Wildflowers & Creeks

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Elle's first time in a creek

Believe it or not, this photograph shows Elle experiencing the joys of walking barefoot in a creek for the first time in her life. That sounds a little unreal, doesn’t it? You have to remember, though, that she is Florida-born and bred, with the exception of the last eleven months of her life here in Oklahoma, and little girls from the South, at least mine, just can’t walk around barefoot in creeks and ponds for worry of gators and poisonous watersnakes. There was a single reminder of our Florida days, however, when we came across a mound of miniature seashells. Ah, Oklahoma’s Cretaceous Period?

Oklahoma seashells!

The two of us were attempting to make our walk worth at least a couple of miles but I really underestimated the heat and foolishly left my thermos of ice-cold water in the car. After a short stroll around the creek we crossed an old iron bridge and found ourselves near a field of wildflowers. Elle and I snapped a few photographs while getting eaten up by mosquitos and chased by bees the whole time. All those bug bites were worth it, though, at least to me. I am quite enamored of wildflowers, especially the field of Mexican hats I stumbled upon.

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mexican hats

mexican hats

Small Town Oklahoma

This week has been undeniably boring. Not intolerably so, but enough to make me look forward to the start of my summer semester next week and to sending my kid off to day camp. Let me put it this way: I vacuumed my basement because I was so bored. Aside from ridding the floor of spider carcasses and rogue dryer lint, I made it all cozy and clean for the next time we must take shelter from tornadoes. The incoming migratory wave of camel crickets will appreciate my hard work, I’m sure.

We’ve been holed up since last weekend, practically. By yesterday, though, I had to get out of the house. Elle and I decided on a walk around Lake Overholser as opposed to a drive down Route 66, but only because the weather was promising to get violent again around 2pm. We left around noon and headed west to the lake. The clouds were heavy and the humidity was high, but fresh air and tree canopy always makes me happy.

Lake walk at #lakeoverholser before the storm

looking south from the old pump house walkway

It just wasn’t enough. Not for Elle, at least. She surprised me by asking to continue on down Route 66 while we still had time. It was like pulling teeth to get her to leave her room yesterday morning so I knew I had to jump on this opportunity. We climbed back into the car and headed westward to get out of town, even if was only to Yukon – the next town over.

in Yukon, Okla.

The Yukon Flour Mill has quite the history, but it seems riddled with family discourse. This facility is a rebuild, initiated by a devastating fire that took out much of the original which was built in 1893. A few years later, by the turn of the century, the town of Yukon became a popular settling spot for Czech immigrants. Yukon calls itself the “Czech Capital of Oklahoma” but I saw no evidence of it, not on the main street. I need to drive around a bit more, that’s for sure, but I’m certainly looking forward to the Oklahoma Czech Festival in October. Kolaches! Is that like the Polish pączek?

west of Banner, Okla.

The storm clouds starting to close in around us and we had only 30 minutes to get home before the severe weather kicked in. I turned around in a school parking lot outside of Banner and then we saw the scene above! Make fun of me all you want, but I never tire of the view when I feel like I am looking at a true Oklahoma landscape. Flour mills that line the sides of the old main roads, oil rigs in front of the Capitol building and residential areas, bison roaming at the foot of a mountain, cowboys buying paper towels at the grocery store (with spurred boots!) – all that stuff reminds me that I am still in the process of a full Oklahoma immersion.

I have yet to find that field of waving wheat. Someone direct me, please. I’m told the musical rustling is a treat to one’s ears.

Greenleaf

Home away from home #renfaire #greenleaf

This past weekend was a celebratory one for me for three reasons:

1. It was Mother’s Day weekend.
2. I submitted my final research papers early and finished my semester ahead of schedule.
3. Spring is finally here!

The first time I ever traveled on I-40 through eastern Oklahoma was in 2011 when Matt, Elle, and I drove from Florida to Oklahoma City for Thanksgiving. Forgive me when I say Oklahoma is ugly in the winter, but, to be fair, I think almost anywhere is ugly in the winter. Traveling on I-40 again last Friday with the greenery and the wildflowers and the rolling hills made me very happy. It’s a good way to start a vacation and Oklahoma redeemed herself.

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We met with a group of friends at Greenleaf State Park outside of Muskogee (birthplace of my brainiac girl crush, Sarah Vowell) and settled in for a weekend of campfire s’mores, a Renaissance Faire, and the enjoyment of one another’s company. We had cabins this time and an abundance of sunshine and warm weather – my preferred method of camping, even though my husband rolls his eyes at this.

Coming from the land of alligators and swamp rats and where water moccasins fall out of trees, I was horrified, yet totally fascinated, by my first sighting of a tarantula in the wild. It is also possible that I have acclimated to this season called winter which led to me feeling very sick and overheated on Saturday…in 75 degree weather while wearing a flowing skirt and a crop top.

Man, this summer’s heat index in Florida is gonna kill me.

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Pushing Westward: Red Rock Canyon

top of the canyon on the Rough Horsetail Trail

On the drive out to Red Rock Canyon, Matt asked me, “How far west have you actually gone in your life?” I was born in San Antonio so I figured that counts but we both had a feeling that Hinton, Oklahoma was going to be the winner. I was about to break my own record!

It turns out we were wrong, but only barely.  Here are the official (read: Google) coordinates:

San Antonio, Texas: 29.4239° N, 98.4933° W

Hinton, Oklahoma: 35.4714° N, 98.3553° W

So close!

If I was really into this record-breaking business, I could calculate the depth of Devil’s Millhopper in Gainesville, Florida and compare it to the depth of Red Rock Canyon but, quite frankly, I’ve got a lot of work to do today and I can find peace in knowing that I’ve walked both the floor of a large sinkhole and the floor a small canyon. Besides, my husband is the geographer and I can always ask him to figure it out later (because now I am kind of curious).

Matt had come across Red Rock Canyon sometime last year on his way home from a work-related meeting somewhere out in western Oklahoma. I remember him calling me in Florida and talking about what a cool place it might be to visit one day. So we turned Saturday into that one day and headed out.

There are two short trails – one is a half-mile loop and the other is marked as only two-tenths of a mile. The first trail took us down into the canyon where we walked among stalks of rough horsetail, which I had easily mistaken for leafless bamboo. It was jungle-like and I loved it, especially because there were small ponds of stagnant water surrounded by the kind of foliage you’d find in a swamp. Matt pointed out that I like anything that looks like a swamp and he’s right – it reminds me of home.

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rough horsetail

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The second trail led us up to the top of a small ridge which we followed around past the boundary fence and back down again – more than two-tenths of a mile, that’s for sure. Along the way we encountered wildflowers, cacti, the busy buzzing of bees in the ground cover, and the delicious scent of dirt.

California Trail

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Red Rock Canyon - California Trail

from the top of the California Trail

This whole outdoor adventure may have been what led to me watching the entire first season of Everest: Beyond the Limits on Amazon Prime all day Sunday. I honestly didn’t do much else the entire day besides the laundry and microwaving some leftover pizza. I was exhausted come Sunday night and my thighs and calves were feeling the burn. I fell asleep early and quickly only to end up dreaming that I was climbing Everest with complete strangers who kept pushing past me because…ugh, my legs!

Let’s face it, Everest is not my challenge. Slight inclines are my challenge.

Returning to the Outdoors

home for the night

My first camping memory is from Italy’s Bibione Beach on the Adriatic Sea, a small town that rests somewhere between Venice and Trieste, according to Google. The actual location of the place didn’t matter to me then. All that mattered was that I was at the beach and we were camping. My parents took my brother and me there a couple of times, along with other Americans who had become family friends over the years my father was stationed in Italy. It was not unusual for us kids to be surrounded by topless European women sunning on the beach or walking up and down the shore. That’s just not a big deal over there.

There was another overnight trip with my American neighbors somewhere in the mountains. I don’t know which ones, but we lived at the foot of the Dolomites (Italy’s Alps) and the girls and boys had separate tents. Led by my friend’s mom Cleo, we were a bit anxious about being so close to the mountain’s ledge so we pitched our tent closer to the rock wall. Sometime during the night, a storm moved in and the gusty winds shook the boys’ tent so violently it made the boys nervous enough to ask to climb inside our tent. The next morning, their tent was lying at the bottom of the canyon and everything that was inside of it was strewn along the lake.

While the boys cleaned up their mess on the mountain floor, my friend and I had breakfast and splashed around in our swimsuits. I remember having a really good time that day.

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My later childhood was practically spent outdoors in Upper Michigan, even in winter. Summers, though, were especially busy with climbing trees with my friends and building forts in the woods (which we would stock with paperback books and blankets to sit on). I knew what to do in case I was ever approached by a black bear and our camping trips were plentiful. What better way to spend the summer than by having a lakeside sleepover with your best friends, our bellies sick from too many pasties and s’mores, all cooked over the campfire. Sometimes, the kids were responsible for catching all the fish for dinner. To capture lightning bugs, pick berries, and scale and gut the fresh-caught trout – those were our jobs as campers’ kids.

Quanah Parker Lake

Later, my father brought home a small RV. I can’t remember it being entirely more comfortable but my parents enjoyed it. That little RV housed our family of five (and a large dog) on a cross-country road trip from Upper Michigan to South Florida. During that trip, I made a day-long friendship with a girl who lived at our overnight camp in Kentucky. I waved goodbye to her the next morning as she waited at her bus stop for her ride to school and my family headed to my cousin’s wedding in Cape Coral, Florida. On our way back home to K.I. Sawyer, Michigan, we parked our RV in the Fort Wilderness campsite in Disney World and spent a few days with the Big Mouse.

When I was twelve, my family received new military orders and we moved to a Washington, DC suburb completely void of wilderness. The nature parks were filled with homeless people vying for bench space and used hypodermic needles and broken beer bottles littered the grounds. To enjoy the outdoors meant driving for at least an hour or two away from the District and having to bump elbows with all the other people clamoring for fresh air away from the I-95 Beltway traffic and crime of the big city. It made going outside a lot of work. I think it was about this time when I stopped trying to make the outside a fun place and instead filled my bedroom with books and shut myself indoors.

I didn’t go camping again until I was 30. Having been charged with the care of dozens of kindergarten-aged Girl Scout Brownies, one of whom was a sleepwalking terror with a sassy little attitude, it probably wasn’t the best of conditions in which to re-introduce me to my once-favorite pastime. Camping with a gaggle of excitable little girls is a whole different kind of wild and I’ll never do it again.

site 60! It's a good place to camp, if you like wind.

sunset at our campsite

I have a lot of camping memories, good ones, all of which I tried to appreciate while waiting for morning to come as I rested next to the St. Johns River last year and this past week in the Wichita Mountains. The hiking was my favorite part of our most recent trip and I think I’d be willing to put money into acquiring better walking gear (and packing gear) for myself to continue enjoying that aspect of outdoor living. Unfortunately, my husband has confessed to me since returning from Southwest Oklahoma that hiking is not his favorite part of being outdoors – camping is his favorite part.

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It seems we are at an impasse.

While I know how much I used to love camping, I don’t know if I can learn to love it again. I prefer the comforts of home and of being in my own space, although I’ll admit the weather has been uncooperative every time I’ve gone camping as an adult (either ridiculously cold or windy, or sometimes both). To plan a trip outdoors with hiking, picnicking, and breathing in fresh air does not intimidate me, probably because I can freely move throughout the day knowing that I’ll end the day in my own bed.  The confines of a camp, though, leave me feeling restless and agitated.

French Lake

I promised my husband one more attempt at warm-weather camping. Knowing my psychological limitations, we’ll be able to better plan activities to soothe us both. And I will desperately try harder to smile more, participate more, and not be such a grumpy pants. I know attitude affects the experience and I have apologized to my husband more than once!

So, campers – got any advice? What are some ways you have been able to take the good and take the bad, to find comforts in being away from your comfortable home? Have you had to re-introduce yourself to the world of camping after living for so many years indoors? My biggest concern is that I am just not cut out for it anymore but that I’ll keep pushing myself to do it for the sake of wanting  to like it and ultimately end up hating it.

French Lake and the Longhorn Trail

longhorn trail

The beauty of this place is ridiculous, especially on such a gorgeous day. The morning started off chilly, as we expected it would be in the middle of March, and as we piled out of the car for our hike around French Lake I took stock of all my layers: comfy t-shirt, jacket with hood, insulator jacket with plenty of pockets, and a scarf. Matt loaded his backpack with drinks and snacks and we finally made our way to the trail.

For the sake of argument, I must confess that I cannot tell the difference between hills and mountains so I will refer to all of them as mountains. I am a flatlander from Florida, after all, and get deliriously happy when I’m anywhere significantly above sea level.

French Lake

French Lake

I’ll admit that the first part of our hike was absurdly tranquil and stress-free. There were no inclines, not a single reason to exert ourselves. A pair of playful otters even added some excitement to our casual stroll around French Lake. I don’t know about the rest of my family, but I found it kind of surreal that I was dodging bison poop while studying the handiwork of beavers from afar.

beaver's work

We were really enjoying our morning out on the trail so we decided to go a little further. The Longhorn Trail would bring us right back to the parking lot after 2.4 miles. This much was made known on the signs and trail markers along the way. What was not disclosed, however, was the gradual incline toward the top of a mountain. Or maybe it was a hill. (Refer to my earlier note, though, as it is apparent that I cannot judge such things.)

Not too long into the trek going up, the layers started coming off. The removal of the scarf was soon followed by the removal of my insulator jacket. Being away from the lake got us out of the way of the wind and out of the way of the cold. I had to rest a couple of times because my legs aren’t used to much more than the weekly up-and-down jaunt into my basement to retrieve clothes from the dryer or a pound of beef from the freezer (coincidentally, longhorn beef). But the views.

Oh, the views!

longhorn trail

longhorn trail

longhorn trail

We rounded our way back to the parking lot after about an hour and a half and chatted about the highlights of our two-day trip to Wichita Mountain. Elle was delighted to have seen otters at play in their own habitat. I think Matt was happy to just get us two girls out of the house and into a tent, onto a trail, and jokingly planned to prepare us for a backpacking trek in the near future (at least, I hope he was joking…for his sake, I’m pretty sure he was joking). Me? I got everything I wanted out of this trip. I saw prairie dogs and otters, roasted marshmallows on a campfire, and stood on top of a mountain.

Oh, and I finally got to meet my bison.

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Blue Sky Morning

1960s shading WM NWR

It is safe to say we all caught enough sleep to keep us going through the day. I also like to believe that the beautiful sunshine that greeted us when we awoke helped, too. Matt cooked up a delicious breakfast of eggs, hash browns, and pork sausage and we sat around the picnic table to put together a plan for the rest of our short stay.

our "good morning" campsite view!

After breaking down the campsite and packing up the van, we headed over to the museum to stretch our legs a bit and talk with some people about finding an agreeable hiking trail. In the parking lot, we were greeted by a longhorn bull. Behind him was an entire herd of fenced-in longhorns so, naturally, I assumed he had busted himself loose. With my good intentions, I found two park officials to warn them and learned the longhorns are part of the free roaming animal population.

longhorn bull

A helpful employee in the gift shop showed us a few trails on the park map that would suit us. We eventually decided on a particularly easy and scenic hiking trail that provided distance options and might even treat us to an otter sighting. Elle couldn’t have been more thrilled, except when she learned that Prairie Dog Village was nearby.  Otters and prairie dogs – the kiddo’s two favorite animals.

prairie dog village

Another couple just happened to be setting up photography equipment to capture the prairie dogs so the place was still pretty empty of people. The three of us tried to be as quiet as possible, but the little animals scurried about poking their heads above ground and piping and chirping to the other families. I can’t imagine how frantic the scene must have been deep down in that network of underground tunnels. Faraway and nearby, the prairie dogs bustled with squeaky warnings.

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If you look closely, right in the center, you’ll see a prairie dog’s head popping out of his hole.

The sky was still perfectly clear and sunny, nothing at all like the overcast and chill from the day before.  The forecast promised temperatures in the mid-60s and we were grateful that we had held off our hike for an entire day in hopes of better weather. That decision paid off big time.

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Coming up: mountains views, the blue waters of French Lake, and a winking bison.

Mountain Camping

Wichita Mountain NWR

We arrived at Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge a little after noon. Immediately, Matt pointed to the top of a mountain and declared, “Guess where we’re going?!”  I was grateful for two things right away:

  1. I had already popped a Dramamine on the way to Southwest Oklahoma because car sickness can hit me on flat land anyway, especially when it’s overcast. I’m a big sissy.
  2. This isn’t like Chimney Rock in North Carolina. Out there, the canopy of trees blocks any focal point you might need to keep from getting queasy while winding up a mountainside road.

On the way to the top of Mount Scott, I was constantly surprised at every turn. Sure, Oklahoma is flat and dry, for the most part, but the number of lakes and rivers in this region of the state is impressive. Maybe only to me, as I’m still a newbie, but seeing as this was my first look at the Wichita Mountains, I found it all to be quite beautiful. Also, you can’t go wrong with being so high up that you are treated to earth curvature.

from the top of Mount Scott

from the top of Mount Scott

About an hour later, we were the first to choose from a number of campsites with a gorgeous view of Quanah Parker Lake. Elle and I helped with pitching the tent and unloading the van, but Matt is really the go-to guy when it comes to this stuff. So while my husband actually did most of the work (like setting up camp and cooking dinner and, well, everything), Elle and I headed down to the lake to take in the scenery. We all took a few more walks around the shoreline throughout the day and were pretty excited to find a beaver dam, a great blue heron, and animal tracks.

Lake Doris

Lake Doris

Our campfire was roaring away before dinnertime so Matt grabbed a book to read while relaxing in his hammock and I pulled out my copy of The Beak of the Finch to read fireside. There is something romantic about studying the evolution of Darwin’s finches while surrounded by nature. The kiddo brought her camera and props to make a new stop motion movie and keep her from being too bored out in the woods (sadly, this didn’t last long).

Matt's napping space

best campsite ever

After a delicious meal of pork chops and green beans, we feasted on s’mores and headed to bed. It was warm enough inside the tent to be cozy and I attempted to read a few more chapters on the Galapagos finches. Sleep didn’t come easily, though, and the kiddo and I had already realized hours earlier that we are just not cut out for camping.

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As we tried to drift off and catch up with my husband in the world of sleep, Elle and I were constantly reminded of the wild animals that lived outside. There was a lot of splashing coming from the lake behind us (so much that I thought the dam was releasing water!) and I’d actually fallen asleep long enough to dream a wolf was sniffing near Elle’s head and I had to punch it to save us all from certain death.  Of course, my tiny bladder was extremely uncooperative that night, too. Prior to choosing our campsite, I insisted on being close to a regularly cleaned park restroom. None of that matters, though, when you have to leave your tent twice in the middle of the night to take care of business and dozens of coyotes are howling nearby. For the record, a nearby cedar tree is just as fancy and probably safer.

After my last visit to the cedar tree, during which I scared two large animals that ran for safety into the lake, I crawled back into the tent and tried to comfort Ella who had again been woken up from a fitful sleep.

“Mom, what is making all that noise out there?”

And, with all the love in my heart and respect I could ever have for this child of mine, I lied through my teeth. “It’s just the elk and bison talking to each other. They do that at night.”

Did you really think I was going to be honest? “Oh, honey! That’s the wolves and coyotes looking for something to eat!” We would have been better off packing up our stuff and heading back home right then and there. Of course, we didn’t, and that is why we were able to enjoy the park during our hike the next day…

Destination: Iceland

After checking airline ticket prices and determining how many airplanes I will actually have to board, I finally told my husband of my ideal vacation destination. It goes against everything I have ever believed in in a vacation (tropical, inexpensive, nearby – Florida has spoiled me) and it is sure to create the most intense panic attack the world of air travel has ever seen (John Lithgow in Twilight Zone: The Movie, anyone?). I also opened my speech with a proviso that insists he must wait until I’m ready to board even one airplane before we can ever speak of the two airplanes (minimum) that will be required to get us there.

Where? ICELAND! And this could take many years and more sedatives than are currently legal to help this plan come to fruition, so just play along with me.

But, Dena, don’t you hate the cold? Yes. Emphatically, YES. Yet Iceland has a fairly moderate climate and if I can survive three months of winter in central Oklahoma, what’s a week in Iceland looking at this fantatistical lightshow in the sky?

Just last year Iceland ranked among the happiest nations in the world (third, in fact). I admit that I am a natural-born grumpy pants, but when I am around positive and happy people I don’t like to be the only grumpy asshole in the room so, to fit in, I become positive and happy, too. I don’t even notice it when it’s happening but when I finally do catch on to the change, I hold on to it for dear life and the effects often last for weeks. It is a whimsical feeling.

Speaking of whimsical, did you know that the majority of Icelanders believe elves exist? They say the elves are actually human-sized and live in small homes built into the sides of mountains. I love elves. I love Icelanders for believing in elves!

And then there is this blue lagoon near Reykjavik. I can dig this. My usual tendency to fret over everything is often shut up whenever I am near water. An ocean, a river, a natural spring.  And it looks like blue milk! I want to soak and swim in the warm, blue milk.

Finally, don’t you just love the wind-ruffled hair of Icelandic horses? Surprisingly, they are pony-sized (or are they really just elfin horses, all magical and small?). I will wiggle with happiness if I ever get close enough to one of these creatures. I will not mind the damp or cold weather. I will cry when it is time to leave Iceland. I will never eat fermented shark.

Isaac and Me

Jones, Oklahoma

Jones, Oklahoma

My family is a hardy bunch of contemporary Midwesterners and Floridians whose ancestors emigrated from England and Prussia over 350 years ago. One of the first of our kind to land in America, John Throckmorton, helped to establish the first Baptist church in the country in Salem, Massachusetts with Roger Williams before going on to found the city of Providence, Rhode Island. Ambitious man, apparently. Another of my ancestors served in the 1st Ohio Regiment during the Civil War and fought in the Battle of Shiloh, among many other battles over his three years of service. This is only a smidgen of the history I have found in my Dickensheets family tree.

Throckmorton? Dickensheets? (Don’t forget my Bieber lineage!) Go ahead, poke fun all you want at my family names, but know this – I have castles named after me in England! Moving on…

Most of my family, from centuries past and until now, is settled in Northern Wisconsin and Southeastern Ohio (only in recent decades have some of us headed south to Florida). There is a distant connection to the Ingalls family of Little House fame by way of my grandmother by marriage, but besides that most of our kind have stayed east of the Mississippi River with the exception of my daughter and me. However, a few weeks ago, my brother informed me that we were not, in fact, the first of our family to head this way…out here to Oklahoma.

Introducing Isaac Wentz – a grandson of the first Dickensheets to arrive here in America!

Wentz Family - my Oklahoma history

On Saturday, a friend and I took a drive out to Jones, Oklahoma, where Isaac and his wife are buried. It is only about 25 minutes away from my house in Oklahoma City but I found it a bit comforting that others in my family tree are nearby. So what if they’re dead?

The weather was a bit chilly but the sun was out, making it a near-perfect way to spend an afternoon in an old graveyard. I haven’t enjoyed a good old cemetery stroll since the last time I visited Savannah, Georgia. And no, the Jones IOOF Cemetery is hardly an elaborate showcase of burial vaults and historical markers, but the headstones served enough purpose to at least make me want to know more about these people who were alive when Oklahoma was only a territory, not even yet a state.

Did Isaac come to Oklahoma for something or to escape something back East where most of his siblings remained (good ol’ Grandpa Dickensheets had amended his will out of resentment, though I don’t know if Isaac or his mother were affected)? And why did he decide to settle in the small town of Jones? The Oklahoma Land Run took place long after Isaac was already established here with his wife and children. I know so little (read: nothing) about the history of Oklahoma, especially this region, and can’t imagine what could possibly make life so appealing here at the time.

Yet Isaac and I have at least something in common with each other – we’ve both left our families and all we know back East to make a life of adventure in the wild, wild West (even if my adventures really only consist of visiting long-lost relatives in nearby rural Oklahoma cemeteries).

Wentz Family - my Oklahoma history

Wentz Family - my Oklahoma history