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The Trails

The trails ran out behind West 1st Street in West Tulsa, Oklahoma.  To get to them on foot or bike you had to wiggle in between the fence separating the Parrish and Ogle houses.  Invariably the Parrish’s dog would bark up a storm, day or night, when threading through, which made the trip (short though it was) more of an adventure than it had to be.  The Trails, as neighborhood kids referred to them, consisted of a southwest to northeast gash in the earth running alongside the barely used, by the summer of 1978, Kansas-Texas railroad tracks.  Running through and down and back up again were well-worn bike and motorcycles paths, under a thoroughly concealing canopy of trees.

Down inside the cut, where not traversed by dirt bike paths, were dense bushes of stuff we called grapevine (I say ‘we called’ because I never saw any grapes there).  The paths themselves dipped down as far as 15-18 feet before making the sometimes sharp ascent back to ground level.  They had been well worn by probably a couple of generations of neighborhood kids’ bike tires; the dirt was compacted into hardpan.  Nothing could grow there, they seemed quite old.

There were 15 or so distinct trails, most of the straight down and straight up variety, but some took a meandering route, even bisecting other trails.  They had varying degrees of difficulty, and had been nicknamed by the kids, “The Cliff” being the steepest, and “Pussy Path” the easiest.

But there was not much to them, really, for they only ran from about 43rd to just past 42nd Streets, along the long side of the trapezoidal neighborhood grid.  But to a 10 year old kid like me they seemed pretty huge and untamed and even a place of potential danger; and not just for the risk of bike accidents.

There were rumors that bandits had hid out there, and in some cases, had died there.  Parents had stories of bootleggers hiding out from the Law.  It was believable to me because once down in there, you were in a world apart, completely hidden even from the back porches of the houses along West 1st Street, only 100 feet or so away.  I never saw any bandits myself, but I do know it was a place for older kids to go when they’d ditch school, or do things they didn’t want seen by parents, like fooling around or smoking or bullying the smaller kids.

On the back side of the trails sat the slowly rusting K-T line.  Trains were so infrequent you could ascend the slight embankment and walk east along them for miles, running alongside the Sand Springs Expressway on its way to downtown Tulsa.  We headed out there one day on foot; a mixture of several older and same age neighborhood kids.  We were looking for the “caves.”  We found, along the left side of the tracks, what I was led to believe was a series of old Indian caves, centuries old.  It filled me with wonder.

I didn’t realize until years later it was really just a couple of dugouts in the embankment of the expressway, probably no older than the 1950’s when that part of the highway was built.  The only inhabitants were the down-on-their-luck types (what we called hobos).  When they wanted to travel they would put an old crosstie or a really big branch across the tracks so they could stop a freight train and hop on for a free ride to Kansas or Texas or wherever.

   I liked being up on the tracks, I was more visible out in the open and it tamped down the feelings of menace that the Trails always gave off to me.  For there was another house, next to the Ogle’s, that kind of served as the guard house to the Trails.  John Ivy, the biggest bully in the neighborhood, was a denizen of that rutted micro-jungle behind his back yard.  He got his cred by hopping on a K-T freight train without attempting to even slow it down.   He made it to downtown Tulsa before he got bored and hopped off but received a 7 inch slash on his forearm that he was forever proud of.2136.1277258133

I avoided him whenever possible, which was tough sometimes because he was friends with someone in my own house 2 blocks away on 43rd Street; my stepsister.

Several years older than me, these two liked to motorcycle back and forth on “The Cliff” – usually with a few kids like me in tow.  It seemed they wanted both an audience for their exploits as well as unwilling subjects for their “challenges.”  They’d get unwilling kids to cross the scary looking trails or arrange fistfights in a truly lame version of “Fight Club.”

Of course, if I had my way I’d be riding the ‘Pussy Path” back and forth on my cushy seated Huffy that my dad had bought me on special at the TG&Y a year before.  I thought about these riding preferences a few times while roped to my bike and swinging back and forth over one of the medium grade trails.

Some of the trees that overhung the trails had ropes tied to their branches so kids could swing back and forth.  It looked to me like the kinds of places where lynchings had occurred.  Some of the ropes were years old and some of them new.  They were sometimes used to motivate unwilling little kids to make the steeper trail crossings.  John, probably, got the idea to tie kids to their seats so they couldn’t jump off when pushed over trail edges.  This evolved to tying and suspending/swinging up above.

Kids liked to smoke cigarettes down there too where you couldn’t even see or smell the smoke.  When nobody had any Kools or Marlboros, the ‘grapevine’ at the bottom of the ditch served as a substitute.  The twigs of the plant were hollow and you could actually break one off and light it up.  It had a sweet kind of taste that I would try to erase with Laffy Taffy, so my dad or stepmom wouldn’t find out.  I still don’t know exactly what that was.

If I was stuck with the older ones until dark I sometimes got to join their mini crime wave exploits back down South 43rd and South 42nd.  John had a penchant for collecting chrome valve stem caps off people’s car tires (they were more the status symbol back then).  Then he’d sometimes let the air out for good measure.  Mr. Parrish, right at the entrance back to West First, suffered many flat tires thanks to him (and us).

I was too small to enjoy the trails for what they really were, a place of bicycling adventure.  I was scared of the place not only because of its creepy secluded nature (where anything could happen to you), but because of the people who hung out there.  They ruined it not only for me, but other kids too.  The bigger kids had a way of spoiling all of my fun in those days.  So the Trails became a place to transit on my way to somewhere else, usually to the area behind my friend Lesley’s back yard.

The depth of the Trails became less and less as you went east on them towards 41st Street.  Finally, right around Lesley Leeds’ house they became level with the ground and disappeared altogether.  Right around there was a dirt oval that Les would race around in his go-kart.  When I’d get there and feel like I was back in the ‘safe zone.’  Lesley’s older brother Wesley made sure nobody messed with him so I was under that umbrella too.

Sometimes I’d just go north across to the named streets Archer and Brady; and where South 43rd Street became North 43rd.  It seemed truly like “the other side of the tracks” and it looked to me like we were on the wrong side.  The houses were bigger, I didn’t know anyone there and I liked to just walk around and dream of getting older and bigger and getting out.

A year later I did get out, moving to California, and shortly thereafter someone on West 1st got the idea that if they used the Trails as a junkyard they could keep the kids out of there.  And so it developed that the Trails filled in with tires and propane tanks and stuff and grew over with weeds.  Ridden no more, the hardpan ruts themselves loosened up and sprouted greenery.

A few years after that the K-T line shut down for good and they ripped up all the tracks, removing the traditional dividing line between north and south in that neighborhood.  They paved it over and turned it into what became a 9 mile pedestrian path called the Katy (K-T, get it?) Jogging Trail.  Gentrification had come to West Tulsa.  I visited it years later in 2004 and after wiggling my way between the fences of the former Parrish and Ogle houses saw that the old Trails had become a flat oasis with a few trees.  I stood there slack jawed while a few pimped out cyclists passed me on the Katy, talking on their cell phones.

I whispered to myself, “Where is it that the bullies go when their natural habitats disappear?” And then I hoped (probably naively) that they had become an endangered species in West Tulsa.

The Katy Trail, now.

The Katy Trail, now.

1 reply
  1. Luis Zea
    Luis Zea says:

    Wow. I had no idea these trails existed. Thanks Bill for bringing a bit of neighborhood history back to life.

    Reply

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