Hello again faithful readers, as we check in from Rogers, Arkansas. “Where?” you ask? Or maybe “Why?” We’ll answer both of those a few weeks hence, but suffice to say this was a deliberate stop and not another car-related stranding.
This blog is instead about Oooooooooooooooooooooooklahoma, where the wind does, in fact, come sweeping down the plain – though not often or strong enough, and sometimes with the heat of a clothes dryer exhaust vent. We endured basically Vegas or West Texas heat for our entire two weeks there, without the benefits of Vegas gambling or West Texas scenery.
This is, essentially, my only complaint about our time in Oklahoma. Forgive me if I gush like an Osage oil well, but my expectations have been absolutely blown away in just about every way – excellent food, great museums and attractions, a cool bar scene, and a general amount of underrated weirdness for a state that quite literally no one has ever told me I should visit.
Our route here was, barring something unexpected, the longest drive we had remaining on our trip, at more than nine hours and nearly 600 miles. It was also both one of the most interesting and uninteresting drives of our trip. Rather than drive the extra interstate miles through New Mexico and Texas, we picked a route that headed diagonally through southeast Colorado, a really strikingly beautiful area of what seemed like endless, essentially flat grassland.
This unquestionably felt like some of the most remote and empty terrain we’ve traveled through. Even Big Bend has some little towns and lots of mountains – there was just nothing here. I kind of liked it.
Our trip through southern Colorado also included the single most unnerving routing decision Google Maps has sent us on. After traveling for a hundred miles or more through landscapes like the ones above, the two-lane highway curved. Our route, however, did not. Morgan pulled over so I could check my GPS as well, which agreed – the only way forward was 16 miles down an unpaved dirt road through farm fields. There was no other way other than doubling back a significant distance. Still, it wasn’t entirely encouraging – the road didn’t even have a name, just “County Road West.” I kept waiting for a crop duster to swoop down on us like in “North By Northwest.”
From here, we headed into something only marginally better – the Oklahoma Panhandle. In a museum I later went to, they listed the area as being “No Man’s Land” from 1850-1890. Honestly, it still kind of is. Even Oklahomans hate the panhandle. When I mentioned I’d driven through there to a tour guide, her response was something along the lines of “Oh honey, I’m sorry.” There is, almost literally, nothing here other than farms and livestock operations. Meantime, it’s narrow enough that signs at the intersections with occasional half-paved county roads point toward Texas on the right and Kansas on the left.
After what seemed like roughly three days traveling through grassland and red dirt, we arrived in our home in Oklahoma City’s Paseo neighborhood. It’s really a surprisingly great area, one that has so much of what I enjoy about the mid-size cities we’ve been visiting. There are tons of great local restaurants and bars (including a shop with gluten-free donuts, and a gas station repurposed into an indoor/outdoor dive bar), art galleries, music venues, all just a few minutes walking from a quiet, relatively affordable neighborhood.
There’s also a “daiquiri bar” that serves things that look like this, which may be a plus or a minus depending on your taste and diabetes status. I did not expect to find a more unhealthful beverage than those of the Savannah area, but OKC, you win this one.
Just a few blocks away were some of the most stunning homes we’ve seen in quite a while, in the neighborhood known as Heritage Hills. I took a few walks through this area, mostly with my mouth agape at what early 20th-century oil money can buy.
If you know anything about Oklahoma City (other than perhaps the NBA’s Thunder), you probably remember the devastating bombing of the city’s Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. In the second-deadliest terror attack in U.S. history, 168 people were killed when a bomb built by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up in a truck outside. McVeigh has since been executed, while Nichols is serving consecutive life sentences at ADX Florence (near our rail trip from last blog.) Oklahoma City, meantime, has turned the site of the bombing into one of the most interesting and moving museums and memorials I’ve experienced.
This was my first stop on our first day in Oklahoma City. The museum is located in the former Oklahoma City Journal Record building, which was heavily damaged during the bombing. Part of the museum preserves a section of how it looked following the bombing, which happened directly across the street.
The center is a combination of a traditional museum space with very affecting interactive experiences. After perusing the first room of the museum, you head into a mock boardroom for a “hearing.” A recording begins to play, an extremely dull water resources board meeting that begins at 9 a.m. on April 19th. Even knowing what was coming, I found myself zoning out for a moment, before being startled back to the present by the sounds of the explosion and people panicking.
From here, you exit and proceed through a chronological exploration of the bombing and investigation, from the items salvaged from the rubble to how they identified the truck used through scattered parts.
They even have the car Timothy McVeigh was driving when he was caught, hours later, on an unrelated gun and driving violation.
One of the most emotional spaces is the room dedicated to the victims of the bombing, filled with pictures and personal items of each person, as a constant audio loop reads their names.
From here, I headed outside to the memorial itself, a free space open 24 hours to anyone who wants to stop by. It’s sunken below ground level, making it an even quieter space than OKC’s already quiet downtown. The center fountain, where the road once stood, is set between two gates labeled 9:01 (the last minute before the bombing) and 9:03 (the first full minute after). Alongside, where the Murrah building once stood, 168 chairs represent each of the victims killed, arranged in nine rows to represent the building’s nine floors.
One of the many facilities inside the Murrah building was a daycare. 19 children died in the bombing. They’re represented by smaller chairs mixed in with the larger ones.
On the opposite side of the fountain is an actually miraculous part of the site known as the Survivor Oak. This tree was about 150 feet from the bomb, and had essentially all of its leaves and many limbs blown off. Somehow, it sprung back to life the following spring, roughly a year after the bombing itself. Today, it’s still thriving, and saplings and acorns are sold at the gift shop for anyone who wants to grow their own Survivor Tree descendent at home. I thought this was a great idea.
Keep an eye out when Morgan and I have an actual yard – you may see a descendant on our property.
In keeping with what’s become a tradition at this point, I visited my fifth state capitol of the trip, right down the street from us here in Oklahoma City. Surprise – it looks a lot like the U.S. Capitol! This is one of the reasons you have to hand it to New Mexico’s Roundhouse for at least getting a little creative. Still, Oklahoma’s State Capitol is notable as the only one in the country with functioning oil wells on the property. The most famous is the one below, known as Petunia – the site it sits on was once a petunia bed before oil was discovered directly beneath the Capitol building.
As people who know me may tell you, I’m a chronically punctual person (this, along with a heightened sense of what time it is and how much time is passing, are among the less obvious legacies of my former life in 24-hour news radio.) So naturally, I showed up 15 minutes early for my tour, which, also naturally, had already left. I caught up and got an enjoyable tour of one of the more beautiful Capitol buildings from the wife of a freshman representative. It really was one of the more impressive capitols I’ve seen visually, and I was surprised to learn that the dome had only been added in the previous two decades.
This was also the day when temperatures reached particularly punishing, “where the hell am I and what am I doing” levels. I wrote about this briefly when I talked about my trip to Death Valley, but you have no idea how different 105+ temperatures are from say, even the mid-90s. Your brain just doesn’t quite function right, which, honestly might explain a lot about Oklahoma (and Las Vegas, for that matter.)
With no end in sight to these triple-digit temperatures, I figured indoor activities were the move. So I took a little road trip east to Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-largest city. My destination was one that I truly wouldn’t have even thought about had they not relentlessly advertised to me on Instagram, but one that makes a lot of sense for those who know my musical taste.
Tulsa, believe it or not, is not only home to the Woody Guthrie Center, which makes sense considering his Oklahoma roots and place in dust bowl history. It is also home to the official museum of Guthrie’s most successful admirer, Bob Dylan. These two are, not coincidentally, located on the same block, and offer a joint ticket. So naturally, a formerly dedicated folkie like myself (ask me about “Go Folk Yourself,” if you’re not familiar) had to spend a few hours exploring.
I started with Woody, in the interest of taking this in chronological order. It was a pretty excellent and creative museum. It had the typical handwritten lyrics, various folk music ephemera, and Woody’s guitar (plus Pete Seeger’s banjo), but it also had a dust bowl exhibit where you can experience the infamous “Black Sunday” dust storm in virtual reality. Thankfully, this was not one of those 4D experiences with dust blowing in my face or fleeing jackrabbits trying to hide under my seat. Still, it was easy to see why some people thought the world was ending, with zero visibility and explosive lightning setting fires from the static electricity created by the dust.
What I certainly did not expect was the Bruce Springsteen exhibit, another superstar who owes a debt to Guthrie. If you think of Dylan as Guthrie’s direct heir, Bruce is definitely the extremely New Jersey cousin of the family who lives down the shore.
From here, I headed to the Dylan Center, freshly opened just a few months ago. This was definitely more of an immersive experience, as much as I truly hate that word. The museum supplied you an iPod audio tour with points around the museum to listen to the audio from videos, or from songs that were showcased. The entire experience started in a very cool 360 theater room with tons of videos of interviews, performances, and other assorted clips. I sat there for about 25 minutes and had yet to see something repeat when I moved on.
In addition to the typical career and personal history, the museum included separate exhibits that broke down the writing and recording process for some of Dylan’s favorite songs. Again, a bit nerdy, but I thought it was very cool to listen to the evolving versions of songs that have become ultra-familiar to fans.
The upstairs floor was dedicated to various objects donated by Dylan that he’d collected throughout his career, including the tambourine that inspired Mr. Tambourine Man, pieces of the piano used in “Like a Rolling Stone,” and correspondence with famous friends like Johnny Cash and fellow Traveling Wilburys like Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. Oh, and some of Bob’s kind of frightening portraits.
I didn’t get to experience much more of Tulsa, so I can’t speak much about it, other than that the house from The Outsiders movie is there.
Back in Oklahoma City, it was still hot. Like, very hot. This is why I was so intrigued to learn that Oklahoma City has a network of underground tunnels that connect a bunch of the most prominent buildings downtown. This entire space is publicly accessible, and truly one of the odder places I’ve experienced on this trip. Join me as we enter through the basement level of a grimy parking garage, won’t you? It took me a little while to find this, because why the hell would it be here, anyway?
Inside, it was cool, and quiet (other than the soft smooth jazz playing from…somewhere), and very, very blue. For a while, that is, until it was very red, and then very green, and very yellow. Throughout this mile-plus walk during a workday, I saw plenty of signs leading down semi-darkened side corridors to businesses, but I can count on one hand the number of people I saw in here.
Every few hundred yards or so, there were some historical photos or art pieces, doomed to sit forever mostly unseen in this very weird space.
Eventually, this weird journey spit me out into the lobby of an underground bank(?), before dead-ending – but not before offering a tantalizing glimpse of some closed passageways that lead to who know where and contain who knows what kind of unfathomable horrors.
There are cool neighborhoods in Oklahoma City above ground as well, even if we had to endure sauna-esque conditions to enjoy them. One of these is Bricktown, a revitalized former industrial area near downtown. It’s centered around a canal that leads precisely nowhere, but provides some nice walking corridors alongside some shops, restaurants, and the corporate headquarters of Sonic (did you know they started in Oklahoma?) To paraphrase the guides on the boat tours we heard pass us a dozen times, they basically just ripped off the San Antonio River Walk – just not quite as much going on, and you’re not allowed to walk around with booze.
At the end of this odd little canal-to-nowhere is the Centennial Land Run Monument, commemorating the opening of the final unassigned lands in Oklahoma back in 1889. It may be hard to get a sense of it from the pictures, but these statues are pretty gigantic and cover a significant area. Also, like everything else, they were absolutely radiating heat on this 105 degree day, so we didn’t linger.
I typically don’t write about what we don’t do on our trip, but I do feel compelled to mention something here. One of my goals during this trip was to visit Pawhuska and the Osage Nation in the northeastern part of Oklahoma. As part of my mission to read a book set in or about each stop on our trip, I chose “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Gann. It tells the story of the amazing oil wealth discovered on the Osage reservation in the early 20th century and the wild subsequent conspiracy to steal these mineral rights from the Indians, eventually forcing an early version of the FBI to get involved and spawning the modern agency. It’s a great book that’s set to become a movie next year, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring (who else?) Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.
I ended up not making the 2.5-hour drive, something I somewhat regret because when the hell are we ever going to be back in Oklahoma? But the miles continue to accumulate, both on mine and now Morgan’s car (roughly 18,000, I believe) and also on our minds. There was a point where I felt distressed about the idea of the trip coming to an end, and I still know I’ll miss it after we’ve settled down for a few months and had some time to catch our breath. But these days, my mindset is to make the most of it but not kill (or bankrupt) myself in the process.
Instead, I took a bit of a shorter road trip as our time in Oklahoma wound down and got some kicks on Route 66, as the song says. Oklahoma may not be the most notable part of the Mother Road, but it may have been the most tragic, as tens of thousands of Okies left everything behind and took to the road to head west during the Dust Bowl. I took the interstate out to the town of Davenport, which seemed as good a spot as any to start my trip back to Oklahoma City on 66. But first, an appropriately old-timey “hamburger steak” from a roadside diner.
It’s just one of a bunch of small towns set along the remains of Route 66, all of which are similarly obsessed with their place along a road that was decommissioned forty years ago and hasn’t existed in a real form for a decade before. Take Chandler, Oklahoma, for example.
Yes, even the marijuana dispensary is Route 66-themed (a note here: Oklahoma has an absolutely bizarre amount of medical marijuana dispensaries, even in the smallest towns you could possibly imagine. In any case, pot’s almost certainly the least-bad way to cope with living in some of these places.)
Along the drive, there’s still a surprising amount of local character and retro charm. I suppose there’s no other choice – Interstate 44 essentially mirrors the route, with faster speeds and no stoplights or braking for people turning. If they didn’t preserve their Route 66 heritage, there just wouldn’t be any reason to travel these roads at all.
One of the best-known Route 66 stops along the portion I drove was the Arcadia Round Barn, in the devastatingly tiny town of Arcadia, Oklahoma. As the quaint little museum inside notes, it was built to be circular as the belief at the time was that tornados would simply go around round buildings rather than through them. This is, of course, not true, but the barn has stood since 1898 anyway, long predating the establishment of 66.
Until the modern restoration, the bottom was always for barn-related uses, but the top almost immediately became the social center of Arcadia, in as much as that’s a thing. It’s a pretty impressive room to look at! The bottom-floor museum had lots of stories from folks who remember coming to square dances and other events here in the 30s, in between the general mishmash of random Route 66 souvenirs for sale.
My final stop before the old 66 route was subsumed by Interstates 35 and 44 was a gas station – very exciting, I know. But that deliberately undersells the real attraction at Pop’s 66, which calls itself a “soda ranch.” Along with the gas pumps and retro-style restaurant, it also sells quite literally hundreds of types of sodas.
Even more surprisingly, out of all these flavors and brands, very few were deliberate gross-out ones, like Turkey Gravy or Grass. Younger Nick would have ended up in a sugar coma from trying too many, but I selected us a little tasting flight of pina colada, blue cream, and strawberry lime. They all were interesting in their own way, but the strawberry lime was particularly great. Thirst quenched, I was back on the major highways before I knew it. Altogether, I definitely prefer roads like 66 to the chaos and road rage of most interstates – but then again, roads like 66 also sometimes lead you to dirt roads through farm fields, something we’d prefer not to repeat.
Oklahoma City also received the honor of being the site of Morgan’s 28th birthday – and anyone who knows Morgan knows how much of an honor this is. She took a few days off to celebrate, which gave us plenty of time to explore and also just relax together, something we haven’t done so much of this trip, especially at the faster pace we’ve been moving lately. Among our birthday week activities was a visit to Oklahoma City’s Stockyards, a less famous but still very fun cousin to the ones down in Fort Worth, Texas.
We grabbed lunch at the Cattlemen’s Cafe, which at noon on a Monday was an equal mix of tourists like us, dedicated senior citizens sawing away at steaks half their size, and actual cattlemen. We both got similarly freakishly large steaks, but I was compelled to try another local delicacy here. The picture on the right below is of what are known as “lamb fries.” As I explained to Morgan, there’s no “fries” involved here, but quite a lot of lamb. Cattlemen’s is, apparently, famous for these thinly sliced, lightly breaded, and fried pieces of lamb testicle.
I think I’m a pretty adventurous eater, and I’d wimped out on trying Rocky Mountain oysters while in Colorado and Wyoming, so I felt compelled to give these a shot. Morgan watched with a mixture of suspicion and repulsion as I squeeze some lemon onto them, gave it a dunk in the sauce, and gave the verdict – meh. Honestly, they had very little flavor at all beyond the batter, like bad fried calamari. The texture was…fine. I won’t be eating lamb balls again anytime soon, but mostly because there’s just way better fried food out there to risk my gluten-unfriendly body on. The more traditional meat was pretty good, but I’d prefer a bit less quantity and a bit more quality when it comes to my steaks.
After consuming a heinous amount of cow parts, we decided to head to the source, right down the street at the Oklahoma National Stockyards. The cows in the first pen we approached seemed pretty startled; I hoped they couldn’t smell their chargrilled relatives on us. We were able to explore the incredibly vast area from an elevated walkway directly over the pens.
We were lucky enough to visit on a Monday, which is auction day. As we headed down the catwalk to the auction house, we got to watch the very startled cattle herded through the maze of gates and pens below us, eventually reaching the auction area. Once there, they’re run in one side, spend a minute or so pacing back and forth in confusion, and then are run out the other side just as quickly.
This was pretty cool to watch, although I’ll admit I was a bit worried we might accidentally (or in Morgan’s case, “accidentally”) buy a cow or two. I am not going to pretend to have understood 99% of what the auctioneer said, but I’m fairly certain we watched a few groups of 5-7 cows sell for around $159,000. You be the judge:
I suppose I had no idea how to think about Oklahoma regionally before visiting, but afterward, it’s clear it’s the place where the south meets the west. That was apparent in the two museums I snuck in on our final week – first, The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. The museum is as big as its name is long, a combination art-history-children’s museum. The paintings were amazing, and had me missing the wide open spaces of New Mexico and Arizona a wee bit. There was a cool rodeo exhibit, some interesting Native American artwork, and, naturally, barbed wire. Perhaps it’s the east coast in me, but I cannot for the life of me understand why so many museums seem to have barbed wired collections.
The Western performer’s gallery could have been a museum on its own, including a healthy collection of John Wayne gear, though I noticed a decided anti-Clint Eastwood tone. Outside, there was a massive garden filled with representations of different Native American homes, like the absolutely massive replica of cliff dwellings. There was even a replica old west town inside, but for some reason, my photos all turned out terribly. I’ll blame ghosts.
My other museum was decidedly more southern and one that I couldn’t miss under any circumstances – the American Banjo Museum. As I walked in, “Dueling Banjos” was naturally already playing. The history was pretty interesting, but at the risk of getting too in the weeds here, it was mostly focused on four-string banjos (primarily a jazz instrument) as opposed to the five-string banjos of bluegrass and country, which I once poorly attempted to play.
I understand this is a very niche museum, even as far as the museums I’ve been hitting. But come on – the work on some of these things is really impressive.
We’ll close out our report from Oklahoma City with what I’m sure was at least Morgan’s highlight of our time there – her birthday celebration at the Frontier City amusement park. Unlike myself, Morgan is a big roller coaster fan, and our trip here was among her birthday gifts (along with a dinner and some tiki drinks the night before.)
As the name might suggest, Frontier City is western-themed but felt a little more like a ghost town at some points. After a false start when we were initially told every food stand in the park was closed, we eventually got Morgan her thrill rides, and even some for me.
I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take more pictures or bring my GoPro on the roller coasters. But alas, I was too busy being equal parts terrified and excited, all while trying not to melt in the 105-degree temperatures. You’ll just have to take Morgan’s word for the fact that I went on a fairly tall wooden roller coaster that looked significantly more rickety from the back as we drove away later. Morgan had a great time, I survived, and with the help of some water rides, we didn’t melt or fry in the sun.
All in all, our time in Oklahoma City was a much better than expected finale to our six months out west. As of Sunday, we’ve officially returned to the south – and despite a half-year of deserts and mountains, it feels like we never left. We’re settling in here in Rogers, Arkansas, one of the four larger towns of the actually-very-hip-but-also-weirdly-unsettling region of Northwest Arkansas. Plenty of Wal-Mart and Ozarks-related adventures surely lie ahead. Watch this space.
Feeling Natural in the Natural State,
Nick and Morgan