Perhaps no other American city is as comprehensively identified with a single tragic event as Oklahoma’s capital. Until 1995, Oklahoma City was generally viewed as a typical New West metropolis, striving to keep up with the region’s rapidly changing economic and cultural environment while retaining links to its past as a center for cowboys and oilmen.
And then Timothy McVeigh parked an explosives-packed truck in front of the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building on a quiet April morning, and the city was transformed into the site of the worst domestic terrorist attack in the nation’s history. The horrific incident, which killed 168 people, including 19 children, will be part of the city’s identity for a long time to come. With that in mind, I decided to put off visiting the memorial to the bombing until the end of my stay, so that I could get a sense of the city that exists beyond this dark shadow.
I started in the city-center entertainment district of Bricktown, a walkable neighborhood featuring saloons, restaurants, nightclubs and candy shops. Street names such as Mickey Mantle Way and Flaming Lips Alley provide a thumbnail directory of some of Oklahoma City’s favorite sons. A water taxi runs along the district’s small canal system, offering a good introduction to its attractions, which run the gamut from the American Banjo Museum to the world headquarters of the Sonic restaurant chain.
During my tour, I stopped at the Bricktown Brewery, a folksy establishment featuring wheat, berry and pumpkin ale. I also visited the rather more boisterous America’s Pub, where the dress code stipulates that “all hats must be worn with bills facing forward.” Best of all is the Wormy Dog Saloon, which offers the red-dirt country music native to the region and is a sharp contrast to the kitschy, prefab charm of the best-avoided Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill.
The following morning I toured the Paseo Arts District, just north of Bricktown. It contains a fairly wide collection of shops and restaurants, though its core attraction is a series of galleries offering contemporary Western paintings, jewelry and pottery. After my visit I was lucky enough to grab lunch at nearby Big Truck Tacos, a former lunch truck whose popularity has caused it to be permanently parked.
Next, I traveled to the Lincoln Park district in the northwest of the city, where the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum displays more Western art. Clearly not lacking for funding, this capacious, somewhat sterile museum offers a comprehensive array of artifacts, including Colt pistols to a definitive collection of barbed wire. Its glistening, spotless presentation of Old West values is a fitting symbol for a city poised between gritty tradition and a more domesticated present. The museum’s strongest features are collections of contemporary work by cowboy and Native American artists. Compare them with the Western Performers Gallery, which chronicles — with no apparent irony — the lives of such ersatz cowboys as Buffalo Bill Cody and John Wayne.
Still pressing north, I drove 20 miles to the small town of Arcadia, which sits on legendary Route 66 and is the home of a must-see spot for any Oklahoma City visitor: Pops. Announcing itself with a 66-foot-high soda bottle, the diner looks like an outdated vision of the future, with its vast cantilevered carport and pastel colors. Its chief attraction is the “soda ranch,” a collection of more than 500 kinds of soda pop. I highly recommend the Snake River Sarsaparilla.
Before heading to my somber final destination, I drove to the southern suburb of Norman, home to the sprawling University of Oklahoma campus and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, another extremely well-appointed institution, this one dedicated to an Oklahoma that existed long before there were cowboys. Particularly well done are the Hall of Ancient Life, with its impressive array of dinosaurs, and the recently opened Paleozoic Gallery, with its lucid depiction of the planet’s formation.
At last I was ready to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, situated in an otherwise nondescript neighborhood of office buildings. After getting my fill of the history that the city seems eager for visitors to experience, I was ready to immerse myself in the one that everyone wishes didn’t exist.
The three-acre Outdoor Symbolic Memorial consists of a large reflecting pool bounded on either side by looming arches bearing the times 9:01 and 9:03, the minutes just before and after the explosion. On a gentle hill overlooking the pond stand the sculptures of 168 empty chairs, one for each of the slain. As with all fine memorials — I’m thinking of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington — the effect is sobering without being preachy.
The adjacent museum provides a highly detailed, occasionally interactive account of the attack and its aftermath. Nearly anything you want to know about the event is on offer; you can even hear an archive recording of a water board meeting that was taking place when the bomb went off. I left feeling a bit uneasy about the wealth of detail, the stopped clocks and rubble and victim memorabilia. It seemed at odds with the understated memorial next door. Skipping the museum entirely to focus on the gardens would not have lessened my sense of the event’s enormity.
I left Oklahoma City thinking that the city is at its best when dealing with the less easily marketed aspects of its past: dinosaurs, red-dirt country music, authentic Native American art or the terrible events of April 1995. It is here, rather than in the well-funded, airbrushed museum displays and gleaming office buildings, that you find the true Oklahoma City.