Raton, NM to Tulsa, OK
So that's what's out there
Hantavirus is a good burglary deterrent.
I learn why they're called tankslappers.
I got up and out early, but not as early as the NRA guys, who I guessed were headed out to the Whittington Center for some firearms fun. It’s a giant reserve the NRA has in New Mexico for shooting, camping, shooting, hunting, and shooting. Their lifted pickup trucks rumbled out of the hotel parking lot as I lashed my luggage to the bike.
I had talked with my cousin in Tulsa the night before, so he knew of my imminent arrival. I picked up State Road 72 out of Raton, planning to take it to the Oklahoma Panhandle. The gentle hills and curves kept me entertained, but things flattened out as I neared the Oklahoma line.
I had run out of earplugs the day before, so when I stopped in Clayton, New Mexico for gas I hunted around for a drug store. Google sniffed one out across from the Luna Theater on Main Street. The drugstore woman’s warm and friendly manner made me glad I stopped. Once again I enjoyed the difference from my usual encounters with strangers in the Northeast, where the default mode is a glowering, defensive crouch. OK, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. Before I left town I grabbed a shot of tumbleweeds on Main Street. That’s how you know you’re in the West.
The Oklahoma panhandle beckoned. My mom hails from eastern Oklahoma, so I had seen much of the state from the Missouri border down to Texas, with Oklahoma City as a western edge. Eastern Oklahoma is green and hilly, more like Arkansas than stereotypical Oklahoma. But ever since I was old enough to understand maps, I wanted to know: What’s in that little skinny part of the state way out there? And why is it shaped like that?
The Public Land Strip is Not a Dance
Here’s why it’s shaped like that, courtesy of Wikipedia. If I’ve gotten something wrong, mention it in the comments.
The Oklahoma Panhandle’s existence stems from political upheavals in the 19th century. Texas wanted to enter the union as a slave state, but to do that they had to give up their territory north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude. This created a no-man’s land called the “Public Land Strip” between Texas and territories north. The Public Land Strip had no state or territorial ownership from 1850 to 1890, and for a time held the name Cimarron Territory. Cimarron ranchers formed a proto-government, but the Big Boys in Washington rejected their petition for recognition. The Public Land Strip became part of Oklahoma territory, eventually splitting into the three counties we see today: Cimarron, Beaver, and Texas. I encourage anyone interested in the lesser-known bits of American history to read about it.
And what’s there, you ask?
A hell of a lot of wheat, that’s what. And few people. Modern production methods require much less human labor. The Panhandle’s population peaked before the Great Depression, tanked during the Dustbowl years, and never recovered. Tumbleweeds fill the fences. I saw plenty of antelope and some deer, but not much more than that.
The Panhandle reminds me of when I paid 80 bucks to spend an hour in a sensory-deprivation tank in Manhattan. I had nothing to see, smell, feel or hear. Soon my mind became jumpy and annoyed. It demanded input. But once I rode out the boredom and irritation, my brain switched to a different, lower gear. My expectations changed, and with that change came peace. The same thing happened in the Panhandle. Once I passed the jumpy, annoyed stage I had a lot more fun than I thought I could on a flat, straight road across what had seemed like a featureless landscape but now revealed much more. Or maybe I was just hallucinating, like the poor bastards in long-term sensory deprivation experiments. I want to come back and spend some time in the Panhandle. The hard part will be convincing anyone who hasn’t been here to come along.
I have a weakness for deserted commercial enterprises, so when I spotted a run-down car-repair shop surrounded by dead old cars I smacked the brakes and turned back. I rode through the patchy foot-tall grass over to the building, watching for cinder blocks or other potential disasters. I took a couple of pictures, then noticed that someone had spray-painted on the boarded-up doors of the building:
Well, that makes sense, I thought. Thousands of acres of wheat stretched in every direction, and I’m standing in front of the only building for miles. It could be seething with hundreds of infected rodents.
Or maybe not.
Did hantavirus lurk within, or was it just an anti-burglary ruse? Who would take that chance? Not me. I took my last shots and got out. Next time I take my family on vacation I am so nailing up plywood sheets on the house, spray-painted with “Hantavirus.” It will be worth it just to see the neighbors’ faces.
The Panhandle reminds me of when I paid 80 bucks to spend an hour in a sensory-deprivation tank in Manhattan. Once I rode out the boredom and irritation, my brain switched to a different gear.
At a rest stop in New Mexico. How many can there be? Apparently quite a few.
The abandoned home of Hantavirus Auto Repair. See the door on the right?
On through Boise City and Guymon I rode, stopping for a cheeseburger and tater tots at the Sonic in Guymon. I had picked up US 412 outside of Boise City, and it looked to take me all the way to Tulsa. What felt like a long time after Guymon I consulted the map. Surely the day’s halfway point lay well behind me.
I couldn’t believe what I saw. I had a good 60 miles to Woodward, which itself was 200 miles from Tulsa. It felt like a week since I had left Raton, and I hadn’t even gone halfway! For the first time on the trip, The terrain was winning. I needed a break. I pulled over at a gravel road and got off the bike.
Don't Try This at Home
I washed down a little beef jerky with the usual warm Mountain Dew. No amount of walking and stretching took the stiffness from my legs. When I got back on the road I decided to use the rear pegs. Anything to switch things up. This wedged my belly against the tank, my chin resting on the tank bag. At least it was different. Hey, let’s see how fast I can go. I screwed on the throttle. The speedo climbed easily over 100, then slowed as it reached 110. Hey, it’s a Bonneville, not a Hayabusa.
Then a gust hit me. A big one.
The handlebars flipped right and left, trying like hell to rip out of my hands and enter full tank-slap mode. I remembered the training: Loosen your hold a little, back off the throttle slowly. It worked. The motorcycle gremlins grudgingly relinquished control. I kept it under ninety for the rest of the day. What a stupid thing to do. The luggage on the back probably screwed the aerodynamics and made the front too light at that speed.
In Tulsa, for the first time on the trip I got lost. Why? I used GPS instead of trusting the map, that’s why. It was great to see my cousin David. We hadn’t connected much over the years, but this time we talked late into the night, each of us sharing family history that the other didn’t know, and talking about our grandfather, who died in 1993 and whom we both revere, and still miss.
What a pleasure to enjoy time with family, especially after all that ridiculous crap with my parents in Tucson. I slept peacefully that night, under a blanket I remembered from childhood Christmases at my grandparents’ house. The blues I had picked up riding east vaporized, replaced by the warmth and satisfaction of reviving old family connections.