My very first year in Oklahoma, way back in 2001, I spent Independence Day on Grand Lake. I was fortunate enough to have relocated from New York City with friends and what would soon become family in place here in the Midwest.
Coming from the east coast, I thought I had plenty of lake experience. Especially since summers in my youth were spent at YMCA sleepaway camps (Hey, hey! McAlister and Talcott are here to stay!), where I learned to fish, canoe, sail, and catch some sun on the floating docks. Yeah. Not the same thing as a holiday on Grand Lake.
It was an amazing 4th of July, and I will never forget it for two reasons - brown cows and the people.
Allow me to get the brown cow business out of the way. When heading up to Grand Lake that first 4th of July I was also seeing life beyond Tulsa for the first time since my move. I considered myself a rather worldly and educated person, but boy was I dense. You see, as we drove along, I spotted several pastures with what I thought looked like cows. The only problem being the only cows I had ever encountered at that point had been the black and white Holstein variety. It gets better. My limited exposure to Holsteins came from TV and the zoo. Yes, the zoo.
After about the sixth pasture, I finally pipe up and ask about these "cow-like" things grazing, which were not black and white and therefore not cows. Without missing a beat, my now brother Billy explains that ranchers dye their cattle these days instead of branding them, so they don't get mixed up.
And I bought it. Full heartedly believed that Oklahoma ranchers had some kind of dipping or washing mechanism to dye their cattle. Worse, they let me believe it for almost the remainder of the ride until they couldn't contain their laughter anymore and then invited me to go snipe hunting that weekend.
When we got to the lake, every introduction was followed by my "brown cow" goof. I was struck by how kind everyone was about it and how quickly welcoming too. There were some pokes about being a city slicker, and I had not quite adjusted to the hugging and what I thought of as "random waving," but it was all in good fun and more importantly, a bit of an express course in Oklahoma culture. Everyone who heard my sad cow tale was also quick to give me their own Oklahoma FAQ walkthrough.
Before coming to Oklahoma, I certainly had some deeply rooted assumptions and stereotypes. Most of them from television and the movies where Oklahomans were either farming sprawling acreage, gossiping after church, or some kind of Outsiders caricature.
I had no idea what agriculture entailed, or how rich in Native American culture this state was. No earthy inkling how important a church can be in a community, especially in smaller rural ones. And while I was impressed with how easy it was to find a Sonic or an Arby's, I have to admit to being disappointed by never running into a single Ponyboy or Johnny Cade.
What I did run into over and over again, were people curious and kind. Family-centered and possessing an iron-clad work ethic. Here in northeast Oklahoma land was important. Sacred and sometimes holding generations of sweat. I found people who worried about the same things every jaywalking, cab hailing, and gallery hopping New Yorker did. In short, I got over myself and my pre-dispositions one "Hey Y'all" and instant hug at a time, because Oklahomans gave each so freely.
Oklahoma is now home. I miss parts of New York, but this is where almost everything important is now rooted in my life. It's been a rough few years for our state. I have questions and concerns when it comes to state government and the divisiveness that has trickled its way down to water the roots of old prejudices.
I also believe in the intrinsic good of my fellow human beings. The kindness of strangers that didn't laugh me into hiding when mystified by brown cows. The state that embraced me when I fled my home city following 9/11. The place where I purchased my first home and parcel of land, making me the first to do so in two generations. I believe in you. In us. Stay golden Oklahoma.
–Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.