There are wild hyenas in the panhandle of Oklahoma.
It was 1 a.m. and we left the paved streets 50 miles ago and it was just cattle grates and smut and tumble weeds and there was this little black creature on the side of the road.
Even with a pretty full moon, I could only make out its contour and head. The beast wasn’t accustomed to humans as the nearest food or gas station was hours away.
The 14-year-old riding shotgun was in and out of rapid eye movement consciousness and as I hit the brakes he jumped up at the same time as the brute did, and everyone was severely startled.
“Hyena! Look out, dad!” Soren yelled.
The headlights silhouetted a baby cow calf, and my laughter was uncontrollable.
“What did you say, a hyena? In Oklahoma? Did you think we drove to Africa when you were sleeping, broh?” I asked, tears of glee flooding my corneas.
We still had an hour of pioneer dust driving until we were close to the trailhead to the highest point in Oklahoma. I wondered if we’d see a giraffe next?
When you get to 40 state highpoints, each one becomes longer than the next. Not so much in miles or time, but the mental toll.
Nearing a decade of the climb grind and you just want to be done. The weight of the expedition increases like Frodo’s ring. Other non-highpoint climbs? All day long, there’s nothing tied to them, cancel or change the route, the peak, take a tank to the top who cares?
Don’t mean to cry about CHOOSING to take trips to the rooftops of the states. Like my cellmate jokingly says before I leave every time, “Kids, come say goodbye, dad is leaving on another dad vacation.”
Had my hip hop-obsessed teen, Soren, with me that time so y’all can miss me with the guilt trip. Plus, after the climb we were gonna hit up a baptism and take the kids for some fresh pow-pow family skiing in Keystone as I had Monday off.
Soren hit the highpoint scene hard with a winter climb of Minnesota’s Eagle Mountain when he was 10. Single digit temperatures and sub-zero winds off of Lake Superior froze over his eyelashes. Lake Superior remains the only lake that doesn’t “give up her dead.”
The video of him scraping snow off the summit plaque was featured in the climbing magazine, “Apex to Zenith.” He had come out of child retirement to tackle Oklahoma.
Headed to the airport late Friday evening and the first thing I learned on the trip was that that Jersey Mike’s place made the sloppiest, longest sub ever. Or maybe it was the user?
While waiting to board the plane, teen wolf was chomping on his sub, lettuce and meat juice drizzling down. On the plane, he soaked his tray table. Waiting for the rental car to be pulled up and there’s my homeless son, on the concrete curb, face buried in bread, people tossing coins at his feet.
Two hours were gained flying into the mountain timezone. It was still spring but it was snowing cuz the ranges have never cared about our lowland seasons.
The red taillight blur caused by the white flakes was smeared across the glass by the wipers, driving through southbound construction, heading towards Colorado Springs and the blackout of the Oklahoma panhandle.
The rental car, a Toyota Rav 4, was filled up but we needed gas. There wasn’t going to be any service open (or that really even existed) in a two-to-three hour radius of the trailhead, so we had to buy a backup gas can.
Soon as I walked in the door, I almost fell on my face. The floor was beyond saturated, as the person running the mop was not ringing it out, causing a mini flood every time she went bucket to floor. She wasn’t even looking at the mop or the tile, just mumbling to herself and dipping and splashing and moving around the isles with bucket in tow.
The last sign of civilization was the village of La Junta, in the southeast corner of Colorado. Soon the pavement ended and we were launched into the scenery of “Red Dead Redemption.”
There was no welcome sign when we crossed into Oklahoma. Just a single fence post, unmarked, but confirmed by AllTrails’ satellites. The road had become one lane and the cattle grates increased and luckily the soot and potholes weren’t too bad so we could average about 30 mph.
While researching the climb, I read about a farm near the highpoint that rented out spaces on the property to climbers and voyagers. Breakfast was included. Oh, and for no extra charge two giant cotton ball dogs would bark right beside your head all night. They were protecting us from coyotes and preventing even a couple of hours of sleep, as we rolled in sometime after 2 a.m.
No sunrise, like the usual one of watching the orange ball mogrificating into yellow — it was too hilly; so I just watched the dayglow switch get slowly turned up by Apollo, minute by minute.
Breakfast was served inside the farmhouse and we meandered in and were greeted by a nice older woman and who directed us towards our seats. A bearded gentleman at the head joined us, then two construction workers from Texas (one looked just like the lead singer from Fall Out Boy) that drove 6 hours to work on a bridge. It’s so remote they were the closest contractors.
There was another highpointing couple, Steve and Lisa, and they were very agreeable, conversational, nice and generally normal which sucks for a story — we need freaks!
Our hostess didn’t sit down, but poured coffee and took a waitress role. The man at the head said a prayer, blessed us climbers and prayed for safety on the bridge repair and then he had to serve us. It was an egg casserole and he gave me like a sliver so I had to keep asking to be served and there were other women who weren’t talking, but just sitting on the couch staring and everyone was nice but I was scared.
At around 5,000 feet, Black Mesa wasn’t going to be a technical climb, but it was going to be the first time hiking in severe rattlesnake country. Fall Out Boy was all like, “Y’all don’t need to worry about snakes, it’s still pretty cool out,” but then grinned at his buddy like he was being sarcastic.
Soren was to be fitted with ice-climbing hard-bottom ankle gaiters to help with rattlesnake attacks. Before we left I told him if he got bit, I’d suck out the venom in time and he’d live.
“That’s not smart, dad,” my other son (9) said.
“What? That’s what you’re supposed to do — like, it’s what happens in ‘err movie, broh,” I said.
“I read about it in my survival book — it doesn’t help the victim and could totally make the wound infected,” he said.
“You’re grounded,” I said.
On the trail around 8 a.m. and it was clear skies and low 40s and during our first break I sat on a small cactus that blended into the red rock. It’s not just the initial prick, but it’s like embedded fiberglass, constantly itching and burning. Soren just laughed.
“Dooodude, you were just making fun of Hiser for getting stabbed by a cactus,” Soren said.
My co-worker, Hiser, went hiking outside of Las Vegas a few weeks prior and tried to hug a cactus or something and got the full porcupine prick down his arm.
“He’s an idiot; it’s different,” I said.
Three miles into the flat canyon path, we finally hit a wall where we had to start criss-crossing and gaining elevation. Oh, those views, just needed a covered wagon and a six shooter to complete the western motif.
Route finding was super easy, the trail well established, even though it was just slightly more worn dirt than the sand patches next to it.
Most people don’t think Oklahoma has mountains and panoramic perches, and they are 95% correct, but the panhandle juts out way into the west, and hits the side of the Sangre de Cristo Range and the southeastern Rocky Mountains.
The views didn’t disappoint. At the summit we could see Texas, Colorado and the highpoint of New Mexico, Wheeler Peak. That was my first summit.
We passed the couple from the farm on the way back down and they were again super nice and great to chat with and it’s like they were trying to ruin the story or something, ya know?
With three miles left, we went off trail diagonally, to cut off a massive corner from the route. Ten minutes later, I remembered the snakes.
Why the hell were we off the trail? To save a half hour and then get bit by a true Oklahoma rattler?! Those holes were too big to be rattlesnake, right? Those little sandbars weren’t slither marks, right? I can’t even suck the venom out!
Around high noon, we were back at the car and proceeded to drive north back through hyena country.
We stopped in Colorado Springs, as my good friend Dumpster had a daughter that went to Colorado College. What a campus with a view! Pike’s Peak (perhaps the greatest name for a mountain) was still in full snow cap and absolutely walling the skyline behind the soccer field.
Vegan rasta pasta was our lunch and unfortunately, the visit was cut short as we had to make it to Boulder to my sister/brother-in-law’s house before midnight as it was my cellmate’s birthday, and she’d be there. I know, what kind of a scumbag would go climb on his wife’s birthday?
Made it to Boulder late Saturday night — it was a hell of a 24 hours. Watched Stipe Miocic lose the heavyweight title, hung out with my father/mother-in-law and met my soon-to-be godson, Miles, for the first time.
Sunday, after the baptism (unfortunately, not by fire, someone lied to me!), we headed to Keystone for that bluebird sky and endless ‘durr. My cellmate’s sister and brother-in-law are serious ski heads, and it was great to have big-mountain tour guides.
A wise man once jokingly told me, that the key to skiing is going straight down the hill, as “turns are for liberals.”
Politics aside, I gave it a try and almost died and maybe that rule doesn’t apply to snowboarders. Was pretty sore on the flight home.
Seven peaks remain, what’s left to climb?
There’s one easy hike in White Butte, North Dakota (3,506 ft.).
Two moderate climbs left in Guadalupe Peak, Texas (8,751 ft.) and Humphrey’s Peak, Arizona (12,635 ft.).
And four extreme climbs left, in order of hard to hardest: Borah Peak in Idaho with the infamous “Chicken Out Ridge” section where many climbers turn back due to the death falls on both sides, Mt. Katahdin in Maine during the northeast winter, Mt. Rainier in Washington, the most difficult glacier climb in the lower 48 states and Denali, 20,310 feet of pure Alaskan madness and the hardest mountain in North or South America to summit, not to mention the sixth hardest in the world (Everest is #5, for perspective).
Only one person has ever soloed Denali in January, where there can be only 4-5 hours of sunlight a day.
My climbing partner Chad Emmons and I will attempt to bag Borah Peak (and highpoint #44) this July.
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.