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.

By Tiffany Sharples, Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008, 12:00 AM

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.

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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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Day 3
A massive downpour makes for a harrowing two-hour drive to Oklahoma City. Mom seems drained of color when we finally get to the old warehouse district of Bricktown, where trains were loaded with cotton, wheat, cattle, and oil to be trans­ported to the Texas coast in the early 1900s.

Beneath the railroad tracks that mark the edge of the district--now home to trendy restaurants and bars--a small pen contains nearly life-size plaster bison that have been painted by local artists. Our favorite is a five-foot-tall silver bison coming out of a silver disc, meant to resemble a buffalo nickel.

From there, we jump on the 25¢ trolley to go to theOklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. The monument to the victims of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is stunning in its simplicity: 168 empty chairs next to a reflecting pool where the building once stood--one chair for every fatality. Most poignantly, 19 of the chairs are child-size. Mom and I are both silent on the trolley ride back to Bricktown.

We try to shake ourselves out of it over lunch at an Italian restaurant,Nonna's. We both have salads drizzled with a hazelnut dressing, but the ambience is so dark and cozy I feel as if we're eating a late-night meal, not a light lunch. I'm actually drowsy when we emerge into the sunlight.

The constant exposure to country music has put us in the mood to see cowboys--or at least to shop for a cowboy hat. After browsing the expensive, custom-made hats atShorty's Caboy Hatteryin Stockyards City--a district that retains the look of an Old West town--we find decently priced clothing at theWestern Wear Outlet. Mom and I have a long debate over which color Stetson to buy my nephew before I settle on a red one with a white string for $20.

As we make our way out of the city on Route 66, we catch sight of a strange-looking structure on the horizon--a nearly 70-foot-tall soda bottle glowing pink and blue. The bottle beckons us intoPops, which sells more than 500 flavors of soda. The selection is truly overwhelming: I finally choose an orange one that tastes like a Creamsicle, while Mom decides to stick with a root beer.

Up the road is theRound Barn, which was constructed in 1898 to house livestock. The roof collapsed in 1988 after years of neglect, and a group of local retirees called the Over the Hill Gang donated the time and money necessary to rebuild the structure.

Guthrie, about 25 miles north, was the capital of Oklahoma for three years after the state was founded in 1907. We're totally enchanted by the town's more than 2,000 historic buildings, so we book ourselves a room atThe Pollard Inn, which was a bank in the early 20th century. Two old-fashioned safes still sit imposingly in the lobby, and the front desk is where tellers once sat.

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Day 4
Mom and I hit the road early so we can visit architect Frank Lloyd Wright'sPrice Tower in Bartlesville, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. Wright originally designed the tower in 1929 to be an apartment building in Manhattan, but the project was scrapped during the Depression because of a lack of funds. Years later, the H.C. Price Company, an Oklahoma oil pipeline and chemical firm, recruited Wright to realize his dream at its headquarters. The tower, which opened in 1956, is the only skyscraper Wright ever built. It now houses a small art museum with rotating exhibitions at the bottom, and a hotel and restaurant near the top.

We have just enough time for one more Oklahoma indulgence before we leave:Dink's Pit Bar-B-Que. The waitress recommends the house specialty, the sliced-brisket sandwich, which is a pile of beef, dripping with sweet barbecue sauce, stacked high on a roll. She wisely warns us not to order two baskets of onion strings.

On the way to the airport, Rhett Akins's "That Ain't My Truck" comes on the radio, and I turn up the volume so we can sing along. Soon, we're belting out the lyrics at the top of our lungs, and I don't even notice when my voice grows hoarse.

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