Journey deep into the heart of southwest Oklahoma for an earthy mix of Oklahoma kitsch, American Indian and Western history and nature's pageantry.
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Traveling Oklahoma’s back roads through small towns and main streets, my longtime friend Claudia Goodnight and I set out to have fun and end up on a true Western adventure. Along the way, we find a stellar contemporary American Indian art gallery, a scenic stretch of lonely evocative highway, a charming resort town with oodles of history and an ancient iconic mountain held in memory. It’s a trip through mystical, rowdy and poignant stories, and in the end what we experience is a deeply nuanced Western narrative filled with light, dark and everything in between.
History Mother Lode, Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum
At the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum in Lawton, we discover that booming artillery is an apropos soundtrack for a mother lode of history. Established in 1869 as a cavalry post by Gen. Phillip Sheridan of Civil War fame, Fort Sill was once regarded as one of the most beautiful posts in the West, and a number of celebrated Western folks hung out here at one time or another: Buffalo Bill visited several times (to meet with the Army and to partner up with Pawnee Bill to make movies), Quanah Parker surrendered here and Geronimo came to Fort Sill as prisoner in 1894. Other famous people whose paths crossed with Fort Sill include Harry S. Truman, Theodore Roosevelt, Mickey Mantle, Will Rogers and Gene Autry.
Hamburger Haven, Meers Store & Restaurant
All that Western history at Fort Sill makes us ravenous, so by the time we arrive at legendary Meers Store & Restaurant in Meers, we hungrily eye every plate-sized Longhorn burger around us as we wait for a table. Once seated, huge Bell jars of iced tea quench our thirst as we eat our way through crispy fries, onion rings and fried okra, and of course we have our hands and mouths full once our juicy burgers arrive in pie tins. The restaurant’s memorabilia is classic traveler eye candy and runs the gamut from old bottles to a Western hat collection.
Lords of the Plains, Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center
Regarded as the finest horsemen on the plains, the Comanche, also known as the “Lords of the Plains,” are one of the prominent Southern Plains Indian tribes with tribal headquarters in Oklahoma. The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center in Lawton beautifully preserves the tribe’s history, language and culture with its interactive displays, historic artifacts, tours, workshops and more.
Here we catch the last day of an exhibit celebrating Josephine Myers-Wapp, a 97-year-old Comanche artist, renowned finger-weaver and one of the first teachers of contemporary native arts. We’re fascinated by her colorful work, which is full of striking, creative patterns. Check with the museum for details on the variety of traveling exhibits hosted throughout the year.
From the Prairie to the Mountains, Wichita Mountains
Oklahoma’s rolling plains evoke feelings that are sometimes hard to articulate, but people try. They talk of big sky, vast lands and subtle grandeur in infinite grasslands. They speak of possibility, frailty, human insignificance and heart-opening freedom. Yet, I think, we still end up circling around an experience that’s possibly indescribably wonderful and mystical, and that, dear friends, is how I feel every time I drive into Oklahoma’s plains and prairies. Southwest Oklahoma adds another pleasure to this earthy mix – that of seeing plains roll into the surprisingly grand Wichita Mountains.
Walking in Clouds, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
One of the best places for a good bird’s-eye view of Oklahoma’s richly complex and diverse land is Mount Scott in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, just spitting distance from Lawton. At 2,464 feet, it’s Oklahoma’s third-highest point, and we drive to the top, basking in nature’s panorama. Atop Mount Scott, brisk winds send storm clouds skittering across the sky. I spin in one direction and see spirals of hawks riding wind currents, look west into row upon row of Wichitas, the oldest mountain range in North America, and turn inward and feel serene, deeply connected to nature.
Cobblestones and Baby Geese, Medicine Park
With the sun diving toward the horizon, we skip into picturesque Medicine Park, known as America’s cobblestone community for the round red rocks you see everywhere here. Abundant, naturally occurring geological phenomenons in the area, cobblestones are used as a natural building material in many of the region’s structures. The Plains Indians were well acquainted with this quiet oasis long before its colorful history as a resort town. We take a lazy stroll on a scenic trail by Medicine Creek and watch goslings on Bath Lake make their first leap into water before tucking into dinner at the Old Plantation Restaurant.
Whitehorse Heritage, Whitehorse Lodge
Manilla Whitehorse owns three inviting cottages in Medicine Park with the affable names of Flute Player, Buffalo Gal and Whitehorse Lodge, each complete with screened-in porches, cobblestones, savvy amenities and personality galore. On tour of the lodge with Manilla, we discover a richer story tucked into its nooks and crannies. Manilla is a Kiowa tribe member, a fourth-generation descendant of Kiowa Chief Tohausan, and her father was the well-known Kiowa artist Roland Whitehorse, who designed the Kiowa tribal seal. The lodge artfully mirrors her heritage in subtle ways and makes our stay there enchanting.
Shutterbug’s Dream Road, Highway 115
Highway 115 winds along the northern perimeter of the Wichita Mountains and doesn’t disappoint. With several perpendicular corners perfect for pulling over, we take in sublime prairie and mountain views, blossoming prairie wildflowers, picturesque ruins of a 1929 cobblestone building near Saddle Mountain and the old Saddle Mountain store circa 1907. Cameras click all along the way on this shutterbug’s dream road.
Soda Fountain Delight, Soda Fountain Eatery
Even though we hit downtown Anadarko smack in the middle of lunch rush, the busy Soda Fountain Eatery gets us seated and satiated with cold iced tea right away. Picture an old soda fountain decked out in plenty of charm, throw in delicious homemade sandwiches, soups and salads, irresistible pies and desserts, and great service, and you know why this local lunch spot is a hot ticket. My crispy Reuben crunches with savory flavor, and the strawberry pie strikes a fine balance with its sweet, creamy texture.
A Crown Jewel with Contemporary Indian Works, Southern Plains Indian Museum
We find a shining crown jewel filled with gorgeous art and native culture in the Southern Plains Indian Museum in Anadarko. One of only three museums operating under the U.S. Department of Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board, this gem shows outstanding contemporary American Indian art by emerging native artists and craftspeople. We groove on diverse works by multi-talented Cheyenne and Arapaho artist Harvey Pratt and chat with Laverna Capes, manager of the Oklahoma Indian Arts & Crafts Cooperative, a neat shop within the museum featuring authentic Indian-made gifts. A heads-up for your pocketbook: We have a hard time not buying everything in the store.
A White Pony at Rainy Mountain
After visiting the Kiowa Tribal Museum in Carnegie, a small museum with diverse artifacts, we head to Rainy Mountain. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Kiowa tribal member N. Scott Momaday recalls his childhood around Rainy Mountain, along with Kiowa history and myths, in “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” While this lonely knoll on the plains north of the Wichita Mountains may seem insignificant, Momaday’s words reveal the lyrical in this Kiowa landmark. A white pony and cattle serenely graze at the base of Rainy Mountain as we pause, snap photos and let Momaday’s words guide us to deeper understanding.
Red Granite Zeitgeist, Quartz Mountain State Park
We scurry toward our last stop, Quartz Mountain State Park near Lone Wolf, ready to kick back amongst stunning red granite hills overlooking Lake Altus-Lugert at the western edge of the Wichita Mountains. The next morning, we browse the lodge’s amazing art, sculpture and grounds – a zeitgeist of creativity unbound, a fusion of old and new Western charm, and a fitting finale to this soulful southwestern Oklahoma trek.