ROAD TRIP

Oklahoma: The Old West Revisited

Visiting Oklahoma is like stepping back in time—cowboys work the stockyards, oil derricks dot the landscape, and root beer is served in old-fashioned mugs.

downtown, tulsa, oklahoma, centennial, park

Downtown Tulsa Oklahoma from Centennial Park

(Stomer / Dreamstime.com)

Day 1
One of the first jobs my mom had after college was teaching in Tulsa, and as I accompany her on a trip to the city more than 30 years later, I'm surprised by how much she remembers. At the Utica Square shopping mall near downtown, she tells me how fashionable it used to be. "Peopledressed up to shop here," she says.

Having just arrived in the city, we're more eager to eat than to shop.Queenie's Plus Cafeis packed in the middle of the afternoon, and I soon learn why: the carrot cake, the strawberry cream cake, and the giant gingersnaps and snicker doodles in the dessert case. I hurry through a chicken-salad sandwich to get to my sugar fix--a still-warm chocolate chip cookie.

We're happily stuffed and a light rain is beginning to fall, so I suggest we take in some culture at theGilcrease Museum. It has an excellent collection of art and hist­orical artifacts of the American West, such as Thomas Moran's landscapes of the vast, empty frontier and colorful Native American rawhide pouches and headdresses.

The rain is letting up when we leave, so we go for a stroll in the rose gardens at Woodward Park. I've booked a room at theInn at Woodward Park, but we're apprehensive when we see the sign out front that calls it a "Roaring 20s Bed and Breakfast." Fortunately, the inn is charming, not clichéd. We're in the Hollywood Room, which boasts a mahogany bed, an elegant chaise lounge, and fleur-de-lis stencils on the bathroom walls.

Gorging on country-style food is an essential Oklahoma activity, Mom informs me as we drive to the suburb of Claremore for dinner atHammett House Restaurant, known for portions so large that most people have trouble finishing. While the decor could use help--a random football poster hangs on the peach-colored walls--the food is outstanding. I order the chicken-fried chicken: a chicken breast coated with flour, deep-fried in oil, and covered with a thick gravy of milk, flour, and eggs. I can't eat the entire dish, which looks like it could feed a football team.

Driving back, we turn on the radio and find a country-music station. When Brad Paisley's "Celebrity" comes on, we gleefully join in: "'Cause when you're a celebrity, it's adios reality!" I'm still humming the tune as I climb into bed that night.

Lodging

Food

  • Queenie's Plus Cafe1834 Utica Sq., Tulsa, 918/749-3481, sandwich $7
  • Hammett House1616 W. Will Rogers Blvd., Claremore, 918/341-7333, hammetthouse.com, chicken $10

Activities

  • Gilcrease Museum 1400 N. Gilcrease Museum Rd., Tulsa, 888/655-2278, gilcrease.org, free

Day 2
After breakfast at the inn, we set out for the African-American district of Greenwood, which was so prosperous a century ago that it was known as the Black Wall Street. In 1921, how­ever, white mobs torched 35 blocks of the neighborhood in one of the worst race riots in U.S. history, leaving an estimated 300 people dead and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. At theGreenwood Cultural Centeron Greenwood Avenue, which is now home to just a few businesses, we're awestruck by the photos of the devastation.

Next, Mom insists we see one of her favorite Tulsa landmarks: the 76-foot-tall Golden Driller statue, erected in 1953 for a petroleum exposition. It currently stands in front of the state's fairgrounds, and as I sit awkwardly on the driller's size 393 boot, Mom reminisces about going to state fairs that had live music, cattle competitions, and, of course, fried food. I'm a little disappointed that this year's fair is still a month away--I'm curious about the deep-fried bacon and cheddar mashed potatoes on a stick.

We sate our appetites atWeber's Superior Root Beer, a fast-food stand across town. Its founder, Oscar Weber Bilby, claimed to have grilled up the world's first hamburger on July 4, 1891. Although the burgers are filling enough--they're served on buns five inches wide--we also have root beer floats served in old-fashioned mugs. Waddling back to the car is starting to feel like a trend.

An hour later, we're driving past fields dotted with hay bales and happily singing country songs on our way to Cherokee country. The mood turns somber, though, when we get to theCherokee Heritage Centernear Tahlequah to see the Trail of Tears exhibit, which details the forced relocation of Cherokees in 1838 from the southeastern U.S. Outside is a replica of a village showing what life was like in the Cherokees' homeland, and our guide, who is part Cherokee, demonstrates how to use a blowgun made out of river cane.

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