Almost exactly 18 years ago I made a road trip from Los Angeles, California to Wilmington, Delaware. Upon exiting Oklahoma, I made a solemn vow never to return (that’s a story for another time). Well, circumstance forced me to re-examine this vow, and I made the fateful decision to give the state another chance. I had to get from Indianapolis to Midland, Texas and the shortest route and the most favorable weather conditions meant traversing Oklahoma from North to South (mercifully, the shorter dimension).
As I was motoring through Missouri, I began to worry about I-44 in Oklahoma being a toll road. I realized that I was carrying very little cash and had no idea how much the tolls might be which was increasingly becoming a point of concern. I stopped for gas in Springfield Missouri, hoping to find a convenience store with an ATM inside. No such luck. However, when I asked the girl behind the counter at the one where I did stop if there was an ATM nearby, she asked about my specific bank (she had taken notice of it on my debit card). I replied that any bank would do and she then gave me directions to MY bank, located only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea that MYBank (not the actual name) even had branches in Missouri. Ah, the gentle hand of fate…. I zip over, grab the cash, and hit the highway for Oklahoma.
The first sign that things weren’t going to go well came soon enough, in the form of an actual sign; a big sign listing the rules and regulations for the “Expressway”. First of all, the sign wasn’t legible (due to not reflecting well, it was dark) until I was right upon it. Then all I managed to read as it flashed by was something about the toll being $3.50 and something about 50mph, which I assumed was the speed limit. “No worries” I thought, “60mph isn’t too awfully slow, I’ll drive 60.” So, 60-ish it was. Then I saw a sign that said, “Don’t drive into smoke”. “‘don’t drive into smoke?’ What the… surely I misread that.” I thought. Then I saw another and another. Hmmm… apparently if I come across this mysterious smoke, I’m supposed to just stop, in the dark, on the interstate. After quite some time, I see the first speed limit sign, 75mph/50mph minimum. Ack! So I ratchet my speed up to 80-ish and rush headlong into the night, hoping not to be swallowed by “the smoke”. Then I come to the first toll plaza, which baffled me with its bizarre layout. I pay my $3.50(!) and ask the attendant what the deal is with the “don’t drive into smoke signs”. He tells me it’s because the 5 indian nations sometimes go on the warpath and light signal fires; which sounded reasonable to my addled, sleep deprived brain. He then laughs and says that actually it’s because sometimes there are prairie fires with thick clouds of smoke and it’s just a precaution. Ok, whatever…
So, as I’m pulling out of the toll plaza there’s an OHP vehicle, a big black and white SUV, waiting, I imagine, to nab folks that try to slip through without paying the toll. Until he falls in behind me, lights flashing. I just laughed and said to myself “I should have kept my mouth shut about the smoke.” The officer approaches my passenger side window, I roll it down, and he asks for my license. I hand it over, then manage to knock over my 20oz Coca-Cola, which I hadn’t properly tightened the cap on, Coke sprays everywhere, primarily on the box of CD’s in the front seat, but basically on everything in the front of the car. He then asks me to step to the rear of the vehicle. I put on my shoes, do my best to mop up some of the mess, and then “step to the rear of the vehicle”. I ask, “Is there a problem, officer?”
“No there’s no problem” he shoots back with more than a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “Well, then why the Hell are you bothering me?” I said (inside). He explains that I neglected to signal when I exited the expressway and asks me to sit in the front seat of his Gestapo-wagon. The fact that I hadn’t actually “exited the expressway” but had merely followed it to the toll plaza was apparently lost on him.
He magnanimously just wrote me a warning, asked a few questions about where I work, where I’m headed, etc. (which I know is an attempt to get me to admit that I’m smuggling drugs, bootlegging cigarettes from the reservation or engaged in some other despicable criminal enterprise), admonished me to be careful, and sent me on my way.
Another interesting feature the Oklahoma highways have is that they are designed completely opposite the way common sense and tradition dictates they should be. For instance, they have centrally located fuel/food/bathroom stops, forcing you to exit from, then later merge back into the fast lane of the highway. In another brilliant bit of traffic engineering genius, there are no signs telling you how to get back out of these awful things. So, naturally, I managed to get back on their so-called “expressway” going in the wrong direction. This was compounded by the lack of proper signage to inform you of such details as the road name, direction, or speed limit; yet they have plenty of signs warning me not to “drive into smoke” (which also happened to be about the only signs that were actually reflective, and therefore, legible). My error doesn’t become apparent until after I negotiate another of their rat maze/toll plazas, stupidly reply “no” when the attendant asks if I need a receipt, and see a (barely legible) sign for Oklahoma City, which I had passed through some time ago. “Shit”, says I, “I’m going the wrong way.” I finally get to an exit, turn around, pay the same toll (for the third time) and get back to the horrible island of idiocy that started the whole thing, having now pissed away nearly an hour. At the next toll plaza, I go through a lane with the basket you throw your change into. Unfortunately, due to the Coke incident earlier, my change is all sticky and doesn’t want to work in the machine. Thankfully, I have just enough to make up for the 4 or 5 sticky nickels it refuses to count. I am also somewhat placated by the thought that perhaps my sticky coins have gummed up their machine.
I finally make it out of their God-forsaken state, having been given a (in my opinion) completely arbitrary “written warning”, sprayed everything in the front of my car with coke, wasted an hour, paid 2 $3.50 tolls, 1 $1.50 toll (3 times), one $1.25 toll, and one toll which was either $1.25 or $1.50.
I was tremendously happy to finally be in Texas, though I did feel that Oklahoma should have been paying me for tolerating their awful state rather than me paying them for the priveledge of being tormented.
Thankfully, the rest of my trip went beautifully, more to come.