Just North of the Sante Fe Trail,
the Great and Stately Black Mesa,
Potent in Its Stance on the Landscape,
Signals the End of Prairie Flatness.
At half-past one on a gorgeous, late summer day I steered old El Camino to a resting place next to an historical marker off Oklahoma 325 about fifteen miles west of Boise City. Running late, I wouldn't have stopped there but for the command to do so from a frank talking, hard-edged acolyte of the prairie winds, Harriet Bourk, owner of Bourk Hardware, Gun & Pawn of Boise City. Her story of murder, daughterly devotion, a father's ghost, and the psychic power of No Man's Land came to me unexpectedly, starkly. Recording it was the reason I was running late, but I was grateful to receive it. The Lord willing and the creek don't rise, Mrs. Bourk's story will be published by corndancer.com this autumn.
The Sante Fe Trail.
The historical marker commerates the Sante Fe Trail, traces of which remain on the closeby prairie. The trail's Cimarron Route forded Cold Springs Creek a mile or so to the south. A few miles to the west are the ruins of Camp Nichols, an overnight oasis for wayfarers. "Be quiet and still when you get there," Mrs. Bourk said. "Gaze out over the land. If you're like me, you can hear the roar of buffalo hooves, see the covered wagons heading west. Every time I stop there I appreciate more and more the spirit of the pioneers."
USA's first major international highway, the Sante Fe Trail traversed almost 900 miles across the Western plains from north-central Missouri through Kansas and Oklahoma into New Mexico to its terminus at the historic Spanish, Mexican and American city that bears its name. From the early 1820s until the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe's first steam locomotive in the old capital city on February 9, 1880, the trail was the one sure way to the southwest for traders, adventurers, prospectors, soldiers, and pioneers. The Sante Fe Trail endures as a national treasure for devotees of history, agents of tourism, and reflective beings who ponder the nature of change.
Not willing to linger at the historical marker, I admired the view just long enough to honor Mrs. Bourk's request, then steered old El Camino onto the highway in search of Black Mesa. I needed a place to sleep for the night and figured that Black Mesa State Park might provide a suitable campsite.
The Trout Fishing Hole.
The state park site would be better named after Lake Carl Etling, a 159-acre fishing hole of rustic charm and subtle beauty. The park's 33 recreational vehicle pods, 150 primitive campsites, 22 picnic tables, and group camp are clustered around the lake and dedicated to the sport of fishing with an emphasis on trout. Not the angler, I cast a brief eye on the lake, decided to seek overnight accommodation elsewhere, and found a backroad winding north toward the Black Mesa, which is fifteen miles from the state park.
The terrain quickly grew wilder. Small volcanic pressure ridges and hillocks appeared on all points of the horizon. Pinion jays and Mississippi kites dashed low over the grass and shrub oak. A pair of crows soared to a landing on a nearby juniper. The narrow, curvy road crossed Willow Creek, then climbed ever so gently to its intersection with OK325. Ahead to the northwest rose the great and stately Black Mesa. Its towering, elongated presence announced the end of so many hundreds of miles of prairie flatness.
A Potent Stance on the Landscape.
As the easternmost representative of its geologic clan, Black Mesa assumes a particularly potent stance on the landscape. The only peak in the neighborhood, it rises abruptly from the valley floor to a height of 4,973 feet on the three-mile section within the borders of Oklahoma, making it the state's highest point.
From Oklahoma the 45-mile-long Black Mesa stretches westward into New Mexico and turns slightly to the north into Colorado, where it receives a new name, Mesa de Maya. Harsh and unpredictable, Black Mesa can quickly rouse intense summer thunderstorms, pouring several inches of rain onto the basalt-capped plateau in just a few hours. In winter the temperature can plunge to minus 30-degrees.
I'll admit I was awe-struck as I approached the base of Black Mesa on blacktopped Colorado Road. The sandstone slope rising from the plain was sharp and abrupt, nearly vertical along the south face and ever so slightly rounded where the easternmost tip crouches to the flat valley floor. The blacktop skirts the tip, turns west, and arrives at the nature preserve's trailhead on the shaded northern side of the mesa.
To walk from the trailhead to the Highest Point Monument on top of the Mesa, then back again, demands a stout constitution and four or five hours of time. Round trip is almost nine miles. I studied the guages, dials, and maps: It was over 90 degrees hot and well past three o'clock. I thought about taking the hike for a microsecond, and then turned back toward the highway. Several hours of daylight remained. I was ready to drive, get on down the road, bid farewell to Oklahoma, and have a look-see at New Mexico.