Welcome to a stirring mix of pop culture, poignant historical sites and small museums resonating with the essence of the prairie experience in soulful western Oklahoma.
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As I slip into the great, wide-open spaces of western Oklahoma, I find myself spellbound by a treasure trove of sights and destinations. This is a place for unhurried reflection, where dreams of the past, present and future intertwine – where landscapes evoke infinity and the promise of adventure, panoramic sunsets, colorful characters and stories just over the next horizon.
Always curious about geography, I decide to check out the Sandy Sanders Wildlife Management Area four miles south of Erick off State Highway 30. Glad I did. As I head onto a primitive road, the area’s rugged terrain rolls out before me, born of erosion over eons by the Elm Fork of the Red River, a northern tributary.
On a short hike amid mesquite and red juniper I see craggy breaks, eroded edges of the high plains with buttes, sloping badlands and few signs of human intrusion. In the wild silence I hear the cry of a hawk above me and make a mental note to return to this beautiful, natural wilderness.
I can happily report that this 1911 beauty, built in a symmetrical blend of Neoclassical and Second Renaissance Revival styles, is well worth a gander. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it echoes a time when buildings reflected grace and grandeur, and is located just about a block off historic Route 66. Because the building towers above the surrounding town, you can’t miss it and you won’t want to.
I’m fascinated with Works Progress Administration structures, so I couldn’t wait to head to Sayre City Park, which has two WPA examples that turn out to be real gems. On the National Register of Historic Places, the park’s poolhouse is pueblo-style, built in 1940 out of beautiful red stone, with a spiral staircase on one end leading to the roof. Just west of the pool, a sturdy wall is crafted from the same stone.
I stand and look at the little 1940 WPA plaque above the door for a while and imagine the excitement of the pool’s opening day. I bet kids galore were jumping into its cool waters, happy to have a swimming pool.
Next morning, it’s back to Zoe’s for a hearty breakfast of strong coffee, crispy bacon and flaky biscuits drizzled with creamy gravy before going to the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site visitor center one mile west of Cheyenne. The actual battle site itself lies one mile west of the visitor center. One of three sites in Oklahoma administered by the National Park Service, the visitor center is impressive, with a soaring roof and jutting walls made of red and tan stonework. A series of tall, two-story windows floods the interior with natural light and heightens the poignant yet peaceful feel of this tragic site.
I start my tour at the center by watching the moving, beautifully produced film Destiny at Dawn: Loss and Victory on the Washita. It details the circumstances of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle on Nov. 27, 1868. Two hours after the attack began, approximately 30 to 60 Cheyenne lay dead in the snow and mud, including Black Kettle, who had vigorously pursued peace, and his wife, Medicine Woman.
Later, I explore the self-guided trail and overlook. These peaceful grasslands and colorful red hills belie those sad events 140 years ago, but a Cheyenne local I met the previous evening tells me when people visit the site at dawn they often report hearing the spirits of the dead whispering in the wind.
I grab a sandwich from a quick stop in the tiny hamlet of Reydon before driving north through the Black Kettle National Grasslands toward an infamous prairie landmark, the Antelope Hills. Once marking the international boundary between the United States and Mexico, the hills are a reference point to plains travelers to this day.
These ancient monoliths nestled in the curve of the Canadian River rise 2,585 feet above the valleys, plains and canyons surrounding them. A series of mesmerizing panoramic views unfolds before me, and as I round a bend in the road I spy the hills’ namesakes – a herd of antelope grazing close the road. Now that’s synchronicity.
The Shattuck Windmill Museum & Park takes vintage windmills seriously. When I arrive at the park, I immediately understand why; the 50+ well-preserved windmills creaking in the wind weave a magic spell. They are a colorful lot, symbolic of an engineering feat that pumped life-giving water to homesteads on the arid plains. Don’t miss the series of clever signs running along the western fence of the park, beginning with this simple line: “The cows were thirsty.”
Anxious to start the day’s adventures, I down a quick breakfast that fuels my short trip to Fort Supply, established in 1868. I tour the reproduced stockade and four original buildings, and learn how the fort played an important role in the Indian Wars, cattle drives and land runs during the early days of white settlement.
Fort Supply is an ongoing restoration project for the Oklahoma Historical Society and is bursting with absorbing historical tidbits. For instance, from this post Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer marched to the Washita River near Cheyenne and destroyed the village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, a fact that brought my Washita Battlefield visit into sharp focus.
I catch a glimpse of northwest Oklahoma’s and Woodward’s wild and wooly past at the Plains Indians and Pioneers Museum. A center of industry and commerce in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Woodward lived up to the moniker “Wild West” in every way – at one time boasting 23 saloons and 15 brothels.
From the Art Deco-inspired building to the colorful murals in the entryway and the Cheyenne-Arapaho artifacts, this museum is well worth a stop. Best discovery: the Cooper Site, an archeological dig near Fort Supply, produced the oldest painted object ever found in North America – a bison skull with a red lightning bolt painted on the front which now resides in the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
At lunch time, Woodward’s lively historical downtown district reverberates with friendly locals and busy restaurants, stores, offices and services of all kinds. This is the way I remember the main streets in the small towns of my childhood – alive, full of energy and people, full of community.
I stumble upon The Mercantile Food Court, a cozy lunch spot with an antique tin-stamped ceiling, and feast on a mighty fine chicken salad sandwich before heading back to the open prairie.
Travel anywhere in western Oklahoma these days, and sooner or later you’re bound to see giant wind turbines glistening in the sun, rising above the prairie like a vision from an H.G. Wells novel. OG&E’s Oklahoma Wind Energy Center, located 13 miles northeast of Woodward and part of the American Wind Power Trail, gives you a satisfying look at how these amazing wind turbines work.
Two white kiosks with maps and charts explain the process for harvesting wind to produce clean, renewable energy. Listening to the center’s 34 turbines creak and whoosh as they slowly spin, I can’t help but think of Shattuck’s windmill park and how an old idea has come full circle to fuel the future.
I strike out across the prairie toward Waynoka via dusty back roads, armed with my iPod road trip playlist and trusty The Roads of Oklahoma map (better than a GPS and highly recommended). I’m traversing gorgeous rolling red, gypsum hills and mesas. Not 20 minutes into the trip, a hawk dips down out of the sky and flies at almost ground level along the road in front of me before landing on a fence post and fixing his gaze on my passing car. That’s the gift of traveling the back roads.
The Waynoka History Museum is another small-town museum transporting you to another time. On the second floor of the beautifully restored Harvey House, I soak up the captivating story of how Charles Lindbergh made Waynoka a stop on the Transcontinental Air Transport air-rail route between New York and Los Angeles in 1929. Will Rogers, Ernie Pyle, Lionel Barrymore and many other celebrities of the era passed through the station. As I read stories about traveling by train in bygone days, I dream of boarding a train again, traveling in elegant style and hearing those long lonesome train whistles. Wouldn’t it be grand?