20. Oklahoma

Highpoint #20
Black Mesa, 4,973 feet (23rd highest)

July 1, 2012

“Just lie down and get comfortable. Relax.”
“Okay, I’m ready Doc…”
“Good. Now tell me about when people started really calling you ‘crazy’.”
“Well, I think it was when I showed such excitement about my plans for the day I was going to highpoint Oklahoma.”
“I see. I don’t even know what that means, but they didn’t teach us everything in med school. Please explain.”
“Sure. Well, I was staying in Sharon Springs, Kansas and the plan was to wake up around 5 and drive south and west 220 miles through Kansas farmland and Oklahoma’s grasslands and desert out to an area of the country where no one lives to hike eight and a half miles up and down a mesa…”
“OOOOkay. That’s not too bad. Did a little desert camping?”
“Haha, Doc. No, After the hike, I then drove another 350 miles up to Leadville, Colorado in the Rockies to stay there for the night.”
“Hmmm. And much of this driving was across desert and stuff?”
“Right. Oh, and it was July 1st. When I finished my hike around noon it was over 100 degrees. Then I drove for another 6 or seven hours.”
“I see. And this, you call… um, let me check my notes…. Yes, here it is, you said, ‘I loved every minute of it and I had a lot of fun’, is this correct?”
[Pushing intercom] “Dottie, cancel my afternoon appointments, I’m going to be with this one for a while…”

End scene.

Western Kansas, 6 AM

I’m sure any non-highpointer reading this can easily see themselves in the role of the good doctor. And most highpointers and peakbaggers will see nothing wrong with my position on the couch. I certainly didn’t when I planned this day months prior from the comfort of my desk in Connecticut. I don’t mind long drives and 8.4 miles of hiking is nothing.

I knew the day would be a long one and I knew it would require some sort of unique highpointer stamina to pull it off. And I can tell you that not only did I do it, everything was executed perfectly save for one wrong turn in Clayton, NM losing me about 8 minutes. For a day that began at 5 AM in western Kansas and ended at 10PM at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, you could say I was one proud, um, crazy person.

For the geo-geeks and trivia nerds who stumble on this page, here are a few cool things from this day:

  • Four western counties in Kansas stick to Mountain Time, and I thank them for doing so.
  • Tribune, KS (pop. 721) in Greeley County is named after the New York Tribune, of which Horace Greeley was the editor.
  • I hit and killed 8 stupid birds between Sharon Springs and Boise City, OK. I just missed killing about 1000 more.
  • In their defense, it’s tough to avoid a 90 mph hunk of steel and glass.
  • Cimarron National Grassland in southwestern KS is pretty interesting. Seriously.
  • I crossed and drove along the Sante Fe Trail. Amazing history.
  • This was my first foray into Oklahoma in my life. That leaves 5 states left to visit at this moment (AK, ND, SD, MS, AR).
  • Cimarron County Oklahoma (where Black Mesa is) is a holy grail county to county counters (yes, they exist) and county highpointers (yup, for real). It is the only county in the US that borders 5 states (CO, NM, KS, TX, OK)

  • This is what a National Grassland looks like

    Oh, I have more to share, but you’ll have to keep reading. As I made the drive to Black Mesa, I was struck with how interesting I found the scenery. Yes, I drove through hundreds of miles of farms and desert and grasslands, but I found it beautiful. (I also found the distinct lack of traffic and stop lights and curves rather beautiful too. I would much rather drive 3 hours without touching the brakes in western Kansas than driving 1 hour on I-95 in southern Connecticut. Any. Time.)

    About those birds… I had my first experience with them in Nebraska and deemed them “daredevil birds” then. hey hang out at the edges of the road and upon noticing your car, they fly up into your path and then circle back outside it or up and over your windshield. At least that’s their plan anyway.

    In Nebraska, on the much slower dirt roads, they had their fun. Now in Kansas, with good road and much higher speeds, they met their deaths and went from daredevils to kamikazes. I felt terrible about the first one or two aviancides. By the 4th and 5th feathery explosions, I stopped caring. They were small and left no more than a streak on my windshield – and spectacular exploding plumage cascades in my rear-view.

    I know I was speeding and I know I was therefore at fault. I also know there were a million of them out there and I only killed the dumb ones. Just doing my part to help evolution along…

    I also killed a million giant grasshoppers as I drove through the Cimarron grasslands. They too hang out in the road and like to get hit by cars. But even though they are quite large, they’re just grasshoppers after all.

    While gassing up in Boise City, OK, I tried to talk to some guys I had seen the day before in Colorado. They had a caravan of clunker pick-ups with “Guatemala or bust” signage all over their jalopies. I wanted to talk with them – where did they start their journey and why were they heading (I assume) home? Were they prepared for the drive down Texas and then all the way through Mexico? Alas, all I got was a gummy smile and a wave. Those guys were hardcore.

    Now in the western part of the Oklahoma panhandle, the landscape changed abruptly from rolling grassland to desert mesas. I drove around one corner near the highpoint and then ,boom – suddenly I was faced with the first topography I’d seen in a day and the first curvy road I’d experienced out west on this whole trip (CO, WY, NE, KS, OK to this point.) It was exciting.

    Yes, the road became more interesting to drive, but I also knew I was near the the highpoint area. As I approached the tiny town of Kenton, I was once again happy with the signs pointing the way towards the highpoint. This little (paved!) road wound its way towards the hulking mesas and passed not only an operating bed and breakfast (really?), but a rather weird completely empty large building that looked poised to house a bunch of different businesses.

    Very strange

    It’s important to note that this part of the country is very sparsely populated. As in, not at all… so I have no idea what the plans for this building were/are, but I’m guessing they were/are doomed to failure. Sorry, as much as I love it, I don’t think Oklahoma highpointers can keep a business alive out here.

    I found the lot and was happy to see another car there. The highpoint is situated in the Black Mesa Nature Preserve which this blurb from the Nature Conservancy tells me is pretty important:

    The Black Mesa area supports 31 state rare species (23 plants and eight animals) and four community types. Here, the Rocky Mountains meet the shortgrass prairie and it is unique in that it represents an area where many species are at the easternmost or westernmost portions of their range. Vegetation on the top of the nearly flat mesa comprises a Bluestem-grama shortgrass community. The mesa’s talus slopes support a one-seed juniper/shrub oak community, while similar slopes of neighboring smaller buttes support a one-seed juniper/pinyon woodland community. The plains below the mesa support a shortgrass prairie.

    I slathered on the SPF30, popped my new dorky hat on my head, loaded 3 liters of water in my pack and hit the dusty trail. Here’s the thing about the hike up to the highpoint: It consists of 2.5 miles of flat desert hiking, 1 mile of incline and another mile of flat always windy mesa-top hiking. Oh, and it’s hot as balls in July.


    Despite the heat, I really enjoyed the walk through the desert. Cholla cacti! Other kinds of cacti! Extinct volcanic cones dotting the landscape! Random deer legs!

    I met the other hikers on their way back and I remarked, “it’s getting a little warm.” They agreed. I had started at about 9:30 with the thermometer “only” pushing 90, so it really wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately, there is no shade in the desert and the dry air of course makes one parched. There are benches ever mile which would be great if they were in the shade somehow. They were not.

    As I made my way towards the mesa, I passed by a horned lizard. An honest to goodness desert reptile! I was ecstatic. I did him the favor of pouring sweat from my hat onto his back when I bent down and he was very appreciative. I could tell.

    That is the climb

    The climb up isn’t too bad at all, with some switchbacks and a steady but gradual incline. Once on top, the landscape changes fairly drastically. No more bushes to squat under if you were dying and wanted SOME kind of shade. Nothing. The wind whipped sand and dust in my face and I imagine that the top of Black Mesa would be a rather awful place to be in a storm. I had no such problem, however.

    I made great time across the mesa to the highpoint, but really, it couldn’t have come fast enough. Oklahoma marks its highest point with an impressive 10 foot tall (guessing) native indian head granite obelisk. Not only that, but they have inscribed all sorts of facts on each face, like how far away the nearest states are (New Mexico mere feet, Colorado less than 5 miles, etc.) and even the fact about Cimarron County touching 5 states. Wonderful.

    Wow. I must again mention Connecticut’s 3 inch green stake and nothing more. Lest you say “But ours is on the side of a mountain blah, blah, blah” know this: Black Mesa, like our Mr. Frissell, also extends into not one, but TWO states (CO and NM) and has higher points in both – much higher in Colorado. The things you learn from CTMQ.

    I didn’t hang out long, though did appreciate the only shade on the entire mesa (from the marker) and tried to eat some food before heading back down. Extreme heat makes eating not too exciting. I just wanted to get back to the car.

    So I did. I was careful not to go too fast as I could tell it was over 100 degrees at that point. Nothing much exciting happened on my return trip until…

    THE MOST INSANE THING I’VE EVER WITNESSED IN MY LIFE HAPPENED. With just over a mile to go back to the parking lot, some lunatic came running up the trail. No, not one of those ultra-marathoners who get off on this type of thing. Just a guy. A lanky 20-something IN JEANS, Oklahoma University hat and glasses RAN past me. I didn’t see any water at all.

    I was speechless. Stunned. Gobsmacked. Tingtongtebbled. I stopped and watched him… He never broke stride and he never slowed. What. The. Flop. I gathered my senses just in time to take a picture of him:

    He’s there…


    Hardcore. I vowed to leave a note on his truck but once I got back to my car, I really didn’t feel like making the effort. I started ‘er up and yeah, it was hot:


    Regardless, I was pleased with myself for having bagged another state highpoint that was never really on my radar. Now I had 350 miles ahead of me but it was only noon.

    The drive took me through northeastern New Mexico which I found rather fascinating. Tons of old cinder cones and prairie dogs. Yes, I saw real life prairie dogs on the prairie. I also passed by Capulin Volcano National Monument. I really should have stopped by – but also really wanted to get up to Leadville. It looks really cool and I’ll definitely check it out next time.

    Last notes:

  • Prairie dogs really are that cute.
  • Checked out the McNees Crossing on the Sante Fe Trail. Good stuff.
  • Clayton, New Mexico employs stupidly huge dips in roads to dissuade speeding. They work.
  • The rest stop/visitor’s center in Raton, NM is one of the best I’ve ever been to.
  • Pueblo, CO is a furnace with a billion fast food joints.
  • Buena Vista, CO is pronounced Byooner Vista. Or something.

  • View from the highpoint

    Even Wikipedia has a note about this nonsense:

    Note: The name “Buena Vista,” Spanish for “Beautiful View,” can often be heard pronounced locally as “Biewna Vista.” This Americanized pronunciation was specified by Alsina Dearheimer, who chose this name for the town, which was officially selected over other names (Cottonwood, Mahonville) on the occasion of the town’s incorporation. Alternate pronunciations include “Bwena Veesta” (Spanish pronunciation) and simply “Biewnie.” Many residents simply refer to the town as “BV.”

    I pulled into Leadville after a stunningly beautiful drive up the Arkansas River Valley. Leadville is famous for being the highest everything. Highest incorporated town in the US, Highest airport, etc. It used to be a bustling mining town, then almost became a ghost town and is now a sort of mix between ghost town and hiker haven.

    I ate a bunch of spaghetti and got stuck behind an extreme couponer at the local grocery store. More importantly, I got to stare at the next day’s highpoint: Mt. Elbert.

    Such terrible gas mileage

    To the next highpoint: Colorado!

    Highpoint Difficulty Rating: 5 (The heat!)
    Hike Distance: 8.6 miles
    Distance from Current Residence (West Hartford, CT): 1,851 miles
    Number of dudes in cowboy hats who gave me subtle nods/waves on roads: 26

    2 responses to “20. Oklahoma”

    1. Rachel S. says:

      I’ve always heard the “Buena Vista” street/hill neighborhood/golf course in West Hartford (near the reservoir) pronounced that same way, too — with maybe one or two exceptions from out-of-towners. All the old-timer West Hartford natives I know pronounce it “Biewna Vista.”

      I was pretty surprised to find that CO did the same when I went out there. Maybe the town was founded by Yankees. You know, the “Connecticut diaspora” and all that.

    2. Twelve Mile Circle says:

      Sounds like a perfectly normal geo-geeky day to me too. I guess I’m ready for therapy too?

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