• Ken Ilgunas

Day 122: Oklahoma-Texas border


There may be nothing scarier than watching a man walk toward your tent, carrying a large object, in the middle of the night, in an impoverished town.

No, there’s definitely nothing scarier.

I made it into Atoka, Oklahoma just before nightfall. It’s now my standard procedure to go straight to churches to seek advice about where I should set up my tent. Most all of the time they’ll let me camp on their lawns, and some of the time they’ll let me sleep on their floor inside. I spoke with the youth minister of a Baptist Church, who very kindly directed me to the backyard of a vacant lot in town owned by a relative.

The town of Atoka, I was told, suffers from some of the typical maladies of poverty: theft, drug abuse, broken families. “Fifty percent of the town is beneath the poverty line,” the minister said.

He drew for me a map of the town with directions to the vacant lot. It was getting dark when I set out, and I took a wrong turn, which led me down a street very clearly suffering from poverty, where a Rotweiller, on a leash that looked about as thin and brittle as one of my beard hairs, lunged at me violently over and over again. I kept walking, thinking I knew where I was, until the road ended. To my side, I saw three men in the dark standing idly against the side of a home. I didn’t have any reason to think they had anything malicious in mind, but I was scared in this neighborhood. Definitely scared.

I called the minister on my phone (which is working again) and he drove out and rode alongside me as he guided me to his aunt’s lot. While the vacant lot was still in a poor part of town, he said it was safe, and it appeared to be so: The property was bordered with trees, so if I set up my tent behind the lot’s empty house, no one would be able to spot me.

I set up my tent and inside I ate cans of tuna and sardines for dinner (that his wife had given me) and finished reading The Lord of the Rings on my iPad. I settled into a deep, peaceful sleep as I do most every night.

I woke up a couple of hours later to the sound of a dog sniffing my tent. My fear of dogs is new, and just from the few close calls I’ve had with ill-tempered country dogs, I’ve begun to experience some minor PTSD symptoms. Every distant bark causes my heart to stop. A truck behind me will be carrying three dogs in the bed, and when one of them barks, I think I’m being chased. I hear and see dogs everywhere. When I camp in the woods, and a wind causes the dead leaves hanging on branches to flutter, I think it’s a dog sniffing the edges of my tent.

But there really was a dog this time. And strangely, I wasn’t too scared, as I knew, in the back of my mind, that I was safe in my tent. Curious to see what breed it was, I sat up and looked out one of my tent’s little portholes. It wasn’t to the right of me, so I looked out the left porthole. It was 2:30 a.m., and that’s when I saw the man walking toward me. He was coming straight for my tent. He had the gait of a horror movie antagonist: a confident and steady stride that could mysteriously overtake a couple of sprinting half-naked campers, whose steamy tent sex had been brought to an abrupt and unwelcome end.

It was dark out, but I could see that the man was carrying something big. Something like a mace or a shovel, maybe.

I was completely paralyzed by fear. I could have started to prepare myself for the attack. I could have opened my jack knife, taken off the cap of my bear spray, or simply dialed 9-1-1 into my phone. But I did nothing. I couldn’t breath. My body was rigid. I simply watched him walk toward me.

Yet he continued to walk by my tent and into the woods, his dog following him at his heels.

What should I do? Perhaps he was harmless, but now maybe he’s thinking to himself that he has an easy target? Maybe he’ll come back with more people? Feeling more vulnerable than ever, I called the cops.

“This isn’t quite an emergency,” I said. “But I’m walking across the continent and I’m camping in Atoka in a tent behind an abandoned house in a vacant lot by ___ Street.” (It wasn’t until I said this that I realized how crazy what I was doing was.) “I don’t know, maybe you could have a patrol car come out here?”

Ten minutes later two police cars came by. I emerged from my tent and the cops, who’d walked into the backyard, pointed their bright flashlights into my squinting eyes. I explained what had happened, and they seemed oddly comfortable with the turn of events.

“He was probably just coming out to get a look at ya,” said one officer, as if approaching a random tent in the middle of the night with a medeival weapon was as normal a thing to do as taking out the trash.

“Yeah, he was probably just checking ya out,” said the other.

I was grateful that the cops came out, yet I wasn’t at all put at ease. I lay in my sleeping bag for the rest of the night, waking to any noise, gripping my weapons in each hand.

In the morning I head east along Highway 3 toward the town of Antlers. At this point, I was nowhere near the pipeline path. Because I needed a bridge to get over the Red River into Texas, I had to walk many miles to the east, toward Hugo, OK.

That night, I slept in the town of Lane next to a convenience store, where I used the Wi-Fi to begin the second season of Downton Abbey on David’s Hulu account. The next day, I head toward the town of Antlers, Oklahoma. I knew from the hourly forecast that I was going to get hit hard by rain, so beforehand I made sure to tightly seal all my stuff in waterproof garbage bags inside my backpack.

And sure enough, the storm came. There was jarring thunder and white hot flashes of lightning. There was nowhere to take cover, so I kept walking on the grassy shoulder of the highway beneath the pounding rain. The rain picked up: thousands of big lumpy raindrops hit me at once like alien missles. Even with my rain gear on, the rain managed to seep through my clothing, soaking me all the way to the bone. My hands, wound tightly around my trekking poles, no longer had much feeling, and I could feel my body fighting to keep me warm. “KEEP WALKING!” I screamed into the storm. “C’MON!”

At one point, the rain was coming down so hard I thought it might knock me over. It was a Biblical storm: equal parts wicked and cleansing. In the matter of 20 minutes, three cars pulled over to ask if I needed a ride, and each time I had to explain that I was on a walking expedition.

I longed for shelter. Where will I sleep tonight? I imagined an attractive and lonely middle-aged widow — a rancher’s wife with straw-colored hair and a figure suited to the rigors of keeping up the farm all on her own — calling me from the porch of her home to come inside for shelter. At first, she’d think I was a homeless person, and I’d come in and she’d say, “For heaven’s sake, you must be freezing. Let’s get you out of those wet clothes.” I’d go into the bathroom, and through the gap between the door and the wall, she’d catch sight of me peeling off my shirt, noticing, to her astonishment, that I had neither the withered limbs nor the lumpy gut of a bum, but the finely chiseled physique of a hiker. “Dear God,” she’d mutter to herself involuntarily, suddenly flooded with desires that had long lain comatose in her grieving heart.

Having received no such invitation, when I got to Antlers (that boasts of being the “Deer Capital of the World”) I went straight to the local pizzeria and changed into my dry clothes in the bathroom, before buying myself a supreme pizza, which I’d greedily devour. A family with two little girls, who’d saw me come in, curious about what I was doing in Antlers, came over and asked. I told them tales of charging moose, stampeding cows, and crazy Nebraskan cops. The girls posed for pictures with me, saying they were going to talk about my trip with their class. The grandfather left $10 on the table, went to register, and paid for my pizza.

Today, I crossed the Red River into Texas, quite surprised that I left Oklahoma unscathed. And while Oklahoma scared the crap out of me nearly every day I walked across it, I wager that it will not be the dilapidated homes, crazy dogs, or needles on highway shoulders that will come to mind when I think back on my travels through the state, but the time a man pulled over and handed me a bag of McDonalds, or the poor Dollar General cashier who bought me a box of hot chocolate packets, or the church in Hugo who took me out to meal at Braums, or the many many other kindnesses from the good people of Oklahoma.

***

Days before the events described above, I arrived in Cromwell, OK on a Saturday evening. This was undesirable timing because I had a food package to pick up at the post office, and the post office wouldn’t open until Monday morning. I stopped at the local convenience store and asked for the postmistress’s number, called her up, she came to the post office, and disaster was averted. She recommended I talk to the pastor at the Pentecostal Church to find a place to set up my tent. A very kind Pastor Kelly gave me his church for the night, and even bought my dinner.

I slept by the front pew.


When I arrived in Holdenville, Oklahoma I couldn’t find anyone at the local churches — and there were no campgrounds — so I went to the local police station. The person at the front desk, without my consent, called up the local “ministerial alliance” who got me a free room at the local motel–an offer I felt uncertain about because I don’t exactly consider myself “needy.” With nowhere else to go, I swallowed my pride, and walked into a room reeking of nicotine. A drawer was missing from the dresser. A cigarette butt was sitting on the drain of the shower. It was easily the nastiest motel I’ve ever stayed in. I was busy writing an article about my trip for Salon.com, so I bought myself a second night ($35), and — to procrastinate writing the article — I watched the entire first season of Downton Abbey with my iPad and the motel’s Wi-Fi.


There were a few strange sights on Highway 75 heading toward Coalgate, OK. There was one really giant estate/mansion/old plantation and then this columned church, that read “God’s Church,” which is now clearly for sale.


This is why I don’t travel at night. I come across similar obstacles all the time. This is an old uncovered well.

This is where the man and dog passed my tent in the middle of the night.


Muddy Boggy Creek on Highway 3 heading to Antlers, OK.

This is needle #7 I’ve come across in Oklahoma.


Church of Christ in Hugo, OK. I slept in their backyard.


The Red River. The river separates Oklahoma and Texas.



Pastor John of Lakewood Baptist Church in Powderly, TX.