By Shel Wagner

The best trips alter our perspectives in lasting ways we didn’t see coming. 

A family jaunt to Hugo did that for us.

This southeastern Oklahoma town first caught the eye of the Kelly Miller Circus, back in 1937.  Hugo’s central location and temperate climate proved an ideal base for a caravan of performers, and through the years the idea caught on.  More than 20 different circuses have called Hugo home, and three still do.

We began our Hugo adventure at the Choctaw County Public Library, where circus-themed sculptures mingle with a child-sized big top.  A circus industry section boasts a collection of trade publications.  This is the first time it dawns on me that circusing is a serious business: That just as my dad had gone every morning to the phone company, other dads tamed lions and walked tight ropes.

My daughters tell me I have a bad habit of gabbing with strangers, but this is a requirement if you want to get a handle on Hugo’s unique culture.  Longtime locals at the library admitted they’d never thought of their growing-up experiences as out-of-the-ordinary:  Surely plenty of American families have a trapeze in their front yard?

We coasted over to Angie’s Circus City Diner to soak in some sustenance.  Open since 1998, we got the sense that their trove of circus memorabilia had been building for much longer.  Original posters, tickets, and oodles of clowns captured our imaginations until platters of comfort food arrived.  (scrumptious home-cooking: catfish, chicken fried steak, and PIE!)  My older daughter asked our server about a particular elephant photo. (She’s picking up my gabbing habit!) and we learned we could meet the elephants eye to…er, trunk!

It turns out Hugo is home to the largest open-to-the-public elephant herd, at the Endangered Ark Foundation.  We were there on a day when the facility offers tours, and we were invited to meet and even feed a few of the 20-some-odd beauties.  We had stumbled upon pachyderm paradise! 

Created in the early ‘90’s, this facility’s mission is a tricky prospect: to perpetuate the dwindling Asian elephant species in the United States.  Eventually, unless this breeding program finds success, America would be devoid of elephants!

We wandered next to Mount Olivet Cemetery, where a special section called Showman’s Rest is reserved for those with a three-ring past.  The monuments are flamboyant and engaging.  Headstones mimic everything from ticket booths to circus tents.

As the sun sinks, we decide it’s time to tuck into the cabin we’ve reserved at Hugo Lake State Park: a handsome hideaway with a cedar deck that takes full advantage of the hazy lake views.  We’re surrounded by wooded, copper hillsides, likely the same topography that’s spelled “home” for generations of weary, returning circus entertainers.

We build a campfire and squat on tree stumps, waving marshmallows over open flames.  The girls are quiet, reflective, perhaps still spooling away the day’s magic.  My little one asks again whether we are still in Oklahoma, and I know she is trying to calibrate the contrasts between Hugo and our own wheat-farming community.

I spot an eagle loitering in a nearby treetop, which for me is akin to glimpsing a unicorn.  But my daughters are nonchalant.  “OF COURSE, there’s an eagle here, Mommy.”  Just as there are elephants and acrobats and pure-white dancing ponies.      

They say the circus world is in many ways a world all its own.  And brushing with that world, even for a weekend, has amended our definition of “Oklahoman”…forevermore.

Shel Wagner is Executive Producer and segment host of the weekly TV travel show AAA’s Discover Oklahoma.