said.
“Those are called petroglyphs!” I said, helpfully.
“Hey, take my picture!” the young one said, climbing up the wall using hands and boots. When he found a place where he could turn to face us, he stuck out two fingers at the end of two arms, and his tongue.
“I’ve never seen anyone rock climb in cowboy boots before,” Mom said.
“Yeah, all the guys laugh at me on when I go to the res to pick up trash along the cliffs, but I love ’em!”
I thought about all the rocks that I’d had trouble climbing and wondered if I needed cowboy boots too.
Then Mom told the men that our route went a different direction, and said goodbye. We had already lost the trail, but Mom walked purposefully over the grass in the opposite direction from the two men as if she knew exactly where she was going so they wouldn’t give any more advice about places she didn’t plan to visit. “I can’t imagine living out here,” Mom said when we were alone again.
“Those guys were nice. You would fit in better if you had cowboy boots and a John Deere hat,” I pointed out.
“Well, I was thinking about before. Back in pioneer times. If you think it’s empty now, imagine coming out here when this was the edge of the known world. Not just that, they were invading enemy territory, so they could get killed at any time. I don’t even know how you would find your way around without getting lost… There are no landmarks to orient by.”
The earth was broken without pattern all over the land, and ragged rocks showed through the cracks. We’d been walking for about a mile through the grass, knife-bushes and cacti, and still hadn’t found the trail. The land we were on was open and exposed so that I could see deep into Oklahoma, and anyone from here to Oklahoma could see me, but I couldn’t smell a trail. Eventually we climbed down a cliff that was shallow enough to walk on like a staircase. At the bottom we found the trail, which was just two wagon ruts through the grass. We hadn’t been found for long when Mom left the trail again.
“Where are you going?” I asked as she threw the packpack over a cow fence and then squeezed through a spot where the barbed wire was spread wider than usual.
“Come on! Oklahoma is just a few hundred yards that way!” Mom said.
“But the fence! Maybe Oklahoma doesn’t want to let you in.”
“Nah, that’s for the cows. Come on.”
So I commando crawled under the fence, where we found another fence with a sign in front of it.
“What does it say?” I asked.
“It says Oklahoma border,” Mom said.
“Oh… well it looks like maybe they’re not letting anyone in today,” I said.
“Where’s your sense of adventure, Oscar? We’re here, obviously we need to cross just to say we walked to Oklahoma.”
But instead of walking, Mom got down on her belly in the old cow poop, and slithered to Oklahoma. We stood on the other side, being in Oklahoma for just long enough that Oklahoma could notice we were there, and then we slithered back to Colorado.
We walked for miles through the land that had once been a bowl of dust, but had grown back with attitude… and thorns. The trail came and went, and when it was gone The Witch pointed the way and we walked over the pointy plants and sharp rocks. As we walked, I imagined that I was a pioneer trying to decide where to build an Oscar-tall stone wall to live inside. Every once in awhile I found a patch of white dirt just big enough to roll in, and I would wallow in it just like the pioneers used to.
When we got back to The Wagon, Mom asked The Witch to take us to Oklahoma. We drove down the dirt roads until a sign sprung out of the scrub brush. It said, DEAD END.
“Keep going straight ahead,” The Witch said.
“I think she wants you to go that way,” I said, looking through the front window at the cow fence like the one Mom had slithered under, and then the two faint wagon tracks through the overgrown grass on the other side. “The way into Oklahoma is through fences…” I reminded her.
“That’s not a road,” Mom said. “And the road to the right is a dead end. So I guess we’ll go left and just let the GPS figure out a different way to Oklahoma…” She turned The Wagon away from Oklahoma.
“You’re sure going to regret this!” The Witch said. “The next turn isn’t for five miles. You’ll be 38 minutes later now.”
“Jesus. This place sure is empty,” Mom sighed.
We found Oklahoma, and then we found the one city in the rat tail of Oklahoma, and then we found the one gas station in that town. “Hang on, I’m going to see if they have souveniers,” Mom said. “Who knows when we’ll be in Oklahoma again…”
When Mom came back out, she was still rubbing the stinging stink-cream into her hands that she always smells like these days. “What? No post cards?” I asked.
“No post cards, but get this: no masks either. I haven’t seen someone indoors without a mask since like July.”
“You mean they had their noses hanging out?” I asked. It was an amateur mask mistake, but maybe the fashions were delayed here in Oklahoma.
“No, I mean they weren’t wearing a mask at all.”
“Like it was pulled down around their chin?” I asked. Sometimes people do that if they need to take a drink.
“No, like they didn’t even have one. No wonder this was the only state that would host that stupid convention.”
Oscar the Oakie