Matt Bates, Director of Visit USA (UK) explains his passion for all things Oklahoma...
Ask an American “Have you ever been to Oklahoma?” and you’ll probably be surprised how many answer yes, but conditionally, with the afterthought such as “I’ve passed through / flown over it, on my way out West / back East”. Actually, it’s not such a surprise for this genuinely big-hearted ‘heartlands’ state that is ‘standing at the crossroads …’, to quote a legendary exponent of my beloved blues music, Robert Johnson.
And that’s one of my favourite things about the Sooner State - it’s at the crossroads of the nation’s history and culture - Native American, cowboy, entrepreneurial and commercial.
In the 1800s, cowboys drove longhorn cattle North through Oklahoma, along the tortuous and rowdy Chisholm Trail from Texas to the burgeoning railroad in Kansas. Eager and stoical settlers from around the world struck out West, rolling their wagons from the Eastern seaboard, across the territory in search of the ‘promised lands’ that were to become California, Oregon and Washington State.
And a clutch of Native American tribes were pushed West from the lands of their origins (in the East and South), along the ‘Trail of Tears’ into what was to become Oklahoma.
As the 1900s dawned, aspiring independent oil barons made and lost fortunes, circling the rapidly developing Oklahoma restlessly, staking their claims and drilling wells in search of the ‘black gold’. They helped create a rampant economy that would be the catalyst for the ‘Mother Road’. Route 66 was iconic then, and it remains iconic (in fact, that over-exposed term might have been coined especially for Tulsa businessman Cyrus Avery’s 1926 brainchild).
Today, the longest remaining driveable section of Route 66 runs through Oklahoma - now, much more living history and theatre, than transport system. Each time I’ve meandered along it, I’ve discovered something new.
In fact, the living archives of all the restless exploration, exploitation and innovation make today’s Oklahoma a place of endless and diverse interest, education and, outright fun!
Native American and cowboy culture, high art, farm to fork food, and diverse music - all served up by the friendliest and most welcoming of people - are there ‘at the crossroads’.
I miss it all keenly in these ‘lockdown’ times and when the air corridors open up again Oklahoma will be at the top of my ‘must revisit’ list. For now, it’s a case of reminiscing and planning - and knowing that, however well-crafted my next itinerary is, I’m bound to be surprised and intrigued afresh, somewhere along that iconic road!