Wedged between Texas to the south and Kansas to the north, OKLAHOMA is more West than Midwest, where ranchers sport Stetsons, Native American tribes mingle with oilmen and locals say “fixin’ to” a whole lot. Created in 1907 and romanticized by Rodgers & Hammerstein in their first musical, Oklahoma!, the state was one of the hardest hit by Depression in the 1930s, encapsulated most famously in John Steinbeck’s novel (and John Ford’s film) The Grapes of Wrath, but also in Dorothea Lange’s haunting photos of itinerant families, and in the sad yet hopeful songs of local boy Woody Guthrie. Today the state is a solidly Republican, conservative stronghold, the “buckle” of the Bible belt, with a booming economy largely thanks to oil and gas.
For visitors the main draws are Americana-laced Route 66, great live music and a couple of dynamic cities; artsy Tulsa, in the hilly and wooded northeast, and the revitalized capital, Oklahoma City. The state also claims a large Native American population, with 39 sovereign tribes (there are no “reservations” here) – “oklahoma” is the Choctaw word for “red man” – and many of its towns host museums devoted to Native American history.
The rolling green hills north of Tulsa soon give way to the flat plains around BARTLESVILLE, home to one of the most exceptional hotels in the US. The town was just a muddy collection of oil derricks in Indian Territory when a young, ambitious banker arrived from Iowa in 1905; in just a few years Frank Phillips had become a multimillionaire from drilling oil, and Phillips Petroleum became one of the nation’s biggest companies.
Bartlesville is dominated by the extraordinary 221ft-tall Price Tower, an ornate cantilevered copper-green oddity completed in 1956, the only skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that the famed architect ever saw built. Today the main attraction inside is a stunningly cool hotel. If you can’t spend the night, take a look at the Price Tower Art Center, which shows travelling art exhibitions; guided tours take in the best parts of the tower itself. You can also grab a drink at the stylish Copper Bar on its top floors. Built for the H.C. Price Company, the tower was purchased by the ubiquitous Phillips Petroleum in 1981, who donated it to the art centre in 2000.
Fans of live music should make time for the small city of Stillwater, seventy miles north of Oklahoma City and the home of Red Dirt music; a blend of folk, country, blues and rock styles, with home-grown bands Jason Boland and the Stragglers, No Justice, the Jason Savory Band and the godfather of the genre, Bob Childers (indie rockers All-American Rejects also hail from here). Check out venues such as Eskimo Joe’s (eskimojoes.com) and Tumbleweed Dance Hall (calffry.com), or visit stillwaterscene.com.
Oklahoma contains the longest stretch of driveable Route 66 in the US (nearly 400 miles), lined with diners, quirky Americana and historic sights. Here are the highlights, driving from east to west. Tulsa and Oklahoma City are also en route. See oklahomaroute66.com for more.
915 N Main St, Miami. Classic diner serving juicy burgers and fries.
2680 N Hwy-66, Catoosa (bluewhaleroute66.com). This 80ft blue whale sculpture has been entertaining drivers since 1972.
Expo Square, Yale Ave at 21st St, Tulsa. This 76ft-tall statue of an oil worker has been a symbol of Tulsa since 1953.
114 W Main St, Stroud (rockcafert66.com). Home of the famed alligator burger and German jagerschnitzel since 1939.
400 E 1st St Chandler (route66interpretivecenter.org).
107 E Hwy-66, Arcadia (arcadiaroundbarn.com). Restored 1898 landmark and museum.
660 W Hwy-66, Arcadia (pops66.com). Modern homage to classic diners, with a giant 66ft-tall soda bottle.
2229 W Gary Blvd, Clinton (route66.org).