Oklahoma, a walk on the wild side with my Dad!

Author and travel writer Michelle Jackson recalls an interesting summer spent exploring America's heartland on a road trip with her father. AKA The Novel Traveller you can pick up Michelle's novels and read her articles on her blog, see www.michellejackson.ie for more details.

I’d longed for a road trip with my father since reading ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'. The route had to be in America but I knew a big city wouldn't appeal to him. Being from the countryside and a big fan of the Wild West, I had to pick somewhere that would really appeal to him. So I went online and rooted out the perfect destination on this site www.travelksok.ie. Oklahoma is a state that has a lot to offer the discerning traveller and especially one looking for something novel! It is home to the longest stretch of the famous Route 66 highway and to the cowboy legends Will Rogers and John Wayne. Still known as Indian country I discovered that this state would also have particular appeal for me.

With the familiar Rogers and Hammerstein show tune 'Oklahoma' still ringing in our ears, we took a direct flight from Dublin to Chicago. After a short two hour connection we arrived in Will Rogers Airport to balmy temperatures and easily accessible car hire. “That’s a grand airport,” Dad said, as we set off on Meridian Highway for the start of our adventure. Okla-homa is a Choctaw Indian word, meaning ‘Red People’, and one of the most notable features of the Oklahoman landscape is the ‘Red Earth’ – the same earth described in the first chapter of Steinbeck’s Great American novel, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.

Red Earth is also the name given to a festival held every June in Oklahoma City and rated in the top ten Native American events in the country. It begins with a parade of participants in full regalia through downtown Oklahoma City and passes under the gaze of the impressive Devon tower – the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River. It then circles the Myriad Gardens, home to the beautifully crafted botanic gardens and surrounded by play parks for all the family to enjoy. The festival runs for three days in Remington Park, which more usually hosts horse racing events – a short ten-minute drive from mid-town.  This part of town is close to the science museum and the National Cowboy and Western Museum which is great for those travelling with kids (especially big kids like my father).

The sound of drums and Indian chanting welcomed us to Red Earth. Dad and I pottered around the display of paintings and handcrafted products ranging from basketry to hand-crafted instruments. We then lost the run of ourselves buying dream catchers and reed flutes. Out on the paddock, the main stage hosted various dancing and singing competitions, showing the talent of a wide-variety of tribes from across the country. “That’s brilliant stuff,” Dad said, as he posed for a photograph with the gorgeous Ms Comanche Nation. Dancers include men, women and children and the Fancy Dances were definitely the highlight.

After an exhilarating day we checked in at the Hampton Hotel in Bricktown. This downtown district has seen a complete rejuvenation over the last couple of years, as old warehouses have been pulled down and new amenities erected. It boasts newly built basketball and baseball arenas. The Hotel was only a stone’s throw from Chickasaw Baseball Park – home to the Minor Baseball League team, The OKC Redhawks. Neither of us had a clue what was going on at our first baseball game, but with hotdogs in one hand and large cup of beer in the other we got into the atmosphere. 

Micky Mantles Bar & Restaurant, named after the famous baseball player, is across the road from the grounds and we get chatting to the bar tender and some locals. “Your father’s never met a stranger, I see,” one of them said, and it’s true. Oklahomans have to be the friendliest people in the United States. Some of the best bars and restaurants were just around the corner, including Nonna’s restaurant and Pearls Crab Shack serving Creole cuisine.

Oklahoma City has seen a renaissance since the terrible events in 1995 surrounding the Oklahoma bombing when 168 people lost their lives. It now boasts an array of stylish quarters and I was drawn (excuse the pun) to the Paseo art district. This area is filled with more than its fair share of Art Galleries and craft-shops. On the first Friday of the month, Artists provide wine and nibbles all evening long for visitors to come and see newly exhibited work. We dined at The Paseo Grill, a well established restaurant on the strip with a good mix of Euro-American cuisine.

Next day Dad and I hit Route 66. Lined now in part with shopping malls, we did some damage to our credit cards. But we experienced a taste of the authentic Route 66 diner at Ann’s Chicken Fry House, which has been a favourite of 66 fans for decades. Located on the original route, a pink Cadillac and an old police Pontiac sit out front. Oklahoma is the state with the longest stretch of genuine route 66 still intact. Museums that document the history of this road from its beginning during the depression to its heyday in the 50’s and 60’s are found in the towns of Chandler and Clinton among others.

My father doesn’t usually like to drive when he goes on holidays but a car is a must in this state and Dad found it easy. “These are brilliant roads!” he said as yet again he insisted I take the passenger seat. Ten-minutes outside Oklahoma City, the sense of space became overwhelming. Wide open plains, dotted with water pumping windmills and spectres of lone oil drills, rolled by. Roads are easy to navigate and in a little over one hour we reached Ponca City. The statue of the Pioneer Woman by Bryant Baker, is one of the landmarks in this town and the story behind Ernest Marland who commissioned this work is enthralling.  

Marland, known as E.W., was a millionaire who made his money from coal but lost his fortune in a stock market crash in 1899, only to make another fortune from oil a few years later. The Marland Mansion is worth a visit, but Ernest’s personal life is even more intriguing. After adopting his wife’s niece Lydie at age sixteen, he annulled the adoption twelve years later, so that he could marry her when his first wife died. But he was an inspiring and altruistic leader who was loved by the townsfolk of Ponca. After he lost his second fortune, what is now known as Conoco Oil, he went on to become Oklahoma Governor in Washington DC. When he died in 1941, his young wife Lydie, went missing. The search for her became a national phenomenon. She returned to Ponca City twenty-two years after her disappearance and finished her days living in the chauffer’s cottage on the Marland estate. Her return ensured the rebuilding of the estate as a national monument known affectionately as the Palace on the Prairie.

Outside Ponca City, tall grass prairies stretch for miles and new herds of buffalo have been introduced to roam wild and free. “You know when the white man killed the buffalo he really finished the Indians,” Dad reminded me. He’d told me this as a child as I’d sat watching a western on TV and suddenly I was overwhelmed by the moment and this father and daughter adventure that we were so lucky to experience together. The story of the Ponca chief, Standing Bear is commemorated in the visitor centre just south of the city and en route to a very different Native American story in Chickasaw Country.

A two-and-a-half hour drive brought us to the town of Sulphur, to learn about a tribe who’ve gone from strength to strength over the last sixty years through good tribal management. They have made their fortune from casinos, and filtered the profits into various enterprises that have enriched and secured their culture for generations to come. Blessed with a wonderful location, nestled amongst the Arbuckle Mountains, Chickasaw country is one of the best places to find hidden Oklahoma. The tribe recently rebuilt the famous Artesian Hotel in Sulphur. My father delighted in the fact that in its heyday the hotels guests included John Wayne and Grace Kelly. In the past, many came to benefit from the healing properties, allegedly found, in the nearby springs. The Artesian Hotel is refurbished to a very high standard and has a spectacular spa and casino. Log cabins and camping facilities are available in the Chickasaw Recreation Area with plenty of fishing and swimming to be enjoyed in the lakes and travertine falls.

This part of the country is good for families seeking to stay in the great outdoors.  Crossbar Ranch is a fun amenity located in the Arbuckle Mountains with a choice of quad biking or zip-lining. Hiking and swimming are on offer around the corner at the impressive 77ft high Turner Falls. Dad and I decided to try a local delicacy at Arbuckle Mountain Pies. Tasting like a giant donut, the pies come with a thick syrupy filing in a variety of fruit flavours. We shouldn’t, but we buy a cherry and blueberry pie each.

Our next stop was at the Chickasaw Cultural Centre located outside the town of Davis. Our guide Francine who is part Chickasaw, Creek and Cherokee not only explained and described the centre but gave us insight into the history of her own family. The Chickasaws were one of the five-civilised tribes forced to leave their farmed lands in Tennessee and Alabama in the 1830’s and walk the ‘Trail of Tears’ to resettle in Indian country. This sad event is poignantly portrayed in a statue in the centre of the park – similar to our own famine statue in Dublin. The pain is clear on the faces of each character and Francine told us how her father passed down the stories of this terrible time. “He’d smoke tobacco while he spoke, and I’d feel the terrible weight in my own feet that my fore-fathers felt as they walked the trail.”  

She guided us through the archives and exhibits that included rattles made from tortoise shells and instruments made from reeds. The native game of stickball sounded remarkably like hurling and the large grass mound in the Chickasaw village grounds where they buried their dead bore a remarkable resemblance to Newgrange. Even the spiral symbol in the logo for this special place is identical to the symbols found in Irish stone-age and Celtic artwork. The Native Americans have a tradition and history that is not unlike our own in Ireland.

We continued our road trip on highway 81 which follows the route of the famous Chisholm Trail and cattle drives of the 1870s, but with open plains, fields of cattle and oil drills to see the journey just flew by. We arrived at Island Guest Ranch before sunset to be greeted warmly by Jordy White and her father Carl. Island Guest Ranch is a working ranch and the White family have been settled here since the Oklahoma Land-run of the late 1800s. Set on several-thousand-acres, the Cimarron River flows through the ranch, where they keep a large herd of long-horn cattle and are guardians to several wild species. We were made to feel like part of the family and served a hefty portion of homemade cowboy stew and salad. Guest accommodation was in en-suite chalets, and a few steps from the lodge-house where we ate and had access to wifi. 

We woke early on our first morning to freshly made pancakes and bacon with blueberries and strawberries made by Jordy. Her brother, Rylan, brought down some horses to the corral for our morning ride. I hoped my lovely horse wouldn’t realise that I had no equestrian skills whatsoever. I needn’t have worried – after a few minutes in the saddle I felt like I was born in the Wild West, and my father was only short of calling ‘Yeehaw!” as he mounted his steed! We trekked through the prairie and terrain, while Rylan gave a commentary. “That’s the yellow rose of Texas there,” he said and pointed to a flowering cactus plant. I looked over at my Dad every now and then, assured that he was in cowboy heaven.  Bow-legged, but invigorated after the horse-ride, I sat by the swimming pool for the afternoon and read my book. My dad instead offered to help bring in the Clydesdale Mares – he was only getting going. Our evening’s entertainment involved a trolley ride out to the farm to check up on the cattle and give them some feed. I never thought I would enjoy a ranch experience but I did and my father was truly in his element. 

The Whites offer a wide range of activities on the ranch and will take their guests to Pow Wows, Rodeos, Museums and Country and Western dances. Clay-shooting and paddle-boating are available or you can learn how to lasso a steer. Jordy suggested we visit Simpsons Old Time museum, in Enid, which has the best range of memorabilia from vintage films and music probably on the planet. The Simpsons lease out film sets that include a saloon, bordello and Jail. My father was offered a part in the Simpson’s next movie because of his likeness to John Wayne, and that made his day. One of the highlights from our stay at the ranch was sitting on the swing chairs at night and looking up at the millions of stars overhead – shooting stars give a private performance night after night to the sound of the wild coyotes howling. 

 Oklahoma is somewhere totally different and worth considering as destination that offers a completely new perspective of the United States. And as for Dad he now has the travel bug for more road trips! I wonder where we will go next?

Michelle Jackson's novels are published by Poolbeg Press and available in all good bookstores. To learn more see www.michellejackson.ie or visit www.thenoveltraveller.blogspot.com

Factfile

For information and advice on travel around Oklahoma and Kansas from Ireland see www.travelksok.ie 

For suggested packages to Oklahoma see www.platinumtravel.ie a fully bonded travel agent tel: 01-8535000

To stay in Sulphur see www.artesianhotel.com and www.chickasawretreat.com  

See www.redearth.org and www.chickasawculturalcentre.com for more information about Native American culture.

To stay with the White family see www.Islandguestranch.com

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