Vikings in Oklahoma?

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we2018 04 23_5043 enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to acc

ept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma. The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was viking4 pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to accept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma.

The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

Whether you believe any of it or not, it’s a beautiful site. They even have led-lighted viking helmets. Say hi to the staff at the Southern Belle, and order the cherry cream pie. You will have a good time. You just have to kind of roll with it.

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Playing it Safe

I take up space. I sit at a desk most of my life with two zero-bezel high-def monitors blasting artificial light in my face, meanwhile sitting underneath a battery of fluorescent lights and the constant din of office chatter, mobile devices and white noise produced by climate control. An utterly gray existence. Actually, gray is somewhat pleasant. My life is more beige.

But, I love hiking and camping; I may have mentioned it before. I’m very fortunate that my wife loves the outdoors. We’ve been on many hikes together, from Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to Hickory Nut Falls in North Carolina. She loves waterfalls, and she’s kind of particular about them. For instance, at Hickory Nut Falls, she loved the mists created by water cascading down a nearly 200 meter cliff, creating a unique ecosystem where ferns and other plants clung to the rocks in the perpetual spray of the falls. Abrams Falls near Cades Cove in Tennessee was larger in volume, but she didn’t like it as much.PaloDuroCCC

I recently went back to Palo Duro with some work friends. We have been on several hikes in Texas and Oklahoma, and one of two of the guys started talking about a hike in Arkansas, the Eagle Rock Loop. This hike is over 45 km, over steep ridges and river crossings. Some can finish it in two days. I question whether our group should attempt it at all, especially since we’re basically weekend warrior types. On our trip to Palo Duro, one of the guys developed a painful blister on his right heel. Fortunately we were able to return to camp and rest. If we had been backpacking, we might have been forced to turn around or add a day to our trek. My proposal was to try one overnight backpacking trip. A couple of us are in our 50s, and not all of us are in decent shape. But I’ve been accused of playing it safe, not seizing the day, carpe diem and all that bullshit. I think a person is only as old as he or she feels, but there are some realities we must face. Mature bodies do not bounce back like they did in their 20s. That said, I didn’t even try hiking until I was in my 40s. Who knows if I would have enjoyed it at all. I did enjoy mountain biking in my 20s, and I still have the desire to ride canyon trails, but I discovered my physical limits when I attempted this in Palo Duro a few years ago.

I think playing it safe can save your butt. It means being better prepared and better informed. I watch other people’s videos about a trail before going on it. I listen to what other people are saying about what to watch for. I also like to take my time because the reason I hike is not to reach point B quickly. I want to see the nature that I’ve surrounded myself with. It’s also important to be aware of hazards like poisonous snakes, ticks, biting insects, and large animals like bears and pumas. Large cats are not present in most of the US, but black bears are found in large parts of North America. Oh, and there’s this:

Maybe playing it safe takes the fun out of things. Well, Dwight wan’t likely to maul Jim for encroaching in his space. Fact: bears eat anything they can find, including food in your tent. Backcountry camps sometimes provide food storage cabling like those along the Appalachian Trail. You can not play it too safe out there.

I’m hopeful I will be able to persuade my fellow hikers to wait before taking on what some have called, “the most difficult Arkansas has to offer.” But eventually, we’ll need to do it. It is what our beige existence requires, apparently.

 

Really?!

Some of our preconceptions are just plain wrong. That’s okay. I mean, where else would stereotypes come from? Without these misguided perceptions we wouldn’t ever be amazed or mystified by new things. Nothing would ever take us by surprise. We would never have any reason to travel beyond our city limits or past our front porch. Maybe it’s okay to have the wrong idea, but we should never be content to assume we know the world outside the confines of our comfortable existence without checking it out for ourselves.

As much as I like to preach about reaching out past your comfort zone, I am confined by economics to an extent. My only trip outside the US was to Baja California. I was a little ashamed to admit this one day, but the person to whom I mentioned it said, “California’s in the US, dude.” I said, “No, Baja California.” He subsequently appeared to think I was proving his point.

The funny thing is that people have held very strange notions about where I grew up, near Dallas, Texas. There are 25 million people in the triangle that joins DFW, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston. Once, a customer was asking me if Houston was a big enough city to hold an event. I said, “sure, it’s the largest city in Texas.” He was incredulous and asked me if the downtown region had buildings or was it just cows. I wasn’t sure if he was fucking with me, but I politely and diplomatically corrected his misconception. To this day I’m not convinced he wasn’t puling my leg.

 

Cottonwood Trail 3

In the Texas Panhandle, there is a large canyon, Palo Duro Canyon, carved into the Caprock Escarpment where visitors might be surprised to find a lush grove of cottonwood trees. Other parts of the park are a haven for birds and butterflies. And, of course, there are rattlesnakes.

Many people have visited Las Vegas. And even though the city and its suburbs has nearly 2 million people, the casual tourist may not think about the city beyond the Strip. 2 million people in any city would need places to buy groceries, shop for necessities, get their hair cut, attend religious services, and just about anything we might do in a given week. Of course Las Vegas has kindergartens and laundromats, mundane and non-Las Vegas-y things you don’t want to think about while you’re watching Cirque du Soleil. One of the most blatantly unremarkable meals I’ve ever had was in Vegas (I would hope that Red Lobster has made some improvements).

I will be making my first trip to the Grand Canyon in May. My preconceptions are coming with me, like anything else I will pack. My plan is to leave them behind, which is the only thing, aside from a footprint, that one should leave when visiting a National Park. I expect to be pleasantly surprised, which is certain to happen. Even when I’ve been to a place repeatedly, I will always discover something new; and no matter how small it may seem, it is still enough to make me grateful for the experience.

 

 

Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

2017 08 26_4390_edited-2
Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.

The Middle of … Everywhere

I get a little bummed sometimes when I think about where I live. It’s not that I dislike my home, here in North Texas. It’s just that there are so many cool places, but they are several days driving distance. I hate having to pay outrageous fees to fly. My friends in Europe tell me about great airline deals there, and the trains. Travelling from Fort Worth, Texas to Houston only takes 35 minutes by air, and it’s only 3 1/2 hours by car. But it’s Houston, so yeah.

I was looking for some good hikes without having to travel very far. North Texas is remarkably flat, so you do have to drive at least two hours, depending on where you start. Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for hiking and mountain biking. But it’s 7 hours away, and there’s not a lot to see along the way. By contrast, there are a number of historic places and national parks within a few hours of Washington, DC. The nearest mountains to my location are in Arkansas, and I wouldn’t call them mountains. Mountains or decent beaches are 12 hours by car, 2 hours in the air. Now, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I am, so you’re pretty observant. But I do have some things to be thankful for.

For one, it’s sunny about 80% of the time. Tomorrow, 1 February, is expected to be mostly sunny and 22ºC. Perfect, in other words. This is not to say it doesn’t get cold. Just the other day it rained. But the sun came out later the same day. And we haven’t seen snow in a while, like 2014. And it gets very hot in the middle part of summer, July-September. The rest of summer is actually nice. I have family in Southern California. I’d live there, too, but the house I own in Texas would be worth millions there, and I couldn’t afford the taxes.

I do like my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else, despite every street corner looking like any other one, or a proliferation of BBQ joints. It’s not so bad. But you really have to see it, this place. So flat, so hot, so dry. A dear friend of mine from Oslo loves it here. I suppose it’s the opposite of Norway, so that must be refreshing in it’s own way. But where else could you get sunburned in January? (Sydney, perhaps). Therefore, tomorrow, I will wake up to a mild February morning – I don’t think I’ll need a jacket. Then I’ll drive for 17 minutes to work. I barely have time to listen to the radio. I guess it’s worth being in the middle of everywhere. That’s the deal. The middle is equidistant from any point.

Did I mention the cloudless skies?
crescent_moon

Remote Places

Lately, I’ve been daydreaming about getting on a boat and travelling to places like the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, or some other remote place to find respite. It’s all relative to one’s place in the universe, I suppose. You see, I feel alien in my own country. I live 70 km from the place where I was born. I’ve never lived more than 280 km from my birthplace. Yet, I studied many languages and cultures to prepare for life abroad. I use the metric system, and I have worked to promote its use and have the US recognize it officially. (It comes down to money, of course). I stand out among my neighbors. In another post, I talked about Geoguessr.com, a geography quiz I enjoy, and I am pretty good at, if you will forgive my conceit. I sometimes feel that I could fare well enough if I were dropped on the earth someplace like in that game. I like to imagine living – for a few months only – in places like Cinque Terre, or Como Lake are beautiful, and I certainly understand why they are so popular, and have been, since the time of the Etruscans. This means they are likely crowded with tourists, all trying to capture the beauty of these places using their iPhones. By the way, nothing irritates me more than everyone capturing stills and video by holding up their phones at concerts and other events. All this aside, I still think about becoming a resident, even for a short time. People live there, I say to myself.

It more than irritates me that I am stuck here. I shouldn’t really complain: I know that most people in the world are not able to travel. I mean, some of my friends who have travelled to the poorest places on earth have told me that in a place like Malawi, they struggle to send bicycles there for the locals so they can get to work and other places. They not only do not have cars or the money to buy fuel for them, but there are few paved roads in that country. It’s just not practical, since there are more pressing needs to keep people fed and to halt the spread of HIV. So, I am grateful to have travelled as much as I have. We’ve been to California many times, also Oklahoma, Arkansas, and places in the Deep South. I’ve been to Florida a couple times, and last year, we camped in the Great Smoky Mountains last year.

It’s pretty clear to me that travel is something very important to me, and it has been so all my life. I can remember road trips with my parents and my brother when I was a kid, and I loved every moment. I’m sure my mother would have a different recollection of these events. Maybe I did ask, “are we there yet?” Who knows? But I loved it, and I still do. I subscribe to the notion of being an ambassador for one’s country when abroad. “When in Rome,” and so forth. But often people can be welcoming of the stranger in their midst. I think I just paraphrased Jesus of Nazareth; I’m not sure. Anyway, when you go to another country, it might be polite if you try speaking the language and following some of the local customs.Smokies_76

Do I know any Italian? Not enough to converse. I think I could negotiate a café and a train station. But I daydream about going to Tokyo or Seoul. There might be signs with Roman lettering, but I’d probably be completely lost. And these are among the Western-friendly cities in Asia. Yes, Singapore and Shanghai see lots of American travellers, but what about Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia? Tbilisi looks interesting. I’ve never seen “Amazing Race,” but I’ve heard it’s pretty good. If the show entertains and somehow educates the viewers a little about the rest of the world they live in, that’s good. I don’t usually approve of so-called reality shows, but this one seems better than most. In any case, perhaps with better education my countrymen can dispense with the concept of the “ugly American” sooner rather than later.

If you want to go somewhere outside your comfort zone, here are a few suggestions from my travel wish list:

Île de la Possession

Catlins Conservation Park, NZ 

Cascada Tamul, México

Arctic Circle

Nepal