Karen and I can hardly wait to begin this tour on our Honda ST 1300. The land to cross is part of the vast Great Plains that stretch from North Dakota through Texas. And because we have lived on the east coast for years, many of the stops planned along our route represent the first time either of us has returned since the carefree days of our youth. Our five-day, 610-mile tour begins and ends in our hometown of Oklahoma City.
Will Rogers once quipped that "If you don't like the weather in Oklahoma, just wait a minute." The sky is leaden and threatening as we depart Oklahoma City on Interstate 44 south, and I'm thinking that we'll be waiting much more than a minute before this day's Oklahoma weather improves.
Monday: To the Wichita Mountains
State Road 37, mostly void of traffic, takes us west on straight, two-lane blacktop. Approaching Hinton, though, several nice sweeping curves appear and we enjoy tearing through them. After turning south on US 281 in Hinton, we arrive at our first stop in a little over a mile. A steep paved road drops into the 200-foot-deep Red Rock Canyon. The canyon's bottom is forested with sugar maples along a creek that forms a small lake. In centuries past the Cheyenne used the canyon, which is well protected from the cold north wind, as their winter quarters. All but hidden, this jagged red gash in the rolling plains of western Oklahoma is now a 310-acre state park with hiking trails and camping areas.
A light mist falls as we continue south over verdant hills. In the late afternoon half-light, a spectacular sight greets us on SR 58: Mount Scott rising 2,464 feet into misty, low hanging clouds on the far side of Lake Lawtonka's opaque waters. We ride the curvy, paved road to the summit and enjoy the vistas sweeping out in all directions.
The Wichita Mountain Lodge in nearby Medicine Park provides our accommodations for the evening. Medicine Park is billed as America's Cobblestone Village, and we discover that most of the homes and other buildings are, indeed, constructed of cobblestones, giving the little village a hobbit-like ambiance. Every restaurant is closed, so we depart for a not-too-distant "curve in the road" known as Meers, Oklahoma.
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The Meers Store and Restaurant, built in 1901, is all that remains of a mining boomtown that prospered from the 1890s to the early 1900s when the Wichita Mountains were believed to hold gold deposits. The building, once a drugstore, a doctor's office and a general store, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, this family restaurant is famous for its plate-sized longhorn burgers, using beef raised by the owner. We decide to go with the barbeque instead and savor every bite.
Tuesday: Close Encounters with Bison
Despite weather forecasts to the contrary, Tuesday morning dawns overcast and dreary. I'm saying to myself, "Hey Will, what was that you said about waiting a minute and the weather will change?" Nevertheless, we ride into the 59,000-acre Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, where buffalo and longhorn cattle freely roam an open, mixed-grass prairie surrounded by mountains.
I pull over to photograph several bison grazing about 50 yards from the road. After considerable coaxing, Karen finally dismounts and admonishes me to please hurry and take the picture, pointing out that we have no protection if any of these one-ton beasts decides to charge. This immediately rules out asking her to pose next to one of the magnificent animals.
Rain begins falling as we venture deeper into the refuge. Topping a hill, I quickly bring the bike to a full stop. On the shoulder ahead, a bison is butting heads with a longhorn. The longhorn backs away to the middle of the road until a passing pickup truck triggers a further retreat to the opposite shoulder. As the rain turns to hail, I ease the Honda forward between the two feuding animals, expecting one of them to charge across the pavement at any moment. As we make our escape, the bison starts another scrape with a nearby bison, making me wonder if anything short of surgery can solve this shaggy beast's anger management problem. Our relief is short-lived, however, because large bruising chunks of hail are now pummeling us and lightning strikes are landing too close for comfort. We find shelter, but within five minutes the storm is over.