Through the porthole, I can see the sprawling capital rising from the middle of the winter-frosted and wheat-hewn land beneath. Asphalt roads run like long thin spokes to the silvery hub of the city. At 30,000 feet, I can practically hear the roar of the Thunder basketball crowd. I’ll land between the blue runway lights of Will Rogers Airport, grab my bag, step outside and smell the scent of rain and earth in the ozone of this place—Oklahoma City.
The name Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw phrase okla humma, which means home of the red people. Over the years, Oklahoma City has morphed from my hometown into a destination. As a traveler, seeing my hometown through new eyes is like being given the gift of synesthesia. I imagine that I see a lot of red in this place. I can feel the red clay bearing up the sidewalk beneath my feet, taste the red in a spicy enchilada, see red sunsets like sorrel horses rolling over and over in the sky. And today, I’ll soon be hanging red baubles on the Christmas tree. I’m home for the holidays.
• • •
We staked two red stools at Cattlemen’s, the world famous steakhouse icon in the heart of the historic stockyards. It’s easy to peel it back to the basics here. I’m here with Dad; he’s been bringing his boots and business deals to this joint long before I stepped through these doors. Cattlemen’s is a rustic diner with paneled wood and leather booths, speckled with Midwestern accents and cowboy hats. This is the place for steak. They age it, never freeze it, and closely guard a house recipe. They even serve it for breakfast. Presidents, state athletes, and country crooners have held court here with local businessmen and women, families, truckers, and out-of-towners since its first roll of the dice. I take Dad’s cue and order what he’s having: the lunch special filet with a baked russet and salad. He says, “Be sure to ask for extra house dressing on the side. You’ll want to spread that on your potato.” While we clean our plates, he tells me why he loves this place. “Best steaks you can find anywhere. And it’s the old grit atmosphere.”
I smile because he’s classic grit—redheaded kin to Wyatt Earp. He chats it up with the waitress when she comes by and I spot her championship rodeo buckle. It’s a tale and so we stay longer, and say yes to a pot of fresh coffee with some extra chat on the side.
After two forks and a slice of fruit pie, we walk right across the small town street to Langston’s flagship store, the oldest Western wear store in the city. Historic brick and wood lends itself to the feel of an old general store and a robust batch of Western haberdashery. The staff seemingly tumbled out of a Louis L’Amour novel and the smell of leather is so thick you can cut it with a steak knife. Racks and shelves are stacked with prime cowboy haul. Langston’s has a history with cowboys and farmers stretching like a long dirt road back to the early 1900s. While weathering through the Depression, Mr. Langston reached out a hand to help the farmers and ranchers by extending a generous line of credit for anyone who needed time to pay for things till their crops or cattle came through. Stories of the Langston generosity stitch through Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl history like the red thread running through my new pair of boots.
Rodeo Opry is just around the block and hosts gospel, red dirt bands, and local talent every Saturday night (don’t miss the Christmas Concert & Stockyards Treelighting Event in December), though the real noise happens at the stockyard auction house. Locals and visitors alike are welcome to trek across the catwalk overlooking the outdoor holding pens to the live auction house where bids are placed over the lowing of the cattle.
A bright effigy catches my eye as we reach the car. Smack in the heart of cow town is a painted buffalo. It’s the Spirit of the Buffalo, a public art project commissioned to celebrate the arts, build community, and help conserve Oklahoma wild lands. I stare at it because the buffalo has become a powerful metaphor for me and I realize the same is true for this city. It might be gritty and bucolic here in the historic stockyards, but the painted effigies will grow and gather across the state and end in a stampede through the streets of a rising metro.
• • •
Follow the buffalo to the metro and this city’s low rumble builds up to a thunderclap. Catch some Thunder basketball; visit the American Banjo Museum; take in The Nutcracker (a once-obscure-ballet-turned-American-favorite courtesy of the breakthrough prima ballerina of Osage County, Maria Tallchief) at the Oklahoma Ballet; pick up some Western poetry or a bestseller at the Full Circle Book Store & Café and visit “Pearl,” the only female buffalo of the Spirit herd; or spend a day at the world-class cowboy mecca, National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
I caught up with Leslie Baker, a transplant from Iowa. Baker first visited the museum with her family at the age of 14. Years later, she moved to Oklahoma City and became its Director of Marketing. This holiday, the Twelve Days of Christmas will festoon the halls and offer guests a wide array of bespoke Western holiday events.
“I love the grandness here,” Baker says. Exhibits include 46-foot high triptychs of the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, homage to the Trail of Tears, and a Modern Cowboy exhibit. Guests will also find unique collections such as John Wayne’s personal arsenal and an outdoor replica of an old Western cattle town. “There is a stereotype out there that the West is dead, [but] that culture is alive; you just might not see it from the highway.”
Impossible to miss, however, is the stirring 18-foot statue of an American Indian slumped over his horse. This moving monument greets guests in the lobby. Baker goes on to reveal that “significant treatment of the Native American culture here” is why the formerly known Cowboy Hall of Fame changed its name to The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. “We want to honor the true and ongoing story of the West.”
• • •
A ten minute drive from this museum is another Oklahoma City museum marking the day no one saw coming. A deep pulse, a saturated quiet emanates from the center of the city. As I drive down Harrison and onto Harvey and 6th, even the standing buildings seem steeled against the pervasive memory of The Bomb. The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum shares the story of the victims of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. An outdoor and indoor museum and enormous gates preside over the empty bronze chairs dedicated to these victims. Take tissues. Touch the tree that survived. This is where the red blood of Oklahoma runs true.
• • •
It’s a Christmas tradition in my family: Okie Mex is on the agenda for lunch. Grown-ups and kids spill over like Mexican jumping beans into the inner Southside café, Cocina de Mino. Some habits just can’t be broken, even if Yelp wants to tell you something around the corner is better. We stuff our faces full and talk as loudly as we like, while the wait staff do the same in the back. Skip the bathroom; don’t skip the sopaipillas. I’ll hit at least three different Mexican joints while I’m here and certainly, Ted’s Escondido is one of them. The smell of homemade flour tortillas hangs over each table like the multi-colored flags. My brother Jett says, the local secret to eating Mexican in Oklahoma is the special sauces. Ask for whatever’s in the back.
After a good unctuous Southside kick in the mouth, some of us are ready for the electricity of Bricktown, Deep Deuce, or Automobile Alley—the three entertainment boroughs of the city’s revitalized urban districts. Oklahoma is no stranger to entertainment, and trademark grit runs through it. Consider Will Rogers, Alfre Woodard, Gene Autrey, Maria Tallchief, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Blake Shelton, Ralph Ellison, Dr. Phil, Toby Keith and Kristin Chenoweth.
The largest gathering of the Spirit of the Buffalo herd grazes here alongside the restored red brick buildings and water canals; and coincides with notable venues and events like Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill and the vibrant Red Earth Festival and Museum. Deep Deuce serves music up jazzy and blue like Jimmy Rushing, as well as good eats fired up on smoky, flaming pecan wood at The Wedge Pizzeria.
I sing to the tune of a road less traveled with Automobile Alley, an up-and-coming urban revival with a crafted neighborhood feel. I’ve ridden down this historic auto road before with my Grandpa Wilcox back in the day when every major car dealership in town was right here on this row.
• • •
My posse and I spot a candy apple red truck in Plenty Mercantile. The truck is homage to the historic Chevy dealership that now houses Plenty. One of the founders and shopkeepers, Traci Walton, waves and invites all the kids to go hang out in the tipi in the back while the rest of us pick up locally resourced stocking stuffers and browse the rack of t-shirts with the state and the “Love thy Neighborhood” slogan emblazoned across the front. Proceeds from the sales of these shirts go toward relief for families affected by the Moore tornado.
From soulful shopping at Plenty Mercantile to the award-winning Red Primesteak with Zagat ratings (each steak comes with a choice of crust and sauce—I’ll try the coffee crust with black truffle butter on my next visit), the row is revitalizing and dreaming big. During the Christmas season, the buildings are covered in sheets of lights and in them I see the red of the hearts of people like Traci Walton and her candy apple truck.
• • •
No adventure or visit to Oklahoma is complete without a dark horse. I drive past a few questionable institutions and park along these two blocks, congratulating myself for finding the needle in a haystack: The Paseo District. Dancing in a row of Spanish revival stucco is the perfect marriage of cowboy and boho. Imbibing on citrus vodka at The Picasso Café, I spy layers of musician and artist flyers in the entryway, half torn and quickly reposted. They remind me of “Wanted” posters.
This place harbors seeds of renaissance outlaw flavor: the resilience, the rebel art, the renovated houses standing in between abandoned ones, and the history. Nedra Jones, a local resident, says she, “ … once had to chase gang members from her house with a rake.” Crime was high and the houses resembled ghost towns. Jones says things turned around when, “ … the good guys started to outnumber the bad guys.”
Neighbors banded together like the OK Corral and they pulled Paseo up by its lapels. Today, it is home to 20 galleries and more than 75 highly diverse artists, all within walking distance. It’s Oklahoma’s own version of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District.
For something dark and renegade, duck through the low doors on the side of the eclectic Picasso Café to The Other Room for big beer, midnight beer-battered snacks, and hefty beef sandwiches, as well as some conversation with an artist, a.k.a. outlaw.
• • •
Before my flight out of the city, Mom says there is one more place she wants me to see. We pull in front of the Native American Arts and Jewelry shop. We’re back in cow town. I missed this store the first time around, but it’s been listed in The New York Times as a must-see destination. It smells like the sharp tang of sage and it is full of the gestalt of the American West: Cherokee baskets, kachinas, pottery, and paintings. It houses the art of more than 60 well-known Native American artists and craftsmen.
Yolanda White Antelope greets us. She recognizes my mother. As she waves us over, I see my great-grandmother in her hands, sun-brown and heavy with silver. They are beautiful and storied. White Antelope tells us she is “wearing local artisan jewelry” that she and other local Native Americans have created.
I admire a pair of red earrings and then White Antelope points me to something else in her store. A small buffalo stands in the corner. This one is not painted nor is it fiberglass. It is an effigy in pure white. I know the legend well enough to know this—a white buffalo is an enduring symbol of good things here right now and good things to come. And if Oklahoma is following the buffalo, that’s a good thing for all of us.
• • •
While we are on our way to the airport, Mom surprises me with a gift: The coral earrings. They are as red as our dirt, our sunsets, and our Choctaw name. Embedded with the kind of generosity I know so well here. I feel it in my spirit and beneath my feet. It oozes out of this land, gathers in the small towns, and stampedes through the city.