I was there and the air was laughing humid, the dark silhouette of Tennessee forest surrounded us and the night sky was deep royal violet, regal clouds aloofly passing by soft gray even in the darkness, edged in a faint blue, accented in the distance by a particularly bright Vega. And I was there. Overhead a plane passed slowly, silently, a tinkling white speck of forward momentum, so much smaller than the heaven just at its back, and everything watching night planes ever meant came back. And I was there. Physically, of course, but more importantly mentally and then some, wholly. I have been so out of touch so often for so long it seems like, with deadlines and every poker I can find in the fire and a few more being formed, it’s exhausting. So I sat in the dark Southern night next to my mother’s pool and listened to the animals in the woods and watched the silent beacon of dozens of people moving forward.
“You look more relaxed than I’ve seen you in a long time.”
“You can tell?”
“It’s the South, no place else is the South. This is where I belong.”
For as much traveling as I do, it’s ceaselessly amazing how much a trip home, a venture to what a person knows, home to the old stomping grounds relaxes the mind and soul in a completely different way. The gentle familiarity, the safety in sights and smells etched into your heart of hearts. Even the day we left, before we could cross lines and bridges, I had to stand by the Mississippi, for as long as the heat allowed, just to watch that water move, to feel reinvigorated, to reconnect with that strength.
And here, two weeks later after a series of surprising events that have added a bundle of new irons for the fire, we opted to stop for a day and tap back into that feeling of calm with a visit to Josh’s stomping grounds in Eastern Oklahoma. Frequently we are there and have often talked about writing a piece about it but it has never come to fruition. This time however we were seeing it with new eyes, perhaps still in the mood from the recent trip to some of my old grounds, perhaps because so much is changing with all those events unfolding. Whatever the cause, as we rode one of his favorite highways, I caught myself side glancing to the east, toward Arkansas, my hillbilly home, a stone’s throw away, and marveling at how the land shifts along the Illinois, the last sign of boothills of the Ozarks and Bostons lending a certain signature Arkansas styling to the landscape while the decidedly western flora just begins, painting those hills with Oklahoma’s own beauty, staking claim.
We curved and wound through back roads that for all our trips I’d never seen before, a few I found a little hairy, but Josh’s confidence is often an infusion and he knows each of these roads from little Kansas to Sallisaw, Siloam to Warner, Westville to Wagoner, like the backs of his own hands if not better. This is his land, and he is a different person, more comfortable and sentimental here than anywhere else. Even the Illinois River is like his own river he knows it so well. Every few months when we visit he notices each change in its course, places trees have washed away, new sandbars from the last spring wash. He grew up here and it is part of him, just as the South with me.
After enjoying lunch at one of his top five restaurants of all time, shooting the longest game of pool I’ve shot in a long time, and cooling off in the river, we rode until dark and inspired by our traversing, I shot what I could (seriously, some of that wasn’t going to happen without investing in one of those go pro things he talks about) and began planning for this post.
First, if you have never tried Sam and Ella’s, do. You will not regret it. The staff is wonderful even in a lunch rush and the pizzas are among the best ever anywhere. Yes, I am comfortable with that statement. It takes two of us to eat one of their smalls and even at that crusts lie like discarded bones post meal. I’ve never seen one of their large pizzas and can only imagine. But a small with two drinks rings in at exactly $12, which simply can’t be beat. And really, with a name like Sam and Ella’s, how can you go wrong? They are located in the heart of Tahlequah, a darling college meets frontier town if you’ve never been and most notably capital for the Cherokee in Oklahoma. The signs in both English and Cherokee are wonderful and will turn your head the first time you see them.
Within immediate range are Lake Tenkiller, Lake Ft. Gibson, Lake Eufaula, and the Illinois River, all of which have their own virtues and winding between them all are some of the best riding roads Oklahoma has to offer. Likely the most popular of those is Scenic Highway 10 from Tahlequah to Little Kansas. Tracing alongside the Illinois, 10 winds beautifully and although it has been a frequent source of inspiration, posting about it has been previously avoided, partly for its popularity (you can read about it anywhere) but also because the riverfront through that area is dotted with campsites and boat rentals, so the constant coming and going of four wheeled traffic, especially those less inclined to care about drinking and driving, makes riding on a busy day in season through the curves no small trick. But consider taking 10 out of season, as each of the seasons are gorgeous along the Illinois.
Or consider instead the many of the surrounding roads. I have no idea how one road becomes more known than the others, especially when some of the others are a good deal more fun, but every trip east involves a new to me road there are so many. Try a road, pick one, any one. Get out a map and see which go through and which look most appealing to you. Most importantly in that area, know your experience level and if one becomes too much or isn’t exciting enough for you, turn back and try another (seriously, know your comfort and skill as there are some serious seat eaters in that area). The hills of eastern Oklahoma are positively laced with glorious courses and winding paths. Something for everyone, each hides gems, a new challenge, tiny dives, gorgeous vistas, archways of shadowy arboreal caves, even a random zebra here or there.
That isn’t a joke: