The obvious, easiest and quite the most sensible way of covering the 105 miles between Tulsa and Oklahoma City is to take the Turner Turnpike - Highway 44. So why do so many people choose a different road - older, narrower, and marginally longer? Because that less-convenient alternative is Route 66.
True, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate the importance of that road - which runs in total for 2,448 miles between Chicago and Santa Monica, California. But an iconic television series, broadcast from 1960 to 1964, took Route 66 as its title and made the road famous throughout the world. As, of course, did Bobby Troup's 1946 song.
So Route 66 it has to be. Especially if you are a visitor to the USA, determined to make the most of your time on your long-planned road trip. The problem when in Oklahoma, however (and every other State, come to that) is that there never seems to be enough time to see it all. Which is why I always suggest using a specialist operator if you are a newcomer to a region, or, in any event if you want to get the most from your visit. Tour companies have had plenty of time to plan and refine their suggested routes and itineraries, sending you from point to point without undue delay. Independent travel is all very well, but should be undertaken only when you have taken good advice and familiarised yourself with your destination in advance, and have time to spare.
One such pre-planned self-drive holiday starts with a three night stay in Tulsa, which gives you plenty of time to explore the city itself, with its wealth of museums and art galleries, restaurants, clubs and bars. What you may not know, but will quickly discover as you visit locations around Tulsa - such as the Cherokee Heritage Center at Tahlequah, the Ataloa Lodge Museum in Muskogee, or historic Fort Gibson - is that Oklahoma has a wealth of Western history that goes far beyond the eponymous popular musical. Its very name comes from the Choctaw language - "okla humma" meaning Red People - and no fewer than 25 Native American languages are spoken within its borders. Indeed, Cherokee is the third most spoken language in Oklahoma - after English and Spanish.
From Tulsa you drive - along Route 66 - for a three night stay in Oklahoma City. There's more history here in the form of the stunning National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, portraying the rugged individualism and romantic spirit of the American frontier. The Oklahoma City Stockyards is the largest working stocker/feeder cattle market in the world, and after visiting the huge cattle pens and auction house, stop back on main street for authentic western shopping - the best western wear, jewellery, boots, hats, saddles and all the necessities for western riding. Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum offers a self-guided tour where the Murrah Federal Building once stood and honours the victims, survivors, and rescuers of the 1995 bombing tragedy. Spend the evening in Bricktown - Oklahoma City's renovated warehouse entertainment district with its mile-long pedestrian waterway, restaurants and music clubs.
Not far from Oklahoma City, around the town of Sulphur, is the Chickasaw Cultural Center, the largest of its kind in the USA, set in a magnificently undulating location with streams and forest land to please the eye.
If you hadn't realised it by now, this State is almost fanatically proud of its place in America's history - or rather, that part of its history which saw white and red men bury their differences as America expanded westwards. In 1889, when a "land run" was held, 10,000 people settled in Oklahoma City in a single day. Pressure like that meant the upheaval of settled tribes, and a great deal of injustice. But Oklahoma is a fine example of how the America of today has come to appreciate the rich culture and heritage of those it now rightly calls "Native Americans".
It's less than 200 miles from Oklahoma City to Wichita, whose flowering into the largest city in Kansas was spurred on when Jesse Chisholm blazed through en route from Texas to Abilene in the 1860's, on what became the famous Chisholm Cattle Trail. By spending three nights here, you have ample opportunity to learn more about the old west, but Wichita has much more to offer. I would particularly recommend spending time in the Old Town. Originally a district of brick-built warehouses, it is a mecca for shoppers during the day, but transforms Cinderella-like each evening into a vibrant entertainment district - with restaurants and nightclubs and just about every type of music entertainment you could wish for.
An excellent excursion from Wichita would take you into Amish country. The village of Yoder offers genuine handmade Amish craftwork and quilts and - in the Carriage Crossing Restaurant - a unique place to eat. In complete contrast, you should also visit Hutchinson, where the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center is home to the second largest collection of space artefacts in the USA (The largest is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington's Smithsonian Institute, in case you were wondering.)
There could be no greater contrast to Tulsa, Oklahoma City or Wichita than your next stop on this grand road trip. The town of Cottonwood Falls is a mere 90 miles from Wichita, and the short journey takes you along the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway through the grasslands of the Great Plains with time to stop along the way to learn more about that fascinating ecosystem. Cottonwood Falls is a charming town, the largest in Chase County. The 2010 Census put its population at 903. The Chase County Court House was built in French Renaissance style in 1873 - just as the Acheson, Topeka and Santa Fe railway arrived in the locality. The Court House is on the National Register of Historic Places, and rightly so!
In Council Grove (take lunch, if you can, in Hays House which is the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi), the entire downtown area is listed on the national register of historical places, as this is where the Santa Fe Trail heading West began. See the statues of the Madonna of the Trail and Guardian of the Grove before you head north for an overnight stay in Manhattan. No, we haven't suddenly arrived in New York - this Manhattan is a mere 60 miles from Cottonwood Falls and definitely you are still in Kansas. Like university towns the world over (in this case K-State U) Manhattan has masses of places where you may wine and dine comparatively cheaply.
By now the trip is nearing its end - just about one-hour drive east from Manhattan to Lawrence, for the next two nights. On the way, spare time to explore Topeka - though Lawrence is far from being an anticlimax. It is, by any measure, a unique community. Very few places in the USA provide live music in their evening streets, as patrons take advantage of pavement restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and antique shops.
Finally, a short journey to Kansas City - which straddles the Kansas/Missouri state line, offers a wealth of museums, plenty of shops and a good selection of restaurants. A great place to end a comprehensive tour of Oklahoma and Kansas. A great place to decide, probably, that you will return!
America As You Like It offer a 14 night fly drive to Kansas and Oklahoma from £1320 per person including flights, car hire and 14 nights accommodation. Price based on 2 people sharing. For more information contact 020 8742 8299, [email protected] or visit www.americaasyoulikeit.com
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OKLAHOMA AND KANSAS INCLUDING ROUTE 66
John Carter, former presenter of television's Wish You Were Here programme and avid globetrotter experiences many delights in Kansas and Oklahoma.