Tulsa is uniquely associated with one song. The only trouble is that the entire point of “24 Hours From Tulsa” is that dear old Gene Pitney is still a day and a night away from Tulsa as he sings of his indiscretion in a hotel room which means that he can “never, never, never go home again”. And neither Gene nor songwriters Bacharach and David had any connection with Tulsa anyway. It merely met the requirement of being a two syllable town beginning with a consonant.
Tulsa isn’t easy to get to. Despite the lonesome whistles of the freight trains as they traverse the downtown area, there is no Amtrack passenger service to Tulsa and nothing much in the way of buses either. Luckily, there’s Tulsa International Airport, accessible from Gatwick via a brief stopover in Minneapolis.
You get around by car, car and car. This is quintessential mid-America, where you drive absolutely everywhere: to the malls, to the bars and above all to the churches. This isn’t just the Bible Belt, it’s braces and corsets too. There are simply thousands of churches in Tulsa (I counted 3420 in the Greater Tulsa Yellow Pages): Methodist, Baptist, Adventist and any other kind of – ist you care to mention. Most of the buildings are gigantic, and on Sundays they need extra shifts of police to control the churchgoing traffic. Confusingly, the illuminated signs announcing guest preachers are identical to those advertising visiting bands in the nightclubs. Thus, cruising for some music on our first night, we pulled into several church car parks before eventually locating Fishbonz, a classic student-filled mid-West roadhouse.
The pervasive air of religious fervour in Tulsa had an unexpected spin-off when our daughter got her finger stuck in the car door on the forecourt of a shopping mall. As she writhed screaming on the floor, a lady pushed forward through the crowd. Good, we thought, a first aid expert. No such luck – the lady was kindly offering to pray for her!
The next day, I caused complete consternation by suggesting walking, ooh, all of 500 metres to the local gas station to buy beer. Walking? The very thought! But that was as nothing compared to my attempt, as a pedestrian, to purchase a burger at Sonic’s Drive-In hamburger bar. The system couldn’t cope with this unconventional behaviour, so I had to pretend to be a car, stand in a bay and communicate via intercom, the burger eventually being delivered on roller skates.
But the churches aren’t Tulsa’s only buildings of note. Tulsa is dubbed “Terra Cotta City” on account of some quite charming and very unusual art-deco landmarks, including many listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Probably the best known are the Brook Theatre and the Union Depot, but we were most impressed by the Adams building on Cheyenne and 4th. It felt more like Barcelona than Oklahoma. All the wealth in these buildings came from the oil boom in the 1920s, commemorated in the 8-storey high statue if the Golden Driller, who stands proudly outside the Exposition Center. Tulsa still has an air of prosperity. It’s a technological centre, with the rusting old oil pipelines now carrying fibre-optic cables.
So if 24 Hours From Tulsa could be virtually anywhere, how about 24 miles from Tulsa? Ah, now we’re talking. “Route 66” is a better song anyway, and Tulsa is the place to get a real feel for the Mother Road. The route of dreamers and drifters takes you out from West Tulsa to Sapulpa, with its restored Main Street and its Route 66 memorabilia shops and roadside diners. The rest of Route 66 has been subsumed into the interstate system, but here you can really get an impression of what it must have felt like in the glory days of the 40s and 50s, when Sapulpa was an oil boom town. The museum run by the local historical society is a gem.
Another place to get your kicks is in Tulsa’s parks. Far from the flattened dustbowl expected by readers of The Grapes Of Wrath, Tulsa is set in undulating hills and woodland. Our park of choice was Hunter Park. Here you can play disc golf, a gentle form of golf played with frisbees rather than clubs. There’s also a range of museums and art galleries, the most prominent being the Philbrook Museum, which houses Italian Renaissance art. Music lovers will be intrigued by Cain’s Ballroom. the Carnegie Hall of country music, as well as the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. Tulsa’s favourite musical son is Leon Russell, sixty years old this year.
There are plenty of other good day trips, especially if you’re interested in the 39 federally registered Native American tribes which reside in Oklahoma (the word itself coming from two Choctaw Indian words meaning “red man”). Just 70 miles south east of Tulsa, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, lies Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation. The town itself is dull, but just outside it lies the Cherokee Heritage Center, a magnificent and profoundly moving tribute to the thousands of NativeAmericans displaced and forced to trek half way across America on the Trail of Tears, to their new home in Oklahoma. Here we were also given a personal demonstration of Indian crafts and a guided tour of the reconstructed Indian village.
At the slight risk of OD-ing on Heritage, another great day out is to Bartlesville, where Frank Phillips discovered oil (inevitably christening it the “66” brand) and used some of the proceeds to create his Woolaroc Ranch, nowadays a wildlife park and beautifully presented museum, largely filled with Western and Native American paintings. A hundred miles further on into the Ozarks, but definitely worth the effort, is Eureka Springs, a kitsch but irresistible mountain spa town and artistic community. Its speciality? Jacuzzis For Two in every B and B. Whoopee!
From the Independent on Sunday