I applied for a job in the outside area, and quickly rose to become the manager. We had a business that was tourism-based, with the dreams of becoming something even greater. I lit bonfires, drove hayrides through the buffalo herd, designed educational tours, and guided college students and government groups through the property, telling them about the elk, the buffalo, the timber wolf, the rattlesnake, the mountain lion, and the rabbits. I showed them the farm animals, set them up on horseback rides, and taught them about fish farming.
We booked country music artists to perform on stage, and we were even known for bringing in a day-full of entertainment with top country entertainers.
And of course, one of my favorite things was walking up the hill to get a plate of food at the restaurant. I never got tired of the smoked ribs, catfish, and cheesecake.
Before I came along, they already did all of the dirt work in preparation for laying the railroad track. One of my jobs was going to be to help create the experience for guests. Perhaps a dinner ride with appropriate western entertainment. Maybe a children's field trip ride. Or even a good old-fashioned holdup. The train would have chugged through the western prairie and even encounter the buffalo herd.
Other plans included a themed campground and perhaps an old western Main Street with vendors and themed hotel lofts. My personal thoughts went to other attractions based on Oklahoma history. This job was right up my alley, allowing me the freedom to create scripts, assign jobs, order supplies, and schedule entertainment.
But first, I had to work. I had to clean out grease traps, install an aeration system in the pond, and skin thousands of channel catfish for customers. There was a lot of sweating and running. I would drive home, smelling of fish and barbecue and sweat at the end of a 14-hour day. I would listen to fishermen tell their tales. I would move heavy picnic tables. I would mow the grass. I would move and feed animals. I would bail out and clean the paddleboats. Indeed, it was hard work, but it was also an investment in my future with the company.
I still dream about The Wilds from time to time, usually about a kind of revival of the property, but my parents recently drove by and took the pictures that accompany this writing. They were saddened by the condition of the property after all these years. There was a period of time when it was sold and run as a Christian camp of some sort, but it would never recover as a theme park or outdoor tourist venue. The overgrown nature of the property gives away the notion that it is completely abandoned.
Still, my investment in the company was not in vain. By advancing to management and also receiving the title of Education Director, I discovered that I had a talent for working with elementary-aged children. Of course, I didn't know at the time. I finally got a new job, working in a furniture warehouse, and in a month, I was done. I became discouraged: I was no longer using my college degree for anything, and I felt like I was spinning my wheels.
On my drive home, during the urban rush hour of Oklahoma City, the idea dawned on me that I should go back to school to acquire my elementary teaching certification. I already had my secondary certificate and had already completed my student teaching (with no desire for teaching), so with the money I had saved, I went back to school for a year. If The Wilds had not failed and the furniture warehouse not been so frustrating, I don't know if I ever would have become an educator. There's no way of knowing what I would have done.
The investment in The Wilds was really one of experimentation and growth. Lynn Wilds taught me great lessons in dealing with the public, doing hard work, having a good time while doing hard work, and not being afraid to get dirty (filthy at times). Those messages have kept me going for all the years since then, and I guess I don't look at troubles in life like most people do. The whole process taught me about perseverance and patience. It also taught me not to worry until there is something to worry about.
I look at The Wilds with nostalgia, wishing I could return with a digital camera and document what once existed there. I wish I could slip onto the property to dig up some artifacts and relive the events of the late 1980s, even if it resulted in sore muscles and sunburn.