If you take the flat ride west across the northern section of Oklahoma along Highway 412, just before you reach the panhandle chop hills suddenly appear, low red dirt mesas rising from the vast flatness of the high plains. Filled with gypsum, they glisten in the sunlight as though they were studded with tiny stars, their bright brick red dotted occasionally with short cedars and sage brush. These are the Gloss Mountains. They rise out of the plains, dramatic and brief, a gateway to the wide open beauty of the panhandle and the West beyond.
One of my favorite places in Oklahoma, the far reaching openness of the high plains touches somewhere visceral for me, the vast opportunity, the idea that you can go and go forever, the illusion of limitlessness. We rode up from Oklahoma City through the rolling hills of young wheat waving like a glassy green ocean, past the electric yellow fields of canola flowers, past crumbling homesteads and miles of hay bales, to where the black jack and cottonwood trees are permanently bent eastward by the hard wind and on the horizon turbines lazily turn, just before the landscape becomes less coated with green spring farmland and becomes more painted by nature alone. The hills roll ever more gently as you near the high plains and the colors shift from varied shades of emerald and chartreuse to espresso brown, fiery clay, cinnamon rust, golden sand, and silvery grays all dotted with the occasional bright dusty green of sage and cacti or deep piney green of the low junipers and cedars.
This is the land where the wind howls wild, unhindered and unleashed, down from the Rockies and racing straight-line, picking up speed as it rolls from the west, laughing, rolling, tumbling, unstoppable, the only place in the world I’ve ever gotten windburn. The place where the bucking silhouettes of oil pumps slowly rock, where the exposed mineral earth glistens, where the people are tough as nails and wonderful to know. This, to me, is Oklahoma. I’ve heard more than once that Oklahoma is a Southern or Midwestern state, and while the people have ancestry from both bringing elements of the cultures from each, as a Southerner I can assure you Oklahoma is not Southern but neither is it Midwestern or even Western. It is all of them and none, its own creature, a hybrid of history and geography, a place where settlers from everywhere to its east raced across its borders with dreams in their hearts, a place where proud native tribes were forcibly pushed but built a new home on their own strength and fortitude. It is a place where the Ozarks of the South, prairies of the Midwest and clay mesas of the Southwest merge, where the tall grass prairie path to the high plains gateway merge, where the deep forests of Arkansas and East Texas give way to open farmland. This is a territory, the gateway to the west, a place built on the backs of the dislodged and the dreaming.
And this is why the wide open expanse of high plains Northwest Oklahoma represents everything Okie to me. From its rugged beauty to its tough down to earth kindhearted folk, this is everything I think of when I think of the lovely state in which I live. Riding across the open highway, wondering what this land represented to its earliest tribes, what the first settlers emboldened by their dreams thought as they lay eyes on this red earth, my heart swells every time I see those Gloss Mountains rising suddenly like a shimmering mirage. Taking in the view, the openness, while ever vigilant for rattlesnakes and being beaten by the wind, the hard beauty of the land sinks in, the challenge in the opportunity, and that is what I think of when I think of this land and the people whose histories built it. This is Oklahoma.