Monday, March 2, 2009

The Oklahoma Panhandle

It is hard to find a complaint that will elicit much sympathy when northern San Diego county is home. One legitimate one is that it is impossible to leave in a camper, unless headed due north, without crossing a lot of empty desert .

If you take a lot of trips, varying the routes east becomes a way of coping with the unrelieved boredom after the second cactus has been seen and the first mesquite bush has been passed.

This time then, leaving meant going northeast for two days into northern New Mexico, a late stop in the “other” town named Las Vegas, and then east the next morning. It was an easy early morning drive in the high country coolness of the Canadian River Carapace across the Oklahoma border.

This is that part of Oklahoma that a cartographer will tell you is the “panhandle.” I see it as the barrel of a gun, pointed directly at northern New Mexico. It is a place Texas could not have and no one else wanted. It seemed from the maps that a pleasant continuation of this rural drive would be to enter that state at the barrel, or handle end and drive U.S. 412 from there to Fort Supply and beyond.

It seemed such a good idea at the time.

The road became abysmal at the state line. Moreover, it seemed not just rural here, but abandoned. I wanted to stop for lunch. The choices were slim, perhaps closer to none, so I opted to wait for a rest stop and make my own. When I reached Guymon, which is in the center of the Panhandle, I was starving. Turning right off the highway a sign proclaimed “Welcome To The End of The Earth Rest Area.”

Well. That seemed appropriate for what I had seen so far. I was to find it was a clear description of the area here and beyond. Anyone born, raised, and remaining in Guymon Oklahoma, take no offense. It just seemed to a wanderer, a most desolate place. As I ate, I checked the map to see where I was, where I was going, and if there were options to U.S.412. As it happens, there are few. In fact in Guymon, there are none. You continue to head east through this narrow strip of the state for 195 miles, never more than forty miles wide with Colorado and later Kansas to the north and Texas to the south. If you plan to stay in Oklahoma, you stay on U.S. 412. Unless you are willing to get involved with unpaved farm roads, you stay with it no matter where you are going from Guymon. This is known as being “committed’ to a route. U.S. 64 crosses shortly and one can go northeast to Liberal Kansas, Black Mesa or to Beaver, Oklahoma and the Gateway to the Panhandle Museum. I was not interested in going further north, so 412 was the only way out.

The Panhandle has an interesting history and once was a place of greater commerce and activity than it seems this warm fall day. It was born of the Missouri Compromise which laid out the latitudes above which no slave states would be admitted to the Union. When Texas sought admission as a slave state, the Panhandle was considered part of this Territory seeking to shed its independent Republic status for statehood. It had to cede the land that now makes up the Panhandle in order to meet the legal standard to enter as a slave state. Kansas and Colorado had already fixed their territorial borders above that latitude and New Mexico had its boundary set when Arizona became a territory. Thus, a “Public Land” was created, known always as “No Man’s Land,” “The Strip,” and the “Neutral Strip” since no one claimed it or chose to govern it. A branch of the Santé Fe Trail, known as the Cimarron cut-off, came through here on the way to St. Louis back when it was a trade route with Mexico. The Chisholm Trail too, as the cattle drive route to markets to the east and north. For a time it was known, but never officially given status, as the Cimarron Territory. It tried to organize itself as a Territory, even sending a representative to Washington to petition the central government in 1888 and again in 1889. There seem to have been as many opposed as in favor and the idea failed. A bill was introduced in Congress, but failed even to get to a vote, despite the fact that the “Cimarron Territory” had divided itself along the three meridians and elected representatives to a Territorial Legislature which met in 1887. There may have been as many as 10,000 people there at the time but with the opening of the unassigned territory in central Oklahoma in 1889, many left for these more populated and fertile lands and the population fell to 3,000. Passage of something called the Organic Act in 1890 assigned No Man’s Land to the new Oklahoma Territory, and ended the short lived and unrecognized Cimarron Territory. It was a good for the people there since when it had no official status and the land claims and those on them had no legal status. They could neither establish “squatter’s rights” nor ownership. Only after the assimilation were people in the territory able to register their land under the Homestead Act and the land was recognized as ‘theirs.”

When Oklahoma and the Indian Territories were admitted to the Union in 1907 as a single state, this “Seventh County” was divided into the present three counties along the same lines as the old Cimarron legislature had drawn. It was about ranching and farming then and it is about ranching and farming now. It is the last of the high country as one travels east, The Canadian Carapace that starts near Santa Rosa New Mexico ends here, as does the Canadian River that flows out of Las Vegas and is known as the Beaver River or Creek on this side of the state line. Guymon is the largest town here with approximately 14,000 souls and is 10 miles from The Oklahoma Panhandle State University at Goodwell and a few more than that from Black Mesa, the highest point in the state (4973 feet). It is described as the “shopping hub” of the Panhandle. It surprises one to learn that it is a land mass the size of the state of Connecticut, is the least populated and largest Congressional district in the state. It is the most Republican place in the United States. 89.5% of the voters voted that way in 2008 while the country as a whole voted nearly 53% Democratic. Not surprisingly, it’s most distinguished or famous former resident is listed as the former FEMA Director Michael “heckuva job Brownie” Brown under former President Bush during Hurricane Katrina.

Since it entered the Union so late, it may be that U.S. 412 was already laid out. It seems to have been last paved in the Roosevelt Administration. The road has some distinctly unpleasant characteristics. After many long and I am sure unpleasant winters, every seam in the concrete roadbed has heaved in one frost or another so that one was treated to a bump of some magnitude every forty or so feet at highway speeds. The bump came with the regularity of a ticking clock, but what could not be gauged was the severity of each. Some were but a gentle roll and some rattled teeth, pots in the camper, and every bolt, screw, and bushing in La Coachasita’s frame. It was maddening and for 200 very straight miles it never stopped. Dust also sped across the road from Kansas headed for Texas for the entire second two hours of the trip.

A useful rule of driving secondary roads is that if there are over the road truckers using it, it is likely a good road and a shortcut to somewhere. Shortly after I left the End Of The Earth Rest Stop, I noticed there were a combines being moved, pickups with horse trailers, hog haulers, and a cattle semi or two but no large, interstate trucks and few cars. I knew then I had made a mistake in assuming that this would be an enjoyable ride in the country.

The Panhandle seems a harsh place. It is nearly treeless and without a bend in the road. While it has a colorful and rich history its purpose now is to grow grain, beef, and pork for the rest of us. Since I find things of interest in nearly all my travels I was surprised at my reaction to its ghost like aura and decide it was more my mood and need to put miles under the van that made it seem so tortuous, although the frost heaves in the road will be a lasting memory. Surely it had its curiosities. Had I been less rushed, for example, I would have asked the locals why every single road that led to a cemetery had a sign and an arrow to point the way, and why they occur every five miles or so. I am sure there is a reason, if only perhaps that some state legislator was looking for his great grandfather’s resting place and when he couldn’t find it, managed to convince his fellow Solons that a sign should be erected to point the way to each and every one. I don’t know because I didn’t take time to find people to ask so it is as good a guess as I am able to make. Clearly these are not put there because they honor the dead more there, or there are more dead in the Panhandle than the rest of Oklahoma. I would have asked if OPSU was called “Oops U” and I would have taken the time to get to the top of Black Mesa to view Oklahoma from such heights. Given my penchant for the peculiar in historical things, the No Man’s Land and Gateway to the Panhandle Museums would have been places of interest in another time. Such interests now will have to be quenched in reference material since I will not likely find U.S.412 on purpose again.

I soldiered on through Woodward and Fort Supply, passing up the opportunities to visit the Fort Supply Historical site, and the Plains Indians and Pioneer museum as I exited the Panhandle. I soon reached “24 Down.” Some faithful crossword puzzle solvers know Enid Oklahoma by that name since so many crossword constructors, looking for a four-letter word with two vowels in it, use the clue, a “Town in Oklahoma.” Frankly, I was disappointed. I expected a wind swept village. What I found was the first thing that resembled a city since I had departed New Mexico. It remained a part of the dreaded U.S.412 which I followed now out of sheer stubbornness and lack of imagination.

I am rarely glad to see signs for an Interstate. Yet that evening when I-35 loomed into view, I gratefully took it south. The traffic was moving too fast, but the road was smooth and my faithful companion seemed to take energy from the smoothness and the traffic. We coasted into a reasonably quiet state park, to be greeted by an atonal, rather laconic ranger who took my check, pointed out the site, and almost seemed glad to see me. There are two state park campgrounds on the Panhandle that I had passed up to get this far tonight. One, Beaver Dunes, has 350 acres of sand. It is used by noisy all terrain vehicle drivers to see if they can create permanent bodily damage to their vehicles or themselves. I would have avoided it wherever it was. The other at Back Mesa, with its antelope herd and groundhog colony is likely as nice as all the others are in the Oklahoma system, a state known for excellent public camping facilities. Alas, I am sure that missing the attractions this singularly unusual land had to offer was my loss. Perhaps if I learn that U.S. 412 has been repaved somehow, I will once more drive down the barrel of the gun in better weather, better spirits, and with less pressing obligations.


  1. First time I've read any details of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Never before knew how the narrow strip came to be a part of that state. Thanks for the lesson. Sorry to hear of the miserably bumpy driving conditions.

  2. Ditto on the history lesson.

    If 431 was last paved during the Roosevelt Administration (I presume you meant the second one), it was probably part of his stimulus bill. So it may get a dressing-up in the next couple of years, after all -- unless those 89.5% choose to refuse the money.

  3. Very interesting post! I, too, loved the history lesson.

    There is a factual error, however. You need to do a "Find All and Replace With" or whatever-it's-called type of edit and change every instance of "431" -- including the caption over the first photo -- to "412"!! I am familiar with U.S. 431, and it goes from Dothan, Alabama, up through Boaz, past Nashville, Tennessee, all the way to Owensboro, Kentucky. 'Tain't in Oklahoma, McGee.

    Speaking of the first photo, I was somewhere else in Oklahoma years ago -- not the Panhandle, never been there -- and it looked exactly like your first photo: completely God-forsaken. Something was straddling the highway a couple of miles up ahead, and when I finally reached it, I was dumbfounded to find a huge sign, many miles from any border, that said, "Stay and see Oklahoma"!!!

    As if there were anything to see....

    Southeastern Oklahoma, around Muscogee, actually has trees, but it's more like being in western Missouri.

  4. And, by coincidence, I happen to have posted something about Texas today myself....

  5. Farm Wife,

    Glad you enjoyed it.


    Not at all sure it wasn't in the first FDR, but it certainly is "shovel ready now!


    Thank you for the Catch. Dislexia is not usually a problem. I have no ifdea where the number came from, but once there it repaeated itself a lot, did it not? I think I have "gotten" them all. I too know now that you mention it, having been through Dothan more than once.
    A mystery, but thanks for catching it.

  6. I have been through that area, only going in the opposite direction as you. That part of Oklahoma is best seen at night. A dark night with no stars.

    Let me know if you have been to Carrazozo NM

  7. “Welcome To The End of The Earth Rest Area” made me laugh out loud. I've driven cross country five times and every time it gets weirder and weirder.

    I'm jealous of your ability to roam.

  8. It is a plan, not a circumstance for me... Thanks for coming by...

  9. As a guy who spent many years of my youth in that area, I could only laugh. I got the hell out of there as soon as I could, and went back home (down South).

    There is one very nice thing about the panhandle. The night sky there is only rivaled by the night sky in the deep desert or the open ocean. It's truly a sight to behold.

  10. Rhymeswithplague, Muscogee is more east central Oklahoma than Southeastern - your description does ring true.

    Far SE OK is probably the most scenic area to visit in the state - think Broken Bow, Idabel, even Hugo with its Circus Cemetary. Very interesting little places to visit. Idabel is home to the Museum of the Red River and I dare you to visit and not compare it to the finest museum's the US has to offer.

    The Eastern part of the state is home to many of the oldest public buildings and churches in the state and in the fall the drive along the borders of Oklahoma and Arkansas in and near the Ouachita National Forest offers breathtaking views.

    As far as central Oklahoma goes - you are starting to really get into the prairie land with a smattering of small hills here and there - the Chickasaw Nation has recently opened an AMAZING cultural center and - if you by chance go - buy the chocolate made by the tribe - trust me. Maize is not the only thing the Native American's have offered to the foodies... I tend to eat a lot of it - lots and lots of it...

    Heh, I wrote my own blog.

    I love your description of the panhandle. They called it "No Man's Land" for good reasons... Can you imagine being a conquistador looking at that - "Voy a regresar..." (Yeah, my Spanish stinks...)Anyway, the museums are worth visiting if you have time and are on a road trip and one of these days I might just have to take Bleu's advice and check out the night sky there.


  11. Sorry, meant to post the link to Museum of the Red...


  12. GLD: Thanks for the link, biy you went a way back to get to this entry. I have spent a lot of time in Oklahoma, Ardmore, Lakes up north of Tulsa. When I go east I nearly always do. But driving the panhandle was an experience, and once was enough.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the information.