When I heard the shots—two quick bursts of three—I realized I’d lost track of my dog. A pickup about 300 yards ahead of me, and a little to the east, began to move in my general direction. I whistled sharply to summon the dog, turned away from the pickup, and began walking rapidly back to my car, which was parked alongside Prue Road, and about as far to my south as the pickup was to my north. When I reached a small rise, I stopped, turned around, and whistled again. I saw my dog leaping toward me through the tall grass. About every third stride, he leapt up above the grass to get his bearings. The pickup had turned to the east. I knew the driver was going toward a ranch gate that led out onto a side road, which connected with Prue Road.
I turned back toward my car and redoubled my pace. I scrambled over the roadside fence and got my car doors open before the rancher got there, but not before my dog, so I had to wait. The man parked behind me and got out of his pickup, with his .22 rifle in hand.
“What the hell were you doin’ trespassin’ on my land?” he demanded. He took a step toward me.
“Just walking,” I said, my eyes locked on his.
“Runnin’, more like it.”
“I didn’t run.”
“Shit you didn’t.”
The dog burst out of the tallgrass, scurried under the fence, and leapt through the open door into my backseat.
“I guess your dog was just walkin’, too,” the rancher said.
“No, he was running.”
“God damn right, he was. Runnin’ my cattle. If I was a better shot, he’d be dead right now. Now I ask you again: What the hell were you doin’ trespassin’ on my land?”
My intention had been to get the dog and me out of Tulsa for a romp on the prairie. I had not anticipated he’d harass the cattle. I told the rancher this and apologized and promised never to trespass on his ranch again. That wasn’t the last time I went trespassing, but it was the last time I took my dog.
I’ve been a trespasser, a fence climber, a gate jumper ever since I can remember.
“Hey, who are you? What are you doin’ out here?” the boy wanted to know. He had parked the Sooner Land & Cattle Company pickup in the grass, flung the door open, and impulsively approached us. As soon as he’d exited the pickup, he’d had to clamp down onto the top of his wide-brimmed hat with one hand to keep the wind from snatching it away. He stopped about ten feet from Joe and me. Even at that short distance, he had to call out to us over the wind. “What are you doin’ out here?”
Joe took several deliberate steps away from me, triangulating us so that the boy had to turn his back on one of us to face the other, which confused the boy and reduced his swagger. I braced myself against the wind pushing against my heavy backpack. “I was about to ask you the same thing, son,” I said. “What’s your name?” Sometimes, when you are trespassing, you have to bluff.
“Jimmy. I ast you first.”
“What are you doin’ out here, Jimmy?” I asked. Both the wind and the sun were behind me.
“I work here. Who are you?” He squinted into the sun, and kept his hand clamped down on his hat. The tension in his voice had raised its pitch.
“You work here? You don’t look much like a cowboy to me.” Actually, he looked exactly like a cowboy, with his hat, his pearl snap shirt, and his grass-stained sneakers. He looked about 18 years old. “What’s your boss’s name, if you work here?”
“Dwayne? You work for Dwayne? Says he works for Dwayne,” I called past him to Joe. He turned around to look at Joe. Joe appeared not to have heard. His grave expression didn’t change.
“Yes, sir, I do. You ain’t told me who you are yet, nor what you’re doin’ out here. This here’s private property.”
“You know who Boots Adams was, Jimmy?” I asked.
“Well, yeah. Everbody knows who Boots Adams was.”
“Well, when you see Dwayne, you tell him you ran into Boots Junior. Tell him I’ll be by to see him directly, once I’ve finished my walk. Tell him Lucy sends her love. I imagine he’ll remember her, though it’s been a long time.”
“Boots Adams was your dad?”
“I reckon that’s one of those questions, Jimmy,
that doesn’t expect an answer. I can’t remember what you call those.”
“Rhetorical,” Joe called out. Jimmy glanced at Joe over his shoulder. Joe’s grave expression still hadn’t changed. The voice might just as well have come from a nearby meadowlark, or a redwing blackbird.
“Jimmy, I reckon you’d better get on back to work if you’re on the payroll,” I suggested. “Be sure and tell Dwayne what I said.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Adams.”
“You can just call me Junior.”
He stepped back two steps, then turned around and walked to his pickup, keeping his distance from Joe.
“Jimmy!” Joe called out.
“What?” Jimmy called back, sticking his head out the open window of the pickup. His hand was still clamped down onto his hat.
“You did good. We’ll tell Dwayne.”
After Jimmy drove off in the general direction of the ranch house several miles distant, Joe said, “I have a feeling Jimmy and the rest of the crew will be back looking for us before too long, once they realize you were bluffing. Boots Junior. Did you just make that up on the spot?” he asked with a grin.
“What can I say? I was in the zone.”
A couple of hours before we’d encountered Jimmy, we had parked Joe’s Land Rover in a corner of Foraker Cemetery. I had slipped quickly into my camo jacket and backpack and stood around nervously watching as Joe, with imperturbable calm, stood at the back of the Land Rover, shook out his windbreaker, slipped it on, and then methodically adjusted its numerous vents and cinches. He then untied and retied his boots. He stretched his legs. An oil company crew truck slowed down as it passed the cemetery. Faces in the windows examined us as it drove by. Joe shouldered his backpack. A cloud of dust from the passing truck scudded past us in the wind as Joe adjusted the pack’s straps to his liking. At last Joe was ready to hike. We slipped through the cemetery back gate and onto the open prairies of the Sooner Land & Cattle Company. It was one of those rare November days up on the prairie. The sky was bright blue and the south wind was strong and steady. The temperature was in the 50s. The wind rifled through the gray and yellow grass, as if in search of something lost. It pushed against our packs, urging us forward, or perhaps out of its way.
We hiked north, staying just below a dramatic limestone ridge that rose, about six miles ahead, to the highest point in Osage County, which made it one of the highest points in northeast Oklahoma. The west slope was a gradual incline lush with grass. The east face was steep, the limestone layers exposed as the strata jutted out to the surface high above the lower prairies further east. I’d long admired the ridge. I’d perused numerous maps and determined that it had not yet been named. I’ve always been interested in how places get their names. Not just any places, though. Cities and other man-made places don’t interest me as much. How natural features get their names seems more mysterious and thus more interesting to me. Streams are a good example. Buck Creek, Bird Creek, Sand Creek, Pond Creek, Verdigris River, Caney River. Who decided their names? Who put their names on maps? How was it agreed?
When we encountered Jimmy, I had just told Joe that I had decided to name the ridge. I told him that, as presumptuous as I knew it was, I had decided to name it after myself. I explained that it was my right, because no one but me seemed to recognize the ridge’s topographic significance. “Higgs Ridge,” I declared, “is this high ridge line that runs north from Foraker Cemetery to where it breaks for the Caney River Valley at the Kansas line.”
“Naming is claiming,” Joe said. He did not elaborate.
I guess he didn’t need to. I thought about his remark, and realized that I do feel a bit proprietary about the place.
Near the high point, we staked our low tents in a tight notch just below the rim, inside a thick grove of twisted dwarf trees that we couldn’t fully stand up under. It was out of the wind and difficult to spot, and it had a long view of the undulating prairies to the east. If we had to state a reason for being there, that view would be it.
Because of the wind, and the dry season, we had reconciled ourselves to camping without a fire, which meant cold meals and no coffee.
But, as soon as we got our tents staked, the wind died down and then stopped altogether. After a half hour of calm, we decided we could risk a cookfire if we were careful. We stacked a ring of rocks in several rows that closed in toward each other near the top. When we’d finished it, it formed a small oven that tightly contained our small fire. We heated two cans of chili, grateful for the hot meal. After the chili we made coffee, and then doused the fire. Stars spread across the sky. Far to the south, in the direction of Tulsa, lightning strobed the sky from just below the horizon. The cowboys never found us, if they bothered to look for us.
Next morning, I got up early and hiked the short distance up to the high point and watched the sunrise. The chilled air was as calm as could be.
When I got back, Joe had gotten a new fire going. We had a cup of coffee, doused the fire, ate several handfuls of dry granola, and broke camp. After we packed up all our gear, we disassembled the fire ring, scattering the stones down along the face of the ridge. With a handful of dry grass, I swept the wet, dead ashes away from each other. We shouldered our packs and took a good look around to see if we’d left any sign of our passing. Satisfied, we climbed up to the rim, scanned the horizon for men or vehicles and, seeing none, started hiking back south along a two-track ranch road. To our surprise, the wind began again and quickly built until it was as strong and steady as the day before, except that now it was out of the north instead of the south. It was still at our backs. We felt lucky.
After we’d hiked about a half-mile down the road, we heard a pickup coming up behind us.
There was no point trying to hide. We turned around to face it. The man behind the wheel of the Sooner Land & Cattle Company pickup that stopped beside us was middle-aged, weather-beaten, and wiry looking. He wore a ball cap with the company logo.
“What’re you boys doin’ out here?” he asked pleasantly.
“Just walking,” I answered. I approached his open window with what I hoped would be taken for a friendly expression.
Joe stayed put, studying the situation.
“Well, this here’s private property,” the man explained. I could hear Hank Thompson playing low on the truck radio. A small dreamcatcher swung back and forth from his rear-view mirror.
“Yes sir, we know. But Jimmy said it would be okay. You know Jimmy?”
The man grinned down at his chest. “Yeah, I know Jimmy. He helps us out sometimes. He’s a pretty good kid.”
“Yeah, Jimmy’s great,” I agreed.
“Where you boys headed to anyway?”
“Me too, one of these days.”
We all grinned.
“We’re parked there,” I said. “We’re on our way back.”
“Uh huh. Do you want a ride?”
Joe and I glanced at each other. “Sure.” We tossed our packs into the pickup bed, then climbed into the bed with them. We stood up against the back of the cab as we bounced gently along the two-track through the waving grass. Cows and calves dotted the prairie. The chill wind was exhilarating. Soon, we came to a gate. As the old cowboy slowed to a stopped, I yelled, “I’ll get it!” and jumped over the side of the bed. As I swung the gate open, I saw the driver take a drink from a pint bottle of something.
Before long, we came to another gate, and then another. By the time we got to the paved road that runs north from Foraker into Kansas, we’d gone through seven gates. Joe and I took turns jumping down and opening them. The driver took another drink each time.
When we’d cleared the last gate and pulled out by the road, the driver grinned back at us and hollered, “Well, boys, here’s where I turn right! Have a good’n!”
“Hey, wait a minute! Aren’t you going to take us to the cemetery?” I asked.
“No, I gotta get home. My lunch is waitin’ on me and it’s gettin’ cold.”
“But we’re farther from the cemetery now than we were when you picked us up!”
“Well, I wouldn’t know much about that. I was just tryin’ to help you all out by givin’ you a ride out to the road, but I gotta get goin’ now.”
We jumped down and hoisted our packs out of the bed. Our disappointment must have shown on our faces. “I tell ya what,” the driver said, “if you’re still a-standin’ here when I get back from lunch with Mama, I’ll give you a ride on down to the cemetery. But don’t look for me ‘til you see me comin’.” He grinned, nodded, and drove off.
We shouldered our packs and walked down the road. For a long time we didn’t talk. As we turned onto the dirt road that led the last couple of miles to the cemetery, Joe stopped and said, “Hah!”
“What?” I asked, stopping beside him.
“We just got totally owned by that wily son of a bitch. He wasn’t trying to help us out. He would have had to open and close all seven of those gates by himself if he hadn’t picked us up.”
We laughed. The joke was on us, but it was a pretty good joke. We continued our way down the road. The wind erased our tracks as we made them, and carried the songs of meadowlarks, mourning doves, and redwing blackbirds.
I pulled to a stop in the grass alongside the highway and waited behind the wheel, tensed for the moment when no traffic would be visible from either direction. When the moment came, I stepped out of the pickup, locked the door, pocketed the keys, and slipped my daypack on, already striding toward the cutbank, which I climbed as quickly as I could without giving the appearance of actually running. Two cars came into view, one from each direction, just as I had climbed to the fence line high above the roadway. I found a hole in the fence and crawled through.
If I really want to get somewhere out in the country, and I believe I have a reasonably good chance of not getting caught, then the legalities of land ownership aren’t a very big factor in my decision to go there. It isn’t a political act. Nor is it for some outlaw thrill, although that can sometimes add a nice edge to the experience. Trespassing calls for stealth, stealth brings awareness, and awareness is another word for presence. Certain hunters understand this dynamic. They may come home empty-handed and still tell you that it had been a good hunt. Being present in the moment is a state we always aspire to but seldom attain.
The forest edge was a tangle of oaks so thick I had to turn sideways to get in. I was winded from the climb, and hyper alert as I threaded nearly silent through the grasping branches, until the shaded understory began to open up. I kept up a swift pace, letting my feet find their own way while my eyes scanned left and right, watching carefully for any sign of movement. I was breathing deeply, almost panting, each breath opening up my lungs, flooding my blood with oxygen and endorphins. After 30 minutes, deep into the woods and well winded, I sat on a flat sandstone boulder at the top of a steep, narrow canyon. I sat erect and focused on listening, attuned to every leaf rustle, birdsong, snapped twig, and falling acorn. My breathing slowed to normal, and then even slower.
I allow myself permission to trespass because I know I have good intentions. I never leave any sign of my passing, if I can help it, and I never take anything away when I go, with three exceptions: arrowheads, shed antlers, and old horseshoes.
I sat in stillness, listening, until I heard the cry of an eagle. Then, two eagles sailed into view from behind me, not far above the treetops, and followed the canyon down until they’d passed out of sight somewhere below me. I smiled because I had come there to find the eagles. Two more eagles followed the same path. I picked my way down among the boulders and fallen trees lining the narrow canyon, until the terrain began to flatten out beneath the thick canopy. I glanced up at the sky every few seconds. Two more eagles soared into view. They called out and were answered from further ahead.
I cut a wide arc through the woods, to get out from under their flight path, and worked my way back in from the side. I moved slowly and methodically, until I got back near the stream course that drained the canyon into a small, grassy valley. When I spotted the eagles’ roosting tree, I froze in place. I counted 18 eagles in the tree and in the air around it. Over the next several minutes, as the sun lowered and the light softened, I crept closer. At the edge of the woods, as close as I dared go, I lay down along a fallen log and watched them. One eagle flew right over me, low enough that I actually heard the whoosh of its wings. It sounded like a bellows.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015