It is my favorite time of day heading south from the Oklahoma Panhandle, the western most part of the state that looks just like its name describes, the handle of a pan. The sun is beginning to take on its most magical light, the light that dances across the land and makes any stretch look appealing. I left for Oklahoma at perhaps the worst time to do so, during tornado season. A week prior, the widest tornado in the history of the United States roared through these now very peaceful lands.
Largely forgotten from any traveler’s itinerary, Oklahoma fascinates me with its survivor mentality. The state made it through the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, when the prairie and its people took a beating by severe dust storms. Year after year, the state makes its way into the mainstream media for not so glowing and glorious reasons but rather for its positioning along Tornado Alley. I prefer to see Oklahoma for what I found it to be, the heartland of America.
I rest up for the night in Elk City, a western community perched right along historic Route 66, the nation’s first highway system. I do as you do in Oklahoma, feast on a large dinner at Prairie Fire, a restaurant set up in an old train depot. Fried pickles and green beans with a side of chicken fried steak leave me satisfied to the heart, and perhaps arteries with Oklahoma dining.
My second day driving through Oklahoma is spent monitoring the weather for twisters. And yet, the radar is clear. The open range of Oklahoma transitions into city life in Oklahoma City. Infamously known for being the site of the worst act of domestic terrorism in the United States, I pause at the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
The site honors the victims, survivors and rescuers of the deadly bombing on April 19, 1995. Two gates look at one another across a reflecting pool. They are marked with two times, 9:01 AM before the attack and 9:03 AM after the bombing. Next to the Reflecting Pool are 168 chairs representing the 168 lives lost. They line up in nine rows for each floor of the now missing Murrah Building. It is a chilling space, one you can’t help but feel uneasy rather than comforted.
In true Oklahoma spirit, an American elm stands watch just opposite the Memorial. Known as the Survivor Tree, the tree withstood the full force of the attack. A symbol of resilience, the tree captures what Oklahoma is all about. Nature and man might knock you down, but hope always prevails.
I stop at a ham sandwich stand along the highway, Robertson’s Hams. Ham sandwiches are served on white bread in plastic bags, just as they would for your school lunch. There is nothing commercial about it. It is plain, simple and probably the best ham sandwich I have had. When asked about the tornadoes rolling through the state, the man behind the counter simply states, “Tis the season.” In true Oklahoma survivor spirit and in the words of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “You’re doin’ fine Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O.K.”
Have you been to Oklahoma?