Central Oklahoma: Norman, the Arbuckles and OKC

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Why Oklahoma:

For the Labor Day weekend, I decided to go to Oklahoma. I have been to the Sooner State 4 times before and loved the culture. While I have been to a lot of places in Oklahoma, I have never been to Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma- so I planned my trip around a football game- the first football game happened to be during the 3-day Labor Day weekend so I didn’t have to take off from work.

I found that the cheapest flight was a red-eye through Dallas, that left at 1am LA time, arriving in Dallas at 5:30 am and in Oklahoma at 8:15 am. 2 ½ hours is not long enough for a red eye, but it did save me $400. For some reason, the flight crew decided to keep the lights on for the entire flight so I didn’t sleep at all. Also, interestingly, the flight was completely full with a 20-person standby list. I guess other people had the same idea as me. From Dallas, the flight was just 30 minutes.

November 5, 2015: Boomer Sooner

After arriving in the beautiful 16-gate Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, I decided to buy a shirt for the game. In the store, the lady who checked me out was worried I would be stuck in traffic getting to Norman because of construction on the highway. I thanked her, but secretly laughed inside because I live in LA. It was so refreshing to be back in the land of nice people.

After renting my $10/day car, I drove 30 minutes south to Norman, which is one of the last suburbs of Oklahoma City although very much a town in its own right. Actually, Norman is the 3rd largest city in the state. On the way, I drove through Moore, where I spent the night the last time I was in OKC. Moore was the town that got devastated by a tornado. Once there, I got to my friend Rachele’s apartment and crashed on the couch for a few hours.

I met Rachele and her friend Carolina on my flight to Bogota, Colombia in early June. They were on their way to summer internships. We bonded over being the only Americans on the flight. We stayed in touch and so when I told them I wanted to go to Oklahoma, they offered to host me.

After a few desperately needed hours of sleep, I was ready to Sooner around 1pm. Luckily, the game wasn’t until 6, so there was plenty of time to tailgate. Our first stop was Rachele’s friend’s house, where we rallied the troops. We then got picked up by one of her friends in a pickup truck who drove us to a frat house. We all rode in the back. It was super fun- I’m pretty sure riding in the back of a pickup is illegal in California..

The Oklahoma experience: riding in the back of a pickup truck

At the frat house, Rachele and her friends went up to someone’s room to drink and hang out. I wasn’t feeling the scene at all, so I decided to leave and just meet them at the game. I wandered through the OU campus and checked out the tailgating. I made my way to Campus Corner, home of most of the bars in Norman. There, I wandered through the crowds of sooner fans all in crimson. It was a sight to see.

Ready to partay

After a bit of wandering, I eventually made my way to the stadium and met up with the crew. It was packed. My seat was in the student section where everybody stood for the entire game. Most of the girls were wearing cowboy boots and dresses, but some were wearing jerseys and shorts. The guys were more of a mixed bag, everyone was wearing some form of OU shirt- some were in t-shirts, some were in Hawaiian shirts, some were in polos etc. the guy next to me was wearing an OU western shirt and Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” hat.

While the game itself was not that exciting, the atmosphere was electric. The sellout crowd of 88,000 was wild and continued to cheer throughout the game. Rachel left after the first quarter. I stayed. After halftime, the weather got cooler- it was around 80 degrees and humid which was actually quite pleasant. I chatted with a very nice guy who used to work for the athletics department. He told me his brother lives in LA. While he liked visiting SoCal, he says he could never live there-a common theme I heard throughout the weekend. He comes from a very religious family: he is one of 10 and went to Liberty University for a few years. I very much enjoyed hanging out with him. After the third quarter, I decided to leave to make sure I could meet up with Rachele before the post game madness. OU was up by almost 40 points, so it was a safe bet that we were going to win. I said goodbye and walked out into the town.

At the game

Eventually I was able to contact Rachele and her roommate picked me up. We ended up going to bed early since I was exhausted from the flight that morning. I met a lot of very nice people- actually everyone was nice, which was so refreshing. That said, I got undertones of a somewhat toxic social environment that I believe stems from a combination of the Greek system and the political climate- which I believe go hand in hand. Overall, it was a really interesting day at the University at Oklahoma. I would definitely come back for another game!

September 6, 2015: The Arbuckles

I woke up on the couch at 8:30 am- perfect timing to start my day. The plan was to venture south to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. After packing my bag for the day, I hopped into my rental car and drove south through some small towns on country back roads. I passed by a lot of farmland, a few towns, a lot of churches, and one maximum-security prison.

Eventually I reached the town of Sulphur after an hour and a half of driving. The town took about 30 seconds to drive through, so I quickly head to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area visitor center. The drive included a water crossing which was about 8 inches deep. Luckily, the rental car made it without any problems.

At the visitor center, I got my stamp in the national parks passport before heading out on a hike through the forest. The hike was about 3 miles long. Immediately after starting, I ran into a ranger named Joyce who appeared to be leading a family on a small nature hike. I asked her if I could join and she said yes. She then explained the family was actually her family, so I was actually crashing her family reunion hike. I offered to part ways, but she said that I would be a funny part of their reunion weekend and that they wanted me to stay. So I stayed. Ranger Joyce then explained the history of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Back in the early 1900’s this area was famed for its waters, which apparently had healing properties. 2 trainloads a day would come here, which at the time amounted to more visitors than Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. The Chickasaw tribe was worried about massive development over their ancestral lands, so they sold the waters to the United States Government, which incorporated it as Platte National Park.  In the 1970’s the authorities realized that the water did not have any healing properties, although it had a high mineral content. As a result, the park was downgraded by Congress to a national recreation area.

Hiking in the beautiful Chickasaw NRA

Despite the downgrade, the landscape is beautiful: the eastern woodlands blended with the deserts of the southwest and the prairies of the Great Plains. Ranger Joyce, the family and I walked along a creek, which was running with clear clean water. Eventually we reached a spot where the water seemed to flow out of the rock. This was the much talked about spring. I refilled my water bottle. Despite the 96-degree weather, the water was cold to the touch. I then parted ways with Ranger Joyce and headed a little further out along some of the side loop trails before walking back to the visitor center.

Near the visitor center was a place called Little Niagara. It was about a 5-foot waterfall where people were jumping off it into the riverbed. The place was packed- there were hundreds if not 1,000 people hanging out around this waterfall. A lot of people set up tents, camping chairs and BBQ grills. I had stumbled upon a huge country party in the backwoods of Oklahoma! I left my swimming stuff in the car, so I decided to save the swim for later in the day.

Not quite Niagara

At this point it was around 12:30pm and I was hungry so I headed back into town and went, on a recommendation of a ranger, to the Poor Girls Cafe. On the way, I saw a man who was too fat to walk scooter across the road at like 25 mph. I had to pull over the car and laugh for a few minutes. I feel like a smug Californian laughing at this but it was pretty absurd. The restaurant was a classic family run cafe. The staff was spunky. I ordered the lunch special for just $7.

About 10 minutes later, my waitress walked back with a huge plate of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and broccoli. I was thinking to myself “how can this be only $7?!”  It was unbelievably delicious, unbelievably fatty and I have absolutely no regrets. As I was about to walk over to the register to pay, the waitress comes back with a watermelon cake and says “you can’t skip dessert! It comes with your lunch!” So I ate the watermelon cake too. The meal must have been at least 3,000 calories.

After lunch, I drove over to the Chickasaw Cultural Center, a sprawling complex located just outside of Sulphur. When I got there, they told me a dance performance was going on, so I quickly head over to the theater, where I got to participate in a dance with the tribe. Chickasaw dances are quite simple: everyone holds hands alternating between men and women. We then walked in a giant S shaped pattern with extra circles at the ends. Once we were all gathered more or less in a swirl shape, we would stop and chant a little more before continuing the walk. The dance looked a real life version of the computer game Snake. After the dance, I went into the swanky museum, which started with a 17-minute video of the history of the Chickasaw.

The Chickasaw believe their tribe began somewhere in the West and migrated eastward led by a tall pole pointing them in the right direction. Eventually they crossed the Mississippi River and the pole stood straight up, so they settled in the lands that are currently the Deep South: Mississippi, Alabama, west Tennessee and western Kentucky. They were considered one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” and allied themselves with the British in the French and Indian Wars of the early 18th century. In the 1830’s, they were forced to leave their lands and head west along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, which they actually consider the land of their ancient ancestors (pre-stick times). The tribe claims to be unconquered, so in the video they claimed to have made the decision to leave the South on their own terms without interference of the US government. They actually did receive $3 million in exchange for their land and resettled in Oklahoma by paying the Choctaw $500,000 for the western part of their land- not a bad business decision given that the $2.5 million net revenue is probably worth billions now. During the civil war, they allied with the Confederacy, as many Chickasaw owned slaves. After the war, these previously enslaved blacks lived with the tribe as “freedmen”. The tribe decided to not give these freedmen citizenship unless they were sufficiently “mixed”, despite a treaty with the US Government. Still to this day, the tribe does not accept descendants of freedmen in its ranks.

Chickasaw Cultural Village

After viewing the museum, I went to a model Chickasaw village. There, I played a game of stickball with a local kid. Stickball was the forerunner to lacrosse. Using two lacrosse-like sticks, you have to toss a stone/ball to hit a small fish at the top of a tall pole. The game was exceptionally difficult- I got very close but only once hit the fish–the game is played to 6. The bright side of the long game was that I was able to chat with a local high school kid about his life in rural Oklahoma. The kid was white and only 1/4 Chickasaw, but that’s enough to get tribal membership. He had a thick Oklahoma accent and was wearing a tribal outfit. He normally wears jeans and a t-shirt but they make him wear the outfit for his job. He says that his life is pretty similar to people not in the tribe- he goes to the public school and plays football, which every kid does. Football is a huge deal. However as a member of the tribe, he doesn’t pay certain taxes and gets free healthcare. He said he really likes living in Oklahoma, although the California weather would be nice. He doesn’t see himself moving off Chickasaw lands because he likes being near his culture.

After an hour of stickball, I was pretty sweaty and ready to go for a swim, so I went back to little Niagara and this time jumped off the waterfall into the water. The water was cold although that was probably mostly due to the temperature difference with the air. My guess is that it was about 70 degrees. It felt really nice. After an hour or so of swimming, I drove to the Arbuckle mountains which I would call hills. They were about 300 ft-tall which makes them tower over the surrounding prairie. The main attraction in the Arbuckles is Turner Falls, the tallest waterfall in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, it is also a huge party spot on weekends and was so crowded that they closed it to the public. So instead, I found a lookout where I could see the falls. Looks like a fun place.

After, I stopped for the regionally famous Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pies. Imagine a McDonald’s apple pie but bigger and fried. It was absolutely delicious. They had other flavors including blackberry, pecan and pineapple, but I’m a huge apple fan. I’ve decided that I am going on a salad binge and juice cleanse after this weekend.

All hail the fried pies.

I then drove back to Norman to meet up with Rachele and her roommates. We got dinner at a place called TEA cafe. Apparently Oklahoma guys don’t go to this place because the name is too girly. It was a generic Asian restaurant that served boba drinks too. Afterwards, we got margarita/sangria swirls (an amazing concept) before playing some drinking games. All in all a fantastic trip so far.

September 7, 2015: Oklahoma City

Woke up a little hungover but determined to make the most of my final day in the Sooner state. I got up a bit sooner than my hosts so I decided to take off and meet up with them later in the day.

My first stop was the Oklahoma National Stockyards- about 10 minutes outside of downtown Oklahoma City. The stockyards are home of a weekly cattle auction, the world’s largest. Every week, tens of thousands of head of cattle come to Oklahoma City to be sold to butchers, food processors, and dairy farms. The cattle are loaded from trucks into loading pens before being moved to one of the 2,000 or so holding pens. Normally an auction is held every Monday, but because of the Labor Day holiday, it was moved to Tuesday. As a result, the pens which normally would be full of cows were almost empty. Only one pen had cattle- 27 head to be exact.

Empty stockyards

It was 9am and already almost 85 degrees. Before going to check out the pens, I stopped by the office. There I met Jack, who was wearing a straw hat, cutoff flannel and jeans: aka the most stereotype Okie outfit ever. It turns out he is from Moreno Valley, which is about 70 minutes east of LA. When he grew up there, it was orange groves. However by the end of his high school years, development had made it’s way to Moreno Valley. The area became suburban tracts and he was determined to leave, so he went to Oklahoma- one of the last vestiges of the cowboy culture. This guy, by definition, is a cowboy as he literally works with cows. During the weeks, he works at the stockyards and lives in a non-air conditioned shack on the premises. However on weekends, he commutes back “home” to the town of Ardmore, which was actually really close to where I was yesterday. He says he got depressed everytime he went back to Southern California since there are now so many people there. His parents have since moved to the beach. He last visited in 1990. I told him to never return, as it would only bring sadness to see his beloved orange groves now completely gone and over 200,000 people living in Moreno Valley. He seemed to appreciate my comments as a verification of his decision to move to Oklahoma.

At the stockyards

Jack gave me permission to walk onto the catwalks above the cowpens. As I walked 25 feet above the pens, I could only imagine what this place is like on auction day. Only 1 pen was occupied. The 27 cows stared intensely as I walked above them. While I had been to the stockyards 4 years before on my trip along Route 66, this was much more fulfilling.

It just so happened that the St Louis Cardinals minor league AAA team, the Memphis Redbirds were playing against the Oklahoma City Dodgers. I had never been to minor league game, so i definitely had to go!! I brought my Cardinals hat and showed up to the ballpark around 10:30am for the 11am game. Rachele and her roommate Veronica met me there. The stadium seats maybe 10,000 people but was mostly empty- probably because it was on Labor Day and because it was early for a baseball game. I bought the cheapest ticket, but the lady told me that I could probably sit anywhere I wanted to at this game. “I probably shouldn’t have told you that” she then said. I followed her advice and walked right up to the Cardinals dugout and watched the warm ups. Nobody was there because this seats were in the 97-degree sunshine so I had no competition when a fly ball flew into the stands- my first one ever!! While the level of play was similar to the majors (many of these players get called up during injuries), it felt much more personal. You could hear everyone talking and if you wanted, you could heckle the players from any seat in the house.

At the ballgame! Go Redbirds!

The team was actually just renamed the Dodgers. For the last 12 years, it was part of the Houston Astros minor league system. Despite this, pretty much every fan was wearing Dodger blue. In the gift shop, they had a funny shirt that said OKLA with the LA in the dodger logo script. The game was great (for me). The Redbirds ended up crushing the Dodgers 7-3.

After the game, Rachele and Veronica drove me around some of the neighborhoods in Oklahoma City. While I have been to OKC twice before, I mainly stayed in downtown. Instead we drove through midtown, which seems to be the next area poised for development. It was still full of mostly abandoned brick buildings. Some of the buildings had cool street art including one that said Keep Oklahoma Friendly.

We then drove over to the Paseo, which is Oklahoma City’s arts district. The Paso was only a block long (which says a lot about the artistic community in the city), but it was nice- the architecture was similar to Palm Springs, but obviously on a much smaller scale. Since it was a holiday, most of the galleries were closed, but we did stop in two and went to a cute café. I can definitely see this place having a tight-knit community, as it is the main artistic community in a very conservative city.

At this point, it was unfortunately time for me to head to the airport. I said goodbye to Rachele and Veronika and headed over to my car. I made a brief stop at the Oklahoma City Memorial, which is dedicated to those who died in the federal building explosion before heading to the airport.

The Oklahoma City Memorial

Final Thoughts:

While Oklahoma (deservedly) gets a lot of flack for its politics, there is much more to the state than that. There is real culture and genuinely nice people- both rarities in today’s world. I would definitely recommend a visit to Oklahoma to anyone interested in seeing an authentic slice of the US.


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