Tuesday, August 24, 2010

No Place Like Home -- Talimena Scenic Byway

Recently, I wrote about Black Mesa, Oklahoma's tallest point and closest approach to the Rockies the state can muster. Today, I talk about a region far different than the barren (but gorgeous) wasteland that covers the western Panhandle. The Ouachita Mountains of southeast Oklahoma are a trip to a very different world, a world that seems impossible when the word "Oklahoma" is heard. Forest? Rolling hills? Green? These things do not fit the image most have in mind when thinking 'neath the Western sky.

The Ouachitas are actually my favorite part of the state. I love hiking here, and today, I will share the hiking experience that makes me laugh and cry at the same time. A companion on the trip refers to the hike as the "Death March", which is not an unfair description. I also gained a new appreciation for cell phones that day -- weird, given that the point of the hike (and hikes in general) was to avoid the outside world.

On a balmy January day, the leafless trees of the Ouachitas were graced by four rugged "old souls". One featured the distinctive yellow backpack, which (importantly) contained battery-less flashlights.

The hike was a round trip starting and ending at Cedar Lake and covering the steep side of Winding Stair Mountain. Winding Stair is a beautiful place, with nice vistas of the forested hills a permanent part of the trek.

Because of the distance from Norman, we left around sunrise but didn't arrive at the hike until 11 am. There were a couple of reasons for this -- specifically, a "missing" parking lot about a mile past the Cedar Lake trailhead. That extra mile, as it turns out, was very important. We ended up parking near Cedar Lake and began the walk past the trailhead. As it turned out, however, we lost the main trail and headed down a "tributary" instead. Our suspicions increased when we didn't reach the road with the "missing parking lot". As a result, we backtracked, losing well over 30 minutes on the hike. This was on top of the 30+ minutes to traverse the main trail that we were not expecting to do. So, we essentially began our planned hike well after noon. As this was January, the 10-mile hike was to be complete in about five hours.

Perhaps you know where this is going by now. That makes you smarter than the fo--, nah, it makes you smarter than just me. At 3:30, we reached the ridge top after a challenging trek up the hillside. The views were really great for Oklahoma standards, and having hiked in the area since then, I can assure you that this is must-see territory for hikers in the state. Even more beautiful in the fall. By this point, I was slightly ahead of the other three -- partly to see how far we had to go and partly to allow for more frequent stops to take in the views. At nearly 4 pm, the four of us were on the ridge -- a part of a lengthy trail near Talimena Scenic Byway. We hit this area for a while, seeing a nice fountain and nearly spraining ankles on rocks gracing the trek.

The hike began downward after a mile on the ridge, and the time was now 4:30 pm. The sun was ominously dimming in the quickly disappearing daylight. Apparently, it was at this point when I was certain we were in trouble. I had suspected it before reaching the ridge, but I never passed stage one (denial) in the five steps of stupidity.

The next hour was a race against time, and trust me when I say we were the Michigan Wolverines against the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Soon enough, and well before the end of the trail, we reached darkness. And battery-less flashlights.

The idea was to use the light of our cell phones to see the white blazes on the trees that marked the trail. It worked, but it was infuriatingly slow work. Everyone was tired, and I was impatient. At one point, I almost decided to dart off toward the sound of a highway -- call it a "Darwin is knocking" moment. The plan was working, though slowly. At one point, however, one of my fellow victims wondered if his camera battery would work in one of my flashlights.

Success! The rest of the way was easy breezy to the road with the missing parking lot. Two hours of darkness had passed. After cheers that would make Bring It On viewers chuckle, and a few kisses of the pavement, we walked slowly along the road to the Cedar Lake turnoff. After about another hour, strained ankles and deflated egos in tow, we made it to the car.

We sped off to Krebs, in time for a great meal behind closed doors -- to the gratefulness of the other customers in the restaurant. Not much talking here -- a lot of chewing, though.

Moral of the story? For great food, eat in Krebs. Or something.


The photos below are from a trip to Talimena Scenic Byway in May 2009.

The fountain
Cedar Lake