Terrific Tulsa

October 11, 2005
Filed under Destinations

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Tulsa, with its surrounding countryside, is the perfect launching point for a heady journey
into Americana. The past here is vitally alive, shining as brightly as a handful of
Oklahoma turquoise. Once upon a time, RVers driving fabled Route 66 considered visiting
Tulsa for a fuel stop, a hamburger, and a one-night sleepover. But those with a more
encompassing sense of wanderlust and discovery who have taken the time to tour the Tulsa
area have been startled to find a fascinating heartbeat that pumps more than oil. If you
still have the impression that Tulsa and its realm are fit only for 10-gallon-hat cowboys,
fast horses, gushing oil wells or John Wayne, it’s time to fire up the tow vehicle and take
a closer look at one of the most diverse regions in the Southwest. Tulsa (population
385,000) may have more art, culture and style per capita than most any city in this part of
the country. There are nifty surprises around every corner, such as the second-largest
population of Native Americans of any city in the United States, and spirited festivals
celebrating any number of local specialties — from musical and culinary treats to a
festive Tribal Pow Wow to hot-air balloon flotillas. In the 1800s, hard-working ranchers
and farmers settled in the area and, appropriately, it was a Native American that presided
over the first Tulsa Town Council meeting in 1836. During the late 1800s, Tulsa was a
rough-riding cowtown. Then, in 1901, oil was discovered in Red Fork, four miles away, and
in 1905 a huge oil strike in nearby Glenpool quickly made Tulsa prosperous. Though the
black gold was revered, city fathers passed a law prohibiting drilling within the town. Oil
or not, Tulsa is hauntingly nostalgic, and carries one back to the 1920s, ’30s and early
’40s, before the advent of towering glass and steel monstrosities. It remains much like a
time capsule laced with red, white and blue patriotism, and punctuated by architecture
affectionately called “Okie Deco” by the Tulsans. Actually, many architecture historians
recognize Tulsa as one of the country’s Art Deco centers. Attractive brick walkways shaded
with leafy trees weave through downtown. More than 150 buildings have undergone detailed
restoration: 25 of these can be enjoyed on the 11-block self-guided walking tour, which
reveals a boldness in architecture and a vision of aesthetics and vigor. Historically
significant buildings dating from 1926-42 reveal terra cotta sculptures, stained-glass
windows and soaring towers sheathed in copper. According to local legend, the terra cotta
gargoyles — which cover the old Adams Hotel — were the architect’s impression of in-laws
he disliked. The magnificent Tulsa Union Depot closed in 1967 and stood in ruin for 17
years before the threat of the wrecking crane was averted and the building restored. This
year, the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame will be housed therewithin. Nearby is the Greenwood
Historic District. In June, the city swings with the famed Juneteenth Heritage Festival, a
longstanding Tulsa trademark that attracts some 50,000 people in search of a good time.
Liquor was finally allowed in 1984: As the late, great Will Rogers (1879-1935) once said,
“Oklahoma will stay dry as long as people can stagger to the poles to vote no.” Generally,
Tulsans are a friendly lot, greeting one another with a smile and a wave. The most northern
of southern cities (with aspects of both), Tulsa is a city of laid-back sophistication with
little pretension. Conversations are often unhurried, seasoned with a touch of Oklahoma
drawl. Rush hour here is almost a laugh. Coney Island Hot Weiners on 4th Street has a red
blinking neon sign that reads “Coney Islander,” which was here, Tulsans say, back when Will
Rogers was roaming about with his lasso. The weiners spitting hot on the grill in the
window are irresistible — as is the gossip often exchanged by locals here over a steaming
cup of coffee. Tulsans like to say, “We have dives, joints and restaurants. Take your pick
because they’re all good.” The celebrated Spudder Restaurant on 50th and South Sheridan is
beyond good. The eatery, dedicated to the celebration of the American Dream — the
automobile and the oil and gas that moved it along — is bursting with highway memorabilia
such as gas-pump globes and rare photography of Route 66. Breakfast should be reserved for
the Metro on 11th Street. The diner is a blast from the past dedicated to the 1950s, the
“Mother Road” and the vehicles of the day. Nearby is the famed Tulsa Flea Market at Expo
Square. It’s ranked among the largest flea markets in Oklahoma, with more stuff on display
than the local Wal-Mart. Mercifully, RV parking is a priority and, on some days, their
spacious parking area resembles a huge RV rally, with rigs sporting license plates from
Alaska to Florida. On a loftier note, the arts add to the quality of life in Tulsa. Founded
in 1961, the Tulsa Arts Council is one of the nation’s first. The elegant Philbrook Museum
of Art, an Italian Renaissance villa with spacious gardens, has an internationally
important collection of American Indian Art, while the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of
American History & Art features large collections of famed artists Frederic Remington
and Charles Russell. With diversity in mind, a remarkable surprise for history and aviation
buffs is the splendid Tulsa Air & Space Museum, featuring some 6,000 artifacts and
eight historic aircraft. Tulsa has a rich aviation history dating to the 1930s, when the
oil barons were among the only folks who could afford airplanes, making the Tulsa Airport
(at one time) the busiest in the world. It boasts visits by Amelia Earhart and Charles
Lindberg. An easy 15-minute drive south of Tulsa along the Arkansas River, small-town charm
awaits in homey Jenks (population 11,000), with a whopping 30 antique and specialty stores
in seven malls hosting more than 1,000 dealer booths — all within a three-block district.
New to Jenks is the sparkling Oklahoma Aquarium, which features the largest private
fishing-tackle collection in the world. Long a favorite with RVers in the know is the Jenks
Saturday Morning Farmers Market, located on 3rd and Main. Running from May to October, the
market is a showcase for tasty Oklahoma-grown products straight from the farms. Pick up a
copy of the Pow Wow Chow cookbook — compiled by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek
and Seminole tribes — for regional recipes, and you can cook up your own taste of the
Tulsa area using local ingredients. During the middle weeks of April, color sweeps across
the city when the azaleas spring forth. Muskogee, southeast of Tulsa, is proud to be the
home to the Azalea Festival at the 122-acre Honor Heights Park, where 30,000 azaleas in 625
varieties are in bloom. Honor Heights Park is also home to the Five Civilized Tribes
Museum, and nearby is the intimate Ataloa Lodge Museum, housing a collection of 88 Kachina
dolls, plus Native American baskets, pottery, and blankets. Will Rogers, born on a large
ranch near what later would become Oologah, Oklahoma, was one of the most popular and
beloved Americans of his day. A memorial for Rogers — who was part Cherokee Indian — is
found in Claremore, 20 miles northeast of Tulsa. Some 500,000 visitors walk through the
exhibits at the 20-acre memorial each year , listening to his voice on tape, settling in to
the theater to enjoy a full-length movie and admiring the dioramas and priceless collection
of photographs. A wonderful sculpture of Rogers greets guests in the entry and you can
almost hear some of his witty quips, such as “Everybody is ignorant, only on different
subjects,” and “The way to judge a town is by its chili.” His birthplace on Lake Oologah,
about 13 miles north of the memorial, is a lovely white-frame two-story house with a picket
fence overlooking the lake. Rogers would likely be proud of the Cherokee Heritage Center at
Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee nation, about 70 miles southeast of Tulsa. Tucked away
on beautiful wooded grounds, the museum has received national acclaim for telling the story
of the Cherokee people through fine art and artifacts, displays depicting history and
culture and an outdoor village where Cherokees make pottery, weave baskets and explain
their bygone lifestyle. The famed Trail of Tears drama is performed in the 1,500-seat
outdoor amphitheater during the summer months. The greater Tulsa area is like a pair of old
comfy shoes. Just put them on and let them lead you along the Oklahoma roads.

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