It’s been a bad time to be in a transition period in life. People are moving away, moving on to new things; and yet, we can’t even say good-bye because of that pesky once-in-a-century pandemic. What unfolds in the paragraphs below amounts to a good-bye adventure with Bradley and James before they both packed up and moved out of Oklahoma.
Elizabeth and I had been trying to plan a camping trip with Moriah and James all summer, but unfortunately, she had to go on a family trip to Florida via airplane. From a public health perspective, Elizabeth and I decided it was likely safer for us to just find a time that worked for James and Bradley. As it turned out, there were availabilities in Chickasaw National Recreation Area from July 19-20, so I snapped up a 2-car campsite and we were good to go.
When the day actually came, Elizabeth and I were distracted by the dozens of little tasks that moving into an apartment entail, and thus we didn’t spend a whole lot of time packing for the actual camping trip. A few things we’ve had on previous trips became afterthoughts, and a few others were at our still-not-moved-out-of old apartments. It made for a bit of a scramble. By mid-afternoon we were generally ready to go, and when James and Bradley pulled into The Links we were off.
It *should* have been a relatively short trip, particularly compared to some of the previous camping trips Elizabeth and I had been on. So of course I-35 had multiple construction zones, including areas that went down to one lane. And of course there was an accident in one of those one-lane zones south of Purcell. I took the slowdown well though!
With James’ Mustang in tow, we headed south on 177 out of Sulphur (notable for being the same road we were on shortly after seeing the Springer tornado back in April). The Buckhorn Campground, where we were staying, is situated on the northern shore of the southeastern finger of Lake of the Arbuckles. We arrived to our campsite in mid-afternoon with the sun beating down.
Not saying that Elizabeth and I are pro campers, but we immediately set to the task of pitching our site. Unrolling the tarp, getting the tent laid out, hammering stakes in, fixing polls… meanwhile, James and Bradley were only slightly flummoxed by their new tent. It was a valiant effort from them.
As seen from the picture above, we actually were right by the lake. We took a quick trip down to the water to see what it was all about, but… nah. It’s Lake of the Arbuckles. So we headed back to the campsite, and prepared for dinner in the hopes that maybe things would cool down as the evening went on. I opened a beer and stoked the fire pit.
We didn’t have great firewood, so I was constantly in a state of stoking. We also didn’t have our pie irons, which is kind of suboptimal when the planned dinner is buffalo chicken paninis (the sliced buffalo chicken from Sam’s Club slaps). I was high-key excited for the sandwiches, but mine overcooked on our cast-iron skillet and turned into what I would describe as a modest disappointment. Plus I was sweating a lot.
The sweat issue could be cured! Just a short drive away on 177, we drove into the Recreation Area. Just a short drive up Perimeter Road east of the highway, and the familiar low-water crossing passed. There it was: Travertine Creek, one of my favorite summer cooldown spots.
This part of the park was as busy as you would expect on a Sunday evening, but certainly not as busy as it would have been a few hours ago. Camping overnight and hitting the off hours turned out to be a true “pro gamer” move from Elizabeth and me. Usually, the parking lot at Little Niagara Falls is chock full of cars (notably, Elizabeth once got mad at a person in a wheelchair for holding a parking spot, a battle I did not want to fight), but we had no trouble parking.
We did, however, fail to consider one factor at Little Niagara – the janky-ass bathrooms. In a covid world, everything feels so much more unclean, and that bathroom never felt clean to begin with. I wore my mask in and tried not to breathe. Hell, I tried not to touch anything while changing into my swimsuit. After waiting for Bradley and James to finish their own personal traumatic experiences in the bathroom, we were ready to swim.
The main area that the waterfall sits in was still quite crowded, but we headed downstream a couple hundred meters and found an uncrowded location (covid safety, y’all). The day had cooled off a couple of degrees now that it was past 7:00, but still, I could feel the sweat from the campfire caked on me. 55-degree water would certainly make that feel better. I touched a toe in the water and turned to Elizabeth.
“I think I’m losing my midwestern-ness, because that doesn’t feel so good.”
Bradley and James were coming up to the creek now and I couldn’t look like a bitch. Into the calf-deep water I jumped. It was indeed cold. No time to hesitate, though. I laid back and completely submerged myself with the exception of my head (I was wearing glasses.
“OOOOOH.” Anyone who’s ever been in water of that temperature knows how it feels. A few seconds where it feels like you can’t breathe, followed by a quick adjustment. And then the glorious relief that in July in Oklahoma I could actually, briefly, feel cold. And then, at least in my case, a desire to horseplay in the water.
I had to wait for the other three clowns to get in, though. In particular, the Florida native (Bradley) was slow to get in the water. It took some coaxing, some wheedling and some outright ignoring before he was willing to get in. By then, I had begun my usual process of exploring each waterfall and rapid on the stretch of creek we were on.
We probably stayed in the water for about an hour until the sun was going down. Gradually, everyone came to join me in climbing over rocks, splashing around, and general horseplay. By then, the sweat of dinner was long forgotten.
When we got back to the campsite, I got the fire going again and we settled in for your typical camping evening. I had a beer by my side and s’mores to make:
And if I had a couple of White Claws with that beer, and a Truly lemonade, and maybe another beer, then I did, and that’s all there is to it! We stayed up around the fire for several hours, talking about life, talking about the direction that our graduated friends were going, talking about the direction that our lives were going. In many ways, that night felt to me like the end of an era: drinking with two of my college best friends with nowhere to be.
The stars were out (and the campsite next to us smelling suspiciously like the tent had been hotboxed) by the time I had put out the fire and turned off the lantern. It was still a warm night, and I was a little worried that Elizabeth and I wouldn’t be able to sleep because of the humidity. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case (it was a much worse night for James and Bradley, who had no air mattress in their tent). The only times I awoke overnight were when I heard some medium-sized animal crashing through the woods near us. I assumed it was just a raccoon or opossum and went back to sleep each time.
Finally, I heard the crashing again right by our tent at dawn. This time I could actually look out and see who our visitor was.
Eventually, the rambunctious little armadillo scurried off. He had served as a nice alarm clock, though. I set to making a campfire for breakfast.
After everyone else had shaken off the cobwebs, we made a meal that put dinner the night before to shame. Egg sandwiches with cheese, maple bacon and sausage surely hit the spot on a muggy summer dawn. The local flies of Chickasaw National Recreation Area seemed to agree, since they were *everywhere*. We outsmarted the insects and ate in the car. After breakfast, I felt like the day belonged to me. It’s so weird how you wake up so early while camping and yet feel like the sleep was better than most days.
Even though it was early, we walked up to the campground bathroom (not the Little Niagara one this time!) to change into swimsuits. That’s where I was treated to this gem:
Once we were all in our swimsuits, it was the same trip down 177 to Travertine Creek as the night before – only this time, with buffalo!
Elizabeth and my gamble had been correct: while Little Niagara is crowded on every summer weekend afternoon, an early Monday morning buys you the whole waterfall. This time, I was quicker into the water (same shock from the cold, and a little less enjoyable because it wasn’t hot out yet, but still nice). And then it was time for me to get to the ledge.
Eventually, Bradley got off the waterfall as well. Florida man had to adjust to the cold. James didn’t want to, but he was downstream exploring the creek. I joined him on a quick expedition. As the waterfall area started to get gradually more crowded, we eventually went back to change and break down the campsite.
After that, we returned to the Travertine Nature Center. I honestly hadn’t been there in previous visits, and I’m glad we went! The Nature Center itself was basically the NPS Visitor’s Center (there’s a Chickasaw Visitor’s Center in Sulphur, but it’s not quite the NPS one). Now I know where to take people to get their stamps. On top of that, the Nature Center was quite informative. I learned that Chickasaw NRA used to be one of the earliest national parks in the country, and learned more about the history springs that fed the area as well as the local wildlife. The Nature Center was the unexpected positive surprise of the trip for me.
To cap off our time in the NRA, we walked down the nature trails leading from the Nature Center to the springs that feed the area’s creeks. Again, I’d never seen the springs before, and now I wonder why not! Despite smelling vaguely sulphuric (and despite the fact that I was wearing slides instead of hiking shoes), they were well worth the walk.
And just like that, one short walk back to the Nature Center later, it was over. We were saying good-bye to two of our best friends. James was soon off for Texas, and Bradley onward to Florida. The abruptness of the good-bye, following what could only have been described as a fun camping trip, helped keep it from being too emotional, I think.
Elizabeth wanted to make a stop on the way out of the NRA at the Chickasaw Visitor’s Center to get a magnet (she failed). Following that, we stopped at McDonald’s for some drive-thru lunch in Sulphur. And then, following a hint that James and Bradley had left (although they didn’t end up going), the two of us took one more adventure to Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pies. I got a vanilla pie; Elizabeth chose peach. It was a detour well worth the time and money.
And then, just like that, Elizabeth and I were on our way home to watch New Girls.