Why did the Longhorn cross the road? To get back to Texas. That’s the hilarious joke I told my kids as one of the impressive ungulates ambled down the asphalt past our SUV. We had stopped suddenly after the creature appeared from the dense fog just a few hundred feet in front of us. It was a chilly March day in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, twenty miles northwest of Lawton, in southwestern Oklahoma. After nearly a full day of trudging through fog that just wouldn’t burn off, we’d become convinced there were neither mountains nor the advertised free-roaming herds of bison (the refuge boasts about 650 of North America’s largest mammal), but we’d at least witnessed a real live Texas Longhorn in Oklahoma.
The trip was supposed to be a chance for me to get a break from my family—and for them to get some time away from me. Since the pandemic started, my wife and I had worked from home while our two kids attended virtual school from their bedrooms. We love one another, but that is a lot of time together under one roof. We’re lucky to live in a decent-sized house, so it’s not like being trapped in an elevator together. But after a year, that’s what it felt like. I wanted out, if only a brief respite. I planned a weekend in the Wichita Mountains, where I would hike in the wilderness, gawk at roadside wildlife, and not make lunch and dinner for my children.
It’s my fault that things changed. The week before the trip, my kids—eleven-year-old Madeline and nine-year-old James—tagged along on an hour-long trek for barbecue. In normal times, they are frequent road-trip partners for my job as Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor. The short journey was unexpectedly nostalgic. The taste of liberation was too great for the children, so they begged for another outing and began hinting at the Oklahoma trip they’d heard me talking about. So, in the end, solitude was achieved—just not for me. The three of us took off on a Saturday morning, leaving my wife with the house all to herself for the entire weekend.
The early morning fog was thick as we headed northwest from Dallas. After two hours in the car, we stopped at Wichita Falls, which elicited some excitement, until the kids learned we were still in Texas and had another hour of driving ahead of us. I exited the highway for a final bite of Texas barbecue at Post Oak, in Burkburnett, before we crossed the border.
When we went over the Red River just after noon, the fog hadn’t budged. It was still there as we drove through Lawton (home of the Museum of the Great Plains), passed Fort Sill, and entered the tiny town of Medicine Park, on the east end of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The park charges no entry fees, so we drove right in, passing an empty visitors center, which was closed during my visit. Knowing the refuge doesn’t have a store, we had stocked up on plenty of snacks and water.
Our first stop inside the refuge was the Holy City of the Wichitas. It isn’t a tribute to Native American religious ceremonies but, rather, a loose representation of Israel at the time of Jesus. On this site in 1926, Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock organized an Easter Passion play called The Prince of Peace, which is now one of the longest-running annual Passion plays in the country. Stone structures, many built by laborers employed by the Works Progress Administration in the thirties, were erected to represent Herod’s Court as well as an inn with a nearby stable and a tomb with the stone rolled away. Since we weren’t there at Easter, we relied on the fog for drama. With the three crosses of Calvary barely visible, I imagined the darkness that fell after the Crucifixion, as described in the Gospels. The mood lightened considerably when we noticed another cross, away from the Calvary site, that seemed intended just for photo ops. Seriously: there is a large step at the base and everything, which I guess may have been a trap set to allow the faithful to more easily identify heathens. James couldn’t resist. (Forgive me, Father, but it’s a great photo.)
Before we went looking for bison, we decided to check out one more unusual and slightly unsettling feature: the Parallel Forest. In 1912 the government planted 20,000 eastern red cedar trees exactly six feet apart in every direction over sixteen acres at the foot of Mount Scott, in the Wichita Mountains. They were originally supposed to provide wood for future parks projects, but after the land became protected, they could no longer be cut down. The rigid rows are still quite apparent despite the undergrowth. While a few obvious paths have been cleared, there are countless side trails across the forest floor. Once you’ve gone deep enough into the forest to lose sight of the small parking area, it’s easy to get disoriented (the forest is even said to be haunted). The tall, thin cedars look identical in every direction. It wasn’t crowded, and although we were together, there was a palpable sense of solitude in this silent forest. If not for the bison we were eager to see, we might have stayed for hours.
A couple of years ago, I took the kids on a similar trip with similar intentions. Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway, north of the small town of Quitaque, in the Texas Panhandle, is also known for its bison herd. We’d wondered whether we’d really see bison, but in the first five minutes of our visit we found three of them just beside the road. This day wouldn’t be so fruitful. We drove slowly for miles, pointing out every large object that revealed itself in the fog. “Rock or Bison?” became the game of the day, and Rock was pitching a shutout, though the prairie dogs did come out to play for a bit as a consolation prize.
The refuge features more than fifteen miles of trails, so we decided to get out of the car and give one a try. A delightful walk along the nonstrenuous mile-and-a-half Longhorn Trail (it’s a short loop within the six-mile Bison Trail) seemed like a reasonable way to see some wildlife. We spotted a white-tailed deer in the distance, admired some cacti, and tried not to slip and fall into French Lake, which is hugged by the second half of the trail. We could barely see the other side of the lake through the fog, but we noticed some large figures among the trees on the hillside. They were a few head of grazing Longhorn cattle. Not bison, but not rocks either. The park closes at sunset, which was soon approaching, so we went back to the car to head to our hotel in nearby Lawton (at the time of our visit, limited camping was allowed, but only in RVs and travel trailers).
The fog still hadn’t lifted, and at this point it’d become almost demoralizing. (I later emailed Lynn Cartmell, the refuge’s visitor services manager, to ask whether this weather was a rarity. She told me it was “a fairly regular occurrence.”) It was only as we were driving out of the park that we saw that aforementioned lone Longhorn emerging from the mist. As it strolled past our vehicle, it lifted our spirits and made us hopeful for more close animal encounters the following day.
Still smiling, we crossed a bridge, and that’s when we spotted them: two bison grazing near the road. We stopped the car at a turnoff. Madeline had already taken her shoes off, so I carried her piggyback across the road and closer to a bison than I’ve ever been without a fence separating us. James stayed behind, prepared to carry on the family legacy without us should either of the bison get crosswise. They lifted their heads to acknowledge us before turning to trudge away, probably looking for greener pastures without people in them. Then they took off running. It was magnificent. All was silent, except for my daughter’s breath in my ear and the intense rumbling of bison hooves on the open prairie. Whatever happened the next day would just be gravy on top of this.
Sunday was clear and windy. We drove into the park early (the refuge opens at sunrise), using the same route as the previous day, and it was like we were visiting a whole other place. A thick blanket of amber grass waved in the wind. In every direction we could see mountains, none of which we’d been able to make out the day before. They’re ancient rocky promontories—many are topped by granite that’s half a billion years old—and not all that tall. The highest elevation in the refuge that’s accessible to the public is the top of Mount Scott, at 2,464 feet. (Mount Pinchot, in an area closed to the public, is 12 feet taller.)
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge isn’t a state or national park. It is nearly 60,000 acres of grassland, forest, and mountains managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The area became a forest reserve in 1901, under President William McKinley, and in 1905 was declared a big-game preserve by President Theodore Roosevelt, who became taken with the area after participating in a wolf hunt along with Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Two years later, Oklahoma became a state.
Parker was born in the Wichita Mountains in the 1840s. He witnessed the decimation of bison herds, the primary sustenance of the Comanche, at the hands of white settlers and commercial hunters. In North Texas and the Panhandle, he led battles against the U.S. Army during the Red River War before surrendering to life on the Comanche reservation at Fort Sill in 1875. Parker lived within view of the Wichita range until his death, in 1911, at his home, Star House, which still stands in Cache, just south of the refuge’s border.
Day two of our adventure began with a walk along the shore of Quanah Parker Lake, which is stocked with largemouth bass, catfish, and crappie, for park-goers who want to fish. The fierce wind raised white-capped waves on the water’s surface. A waterfall off the dam on the south side surged. I almost lost a hat in the wind and, while trying to catch it, nearly stumbled into a grazing Longhorn.
Back in the shelter of the car, we drove around the 89-acre lake, and the
cruel irony set in that while we had driven to this place primarily to see bison, the two we’d encountered the day before weren’t progeny of the herds from the era when the Comanche ruled the plains. Fifteen were brought here from the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) in 1907, transported to Oklahoma after they’d been brought to near extinction in their native habitat as part of an effort by our government to exterminate Native Americans like Parker. At least they named a lake after him.
The wind kept us in the car for much of the morning, but we still saw a lot of wildlife. We stopped to let wild turkeys cross the road in front of us. We lost count of the number of Longhorns, and we caught sight of a few dozen bison. Some grazed right along the road.
Located in Okarche, about 45 minutes northwest of Oklahoma City, Eischen’s Bar (circa 1896) is not only older than Oklahoma, it also serves some of the state’s best fried chicken, thanks to a secret spice blend. —D.V.
Wanting to get in one more hike, we chose the Narrows Trail (1.6 miles round trip) and hoped the deep ravine would block the wind. The trailhead isn’t clearly marked; it begins just behind Boulder Cabin. Rock-hopping is required to cross the creek midway down. Except for a couple of rock climbers in the distance, we were alone on the trail, which rises quickly above West Cache Creek. The views from the top, looking back down the valley, are stunning. After spending a year worrying about the safety of my children, I was a bit unnerved at first when they started exploring unstable rocks on their own, but they had a blast “bouldering,” as they called it. They both said it was their favorite part of the weekend.
Before leaving for home, we drove up Mount Scott. Hikers and bikers can start ascending at sunrise, but on weekends it’s closed to cars until noon. Although there are several pull-offs on the drive up, we didn’t stop until we reached the top, with its 360-degree view. From there, you can see the entire refuge and look down over the town of Medicine Park.
On our drive to the refuge the day before, Madeline had asked, “What’s the best thing about Oklahoma?” I had to be careful with my answer because my wife was born and raised in Oklahoma, and much of her family still lives there. I joked that being close to Texas was the state’s best asset—at least, I tried my best to make it sound like a joke. My daughter persisted. “No. What do people in Oklahoma love about Oklahoma?” I settled on the Sooners; having casinos in nearly every city; and Lake Texoma, where we spend many weekends as a family. But on the way home, I began to think the Wichita Mountains might just be the best thing about Texas’s neighbor to the north.
This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.