Set a course for big sky country and rolling horizons, where American Indian and Western culture form an unforgettable montage of earthy experiences.
In north central Oklahoma, the land unfolds like a blossoming flower, raising undulating hills and seas of prairie grass toward the sun and sky. Pump jacks, cattle and small towns slip by the car window, and the frontier as it once was – a place of infinite possibility, epic stories and lots of heart – and the place it is today burrow deep into your heart. My husband, Jim, my daughter, Callie, and I set out on a spring break journey through this inspiring land.
South of Ponca City lies a tranquil 63-acre park with towering old trees and gentle native grasses. Walking paths weave among six tribal viewing courts, a small museum, a pond and a magnificent 22-foot bronze statue of Ponca tribal leader Chief Standing Bear. The touching story of Standing Bear’s plea in an 1879 U.S. court of law to be recognized as a person and a citizen gracefully unfolds at the Standing Bear Park, Museum and Education Center. We find the six tribal viewing courts fascinating places for quiet reflection, and Callie is transfixed by the grandeur of the Standing Bear plaza.
Our Standing Bear Park adventure whets our appetites, so we drive a short distance north to Ponca City’s legendary Enrique’s Mexican Restaurant. We didn’t know until arriving that the restaurant sits smack dab next to the runway at Ponca City Municipal Airport. Callie gets a real kick out of seeing two small planes land, taxi and park, and then passengers disembark and stroll into the restaurant. Handmade, fresh Mexican food turns out to be a terrific treat for our taste buds, and made-to-order handmade corn tortilla chips transcend the genre. No wonder Enrique’s has a booming aeronautical (and drive-up) customer base.
Deep in the heart of Osage County is Pawhuska, location of the Osage Nation headquarters and the Osage Nation Museum. The museum is the oldest tribally-operated museum in the U.S., open since 1938, and is housed in an 1872 building erected from native Oklahoma sandstone. A tribal timeline tells the story of the Osage people from 650 A.D. through today. Rhonda Kohnle, museum guide and gifted storyteller, regales us with stories about the museum’s extensive holdings of paintings, artifacts and photos in such a wonderful way; she makes the history crackle and come alive.
Barbecue and road food in Oklahoma are synonymous, making a dinner stop at Bad Brad’s Bar-B-Q in Pawhuska the natural way to end our day. We devour mouthwatering pit-smoked brisket, ribs and smoked bologna, all with scrumptious trimmings, and, of course, peach and blackberry cobblers for dessert. To give you an idea of just how good the barbecue is here, when I eye Callie’s plate of ribs, she can tell I’m contemplating nabbing a nibble. She sets a firm tone with this comment: “Mom, I would give you a bite, but I’m saving all this for me.”
When the oil boom exploded in Osage County in the early 1900s, downtown Pawhuska expanded rapidly, and a score of buildings sprang up. Today, 82 of these are on the National Register of Historic Places. Pawhuska, a preservation treasure trove, also boasts many beautiful old homes, and we’re lucky to spend the night in one, The Wah-Zha-Zhi House. Built in 1925, it’s within walking distance of downtown. Our roomy apartment has pinewood floors, two comfy bedrooms, a living area, a kitchen, cable TV and free Wi-Fi – Callie thinks this really rocks – and all for a very reasonable price.
Once upon a time, an ecosystem known as tallgrass prairie covered portions of 14 states, stretching from Texas to Minnesota. Today, less than ten percent of this awe-inspiring landscape is left, and Oklahoma is blessed to have the largest remaining protected remnant on Earth at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Driving through these vast rolling vistas is a heart-opening experience. Bison roam freely, just as they once did. From the safety of our car, we get a good close look at them, clicking away on our cameras – the consummate prairie photo safari.
The town of Hominy is named after Osage Chief Ho-Mo-I, which translates to “Walks in the Night.” Other than its very interesting name and history, what sets Hominy apart from other small towns is a series of 40 vibrant murals. Painted on the sides of downtown buildings by local artists, the murals depict Native American folklore. Blackfoot artist Cha’ Tullis, one of the mural artists, also owns a gallery here. It’s closed on the day we visit (it’s typically open Monday through Saturday), so we head to the murals. They’re sprawling, dramatic and colorful and capture the beautiful spirit of native people in a way that’s inspiring.
West of Pawnee, atop Blue Hawk Peak, sits the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum, the well-preserved dream home and ranch of Gordon Lillie, a.k.a. Pawnee Bill, and his wife, May Lillie. Pawnee Bill and May were fascinating, larger-than-life characters; their home is a gracious history lesson and this picturesque historic site is a wagonload of family fun. Callie wants to return for Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, a show extravaganza that takes place each June. Our biggest takeaway: The Pawnee Bill historic site is a microcosm of the West’s epic story, filled with tragedy, triumph and everything in between.
We’re total foodies and happy to report that Click’s Steakhouse, where homemade food and smiling people reign, makes a “yippie ki-yay” feast. We start with fried pickles – tart and crunchy – and move on to steaks – melt-in-your-mouth juicy and served with baked potatoes, salad bar and yeasty homemade rolls. We’re in a completely joyful and satiated state. Then our friendly waitress insists on Tollhouse pie. Oh, my. Think warm, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie in a pie crust with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and drizzle of chocolate sauce. Callie slyly observes, “Hey, Mom … worth the drive.”
Bone weary, we head to Turtle Rock Farm Retreat, located on a 100-year-old continuously operated family farm near Red Rock. We nestle into prairie nirvana, bunking down in an old, beautifully appointed farm house filled with tranquility. The next morning, our host, Pat Hoerth, feeds us a hearty breakfast of baked oatmeal and fresh fruit. We hike amid stunning prairie vistas, past quiet ponds, through golden pastures. We take in the vast sky, surrounding us like a wispy blanket. We see the web of life, prairie spirit in glorious full force, and all is well with our souls.