Fall is upon us. I don’t need to look at a calendar. I feel it. Traveling in a camper for months on end, I lose track of the days. Somehow though, I know what month it is. An innate instinct tells me it’s time to start preparing for the migration back to our home state of Florida. There is no sense of urgency, but the impulse is growing. There’s time to stop and see some sites along the way.
We studied our options. Sticking with our national park theme, we set our sight on Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. We were going there last year before Changing Directions to see our daughter and grandkids. Which route should we take? Do we want to drive through Kansas? Maybe stop in Dodge City. Ultimately, we choose a route through Oklahoma because of campground availability.
Keeping our travel day to around 200 miles, we headed for Black Mesa State Park. It’s located in a remote part of Oklahoma’s panhandle. After stopping briefly in Clayton, New Mexico for fuel and groceries, we drove off on a lonely narrow road. We passed a historic marker where the Santa Fe Trail crossed the road. We didn’t stop as it came unexpectedly and we passed before we realized it. There was no place to turn around with the camper. Looking across the vast expanse of prairie, I tried to get a sense of what it must of been like to make the crossing from Missouri to Santa Fe.
We hadn’t seen another soul for miles until we spotted a cloud of dust in the distance. There was an old truck coming our direction across a dirt road heading toward an intersection in front of us. As grammi and I were looking at the oncoming truck, Grammi said ”Do you see that?” “I sure do”, I said. We saw a black bear, obviously startled by the approaching trucks, running away at full speed. There was no place for it to hide, no trees to climb, only high plains grassland that did not camouflage its black coat. It was amazing to see its speed. It didn’t stop running and covered a lot of ground before disappearing over a ridge. Sadly we didn’t get a picture.
Later at the campground I told the rangers about our bear sighting. Boy, were they full of questions! They’ve had other reports of bear sightings in recent weeks. Apparently it’s rare to see a bear in the area. The rangers theorized it was a young male trying to find its place in the world. It’s not so rare to see turkey though.
Black Mesa State Park is located on Lake Carl Etling, a manmade reservoir with two boat ramps, a picnic area and camping facilities. However, by all accounts, it is in the middle of nowhere, far from any town lights. For such a remote campground it was surprising to see so many campers. The ranger told me their numbers are way up this year. Several campers from an astronomy club were having an unofficial gathering after their annual event was canceled due to…well, you know why. These people were serious amateur astronomers with big telescopes. They would quietly stay up all night scanning the sky then disappear during the day. I would describe them as good neighbors.
I talked with a gentleman in the camper next to us. He told me that the panhandle of Oklahoma is called “No Man’s Land”. He said it’s a strip of land no state wanted. Kansas didn’t want it. Texas didn’t want it. New Mexico didn’t want it and Colorado didn’t want it.
I know the gentleman was being facetious, but I got curious and went online to learn more about the area’s history. As it turns out, there’s a storied history as to how Oklahoma got the panhandle. I would encourage you to explore the history for yourself. Essentially, the Republic of Texas ceded the territory to the United States when it joined the union as a slave state in 1845 to comply with the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30’ latitude. The strip of land remained a lawless unclaimed hiatus for more than forty years. An attempt to attach the territory to Kansas failed when President Grover Cleveland refused to sign a bill passed by both houses of congress. Grass root attempts to become it’s own territory also failed. Eventually the land was joined with the Oklahoma Territory in 1890.
We really enjoyed the quiet remoteness at the campground. Cellular service was nonexistence, but the campground had surprisingly good wifi. We stayed for three nights. The ranger gave us some written information and a hand-drawn map when we arrived. One morning we ventured out to explore the area. We stopped at the Black Mesa Summit Trail parking area in the Black Mesa Preserve. We weren’t going to do the 8.5 mile hike to the summit but we stopped to take a look since we were passing by. There is plenty of parking. The trail goes out to a mesa where Oklahoma’s highest elevation is found.
What we wanted to see was the dinosaur tracks. Located ½ mile north of the summit trail parking area is a dirt road on the right that leads to an overlook on Carrizo Creek. We didn’t find the tracks right away. We walked around the creek for awhile before we finally spotted them. A recent rain had washed mud over the rocks partially hiding the tracks. According to the information provided by the park ranger, the tracks were left around 150 million years ago by an Allosaurus. The dinosaur walked upright on its hind legs and measured between 25’ to 30’ in length.
Next we headed for the Tristate Marker. We didn’t get to go to Four Corners Monument when we where near that area because it’s on Navajo land and was closed because…again, you know why. Located in a remote part of the country, the Tristate Marker is a concrete post marking the spot where New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Colorado come together. We had a little fun running around in circles, going from one state to the other. It reminded me of the classic question, “If an airplane were to crash here, in which state would you bury the survivors?” Hmm.
We tried to find the dinosaur quarry shown on the map but missed the turn. We were miles down the road before we realized our mistake and didn’t bother to go back. One reason for that was our effort to save fuel. The nearest service station was far away.
There were other points of interest highlighted in the information literature like rock formations named The Old Maid and The Wedding Party. There was also Picture Canyon and Capulin Volcano National Monument. They weren’t really that close by though, requiring more than 1 to 2 hours one-way to get there. So we didn’t go.
On our final night at this park, we sat around a campfire roasting marshmallows. The sky was clear and an infinite number of stars twinkled overhead. Nearby, an amateur astronomer, illuminated by the campfire light, stood beneath a drape like a football referee viewing an instant replay. We turned our eyes toward the heavens and wondered what may be out there. It’s what you do when you’re in “No Man’s Land”.
Until next time…happy days and safe travels.