Highway 64: Oklahoma

Crystal digging area at Salt Plains
A campaign to promote Oklahoma claims the state has "13 different eco-terrains." One that's barely visible to outsiders is Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, northwest of Enid, where rock hounds will want to stop to dig selenite crystals. Wait for a drier day than the one shown above.

Highlight: Thomas Gilcrease Museum

Hidden Treasure: Little Sahara State Park

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Video: Lizards (QuickTime, 3MB)

Oklahoma, OK!

If you know the classic show tune “Oklahoma,” it’s likely to pop into your head as soon as 64 brings you into the state. Don’t even try to fight it — it’s the state song.

The state’s history isn’t long, compared to that of other 64 states like North Carolina and New Mexico. But it’s well remembered. The former Indian Territory keeps its Native American heritage alive, along with that of the settlers who rushed in during the land grab of the early 20th century and the “Okies” who fled during the crushing drought that precipitated the Great Depression.

We missed a chance to visit Sequoyah’s Home in Sallisaw, just across the border from Fort Smith. However, several sources point to its existence and say it’s a worthy place to stop. Sequoyah, born in 1776 in Tennessee, invented the Cherokee alphabet and spread the cause of literacy among his people.

In Muskogee, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum, though promoted throughout Oklahoma, turned out to be more of a gallery. It offered art for sale but its displays lacked depth.

The main route from Muskogee to Tulsa is one of Oklahoma’s ubiquitous toll roads. 64 veers somewhat off course, but purists will want to stick with it. River-valley scenery here reminds travelers that the Midwest is far from uniformly flat.

Cowboy-and-Indian imagery proliferates from Tulsa onward, along with oil wells. No place brings together these key characters from Oklahoma’s history more effectively than the Thomas Gilcrease Museum, located just off 64 where the western edge of town meets the tip of the Osage Indian Reservation.

Thomas Gilcrease was born in 1890 when his family laid claim to his mother’s entitlement to land in the Creek portion of what was then Indian territory. The family struck oil and by the 1920s, Gilcrease had made a fortune. He had little formal education, but loved to travel, read the classics and collect art. To pay off debt, he began selling his artworks in the 1950s, but the people of Tulsa raised the money to buy the collection and put it on public view in their city.

The museum celebrates the American West through art. Frederic Remington’s cowboy sculptures, Thomas Moran’s cinematic landscapes and George Catlin’s anthropological sketches of Native Americans and their costumes represent a few of its highlights.

Beyond Tulsa, the road straightens and the towns shrink. Enid, famous from many a crossword puzzle, has Nike Meadow Park, where the local Kiwanis club operates a mini-train each summer. Several attractions beckon 64 travelers to leave the main road over the next hundred miles or so, and they’re all worth the trip.

Near Cherokee, drive into Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge for a chance to dig for hourglass-shaped crystals of selenite, a form of gypsum. The crystals require dry conditions to form, so if rain glazes the salt plains during your visit, don’t bother digging.

Near Aline, see an original Homesteader’s Sod House, occupied until 1909. Settlers had to build with what was available to them, and in this part of the country, sod was all there was.

Waynoka owes its continued existence to Little Sahara State Park. This patch of sand dunes is a mecca for ATV enthusiasts of all ages, shapes and sizes. Travelers who don’t happen to be towing their own four-wheelers can sign up for a hair-raising dune buggy tour. Hold on tight.

The little town of Freedom has redone itself to look like the Wild West outpost it once was. Its greatest modern-day attraction is the Alabaster Caverns. The caves aren’t as spectacular as the carved limestone caverns of the Blue Ridge, but they’re dramatic, especially on the nighttime, lantern-lit tour.

Also near Freedom is the Cedar Canyon Lodge. This slice of civilization in the middle of nowhere proved to be a comfortable place to recover when a terrible case of food poisoning (apparently acquired in Clayton, N.M.) forced us to stop. The lodge claims to serve the best steaks ever; sadly, my stomach was too weak for me to find out.

I do know that the lodge attracts all kinds, even eccentric cowboys who come home from trail rides with live rattlesnakes in their saddlebags.

There’s a whole panhandle between here and New Mexico. This is No Man’s Land, so called because a quirk of mapping meant it wasn’t even part of any state or territory until 1890. It’s still relatively empty, although the locals in Hooker capitalize on their little town’s name by selling humorous T-shirts.

64 nearly touches Texas on its way into New Mexico. Travelers may wish to take a scenic detour into the panhandle’s northwestern tip, Black Mesa State Park. Here, on an unmarked turn-out just past the trailhead for a hike to the highest point in Oklahoma, 64 loyalists will find the very dinosaur footprints represented in plaster back at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis.