Roadtrip East: Oklahoma

It’s funny how memories from years ago fade in accuracy, yet they suddenly come alive with a renewed perspective. Even though I tend to remember so much.

It was my first homecoming football game at my alma mater in 31 years.

Las Cruces to Norman OK, around town and then back, is a long drive! You’ll see the scenery and plants change, as the climate and even soils, change.


From the Chihuahuan Desert around White Sands and east of Tularosa, to the Sacramento Mountains before Ruidoso, it changes fast on the almost 4000 foot climb.


I could live right there.


Not far east of Ruidoso NM, tall ponderosa pines thin out to Juniperus monosperma, Pinus edulis, and Nolina greenei.


Then the riparian belt along one of the most beautiful spots in New Mexico, the Hondo Valley. Home to a few ranches and small farms, plus the Rinconada-Hurd Gallery. Those folks are connected to the Wyeths, I seem to recall.


“There’s a farmer in the valley, he’s as happy as can be
A pretty, dark-eyed señorita, works besides him in their fields…”
– Flying J Wranglers


Several more bends in the road and down further in elevation, it’s Chihuahuan Desert: Fouquieria splendens, Dasylirion leiophyllum, and Nolina greenei compete with various arid-native grasses like Bouteloua spp.


Most every map and book misclassifies this as plains grassland. Sound familiar, ABQ?


Not very plains with the savanna of desert candles within thin grasses. Nothing like Amarillo or where we’re about to travel.


Now were on the Llano Estacado, where Quercus havardii anchors the semi-arid, sandy western side and the borderline sub-humid eastern sides.


But with many ecoregions, there is some transition from soil differences. A good map might use dashed lines instead of solid lines on the plains, unlike for sharper changes most mountain ranges.

Here, Chihuahuan desert grassland native Hilaria mutica grows with spotty desert grasses, though some of this is overgrazing on sandy soils, too.


Texas has some pastoral rest areas. This one is east of Lubbock on the eastern edges of the Llano Estacado.


Now we’re on the Rolling Plains and nearing the sub-humid prairies of north Texas and a large swath of central portions of the great state of Oklahoma. On a climatic boundary from steppe to prairie, where weather often sets up a dryline, it’s usually windy. Not to mention we are now in Tornado Alley.


By the time daylight ran out, the air was decidedly more humid, at least at that point in time. This is just west of Seymour, my only stop for BBQ on the trip. And look at those lush grasses, even if Johnsongrass. And the hefty trees are a mix of prairie hackberries and oaks.



A couple hours after dinner and dark, I reached the lowest elevation as I crossed the Red River into the great state of Oklahoma. The full moon was up. My phone’s GPS showed 950 feet elevation – that’s low for me.

One could really feel the moisture in the heavier air, though it cooled and dried some coming into Norman in time for bed.


Awakening at my weekend lodging in Norman, it was chilly, with everything covered in dew, and much different than home. But there was a large Opuntia to keep me company.


(Opuntia gilvescens is the species I keyed it out to, almost 1 year later…it’s perhaps the most cold-hardy of the large padded types of Opuntia, native from southernmost Utah and the Four Corners east into southern Oklahoma)

It had some winter damage, but it must be tough to live in the Great Plains’ bipolar weather swings! I also saw that lusher Opuntia in Amarillo the next day. 

After breakfast, walking the campus brought back memories, though OU seems to have gone crazy with Acer rubrum. But it’s a fitting color in the land of crimson and cream.


So collegiate of an atmosphere with the fall colors, and relaxing, especially that I no longer have to do studio projects or homework. This building is new construction or a total renovation of the building I did some time in, the architecture school.


“Of campus beautiful by day and night…” And in October, we’re not worthy. Of all the campuses, this one makes me smile that I’m an alumnus. Not that several others aren’t also amazing. Stanford comes to mind.

This view down the north passageway was magical in that light.


The view on the South Oval towards Bizzell Memorial Library is better than ever.


I really like OU’s use of broadleaf evergreens as formal hedges or as just accents. They really take advantage of what they can do in humid Z 7, regardless that it is on the eastern Great Plains, one of the most wild climates in North America.

I only wish there were far more prairie plantings on campus, and not mostly lawn vs. shrub. They certainly have enough lawn that they could afford to lose some to swaths of native prairie.

Though lawns need little irrigation there. Mostly, there is no turf irrigation.

This, my friends, is the Cherokee Gothic Architecture style, a term coined by Frank Lloyd Wright himself.


On game day, so peaceful. I sat at the other end and just took in my favorite place on campus when I went to OU.


Entering the North or Van Vleet Oval, the original campus buildings at OU.



Walking around and off campus over my 4 years, I always envied people who live in a cozy, residential neighborhood like this, walk to their job at the university, and don’t need to park for games.

A shady garden of Liriope muscari and Buxus microphylla under a tree I forget, but possibly Betula nigra.


The game and all that crimson of us Big Red fans. Boomer!



Sunday meant it was time to drive back home to the desert and some interesting life turns later that week.

When it got light, I was on the rolling, sub-humid prairies west of El Reno. Since this region already had their first freeze or two, all the deciduous trees lining the distant creek or river were turning or were going bare. Ranch or range land here.


The above strips of wooded areas are a mix of Juniperus virginianaQuercus stellata, and Q. marilandica.

And in special spots, areas of a more southerly influence with Quercus buckleyi, mixed with taller grasses like several species of Andropogon and the state grass Sorghastrum nutans and Rhus aromatica turning OU crimson. The soil is a cross of that same crimson and that other Oklahoma school’s orange. Got to be fair.

Many call it simply “red dirt,” and it’s quite sandy where oaks grow.


Some areas have low woods of oaks and even some hickories, called Cross Timbers. These were a pain to cross for early settlers.



West of Clinton, it shifts into semi-arid steppe. If you like it, watch Dances With Wolves, or like I did in college, finish the drive to Denver, so you can drive through about the same thing for 450 more miles.


At 20-25 inches of rainfall on the eastern ends of steppe, there are even shorter wooded areas of hybrid oaks between the Cross Timbers just noted and Q. havardii we discussed much earlier going east. You won’t see many trees, soon.


This is a fall, post-first hard freeze expanse of russet Schizacrium scoparium.

Below looks unfrosted, with some strips of tardily deciduous or semi-evergreen Quercus mohriana, which I’ve seen on protected, moister places on the southern plains as far northwest as far southern Colorado.


Midwestern or southern prairies and western steppes meet, as the cool sculptures of Juniperus virginiana mix with Artemisia filifolia, russet little bluestems, and so on.


This was by Shamrock, which is on that dryline and boundary between humid and dry air often in the warm season. Those oaks in the distance are relics from moister times, or colonizing since white man has stopped prairie fires. Either way, it’s moist enough to sustain them in the right soil; not so in 20-30 miles west.


The first true Yucca glauca, confused by many with the smaller and earlier-flowering Yucca baileyi var. intermedia in the middle Rio Grande Valley and northwest. This is simply a greener, more watered version of the high plains around and east of Denver. That yucca is everywhere there, too.


Now, were nearing Clovis, still semi-arid steppe, and flat! We’re back on the Llano Estacado, with loads of center pivot irrigation. Just like so much land between Denver and the western third of Kansas.



Transitioning into arid lands, some Prosopis glandulosa and Artemisia filifolia and decidedly less grass cover.


Chihuahuan Desert is now winning out, with this shrub (not sure of the ID) mixing with some Larrea tridentata nearby.


Bouteloua curtipendula gives way to creosote bush scrub and gravelly desert pavement soils.


West of Roswell, classic Chihuahuan desert grassland with Echinocereus dasyacanthus hiding all over, Vachellia vernicosa, and Nolina greenei or N. texana. Got me.


Looking just like Amarillo or Denver the foothills by Alamogordo, it’s Dasylirion leiophyllum once again on limestone-derived aridisols. Not mollisols. Sheesh!

And Mimosa biuncifera aka Wait-a-Minute Bush. Brush against one and you’ll know why.


Juglans microcarpa along the dry arroyos.



Very few people I’ve heard who drove through Oklahoma, even on I-40, say they weren’t pleasantly surprised at how attractive it was.

Coming from the desert or high plains to the west, it’s not all table-flat, and the countryside is refreshingly green. Coming from the east, the land opens up before Oklahoma City or even Tulsa, when the southeastern forests give way to the southern prairies. Even Norman, which looks like the quintessential college town in the US Heartland, has been paying attention to attractive streeetscape treatments; it was not nearly so attractive in the 1980’s.

Living in New Mexico 27 years and in San Diego before that out of college, I’ve forgotten much about the middle of the US…think of an irregular triangle or oval touching Denver on the west and spreading out to the east including Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Omaha. (where I was born)

Norman was exactly as I remembered it, just like when I went there as a college freshman. The mood was much like the Denver suburb I spent middle and high school…cordial. Nothing offensive is meant by that, but compared to other surrounding areas, its blend of college students and residents are just that way.

With 35 inches of rain each year, plus some ice / snow storms or tornado sirens thrown in with plenty of wind, that red clay soil nourishes a good variety of leafy oaks and other trees of the southern prairies. In late October, the mix of green and fall colors was amazing even in the balmy low 80’s the day I was in Norman, to watch the Sooners beat up the visiting Kansas State Wildcats for our homecoming game.

OU’s campus has always looked stellar, maybe now better than ever?


I hope to post on my drive from Austin back to Las Cruces soon. It’s at least as interesting.

3 Replies to “Roadtrip East: Oklahoma”

  1. “Cherokee Gothic Architecture style”… I spit my coffee.

    Excellent road trip shots, although I can’t help but think you need one of those Google mapping cars, with the rotating camera on top. That way you wouldn’t have to pull over to take your photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love noticing how the terrain changes as one drives different directions. I’m very close to the Pineywoods/Blackland Prairie/Post Oak Savanna change, just a 10 mile drive west shows the change drastically. It’s nice being able to name plants or at least families of plants to notice how they change when traveling any distance.


  3. David:

    Thank you for the update. I love your descriptive travel log. Very observant! Keep up the blog!


    John M. White Garden Curator Chihuahuan Desert Garden 500 W. University Ave. El Paso, TX. 79968

    Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Blanco! I intend to keep up the blog. It’s too much enjoyment to see the changes in ecology, imagining the day all these plants are available and used more.


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