Words: Brian Vernor | Photography: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | Date:
We are deep in the woods on a supposedly scenic two lane byway in the Ouachita Mountains (pronounced wosh-i-taw) just outside the town of Mena, Oklahoma where a month earlier a tornado turned half the town upside down, killing three. The reverent misty silence is occasionally interrupted by the distorted sound of climbing anthems leaking from dangling earphones of a few of the riders. Up to this point, hours of intermittent drizzle has simply made us wet and uncomfortable, but now its raining like God really means it. Like a Transylvanian fairy tale, the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge appears from the nearly opaque meteorology dominating the top of Rich Mountain, just in time for us to duck for cover and eat lunch.
We click-clack and squish-squash into the Lodge’s lobby, a mixture of feigned European opulence and bumpkin-hunter kitsch so past it’s relevance and prime it’s nearly hip. In a massive dining room, among ornate buffet islands and baroque furniture, dozens of earlybirders and tourists dine. A friendly if somewhat wary hostess, quickly apprising both our need to eat and aqueous condition, leads us to a backroom with a fireplace and long table, separated by a wall from the dry and normally attired guests. As coffee, tea, milkshakes and Cokes flow our way, our dining room is transformed with the sound of zippers, snaps and buckles into a half-time locker room. Shoes, lined-up and leaning against the base of the fireplace pool beneath a mantle littered with gloves, glasses, hats, and soaked warmers. Backs of chairs are draped with gilets, jerseys and Stowaways, with some of us down to only bib shorts and goose bumps. For the next fifty minutes we each eat meals consisting of fried okra, fried potatoes, vegetable melodies, meat sandwiches, pies, cookies and a host of indefinable, unmentionable Oklahoman buffet specialties. Now stuffed, still wet and colder than ever, it’s time to leave and attempt to finish the second and more difficult half of our ride.
20-miles of undulating yet ever ascending road later, in an intersection at the top of a road is our last chance to bail-out before committing to another 50-miles of climbing in what can only be described as a biblical downpour. We take stock of the situation. Cutting a ride short is generally considered sacrilege. Failure incarnate. For that reason, coupled with romantic visions of glory through real and present suffering, we would rather crawl, limp and claw our way home than get in the van. However in this case, and while it’s true some of suffered colossal conflict about doing so, we had an appointment no one wanted to miss. If we meant to keep it, prizing it above our objective and raison d’être, cycling, we had to decide now. Time and daylight are running out.
This wasn’t just any appointment. It was the chance to do as the Oklahoman’s do, to immerse ourselves in the local culture. To assimilate as we entered into the South. It was the chance for us city boys to trade our bikes and Sportwool for guns. Our hosts had arranged an armament of shotguns and 357’s, had stuffed a tree trunk with pots of Tannerite and had brought a flock of clay pigeons ready to meet their end. Not the sort of appointment any red-blooded American can really say “no” to.
Back at the cabin, we slowly come to congregate before a wide, uneven, forested swath of land at the end of which, 275 yards away, is claimed to be a bell. We are wearing a mixture of Rapha, denim and flannel and we’re armed and, as far as our own safety is concerned, potentially dangerous. Guns “kick”, smoke and make a deafening popping-bam so close to your head it’s as if the noise happens from inside you. We take turns warming-up and easing into the sportsman vibe. Greg hits the bell and bloodies his face, a victim of recoil, in the process. Our hosts Chris and Jason miss nothing, not once, not ever, while the rest of us meet various degrees of success and aggravate any wildlife still lingering on the edge of the woods. Eventually, the group moves on to another swath of broken hillside, this one wide-open for targeting clay pigeons.
Cole takes his shirt off. Sleeves are rolled-up and the near imperceptible shuffle of cycling caps shifted and tilted into “business position” is heard over the sound of dripping pine trees and crinkling bear cans. An orange “thrower” is produced and quickly employed to sling pigeons arcing and wobbling into the horizon from which they plummet if left un-hit. Which, at first, is mostly the case. But we are Continental and we are nothing if not committed to epic. So after an hour or so of pigeon practice, with most of us now successfully nicking or hitting one after the other, the main event is trotted out.
Tannerite™, brought to you by Binary Exploding Target Company, is a pot of powders stable until hit with a rifle bullet, upon which it explodes. Jason and Chris load a rotten tree trunk resting a hundred yards away in the center of our makeshift target range with several pots of Tannerite. Then, apparently for good measure and in the spirit of the woods around us, and the sportsman who roam them, they liberally pour gasoline over the top of it all. Pete Rubijno, who has military experience and is for this reason given the honors, accepts his destiny with aplomb. Pete, assuming possibly the most well known soldier position of all time, takes to his left knee. On cue, the rest of us, afraid of sappy shrapnel but too curious to go far, slink off to hide behind trees and one another. Head canted, right elbow resting on right knee, one eye squinting and the other staring down the barrel of his rifle, Pete takes aim and squeezes off his first shot. Miss. We scurry back into the clearing around Pete to acknowledge our building excitement and mounting stupidity, and to support Pete in preparation for his second attempt. Once again he takes aim and we run for cover.
The explosion is too loud to describe, but we are all immediately drawn out of our hiding spots and commence something like interpretive dance around the subsequent smoke and flames resembling a scene from some redneck adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. Three hours ago we cut our ride short so we could shout, hoot and holler around the smell of gasoline and sulfur and the spot where a perfectly good stump used to reside. In our books, Oklahoma is more than O-K.
Photo Essay Part 1
Photo Essay Part 2
Map and Cue Sheet
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