Dark Obstacles Of the Blackest Midnight. And By Midnight I Mean Maybe 8:30 PM.

When we last left our heroine, she was newly accidentally as blonde as she had been at 16 and had bravely pointed her RV in the direction of Tahlequah, home of her high school-era youthful discretions.

That blonde heroine would be me, in case you’re new to the RV journey.

I left Tulsa a lot later than I had planned and started looking for a place to stay the night as bright sunshiney day turned to dusk. After the accidental four-wheeling adventures in Colorado, I try to avoid strange dirt roads at night. And since I learned how to drive in this part of Oklahoma, I had first-hand knowledge of its many dirt roads. I don’t remember any of them with street lights.

A campground wasn’t too far down the road at Fort Gibson Lake, so (with great hesitation) I let Google Maps lead the way. And here’s what I’ve (belatedly) realized about Google Maps and campgrounds: the campgrounds don’t always really have an address. And particularly if I find a campground using the AllStays app and then click the directions link, Google Maps opens using GPS coordinates. And those coordinates might be, say, the middle of the lake. Not the entrance gate.

Want to hear how I came to that realization? It’s a cautionary tale for us all. Spoiler alert: Google did not send me to the entrance gate for the Fort Gibson Lake campground. I’m not exactly sure where it sent me, but I ended up (once again), on a tiny dirt road in the pitch blackness. Had I turned off the RV, it would have been like one of those trendy restaurants where a waiter leads you into a room with no lights and laughs at you. Only you don’t know about the laughing because it’s so dark. You just think he’s in the back getting your fancy food.

I finally came upon what seemed to be a fenced in trailer park, which didn’t seem exactly right, since supposedly I was headed to a state campground, and in any case, I couldn’t figure out how one would get to the other side of the fence. I turned down what I hoped was a road and found myself in a completely empty loop of RV sites, right on the water. I could barely make out what was probably the site locations. Should I just pull into one of these for the night?

Every RV park and campground has entirely different rules. With some, a central board has details on which spots are open for the night. At others, reserved spots are marked right at the location. I didn’t want to just pull blindly into a random spot.

I realize this makes no sense. Clearly, the campground was completely abandoned. Completely. It was unlikely that a group of RVers had reserved the whole place and would accost me in my sleep. But I tend to have an irrational fear of being in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing. Even in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, apparently.

I inched my way along in the blackness. I turned right. More blackness.  Through a miracle, I eventually found what may have been the entrance (on entirely the other side of where I had come in). Shining like a beacon was a kiosk, the likes of which I’d never seen before or since. Just punch in the number of your chosen site, swipe your credit card, and be on your way.

Which meant I had to go back out in the dark and find a site, then somehow find this kiosk again, then find that same site a second time. Just what kind of herculean obstacle course is the world turning into?!

I ventured out again and headed towards the water. Surely that would be the direction of camp sites at a lakeside campground? The road inexplicably turned from asphalt to gravel. Maybe this isn’t the right direction. I turned around and eventually could make out another RV! One RV in the barren darkness. I pulled up beside it and noted the site number.

I somehow found my back to the kiosk. Where I found yet another obstacle. A huge spider had made its home just beside the numbers. I took a deep breath and did my best to not disturb him as I put in my site number.

My brilliant plan of using the sole RV as a route marker worked and I made my way back.

It’s seriously bad form to choose a site directly next to another RV when several hundred empty spaces exist. And it’s doubtful that a homicidal maniac axe murderer was waiting for me in an empty campground. Also it was only about 9pm. But apparently I’m way more afraid of the dark than I realized.

The next morning, I got up early and looked outside at what had scared me so much.

Maybe not my finest moment.

The people I’d totally crowded the night before hadn’t stirred yet, so I snuck away before they saw me and drove my RV down to a waterfront spot (all I had to do was drive about 50 feet down that gravel road I’d turned around at the night before) to make some coffee and enjoy the scariest campground in America.

The One About My Hip and Glamorous Lace (Fingerless) Gloves

Tulsa is only 70 miles from Stillwater.

But 70 miles is a long way to go without libraries, coffee shops, cafes, wifi, or even just a quiet place to sit and work. Sure, a high school kid could make the drive. It might be inconvenient, but it would be doable. After all, when we lived in Jennings, we made the weekly grocery trek to Tulsa. But not every high schooler has a car, or one that is reliable enough to drive out of town, or gas money.

Anyway, by the time I got to Tulsa, I was ready for some wifi. And some vegetables.

I never lived in Tulsa, although I lived in Broken Arrow, a kind of suburb, when I was in first grade. When I think of Tulsa, I think of this huge city. My first real concert was at the Mabee Center in Tulsa when I was in third grade (Amy Grant). When I was in high school in Tahlequah (70 miles east), one of my more thrilling moments was going to a club in Tulsa with my Kentucky Fried Chicken coworkers and a fake ID.

Tulsa has around 400,000 people so it’s not a small town, but it’s maybe not the booming metropolis of my youthful perception. Downtown is almost quaint, and I was super excited to find my pick of coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and restaurants.

But then here’s what happened.

The thing is that when I was growing up — when I lived in Oklahoma — I was super blonde. Not highlighted blonde, but actual blonde. Like here’s me at my 8th grade graduation and yes, I actually am wearing lace fingerless gloves and shut up because that was 1986 and Madonna had made lace gloves very hip. Like you have no idea how hip. I WAS HIP DAMMIT YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW.

1986

About seven years ago, I decided to go dark. I was basically entirely gray by then anyway. It seemed like a fun change and I wondered if having dark hair might cause people to take me more seriously professionally. It did. But I’m 42 now. Surely I don’t need dark hair to function in the professional world. So I decided to lighten up a bit.

Before I left Seattle, I went somewhat lighter, although no where near back to my 8th grade graduation color. Once I got to Tulsa, that had been a while, and the grey coming back was really bugging me. So I decided to get a touch up. A touch up.

The hairdresser made me as blonde as I ever was. Maybe even as blonde as when I was three:

Little Girl

Unrelated aside: I always remember my grandparents’ furniture as being covered with sheets (exhibit A: photo avove). Do you think that was because they had so many tiny-size grandchildren running around (including having my sister and me living with them for a while when my mom moved back home)? Because at the time, I just thought it was weird. Now I’m thinking it was pretty smart.

Anyway, back in present day, the hairdresser saw the look on my face. “Too blonde?”

She toned it down. It’s still about 8th grade graduation color.

Related aside: I was wrong when I thought being 42 would mean that I could be taken seriously as a blonde. The comments (that I rarely heard with dark hair but always heard as a blonde) have come back with a vengeance.

So now here I am, about to head to the town where I went to high school. About to walk through places I haven’t seen in twenty-five years, back when everything was new: my first kiss, first job, first idea of what it might mean to be an adult. With the same super blonde hair. Oklahoma has magic powers and is secretly grasping at me and pulling me back to 1988.

The Quest To Find Lunch

It’s easy to forget how big the United States is, and how different it can be from town to town. When you’ve lived on one of the coasts for a while, your city can sometimes trick you into thinking all cities are alike, even when they’re not really cities at all. Or, if you think the some parts of the country might be different, you have this picture from a country song, all dirt roads for driving trucks down on a moonlit Saturday night, home style BBQ, a local bar.

Sometimes places can surprise you. Black Hawk, Colorado’s Mountain Mocha Coffee Company. Home roasted coffee and wifi in a town of 118 people. Hoxie, Kansas.

Then there’s Jennings, OK.

I got to Jennings in early afternoon. It’s about 30 miles east of Stillwater, just north of Mannford, which maybe you haven’t heard of.

The population of Jennings is 363 people, a booming metropolis compared to Black Hawk, CO. Or at least one would think.  According to Yelp, Jennings has one cafe. I drove down the main street (also known as the only street). The cafe was closed. Its Facebook page tells the story.

Excitement when they opened in late 2013. A menu. Free wifi on June 1! And then June 11:

J Cafe Jennings

The rest of the street didn’t look any more promising.

Jennings OK

We moved to Jennings when I was in the second grade. The school had three classrooms and three teachers for grades 1-6, so two grades doubled up in each room. It was like the 1970s version of the 1800s one room school house.

My classroom was set up like a split screen: first graders on one side of the room and second graders on the other side. The teacher would get one side started on something, then switch to the other side, like spinning plates only with little kids and paste.

As an overachiever, I had really rocked first grade, so I ended up spending a lot of my time helping out on first grade side while the teacher was occupied with the second graders.

There’s an entirely new elementary school there now. I don’t know why I expected the old school to be there. In addition to having half as many rooms as it needed to have,  my stepsister  and her classmates in the third/fourth grade room had to wear their coats and gloves while in class in the winter because of the unpatched holes in the walls and floor.

I think every grade has its own room (and teacher now too), from what I can tell from the school web site. Where I also discovered that about 80% of students get a subsidized lunch. All I remember about those lunches is the canned beets that would bleed into my mashed potatoes, ruining the whole thing. And if you know me, you know that’s a mashed potato tragedy.

I drove out of town a couple of miles, passed our old house. The garage my parents built was still in front.

And then I swung over to Mannford, that town you’d never heard of. For third grade, I went to school there, at the school at our church. I was thinking I might have lunch there, since the J Cafe didn’t work out. According to Yelp, my only 5 star option was Sonic Drive In.

Another choice was Freddie’s Steak House, about which a Yelp reviewer said:

“I’m shocked that this place has any decent reviews at all. It so old, run down, and horribly ran that I don’t see how they’re in business. I would avoid eating or drinking anything in this establishment considering it’s not at all clean. Not to mention, they have a dog that hangs out in the kitchen and I personally saw a dead deer carcass in their walk in while I was living in mannford. If you don’t mind the high risk of food poisoning every time you walk through the door then by all means become a regular at this place, but I wouldn’t personally put the food in my body. Also, one of the only bars I’ve ever been in that doesn’t cover their bottles of liquor at close every night. There’s no telling what kind of dead bugs are getting mixed into their beverages.”

So that was kind of disturbing.

Although having lived in lot of places where people are seriously into hunting, it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable that someone thought it was a good idea to store the deer from their latest hunting trip in the walk in.

Another reviewer wasn’t as concerned about the food: “The food is bland and unorginal yet it  truly shines compared to the detestable service. ”

Or, I could go to Jones Family Diner, for which the reviews mostly talk about food poisoning. Also, this didn’t sound great: “I don’t think they’ve cleaned their fryers in a while because we got some nasty fried globs of “something” in with the tater tots, which, BTW, were not crunchy.”

I’ll give you one guess where I had lunch.

Then I Veered East and Went to Stillwater

I veered east and headed towards Stillwater.

I never lived in Stillwater.

When I was in high school in northeastern Oklahoma, Stillwater was the hip town where you always wished you were. Texas has Austin. Louisiana has New Orleans. Oklahoma has Stillwater.

I went to an Oklahoma high school in the mid-80s, when everything that mattered was football (and sometimes wrestling).

1988 was my junior year and every other day brought another college solicitation in the mailbox. OU and OSU both sent football tickets.

Barry Sanders was at OSU. Barry Switzer was coaching OU. We were hearing rumors of a scandal, but Switzer was still revered. The full story and resignation would come later.

Even then, I don’t know that many Oklahomans understood what Switzer was resigning over, other than the stress from all the pressure from the NCAA. Special favors for high school players as part of recruitment efforts? Why wouldn’t OU do everything they could to convince the best players to come play for them?

Turning a blind eye when college players dealt drugs or shot each other or (even, horribly) gang raped a woman? The high school and college football system was practically designed around turning a blind eye from what I could see of Oklahoma sports. Anything to win. Get the best players and make sure they can play.

My sophomore year of high school, my boyfriend was a senior and an all-star wrestler. The coach needed him on the team and needed him to win (looking back, this was likely to preserve the coach’s winning record). My boyfriend couldn’t do homework because he had to be at practice. The teachers knew that as a wrestler who won matches, he couldn’t be on academic probation so they passed him.

I’m sure everyone had the best of intentions. School pride, hometown pride, and a certainty that a wrestling scholarship was the only way these high school kids would get into college. (My boyfriend did get an athletic scholarship. Which he lost when he never went to class, having had no experience being required to go to class, and failed his classes.)

Anyway, the point is that Stillwater was hallowed ground. I figured my college choices were OU and OSU. OU was in Norman, just outside of Oklahoma City, home of dust. Stillwater was home of Eskimo Joe’s. OSU was definitely the frontrunner.

I took my friend Nancy with me to both football games (she was older than me and had a car). It was an amazing blur of beer in red plastic cups on fraternity house lawns, Bobby Brown blasting from the stereo, and Barry Sanders spinning away from the defense.

Of course, I moved away from Oklahoma my senior year of high school, and my perception of the college options available to me shifted.

Now, after veering east, I was back.

The first thing I saw was the conglomerate of Barry Sanders car dealerships.

barry sanders car dealership

Everything old is new again.

Since Stillwater is a college town, coffee and wifi aren’t hard to find. I camped out at Aspen Coffee Company.

I stayed at a nearby lake, bunnies and deer everywhere.

To overgeneralize, different types of campgrounds tend to have different crowds. Upscale RV parks tend to be an older crowd, with $350k+ class As. State campgrounds skew younger: parents with young kids. And national parks are full of international travelers who fly into the United States, rent an RV, and set out to see America.

Oklahoma lakes are full of pipeliners. Pipeliners work on oil or natural gas pipelines. Their offices are wherever the pipes are, and this changes every 4-6 months. Some people (mostly men) who do this work have a home base where the family lives and are away from home for weeks or months at a time. Others pack up the whole family in an RV and live wherever the job is. (We tried both ways, plus lots of other variations, when I was growing up.)

In Stillwater, the guy working the campground put me with the pipeliners. They’re mostly at work and even when they’re not, things are pretty quiet (unlike the section of the campground full of guys there to fish and party for the weekend).

I talked to my neighbor, originally from eastern Arkansas (with a cajun accent so thick, I could barely understand him). He was there with his “boys”, each with their own RV, all in a row.  (Pipeliners often are freelance and work in teams; my stepdad had a “helper” – usually a young kid who worked as a kind of apprentice.)

My neighbor said they’d been there 7 months so far. He took a swig of the Busch beer in his hand. The air was hot and sticky and full of mosquitoes.

Apparently he’d noticed me earlier, working outside on my picnic table. One of his “boys” had come over to say hi and they were talking about me later. And so then he felt like a jerk for not coming over to say hi too. (I’m often the talk of the RV park, simply by nature of being a woman by myself in an RV model not generally seen.)

He told me his daughter was in college and he’d told her that he’d pay her way. Only now she was working on her third degree, and he hadn’t realized he’d signed on for that. She had moved to California (“why would anyone want to move to California?!!” he said).

He regaled me with tales of his speedboat and trucks back home until I had to escape the heat and head into the air conditioning. Although I bet I could have finagled a beer with him and his boys had I  been able to hold out against the humidity a bit longer.