GRAND RAPIDS TO OKLAHOMA CITY
The plan was simple. Drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Las Vegas and return over 10 days. Cram in as many sights as possible. Deprive myself of sleep if necessary. Despite all my research and planning, it turns out nothing would prepare me for the adventures of this epic road trip of nearly 5,000 miles.
I realized I would be missing the Midwestern portion of Route 66 sights in Illinois and Missouri, however I was OK with this, as I needed to flee the cold and gloom of home for the sun and warmth. I departed Grand Rapids, and was soon hugging the eastern shore of Lake Michigan on Interstate 196, getting familiar with the intricacies of Korean engineering. I was also getting acquainted with Sirius/XM Radio, which is a blessing from the musical gods. Within what seemed like minutes, I was soon in Benton Harbor merging on to Interstate 94. Soon enough, the roads changed from crumbling to smooth, I knew I had left Michigan and entered Indiana. I had entered Chicagoland on a Friday afternoon. Weaving and zig-zagging through the lines of traffic on Interstate 80, I was soon perturbed to be paying a trivial toll of slightly over $1.00 just to have the right to pass through on a major, transcontinental interstate highway. The Hyundai was holding up nicely and gas consumption was proving to be economical.
After surviving the gridlock of frustrated truckers and suburban commuters hurrying home for the weekend, I found myself cruising through the uninspiring prairie of Illinois on a lonely stretch of Interstate 55. I soon began to appreciate the prairie’s subtle beauty while stopped at a gas station outside of Bloomington, Illinois; the sky was turning a into a psychedelic swirl of peach, lavender, crimson and jade. I had a feeling this trip was going to be one of epic proportions and I would do everything in my power to make it so.
After breezing through Bloomington and Springfield, I was soon anticipating the next major city of St. Louis. Rather than continuing on Interstate 55, I opted to take the less-trafficked Martin Luther King Bridge over the Mississippi to enjoy a less-hurried view of the St. Louis skyline glimmering under a full moon. I exited off the bridge and was determined to see the Gateway Arch. It proved to be difficult to avoid the hazards of construction to connect downtown to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Dodging droves of drunken, stumbling St. Louis Blues fans (they beat Vancouver 4-0 that night) on cobblestone streets, I finally managed to pull over and take this picture of the Gateway Arch, shimmering under the moonlight:
After weaving through the labyrinth of converging way finder signs (such as the one above), I soon found myself cruising on Interstate 44 through the western suburbs of St. Louis and had entered a new, hillier region of the country: the Ozark Highlands. I passed through iconic Route 66 towns such as Cuba, Rolla, Devil’s Elbow and Springfield #2. The caffeine-induced anxiety of being on a dark and lonely road left me very sleepy and disoriented as I approached the last Route 66 Missouri section town of Joplin. My mind pondered taking nap or pressing on to meet the goal of arriving in Tulsa at sunrise.
Still in the Ozark Highlands, I entered Oklahoma and was now on the Will Rogers Turnpike. As I passed through towns the towns of Miami and Vinita, and was approaching metropolitan Tulsa, I noticed the landscape changing from the Ozark Plateau to lowlands, and back into a hillier, sandstone region. It was before dawn when I arrived at one of the most recognizable Route 66 sights; the Blue Whale of Catoosa.
The Blue Whale of Catoosa was built in the 1970s by a man as an anniversary present for his wife. Its bucolic setting on a private pond was used as a swimming hole by the family, but increased in popularity with travelers and locals alike. The whale soon fell into disrepair, until being restored by locals over several years to its original condition (including being painted to its original brilliant blue color), as seen below:
The light of dawn was soon breaking into a brilliant cobalt blue color as I was briefly detoured, weaving through the futuristic oil refineries that make up the most inland river port connected to international waters in the United States, the Tulsa Port of Catoosa. There was a slight drizzle in the air as I entered the Tulsa city limits and the sky was turning into cotton candy, as I set eyes on the Golden Driller of Tulsa:
The Golden Driller was built in 1952 for the International Petroleum Exposition. At 75-feet-tall, it is the fifth-tallest statue in the United States and is dedicated to the industry that built Tulsa: petroleum. After realizing I drove through 14 hours through the night and ended up in a completely different part of the country, I soon had a second wind, and was excited to see what the day held in Oklahoma. Sleep was an afterthought at this point. Finding Tulsa in spring bloom was a welcome respite coming from snowy Michigan. I read about how Tulsa has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the United States, and its greatest example is the Boston Avenue Methodist Church, just south of downtown.
The National Historic Landmark church was built in 1929 and stands 225-feet-tall. It is considered the greatest example of ecclesiastical Art Deco architecture in the United States. After visiting the church, I began to drive around downtown Tulsa. I was quite impressed with the collection of architecture that surrounded me. At 667 feet, the BOK Tower dominates the Tulsa skyline.
Much like my hometown of Grand Rapids owes its current iteration to the likes of the philanthropic DeVos, Van Andel and Meijer families, Tulsa owes much to the oil tycoon Phillips brothers of Phillips 66 fame. Before Houston, Tulsa was referred to as the “Oil Capital of the World.” An oil derrick is even featured on the city seal:
Petroleum-related industries still provide a great number of jobs for many local residents of the area. Many cultural institutions and buildings bear the Phillips name, such as the Philbrook Museum of Art, the Philcade and the Philtower (pictured above).
Just east of downtown is Tulsa’s countercultural neighborhood, the Blue Dome District. The neighborhood is filled with many bars, nightclubs, restaurants and shops. The neighborhood is justly named after an old Gulf Oil service station built in the 1920s.
Seeing the futuristic campus of Oral Roberts University was next on the agenda, but I was elated to hear that Frank Lloyd Wright left his mark on Tulsa. So I made a quick detour through the stately Timber/Oak neighborhood of Tulsa to see Westhope.
Westhope, also known as the Richard Lloyd Jones House was built in 1929 for Frank Lloyd Wright’s cousin, who was the publisher of a local newspaper. As I departed Westhope and returned to a main arterial street, I saw visions of Oral Roberts University in the way of a 648-foot-tall tower, the CityPlex Tower.
This futuristic complex of towers was envisioned by Oral Roberts after he “saw a 900-foot-tall Jesus who encouraged him to raise funds and get it built.” The building stands semi-vacant, with some of its 60 floors never being leased. Simultaneously perplexed and intrigued about this man’s warped and hallucinating religious visions, I came upon the main entrance of the university and came across the Healing Hands sculpture, the largest set of praying hands in the world at 60-feet-tall.
I parked the Hyundai, and started to walk around the campus. I felt like the Oral gestapo was watching my every move. They could tell I did not belong. The next sight seemed like a carousel swing ride straight out of the Jetsons, the Prayer Tower.
I felt like the 900-foot-tall Jesus that Roberts envisioned was going to impale me on it! I began to think I was under surveillance as I continued the short walk around the campus. I soon felt the urge to depart the overwhelmingly sanitized and futuristic dreamland that Roberts had created.
As I departed Tulsa, I was famished and the blanket of clouds began to clear out and reveal a crystal blue sky, and then I saw my own vision from 900-foot-tall Jesus to order a Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit from Whataburger.
It was so good, and I was so hungry, I hurriedly ordered another. This was one of those things you inhale where you want to put a sign up saying, “PLEASE DO NOT LOOK AT ME DURING CONSUMPTION.” I mean, come on, look at this sweet, syrupy, flaky, buttery, crispy, crackly, greasy, savory delight straight from the 900-foot-tall Jesus himself.
Feeling very sluggish, the next stop was Oklahoma City to see a few things and finally get some sleep. An hour outside of Oklahoma City, the large trees had become less frequent and the landscape had changed again. I was now in Red Dirt country. Then I realized how geographically large, low-density and sprawling Oklahoma City was. Around 30 miles east of downtown, I saw a sign that said “Oklahoma City City Limit.” It was quite a while before I reached my next destination, the Oklahoma State Capitol.
The clear and bright blue sky coupled with flowering trees provided an absolutely stunning backdrop for the Capitol. The Oklahoma State Capitol is unique in that it did not have a dome until about a decade ago. When it was eventually built, it turned out spectacular:
It should be noted that the Oklahoma State Capitol is the only state capitol building with active oil derricks on the grounds (bearing the iconic name of the company that made the state a lot of money):
After walking around the well-maintained grounds and briefly touring the building and rotunda, my next stop would prove to be a sobering one; the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
This memorial really touched me. I could relate to it. This was the first time I had really known what the word terrorism meant. I experienced it. I remember sitting in class in eighth grade and watching this live on television in science class. I remember the images of firefighters carrying bloodied children in their arms, the parents embracing each other sobbing. The violence and confusion. The uncertainty.
I will say this memorial is very well done. It is located in downtown Oklahoma City on the site of the Murrah Federal Building. It includes a reflecting pool bounded by two columns with windows on opposing times, each etched with the time of the bombing. On one side of the reflecting pool are 168 chairs, one for each person killed in the tragedy. Each one is empty, because it represents the chairs at family dinner tables. Those people will never be present at another family dinner.
An inspiring tribute to the survivors is the Survivor Tree. This American Elm tree, thought to be 100 years old, was the only shade tree in the parking lot of the Murrah Federal Building. Employees would arrive early to secure a shaded spot under the tree during the warmer months. Several damaged by the blast, most of the tree was destroyed. Many thought it would not survive. To many people’s surprise, the tree not only survived, but is now flourishing. Quite a symbol of tragedy and hope.
Contemplating how such tragedies could occur and bound by sadness, I felt that I had seen enough here. I drove around downtown, which is dominated by the 850-foot-tall Devon Energy Center, which is the tallest building in the Great Plains states.
The Devon Energy Center is definitely a testament to the strength of Oklahoma’s energy industry. The building was completed in 2012 for a cost of $750 million. Another notable structure receiving high praise from architecture critics is the futuristic Skydance Pedestrian Bridge. The Skydance Pedestrian Bridge is built over Interstate 40, and is limited to pedestrians and bicycles only. When darkness falls, the bridge is often lit up in neon colors. My final stop in Oklahoma City was what is billed as the world’s largest stockyards, the Oklahoma National Stockyards.
Cattle are brought into the Stockyards for storage before sale. They have a weekly auction that attracts cattle buyers from all over the region. The man I talked to claimed they can hold over 20,000 head of cattle in the expansive pens around the property. I asked if I could walk the catwalk above the pens, he approved. The rickety, rusted out iron and wood slab-lined catwalk stretches almost one-half of a mile. I walked the entire thing for a good view of the cattle.
Sun-drenched and growing increasingly delirious from the lack of sleep, I suddenly had a craving for some BBQ. How sadistic, I know. Seeing all that beefy goodness had me salivating for some brisket. After talking to the stockyard workers and asking them for a suggestion on a good BBQ place, the suggested Pappy’s BBQ (which was conveniently on the way to my hotel.
I ordered brisket and hot links with a side of potato salad and baked beans. The brisket was nice and tender. The hot BBQ sauce complimented it nicely. The sides were great, and the hot links were OK. I ate most of the meal, thanked them and high-tailed it to the luxurious confines of the Extended Stay Suites near the airport. I hadn’t slept in nearly 36 hours. I begged to check-in early. The receptionist initially declined, but I was persistent and she caved in. I showered and crashed.
NEXT UP: ROUTE 66 REVISITED (2ND LEG) OKLAHOMA CITY TO AMARILLO