The cure for pandemic fever? Rent an RV and head for the hills of Oklahoma for a weekend at Robbers Cave, where Jesse James and other infamous outlaws once hid out.
Halito!” I say enthusiastically to Andrew, the Choctaw man selling firewood at the campsites at Robbers Cave State Park in eastern Oklahoma. Andrew replied with a halito of his own, followed by a string of Choctaw words. Andrew was a welcome sight for me, our dedicated fire starter.
Six of my friends and I were in Oklahoma for the weekend from our hometown of Dallas on a “bro” camping trip. The wood we had bought from a large gas station chain was absolutely awful. It was essentially a package of damp two-by-fours that wouldn’t have caught fire if dropped into an active volcano. I had spent hours the night before trying to get those things to light. We burned up half the dry leaves in Oklahoma just trying to fuel the fire long enough to get the logs lit.
Andrew sold quality firewood, as he had told me in Choctaw before translating it to English for me. My Choctaw begins and ends with halito.
I picked through his selection in the back of his pickup truck and then bounded down the steps of our campsite to the firepit. I was ready to get to work bringing warmth and light to our little corner of the Oklahoma wilderness.
But it turned out my entire job as fire starter was pointless. Not only had we discovered Andrew, but if we needed something to cook with or warm ourselves or light the way, we had the big, beautiful embrace of the 2018 Thor Motor Coach we had rented for the weekend.
These city boys from Dallas were not out there to rough it for the weekend. You could even say we were — and I hesitate to even attach this word to anything I’m associated with — glamping.
Fans of cowboy and outlaw history will likely recognize Robbers Cave. This spot in the mountains of southeastern Oklahoma famously sheltered Jesse James, Belle Starr, the Dalton Gang, the Youngers, and more during Wild West days. Its rural location and rough terrain — as well as a rumored secret back exit — made for a perfect hideout for Civil War deserters and other fugitives looking to disappear in the wooded hills and mountains of the region. Before that, the area had been a hunting ground for Osage and Caddoan tribes in search of bison and other food; long before that, the region had been the site of religious ceremonies for the ancient Spiro mound builders.
For much different reasons, the place was perfect for us, too. We weren’t running from the law. Instead, we were running from our pandemic-induced work-from-home lives for a weekend. All we needed was a rural location with an available RV camping spot, which were as valuable as gold in 2020 when every cooped-up person in the world suddenly became interested in recreational vehicles.
Robbers Cave was actually about our fifth or sixth choice, but every other location was completely booked months in advance. Though not our first option, the hilly terrain of the Sans Bois Mountains in the Ouachitas still served as a surprisingly scenic backdrop for our fall adventure.
The truth is, though, we could have driven the RV to a Walmart parking lot and had a good time. We were really doing this trip to get away and get together. Most of us are married guys in our late 20s and early 30s. We used to do this kind of thing all the time. Now it takes months or years of planning to make it happen.
The fresh air of the outdoors, the roasting of marshmallows by the fire, beautiful hikes through the hills — all of those elements were added bonuses. The real treat was going to be spending time together, reminiscing about the days when we were all single and hung out like this every weekend.
We booked the RV through Outdoorsy, a convenient app/website that works like Airbnb for RVs. The site hooked us up with local RV owners who had available vehicles in our price range. We settled on a nice option and began planning the trip. It seemed easy enough.
Except, this was 2020. That RV ended up being in the shop the week we needed it, so we scrambled to find another one. No worries — we booked a replacement quickly. But then that one also had issues. Finally, after several false starts, we had our future weekend home on wheels.
She was perfect. With a Ford E-450 chassis, the driving part wouldn’t be too difficult, and with eight sleep spots, we would be able to “comfortably” sleep everyone. Honestly, those were our only two criteria. Once we had picked up the Thor, all that was left was for us to pack our stuff and make the long drive up to Oklahoma.
Photography: courtesy Scott Bedgood
Wait, did I say long drive? Long is a relative term, but when it comes to RVs, a 200-mile drive is not exactly a cross-country road trip. The longest part, it seemed, was getting out of the neighborhood with everything still in the cabinets and drawers.
The first turn of the RV sent us scrambling out of our seats. Not because our inexperienced driver took a hairpin turn at breakneck speed and we flew out of our chairs, but because even the slight turn on the neighborhood street made multiple cabinets bust open and plates, cups, and board games were seconds away from spilling out onto our heads.
It was an exciting welcome to the RV life for the seven of us.
Once on the highway, with the rig being driven steadily by our trip leader, Nathan, it was time for some cards. I have to say, I was a little nervous about how the RV would be on the highway, but it was actually really fun being able to move around a little bit, play cards, and stretch our legs while we were on the road. It was about 100 times better than if we had piled into two cars for the drive.
The drive was only a small part of the RV adventure. Parking the RV at the campsite was another potential challenge that proved not to be much of an issue. Once everything was hooked up and unpacked we got busy trying to pack as much outdoor bachelor-level fun into one weekend as possible. Cornhole boards got heavy workouts, the keg of Miller Lite that fit perfectly in the shower of the RV flowed constantly, and (camping purists look away now) the outdoor TV was easy to hook up to the Nintendo 64. Intense games of Mario Kart and NFL Blitz lasted deep into the night.
We did actually get out to explore the many hiking trails at Robbers Cave. Some were exceedingly easy, but one, the mountain trail to the bluffs that overlook Lake Carlton, was a good vertical challenge that had a very rewarding view over the lake and several other tree-lined hills. From the rock outcropping at the top of the hike, we could see the campsites, where we had observed a Hallmark Channel movie being filmed the day before. Taking in the beautiful scenery from up high, we could see why the producers of the movie chose this location. And, yes, I confirmed the movie was about an overworked city girl having to move out to a rural area with her park-ranger man. (I know you were wondering.)
Photography: courtesy Lori Duckworth/Oklahoma Tourism
The weekend couldn’t have lived up to our expectations more. Not only did we get to enjoy each other’s company, but we also got to get out of our home offices and endless Zoom meetings. We could have gone horseback riding or fishing, but our pleasures were even simpler. At one point, sitting in a hammock outside the rig and breathing in the Oklahoma mountain air, I thought to myself that the only thing that might have made the trip better would have been if something super-memorable happened.
I got my wish — on top of that bluff no less.
“Oh, look out over there! That’s a bald eagle!” exclaimed my friend Jason.
Sure enough, soaring above the trees and hills in the distance was a large adult bald eagle.
Though we made many memories tossing the cornhole bags and yelling at each other about NFL Blitz, our enduring memory will be tied to that beautiful natural scene. That’s exactly how every camping, or even glamping, trip should be.
For more information about Robbers Cave State Park, visit travelok.com. Find Outdoorsy at outdoorsy.com.
Photography: (Cover image) courtesy Lori Duckworth/Oklahoma Tourism; (Jesse James) courtesy Library of Congress
From our May/June 2021 issue