Off the Interstate in Oklahoma and on again into Arkansas – and Toad Suck.

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2019 at 8:25 pm

Sometimes a day seems long because it has been a day of driving by. For a New Englander on the plains, that means driving for miles and hours by lots of the same. Once we got past Fort Worth, heading north into Oklahoma, we had left the Texas megalopolis behind us, we passed by Denton and stopped at the first rest area/welcome center in the Sooner State. The visitor center part was closed when we got there, but had opened by the time we got up the next morning.
I chatted briefly with the nice lady behind the counter, and she was keen to suggest some things we might do on our way north then east. Since we were already looking to skip around Oklahoma City on a shortcut between I35 and I40, she suggested that we might want to stop in Sulphur. Sounds like a chancy thing, I know, but in fact, Sulphur is the home of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the Chickasaw Cultural Center. Good plan.
We got to Sulphur late morning, checked in at the visitor center there, and then crossed the street to the park, where we took a leisurely two-mile walk on a path that crossed some streams, climbed some hills, and circled a multi-acre enclosure of pasture and woods in which a small herd of bison obligingly walked past the designated bison viewpoint or stood quietly under some trees within cell phone photo distance. It really was a lovely walk, something we aren’t getting enough of on this trip.
Then we drove over to the Cultural Center for lunch at the Aaimpa’ Café. Aaimpa’ is apparently the Chicasaw word for “a place to eat.” And all the signs at the center are presented with the Native words followed by the English equivalent. We ate an Indian taco (taco style fillings on frybread), pashofa (white corn hominy cooked with pork), and grape dumplings. The taco was mild and tasty with a little salsa, the grape dumplings were small chunks of pastry in a heavy grape syrup, and the pashofa was excellent if you like bland watery food. I actually do, apparently, when the flavors of the food itself are fresh and authentic.
The Cultural Center overall, is a work in progress. The grounds and buildings are beautiful. The buildings are an orange/tan brick with copper accent walls in the interiors. The campus spills across several acres from a hilltop exhibition hall to a reproduction of a Chickasaw village in a small clearing below. There is an observation deck at the end of a long footbridge overlooking the village that is scarier than it sounds as it is narrow and the decking is wooden slats. There is also an art gallery, a research center and lots of historic markers and statues and artifacts. The museum/exhibition hall is spacious, but under-utilized. A short walk through shows several panoramas, historical discussions, and displays of pottery and weaponry and the tools of everyday life. There is also a gallery with a display of a dozen or more portraits of Chickasaw elders and luminaries. Beautiful work. The artist captures the character in his subjects faces with respect and beauty.
The art gallery has a small collection of works in fabric and paint and sculpture by native artists of all kinds. Again, wonderful stuff, but I wished for something more. This is a place worth visiting anytime, but I wonder how much will be done in the next ten years or so.
Having gotten off the interstate, we decided to take a different route up to our intended campsite in Henryetta; a public park called Nichols Park, where we had read that we could park overnight without utilities for free.
Oklahoma is a land of long straight roads that slide down one hill and up the next, then stretch out to the horizon across open plains. We took OK1 and then US75 across the southeast quarter of the state. The road would stretch out through farms and ranches and distant hills, then suddenly bend and bounce through a small town or moderate city, where proud announcements of the local high school’s athletic achievements; clean, simple libraries and civic building; and a few small businesses shared the main street with abandoned blocks sitting alongside dollar General, Conoco gas stations and Sonic drive-ins. We passed through Ada, a town I had only know existed as the answer to a crossword puzzle clue. We saw the signs announcing that this town was the birthplace of a famous steer wrestler or rodeo hero. And we drove the main streets of Wetumka and Weleetka. Weleetka, the sign at the edge of town informed us was the Creek Indian word for “flowing water,” which caused me to note that “creek” was an English word for the same thing.
(One side note: I am very careful on these travels to obey all speed limits as precisely as possible; a fact that proved its worth in Weleetka when I failed to notice a change in the limit as I drove down a seemingly insignificant little street on my way to GPS-designated turn. I was stopped by a friendly, almost jolly local policeman who turned out to be the town’s police chief. (For all I know he may have been the entire police force.) He was very understanding of the perils of traveling unknown byways for the out-of-state driver and since I was not in his database of chronic offenders or other outlaws, gave me a warning, asked if I, in fact knew where I was going, and wished us a good day. He also handed me a copy of the warning and said, “This is your copy. You can do anything you want to do with it except litter.” I don’t know if I have ever been stopped by a more pleasant officer of the law.
Eventually, we mad our way to Nichols park in Henryetta. Like much of rural America, it is in need of some tender loving care. The old park buildings are in tragic disrepair, despite the fact that the park seems in daily use by people who want to sit and fish by Nichols Lake, picnic along the water or up on the overlook, jog and walk along the roads, or take their kids to the playground on the south side of the lake. They post that they lock the gates every night at ten, which was both reassuring and concerning. We figured we’d be safe, but how would we get out if we needed to? No worries. We slept a bit later than the 8:00 opening of the gates and were apparently the only people in the park all night.
This morning, we looked out toward Arkansas and contemplated how far we might be willing to travel. This usually involves an assessment of distance we need to cover to get home within our planned timeline, thoughts about where me might stop to eat or take care of other needs, such as gasoline, and where we might choose to spend the night.
That’s how I found it. Three-and-a-half hours away down I40. Eighteen to twenty dollars a night for a gravel pad, electricity and water. Not far off the interstate, in the town of Bigelow. Right along the Arkansas River. Toad Suck Park.
Now the ease of access, the cost, and the fact that it was within a reasonable distance were, of course major factors in my decision to stay there, but, honestly, who wouldn’t want to be able to say that they spent a night in Toad Suck Park?
Getting there meant a fairly dry day of coasting along I40, but we had planned one break for lunch and gasoline; and that was serendipitously the first city in Arkansas: Forth Smith. Fort Smith, as it turns out, was once know as Hell on the Border, the place where the United States ran smack up against the Indian Territories, where the Hanging Judge, Judge Parker hanged more than seventy bandits of all descriptions, occasionally as many as six at a time. It was the place where Belle Starr was convicted of robbery and sent on up to Detroit for six months. And it was where Belle’s daughter Pearl Younger Starr ran a brothel down the street from Miss Laura’s Social Club, the most successful house of ill repute in Arkansas and the only brothel that is listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings. WE stopped there after lunch in Fort Smith, and a tour guide named Ken showed us around, telling us stories of Laura and her successors and the building’s good days and bad. We talked about outlaws and U.S. Marshalls, including Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Marshall, whom Judge Parker brought to town, and who was o well know for integrity and toughness, and so well respect in the Nations, that some bandits would surrender to him when they heard he was on their trail, because a confrontation would be fatal and he could be counted on for a fair shake. As for integrity, there is a photograph there of the death of a convicted murderer who asked the judge at his trial if he might be allowed to go back home and settle some family affairs before sentence was carried out. The Judge agree on the condition that the condemned man promised to return. He did.
Right across the street from Laura’s is a lovely small park along the Arkansas river. It is a short walk around the perimeter past river views a section of railroad where there is a sign telling people not to lie on top of or under the railcars. The path has markers that tell the story of the Trail of Tears, that great forced, deadly migration of the five tribes into the territories. It can be hard to read, even though the signs insist that all the tribes continue to thrive and prosper today.
We then got back up onto I40 and headed for Toad Suck. Here we will spend the night, with electricity, clean water, hot showers, and a surprise. Toad Suck is a federal area, so my Geezer Pass got us in for half price. The place is incredibly laid back. A nice older lady and gentleman sat in the office when I checked in. They instructed me where to go and choose a site, then return to pay them. Payment had to be in cash, and exact change, as they had no card reader or change on hand. We found a spot, I returned to the office to fill out the info on a small envelope, insert the cash, and deposit the whole thing in a small, brown, locked receptacle outside the office.
It’s easy to get jaded by bureaucracies and the workings of government that seem unable to do even the simplest of things. Then along come a few simply lovely parks, a historic brothel, and Toad Suck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: