south by southwest – part 1   13 comments

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A bison at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma

As happens so often, again it has been a long time since my last post – almost a month! During that time, I drove across the Midwest to the town of Bisbee, Arizona, where I will spend the winter. For those who have been following my blog, this is now my fourth winter here.

I chose the diagonal route across the states because it is quicker, requires the least amount of gas for the van, and gets me down into regions where there are open campgrounds. Also, there is less chance of encountering snowstorms or other bad weather. Of course, there is a cost to all of this, and it has to do with the difference in traffic and also the type of campgrounds which are available. In order to make good time and the shortest route, most of the driving is on very busy highways with not too much to see along the way. This is not my preferred way to travel. The volume of traffic is very heavy until crossing to the west side of the Mississippi River. Campgrounds tend to be more crowded. Campsites are small and everyone is crammed together. When I travel in the west, most campgrounds are fairly roomy and private. Also, I rarely stay at developed campgrounds. Instead, I look for dispersed primitive sites on BLM or Forest Services managed public lands. There is very little of that kind of camping opportunity east of the Mississippi.

A band of bison at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Our first night on the road proved to be a rather wild affair. I planned to camp at a state park in Pennsylvania that I’d tried on my way east in the spring. There had been almost no one there when I passed through last April. I was anticipating similar conditions. As I rolled up to the campground, I was taken aback by the brightly lit up entry gates and a crowd of people around the park office. What on earth could be going on? I parked the van and approached the office on foot. It soon became evident that this was a special Hallowe’en camp-out weekend! Of all the luck, I managed to stumble into the middle of one of the busiest nights of the year for the park. It was late and I was tired, so I paid for a site in the least busy part of the very busy campground. Sage just about went postal as I drove through the campground, past kids dressed up as little ghouls and zombies. They were screaming and rushing here and there around the van. When I got to our slot, I quickly backed the van into place, pulled down the blinds, and unfolded the big foil sunscreen across the inside of the windshield. Fortunately, we were ignored by the mass of kids who ran from campsite to campsite trick-or-treating. By the way, this was a couple of weekends before the official Hallowe’en, so not really a situation I could have anticipated.

Burnt forest on one side and unburnt on the other at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

The next night was somewhat better. At least there was no Hallowe’en party! When I was checking in at the office, I mentioned about the previous night’s experience. The woman who collected my campsite fee informed me that the next weekend, they would be having their big Hallowe’en bash. I felt some relief that I had managed to dodge the bullet this evening. I guess it is good to know about such things. In the spring, I run the gauntlet trying to avoid March Break events. This camping thing is not so simple as you might guess.

The following day, I drove to Siloam Springs State Park near Quincy, Illinois. Ahead of this trip, I had corresponded with Larry Ayers, of Riverside Rambles blog. We arranged to meet at the campground for an afternoon visit. Larry arrived with home-baked bread, homemade hummus, baba ghanouj, and pesto, all made with produce from his garden. He also brought along his fiddle which, not so surprisingly, was also handmade by him from wood harvested on his old farm in Knox County, Missouri. We had a nice walk around the park and then Larry entertained the dogs and I with a few tunes. We feasted on the bounty which he left with me as provisions for the final leg of my journey. Down below, you can see a photo of Larry with his fiddle — click on all photos for larger views!

A Longhorn cow at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

After leaving Illinois, I crossed the Mississippi at Hannibal, Missouri, then cut a diagonal down to Oklahoma where I camped a few miles over the state line. The next day, I decided to drive on down to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma. I stayed there a couple of nights in the springtime and wanted to return this autumn. Unfortunately, between last spring and now, there was a large wildfire that burnt up a fairly large part of the refuge. As I drove around the refuge, there were large swaths of grasslands and forest that were badly burnt up. Fire on grasslands is a natural enough part of the ecology, but it was still very sad to see the oaks burnt and fallen down. I’ve included a photo to illustrate how the forests or grasslands on one side of the paved roadway were often burnt black, while the other would be untouched as the roadway was employed as a firebreak.

Prairie dogs at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is probably best known for the bison that roam freely on the range lands within the park’s boundaries. There are also Longhorn cattle. I have included photos of both. There is also a large colony of Prairie Dogs which I visited late one afternoon.

Sabrina taking it easy under the shade of a picnic table at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Our stay at Wichita Mountains provided a much needed rest in a trip that, for me, was fairly stressful. I don’t really do well in crowded places – large cities, crowded freeways, busy gas stations and stores. By the time I got to Oklahoma, I was feeling like I could barely push on. I’m not sure I will do the diagonal route across the Midwest many more times. Although it takes much less time, to my senses, it feels like I have been on the road at least twice as long as on my usual meandering route across western Canada and down through the western states.

Larry Ayers and his handmade fiddle and excellent food at Siloam Springs State Park near Quincy, Illinois

Written by bev wigney on November 7th, 2011