The Oklahoma Panhandle

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On the morning of March 20th, I woke early.  I often do when I’m traveling, especially when it’s just me.  I get so excited experience new places that sleeping in becomes virtually impossible.  I had stayed overnight in Amarillo and planned to drive up to the Oklahoma panhandle, a part of the state that I’d never seen before.  While some folks might classify the panhandle as desolate and boring, I was so eager to see it for myself that I left the city before sunrise.

Panhandle country, both in Texas and Oklahoma, is pretty flat.  Even in the pre-dawn darkness, I could tell that Highway 87 cut through the middle of a vast prairie.  As the sky turned from black to blue to orange, I could see the windmills and oil horses that dotted the landscape.  Occasionally, a silo would appear along the road as a pastoral skyscraper.  It was very peaceful — and rather cold.  I hadn’t expected the temperature to drop into the teens.  Frost encased the fields in the countryside and the parked vehicles in each small town I passed through.  The sun was fully up by the time I reached the Oklahoma border and the light through the windshield was a welcome warmth.  I reached my first destination at about 8:30 AM in the town of Guymon.

blog-2I’ve had Guymon on my list to visit longer than any other place on my map.  Back in 2011, I read an article about several old small-town theatres in the state and made note of them.  The American Theatre in Guymon was the last one in that original batch I hadn’t visited, and the cinema marquee didn’t disappoint.  The top of the red, white, and blue awning twinkled in the early morning sunlight.  It originally opened in 1928 and converted to a live performance venue around 1980; it’s still in use, as the signage around the theater advertised an upcoming performance of ‘Man from La Mancha’.  It was great to see an active venue in such a small community.  A few passing locals probably thought I was crazy as I wandered the empty Main Street in below-freezing temperatures, wearing only a hoodie.
Hackberry Creek-7I happily checked Guymon off my list and headed east.  My next stop was the only through-truss bridge in the panhandle, just outside of Hardesty.  I had the place to myself, as it’s out in the middle of nowhere.  As I wandered around the steel frame, I looked down the creek and saw something sticking out of the dirt.  I decided to investigate and found that it was pretty easy to get down to the creek bank.  I’m really glad I did; it turned out to be a half-buried classic Chevrolet!  I had seen some old cars used for erosion control when I’d toured the Painted Desert Trading Post in Arizona last year, but this was the first time I’d seen it in Oklahoma.  A tree was growing through the passenger side of the vehicle.  I was beyond giddy as I scurried around, taking pictures — in fact, I was so caught up that as I was framing a picture, I nearly fell into the creek bed.  I felt the ground give way under my right foot as I stepped back a little too far; had I not quickly crouched and balanced myself forward, I’d have tumbled down into the sand.  I muttered insults at myself as I finished capturing the vehicle, much more aware of my surroundings.

I continued east.  The two-lane blacktop was worn by decades of farm traffic and many homesteads were long abandoned. Each small town I cruised through had its own charm, but one of them in particular REALLY impressed me.  I pulled to the side of the road shortly after entering the town of Gate so I could take a few photos of a closed, overgrown gas station.  As I did, I noticed the building next to it had a great mural painted on it.  I looked down the road a few blocks and noticed many MORE murals; the quaint downtown had a ton of them!  There was a cafe, a general store, an old train station, and a little park square that all had beautiful scenes painted on the buildings.  Even the post office had a little happy postman painted on the window.  Although the town has less than 100 people in it, it felt very much alive.  I am eager to return on a day when I can stop in the cafe and enjoy a meal.

Gate

Speaking of meal, I was getting hungry.  The pack of mini-donuts I had for breakfast were no longer sustaining me.  I left the panhandle and continued homeward, reaching Woodward at 12:30 PM.  Although food was my primary goal, I did make a quick stop at a roadside oddity that had also been on my list for a while.  Near downtown, there’s a giant stegosaurus statue with a child on it.  Around the fiberglass dinosaur are signs disputing evolution and proposing that man and Jurassic beast coexisted just 6,000 years ago.  It’s a tangible representation of how Oklahoma is known as conservative to an extreme degree.  Not surprisingly, the statue has a monument to the Ten Commandments on site, too.  I considered this display as I enjoyed a steak down the street at Big Dan’s Steakhouse, a well known family-owned eatery on the edge of town.

Woodward

I continued east bound on Highway 412, not planning on any more stops.  When I crested a hill in Major County and saw the Glass Mountains for the first time, though, I quickly changed my mind.  I had no idea that Oklahoma had such beautiful mesas!  They are also referred to as the Gloss Mountains thanks to a typo back in the late 1800s, but it’s easy to see why they were named as they were.  The soil in and around the “mountains” is full of selenite,a reflective mineral that gives the landscape a glittery, glass-like quality.  I was stunned!  Even though there was a little pathway to the top of one of the mesas, I refrained from a short hike.  I wanted to experience that for the first time with Samantha.  I was satisfied enough with the photos I took from the road for now.

Glass-2

As I passed through Enid, I had a rare emotion:  a strong desire to be done driving.  Over the weekend, I’d driven over 1,000 miles.  Since I was on my own, I stopped less for any significant amount of time.  I was tired.  By the time I rolled into Tulsa at 6:00 PM, I was thankful to be home.  It was a wonderful weekend, full of the things I love most on a road trip.  I took hundreds of photos, ate some great meals, saw some old friends and made new ones.  It satisfied my wanderlust for a little while…but I knew the first time I learned about a bridge or unique small town feature I hadn’t seen, I would be back on the road again.

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
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4 Responses to The Oklahoma Panhandle

  1. Crocodile Lile says:

    Some time you will need to experience the Black Mesa.. One of the most interesting parts of Oklahoma.

    • rhysfunk says:

      I would very much love to! I met the owners of the Bet & Breakfast in Kenton (Monty & Vicki) a while back and would love to spend a weekend there.

  2. Great blog! Thank you for featuring the Guymon Community Theatre Marquee. I am the tourism liaison for the area. If you would like to read about Black Mesa ahead of a trip for planning, there is a tour guide/points of interest guide at http://www.visitguymon.com . (They don’t have tourism liaison and I work with Bob and Jane Apple of Kenton, Ok., to take bus tours out there. Black Mesa is extremely majestic.

    • rhysfunk says:

      Thank you! That’s good information.

      I had the pleasure of meeting Monty Joe and Vicki Roberts some time back at an art event in Tulsa, featuring photography from around the area. Seeing Black Mesa and staying at their B&B is still high on my list of Oklahoma things to do!

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