029: On the trail of Route66, Great Plains Edition, Part Two

This is the second part of our journey through the Great Plains of the United States that will cover Wichita, Kansas and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Be sure to pick up Part One, Blog 028, a whirlwind tour of St. Louis and Kansas City (both in Missouri).

“And the Wichita lineman

is still on the line…”

The only thing I knew about Wichita was from Glen Campbell’s lovely song, “Wichita Lineman”!… Happy to report that it is a multi-faceted town with a pure “wild-west” entrepreneurial spirit that lives on to this day.

Sitting at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers, Wichita became a principal trading center and meeting place for nomadic hunting people for at least 11,000 years and continue to be so in many industries throughout its history.

As a symbol of Wichita and a tribute to the Native American tribes, the Keeper of the Plains, a 44-foot (13.4m) steel sculpture elevated on a 30-foot (9 m) rock promontory, stands at the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas rivers with hands raised in supplication to the Great Spirit. Renowned Native American artist Blackbear Bosin donated the Keeper of the Plains to the citizens of Wichita in 1974 when it was installed. Plantings of sage, bottlebrush, medicinal herbs, prairie grasses, yuccas and cactus add to the sense of place and time.

From cowtown to oil and gas to aeronautics!

In the late 1860’s, Wichita was a destination for cattle drives traveling north on the Chisolm Trail from Texas to Kansas railroads, earning it the nickname “Cowtown“. Even the legendary Wyatt Earp—he of the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—served as a police officer in Wichita! 

Then, rapid immigration in late 1870’s resulted in a land boom involving much commercial speculation. In 1914, oil and gas were discovered in nearby Butler County; by 1917, there were five refineries operating in Wichita, seven more built in the 1920s. The infamous Koch Oil Industries corporation got its start in Wichita. 

Much like today’s billionaires are investing big money into space travel, millionaires of the 19th Century, who became wealthy and powerful thanks to an economic oil boom, fearlessly invested into the daring new aeronautics industry. Before long, Wichita became and still is the Air Capital of the World, having produced more aircraft than any other city, anywhere—an estimated 250,000 aircraft in the last 100 years! Successful aviation companies such as Beechcraft, Cessna, and Stearman Aircraft were all founded in Wichita. Many sky ‘luminaries’, from Amelia Earhart to Howard Hughes, flew in and out of Wichita. 

The Kansas Aviation Museum is housed inside an old terminal. We were able to climb up to the old air traffic control tower overlooking the still very active McConnell Air Force Base.

Today, the “big four” Wichita aerospace companies—Cessna, Textron Aviation, Bombardier Aerospace-Learjet and recently Spirit AeroSystems—employ more than 30,000 workers in Wichita. At 12,500 employees, Boeing is actually the largest private employer in the state. 

A side effect of becoming an industrial hub, Wichita is today a regional centre of culture, media, and trade. It hosts several universities, large museums, theaters and parks. Wichita State University has a humongous campus with small art & architecture surprising treasures.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the Fundacio Joan Miro in Barcelona (Spain), a museum dedicated to the works of this internationally renowned artist who combined abstract art with surrealist fantasy. Imagine my surprise when I heard there was a mural of his located at the Ulrich Museum of Art in the heart of the Wichita State University campus. Personnages Oiseaux (Bird People) was created between 1972 and 1978; it is one of Miro’s largest works in the United states and his only glass mosaic mural.

Another surprise was in store for us. The Corbin Education Center, commissioned in 1957 to renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design classroom, office and lab space for Wichita State University’s College of Education. The building is still in operation today – and though it could use a bit of loving care and attention – it is still a beautiful commercial structure and well worth the trip to WSU campus.

There is another Frank Lloyd Wright site in Wichita! The Allen House, was commissioned in 1915 for the home of future governor of Kansas Henry Allen and wife Elsie, in the beautiful (and now historic) College Hill in east Wichita. The house is one of the last of Wright’s Prairie Style residences. It is owned today by a foundation and can be toured (alas, we didn’t know far enough in advance to obtain tickets ☹). However, the outside of the house is still very representative of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work with the Japanese influence visible in the red clay tile roof and the enclosed garden reminiscent of a Japanese teahouse. 

A city of many surprises is what I’ll remember of Wichita, Kansas! 

Oklahoma!.. where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain

Never words were so true from the famous 1931 Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA!… Little did we know that we would come to ‘really’ understand what that song lyric means — more on that in a little while.

We arrived in Oklahoma City, the modern frontier”, in October. The city is the State Capital and sits in the middle of an active oil field; oil derricks dot the capitol grounds, including where we were staying at Road Runner RV Park, in South OKC (short for Oklahoma City). 

An oil derrick sat in the middle of our campground

If Kansas City and Wichita had many interesting surprises in store for us, so did Oklahoma City. For starters and shining brightly in the who-knew category: OKC is one of the largest cities in the nation in compliance with the Clean Air Act!

OKC is home to diverse neighbourhoods, or “districts” as it is referred locally, that are fun to explore. In recent years, The city has seriously invested in offering outdoor activities for all ages. Hence, the Boathouse District is the place where athletes can go rowing or paddling on the world-class 4000m race and training course (it’s the official practice site for US Olympic water teams), while families can enjoy Riversport Adventures. All of this is right next to downtown.

Fun at Riversport in the Boathouse District

Bricktown District is where locals and visitors alike go for entertainment. For several decades, this warehouse district sat dilapidated and underused. In 1993, the City of Oklahoma City built the Bricktown Ballpark and a one-mile canal that connects the north Bricktown area with the Boathouse District along the Oklahoma River. This “mini San Antonio” River Walk is a very pleasant place to walk or go on a watertaxi tour. 

My darling car-loving husband was particularly impressed with the historic Automobile Alley District, once home to more than 50 car dealerships. An influx of Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970s created a hub known for its Asian fusion cuisine (this explains why a ‘local’ Pho eatery was soooo good!) From what we could observe, the area is popular with young hi tech workers and artists alike. 

Stockyard City

Located in the heart of OKC, Historic Stockyards City is home to the Oklahoma National Stockyards, the largest stocker/feeder cattle market in the world. I have to admit that seeing truck after truck transporting cattle and pigs going in for… well you know… has definitely pushed me toward upping my plant-based diet! The Stockyards District’s ‘other’ specialty is Western wear shops, from cowboy hats & boots to denim jeans and dungarees to colourful plaid shirts – it was all here, at decent prices too!

There are several interesting and unusual museums in OKC, from The American Banjo Museum to the architecturally impressive Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center. However, locals highly recommended a visit to The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum… So off we went!

We did not regret it one bit. What an extraordinary place it is! Founded in 1955, the Museum collects, preserves and exhibits internationally renowned collection of Western art and artifacts as well as sponsors educational programs aimed at promoting interest in the legacy of the American West.

The museum offers a real compendium of historical and contemporary western culture in the United States. Both of us hail from coastal urban cities and honestly, our ‘knowledge’ of the history of the American West was rather limited. We learned so much during our 3-hour visit! One particular collection was absolutely riveting. Tattooing: Religion, Reality & Regret.. Indeed, as tattoos are so prominent today, especially with Millennial and GenZ generations. The desire to express one’s feeling or philosophy isn’t new, is it?!

This fascinating exhibit explores the tattooing customs of indigenous populations from around the world

Tornado Alley!

Oklahoma City is alas (in)famous for its severe weather. Normally, it’s active tornado season is from March through June. In addition to tornadoes, it is prone to frequent hailstorms. The Oklahoma City metropolitan area is one of the most tornado-prone major cities in the world, with about 150 tornadoes striking within the city limits since 1890, the time weather records have been kept, Oklahoma City has been struck by thirteen violent tornadoes, eleven rated F/EF4 and two rated F/EF5.

Campground cellar tornado shelters

But thanks to climate change, we no longer live in ‘normal times’! One of the most potent autumn severe-weather episodes took place, not once but twice throughout the weekend we were there. The campground where we were staying had its own tornado siren and underground cellar, so we were bracing for some scary “localized but intense round of tornadic supercell thunderstorms” as Mike, the local TV station weatherman announced.  The colourful graphics shows the scale of the ‘super cell’ storm… we were right under the orange bar!

While we were impressed with the excellent second by second (literally) local NBC TV coverage (thankfully we had power), it was definitely a case of ‘too close for comfort’ for us… in fact it was bloody scary! I had prepared an emergency bag by the door, at the ready in case we needed to evacuate in a hurry. Fortunately, it never came to that, though tornado ‘events’ were recorded all around our immediate area. Lots of rain and hail and wind, but that was it. Beautiful blue sky the following mornings after the storm with people going about their business as if nothing special had happened. The RedbirdRV motto may be “It’s all part of the adventure”, but this was a bit too much! Come Monday morning, we said goodbye to the Great Plains and quietly but steadfastly moved out of Dodge 😊

Historical Route 66 was a great way to learn the rich history of the places the Mother Road used to traverse. It’s now time to point Mr. Bond toward Santa Fe, New Mexico. Turns out Prairie Land was a lot more fun and well… adventurous! than we thought it might be. Lesson learned: Never underestimate these so-called fly-over cities ever again!

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