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The Elusive Salt Plains

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We should have recognized the forewarnings of the ill-fated nature of our trip to the salt plains when our excited talk of the venture was met with utterly blank stares by the native Oklahomans we met. When a sizeable group of individuals who have lived in a state their whole lives question the existence of a destination, it generally does not bode well. However, we were allured by the promise of the salt crystals buried within the salt plains just waiting to be mined, and so we set out on the four-hour trek up north.

We weary travelers pulled into the Great Salt Plains State Park, where we intended to camp, and felt victorious when we at long last caught a glimpse of the salt plains. Or what we thought were the salt plains, until we noticed that they seemed to be rippling. The vast, dark reddish-brown expanse was dotted with crests of white, and we soon realized this mass was in fact a lake. Further exacerbating our concerns was the fact that the campsites were directly adjacent to a trailer park, which made it feel as if we were preparing to camp in the local residents' backyards.

Deciding to press onward, we finally located the park office and a park map, which was completely devoid of anything vaguely resembling salt plains. At this point, we were beginning to despair, thinking our entire journey was in vain. But the angel of a park ranger came to the rescue informing us that the salt plains did exist but were located 15 miles away. We hit the road once again after staking out a lovely campsite in another part of the park, daring to hope this would be the last leg of the trip. We rolled into the town of Jet (a settlement so small one could throw a rock from one city limit to the other) on the way and decided to pick up some provisions. When we asked where we could acquire tools for the dig, a gas station attendant told us a plastic spoon or our hands would be sufficient, which further compounded the mystery of the site.

Following several dirt roads yielded the triumph we were searching for. The salt plains rose before us, shimmering in a splendor that was definitely heightened by our relief in finding them. When we stepped out of the car, we were greeted with unparalleled heat and the dull roar of whipping winds. All around us were huddled groups of crouched people who appeared to be in a frenzied state of mining as they shoved their hands into the sand, groping for crystals. We claimed a little section for ourselves and were soon hard at work. An hour and a half later, our efforts had filled three bags with the prized crystals. As we got up to head back to the car, we noticed that scattered just millimeters under the surface of the sand only a few yards away were myriad crystals of higher caliber than the ones our toil had just produced. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge of how much character we had just built and the harrowing story we now had in our repertoire, then we returned to our campsite for some much deserved relaxation.

Natalie Kirkwyland is a 2014 Lloyd Noble Scholar in Plant Science from Dryden, New York.