An uphill ride through Oklahoma

Originally published in 1987.

Travelling by car on gently graded Interstate 35, you barely notice the Arbuckle Mountains 100 kilometres south of Oklahoma City.

But traverse these mountains on bicycle on old U.S. 77, and you’ll have a wonderful introduction to Oklahoma’s hill country. Straight over the peaks you go, with no road cuts or fills to smooth the rugged topography. Cyclists who sentence themselves to a full day of pedalling these slopes will find it easy to empathize with the convicts who used human power to build Highway 77 back in the 1920s.

When you’re at large on two wheels, of course, there’s no need to put in a full day of hard labour. You can linger and enjoy your scenic rewards after every difficult climb. For travellers who’ve had their fill of the Southwest’s vast stretches of open plain, Oklahoma’s mountain ranges offer plenty of opportunities to change gears.

I pedalled into Oklahoma from the south in April, making my way from Dallas toward Kansas City, with the Arbuckles the first and only fixed point on my itinerary. The southernmost slopes of the Arbuckles were barren, severe – in place of vegetation, outcroppings of rock stretched to the horizon in straight and evenly spaced rows.

My initial impression of a vast desert graveyard was short-lived. When I reached the first summit a palette of colours lay before me. Slopes at one angle to the sun wore the dark green of cedar, others the soft green of new leaves on oak and elm, still others the dusty green of cactus and dry grass. Sandstone cliffs rose above slabs of grey granite, and wildflowers of spring grew among bushes still dressed in the flaming red of autumn.

Geologists tell us the Arbuckles are some of the oldest mountains on earth, and the range is certainly one of the smallest. Though the Arbuckles once towered almost as high as the Rockies, today the peaks rise only a few hundred metres from the surrounding plains. A cyclist can ride from one end of the range to the other in half a day, but with so much beauty and variety packed into such a small area, haste would be waste.

Turner Falls Park at the centre of the Arbuckles is a good place to set up camp for a day or two. Mountain springs merge in crystal-clear Honey Creek, cascading 25 metres to carve a swimming hole in the rock. Though souvenir shops and mini-train rides surround the park entrance, most of the 300 hectares of campground offer nothing more complicated than beautiful vistas, babbling brooks, and amenities such as picnic tables and washrooms.

I pitched my tent for two nights just a few metres from Honey Creek, half a kilometre above the falls. The deeper swimming areas were closed in early April, and locals were shocked at the idea of bathing in such frigid water. But to a Canadian who had climbed hills all day on bike and on foot in 25-degree sunshine, the shallow rushing waters of Honey Creek were a perfect whirlpool. (Yes, the water was cool, about like an Ontario lake near the end of a warm summer.)

After two days of crisscrossing the Arbuckles on back roads, my appetite for hill-climbing had just been whetted. I had lots of time, and the weather was perfect; I set out on a 250-kilometre detour through dusty ranch country to more and bigger mountains in eastern Oklahoma.

So it was that after two more days I found myself bouncing along a gravel road beside Jack Fork Mountain, 45 kilometres from any town, on a balmy Saturday evening. I had crossed the Indian Nation Turnpike on State Highway 43 at the former village of Daisy, only to find that the paved road shown on my map was really a winding stretch of potholes and loose rock. I wondered if I could still make another 35 kilometres to a public campground before dark, and then the delay of a flat tire removed all doubt.

As the road got narrower, the forest closed in on all sides, and little streams trickled out of the hills every kilometre. Here cattle grazed in small cleared pastures that were lush green. Cardinals flitted in the bushes beside the road, cottontail rabbits bounded in front of me.

I rode till just past 7 p.m., when I passed a clear creek just wide enough for a quick swim. I pulled into the next driveway to ask a rancher if I could camp on his land.

“There’s a real nice campsite just a mile up the road,” he answered. Yes, there was running water, he said, but no, I wouldn’t see a sign to announce the turn-off.

“You’ll see a dump right beside the road, and if you turn in there and go a hundred yards further, you’ll find a nice flat spot to pitch your tent. You might have company tonight – it’s turkey season, so there might be some hunters staying there.”

Visions of wild turkey roasting over an open fire certainly appealed to my empty stomach, and I rolled on. A few minutes later I came to a pile of rubbish. There was an old logging trail marked by a faded picture of Smoky The Bear and the barely legible words “Goforth Road.” I went forth past the dump into the woods, but met no hunting party.

There was running water, though – little springs and streams crossed the road every 100 metres. I pedalled another kilometre, then pitched my tent in a small clearing. A nearby brook had carved a little hollow in the sand, about half a metre deep. I hung my clothes on a tree, looked around warily for the cottonmouth snakes I had heard so many stories about, and lowered myself gingerly into a much-needed Saturday night bath.

By the time I had dressed for dinner and set up my stove on a smooth flat rock, stars were burning holes in a moonless sky. Tortillas, beans and canned okra by candlelight had to stand in for roast turkey, but the ambience of this inn was hard to beat. The night breeze was still warm, the air smelled of pine and wildflowers, the drone of insects was interrupted only by the high-pitched gobble of wild turkeys and a far-away chorus of coyotes.

Early the next morning I heard a four-wheel-drive truck lumbering along the trail. I stepped out of my tent and said hello to a friendly group of hunters. The driver looked curiously at my bicycle, tent and stove, and said, “You just sittin’ there listening to them turkeys gobble? I bet you’re havin’ a ball.”

I allowed as how April in the mountains of Oklahoma was mighty fine.

This article originally appeared in the Travel section of the Toronto Globe & Mail, 1987.