Oklahoma tallies a long and bloody ac¬count with badmen. Back in territorial times, dozens of U. S. deputy marshals were gunned down here by desperadoes.
I have seen their lairs. Just a six-gun shot from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, outlaws skulked in a pecan grove called Rascal Flat. Atop a rocky robbers’ roost in the Panhandle, bandits kept vigil over the Santa Fe Trail’s Cimarron Cutoff, and galloped out to prey on passing wagon trains. Yes, and the vengeful Daltons rode through the land of the red man, and the train- and bank-robbing Doolin gang, the vicious Buck gang, the Starrs.
I know where pistol-packing Belle Starr rests in eerie loneliness, though her epitaph adjures one not to weep. She died with her boots on, this formidable horse thief and con¬sort of renegades, friend of the James brothers; someone shot her in the back. They buried her on her own land payday, not far from Porum in eastern Oklahoma.
The grave lies past a plum thicket, beyond an alfalfa patch, through a grassy field fringed with sycamores, to a forgotten and scrub-tangled knoll above the Canadian River. I could find no trace of the old log cabin, though it had stood within feet of her tomb. Ah, Belle, I thought, lying amid weeds and wild flowers, do you know? Do you know the words they buried you with?
Shed not for her the bitter tear. Nor give the heart to vain regret. Tis but the casket that lies here, The gem that filled it sparkles yet.
I returned to the dirt road where my car waited, and plunged with a will back into the real world. I spent the night in Oklahoma City, and next day pressed west.
Back in the 1930′s, when dust hid the sun and drought strangled the Great Plains, a people in flight moved along Route 66, California-bound. The western half of the state remembers Dust Bowl days vividly. To some Sooners, even the tag “Okie” causes pain.
These days, Interstate 40 bisects Oklahoma, unfurling over some of old 66′s road¬bed, and, by and large, better times have come. I say this, and qualify it immediately. Farmers and ranchers still scan the heavens for rain. In 1970 a prolonged dry spell in the south led to the state’s smallest cotton, crop of this century. This year severe drought ruined southwest Oklahoma’s wheat crop and shriveled pastures, bringing cattle to near starvation. When I drove past Lake Altus, this large irrigation source had shrunk to a fourth its normal size.
Yet soil-conservation practices and irrigation have paid off handsomely. The fertile red-earth fields that flow upward from the state capital to the western High Plains yield mountains of wheat and grain sorghums.
Cattle cluster thickly on the ranges. In northern KOOACHROME N.G.S. Oklahoma, Enid’s towering grain elevators seemed to me from afar like a castellated alabaster kingdom.
To the northwest, near the town of Freedom, I did walk deep into such a realm: Ala¬baster Caverns State Park, its high-domed tunnels and rooms agleam with white gyp¬sum, sparkling selenite crystals, and many shades of softly glowing alabaster.
Bats make their home here by the untold thousands, I saw. So could a finite number of people. Far down in the cavern a small sign caught my eye: “Fallout Shelter. Capacity 3,080.” What inexorable formula produced that precise figure, I wondered.
Sod House Starts a Cattle Empire
People become scarcer the farther one climbs northwest. In the three-county Pan-handle, 34 miles wide and 167 miles long, dwell fewer than 27,000 Oklahomans, nearly half of them in the county seats of Beaver, Guymon, and Boise City (map, page 154).
No Sooners are more sturdily independent than these. In the Panhandle, one’s word usually suffices; a handshake often supplants written contracts. Before 1890, when it be¬came part of Oklahoma Territory, this was “No Man’s Land” to its scattered settlers, and “Public Land Strip” on maps. The six-shooter governed. An attempt to launch the Cimarron Territory failed.
Many homesteaders gave up. Those who hung on left us a little “how to” poem: Picking up bones to keep from starving, Picking up chips to keep from freezing, Picking up courage to keep from leaving, Way out West, in No Man’s Land.
They hauled buffalo and cattle bones to the railroad at Liberal, Kansas, and got $5 a load. They burned buffalo and cow chips for warmth—the price of life when blue northers swooped down out of Canada. For courage, they took after a blue-eyed, black-haired Tennessean named James K. Hitch.
Jim Hitch built a sod house 12 miles south-east of the future Guymon in 1884—one man against an infinitude of yucca and soapweed and buffalo grass. He dug the first well, put up the first drift fence, housed the first preacher, erected the first windmill, planted the first alfalfa, and helped establish Guymon. His son, Henry C. Hitch, added to his holdings by buying up small ranches until, before he died in 1967 at 83, he could stand on the site of his father’s soddy and see his own land to the limits of his vision. He could see, as well, great changes.
A fourth-generation Hitch piloted me over that 30,000-acre empire—tall, slim, 28-year¬old Paul. His father, H. C. “Ladd” Hitch, Jr., and he operate huge feedlots in one of America’s most productive beef-raising centers. They grow much of their own feed on 9,000 irrigated acres. All this marks a development of less than twenty years.
“A fifth of the beef this country eats comes from within a 200-mile radius of us,” the flying cattleman yelled. He dipped the Cessna’s wing at a sprawling lot where 20,000 head of cattle were confined—each gaining about three pounds a day. Beside this richly brown patch of earth nestled watered fields and native-grass pastures, a pastiche of dark and light greens.
Cattle Fatten From Bunyan-size Bin
Paul Hitch leveled off, and soon we landed on a grass strip beside ranch headquarters. “Out here,” he said, “the word is ‘water.’ No water, no feed. No feed, no feedlot.”
In a good year, 16 inches of rain will fall, enough to sustain one cow every 20 acres. Last year, less than 13 inches wet parts of the Panhandle. But deep irrigation wells, tap¬ping the extensive aquifer beneath this region, produce astonishing results. Winter wheat thrives and corn grows as high, if one may be pardoned, as an elephant’s eye.
To turn crops into sirloin, the Hitches and other feedlot operators serve cattle regulated diets of chopped ensilage and ground grain, plus protein supplements. Paul showed me a year’s supply of grain. It filled a bin half as wide as a football field and half again as long, to a height of 12 feet. Larger bins exist.
“What we do,” my host summed up, “is simple, though not easy. We buy little cattle and sell big cattle. Without irrigation we’d still be alive, but not very prosperous.”
For farmers and bankers, irrigation can be a chancy proposition. “When you see an irrigation well here,” Fred Huffine, Texas County extension agent, told me, “you’re seeing a $30,000 investment. We have 877 wells now in this county, against a capacity of perhaps 2,000. To finance his well, a farmer needs a sizable net return immediately. The banker has to look very closely.”
Change Arrives in Little Dixie
From the parched mesa and canyon country of the Panhandle’s northwest tip to the bayous of the sultry southeast, a crow flies 530 miles. I sped across Oklahoma easily in two days, and reached a dramatically different world called Little Dixie. McAlester serves as its unofficial capital. Carl Albert, Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, went to school in a nearby hamlet called Bug Tussle, whose name is now Flowery Mound.
Valuable reserves of coal wait in this region. But mostly Little Dixie belongs to nature. I parked high on the Talimena Skyline Drive and drank in the brooding beauty of the Ouachita Mountains, with their dark valleys and clear swift streams. On the Red Riv¬er lowlands, looking into Texas and Arkansas, I saw cypress knees poking from swamps, sycamores garlanded with mistletoe, and hawks sailing high overhead.
Everywhere I found trees. Forests cover a fourth of Oklahoma. They dominate here: shortleaf and loblolly pine, post oak, red oak, white oak, hickory, sweet gum, black gum, cedar, holly. Off one-lane dirt roads I caught the pungent perfume of wood smoke; pecker-wood mills were burning scraps. In Wright City a sawmill belched steam; nearby a huge container-board plant was going up.
I wandered back into the hills, where isolated families scratch a living from little plots, run a few cattle, and poach an occasional deer. Along the creeks, dilapidated houses perched on concrete blocks. Towns were sunning amidst the clatter of pickup trucks, and people nodded to me on the side¬walks. I dined on fried chicken, gravy, and hot biscuits, and dropped off some dry cleaning at a place that advertised “To know us is to love us.”
Timber Cutters Look to the Future
Some of all this—how much, no one knows —soon must change. In Broken Bow, head¬quarters for the Weyerhaeuser Company’s Oklahoma timberlands, I learned why.
A giant among the Nation’s timber firms, Weyerhaeuser had recently purchased 1.8 million acres of forest in southeast Oklahoma and adjacent Arkansas for more than $300,000,000. New mills and equipment were costing $200,000,000 more. Some 1,200 new jobs would be created, and several hundred more would result indirectly. Prosperity was coming to the depressed southeast.
“Within 30 years,” said Joseph C. Brown, Jr., Weyerhaeuser vice president for the area, “the demand for wood products is going to double. We have to help meet that need. We figure on being here forever, which means that we’re planting as we harvest. Timber, like corn, is a crop. It is renewable.”
Weyerhaeuser means to be a good neighbor, Mr. Brown told me. People can roam the forests and streams for hunting, fishing, and camping. There are no fences. They can browse cattle in some areas and cut marked trees for firewood, at no cost.
Woods Manager Dale C. Campbell took me to a pine-seed orchard and jabbed a finger at row after row of two-year-old pines standing two feet high.
“Ever see 19,000 trees like that before?” he asked. “They are pine-root stock. From them we’ll take seeds, which we’ll plant in a nursery for a year. As we log each 300-acre setting, we plant the seedlings 700 to the acre, spaced six or seven feet apart with nine feet between rows.
“I look at it this way. I’m nearly 50 years old. I’ll be too old to harvest the trees I set in the ground today. But someone will 30 years from now. What I do affects the next generation very directly.”
I thought about that early next morning, riding a logging train’s jouncing caboose miles into the forest.
Strong sunlight filtered through the endless woods; serene brooks sparkled and disappeared. Here indeed stood a slice of the country’s future—lumber, window sashes, plywood, utility poles, fence posts, fiberboard, container board.
I headed back to town in a car driven by 37-year-old Bob Hyndman, Weyerhaeuser’s Oklahoma raw-materials manager and a devoted amateur archeologist. While he onehandedly rolled a cigarette at 50 miles an hour, I made nervous conversation.
“Long before the Choctaws came here over their ‘Trail of Tears,’ ” he replied, “Indians lived in these woods. See that clearing? I know they camped there. Give me a few minutes, and I bet I can find an arrowhead.”
“Take your time,” I replied grandly, a skeptic from suburbia. Bob walked briskly about, bending down, tossing stones aside. “There!” he declared. I studied the ground and saw nothing.
“Got to know what you’re looking for,” he said, handing me a stone object the same color as the earth, a perfect point.
He walked on, and soon knelt again. “Here’s a pretty good spearpoint,” he said, “but it’s broken in half.”
When he reads this, Bob will learn that he was right about the arrow point. Indians chipped it out of chert about 1,000 years ago, according to archeologists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. But he may be surprised about the broken spearhead. I regret having only its top half, but I prize it immensely all the same. The Smithsonian judges that it could be 4,000 years old.
New Word for the OK State
I returned to Broken Bow, checked out of my motel, and drove west through rolling, wooded country to Antlers. There I picked up the Indian Nation Turnpike and headed north, aiming for Oklahoma City and an air¬plane ride home to the crowded East.
After an hour or so I pulled into a rest area, wanting to stretch. I walked along the right-of-way. A covey of quail rose from the brush at my approach, wings whirring. Back at my car, I glanced idly at the license plate. OKLAHOMA IS OK, it assured me. All of the license plates say it. OKLAHOMA IS OK.
No, I said, it is not. Not at all. Oklahoma is tremendous. Put that on your license plates.