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Stateside with Rosalea: Oklahoma City

Stateside with Rosalea: Oklahoma City

By Rosalea Barker

(Part 6 of a series about my summer vacation.)

OKC is in the South. It mightn't look that way on the map, but that is the undeniable feel and look of the place. Like the cab driver told me, this city is run by good ole boys and they take pains to keep it like a small rural town: cheap rents and no jobs.

Someone somewhere in town must be rich - even the capitol building is built on top of an oil well - but pretty much all I saw was rundown housing and vast wastelands of federal, state and local authority administration buildings on a dry, flat plain in 104F heat. Oh, there were plenty of trees, but somehow it was the dust and desolate feel that stuck in my mind.

I had such high hopes for Oklahoma City, too. In a fit of efficiency I'd sent away for a brochure from the visitors centre months before my trip and when I looked through it, the city looked enticingly cosmopolitan, even boasting a water taxi in Bricktown - the restaurant and entertainment district. "A bunch of high-priced not-very-good bars," is how that area was described by the locals when I got there. (Alright, alright - hands up everyone who has ever said that about Courtenay Place!)

Xenophobic is too small a word for the folks I met in Oklahoma City. Not only do they not like visitors, but they don't like anyone who has moved there to live from any state other than the one they moved there from, which as often as not was Florida and not very long ago. Mention you're from California and they'll sound you out on whether you think two girls kissing is a good thing; call for a Coors Light and they'll remark loudly on how these trendy new beers are bottled while they're still green.

But don't pay a lick of notice to what I've just said: my experience was as much a result of the hotel I chose as anything else. I should have known better. The internet hotel booking agency I used has an ad running on TV at the moment where a guy wearing a blindfold arrives at a hotel and walks confidently around, supposedly because know the properties on their list like the back of their hand.

Well, it wouldn't have surprised me if I'd seen him walking around my hotel in a blindfold. First the elevator didn't work and I was supposed to lug my bag up seven flights of stairs. I balked at that and the guy at the front desk - his threadbare shirt missing a button or two - assigned me to another room on the ground floor. He checked it out first - but didn't notice there weren't any towels and the toilet didn't flush.

On the plus side, the room had a really comfy bed, a great bath and shower, and the water stayed in the handbasin - a vast improvement over the hotel in Fort Worth, which had cost three times the price. I woke in the morning to discover there was a beautiful swimming pool on the hotel grounds, but on my way to check it out made the mistake of being curious about a door that had seemingly been axed open. The door opened into a water closet, shall we say, and there on the floor - next to an empty six-pack of beer - was an 18-inch blade from a butcher's knife. Swimming alone suddenly lost its appeal.

For those of you who remember the White Heron in Auckland in the seventies, this hotel was from the same period and of the same class, but now fallen completely from glory. Except that it served the most amazing Southern food in its restaurant at very cheap prices. It was a long way from downtown Oklahoma City, out in the netherland of bizarre '80s architectural experiments conducted by minor banks and major bureaucracies.

I never did figure where downtown Oklahoma City was, and I suspect there isn't one. All the office blocks have car parks or blank walls at street level - no shops. "Faceless" is the descriptor that comes to mind. The whole place just had a feel that it shouldn't even be there, that it was an affront to the very landscape it rests upon, a monument to petty officialdom and vast greed.

Well, I guess it was getting near the end of my circumlocomotion of the West and I was feeling a bit weary of new experiences by the time I got to Oklahoma City, so all those negatives should be taken with a lick of salt. My first day there saw record temperatures - 108F - so I stayed in the air-conditioned comfort of my hotel room (having fixed the plumbing myself) and caught up on some reading and cable TV watching.

On my second day I went to the Omniplex, a wonderful museum with lots of hands-on exhibits to please kids but plenty to keep adults amused as well. Besides the science museum, it includes a planetarium, air space museum, art gallery, gardens, the Red Earth museum, the International Photograpy Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Omnidome movie theatre.

Nearby are other attractions that make up OKC's 'Adventure District': Coles Garden, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, the National Softball Hall of Fame, the zoo, the Oklahoma Firefighters Museum, Remington Park racecourse, and the Tinseltown movie theatre. There is a bus that runs from the city out to this area, but it goes by a very circuitous route so if you're in a hurry take a cab. If you're into gymnastics, china painting, or the 45th Infantry Division, you'll find museums and halls of fame elsewhere in the city to suit your tastes.

I spent a whole day at the Omniplex, including going to a movie called 'Top Speed' in the Omnidome, where they warn you to lean forward and put your head between your legs if you start feeling dizzy from the sensation of having even your peripheral vision filled with the images of what it's like to be in, for example, a fighter jet as it zips over the edge of desert canyons.

At the photography hall of fame I saw a familiar face - Brian Brake's photograph of the Indian girl in a monsoon that once graced the cover of National Geographic. Some of the earliest publicity photos ever taken of a certain moody truck driver were also on display and I bought me a 1993 calendar called 'Elvis - Innocence' just because it featured those photos. Hey, I get to use it every 28 years don't I?

But my main reason for going to the Omniplex yielded disappointment. Somewhere I'd picked up the erroneous idea that the Red Earth Museum is a major museum of Native American exhibits, but although it takes up a fair amount of space in the Omniplex, not a lot of it is open to the public. To some extent this is because museum visitors kept filching things, but it's also because Red Earth's major role is as an educational resource for local schools rather than as an exhibition space.

They hold classes there on such things as 'The Buffalo: Department Store of the Frontier', Indian dances and songs, native homes, and on the history, culture and diversity of the forty federally recognised tribes which now call Oklahoma home - if only by having their tribal HQs there. One class, called 'Making a Proud Appearance', teaches through the use of a board game "the ideals of beauty, honor, courtesy and generosity" that are integral to American Indian life.

At the little gift shop I bought an unusual little fluted rock called the Cherokee Rose because it is in the shape of that flower, which is the state flower of Georgia - from whence the Cherokees were driven on the Trail of Tears when gold was discovered on their lands. Only one in three of the Cherokees survived that march, and legend has it that the little rocks - a natural formation found only in Oklahoma - are the tears of the maidens and the blood of the warriors turned to stone by divine intervention.

The forced relocation of East and Gulf Coast Indians (Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole) began in 1817. Oklahoma was designated Indian Territory and forbidden to white settlement, but under pressure from would-be settlers, Congress opened the territory at noon on April 22, 1889, and 50,000 people rushed for land on that day. The state's nickname is the Sooner State, because of the impatience of the settlers to stake out their claims. The state's name was proposed in the 1860s by a Choctaw chief and means "red people". The state's trademarked nom-de-tourisme is "Native America".

(To be continued...)

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