By the time I exit the State of Missouri I’ve come to appreciate John Steinbeck’s astute observation, based on his own travels, that our country’s interstate highway system may be a fine solution for moving goods but it’s a lousy way to take in the countryside. Just past Joplin, Missouri, Interstate 40 crosses into the State of Oklahoma. Here it roughly follows the path of historic U.S. Route 66. In Oklahoma it sometimes is referred to as the Will Rogers Highway, after Oklahoma’s favorite son. It eventually will lead me through Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and past many small communities to Texas.
Will Rogers began his career as a vaudeville performer, but, by the mid-1930s, he had grown hugely popular across the United States as a humorist, a pundit and actor. Rogers at one time was one of Hollywood’s brightest personalities and highest paid stars. In 1935, he died, still a relatively young man, with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in Alaska.
I don’t know how many folks today would recognize the name Will Rogers. Here, on a long drive across Oklahoma, I recall Rogers’ fate, however, and instantly am reminded that I am a childless widower, with few living relatives of any sort. I’m not famous, nor do I feel especially accomplished. Certainly, I can think of nothing I’ve achieved of note to date that secures a legacy. To me, at best it’s a 50%-50% proposition whether, when I cease to exist, I will disappear entirely from the record.
I am resilient, so despite feeling a little glum I know my dark thoughts will pass quickly. Even driving under a bright sky, this country that Lola and I are passing through feels desolate, probably contributing to my mood. The land alternates between flat and rolling. There are few trees to be seen nor any prominent natural landmarks. I miss green living things.
We are north of the Red River, which director Howard Hawks made famous in a film of the same name with John Wayne, a youthful Montgomery Clift and veteran western character actor Walter Brennan. I know that before we leave Oklahoma we will have crossed both the Arkansas and Canadian, two rivers featured prominently in McMurtry’s great western novel, Lonesome Dove.
Starting in the 1830s, the United States government forcibly removed thousands of Native Americans from their homelands. It is estimated that more than 10,000 Native Americans died on the Trail of Tears. It feels weird to be driving across the same land where they were forcibly marched for resettlement. Today, Oklahoma remains home and headquarters for nearly forty tribes.
The great Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 opened land to new white settlers. The rush for land included the Canadian River. To lure settlers, the government offered land that it previously had given to the Creek and Seminole peoples.
The famous “Dust Bowl” phenomenon that plagued Oklahoma from roughly 1930-1936 was the result of a severe drought combined with bad farming practices by these same settlers. Their failure to prevent wind erosion helped eliminate the natural topsoil, rendering the land useless for growing crops. To make matters worse, the farming failure occurred during the height of the Great Depression. Many Oklahoma families lost everything and were forced to migrate. John Steinbeck immortalized their plight in his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.
My destination for today is Oklahoma City. Having been wizened by yesterday’s unpleasant motel experiences in Missouri, I call ahead to the place I’ve booked to confirm it is still “pet friendly.” I’m told it is, but for an additional fee. Fair enough. The fee is quite reasonable, in fact, about half of what a reputable kennel would charge to house Lola. However, rather than being consigned to a cold cage, Lola will enjoy king comfort, cable TV, and a refrigerator! I make a mental note to consider snagging a travel treat for her from among tomorrow’s continental breakfast offerings.
Oklahoma City is a big place. I have only the vaguest notion of the motel’s precise location, but I am sure it is nowhere close to the central city. The most important Oklahoma City attraction is its memorial to the victims of a twisted assassin and his misguided henchmen. If I could bring Lola, I would go. Quite understandably, dogs aren’t approved in this reverent space.
The reservations clerk with whom I spoke mentioned something about the motel being not too far distant from a popular religion-themed amusement park. It’s not the type of place I would choose to visit, even if I were completely free and unencumbered.
Regardless, I am learning that the presence on this trip of Lola the pup can be a deal-breaker when it comes to visiting perceived points of interest. I have not traveled with a dog on this kind of a solo journey. It’s a first for us both.
I look back in the rear view mirror to spot Lola. She senses my interest, momentarily stands on the back seat, vigorously waves at me with her tail, beating audibly against the upholstery, then settles back down into her original prone position. Immediately, she is relaxed and asleep. I think, I wouldn’t trade in my girl for free admission with parking!
The matter of accommodations settled I immediately begin rethinking my plan to spend our additional time in Oklahoma City. It’s such a nice, bright day, and mild, too, I think that I would like to spend part of it outdoors. I decide to exit in Tulsa and find a place to take lunch. Lola and I end up at a green space on the campus of Tulsa University. I share my apple, cheese, and crackers with Lola, who seems pleased simply to nibble my lunch, stretch her four legs a bit and take in a leisurely sniff of the surroundings.
Before we get back on the road, I am thinking about another of Oklahoma’s favorite sons, the musician and songwriter Leon Russell. He is long a personal favorite. Back in the 1970s, he was for a brief time reputed to be the most popular musician in the entire world.
Even so, Leon Russell never forgot “dusty Oklahoma…” He would sing,
“…I’m goin’ on back to Tulsa just one more time, yes, I’m goin’ on back to Tulsa just one more time, yes, I’m goin’ on back to Tulsa just one more time, I’ve got home sweet Oklahoma on my mind.”
He kept his word. When Leon Russell died in 2016, he was buried in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Today, there is a monument to his memory in a cemetery. It is a fine tribute, I suppose, but the lasting legacy remains the music.