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

In the Garden

Whoa. Summer came to Oklahoma with a bang. After all those extra months of freezing weather and our recent weeks of rain, it is finally 90+ degrees and dry. Is there no such thing as a happy medium? Or do those days happen fleetingly? I’m guessing the latter.

Those days have come where I now have to check my flowers and vegetables daily. A simply soaking every evening only seems to make my plants thirstier. When I walked past my potted petunias last night I was shocked by the condition of the soil. It was cracking and parched and it made me feel so silly for proclaiming only last week how hard it was to kill petunias! PUBLIC APOLOGY, PETUNIAS – I take it all back.

I never had an interest in gardening for most of my life, although I have had a lifelong interest in eating food grown in other people’s gardens. When I lost my job nearly two years ago and Florida’s economy failed to provide me with another, I decided to turn my spare time into a useful tool. The following spring and summer, I grew tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, carrots, ground cherries, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, herbs, and edible flowers.

Jack, my parents’ piebald dachshund, accompanied me every morning to the garden space. The two of us made our rounds collecting ground cherries that had fallen or thinning out the carrots and nursing the cucumbers back to health. Actually, I did the work while Jack chased squirrels and investigated the deep roots of a philodendron.

Jack, my garden buddy

Jack, looking especially short next to the lettuce patch

Matt and I decided this year’s garden would be a small and manageable one. Everything we hope will be edible is growing in container pots and recycled whiskey barrels. There are three varieties of potted tomatoes, cucumbers trailing on our iron porch rails, and okra being held upright with a metal trellis. All those mornings I tossed the water out of those saturated pots are paying off and things are finally starting to grow.

sunburst cherry tomatoes

sunburst cherry tomatoes

okra is happening!

okra is happening!

It seems I have a new garden buddy these days to go along with my new garden. As I made my rounds this morning redirecting the cucumber vines and marveling at the height of my still-growing sunflowers, Teddy rarely left my side. There is a story behind this dog and I wish I knew what it was, but for now I’m happy to imagine he was treated well by someone who appreciated his constant presence and liked to take him for long walks outside.

my handsome boy

my handsome boy

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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Wind & Waves

Water-loving people must make do with what they have around them and this was evident to me the first time I saw a surfer in Lake Superior. The kinds of Nor’easters that I am only familiar with on the Florida coast make plenty of large waves on the Great Lakes, too (and are the reason most Lake Superior shipwrecks occurred). Oklahoma doesn’t get these Nor’easters, but she does get her fair share of wind. This, of course, makes windsurfing a pretty popular watersport around here.

washed up and cared for

Lake Hefner

Matt and I sat on a bench near the Lake Hefner lighthouse yesterday as I listened to the waves slapping the shore rocks. A few minutes later we hopped back onto our bicycles and headed into the wind for the 3-mile ride back to the truck. Naturally, we hadn’t noticed the wind during the first short leg of our trek as it was conveniently at our backs helping to move us along. Going into the wind – oh, it hurt and it burned. I even worried I wouldn’t be able to walk for days, but I couldn’t help but love being near the lake. Even one of my dearest cousins in Wisconsin gives her lake house all the credit for helping her get through some kick-in-the-gut life shit right now. Water and waves have some serious healing power, even if it is just to provide encouragement to pedal, pedal, pedal!

wind! of course.

Oklahoma wind. It is windy!

When Matt mentioned that our 6-mile round trip could have taken us almost completely around the lake, I was okay with that. There was no need to finish the entire trail on the first go. Besides, I’ll most definitely go back when the weather warms up again because I think it’s my new favorite nearby happy place.

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.

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.

Straight Lines

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We finally went ice skating downtown tonight! But this blog post isn’t about that. It’s really just a few pictures from the other night when we tried to go ice skating the first time but it was too warm outside and the rink floor was melting. The manager said we could still skate but we couldn’t get close to the railing because the ice at the edge was becoming all slushy. First-time ice skaters with nothing to hold on to? No, thanks. So we went bowling instead.

On our way to the bowling alley in Bricktown, we came across this painted bison. I see these bison statues all over Oklahoma City. There is even one painted with a skeleton near my house in front of some orthopedic institute. Jacksonville has the same thing going on with jaguar and manatee statues placed all over the city. Just as I associate manatees with Florida, I think of my new home here in Oklahoma when I see bison (naturally). The jaguar statues, though, are only for football  purposes back home but I always hope people are bigger fans of the animal. Sadly, both the animal and the NFL team are in need of saving.

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I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of the many Eiffel Towers when we walked past this painting class. I see this kind of art class available more and more often – just gather your friends, book a group reservation, and bring your own wine! Although from the looks of it, there is no wine here. Perhaps these ladies imbibed first? As I learned from my bowling scores that evening, alcohol does not contribute to one’s ability to make a straight line, no matter if it’s a ten-pound ball or paintbrush in one’s hand. These ladies totally win the award for making straight lines.

Paris Night

Back to ice skating, though, as tonight’s experience proved just how right we were in walking away earlier this week. None of us had ever ice skated before and the temperatures were cold enough that the entire rink was frozen. That rail was quite handy, too, so I’m very happy to have had it available. Just because we saw some 5-year old kid flailing around on the ice, but upright and in motion, didn’t necessarily mean we would be just as successful our first time in. But we did alright! Did we ice skate in straight lines? Oh, hell. I couldn’t even propel myself forward for the first 10 minutes. Moving in any direction, straight-lined or not, was an accomplishment. Again, the Eiffel Tower ladies win the award for making straight lines.

Nobody fell, no bones were broken, and no tears were shed. And when the middle-aged couple next to me asked if we’d taken ibuprofen before our outing, it dawned on me: getting out of bed tomorrow is going to hurt.

Fleeting Spring

The two-day break in the winter weather could not have come at a better time. My spirits were already a bit down by mid-week and after a sleepless night on Friday, all thanks to some ill-settling Lortab, I woke up to a beautiful and warm Saturday morning wishing I could just feel somewhat human again. My husband convinced me to leave the house so we headed out to the Home and Garden show being held at the state fairgrounds (we still have that hot tub to install). That night, I finally managed to eat a full meal, read a number of essays on America’s moral decline, and write (and finish!) a critique for one of my classes.

At last, clarity!

I decided to reward myself, after all. That walk I missed taking on Friday really needed to happen, for my own mental health, and Sunday proved to be even more spring-like than Saturday. So I kissed my husband goodbye, dropped Elle off at her friend’s house, and headed into the woods.

Back in November I had visited this same park with my friend, Liz. Everything was still fairly green and lush then, which was surprising because we were months into fall and there was very little autumn color on the trees. This time around, though, the trees were bare enough to let in the sunshine. And, in a moment of perfect timing just as I was trying to decide if I should take one more trail before heading home, a church group with three vans of children swung open their doors and let loose a wild pack of screaming monsters. My outdoor therapy adventure had already done me some good (playing in the trees and tiny creeks can do that to you) so I took the screeching noise as my cue and left after my hour-long walk.

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white pumpkin in the woods

a white pumpkin just randomly resting in the woods

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Can anyone tell me what kind of grass this is? It sounds really cool when the wind rustles it.

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a restoration project filled with native grasses and wildflowers

tree limb reflection

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Teddy, who had been helping my husband and a friend dig a long line of holes into the backyard (I can’t wait for this hot tub to be installed), had already been in trouble with me once for leaving the yard (and quite casually, I might add!) to sniff around across the street. In a long moment of trying to drown out his sudden and incessant barking, I left dinner cooking on the stove for a minute and walked outside see what had caught his attention.

It seems we weren’t the only ones enjoying the sunshine. Look how happy Teddy is at such a discovery in the sky!

Mom, I'm going to bark at that thing until it drops!

hot air balloon over the house

Swamps in Oklahoma

bald cypress trunk

It’s hard to believe that this distinctly southeastern tree was so unrecognizable to me here in Oklahoma. My neighbors across the street have a beautiful bald cypress in their yard, yet for months I had no clue what it was without it being accompanied by swampland and alligators. Not that I want alligators hovering around all the time. I’m quite happy these days being able to walk near a body of water and not have to be on the lookout for surfacing eyeballs and slide trails, thank you very much.

That photograph above is from my walk through the Jacksonville Arboretum in North Florida earlier this year. It looks right at home doesn’t it? The lush greenery, the ferns, the cypress roots digging right into the soggy ground. So you can understand why I was really surprised to learn that Oklahoma has a small but happy colony of native bald cypress trees. They live and thrive in the southeastern corner of the state, right at home with the swamps and alligators! (Yep, apparently Oklahoma has swamps and alligators.)

A local tree expert told me not too long ago that bald cypress trees find it difficult to grow in this area where so many ecoregions collide, although my neighbors’ tree says differently. Sure, I was disappointed at the reality of never having one in my yard but it’s not like I have to go far to see it.

Besides, I found some cypress stumps in the nearby city park, sans alligators.

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And for any of you alligator enthusiasts out there, this is Virgil. Our office building on the campus of University of North Florida was right next to a retention pond which became home to a few different species of animals, naturally. Herons, turtles, softshell tortoises, catfish, and a couple of alligators. Virgil was “relocated” after he decided to run across the feet of our maintenance director who was trying to clean up the pond a bit. Virgil thought he was fishing. Virgil II showed up a few months later. We weren’t alligator-free for very long.

Virgil, the office alligator