My wife and I believe that the most beautiful region in Oklahoma is located in the southeastern corner of our state. I know I have arrived there when the interstate begins to curve and gives way to stubby hills covered with thick stands of pine trees who raise their majestic limbs towards the sun. When I loose count spotting hawks as they float with lazy yet graceful ease along a steady unseen breeze. The little remote towns are small enough to miss if one blinks and over all they appear shabby and forgotten in this modern age. But the beauty of God’s masterpiece more than compensates for this minor flaw as I breathe in the clean crisp air and fill my senses with His great creation that surounds me.
Folklore recounts “K” Trail as being part of a military supply route between Fort Smith, Arkansas and Fort Townson, Oklahoma. According to legend Jesse Chisholm and Jim Beam blazed the original trail during the 1800’s. I have not been able to find any historical evidence to support these tales but one has to admit it makes for a good camp fire story.
“K” Trail meanders through the scenic Kiamichi Mountains in South Eastern Oklahoma and disappears near Mena, Arkansas. In years past “K” Trail was used by logging companies and hunters. Most recently the trail has not been maintained and seen little use which provided some excitement during our rainy three day weekend.
We arrived in Clayton, Oklahoma around 6pm on Friday evening and stopped off for a bite to eat at the local pizza / movie rental hub. After filling up on pizza, calzone, and sandwiches, we headed to the local Shell station to top off our gas tanks and pick up Land Use Permits before making our way to Clayton Lake State Park for the night. Clayton Lake State Park is a small fishing lake off of High Way 271 south of Clayton. With its towering pines and rolling terrain the park is a beautiful place to land if you are a hunter or off-roader. The evening was clear and cool and our group was the only one camping on our end of the park. Unfortunately there was quite a bit of traffic noise as the park is below the highway but that didn’t detour our little group. After making camp Mark Doiron was clever enough to bring a projector and we laughed our way through “The gods Must Be Crazy” (as the sole Land Rover enthusiasts in the group my wife and I thought the Series 1 gave a stunning performance).
I had checked the weather forecast multiple times earlier that week and was a bit dismayed to hear rain as it poured on our campsite during the night. We woke to overcast skies and inviting muddy puddles for our 60 lb Golden Retriever, Daisy, to romp thru. The foggy mist that hovered over the lake lent an eerie ambiance to the morning. The guys pulled their cell phones out hoping that at least one of us could find a current forecast despite the patchy cell service. Chris Jr rattled off an afternoon of cloud cover and more rain. I liked my version of partly sunny skies with temps in the 60’s. Regardless, we shrugged off the possibility of inclement weather and dove into our breakfast of scrambled eggs and hash browns unaware that this was only a touch of foreshadowing of what we would encounter over the course of that weekend.
Following the hearty breakfast provided by Rusty and his father, Rod, we were off to the Kiamichi River for some fun. Most of the year the river is low and crossing it is not a challenge. Often, during spring rains, the river has been known to leave its banks. The rain earlier in the week as well as the night before created the perfect set up for a fun crossing. The States’ jeep sits higher than the others in our group so we sent them across first to determine the level of difficulty. Fortunately there was no danger and every vehicle crossed leisurely for several photo ops.
Exiting the river through a graffiti emblazoned concrete tunnel under 271 we made our way out to Nine Pines Road and north to Clayton Trail. I was not expecting the amount of growth along the sides of the road and the overall difficulty in spots. Our intent for this trip had been to run bus line or survey line then return to Clayton Lake State Park to pick up the two Adventure Trailers we left behind and make it back to McKinley Rocks to camp before night fall. I have made this trip many times in the past so I didn’t think twice when planning this run for our group. In fact, only 2 years ago my wife and I had traveled the road to McKinley Rocks for lunch and it had taken 30 to 45 min. The current condition of the trail slowed progress and after 2 hrs we finally reached the bottom of McKinley Rocks. We broke for lunch around 3pm and then a few of us climbed to the pinnacle for a panoramic view of the Kiamichi Mountains. Upon our descent Mark, Rod, and Rusty opted to locate a suitable camp site while the rest of the group returned to Clayton Lake to pick up the trailers and forgo the remaining trail runs for the day. This proved to be a wise decision as it started to rain when we reachedClayton Lake. After quick, cold showers at the campground and a final stop for gas we headed into the back country to make camp.
As the rain and darkness fell the trail became increasingly more difficult. Before our eyes a dense fog settled on the mountains and visibility diminished to less than 50 feet. Headlights only made it worse; they illuminated the fog and it became a blinding wall of light just a few feet in front of our trucks. The rocks and mud were becoming slick and treacherous. The trail that had taken me 30 minutes a few years ago and 2 hours just earlier that afternoon would now consume 3-4 hours of our evening.
As we began our ascent up the steepest section we were forced to cut across a washed out area in order to continue on up the left side of the trail. The encroaching fog and darkness seemed to cast a spell of misfortune on my first attempt up the embankment and I had to back down for a second run. I grabbed 2nd gear to gain momentum and keep the GoodYears cleaned out. With RPMs in the red I flung my way to the top and pushed up the trail far enough to give the rest of the group room to pull in behind me. Checking the side mirrors I realized that in fact no one was following the Rover. Leaving Brandy and Daisy warm and dry I cautiously made my way back down the slippery trail on foot to assist wherever I could.
After failing several attempts which only caused Adam to slide perilously close to the edge he and Bill made preparations to winch. With a tree saver in place and his Warn M8000 attached securely Adam began a combination of pulling / spinning his way up the hill. His Jeep was up on the muddy bank but still unable to find enough traction to pull the trailer out of the ravine. The decision was made to reposition the winch to improve our chances of success. Fortunately there were plenty of trees to provide for a good anchor to winch from. Slowly but surely Adams’ truck pulled itself and the trailer safely up the trail and the winch line was removed from the tree strap.
It was now Bill’s turn to tackle the hill. I was hoping the longer wheel base of his JKUR combined with his KM2s might provide an advantage and allow him to get his front end up on the bank far enough to pull the truck up. Wishful thinking as the slime covered bank won again. We decided to winch again to reduce risk to the trailer (not to mention Bill’s wife, Patty, and her sanity). Bill’s Warn 9500 made quick work of freeing him and the trailer. Up to that point I had not realized that Chris Jr. and Sr., who were bringing up the rear, were nowhere in sight.
The rain had continued steadily and I took great care not to slip and fall on the muddy wet rocks as I began my descent to find them. About 100 yards down the trail Chris Jr. was trying to position his Jeep on a bank so that they could remove his front tire. Junior had been trying to radio for help but his CB was out of range. During our earlier excitement winching Adam and Bill uphill Chris Jr. had slid off into a crevice and lost a bead on the passengers side front tire. A few more inches and he would have laid his CJ7 onto its side. Chris Jr. repositioned his Jeep on a grassy bank and Chris Sr. began to jack the front end up to remove the deflated tire. I rolled the spare up the bank while Chris Sr. removed the wheel. About that time Bill made it down to lend a hand. While throwing around bad jokes about “this not being the best time to rotate the tires” we realized the bottle jack did not provide enough lift to remove the tire so we solicited some help form Chris’ Hi-Lift Jack. With the Hi-Lift at full extension they were able to reposition the bottle jack and get the tires swapped out. Once again we were on our way.
Retracing my steps from earlier in the day proved to be more difficult with visibility being a car length in front of us. Brandy pointed a flashlight out of the passenger side window keeping an eye out for the cut off. Fortunately I was able to detect the turn off of Clayton Trail onto the short cut to McKinley Rocks even with visibility at a minimum. I knew this section would prove to be challenging but had no idea of what was in store for our group. We started down into the valley that lies between the ridges of Clayton trail and McKinley Rocks when Patty came across the CB with latest update. I was quite shocked by what she said next.
Progress on our return trip had been slowed slightly by the trailers. The rough terrain put the trailers into a side to side rocking motion. Extra care must be taken anytime you’re towing a trailer especially when towing one off-road. It is hard enough picking the best line for your truck when off-roading. With a trailer the driver must visualize how their truck will respond to the terrain as well as how the trailer is going to track as they maneuver around obstacles. Backing up is not always an option. Large rocks and deep holes will cause you to jack knife quicker when trying to back down a hill to pick another line. One must remain calm and have a good knowledge of their vehicle and how it responds off road before throwing a trailer into the mix. Bill and Adam did an outstanding job negotiating the trail with their Adventure Trailers. The seasoned off-roaders commented on the terrain being more difficult than the Alpine Loop they had already conquered.
About 300 yards down into the valley the trail had washed out on the left. The right side of the trail was on an incline sloping both down hill and towards the wash out. Covered in mud the bank was a slippery slide beckoning us into the ravine. Shortly after negotiating my way around came Patty’s announcement that the trailer had flipped. Jumping from the driver seat of the D90 I could see the tail lights of the Adventure Trailer along side of Adam’s Rubicon. His Jeep was still on the trail but one wheel of the trailer had slipped off into the ravine cartwheeling the trailer to an upside down jack knifed position alongside the Jeep. Fortunately Bill’s winch made quick work of righting the trailer which sustained a minimum of cosmetic damage.
We continued slowly into the valley and up the other side to where Mark, Rusty, and Rod had set up camp. The large campfire welcomed us and the dancing flames warmed our cold, wet bodies and relaxed our stressed brains. While Mark cooked a wonderful Santa Fe Stew the rest of us set up our camp’s for the night. Because of the rain, mud, and darkness Brandy decided to delegate an unhappy Daisy to the car until bedtime. The rest of us sat together eating dinner companionably despite the fact that most of us had only been introduced 24 hrs previously. Recounting the excitement of the last few hours I found myself thinking that one cannot help another in the rain and mud and not find themselves fast friends with a fellow off road enthusiast. The aforementioned rain prevented us from watching “The gods Must Be Crazy Part II” however it didn’t keep us from finishing up the stew followed by s’mores. The rain began to ease so with our bellies full and our imagination’s stoked for what lay ahead tomorrow we ventured off to the warmth of our sleeping bags and the hope of well earned sleep .
Dawn came early with the first and only visible sunrise of the trip. The gloriously bright rays helped to dry out camp as Bill, Patty, and Adam made breakfast for the group. We dined that morning on scrambled eggs with green chillies, bacon, and my favorite, home made biscuits. After breakfast Chris and Chris worked to clean and reseat the bead on their tire. Oh and F.Y.I., the WD40 trick does not work. You’ll have to ask them how they know.
With the sun high in the sky we left camp around 11 am with a goal of reaching the Kiamichi Fire Watch Tower for our last night on the trail. Other than one wrong turn and a dislocated tail pipe we made good time as the trail widened and smoothed out. By 3 pm we reached Indian Highway where we said good-bye to Bill, Patty, and Adam. They had a long drive back home to Elk City before returning to work the next day. After inflating their tires they headed north and the remaining group crossed the road and continued east on “K” trail. The next hour of driving was uneventful until Mark vanished from my rear view mirror. I stopped and waited 5 min or so and decided to turn around and head back to find the rest of the group. A little ways down the trail I found them rotating Chris’ spare tire back to the tire carrier on the back of his Jeep. It had been slowly leaking and was now almost flat. Fortunately the tire which they had reseated the bead on that morning was good to go.
About half way between Indian Highway and the Fire Tower the road became very narrow. Flanked by hardwoods on both sides it is impossible to pass without leaving scratches down the sides of your rig. The growth continues almost right up to the Tower. With the last of our sunny day fading quickly we made camp below the tower. While Chris Jr. climbed the tower to call his wife and young son, Chris Sr., Rod, and Rusty scrounged around for wood and got a nice campfire blazing. Mark worked to set up his projector to show the sequel we had missed the night before while Brandy and I began to prepare a dinner of grilled chicken, baked potatoes, butter beans, and flat bread followed by a delicious apple cobbler for desert. I am amazed at the wide variety of foods the dutch oven can produce; from Mark’s Santa Fe Stew and Patty’s biscuits, to Brandy’s baked potatoes and homemade apple cobbler. Unfortunately as the sun was setting the wind began to pick up. To me it was as though the sun was being blown down from it’s perch in the sky. The wind became so strong we circled the trucks wagon train style to try and create a wind break. Even putting up a tarp to try and cut the wind while watching the movie seemed to be a loosing battle. Not only did the wind increase in speed but it became bitterly cold. Three fourths of the way through the movie the projector up and quit on us. What we didn’t know at the time was that the inverter had tripped into fault protection and caused the projector to quit working. It was probably a good thing that the projector failed. Frozen, Brandy and Daisy had retreated to the back of the Rover seeking refuge from the wind and watching the movie from the side windows in the cargo area. Giving up on the movie we all decided to turn in for the night. In an attempt to be sheltered from the wind I drove the Rover down the back side of the mountain to a clearing that once housed the Forestry Service homestead. This worked well for a few hours before the wind shifted from the south to the east. Relentlessly the bitterly cold wind tore at our tent and made me wish I had taken time to remove the noisy rain fly.
Early the next morning, still half asleep, we crawled out of the tent and into a cloud. Literally. We were literally surrounded by blowing, moist fog. The winds had been so violent during the night that it had ripped Mark’s rain fly from his tent and broken 4 ties and 1 pole on Chris’ tent. The cloud was so moist and cold that morning we were forced to take shelter in the only remaining building which was the garage of the old homestead. Inside the litter strewn garage but thankfully out of the wind Chris and Chris were able to cook sausage and cinnamon french toast. While they prepared breakfast I heated water for the dishes and finished packing the Rover. The inclement weather motivated the group and that was our fastest morning to break camp, get back on the trail and into the warmth of our trucks. By 9:00 am we were driving east and beginning to thaw out. We chose to take a short cut down the north side of the mountain and into the town of Muse. The countryside of Muse was a pleasant and scenic welcome to our wind stripped eyes. The purple shadow of the Kiamichi Mts. in the distance, the thick, green grass in the pastures, cows grazing nearby, the clear water rushing below the rust covered metal bridge were like mythological sirens calling out to Mark and Brandy to once again pull out their camera’s for one last photo op. Thus, having finally reached pavement the group stopped just past the old bridge to air up our tires before hitting 63 west and into Talihina for lunch.
After lunch at a tiny burger joint we parted ways with Chris Jr. & Sr., Rod and Rusty. They were headed back to Clayton lake to get their trucks before heading home. Mark, Brandy, and I headed north west through Heartshorn and McAlester back to Midwest City.
Despite the numerous perils that threatened to ruin this adventure I must say that it was undoubtedly one of the best off road trips I have ever experienced. I take no credit for its success as it was due solely to each person who came along that weekend. No one refused to assist another if help was needed. Men cooked meals and washed dishes. Women fetched tools and held flashlights. Challenges were met with relish and even tipped over trailers couldn’t mar the exaltation of arriving at our final destination. Regardless of the inclement weather or the mechanical failures there were no complaints. The group stayed positive and seemed to enjoy themselves. It really is a true test of one’s character when faced with these challenges and one is able to walk away with a greater respect for his fellow trail mates.
They say that life is the journey and not the destination. I anxiously look forward to our next journey together.