Flowers on the prairie where the June bugs zoom
Plenty o’ air and plenty o’ room
(From “Oklahoma,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein)
Western Oklahoma. For some, the words conjure up in the mind’s eye a straight ribbon of four-lane through flat, featureless land. But they are the ones who have never been close to it. For them, and maybe for you, it’s like “fly-over” country for coastal inhabitants . . . they are passing through on the way to somewhere else.
I know, because that was me. A native of northeastern Oklahoma, I found the western landscape a stark and barren contrast to the hardwood forests and verdant hills of my youth. It never occurred to me that a different kind of beauty waited there. I too had rushed through on the interstate, always headed to other places, just waiting for the miles to go by. But then there was FreeWheel.
FreeWheel is a yearly bicycle ride across Oklahoma. The first year I rode, it started in Duncan, Oklahoma and ended in Anthony, Kansas, taking us through the western high plains. During that week of riding and camping, I got “up close and personal” with the land on two Susan-powered wheels, averaging 17 miles per hour for four or five hours every day. Aside from walking, there is no better way to get to know a place.
And what I learned is, first of all, it is not flat. The elevation change from Duncan to Cheyenne is 1,200 feet and on a bicycle you feel it. And neither is it featureless . . . maybe you’ve heard of Red Rock Canyon, the Gloss Mountains, the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge. These are things you don’t see from the interstate. You might glimpse them from a state highway, but to really know them you have to take the back roads. There you smell the wheat, feel the breeze, cross the creeks on one-lane bridges and welcome the surprise of daffodils or wild roses blooming around old homesteads.
And Oklahoma has plenty of back roads . . . 84,984* miles of county roads, to be exact. According to Susan Allison, Public Information Officer for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, about 59,000* miles of those are unpaved, which means they may be “unimproved,” graded, or gravel. To put this in perspective, the earth’s circumference at the equator is 25,000 miles. Think about it . . .you can (figuratively) go around the world twice on unpaved roads and never leave Oklahoma!
So it was natural that when Bill and I decided to take a motorcycle trip to visit Chris and Claire Johnson at their Wichita Mountain ranch, we would think of making it a “back roads” journey. Admittedly, this decision was partially driven by our choice of motorcycles for the weekend.
We were on the horns of a dilemma. Bill had recently “jacked up” the BMW F650GS (actually returning it to its original height) so he could use it for training. Too tall!
I could ride the Triumph Bonneville, but the British bike didn’t feel like my cup of tea for this ride. A bit too stiff.
And there’s the Yamaha XT 225. A great all-around bike. But isn’t it too small to ride that far?
Then I thought of Lois Pryce, whose book, Lois on the Loose, I had recently read. She rode an XT 225 from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. It dawned on me that riding my XT225 from Norman to Lawton would be sissy stuff by comparison. So, like Goldilocks, I decided the XT would be “just right.”
“Are you sure?” asked Bill.
“Yep,” I said. “It will be fine, if we take the back roads.”
“You don’t want to ride the BMW?”
“No, you ride the BMW. I’ll have fun riding the XT.” And I meant it.
In preparation, we located our Oklahoma atlas and gazetteer, The Roads of Oklahoma, and extracted the pages for Grady County, Caddo County, and Comanche County. The maps in this book show all 84,984 miles of those back roads, indicating whether they are paved or unpaved. This is a great resource for planning but, as it turned out, not my preference for way-finding. We ended up using my GPS to occasionally get our bearings and otherwise simply zigzagged south and west from Norman until we got close to where we hoped to be.
We chose the hottest week of the year to go. Not from masochism or bravado, that’s just the way the timing worked out. This first weekend in August promised temperatures over 105, but the heat wasn’t yet oppressive as we departed, so we carried our “cool vests” rather than donning them.
Heading south, we made short work of the one mile of I-35 across the South Canadian River, the only interstate driving we did the entire weekend. The XT was glad to be done with it. Highway 9 took us west to Blanchard and from there we plunged into the back roads. Riding dual sport motorcycles gives us peace of mind about tackling any of Oklahoma’s county roads. Nice to have the freedom to keep going when the asphalt turns to deep gravel.
Thirty-five miles of zigging and zagging delivered us to Alex, where we stopped for a drink from our water bottles. There the main street runs through a shuttered-up downtown. In front of the community center stands a marker paying tribute to the man for whom the town was named. W.V. Alexander was a Civil War veteran who, through his marriage to a Chickasaw woman, controlled a large tract of Indian Territory’s Washita Valley, including this townsite. We stayed long enough to snap a photo of the marker and wave at the driver of a semi-truck, the only other vehicle passing through. Then we set out for the next set of zigs. Admittedly, there weren’t many curves. But lots of zags.
Serendipity is the pleasant result of keeping your options open, and it led us next to Marlow. We didn’t intend to ride so far south, but this course held our interest, and on we went. As we rolled into town we were ready for a break, so we stopped to cool off and have a drink of water in the shade of Redbud Park, then shared a delightful lunch at Giuseppe’s Ristorante, (see Bill’s article in the September 2008 issue of Ride Oklahoma).
Frequent stops and diligent hydration kept us going in the triple-digit temperatures. From Marlow, we made our way around the north side of Fort Sill. Grass grows through the asphalt of barely-paved one-lane roads on this northwesterly track. We kept our speeds under 50 most of the time, making both me and the Yamaha happy. Soon we fiybd ourselves in Elgin, from whence we veered west to Meers, then through the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge to the home of our friends.
After a good visit, a tasty meal from Claire’s abundant garden, and a good night’s rest, we started the journey home. It was already mid-afternoon and we didn’t hesitate to wear our cool vests, knowing we would need them. Bill gave them a good soaking and we departed. In spite of our mutual agreement not to seek out dirt roads on this hot, dusty afternoon, we succeeded in doing exactly the opposite, spending most of the trip on dirt and gravel, having . . . and creating . . . a blast. The phrase, “Eat my dust” comes to mind as clouds of the white stuff erupted from our wheels.
Traveling north and east to Apache, we were greeted by quiet streets in contrast to the lively atmosphere in 2004 when we rolled in under our own power during FreeWheel . Then the mood was festive, with more than 1,000 cyclists nearly doubling the town’s population. Apache was one of our favorite stops on that traveling bicycle camp for grown-ups. Townspeople went all out to welcome our caravan with food, music, camping and showers set up at the local fairgrounds. But this time, it was an ordinary Sunday afternoon and a very hot one at that. Most folks were wisely staying indoors under the A/C. We soaked our vests, got gas and Gatorade at a convenience store, and parked on a bench to rehydrate and watch the locals.
We had started back fairly late in the day and it was getting on toward evening as we arrived in Verden on the heels of an intriguing ride up a freshly oiled hard-pack dirt road to a red butte, where we were greeted with a locked gate. No problem . . . turnarounds are easy on my little bike. In town, one more stop for a cold drink and another soaking for the vests. “How far is it to Chickasha?” I asked the store clerk. My GPS battery gave out so we’re guessing.
“Oh, 10 or 15 miles,” she responded congenially. We were getting close.
We continued northeast and crossed over I-44, zigging our way back to Blanchard. We knew the way home now, without map or GPS, and soon we pulled into our driveway covered with dust and grit, thoroughly satisfied. The weekend was rich with exploration, discovery and companionship. Western Oklahoma is better known and better loved, and the XT was indeed big enough for our state’s plentiful back roads. And there’s a bonus . . . with about 250 miles under our belts from the weekend, we are 1% of the way towards circumnavigating the globe . . . right in our own back yard.
- The Roads of Oklahoma is published by Shearer Publishing. DeLorme publishes an Atlas and Gazetteer for every state, which is also a good resource. Both are available at Borders and other book stores.
- Special thanks to Susan Allison at the Oklahoma Department of Transportation for her time and energy conducting research about my question, “How many miles of county roads are there in Oklahoma?”
*Department of Transportation statistics as of 2008
This story was originally written in 2008.