8/50: Black Mesa, Oklahoma [4973′]

Well I never been to Heaven
But I been to Oklahoma.
                – Three Dog Night.

Once again, the highest point of the state is barely within the borders of that state.  In Oklahoma’s case, the very very edge of their panhandle.  (not unlike Michigan, if you look at a map you immediately wonder why this nubbin isn’t part of the logical adjacent state, in this case Texas.  The trick is to follow the line of the panhandle further east… slavery wasn’t permitted above 36°30′ latitude, so Texas opted to surrender their northernmost tip.  It vacillated between Indian Territory and literally No Man’s Land for forty years before an official survey was completed, and another seventeen years later was finally slurped into the newly-formed, oddly-shaped state of Oklahoma).

Oklahoma panhandle road sky

I drove through miles and then more miles of flat prairie, the road nearly swallowed by the overpowering dome of the sky.  There was no other traffic on the road, no buildings as far as I could see.  As the sky grew larger, so did the few sights I passed on my long journey:  an enormous black pickup piloted by an old rancher with an enormous black cowboy hat (the man himself gave me a nod and a wave, he was as narrow and suntanned as a strip of beef jerky).  A pair of enormous ravens picked through the remains of an enormous rattlesnake.  I suddenly felt very tiny in Oklahoma.

Black Mesa Oklahoma panhandle       Black Mesa Oklahoma panhandle

Eventually a smudge of dark rock split the prairie from the sky, a straight line dividing the horizon like the outlines in a child’s coloring book.  I drove towards it and it, too, became enormous; this was the 28 mile wide Black Mesa, a flat-topped outcropping of rock set above the flat-topped prairie like a jigsaw puzzle piece that just needed to pressed down into place.

Black Mesa Oklahoma panhandle fence gate

The trail began at a rattlesnake warning sign and then wound through the scrubby red landscape for a few miles, each mile marked by a park bench at a lookout point.  I was surprised to discover it wasn’t leading to the highest-looking point to the west– that was actually in neighboring New Mexico.  After a little over two miles the trail turned sharply and climbed the bank of the mesa itself, twisting over red rocks and around scraggly juniper trees until topping out on the face of the puzzle piece, looking remarkably like the same landscape down below.

Black Mesa Oklahoma panhandle       Black Mesa Oklahoma panhandle

As flat as the mesa appeared, the true high point was another mile’s hike across the surface along a wide dusty trail, plates of dried mud curved into hexagons from the relentless sun.  I passed the third and fourth mile-marker benches and then saw my destination in the distance, a nine-foot column of pink granite stabbed incongruously into the horizontal top of the mesa.  I read the carvings on its sides– a description of the mesa and the mileage to various neighboring states and cities– and then circled it again with my back to it, gazing out over the mesa and then the fold of Oklahoma set neatly below, all of it set majestically ablaze by the setting sun.

Black Mesa Oklahoma panhandle granite marker      Black Mesa Oklahoma panhandle sunset

About the beer: 

Oklahoma beers are a little tricky to find, I don’t think they distribute widely.  The exception to this is Prairie Artisan Ales, a brand-new boutique brewery that’s getting a huge amount of buzz this year, so I was lucky to score a bomber of their classic saison, Prairie Ale.  Before leaving I’d examined the caged cork and asked my husband if he thought I’d need to pack a corkscrew.  “Nah, you could pull that out.  Actually with that cage it looks like it’s under pressure.”

At the base of the pink granite monument I eagerly untwisted the cage and heard his words echo in my head, “under pressure” and I jerked my head back just as the cork exploded into the air, easily clearing the ten-foot obelisk and disappearing into the brush.  (I searched for it fruitlessly, so I’m sad to report I littered at this highpoint.  At least cork is biodegradable).  Foam poured thickly down the side of the bottle and I gave it a taste.

Yep, this beer lives up to its hype.  It has that heavy farmhouse funk of yeast and black pepper and a rainy hayfield and just the slightest hint of maybe lemon peel, and all of these smells and flavors mush together surprising well and yet with something indescribable– the closest I can come up with is the rind of really good Brie, and all the non-saison-drinkers are wrinkling their noses but it’s musty and earthy and also bright and dry; all of these adjectives also so perfectly describe the miles and miles of prairie stretching out across this mesa and dipping down to pour and ripple across the panhandle.

Prairie Artisan Ales - Prairie Ale - Black Mesa - Oklahoma panhandle


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