Have you ever woken up and thought “I’d like to see New Mexico today?” Or Kansas? Or Colorado? Or Texas? Or all four in the same day plus Oklahoma? Are you the kind of rider who likes to just go for miles and hours on end with as few stops as possible? In the Oklahoma panhandle, No Man’s Land, all those things can be done. And like the rest of western Oklahoma, the panhandle has made a home for itself in my heart. Although it may not be everyone’s idea of beauty, for someone who believes a wild wide open combined with a sparse populace equates with freedom, it’s perfect.
Intent on trying to lay down 1000 miles in one day and seeing Black Mesa, upon passing the No Man’s Land plague I was instantly enamored, trying to take in all the open like a breath too great for my lungs. The cattle indifferently watched us pass and members of a colony of prairie dogs barely noticed us while farther down the highway a small group of antelope perked to our approached and nervously eyed our passing. The tall grass waved in the heavy wind and the clouds rolled quickly, appearing and evaporating with equal swiftness, rolling on in the endless blue. The view en route was so spectacular, so wide open, so free, that it deserves to be talked about in its own passage and the beautifully smooth highway through, 412, deserved its own place in the road less traveled section. Would I suggest this particular road for motorcycle passage in the dead of winter? Absolutely not. In the heat of midsummer? Definitely not. But this time of year, aside from pop up storms (that’s a later post), it is phenomenal.
The three counties that make up the panhandle are each composed of their own signature variant of the western prairie environment, with the first from the east, Beaver County, being more akin to a tallgrass prairie western movie set, all grama and sage and patches of yucca, but so shockingly boundless it is hard to take in. The middle county, Texas County, bears its Spanish colonial history with myriad Spanish names and the land is a bit more agricultural, with the perfume of sage heavy in the air, dusty green pastures rolling forever teaming with cultivated buffalo and some of the toughest looking cattle I’ve ever seen. The last county before the west, Cimarron County, earns its place as the final county before the mountains and desert begin, with a rockier styling of the high plains, more cacti and scrub cedar and light rolling land giving way at the furthest west point to the flat mesas that make up the highest elevation in Oklahoma and silhouette on and on into the farthest horizon of Colorado and New Mexico. Even the air changes slightly in each region, especially as you reach the Black Mesa where the dry line is obvious and imposing, clouds banking hard against the invisible wall of temperature change and rolling in on themselves, great tall swirling cumulonimbus, creating fluctuations from hot to cold, shadow to sun as you ride.
I can only imagine how daunting the panhandle of Oklahoma must’ve been to its early homesteaders. Even today, it seems so cut off from the rest of the world, its own colony, but none of the folks we met minded a bit, rather loved it. Instead of lonely in its isolation, it stands on an unshakable independence, a confident air of gumption, no need for the rest of the world and no need to say so, a wild open vista belonging to itself and no one else.
To see: This is not a highway to ride if you are all about destinations, but rather is just great ride for the sake of riding and taking in the view. A seamless stretch of long smooth highway and open vastness all around, it is perfect for two wheeled meditation. There are some nice small communities along the way, small museums, and historic locations but they are sparse and spread out. (Keep this in mind when planning gas and food stops.)
The weather & elements: In a nutshell, summers will cook you and winters are freezing. This is a land of extremes with regard to weather. However, spring and fall are gorgeous for riding, but mind the spring storms. There is very limited, if any at times, shelter. Not a place to get caught unaware. Also, be ready to push back against the wind as you ride. This is not meant to make the run sound unpleasant, as it is beautiful and one of my new favorite runs, but it should be noted for other riders when elements are as exaggerated as they are there.