It’s amazing the difference a hundred miles in Oklahoma can make. A hundred miles west yesterday in a swirl of hot dust and I found myself writing about the heat glare and its myriad effects. Today, only a hundred miles east and the ride is like spring, cool, gray and boldest shades of green, those boldest jewel tones of any color which only exist in contrast with gray. Crest that hill, a favorite landmark, the rain falls in misty curtains clashing near white against the overcast and this blue planet.
The hills wind soft, the trees overarch, even those small towns, ghost towns photographed, traversed backward and forward year after year seem placid, cooled, gray cloched and languid. Until Vivian I can smell the sage heavy in the rainy air. Here and there, it drizzles down, sometimes in great heavy teardrops, never long enough for concern.
Passed familiar church bell tower and neon signs the sky cleared completely and the summer came back for an afternoon goodbye. The pines bear their late season dullness in the afternoon sunshine as we wind down hill, here and there Lake Tenkiller a deep grey glassy moonscape beyond the trees flashing in the periphery.
This highway feels so different than any other in the state. Untouched, missed by expansion, an original outlaw route, to date small town after small town, all just surviving. Some roadside, cowboy inclined, obvious ranching involved, rural. Others with a deeply native feel, only a house or two and a road sign to reveal a town hidden in the curtain of trees, the side glances of dark haired elderly couples otherwise tending their property the only indicator of curiosity toward the passersby. Either or, both rotting slowly on the Oklahoma hillsides, history vanishing in front of the eyes of the keen observer.
Curves and winding, hills, Eufaula Dam, turn off, serpentine downward stretch, Tenkiller Dam, state highway and an access road, and another turn off, passed barely kept yards and decrepit houses, suspicious semi-abandoned pre-war housing, turn after turn passed watchful eyes, and here a forgotten state highway, gentle and winding. This is my husband’s territory and only he would know where to turn, albeit I was admittedly beginning to question his memory. Is this a highway? Do outlaws still hide here?
At late lunch, like yesterday, noise and clatter and the same as always before waitress recognizes us and greets us, a pretty punk rock wry smile, half smirk but genuine. Like before, the radio played memories, but unlike a farther west chicken joint, the music plays more modern, David Bowie. Do they know for all the contrast it’s the same damn era? The flashbacks are the same for me, for all the contrast of crowds. It’s strange the reframing that comes with age. They were playing one of my mother’s favorite Bowie songs.
On the riverbank, we sit in silence. To sit quiet against the trickling river, to watch the swarms of dragonflies, to be suspended weightless above the water is more than a memory, it is a whole universe unto itself, one to which I have an eternal key and for a little while I am gone through that door.
Later a native family next to us carries on happily, handsome content faces, children laughing for grandpa to come in the water, a baby girl in float gear and life jacket signing about being an otter and “diving” into water no deeper that a couple feet but no doubt an ocean to her, adults floating on the farther current, reminiscing between shooing the children back to the shallows.
Farther down, a pestiferous group is loud, blasting fireworks, the river just a back drop, they are drunk and obnoxious. They are the kind invading this river, the kind who come for loud parties and drunken so called float trips, the kind who do damage trying to change the river. They should stay in the city, away from these sacred places. A murder of crows clamors by, bickering, calling loudly, arguing with other birds, nosily, and by the time their echoes fade, the drunks are gone. And the wind picks up in the trees, leaning them southward ever so.
From the north a song, a harmonica, slow starting then into a tune catches my ear and there, against the western bank, laidback in the evening sunlight is a local group of men and women, concealed in part by trees, river rats. Another breaks out in fiddle, standing farther out in the water, waist deep and at home. They sing and laugh melodious, not loud but lyrical, their laughter and song float, swirling on the eddies toward us and gone again, part of the river not separate, fluid and everlasting. Some things can’t be changed.
The sun is setting, the bang clang of the river float trip groups’ trailers come down the highway in hunt of the last canoes and summer is fading away.