Spring Break, March 1994 – I’m in the driver’s seat of my 1987 Chevy Blazer with my best friend, Angel on my right, and my other buddies from school in the back. Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate” is on the radio and we’re singing along. We’re just five bored teenagers doing what kids all over America do on a weekend night – cruise. We think we’re so cool, rolling around the neighborhoods of our youth, stopping at the Sonic for slushes, hollering out the windows at our friends that roll by in their own vehicles. Inevitably, we end up where all teens in northwest OKC go – Lake Hefner. We slowly roll around the lake, laughing it up, then circling back on Hefner Road to start all over again until it’s time to get home before curfew.
Everyone has place they go to, a place that makes them happy, a place of peace. Sometimes this place is physical and other times only in your mind, but at the root of this place is a memory that you keep coming back to – a memory that makes this place special. For me, that place is Lake Hefner, in Oklahoma City. I think part of the magic of the lake for me is that it represents “home”. Seeing as how the lake is not only located in the section of the city I grew up in, but the scene of so many happy memories, I can’t help but connect to those feelings every time I drive by.
In 1992, at the age of 14, I moved to Oklahoma City and lived in an apartment complex on the west side of the lake. From my door I could smell the water and hear the gulls circling overhead. Being someone who has always loved the water, I enjoyed this little slice of heaven in the middle of my new city. When I lived next to the lake, the city had yet to improve the surrounding areas to include bike and jogging trails. There was simply a marina, a golf course, the rock wall and Lakeside Drive. Of course, back in 1947-when the lake was first built-there weren’t even these amenities available. The lake was simply a means to expand the water supply for Oklahoma City (that’s right, you’re drinking filtered lake water people). Over the years, as I grew up, I saw the changes to the lake and the surrounding area. Now, on a clear day, the lake is packed with walkers, runners, joggers, bikers, fisherman, sailors, families, kite surfers and diners.
I’m actually glad that the city decided to build the improvements that surround the lake today. I enjoy walking the paths, dining at the restaurants, or just sitting on the bench at the lighthouse while watching a sailboat race. The City has taken something built for necessity and turned it into a valuable commodity. However, some things remain the same. I still know there’s teens cruising around the lake with their friends, I’m still sure there’s young couples who park and do things that could get them arrested for indecent exposure, and I still love to watch the gulls cry out while I gaze at beautiful Oklahoma sunsets over the water. There’s a bit of that old “Oklahoma Spirit” captured in those 2,500 acres – in improving the area surrounding the lake, the city has shown its willingness to not only embrace change and take advantage of opportunity, but that the powers that be occasionally listen to its citizens, and create a place of community for the residents of Oklahoma City.
The lake has a very special significance to me and my husband – it’s the place where we started to fall in love. Back in 1995, when we first started dating, we were young, broke, and bored, and being one of those young couples that parked around the lake seemed like a good idea at the time. On our first “real” date (one that involved seeing “Batman Returns”-don’t judge me, it was cool at the time), we stopped by the lake so I could show him what I found so intriguing about this area. I had a “special spot” that I liked to drive to when I needed to get away and think. I would pull off on Lakeside Drive, get out, sit on the wall and stare out at the water. The sounds of the waves slapping against the rocks and concrete would hypnotize me as I would go over whatever was troubling me in my mind. Sometimes, I would sit there for hours, just staring. By the time I would leave, my mind would be clear, and my heart unburdened.
Some of the best times we’ve had were at this lake – like the time we were fishing along the rocks and when I went to move to a better spot, I slipped and fell into the murky waters. While I was initially scared and panicking as I continually tried and failed to find purchase on the moss-covered rocks, once I was rescued by my then-boyfriend-now-husband, I could sit back and laugh at myself and the spectacle I created. I’ve taken my nephew to Stars and Stripes Park on the south side of the lake for an afternoon of fun on the playground. I’ve sat on a surfboard bench on a beautiful and unseasonably warm St. Patrick’s Day snapping photo after photo of the kite boarders performing amazing acrobatics on the water. I’ve stealthily shot images of young lovers at various places along the lakeshore, sighing at the romance of it all and the reminders of the early days when my husband and I were dating. One year we had our Valentine’s Dinner at the Red Rock Canyon and Grill restaurant and enjoyed a gorgeous Oklahoma sunset while feasting on our delicious entrees. Sometimes, when we’re bored, we’ll just lie on one of the grassy areas around the lake and stare at the cloud formations above while daydreaming. And I’m reluctant to admit that more than once I’ve been distracted by the beauty of the white sails gliding by on the water as I’m driving up Hefner Parkway (note to self: do try not to kill yourself and others while driving).
There were times early my relationship with my husband when we would argue, and to get away, I would get in my car, drive off, and go to the lake to find my serenity. Sometimes at night I would just sit there and cry, staring at the reflection of the city lights in the distance and send wishes to the stars that everything would be alright. I don’t really think the wishes helped, but by the time I would go home, we had both cooled off enough to forgive one another and begin anew.
In 1998 another big change came to my life. I was a newlywed and my husband had been offered a position as an IT contractor at the Pentagon. This meant we had less than 30 days to leave everything I knew – my friends, my family, and my beloved lake to start over again in a strange new city. We packed what belongings we could fit into our Toyota Corolla and set off on a two year adventure. This was a journey that did not end well for me. Living in DC was a culture shock to a girl from Oklahoma. In addition to acclimating myself to the diversity of people, the different cultures, and of course the horrific traffic, I also had no friends or family there as a support system. My in-laws lived thirty minutes away, but I was not as close to them then as I am now. When my husband wasn’t working, he spent long hours playing games online, and this was definitely not how I envisioned starting off my married life. The increased cost of everything there in comparison to back home was also a burden. I eventually fell into a deep depression and in my darkest hours had even considered suicide. One of my only saving graces is when I would travel in my mind back home. I would “drive” the streets and neighborhoods I grew up in, see all that was familiar, and pretend I was looking up at a big, blue Oklahoma sky, rather than smoggy Northern Virginia air. I would also go to my happy place in my mind. I may have been physically in Alexandria, but on the inside I was sitting on that rock wall, staring at the sailboats going by.
To save myself and my sanity, I packed up my belongings and moved back to Oklahoma in August of 2000. My husband had to finish out his contract so he stayed behind in Virginia. At the time, our young marriage was not in good standing, and a part of me didn’t know if he would be joining me in two months’ time or not. One of the first places I escaped to upon my return was the lake. I spent so much time there, trying to bring myself back from the brink of the dark place I had wandered to. I reminisced and remembered the good times there with my husband, my family, my friends, and myself. That beautiful reddish-tinged water saved my life. In returning to my place of peace, I found myself again. I became the outgoing, strong woman that I had been before. I started to laugh again, to socialize with friends and no longer dimmed my “light”. If I had something to say, I said it, albeit tactfully. I had always been the type of person who had an opinion and wasn’t afraid to share it, but those two years of darkness had taken that from me. In being afraid and uncertain in my new surroundings, I let it affect how I behaved as an individual. I second-guessed every decision I made, thinking I was stupid or not good enough. While I still have these moments-as everyone does-you would never know it from the outside when meeting me. My husband did eventually follow me here in October of 2000 and we salvaged our relationship and made it even stronger. There have been many times since then that I have endured trials and tribulations in my life. Heartbreak, confusion, loss and even occasional lapses back to that dark place I was before have not been strangers. However, I know that whenever I need it, the lake is there, waiting for me to sit by its shore and soothe my body and mind.
And I’m not the only person in my family that the lake has been there for. When my uncle moved back to Oklahoma after many years in California, he brought with him a terrible drug addiction. One of the conditions my dad placed upon his brother for staying with us was for my uncle to kick his habit. If you’ve ever had to quit an addictive substance, you know how difficult the withdrawal can be. My uncle found his own unique way to help him through those tough times – he started running around the lake. He would take off from our house, (just over a mile from the lake) and would return a couple of hours later exhausted but happy. I’d like to think that it was more than just the exercise that the lake offered to his recovery. Maybe he found the same peace I do there? I can’t speak for him, but I’d like to think so.
I can’t think of a better place in this city to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon than Lake Hefner, just enjoying the outdoors and the wonderful people-watching opportunities. Where else here in Oklahoma City can you spend an entire day in one place fishing, sailing, flying model airplanes, biking, jogging, grilling out, have a picnic, have a cocktail, or just sit down and let the day pass you by? This is why Lake Hefner will always be my “happy place”
All words and photos (c)2011 by Natalee Dobbs. Please do not reproduce without her consent.