I first visited Oklahoma in 2009 to visit some friends from deployment. The Will Rogers Airport is one of those small gemlike airports (like El Paso, Texas; KCMO; and Arcata, California): perfectly sized and breathtakingly easy to navigate. Let’s give it up for small cities’ airports. Driving down from Kansas City is also pleasant. After miles of blue horizon, Oklahoma City leaps up, incongruous against the grassland and the shining occasional streams.
On the adobe Paseo, I bought a bracelet. Someone had reimagined common items by taking a 100-year-old Mah Jong chip domino, stitched it to a snip of leather from a worn belt, and making a wrist cuff. Isn’t that all of us? Reimagined? In Colorado, I saw petrified shatters of a 34-million-year-old redwood stump from which sprouted a modern, living pine tree. Dinosaurs become birds, ferns petroleum, Chinese games jewelry. The plain shudders off the buffalo and sprouts skyscrapers: Devon Tower, Chase Tower, First National Center. And of course the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. I think it’s important to reflect upon these gravestones to tragedy. By the contrast, we appreciate inhabiting the land of the living a little more.
The plains states have a huge seasonal shift in temperature, and they are surprisingly steamy in the summer. I kayaked on one of the rivers, where a cottonmouth was skimming across the surface in a surreal zigzag. Who knew snakes could swim? It felt so good to come inside from the sun and humidity to the vestibule of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art where an enormous Chihuly icicle cooled the eyes.
If I had to pick one Oklahoman to profile, it would be Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief (though by birth he was a Texan). In 1836, Comanches raided Fort Parker (near present day Groesbeck, Texas) and carried off nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. She was raised by Comanches and married a chief: Quanah was her only child to reach adulthood. The settlers recaptured Cynthia, against her will, and long after she had made a home among the Comanches and considered them her people. First her baby daughter Prairie Flower died, and Cynthia herself sickened and died –some say of a broken heart.
All his life, Quanah walked in two worlds. He was one of the most talented war chiefs and led the “Lords of the Plains” in the final battles against the encroaching US Army. Seeing that the settlers had superior weapons and more personnel, he negotiated a treaty. He then turned his skills from war to business, and enriched the Comanches by charging cattle ranchers to graze their herds on his territory. He became a friend of President Teddy Roosevelt, lobbied Congress, and fought to retain Comanche heritage and culture in a changed world. His memory lives on, cherished by numerous descendants, as this very busy man took seven wives and produced 24 children. He is buried in Fort Sill, Okla., next to his beloved mother. If the road takes you to Cache, Okla., visit Quanah’s Star House, as it has fallen into ill repair.
Change is a constant
Quanah Parker went from the Stone Age through the Industrial Revolution in one lifetime. His life is an example that however we started, we need to adapt to constant change. But the earth is to some extent a closed system. Things change form, fade and shine, but nothing ever disappears into nonexistence.
That’s my take on the Sooner State. Next up, Kansas (One of the Many Places to Claim) the Gateway to the West!