Loved for its cowboy culture and strong connection with Native American Indian tribes, the US state of Oklahoma is A-OK.
Driving Route 66 alone, you can sing as loud and as badly as you like. I do both. Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind is my road-trip anthem, warbled as I scan the sky, knowing Oklahoma’s dreaded tornadoes are not on the radar.
In the heart of southwestern USA, Oklahoma has gone from a flyover state to a destination in its own right. And you couldn’t script a trip with better characters, memorable locations or unique experiences.
Oklahoma National Stockyards: cowboy country
The bellowing of thousands of cows at sunrise is all of those. At six am I’m watching cowboys corral 10,000 head of cattle through the arena at Oklahoma National Stockyards – the biggest stocker and feeder cattle market in the world.
Auctioneers Brian Marlin and Bailey Ballou have mesmerising chants, the constant rumble of hooves is hypnotic and the gallery of humongous hats hilarious. It’s free to visit, but sit on your hands unless you want to buy a herd of cattle.
Just along the road, the place to break your fast is 100-year-old Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. It’s too soon after the auction to face a steak, but my three-egg omelette comes with the biggest, crispiest hash brown I’ve ever eaten. Cowboys, celebrities, tourists and locals buddy up in the booths, bars and benches. Everything feels wonderfully worn and deeply loved.
Route 66 is known as the Main Street of America. The highway connects Chicago to Santa Monica, California.
Oklahoma has more Route 66 than any other US state, with about 640 of the 3,940 kilometres crossing through here.
The drive from Oklahoma City to Tulsa is a fabulous stretch. I pass thousands of motionless wind turbines. I am relieved that for today at least, they’re not blowin’ in the wind.
I munch nuts at the Sooner Pecan Company store in Bristow, devour a buffalo burger at the Rock Café in Stroud and on approach to Tulsa big things happen.
The city is home to the world’s largest Praying Hands – 30 tonnes of pure bronze; the seven-metre-high Buck Atom – the space cowboy muffler man who fronts the Cosmic Curios souvenir shop; and the 23-metre-high ‘Golden Driller’ a statue celebrating Tulsa’s history when it was the “oil capital of the world”.
Glorious art deco buildings are evidence of the oil barons’ prosperity. Earl Harwell was one. He built Harwelden Mansion, an English Tudor-style home that is now a luxury bed and breakfast. The exterior is impressive. The oak front door awesome. But the foyer floors me.
When I lift my jaw from the chevron-patterned entry, I’m faced with a sweeping staircase, enormous leadlight windows and chandeliers that lead to my room where a platter of antipasto, wine and cheese should be garnished with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. It is almost too beautiful to disrupt. But I do. Thanks to Earl’s fortune as an oil baron, I’m living like a baroness.
Parklands on river
It’s a two-minute drive to The Gathering Place, a parkland on the banks of Arkansas River. The 26-hectare development is the dream of billionaire George B. Kaiser (yes, oil) who wanted a place for Tulsa citizens to reconnect – not only with nature, but each other.
The adventure playgrounds are outrageous creations. For big kids, there’s beauty in kilometres of paths that weave through native gardens, over ponds, lawns, stonework creations and restaurants. And thanks to Mr Kaiser, it’s free – he gifted the park to the city.
Philbrook Museum of Art
Philbrook Museum of Art is another Tulsa garden gem. The gallery is inside Villa Philbrook, a 72-room Italian Renaissance-style mansion that was the home of tycoon Waite Phillips (yes, oil) and his wife, Genevieve. The competition for your attention is fierce – the architecture, art and gardens all fight for a spot on your Instagram story. But my mind is wandering. Dylan is waiting. Bob Dylan.
“Bob Dylan has been here precisely zero times!” says Steven Jenkins, director of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. Steven tells me the legendary musician once came to the city for an event but didn’t drop in. “He’s always looked forward; it’s not in his nature to look back!”
The space pays homage to Dylan and has more than 100,000 items spanning his career – handwritten lyrics, audio recordings, his famous tambourine and never-before-seen film performances and photographs.
The Tulsa sound
Next door is the equally impressive Woody Guthrie Center and close by the historic recording studio of Leon Russell – The Church Studio, where artists Willie Nelson, JJ Cale, and Tom Petty have recorded, along with Air Supply and Tommy Emmanuel.
Mr Tambourine Man keeps me company on the drive to Durant for the Choctaw Nation Annual Powwow. A tambourine wouldn’t stand a chance – the drumming is thunderous, the stomping of feet just as loud, and the arena is a flurry of feathers flying off troupes of dancers from 55 Native American tribes.
In the heart of southwestern USA, Oklahoma has gone from flyover state to a destination in its own right. It’s a powerful, emotional and joy-filled gathering. The wind turbines have picked up pace. It was unlikely I would get through the week without experiencing the state’s famous weather. Yes, Oklahoma is blowin’ in the wind and I don’t mind it at all.
Getting to Oklahoma
United Airlines flies Australia to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston with connections through to Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
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