Tea With… The Wichita Mountains

Tea on Safari

Deep in southwestern Oklahoma, over an hour away from me, there is an ancient mountain range of glittering granite streaked with iron ore from underground springs. The reddish-brown (burnt umber and alizarin crimson to be exact!) of the craggy slopes and boulder avalanches frozen in time are surrounded by yellow ochre prairie grasses and cobalt turquoise light lichens.

Beauty everywhere.

A YouTube short of Buffalo crossing in front of us.

But this place isn’t just beautiful, it has deep history, beginning of time history, and even recent history. Perhaps this is what fascinates me and draws me- stories. Stories I have heard since I first encountered these mountains as a new bride, stories I found in books, stories my in-laws told me, and even fictional stories based on true stories from these mountains. But let’s start with some tea before we go any further…

Who takes fine china camping? We do!
Its worth it.
Tea lattes.
Setting the table- an old WPA era concrete picnic table- very uncomfortable!
Tea and the Mountains have always gone together for me.

Last Fall I posted a Tea With… story about Quartz Mountain. Quartz Mountain is part of the Wichita Mountain range. It’s either at the end, or the beginning, depending on how you look at it. At the main, and largest part of the range is the beautiful Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Next to the refuge, still encompassing part of the mountain range, is Fort Sill, a US Army base that was founded in 1869 and held the great Apache Chief Geronimo for 14 years. Here is the deep history of the west, buffalo, treasure, Indians, famous outlaws, gold, train robberies, mining, and treasure hunters. All of these layers come together to make one of the most magical places in my world.

I am so happy here.

There is a very strong spiritual side too. I feel very close to God there (and yes I realize I don’t need a mountain range for this) and connected to the awe that is my creator as well as the ancient history of his creation, and his love for us.

God is good!`

Coming into the refuge you see the most popular mountain this side of the range (opposite from Quartz Mountain)- Mount Scott. It’s not the highest (that’s on private land) but it does have a road encircling it so you can drive to the top. The road has been camouflaged with stones and boulders so it’s not a jarring sight for visitors. (Personally, I appreciate the thought they put into that.) It is hard to see the road on the side of the mountain, and often I would see the sun shining off of the windshield of a car and that would be the only give-away that there was a road there.

Driving along the main road the sights are stunning, boulders and unknown mountains, places fenced off that humans may not have stepped foot on in 100 years, caves where Coronado stayed and left horse tether-weights and his carved name in 1520. Empty vertical mine-shafts full of protected bats, scrub oak forests and a forest of cedars planted for fence posts in the 1920s. Buffalo, longhorn, and elk herds are sometimes so close to your car you have to wait for them to move to continue. Man has been here and there are dams, fire watch towers, little vacation towns and even a holy city where Indian missionaries once preached, all made of the granite from these geological wonders- either as stone slabs, or the more common cobblestones.

This cobblestone rancher’s bungalow house burned in a wildfire when my kids were little.

I thought they were going to tear down the 1930s house…
But they completely restored it! Wow!

The Wichita Mountains have been home to Indian tribes and outlaws and it’s tales of treasure are rich with dead-ends and found items. Jesse and Frank James and their gang hid treasure here and Frank spent his retiring years trying to locate it. Some think he did find some of it.

Buzzard’s Roost, site of a copper kettle dug up with the Frank & Jesse James gang loot!
Here I am at the top!

The unique geographical area along with the varied history of ownership and settlement by miners, the US government, and Indians color the tales of treasure- gold bullion stolen by outlaws from trains coming into Fort Sill, dug up and panned by miners, found by explorers and hidden by all in caves and natural indentations. All the stories are supposedly true and some are so true the actual treasure has been found!

Treasure Lake- a lake surrounded on all sides by mountains. Supposedly with treasure at the bottom of it.

Treasure hunting is now forbidden in the refuge and so is metal-detecting, but you can find traces of it if you know where to look including Spanish arrastras and mines. But stolen treasures elude most of us- even though there are lots of historically accurate accounts. I recommend this excellent book for more information- Oklahoma Treasures and Treasure Tales (it is so loved at our house we are on our second copy!). It even has a map of the Wichitas showing some very interesting spots.

Many people were and still are fascinated with the treasure tales and one of my favorite authors was in particular- Bill Wallace. He wrote adventure books targeted at boys but girls enjoy them too. My favorite of his? Trapped in Death Cave. The plot revolves around two boys who investigate the murder of one’s grandpa. The grandpa was on the trail of a famous treasure in the Wichita Mountains and the boys try to find out who killed him for his maps. One gets kidnapped and the other goes to grandpa’s best friend’s widow for help. Together they go to Death Cave- a cursed place of the Indians, and the location of gold. But there they encounter the kidnapper and must find a way to save everyone from the curse and the evil in the cave.

There is something kind of spooky about this place too, even apart from the treasure tales- a feeling that you might be the only people left on earth. The early morning calls of the elk and the banging and shivering of old abandoned ranch houses and barns in the wind gives me the willies. The caves, so high up it would take you all day to climb to them are dark and mysterious. The mountains and rocks are so big and so abnormal from what I see every day that they instill a sense of awe and creepiness at the same time.

Not into treasure hunting or hiking? There is plenty to do here including kayaking, painting (as I like to do) exploring, watching animals, or visiting one of the many little tourist towns that make their homes right outside the range including what is left of a tiny mining town called Meers where we always like to eat at the Meers Store where you can have a longhorn beef burger and the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted (it’s made with raw eggs the old fashioned way). Of course, I usually paint with my daughter, the boys fish, and we try to have tea.

The tiny mining town of Meers still has a cafe and it serves the best cherry cobbler and real vanilla ice cream I’ve ever had!
Getting ready to paint with my new watercolor box.
Apparently, it was a rough drive!

You could spend all day here and not even come close to doing everything, or knowing everything that there is to do! I like to bring the guides with me for inspiration. There are even rattlesnake festivals close by in the spring!

Part of my favorite team kayaking on Lake Elmer Thomas
Hiking & Playing

At the end of the day we are usually tired, sore, dirty, and a little sunburned. Then we go to the neighboring city of Lawton and we love to eat at Wayne’s drive in. Their fried pickles are great. Then there is the long drive home with sleepy kids in the back and my hubby and me talking in the front seats.

It’s always a good day in the mountains.

This is me as a young mother, toddler on back in the sling, happy and hiking!
These mountains are a heart magnet.

With love and Geographical marvels to you from Kansas Street,

-Jaime

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