A More than an OK Trip to Oklahoma
“Where are you headed?” asked the gentleman next to me as soon as our bus sped off from the Indianapolis Greyhound terminal.
“Missouri,” I said, reminding myself that I should start being more conversational with people. The gentleman had been cheerful from the moment he entered the bus, even complementing a nursing mother with her baby in the seat across the aisle.
“Oh! That’s wonderful! I've been there a couple of times myself. You live there?”
“No, I’m visiting a friend over summer,” I replied, tersely.
“Where in Missouri?” he kept prodding.
“Saint Louis” is all that came out.
I nodded smilingly, whispering a meek “Yeah.”
“Missouri is beautiful,” he continued, gesticulating as he spoke, while his eyes sparkled beneath his baseball cap. “…rolling hills and full of green meadows. But don’t trust the women in Missouri…my ex-wife was from there,” he burst into a friendly laughter.
That was the first time I heard someone say hills “rolled.” I laughed along with him, and my expectation of Missouri — not just St Louis — was stoked further.
Fast forward to four months, I was living by the words of the stranger in the bus. I was travelling to Oklahoma City along with Sam, the guy I was sharing apartment with in St Louis, and his girlfriend. Sam’s cousins lived in Oklahoma and they had invited us there to celebrate Dashain together with them.
We drove past the famous Six Flags that looked abandoned due to the seasonal hiatus; the towering roller coaster ride tracks and eerie steel figures stared down fixedly on the highway travelers.
It was my first road trip after I came to the States eight months ago, and to say I was excited would be an understatement. I felt guilty that I didn't know how to drive, but I was also glad because I got to see the “Show-Me-State” as a privileged backseat passenger.
I was soaking in the countryside panorama as our car zipped on Interstate 44 leaving St Louis far behind — Missouri indeed was beautiful!
There would be moments in the car when nobody spoke, and suddenly Sam would bring up a random topic that we would talk about at length. When we were bored out looking at the endless highway through the windshield, we played antakshari and stopped when it got awkward.
It felt that somehow Dashain had found its resonance even in America’s Midwest, because the highway traffic looked unusually light — much like how roads in Nepal would wear a deserted look on this day.
Sam’s girlfriend was a quintessential fussy teenager — she was arrogant and had a hair-trigger temper who spoke only when she had to scold Sam. Rest of the time she would keep to herself, smiling scarcely and remained mostly uninterested in our conversations.
Our car crossed Joplin — a small town that was flattened to fragments by a merciless tornado in 2011 — and after a few miles paid our dues at the Will Rogers Turnpike. There, we drove under a McDonald’s Restaurant building that arched over the highway lanes — like an overhead bridge! The building was so amusing that I made a mental note to myself to take a picture on our way back.
A milestone with Missouri state map said we were about 170 miles closer to Oklahoma City.
American state map can always be a conversation starter — the Oklahoma state map on the road signage along the highways gave us a funny topic to talk about. For those who are not familiar, Oklahoma state map resembles a human fist with its index finger pointed west — like it’s putting the blame on the neighboring state of New Mexico.
It always brings out the kid inside you if you can decipher meanings out of inanimate objects; more so, if they suggest funny inference. You would agree, if you were one of those who, as kids, would lie down on green grass and interpret sensible shapes out of the weirdly-shaped clouds.
Sam was restless — even jumpy at this point — because he had been looking forward to this day for long. He was an interesting person; his forte laid in the fact that once he set his mind on doing something, he would beg, steal or lie to accomplish it at any cost. He possessed a superpower to manipulate people. At that time though, his excitement to meet his folks was evident by the fact that he was reporting our journey’s progress to his cousins by calling them every half an hour.
We passed by a small town whose name I pronounced wrong and Sam made fun of me for the next few months. Apparently, Tulsa was not pronounced tool-saa in the same way speakers of Nepali language pronounced basil (tulsi) in their vernacular; this town was pronounced tall-saa. My knowledge about Missouri and its neighboring states were very limited at that time, and I only remember Tulsa to be a small town whose city lights shimmered on the river between clusters of buildings that silhouetted against the twilight sky.
Never had I imagined at that time I would come back to this beautiful city twice in the future to create one of the most beautiful road trips and also one of the scariest memories of my life.
Upon reaching Oklahoma City, Sam’s cousins gave us driving directions to their apartment as we drove through nondescript residential neighborhoods. We were in Edmond, a suburban college town populated heavily with students of University of Central Oklahoma.
When we finally reached our destination, there was a brash reunion between the four cousins, after which the hosts escorted us inside their crammed apartment. In one corner of the living room, I saw an assortment of 12- and 18-pack beer cases piled up to welcome us guests. I got introduced to the four lads for the first time — the eldest of the tribe Kritesh was the same age as me; his cousin brother Ankit with a receding hairline; and his little brother Arjan, the youngest and lankiest of all. Sanatan, another cousin of Sam who lived with his girlfriend a few blocks away, had come there too.
After the pleasantries, our friends decided to show us around the city. We drove through downtown Oklahoma which wore a cleaner and much desolate look than other downtowns I had seen in the U.S.
It was already dusk, and our hosts took us to visit 9:01 Memorial, located in the heart of downtown Oklahoma. The memorial was built in honor of the victims killed during the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. I had no idea that the U.S. had a bloodied history of terrorism besides the well-known 9/11 attack in New York City. Going by the perpetrator’s motive based on incidents that took place somewhere else, it astonished me to think why would anybody target a public building with a daycare center to spread their propaganda?
The presence of the memorial added somberness in the unusually calm neighborhood. Its entrance gives way to a rectangular pool of still water that extends to another metal gate identical to the one at the entrance. The two gates — respectively lit with 9:01 and 9:02 timestamps to mark the time between which the tragedy struck — are known as The Gates of Time. The wall alongside the gates bears the names of survivors who endured the bombing much like the wall itself. The liquid pool mirrors the reflection of the memorial park with such detail as if to create a parallel world reminiscence of those lost in the killing.
The story behind the attack is that the bomber — a disgruntled ex-army man — drove a truckload of explosives during a normal workday and parked below the erstwhile Federal Building which was brought down to ashes moments after the bombs went off.
A short walk away from the memorial, there is the Field of Empty Chairs — rows of cubicle monuments built to commemorate each victim and mark their absence at the family dinner tables. From a distance, it looked like a cemetery with glowing tombstones. The chairs are arranged in nine rows that represent the nine storeys of the building destroyed in the bombing.
We left the site, filled with a deep sense of sorrow and an unknown fear for the future. Our fun spirit came to a sober realization after the visit, albeit briefly.
We returned to our friends’ place and Sam’s excitement expressively turned into an event of solo dancing to loud music, which later evolved into a group dance because he forced others to join him. We were just shy of a fireplace, or being clad in dresses made out of animal skins, to make it look like a tribal celebration. Nevertheless, it was a fun event and I enjoyed every sip of Budweiser I drank that evening.
Later at night, we went grocery shopping to buy stuffs for cooking homemade Nepali dinner — mainly chicken meat and steamed momos. On the way back, the car I was in with Kritesh had a puncture and to my surprise, we drove some 3 miles to his home wobbling on a flat tire!
The morning after, our hosts took us to Hefner Lake which is located half an hour away from downtown Oklahoma. Fresh breeze from the lake greeted us while we sat atop the stone wall that encircles the waterfront. The man-made lake is a popular destination among locals for picnic, fishing, sail-boating and other water sports; it also has 5 miles of scenic drive around it. I imaged the park adjacent to the lake would be packed with barbecuing families on holidays.
We were spoiled for choices by the plans our local friends had made for us. Our next trip was to Wichita Mountain, an hour-and-a-half drive from the city. We split up in two cars and set off on our journey. The trip till the mountain was somewhat monotonous, and I was surprised I had not spotted any Native American individual so far during our trip in the state fondly known as Native America.
I, for that matter, had hardly encountered, let alone befriended, any person of Native American origin during my entire stay in the States. Later I came to know that it’s because most of the Native American population willfully avoid public interaction, in addition to being politically marginalized. The only Native American I befriended was a charming, hippie black girl called Garland who flirted with me at the gas station I worked at in St Louis. A SoCal girl, she claimed to be a half-Cherokee, half-African American blood.
Our cars swerved along the winding roads that led to the Wichita Mountain (Wildlife Refuge) as we devoured the vast panorama at the distance and a windmill farm dotted with huge turbines. Families mostly with kids crowded the hilltop and the joy in everyone’s face was refreshing to look at. The strong mountain wind blew crazily and we climbed on the humongous rocks that reared up on the north side of the mountaintop.
I had become fast friends with Arjan, who was treating his eyes with the view of the blue horizon blending silently with the green earth. The view directly down the rocks gave us vertigo; and I mentally agonized at the thought of tumbling down the gorge.
And then, it was time for the ruthless digital camera to overpower the blissful moments; we assembled for a series of group pictures that interfered with our sightseeing. A click or two is never enough, and especially if it’s a Nepali group, we will make sure everyone gets their turn to shoot “single photos” as well.
We, the visitors from Missouri, envied the Oklahomies — a portmanteau that I coined by merging Oklahoma and homies — for having so many exotic destinations right in their backyard. Being fairly new to St Louis, I didn’t realize back then that St Louis also had many great places to explore, which I figured out during the next 3 years of my stay there.
Kritesh told us stories about how their clique would drive to the Wichita Mountain on weekends when they felt like escaping the city’s daily grind.
“We take our guitars, bring packs of Corona (beer) from work and some weed for a good time. We sit in a circle and sing our difficulties away,” he said, speaking for everyone in his group who worked dead-end jobs to make their living. “We have been lucky not to be held up by cops so far,” he gleamed, explaining their sneaking into the park against the everyday after-hour curfew past dusk.
Nepali students in Oklahoma, like any other part living in the US, mostly went to community colleges and worked painfully long hours at grocery stores for sustenance. Our local friends guesstimated that there were at least 500 Nepalese in Oklahoma City during that time, but were more close-knit unlike in other cities.
Ankit said that since the past several years, Nepalese presence in neighboring Texas was huge and booming further. “Nepalese from all over the country (Nepal) are there, so much so that we've heard about gang fights between them and regional tensions!” Among other stories, I found it particularly interesting to know that many Nepalese in Texas were involved in petty crimes like carjacking, and they escaped to Oklahoma to seek refuge.
Nepalese there were definitely living up to the Texan notoriety, I thought, mentally picturing the Wild West-style standoffs between rugged outlaws and mean sheriffs outside an ole saloon.
Our journey back to Oklahoma City was full of similar anecdotes that had us Missourians agape with curiosity. The Oklahomans claimed that at least two of them had been robbed at gunpoint while on duty at their respective stores.
We drove back to our friends’ apartment and readied ourselves for the return trip, modestly declining their request to stay longer. We said our goodbyes and left Oklahoma in the evening, giving enough time for us to attend college and show up for our jobs the following day.
I had a big day ahead of me — a class test and, more importantly, my first driving test. I was too impatient to get my driver’s license, therefore I didn't take Sam’s advice to reschedule the appointment with my driving instructor Bill for later.
As the night grew deeper, I sprawled over the car’s backseat and slept throughout most of our journey through the night, ignoring Sam’s heavy use of expletives in trying to keep me awake. He wanted someone to talk to other than his overbearing girlfriend, who also slumbered through the night.
In hindsight, I think I should have followed Sam’s advice back then, because the next day, despite drinking two cans of energy drink and fighting the fatigue, sleep deprivation combined with test anxiety took a toll on me and I failed the driving test.
It was the first of my three painful attempts to get one. But good luck came to me threes — because when I finally earned my stripes as a legal driver, it opened a door of opportunities for several road trips around the US.