On Tuesday afternoon, August the 2nd, I had reached my physical limit of everything: all the days I could work in a row, all the advising sessions I was able to think through with students, all the assignments I could possibly grade and all the hours I could sit in my office chair moving through task after task of summer responsibilities. And while I’m sure I could have mustered the energy to grade one more paper if someone were holding Pistol Pete hostage on the university lawn screaming over a bull-horn, “We will NOT let Pete go until you grade one paper past your perceived limit!” I’m truly glad I didn’t have to.
I was done and just needed to get away. This happens to me every Spring or Summer and is becoming a tradition. Mick knows the power of my “I’m leaving for a couple of days, I’ll call you and let you know where I am, I’ll be safe, goodbye” message. In fact, he now tells this to people on the phone. I’ve heard him.
“Oh, she just has to get away for a few days. A full school year has passed and she just needs to roam. She’ll be back in a day or two.”
In Australia they call it “going walkabout.” In Oklahoma, I call it “time to explore.” Or maybe, Relief. Release. Defragging. Breathing. Running Away. One or perhaps all those descriptions work.
The problem this year, however, was that I knew wherever I chose to go I would be met with the same thing: insufferable heat, evidence of drought and swimming pools crammed with too many people trying to cool off. So my exploration decision had nothing to do with getting away from the heat. This time, it had everything to do with going toward the heat. I wanted to see how bad things really were.
For weeks I had been monitoring the “OK Fires” Twitter feeds, watching as new fires were daily being reported in southwestern and western Oklahoma. I had also monitored “#agchat” which is a weekly conversation among farmers about current issues. They were suffering. I don’t know why I so desperately needed to see the suffering up close and personally, but I did. Although I haven’t lived on a farm since I left my childhood home, I still feel like an Oklahoma farmer in many ways. I feel comfortable around farm life and people, I like to learn about agricultural issues, and I empathize when “my people” are hurting. I made two phone calls, found a Bed and Breakfast in Elk City, booked my room and headed west early Wednesday morning. My colleague had warned me to “Pack a water jug, Kelly. If you break down, it could be the difference between surviving and dying.” She’s a smart woman. I packed a large water jug, two changes of casual clothes, sunscreen, my sunglasses and headed out the door.
I already had a few people lined up to visit. First I was stopping in Hinton to see a college friend who was in a singing group with me back in 1982-83. She was in graduate school and needed encouragement prior to finishing the last leg of her journey. Word to the wise: ALL graduate students need encouragement. Frequently. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going after we hung out for a little while but I thought perhaps she could give me some ideas. And, she did. Here’s how our conversation went…
Me: So, tell me a little bit about sights to see and things to do in Western Oklahoma. Where should I go from here?
Her: Well, have you been to Meers?
Me: Yeah, I’ve been there. Any other interesting places to eat “out here?”
Her: (After listing three or four places, and seeing no response on my face) Well…(she looks at her husband), there ARE these two people out in Erick. Harley and Annabelle. Have you heard of them?
Me: (My ears perk up.) NO…I have NOT. Who ARE they?
Well, it seemed that thousands of people from countries around the world had heard of them, but I had not. My friend’s iPad showed me enough to know that a trip to Erick was probably a necessary step in my walkabout. I finished up my “Lost Hubcap Special” chicken fried steak at the Route 66 Roadhouse Cafe with she and her husband, had my photo taken with Elvis, and continued west on I-40. I needed a smile and thought perhaps Harley and Annabelle held that particular key for me. Here are a few of the images in my head that carried me toward Erick.
My car was needing an oil change, however, and I had all day. Heck, I had two days. I stopped at Weatherford and looked for a mechanic who could change my oil…and got my first surprise. Evidently, there aren’t “Quick Lube” oil change establishments every three blocks in Western Oklahoma like there are in the metro. In fact, there were only two garages who provided oil changes, but the first “was stacked up for days, and we’re sorry but we just can’t help ya. Whyn’t you try this other place just right down the road.”
Well, I “tried,” but would have had to wait for three hours before they could “work me in.” I thanked the second mechanic, returned to my car and smiled. While I was sure my synthetic blend would last another week or two, I had learned my first “welcome to the rural world” lesson. The supply and demand ratio between cars needing repairs and those willing to do them was much tighter in Weatherford, and I would remember that next time.
As I scanned the full parking lot, I realized it was mostly populated by pick-up trucks and many of them had logos on their doors for various oil and gas companies. While I vaguely knew the oil “boom” was back on, I didn’t realize just how ON it really was. I was in the heart of it, and thinking back over the past 30 miles recalled the multiple trailers with oilfield equipment headed west.
I also noticed something else many were talking about – evidence of just how many grasshoppers were in the state.
I started the car and headed back toward the I-40 on-ramp, but decided I wanted to drive around the town a bit before continuing on. The oilfield activity, grasshoppers and the fact that I actually had to make an appointment to get my oil changed, for me, warranted a closer look.
I hadn’t explored too long before I began to fight feelings of sadness. Strong feelings of sadness. Unlike Edmond, most all the yards were yellowed or brown. Evidence of the drought and water rationing was at every point in my 360 degree view. I did a double-take as a drove down a road next to an empty field. Was that corn? I pulled over, grabbed my camera, crossed the road and saw this:
Three or four rows of completely dried corn stalks and straw were left standing from a field that had been stripped or cut recently. As I walked closer, every step I took crunched beneath my feet. I silently imagined someone dropping a match, or flicking a cigarette from a window and watching the entire field blaze up in the blink of an eye. There was absolutely no moisture anywhere. Beads of sweat began to roll down my back. As I reached my hand back to push my t-shirt against my skin in order to stop the sweat from rolling down into my pants, I was startled at just how hot my shirt felt. It was the same sensation that I got when taking a baking dish out of an oven.
The town was quiet, and I couldn’t even hear locusts in that area. For some reason my throat constricted and I blinked my eyes. The drought situation had finally become “live and in-person” to me. I took another photo; this one a close-up of the corn left on the stalks. It appeared to have blistered in the heat, then dried into distended kernels, almost simulating a cooked appearance.
I reached out to squeeze the dried ear to test how firm the kernels were, but they crumbled like dust in my hand. I was looking at a corn “skeleton” and the field was a graveyard of dead crops, and most likely, hopes that had been killed as well.
I hurried back to the car, started it and turned the air conditioner on. Then I called Alisa Hines at OK Horizon TV. I needed someone to understand my sadness.
“Alisa, this is Kelly from the Red Dirt Chronicles,” I began. “You know that story that Andy did in southwest Oklahoma…about selling the cattle?”
“You mean the piece about the drought?” she asked.”
“Yes. I just…I just remember that he wrote about crying because the situation was so bad. Anyway…(I was struggling for words), I just wanted to say that I’m so sad. It’s just SO bad out here.”
Alisa did her best to acknowledge what I was seeing, although I know she had seen it herself several times in the last few weeks. I don’t know why I called her, except to possibly convey that I finally understood what they had been writing about, and making videos about…and seeing.
I said goodbye and sat there for a few minutes. Then I had a fleeting guilty thought that perhaps my emissions were contributing to the thinning O-zone and were making it even hotter. Maybe feeling guilty for my “contribution” was a way to control something of the out-of-control situation; I’m not sure. I put my car in “Drive” and made my way back to the interstate, a slightly-changed person. I felt down, preoccupied and overwhelmed with what all those in western Oklahoma had been dealing with for the past forty days.
I had driven for about 20 miles further west before I realized it was quiet. I hadn’t turned on the radio since I began my trip. Having sorted through a few of my feelings, I decided I could use something to help my mood. I was about to begin looking for an NPR news station when I straightened my spine and gave myself a pep talk. “C’mon, Kelly, you’re on vacation…you can listen to music for crying out loud!”
Somewhere between balancing the skill of driving in a straight line at 75 mph and scanning the radio for a decent station, I suddenly caught glimpse of an earth-shattering view. Right in front of me was rain. Real rain, and it was coming out of the sky and it was falling on the parched Oklahoma earth. Can you see it?
I found a safe place to pull over and parked. I wanted to smell it; I wanted to see what it was like to feel rain when the temperature gauge of my car was registering between 108 and 115 the entire way. When I got out, I looked up and saw gray rain clouds wrestling with clouds less likely to give moisture.
I wanted the dark ones to “win.” I wanted them to persuade their cohort to all collectively turn gray and heavy, and pour out their contents across this place. Liberally. I looked across the road and saw a tree. I imagined “he” was reaching toward the sky with the same message as I. “C’mon, clouds…give it up. Just let it go!”
I got back in my car, pulled back onto the highway, and commenced my radio station search. A strong signal registered so I paused for a moment to see what type of music it might be. Third Day was belting out, “God of wonders beyond our galaxy – You are Holy, Holy…” I hesitated. I don’t really listen to praise and worship music on the radio. As a musician, I have this thing about keeping it personal. I’ll play or sing it at church, but just don’t like most Christian radio station programming. I like a little more variety than they offer.
But not today. My hand returned to the armrest. This music was just fine. Out here in western Oklahoma, I suddenly felt like I needed God in a big way. “God – keep the rain coming. God, help these people; help their animals; help them survive this drought and rebuild what they’re losing….” This stream of thought continued in my head for a while. It may have continued until I saw the Erick, Oklahoma exit. I slowed down, exited the highway and began thinking about Harley and Annabelle again. I wonder if THEY were hot? How was the air conditioning in their little store-front house? Would they be there?
These questions were soon answered, but not in any way I could have expected. I invite you to read my next Red Dirt Rambler entry covering my encounters in Erick, released sometime later today or Tuesday.
Until then – watch out for grasshoppers, keep the rain prayers and thoughts coming, and I’ll write to you very soon.
To read all the Red Dirt Rambler posts, click here.