The encore.

Dear friends,

Last weekend I spent some time digging through my computer archive in my ongoing quest to recover files from my not-so-long-ago crash and — lo and behold — I found exactly what I was looking for. (Imagine that . . . after only weeks of searching. Think my file structure could use a little work?)

I even found all the files associated with my former blog (files I had been grieving the loss of almost as much as I missed my old home).

So in celebration of finding my stash of favorite words (lots of favorite words!), Debt of Gratitude will be featuring an encore of sorts every Thursday. Each week, I’ll pull one of my favorites from the vault. If you followed me over from my former blog, I hope the re-run won’t annoy you. If you’re a new reader — hey, it’s fresh to you AND I get a writing break. Win-win!

With gratitude {for having the good sense to back up my computer every now and then and the patience to meticulously sift through my archive},

Joan, who covets words like some folks fancy money

Westward Ho.

Written in the car while driving west through the Oklahoma panhandle.
First published on July 25, 2009.

Driving west across the long strip of flat earth known as Oklahoma’s panhandle one warm July evening, I gaze at the sea of green prairie pushing the edges of infinity into the brilliant blue horizon and think there’s a bit of the pioneer in me . . . a gleeful peripatetic who’s never happier than when the landscape stretches out in front of her.

Let me say for the record that I know nothing of hardship, or of the raw courage it takes to pull up stakes and venture into the perilous prospect of an overland trip with nothing more to rally me than a vague cheer like “Westward Ho!”  I did embark on my own, once, although I headed east.  Moving to a New England metropolis post-college hardly seems like prospecting, even during the Gordon Gekko decade when the “Massachusetts Miracle” drew fortune hunters of all ages and professions.  So as my husband drives our family across our home state to our destination in Colorado, I am mindful that a 12-hour ride in a 2006 Dodge three-quarter ton pickup — with a DVD player and no less than three iPods and one Mac Book as partial cargo — bears little resemblance to the months-long journey of history’s real adventurers in their two-horsepower covered wagons carrying precious little provisions.  I have a ribbon of asphalt by which to navigate.  I have lodging awaiting me at the halfway point, courtesy of  And I’ve traveled this particular road enough times to know exactly which of the three Starbucks along our route offers the best latte.

Still, as an intermittent flash of lightening in the northern sky illuminates the farmhouses that now punctuate this corner of a state once considered fit only for a nation’s red-skinned castoffs, I remind myself that I am both Oklahoman and Native American, and enough of both to find discomfiting anything but this glorious, open landscape of my birth.  I have the hubris to believe I could have made it here as a homesteader.  As cookie-cutter housing developments and strip malls increasingly crowd out my timeworn notions of the “space” that defines my homeland, I long to head west to the Panhandle– itching for the unbroken horizon and room to breathe.

As soon as we pass Enid, the last big city headed west out of Oklahoma on Highway 412, I settle.  I silently observe the archipelago of tiny towns – “wide places in the highway” as my grandmother used to call them — reciting their names by memory: Fort Supply, May, Slapout, Hardesty. By now the kids are dozing, lulled by their Top 40 playlists and the comfortable accommodations of an extended cab pickup.  There are precious few radio signals to be had in this hinterland and I’m all the happier for it.  My husband and I drive in silence, remarking only when a hawk captures its dinner within arm’s length of our pickup or a crash of thunder startles a sleepy teenager.  One of the passengers awakens and the driver tells him of a past trip across this land when we witnessed a prairie fire sparked by a ferocious lightening bolt.  We suddenly hit a stretch of newly paved highway where there used to be rough passage and we happily note the legislative largesse that is our good fortune.  Carefree cheer carries us along another 15 miles until a sudden downpour reminds us that one risk of traveling by wagon – whether antique or modern — is soggy provisions.  We silently wonder if our suitcases are water resistant and keep burning up the miles as the rain ebbs and a red sunset ignites the prairie grass like glowing embers.

Every summer we head west.  And though the mountains call us to them like a mare to foals, I never fail to appreciate the austere beauty of the Panhandle passage that takes us there.  The Okie blood pulsing through my veins slows a little as the sky grows ever larger and the residue of modern life fades into the open range.

My Oklahoma prairie draws a hard line against the sky, but it softens me, sustains and substantiates me, as the bluestem and switchgrass wave to the scissortails and quail and egrets and even the magpies, and all who are blessed enough to call this place home.