Another sleepless night under pop-top canvas. The heat and humidity is a killer in the southern states but I've discovered camping is expensive in the US on 'campsites'. The KOA in Fort Smith included the sound of the local highway all night long. I didn't need electricity, water or waste. Just somewhere to park the truck. $28 is an expensive parking space. I've decided unless I'm wild camping (for free) I've given up trying find real campsites that are set-up for the RV 'camper'.
Rounding a corner on the trail I spot a dirt biker sheltering from the rain under a bridge. 'You're the Land Rover guy!' he says. He had met Wes, 'the Canadian Jeep driver' I'd met a couple of nights ago and Wes had told him about the Land Rover guy! It's a small world on the TAT. Everyone is the XYZ guy. Matt is a young guy from Oregon who's 'going all the way' on the TAT on his race spec Honda. 'Going all the way' means all the way to the TAT end point in Oregon and earns you extra cool points. Matt tells me he's staying in Bartlesville Oklahoma that night where he's had a new rear tyre shipped for his motorcycle. We exchange numbers and agree to meet up if we're in town together.
I leave Matt sheltering from the rain but he catches me up not far down the trail and we run together for a while. At a 'Road Closed' sign we observe TAT etiquette and ignore it. We reach a bridge construction site with a bridge deck awaiting a load of concrete but with enough room to get across the river crossing. There are no construction workers around but they've positioned a 360 excavator and its bucket in such a way to prevent traffic passing. Matt simply went under the arm of the machine. I had to go off piste into the undergrowth to get around the exacavator - just as the construction workers returned from their lunch break. They smiled and shook their heads as we waved back politely.
In Bartlesville I meet up with Matt. He texts Wes to find out how he's doing and incredibly it turns out he's just checked into another hotel down the road. Over a Mexican and beer we exchange TAT tales. Matthad a nightmare when he lost a pannier from his motorcycle containing camping gear, clothes and electronic devices. He had no idea where he'd lost it so decided to press on rather than backtrack. In a burger shop in Mississippi he recalled the reaction when he requested coleslaw on his burger 'Coleslaw? Coleslaw?! Are you from San Francisco or something?' Matt had lots of 'redneck' stories from his time in the south and knows he made the right decision in not fitting the sticker to his bike a friend had made him that had a Confederate flag under the pride rainbow. Probably a wise move!
Wes had to detour from the TAT when his buddy had to unexpectedly go back home. Rushing to make sure his friend made his early morning flight from Tulsa airport had left his fuel gauge on his Jeep resting on empty. At 4am and running on fumes he had no option but sit on a gas station forecourt and wait for the gas station to open. Unfortunately for Wes, the gas station was 'deep in the ghetto!'
Wes and I agree to run together the following day while Matt has a late start as he has to have his new tyre fitted.
"There's a road in Oklahoma, straighter than a preacher, longer than a memory" goes the opening line from the Steve Earle song Nowhere Road. I knew what he meant. Arrow straight roads stretching out onto the horizon thanks to farmland in Oklahoma made up of a grid system. The TAT route through Oklahoma is drawn with a ruler. The transition from Arkansas and the deep south to Oklahoma is noticeable. The pick-up trucks are newer. Baseball caps and sleeveless shirts have given way to Cowboy hats and pressed shirts with pearl snap fastenings. The empty Bud-Light cans that litter the back roads of the south have disappeared and the John Deere tractors and combines now sit in multiple rows on Oklahoma farms. This is cowboy country and farming on an industrial scale. We came across a farm with a TAT register to sign. The farmer (just the 20,000 acres) lets TAT drivers and riders use his farm for camping and the use of his workshop for free. If they're not breeding beef its crops with thousands of small block Chevy V8s in the corners of fields powering the water pumps to feed the irrigation systems. God bless America.
We came across another TAT stop in the middle of the prairie where the owners had created a mini oasis for weary TAT travellers. Besides a comfortable lounge and bunkhouse, it had a well-stocked kitchen, computer with internet, and even a workshop including motorcycle stand. There were no staff. It just sat empty relying on an honesty box from passing TAT travellers. The place was immaculate and a credit to its generous owners.
The lasting memory of Oklahoma isn't the arrow straight tracks, huge skies or the constant battering from flying insects but the Oklahoma mud. I'd read about the mud on TAT blogs and forums but nothing would prepare myself for it. We'd had it okay on the fast straight tracks until some overnight rain caught us out. The Okie mud turned what appeared to be a good firm track into a weird sticky clay like substance that was not unlike hitting a patch of black ice. Ever seen footage of geese trying to land of a frozen lake? That was the same effect when you hit a patch of Oklahmoma mud. The tyres barely cut through the top crust but it was the weirdest surface I've ever driven on. No wonder all of those shiny John Deere's used by Oklahoma famers had twin wheels front and back.
Convoying with Wes in his Jeep we both found ourselves maintaining forward progress but only just. On one never ending section we were both slithering along at 45 degrees to the trail. Just when we thought we'd escaped the worst section, it would start again. We ended one day in Oklahoma by the skin of our teeth. It was a long day! Had either of us become stuck, then there was no way either could tow the other. We both had winches but there wasn't a thing to winch off for a hundred miles all around us.
After leaving a huge deposit of Oklahoma mud in a local car wash we enjoyed a cold beer and knew we'd had a lucky escape that day. The final day in Oklahoma our eyes had become well-tuned to spotting the worst sections and we'd go off-piste to avoid it or divert from the TAT route altogether. Thanks to the Oklahoma grid system picking up the TAT again was easy to do. Nevertheless, the day ended with another prolonged car wash session just over the border in Elkhart in Kansas.
The recommended motel on the TAT route looked a bit 'murdery', so we went with an alternative that looked more ‘manslaughtery’! It was duck hunting season and the motel was busy with hunters. Our neighbours enjoyed the warm evening air outside their room drinking Bud-Light and flying one of those balsa wood aircraft powered by a rubber band in the parking lot. We questioned whether their innocent child like game really required them all to be wearing handguns on their hips?