by Anna Ervin
When I was younger, I used to think Oklahoma’s landscapes were so bland. My family traveled a lot through the years, and I remember visiting states with clear blue ocean waters, or mountains blanketed in aspens and evergreens. I would think, why can’t I live somewhere like this. Somewhere that flaunts such beautiful sceneries within an hour’s drive of my home.
Each time our family would return to Oklahoma, I found myself scowling at the red dirt, or rolling my eyes at the never-ending span of wheat fields and the vast horizons that boasted no oceans or mountains or even hills, really. I carried this mindset with me for years, but I recently had an experience that allowed me to see my sweet home state through a fresh pair of eyes.
Justin Hope is Oklahoma’s very own weed pimp, volunteer trail guide, and one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I was lucky enough to meet up with him for one of the most breathtaking hikes I’ve ever seen, through Keystone Ancient Forest.
Located in Northeastern Oklahoma, KAF is a small portion of the Crosstimbers area. With over 1,300 acres of forest containing oak and cedar that have been standing for at least up to 500 years, this virgin land might just be one of Oklahoma’s best kept secrets, and Justin was giving me the VIP tour.
As we started our journey down the Frank Trail, I could tell that this area meant a lot to Justin, and that he had a deep-seeded respect for the forest surrounding us. “I used to run these woods as a kid,” he boasted. “I grew up on the other side of the river, just a few miles away. I always knew this area as the Eagle Reserve. There’s definitely a lot of history trapped out here.”
Indeed, what makes Keystone Ancient Forest such a rare gem in our state is that the land has hardly been disturbed by developers, due to it’s rough terrain, proximity to the lake, and various other landscape-related roadblocks. Lucky for us, aside from a few oil wells that went up several years ago, this patch of raw Oklahoma beauty has been primarily untapped by the industrial world. This is what allows “history” to hold such strong roots in the area (literally).
“They call this a virgin forest,” Hope continued. “The environment here preserves itself, as long as man doesn’t destroy it. We try to encourage people to stay on the trail.” I noticed as we hiked, that one thing that really set this park apart from others I’ve seen was the cleanliness. Aside from the clearly marked trail, there didn’t seem to be any waste left by other hikers. And, in the off chance that we did stumble upon a cigarette butt, or granola bar wrapper, Justin would quietly pick it up and add it to a plastic bag that he kept in his backpack.
“City folk,” he chuckled at one point, “throwin’ trash down.” He collected the leftover item. “Thank goodness there’s more of us, who want to clean up. It’s easy to do, really. If people would just think about it.”
When we found ourselves halfway into the 2.8 mile trek, we decided to pause for a break. The trail had brought us to an overlook of Keystone lake. I think each of us had the same idea in mind as we returned from our backpacks bearing joints and edibles.
Justin has a long history with cannabis, and thoroughly believes in it’s medicinal qualities. Cannabis helped him get off of a sleuth of pharmaceuticals that had been prescribed to him. Pills that felt like they were killing him, rather than healing.
As the smoke began to settle and we geared up to head back onto the trail, I suddenly became hyper-aware of my surroundings. I had not medicated before the hike, and up until that point I had felt like I was simply an observer of the beauty that surrounded us. Now, was fully immersed in it. Had the trees been this alive and green the whole time? Were the birds just now waking up to sing the soundtrack of our hike, or had I just not noticed them before?
I began to feel so small, like a tiny molecule in this massive, living, breathing organism that surrounded us. Picking up on my quiet observations, Justin commented, “If you think about it, you’re just a grain of rice in this bowl. Just a pebble out here in this world.”
He would slow down every now and then to point out the peculiar way the trees seemed to grow. Some appeared to actually grow through the large stones on the ground, while a few of them had trunks that curved to form a near perfect right angle, as if they had been markers set up by travelers long before our time.
Two trees in particular had seemingly wrapped themselves around each other, winding their trunks around the other in a spiraling motion. I sensed that this was not the work of man, only the divine force of nature could create something so pure and beautiful. “They’re holding each other until the day they die,” Hope observed, before excitedly changing the topic. “Have you heard about Cornnabis? Or Cannacorn?”
I was intrigued. “One of my plants started showing half white-yellow, half green on the leaf,” he continued. “It showed signs of mutation. And a couple of weeks later, I find that there’s corn growing right next to it. The plants, kind of like the trees that were holding hands, they grew up together.”
I admired his unique perspective on nature, and the ways of the universe, and realized that they were not much different from my own. Everything on this floating rock we occupy is so divinely connected. Nature has a way of supporting itself for survival, but in a holistic way.
Certain species of trees that are considered invasive, might compete with the other plant species surrounding them. Occasionally, however, when you find something like those intertwined tree trunks, or Justin’s Cannacorn, you realize that two organisms supporting each other can result in something so pure and beautiful.
Imagine what the world would look like if humans supported each other, or the environment, in those ways, building stronger foundations, lifting each other up.
We approached the Wilson trailhead. “Are you allergic to any poison ivy or poison oak?” Justin asked. “This is a little different from the other trail. We have these tapes up so people don’t get lost.”
I knew things were about to get a little more intense, so I packed up my camera and set off to follow him down a slightly rougher and much narrower path. It was difficult to focus on anything other than the ground in front of me, and Justin seemed to move through these woods like he had done it a million times before, and had rehearsed every step. “I’ve got that Indian lightfoot,” he had told me earlier, referring to his Native blood.
I began to slide into a meditative state as we trekked forward, feeling my heart rate increase as the trail became increasingly more challenging. It had been cold that morning, but the sun was beginning to peak through the canopy of trees overhead, and before long I felt a small bead of sweat work it’s way down the back of my neck.
The Frank trail had felt like a walk in the park compared to this, and I was loving every step of our new path. This was the kind of hiking I had been missing in Oklahoma– slight changes in elevation, challenging routes that forced me to carefully plan every step, and that satisfying feeling of being deep in a forest, far away from society and all its noise.
We paused for a break as I caught my breath and took in the scene around us. It was unlike anything the forest had offered so far. Cliffs of oddly shaped rocks towered over us on one side, a waterfall blanketed in dead leaves trickled nearby, and trees upon trees upon trees were scattered around us in every direction.
I wanted to climb the rocks, hike into the trees, and dust the leaves off that waterfall and run my hands through the stream. Then I remembered Justin’s comment about staying on the trail, and I realized that the reason this park had been so well preserved, was that people like Justin had enough respect for the environment to protect and preserve it. So, I set my “Jungle Book” fantasies aside and inhaled another deep breath of crisp, cool air.
We rounded out the Wilson Trail and headed back to our starting point. On the way, we began to discuss our thoughts on the universe and spirituality. I had previously mentioned the recent new moon to my guide, and, bringing it back up, he asked me if I was sensitive to the moon. I dove a little bit into my views on divinity, and how this hike had shown me the way everything in the universe seems so interconnected, but I was more interested in hearing Justin’s ideals on the topic.
“It is all somehow related,” he told me. “I’ve got the red blood in me, the Indian ways, the ways of One. I’m a true flatliner, so I do believe there’s a reason I’m still here.”
I wanted to tell him that maybe this was that reason, helping people realize the healing power of cannabis and nature, that the earth provides us with every single thing we need to survive, but I had a gut feeling he already knew that.
Follow Justin Hope on Instagram (@skunktail_pharms) for a glimpse at the history and beauty encapsulated by Keystone Ancient Forest, or better yet, plan a visit to the park today. www.sandspringsok.org