Wednesday, July 21, 2010

No Place Like Home -- Black Mesa, OK

I'm on the move starting tomorrow and will not be writing entries for the rest of the week.


Black Mesa is as far away from home in the state of Oklahoma as I can get. It has characteristics of the Oklahoma I have come to know, but its views hold promise for what lies just beyond the border. Black Mesa is a tease for the weary soul longing for changing terrain -- yearning for something different.

A theme of Oklahoma that I will probably harp on time after time is its vastness. Everything is big here...everything. With endless horizons and an overwhelming sky, Oklahoma is a place that reminds you very quickly how totally insignificant you are. Living here is not far from surviving. Plant life in the panhandle is sparse and tough -- painful to the touch and ugly to the lovers of forests. It is breathtaking in its harshness.

One thing I have always believed is that, most of the time, the more unlivable the conditions of a place, the more beautiful it is. The cacti of Arizona, the vast sand dunes of the Sahara, the permafrost of Alaska's North Slope, and the lonely snow of Antarctica -- all are seen as scary but beautiful places. Only the strong survive here, and we find the plants, animals, even people of these places, completely mesmerizing.

In many ways, Oklahoma is not that much different. The harsh climate, never-ending winds, insanely dry air from the deserts and the insanely moist air from the Gulf of Mexico -- combine to make Oklahoma a violently evolving terrestrial wasteland. In the panhandle, where there is more dry than moist, the plant life is unmistakably arid in origin. The animals are few and far between. Lizards and snakes crawl hurriedly across the landscape, and the brushy cactus whispers harshly in the gusts.

The sky is unrelenting. It pierces the skin quickly and furiously. Water looks strikingly beautiful here, because of its scarceness. I've never seen a sky match so beautifully with the landscape below than in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

A walk to Black Mesa in the summer of 2009 was one of my favorite memories of Oklahoma. It was hot. Very hot. The sun blasted through the high clouds and contrails as if they were not even there. The smell was of dirt and dung...cow dung, to be exact. And there were cows. Annoyingly, they were especially numerous at our destination: the highest point in Oklahoma. It has a statue and everything. Not that we'd know, since a few shall we say protective bulls were keeping it all to themselves.

It turns out, as in most things that our imaginations allow for, that the cows were a perfect metaphor for Black Mesa -- Oklahoma itself. At times, humans are not at the top. No, I wasn't worried the cows would eat us -- or even harm us. Then again, there's no reason to give them a reason to harm me. The cattle are big in Oklahoma too.

My friend Bryan and I saw the highest point in Oklahoma -- from a distance. We saw a few mesas -- another "big" thing in this state. We saw lonely windmills, mooing cows, slithering snakes, and flowers in cacti. Oklahoma isn't paradise, but then again, it doesn't have to be.


After about a week's hiatus, I'll return with stories from Bonneville, OR; Lake Tahoe; Atlanta, GA; and Silver Spring, MD.