Journey to the heart of the red earth

Hey ya’ll!

Happy New Year!


I like to contemplate what I’m doing here on the world wide webs, especially when a year turns over, new leaf style.

What do I want to do more of? Why did the song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” pop into my head as I wrote that? What do I want to give up? Along those lines, I’m going to *try* to write or share an adventure piece every Tuesday.

That’s because, if I’m not traveling, I’m fantasizing about traveling, reminiscing about traveling or planning to travel.

#traveltuesday, ya dig?

But as it’s after 9 p.m., and I’m just sitting down, we’re going to re-visit an adventure I had on the job as a plains journo.

A newcomer in a strange land and a lonesome soul, I had a lot of time to wonder about stuff after my family moved to Oklahoma from the Midwest in ’12.

Maybe too much time.

I up and decided one day to figure out why the Oklahoma dirt is red. But beyond that, I wanted to know if there is some deeper, symbolic meaning to it all. Yes, the dirt fascinated me. I am fascinated by dirt.

Anyway, before I digress, here is the piece I wrote about my journey to the heart of dirt. Red dirt!

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Driving deep into the central Oklahoma countryside with veteran Oklahoman photographer Steve Sisney, I looked out the windows at the landscape: an amalgamation of sky, field and cattle. Twisted dead trees, the wreckage of a home and the rusting shell of a car flashed by, remnants of a tornado that had raked Grady County several months earlier.

All of it sat atop a striking element: the red Oklahoma earth.

“Wow, look at that,” I said.

“What?” Sisney replied.

“The dirt. It’s so red. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Uh huh,” a far-less soil-enchanted Sisney said.

“It’s dirt.”


It was early January 2012 and my second day in the state. We were on our way to the trailer home of Sarah McKinley, who just days before, while surviving on top of that red soil, had shot and killed a knife-wielding intruder as her 3-month-old son lay crying in a back room.

Since that dramatic introduction, Oklahoma has become my home.

My family moved here from the Rust Belt in search of a more stable future. We joined thousands coming to Oklahoma; in 2013 alone, 109,255 people moved here from other states.

Subtle regional differences across the U.S. fascinate me, and as a relative newbie just three years in, I’ve got my eyes wide open.

To get behind our state’s quirks and characteristics, I’ve proposed this occasional series, dubbed “Oklahoma Observed,” an open-ended foray into unique Oklahoma topics.

If you have a suggestion for the series, I’m collecting ideas. Please send an email, leave a comment or write a note to the paper. You don’t have to have come from out of state to make suggestions; anyone can join in and help me to explain a piece of Oklahoma that would fascinate, surprise or enlighten us.

The soil of central Oklahoma, that red earth, is our first piece in this series.

I know I’m not the only new arrival to be hypnotized by red dirt. Scanning the Oklahoma History Center archives, I came across a mid-1980s oral history project interview with a woman named Edna May Armold, whose grandfather, in 1893, rushed “into the Cherokee strip,” the largest in a series of 1890s Oklahoma “land runs.” Armold recalled her own family’s arrival in the state from Minnesota in 1914.

“The soil in Minnesota is black, and was red in Oklahoma, and the whole family was fascinated by the red dirt,” she recalled.

So, it’s not just me. Thanks for the proof, Edna. Moving on.

Deeper meaning

I first consulted a state soil brochure — yes, we have one of those — for answers.

The bright red soil characteristic of Oklahoma has a name: Port. First recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1942, the “Port series” of soil is the state’s most common and can be found in 33 of 77 counties, covering about 1 million acres in central and western Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. In 1987, Oklahoma lawmakers named port silt loam the state soil.

Port draws its name from the small community of Port in Washita County in western Oklahoma.

Port soil in Oklahoma can range from dark brown to dark reddish brown.

According to Brian J. Carter, a professor of soil science at Oklahoma State University, iron oxide gives the soil its color, the result of the weathering of reddish sandstones, siltstones and shales of the Permian Geologic Era nearly 300 million years ago.

From a scientific standpoint, I got it. But there had to be a deeper meaning.

I next called the Red Earth Museum in Oklahoma City. The nonprofit that runs the museum also puts on the Red Earth Festival, an annual event designed to celebrate diverse native cultures in Oklahoma.

The staff suggested I call Gordon Yellowman, a chief, educator and peacemaker with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, one of 39 federally recognized tribes with headquarters in the state.

Yellowman shows each year at the Red Earth Festival as an accomplished ledger artist. Plains Indians developed the transitional genre in the 1860s after being forced onto reservations and losing access to traditional materials like animal hides. Instead, scenes of daily life, of bravery, of military intervention, were scrawled, initially, on accountants’ ledger paper.

I wondered what Yellowman, an American Indian, artist and a thinker, would have to say about red earth.

I drove west of Oklahoma City to the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal headquarters about six miles north of El Reno to find out.

Yellowman works in one of a handful of green and tan one-story buildings clustered together on the 10,000-acre expanse of tribal land, where wagon ruts are still visible from the post Civil War-era cattle drives from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail.

There, Gordon shared the story of how the Cheyenne arrived in Oklahoma — of a violent clash of cultures spurred by Westward expansion.

Ever-encroaching European settlement in the 19th century prompted the federal government to forcibly relocate American Indian tribes to Oklahoma in a series of bloody encounters and death marches. Textbooks call it “Indian Removal.” American Indians today call it genocide.

On Nov. 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington’s Colorado volunteers massacred a peaceful band of Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, Colo., killing 148, more than half women and children.

What became known as the Sand Creek Massacre prompted some of Yellowman’s ancestors to flee to Indian Territory in what is today Roger Mills County, OK, according to historians. There they sought protection.


They didn’t find it. Only four years after Sand Creek, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer attacked a sleeping encampment of Cheyenne along the Washita River, killing 103, mostly women and children, as well as Chief Black Kettle, considered a peacemaker, according to historic accounts.

Today, the battleground is a National Historic Site within the U.S. Forest Service’s Black Kettle National Grassland near Cheyenne, about 140 miles west of Oklahoma City.

We left the office to explore Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal land in a pickup.

What looked like giant craters that exposed expanses of bright red soil were actually buffalo wallows, carved by untold thousands of buffalo that rolled in mud and dust years ago, Yellowman said. The red earth carries special meaning for the Cheyenne and Arapaho and other American Indian cultures here, Yellowman said.

“That pigment is a reflection of who we are, a representation of who we are as native people,” he explained.

“It’s our blood. The red earth takes care of us and protects our identity as native people, but it also secures and reminds us of our wound, where we come from. And we were made from earth, and we shall return to earth.”

Today, 168 head of buffalo and a sizable colony of prairie dogs populate the land. The tribe rents its buffalo herd to filmmakers and is exploring selling meat to retailers like Whole Foods.

It’s part of the continuing adaptation of American Indians to the Oklahoma earth, Yellowman said.

“We were forcibly removed here from our original homelands,” he continued. “No matter where we were, we always adapted with those harsh conditions. We lived in harmony with the environment. One of the very first things we learned to adapt to was the lands.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Oklahoma, OK

I turn the key in the ignition. Not a sound. Not a click. Nothing is working. My cell is out of batteries.

I sit in my car at a pump at a neighborhood gas station. Full tank and kinda stranded, for the moment.

It’s a familiar place. A few months ago I met a couple living in a small sinkhole in a parking lot adjacent to this gas station for a story about homeless veterans. He was an Afghanistan vet who couldn’t stop the bad dreams. She, battered by an ex, turned to meth and lost her children to state custody. Only recently was she able to can the meth addiction, because the Afghanistan vet, the love of her life, won’t stand for meth. He told me of the situation: “It don’t take one thing and it’s gone. Everything you got is gone, you know?”

Each said the other was the best thing that ever happened to them. Then they flew kites.

You can find love in unexpected places sometimes. Like, near a sinkhole in an expanse of concrete.

I feel only mild annoyance at current car situation because I’m tryin’ to run errands on a Saturday afternoon.

I walk into the convenience store to let the counter staff know I’m having car trouble and might be parked for a moment while I figure this one out. I think I need a jump, I say. I don’t have cables.

There’s a man who walks in right behind me and overhears. His hair is rusty blond and wild, Einstein-esque. Dried paint covers his jeans and boots. He’s a mid-50s cowboy Thor.

“I got this,” he tells the staff. “I’ll be over after I fill up,” he says to me.

“Thanks,” I say. “I might need a jump.”

I walk to my car. Pop the hood.

A green Bronco pulls up and he gets out.

Just don’t let him be a creep

He’s all business, stares at the battery and says, “You’ve just got a bad connection. Look at this.”

“Awesome. Is it an easy fix?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

He pulls tools out of his Bronco. A drill, a wrench.

Oh good he’s normal.

“Sweet Bronco,” I say. “Love Broncos. What year is it?”

“’95”

“OK, completely rude question asking anyway – how much did you pay for it?”

“Got this one for $500 ’cause it had a lot of problems. Usually, they’re around $1,500. I only pay cash.”

“My husband and I are the same way,” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “I got a wife and three kids. I started watching this show, Doomsday Preppers,” he says. “Man, these idiots on this show. They got guns. They got food. Bronco is loaded up.”

“With guns and food?”

OK, so maybe he’s not ‘normal,’ in the conventional sense, but, uniquely prepared for anything…

“Yeah,” he says, intent as ever on the bad connection in my battery.”Bronco’s got a reinforced front panel. Can charge through anything. Man, these guys on Doomsday Preppers were some of the biggest idiots I’ve ever seen. Then I turn around and become a big idiot like them…”

“Like, in preparation for Doomsday?” I say. “Apocalypse or what?”

“You never know. I’ve always kept guns…a lot of guns.”

“Tornado,” I offer. “You could get out of town fast for one of those.”

“Yeah. Tornado. Or anything else. You never know.”

“You really never know.”

Silence.

“OK, give it a start.”

He shuts my hood.

I turn the key. My car starts.

“Wow, thanks,” I say.

But the stranger is already halfway to his Bronco armory food bank.

“Thanks!” I call out. I wave. “THANKS!”

He’s gone.

He not only patched up the car, cowboy Thor reminded me of…preparedness…

It’s a topsy turvy world. Come to think of it, I need to fix my weather radio.

the end

Oklahoma
Oklahoma

Mark Twitter wars with Pioneer Woman, news crew visits house, mommy wears election headphones, newspaper hats: The week in review

What an odd week.

Continue reading Mark Twitter wars with Pioneer Woman, news crew visits house, mommy wears election headphones, newspaper hats: The week in review

The bison are back

Buffalo
Buffalo

I like buffalo.

Continue reading The bison are back

Little family on the prairie: a journey in 20 photos

Last weekend we drove to northeast Oklahoma. Our destination was Osage County, home of the Osage Nation, a bustling little town called Pawhuska, 70 square miles of pristine prairie and Oklahoma’s most famous blogger, The Pioneer Woman.

It was another last-minute hiking trip.

Don’t our pics look perfect?

Lest I mislead you, we got back from our hike and discovered Laila and Mark were crawling with ticks.

Nothing says love like an invasive family tick check. You have to look everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

Scrub any images from your minds, now, and enjoy the pleasant scenes.

Note: The photos were taken with my iPhone 4s and edited with my favorite app, Visual Supply Co’s photo app. More about VSCO.

What’s with the typewriter? Needed art for my journo portfolio and a new photo of Eli for the blog. Also, I love typewriters.

OH YEAH
OH YEAH

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Girl power hiking. Laila notes while hiking: "Even girl power needs a break."
Girl power hiking. Laila notes while hiking: “Even girl power needs a break.”
Pawhuska
Pawhuska

If you like reading about my adventures exploring the state of Oklahoma, hit up the category The Oklahoma Diaries. If you like taking iPhone pics, you might try iPhone photography, ie, iPhoneography.

Moore wasn’t the first: 5 deadly tornadoes have hit Oklahoma schools, killed students, since 1917

Hi and thanks for reading. I am writing a blog a day in May for cystic fibrosis awareness month – my son Eli, 1, has CF. However, a year ago today, deadly storms and tornadoes hit the Oklahoma City metro. I’ve been engrossed in tornadoes and weather and the grief of mothers of victims and other survivors for two weeks in my other life, that of reporter, in order to write a few anniversary stories. Sometimes delving in these topics gets a lot knocking around in my head, and I feel the need to write it out. So that’s what I’m doing here.

For those not from around here, this is how it’s explained the weather events of May 2013 in my article in The Oklahoman this week about the anniversary:

In a state long accustomed to the forceful nature of spring weather, the series of storms that roared across central Oklahoma during a two-week period in May 2013 altered so much.

May 21 2013

… It started May 19, when a typical supercell spawned eight tornadoes that damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and buildings as they swept across Edmond, Arcadia, Luther, Carney, Prague, Norman and the Shawnee area, where two elderly men were killed.

The next day brought one of the largest and most powerful storms the state has ever seen. Among 15 tornadoes May 20 was a rare EF5 that packed 210 mph winds as it plowed across Newcastle, south Oklahoma City and Moore. Twenty-five people died, including seven students who perished when a hallway wall collapsed on top of them at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

Then, on May 31, 19 more twisters gashed the still-reeling region, including a 2.6-mile-wide tornado, thought to be the widest on record in the United States. Eight people died when the tornado caught them in their vehicles near El Reno. Heavy rainfall produced historic flash flooding that killed 15 others, including a 5-month-old baby girl swept through a drainage tunnel and whose body has never been recovered.

In my research for the anniversary piece, I found five more instances in recorded history in which tornadoes have killed students at schools in Oklahoma.

Christopher Legg, photo provided by Danni Legg.
Christopher Legg, photo provided by Danni Legg.
Because only about 9 percent of tornadoes have historically hit the state between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., the school shelter issue had been absent from public discourse for a long time, according to my sources at the National Weather Service and the superintendent of Moore Public Schools, Robert Romines. With most tornadoes striking in the evening, the emphasis on shelters has been residential. The disaster on May 20 changed that discourse. I spoke to parents of tornado victims and survivors of the school disaster in the last two weeks. The loss hurts today just as much as it did a year ago. On May 20, 9-year-old Christopher Legg rose from a spot where he sat with another class to comfort a crying friend. He covered her as the <a tornado splintered the school. Legg died when a wall collapsed on him. His cause of death is listed as mechanical asphyxia. He, and most of the other children, smothered in the wreckage. Danni Legg, Christopher's mother, told me grief hurts in the quiet moments at home. Christopher Legg loved rough-housing with his brother, sister and dad. There was a familiar clamor at home that's gone now, because the tornado took the family's beloved brother. “We need more noise,” Danni Legg told me. “You get used to that. You get used to that level of voices. Then it’s not there, and it hurts so Kyle-Davisbad.” One boy, Kyle Davis, 8, was killed by blunt force trauma. Davis loved to play defense and goalie in soccer matches, his mother told me. On account of his hardy size, his coaches nicknamed him “The Wall” at age 5. A year on, Mikki Davis struggles every day with the loss. “The pain is always going to be there,” she said. “My heart is going to be broken forever. But I know in my heart, I know where Kyle is. I will see Kyle again.”

My heart goes out to these families.

Their tragedy is fresh, but similar school-tornado disasters have hit Oklahoma before.

I wanted to share front pages following tornado disasters from 1917, 1930, 1944 and 1945. According to Richard Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, these tornadoes killed 16 students at a poorly constructed Indian mission school in Vireton (near Lake Eufala) on Jan 4, 1917; six students Nov. 19, 1930 in Bethany; One student at evening basketball practice on Jan. 26, 1944 in Granite; and three students on April 12, 1945 at a school for the blind dormitory in Muskogee.

1917:

1930:

1944:

1945:

Our weather is so unpredictable. Two of the historic school-tornado disasters hit in January. Students were killed in 1944 and then 1945. Sixty eight years passed, and then the twister killed students in Moore. I hope for a quiet spring.

My hope is that this brand of nightmarish tragedy never, ever happens again.

For more on the history of deadly tornadoes at schools, view the below PDF. The presentation was authored by Richard Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service offices in Norman, and Harold Brooks with the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Inside one day balancing family, work, life and cystic fibrosis

Here is a day in the life with my family.

The plains on ice

We had an ice storm overnight that turned my less-than-picturesque backyard of chain link and a dead tree into a stark beauty, an ethereal landscape. Thanks for the brief aesthetic upgrade, however fleeting, Oklahoma prairie weather! I like messing with the app vsco cam, which I used for most of these shots and a photo session at the window for Eli. It makes for pretty skin tones.

Here is my collection of yard-sicles from today, and a few shots of my buddy boy bein’ cozy at the window. Holly-cicle

bird feeder-sicle

Give it a lick, I double dog dare ya
Give it a lick, I double dog dare ya

With just a little coating of ice, your chain link, too, can go from bla to "oo la la!"
With just a little coating of ice, your chain link, too, can go from bla to “oo la la!”

Nosy, like mama. Cozy, like a Sox cap on a icy day. Such is Eli. Shot on an iPhone 4S with regular camera, then edited VSCO cam app.
Nosy, like mama. Cozy, like a Sox cap on a icy day. Such is Eli. Shot on an iPhone 4S with regular camera, then edited VSCO cam app.
VSCO Cam for ios makes baby's cheeks even more glowy and pinchable.
VSCO Cam for ios makes baby’s cheeks even more glowy and pinchable.

Our minivan-sicle:

chain link sicle

pretty chain link, pretty tin shed
pretty chain link, pretty tin shed
Our dead tree is especially pretty and menacing this time of the year. Note to self: threaten slumlord with lawsuit.
Our dead tree is especially pretty and menacing this time of the year. Note to self: threaten slumlord with lawsuit.
Branches are snapping, threatening lives. Just another day in the neighborhood...
Branches are snapping, threatening lives. Just another day in the neighborhood…

A stop on Route 66

I was dispatched to western Oklahoma again yesterday to dig up more information on the lives of six people whose bodies may have been found at the bottom of Foss Lake. There were three bodies in two cars about 50 feet off shore, a 1969 Camaro and a 1952 or ’53 Chevrolet. Three adults went missing in 1969. Three teenagers in 1970. These people are probably the bodies in the car.

Well, ‘lil buddy really didn’t care mommy pulled through on a deadline after a day of chasing down leads in a far-flung corner of the state. He woke up today at 4:30 a.m. The nerve! He needed some new pants and a bottle. Then Laila woke up and started hollarin’, thinking it was time to play. She was out of her mind, wailing on the floor. We coaxed her back to sleep. I couldn’t get back to sleep…and we are down to about a tablespoon of coffee grounds. My coffee is a fair blond. This is inhumane, children!

I’m looking forward to dropping lil Lailai at school, spending some QT with Eli after working like crazy for the last two…and maybe fitting in a nap before work. One can only hope.

Here are some photos of my adventures yesterday in small-town Oklahoma.

I was in Elk City, home to the Route 66 Museum. As if I had time to stop at a museum. Ha!

The photographer and I did need to eat, however. Should you find yourself in Elk City, try the Hog Trough. Yes, it’s got an awful name. The atmosphere is bland. But I was starving, the BBQ brisket was good and the fries were homemade.

Yeah, it's a terrible name. But it's sooo good.
Yeah, it’s a terrible name. But it’s good.

The staff at the Daily Elk Citian was nice enough to help me with my story. They even gave us a tour. This is an ode to them, and the 60s vibe at the office. An archive book was open because staffers were searching for articles on the missing people from Canute and Sayre. I fawned over the shiny receipt machine after getting laughed at for not knowing what it was. Ooooh 60s thing! I fell for the vintage receipt machine immediately…yes, that’s right. I fell in love with a receipt machine. It was kind of a long day, OK!

The Daily Elk Citian

The printing press at The Daily Elk Citian hails from the '60s. It puts out an afternoon paper daily, Monday through Friday.
The printing press at The Daily Elk Citian hails from the ’60s. It puts out an afternoon paper daily, Monday through Friday.

Gotta love a 1960s press.

The little town is kind of a big town for that far west in the state with around 12,000 people.

Its shops are full and bustling. Drillin’ money, my photographer told me.

Yesterday was grueling. I tracked down the brother of the 16-year-old missing Camaro owner to a Texas oil rig. This is the story.

What small Oklahoma towns have you paid a visit to? Had any good BBQ there. Well let me know!

If you like reading about my adventures exploring the state of Oklahoma, hit up the category The Oklahoma Diaries. If you like taking iPhone pics, you might try iPhone photography, ie, iPhoneography.

The bodies at the lake

I got out to western Oklahoma today.

Thought I’d share photos from an interesting assignment.

Details:

State forensic anthropologist Angela Berg works alongside local authorities to remove remains after
two cars were pulled from Foss Lake in western Oklahoma. It will take up
to a year to identify the remains, an official with the state medical
examiner’s office said. But family members who believed their relatives
had been found arrived at the scene and gave DNA samples via cheek swabs. Mysteries family members hope will be solved include three people last seen in the area in April ’69, cases possibly tied to the ’52 Chevy. Sayre teens missing since ’70 may have been found in the Camaro. Below are a woman who believes her grandfather’s remains were found. And, the trooper who found the bodies while testing new sonar equipment. Trooper George Hoyle was using the instruction manual the day the imaging technology hit on the ’52 Chevy about 50 feet out in 12 feet of water.

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If you like reading about my adventures exploring the state of Oklahoma, hit up the category The Oklahoma Diaries. If you like taking iPhone pics, you might try iPhone photography, ie, iPhoneography.