When you think of the state of Oklahoma, you might envision one of a very short list of things:
(1) The strange political nature of some of the area’s politicians
(2) Wheat and cattle, flowing over a flatly monotonous expanse
Oklahoma may have both of these things in excess, but it is also a land of surprising diversity. In it is contained a part of the wet and scenic Ozark Plateau, the Arbuckle and Wichita Mountains, the expansive and refractile salt flats in the north, the wet and sticky southeastern swamps, the deciduous forests of the east, and, of course, the plains regions. In the panhandle are plains and desert leading to the highest point in the state: Black Mesa, which stands at almost 5,000 feet elevation on the Oklahoma-New Mexico-Colorado border.
I had wanted to visit the area on one of our annual trips from the Pacific Northwest to the central Great Plains to visit family. Since the Other Half had never seen the panhandle, we decided to drive through and stop at Black Mesa State Park for a picnic.
If you’ve never seen it, the panhandle is quite unlike the rest of the state. It’s an environment unto itself and distinct from the rest of the state.The scrubland is almost desert-like, and hides more antelope and large rattlesnakes than other plains areas in Oklahoma. The land is even more wind-driven and snowy than the main area of the state. In a wet year, the land only receives about 26 inches of rain annually, only half the Oklahoma state average. It is an area where even the agriculture is somewhat different-wheat gives way to feed corn grown in circles so that the massive irrigating arms can reach the entire crop, and cattle are just a little leaner, a little harder around the edges.
You might remember that for some time, we have been on the lookout for burrowing owls. It’s even become somewhat of an in-joke; every time we think we see something we can’t identify, we dismiss it with a ‘Must’ve been a burrowing owl’ or ‘Must’ve been a pygmy California condor.’
Just after sunrise, I noticed a little rusty bird, vaguely owl-like in size and outline, landing in some scrub on the side of the highway. I turned around to the Other Half and said, “I think I just saw a burrowing owl!” He laughed and laughed, until about 20 miles later, we were in the middle of a horse pasture in the state park and saw these little dudes next to the road:
The Black Mesa Nature Preserve surrounds the state park with a network of pastures and cattleguards, within which the specialized flora and fauna of the region reside. Though the area is quite remote, it is well worth the trip to just sit and enjoy the views. The road from the mesa itself leads to several unpaved grazing easements in Colorado (roads with names like C, D, or 7 3/4), where further adventure may await…