December 21-24, 2021 | Photo Album
Knowing that the pandemic could throw us some curve balls, Wendy and I waited until the last minute to make any plans for our two-week winter break. The Omicron variant was poised to infect the majority of Oklahomans in the coming weeks, but its surge had not yet begun around here. Wendy and I were boosted in early October, so we had strong protection against hospitalization and maybe 40-50% protection against infection by Omicron. So we decided to travel the week before Christmas and after that hunker down in Bartlesville.
Early Christmas in OKC
I purchased some rapid tests, and Wendy and I both tested negative on December 18 and again on the 20th, clearing us to travel to Oklahoma City to see my folks. We both wore KN95/KF94 masks in the convenience stores we stopped at throughout our trip.
We exchanged presents with my parents in the city, enjoying Five Guys burgers I ordered for us using Doordash. Then Wendy and I headed southwest to our granite retreat.
Escape to Quartz Mountain
I was nine years old when Tia and Tony escaped to Witch Mountain in a Disney movie. I was forty-four when I first enjoyed the pre-Christmas solitude of Quartz Mountain, one of Oklahoma’s seven original state parks. A few years later, I took Wendy there in June 2013, and we returned there, at her request, after Thanksgiving in 2014.
The current lodge was built for $17 million in 2001, and the resort was taken over by the State Regents for Higher Education in 2002. It has been the home to a state summer arts institute since 1978, but its remote location means the lodge has long required subsidies to operate.
The regents lacked the funding to adequately maintain the underused property, so in 2020 they turned the property back over to the state, and it invested over $10 million in lodge renovations. This fall, Swadley’s opened one of its Foggy Bottom Kitchens there, so it seemed likely to be a good place to escape to at this stage of the coronavirus pandemic.
I went online to book a room, but the state’s tourism website lacks the details and photos a commercial resort would provide. There was only a tiny glimpse of one of the suites, but I could tell that by booking a suite instead of a standard room I could secure a full-size refrigerator, which would come in handy if the restaurant were closed or its fare lacked appeal. So I booked the Executive Hospitality Suite for three nights…and never got a confirmation.
So at a pit stop during our drive to OKC, I had called the lodge, confirmed they had no record of my online reservation, and rebooked the suite a second time. I wasn’t worried about availability, knowing from past experience how few stay there at Christmastime.
We took the H.E. Bailey turnpike from OKC to Lawton on a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the 60s. Southwest Oklahoma is yet again in severe drought, and we saw clouds of smoke along the turnpike from a grass or brush fire. So it was no surprise to later see the resort’s fire danger signs set at Extreme.
We stopped at the United supermarket in Altus to get breakfast and sandwich supplies, knowing that our suite at the lodge would have a microwave and coffee maker in its little counter alcove but no stove or oven. Frankly, I would have booked a cabin at the park to get some cooking options besides an outdoor grill, but I found no indication that the cabins had been renovated plus they choose not to provide any pots, pans, plates, utensils, or cups. So we dared hope that the lodge restaurant and a few groceries would be sufficient, with a backup plan to make the 30-minute drive to Altus if we got desperate.
The Falcon Suite
We checked in after dark on the shortest day of the year, parking the minivan as directed at one end of a parking lot for the closest access to the suite. All of the rooms and suites are in a separate building from the lobby, restaurant, and meeting rooms. We schlepped our bags and groceries into what they bill online as the Executive Hospitality Suite, although its corridor signage calls it the Falcon Suite. It faced into the courtyard instead of looking out across the lake and had just a hideaway bed couch, coffee table, and a couple of platform seats in its spacious central room with the counter area at one side. There were a number of conference chairs stowed in closets on either side of the door; the central room has a fire occupancy limit of 58 and is suitable for events.
At one side was a connected bedroom with a king-size bed with bathroom and shower, and on the opposite end was a connected bedroom with two queen-size beds and its own bathroom and shower. Each of the side rooms also had their own mini-refrigerators and microwaves, but we just used the full-size refrigerator and larger microwave in the central room.
The suite wasn’t homey, with bright lights in the central room that could not be dimmed, and one wall was clearly missing past artwork. So whenever we return we’ll book the cozier Scissortail Suite across the hall. That one faces the lake and includes a fireplace, a bar counter with stools, and at least one sitting chair along with the hideaway couch. We discovered that during the winter the Foggy Bottom Kitchen was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and offered no breakfast. But it would be open for lunch and dinner for the rest of our stay. So we made sandwiches and retired for the night.
I associate Foggy Bottom with an area of Washington, DC where the State Department is located, having been there 37 years ago at a reception at one of the many nearby embassies. But it is also the name of six restaurants that Swadley’s operates at the Sequoyah, Roman Nose, Robbers Cave, Lake Murray, Beavers Bend, and Quartz Mountain resorts. My parents have enjoyed eating at Swadley’s Bar-B-Q in Bethany, and Wendy and I had eaten there with them once. So I figured the Foggy Bottom place might feature barbecue, but thankfully it had a more diverse menu.
We ate at the restaurant twice for lunch and twice for dinner. We had a different server each time, and everyone was friendly, and every dish was quite good. My lunches were the chicken fried steak and chicken tenders and my dinners were the ribeye and sweet tea glazed chicken. Sides included jalapeno sweet corn, green beans, and mashed potatoes and gravy. Wendy had their grilled chicken salad, chicken tenders, and spicy yardbird sandwich, which was a spicy fried chicken sandwich with spicy mayonnaise and hot honey drizzle. The portions were large, so we never had room for dessert. My ribeye was so large that I saved half of it for a yummy sandwich the next day. Wendy especially liked the crunchy apple fritters served before every meal.
So we highly recommend that you try Swadley’s Foggy Bottom Kitchen if you are at any of the lodges mentioned above.
Some of the artwork that adorned the lodge in the prior decade was changed in the renovations and many furnishings were updated. I missed the decorations that used to adorn the Sundance Cafe’s walls and the western-themed corridor wall lighting fixtures, but those were minor quibbles. There were still nice chandeliers, statues, and wall decorations in the lodge. The Survivor sculpture by Ron Bertocchi, a memorial to the loss of the artwork in the original library when the old lodge burned in 1995, was still there. Wendy loved its huge quartz crystals.
A Hike on Quartz Mountain and a stroll around Twin Peaks
We enjoyed unusually warm and sunny weather on our hikes. The first day we hiked a couple of miles on the Sunrise Trail, making our way up to the top of the nearest hill on Quartz Mountain, then going down to the old Rock Creek Trail to connect with the Cave Trail and pop back out at the lodge.
The Sunrise Trail provides nice views of the lodge buildings with Twin Peaks in the background. Every time we have been there, Lake Altus/Lugert has been low, and this time was no exception. I know that the lake was full a few years back, so maybe someday we’ll see water closer to the lodge.
Across the distant lake waters we could see the other low peaks of Wichita granite dotting the eastern horizon.
While at the summit, Wendy spotted one of the large tankers from the air force base at Altus flying across our field of view above Twin Peaks. I had my Canon PowerShot SX700 HS camera with me, which has a 30x stabilized optical zoom. That allowed me to deduce it was probably one of the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tankers.
Notably, that was the only use I’ve made of that handheld digital camera since the pandemic began for us in March 2020. My iPhone 12 Pro has finally supplanted my carrying of a dedicated camera, thanks to its 2x telephoto lens and the convenience of its automatic syncing with the cloud with quick editing on my iPad. I have found that my iPhone 12 Pro often works just as well or better than my Canon EOS Rebel T6 digital SLR camera for work shots as well, and it is certainly far more convenient.
After dinner that day we took the easy paved Twin Peaks Trail that leads about a half-mile around the base of the one of the peaks. The skies were pretty to the west over Quartz Mountain and the lodge.
The trail ends at a boulder embedded in the concrete, and I still think it seems built for a sculpture to be placed there. But the trail end is unadorned, so we turned back to retrace our steps, with me shooting one of the large nearby boulders with an upslope tree backlit by the sky.
Wendy had been delighted by a couple of deer near the trailhead, and was thrilled to spot nine deer foraging in the dry slough below the long pedestrian bridge that connects the Robert M. Kerr Performance Hall at Twin Peaks with the lodge. I still dream of someday visiting when the lake is full and there is actually water in that slough.
Our other hike of the trip was over on the opposite western side of Quartz Mountain at Baldy Point.
We drove over to park near the Wallace Mt. Ranch, where there is a scenic abandoned house.
Back in 2014, we avoided the Cedar Valley Trail there because the valley had been burned over in a fire. This time we took that short flat loop northeast of Baldy Point.
We noted how the blackened and singed trees remained, but the groundcover had reformed, including cacti, grasses, and the hardy lichen on the boulders.
Wendy spotted a bird’s nest in one tree, although it was not one of the eastern red cedars, which are actually junipers.
We then revisited the Mesquite Forest Trail that wraps around the southern base of Baldy Point. Side paths led to different climbing areas, with boulder piles that were invitingly cool after the warm and sunny walk out in the open.
We reached the other parking area in this western section of the park and then retraced our steps back to the car to wrap up our 2.12 mile walk.
Home for Christmas
The day before our departure, we drove to Altus to pick up some hand lotion for Wendy, who was suffering from the arid conditions. I made sure to visit the Whataburger drive-through so Wendy could indulge in some of her favorite fast food, and we also picked up a couple of rapid COVID-19 tests. I had forgotten to pack some for our return journey, which would include a stop to chat with my parents in Oklahoma City on Christmas Eve. We had worn our KN95/KF94 masks at pit stops but had repeatedly eaten inside the park restaurant. Although it was spacious and had few customers, we might have been exposed, so caution was warranted.
We felt fine and tested negative, so we headed back with Trixie, my TomTom GPS app, directing us along state highway 44 past Lone Wolf and highway 9 to Hobart. State highway 183 from Hobart through New Cordell to Clinton had been repaved and surprisingly had a number of four-lane segments, making our trip north to interstate 40 quite relaxing. Then it was a speedy roll to OKC to revisit my folks.
The all-too-familiar trip along the Turner Turnpike was uneventful. I like the new eastbound stop between Chandler and Stroud, which is part of the scheme to close the Hoback Plaza near Stroud. The truck traffic on the turnpike has increased such that the state plans over the next decade to finally expand the rest of the Turner to three lanes in each direction, as has already been done from between Bristow and Kellyville onward to Tulsa.
We were back at home after dark on Christmas Eve, ready to relax with a couple of 1947 Christmas movies on Christmas Day. We are grateful that the state tourism department has re-invested in Quartz Mountain and Swadley’s provided such great meals during our stay. It was a perfect escape for us between the Delta and Omicron waves, but we plan to take it easy near home for the final week of our winter break since we know Omicron will begin spreading rapidly. The science is perfectly clear that vaccination, masking, and distancing are vital protections during the pandemic for those with the wisdom and resilience to follow through. Stay safe and live well!