11.09.2009,11:55 AM
Riding Tails of Trails: Part Three

Leaving the small town of Vian was the beginning of tailing many trails on this trip. Vian, a trading post in the mid-1800's, was one of many small communities that popped up along trails navigated by stage coaches, mules and wagons, horses and riders, cattle and deer. Finding narratives about these communities is like putting together multitudes of tiny pieces of a giant puzzle that make up our country.

The commonality between most of these towns is they sprouted along a trail. A street, railroad, highway, carriageway, and, yes, even waterway. Many of these byways began as muddy, rutted, rocky or sandy, single or two-track trails. Then they grew. As long as our feet under us move, we will move. As long as our technology grows, so will the distances we move.

Cars, trucks and motorcycles have replaced the mules, horses and bicycles. Many towns and settlements have surged and expanded at their seams. Some have fallen by the wayside only to spring up again along some other nearby trail; others have died and nothing remains except ghosts and voices that are never heard.

Now in our highly mobile environment, we tend to overlook the spaces between the big places alongside the trails and highways. In doing so, we overlook important components of our public memory. Life doesn't only exist next to fast-lane freeways and highways. In between Point A and Point B is an entire world that is a part of us. All of it. And their memories can still be found.

I think this is what I enjoy most about being a traveler on a motorcycle. It brings me closer to what America really was, and is. It feeds my collective identity and forms my collective memory. It makes 'me' a 'we'. It also makes me ponder about our future.

Byways, Trails and Roads

Highway 82 north of thundering east-to-west I-40 is referred to as the 'Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway'. The latter's northern trail begins in the foothills of the Ozarks (Hwys 59 & 412) of northeastern Oklahoma. The Byway then meanders south as Hwy 10 and follows alongside the winding upper Illinois River. It was once a trail that connected trading posts and forts. Before that it may have been a hunting trail.

The Byway heads west away from the Illinois River and intersects former Cherokee tribal lands and the large town of Tahlequah (Hwy 62 & 82). Just 12 miles south of Tahlequah the Byway crosses the Illinois River which becomes a lake with 130 miles of shoreline. Lake Tenkiller was purportedly named after a Cherokee family that operated a ferry service across the river near where the modern dam is. How the name Tenkiller originated is lost to mythology and legend, but one source claims it as the name of a Cherokee warrior that arrived at Fort Gibson after traveling on the Trail of Tears, bearing a bow with ten notches.

Touted as the clearest lake in Oklahoma and Texas combined, it is a haven for scuba divers. And, as every place tends to boast a "Capital of" something, the lake claims title to the "Trout Capital of Oklahoma". Just nine miles north of Vian, Hwy 82 alternately hugs and strays from the eastern shoreline of the lake. It wasn't until we crossed the northern head of the lake near the dam that we realized how big it was. And how clear. It sure looked inviting.

Heading north, by the time we arrived in Tahlequah we were starved and hot. Some time ago, someone had recommended stopping at the Iguana Cafe for lunch or coffee. We found it, but it was closed on that Sunday. Instead, we found sustenance at the pizza place across the street. At least there were a few tables outside to sit at.

Two couples sat at a table next to us and they chatted about school, classes, recent trips, etc. Tahlequah is home to Northeastern State University, which occupies the grounds of the original Cherokee Female and Male Seminaries (I find it amusing that they were named as such: 'Female' and 'Male'. As if the genders were scientific specimens.) Although fallen into mostly ruins, sections of the original building for the Female Seminary still remain on the campus grounds.

Ed and one of the males (sorry, couldn't resist) at the table embarked on a long discussion of motorcycles. Funny how that commonality tends to break barriers and ignite conversations. I was too hungry to say much of anything; smiling was enough for me.

After we ate, we wandered across the street to see something right out of my childhood: a more-than-life-size carved wooden statue of Billy with his two hounds in a burlap bag slung across his back.

Tahlequah-area native Wilson Rawls wrote a book in 1961 (originally published as a three-part series in Saturday Evening Post): Where the Red Fern Grows. Because he and his siblings were unable to attend school, his Cherokee mother taught them to read and write at home. His inspiration to be a writer was a book that his mother read to him, and was one of my inspirations as well (for many things): Call of the Wild, by Jack London.

As a teenager, Rawl's book was on my bedroom shelf alongside other great books: Mobey Dick, Call of the Wild, Old Yeller, Black Stallion.... you know. The 'classics.' I recall when my Dad and I watched movies Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows back to back. Both of us were sobbing at the end.

Isn't it funny how seeing things like this can transport you back decades and you're suddenly struck with memories. I was smiling and fighting back tears at the same time as I stood there next to the wooden Billy.

It was time to move on. I wanted to check out a large brick building we had passed while looking for the Iguana Cafe. And we found it.

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posted by Macrobe
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