Oklahoma City is a vast, flat, rawboned boom town at the edge of the great plains, and the song was right about the wind.
Even the local boosters admit that if you want sophistication, you have to motor on up the turnpike to Tulsa. Oklahoma City is more like Marlboro Country, formed as a tent city on the first day of the Oklahoma Land Rush and renowned today for the world's biggest cattle feed lots and the working oil rigs on the grounds of the state capitol. These are worth seeing -- especially the stockyards on auction days, when you can stand on a catwalk over the pens and see thousands of head sold off -- but they don't make you feel like spending a couple of hours strolling around.
In fact, Oklahoma City isn't a walking city at all, except beneath the streets downtown. Major buildings on 20 square blocks near the beautifully restored Skirvin Plaza Hotel are connected by tunnels in a "Metro Concourse" lined with shops and restaurants, and on a cold day it's pleasant to while away an hour or so down there. But when it comes to food, remember that Oklahoma City is known as the cafeteria capital of the world -- though you might enjoy the chili and fried peaches at Harry Bear's Burger Maker.
Oklahoma City is the kind of place that would name its airport after Will Rogers, but despite its reputation, it's much more than a cow town. The population is now more than 400,000, spread over an area 20 percent larger than Montgomery County. Besides the stockyards and packing houses, these residents work in major industrial plants, at Tinker Air Force Base, at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, in the state government and in several colleges and universities. Oklahoma City has a symphony orchestra and a ballet company and a resident theater company. It's not difficult to find something interesting to do if you have a few hours to kill.
If you have a car, the spacious, handsome campus of the University of Oklahoma is about 20 minutes away, in Norman. Little River State Park is 12 miles east of Norman, and you can swim there in warm weather.
For natural scenery, drive due west of Oklahoma City on I-40, through the town of El Reno -- easily recognized from the roadside signs warning against picking up hitchhikers because there's a federal prison there -- and across the Canadian River. Then stop. Before you stretches the vast openness of the great plains, an empty panorama unlike anything east of the Mississippi. The land and sky roll away to infinity, or at least to Amarillo, and the silence conveys a curious serenity.
Back in town, you'll find the National Softball Hall of Fame, celebrating the exploits of such stars as Joan Joyce, who is said to have struck out Ted Williams in an exhibition game. Enterprise Square USA consists of exhibits and electronic games that celebrate the free enterprise system -- including giant talking currency. The zoo in Lincoln Park is one of the nation's largest with 2,000 animals. And the Kirkpatrick Center houses a planetarium, the International Photography Hall of Fame, an aerospace museum and galleries of African, oriental and American Indian art.
In fact, Oklahoma City has a surprisingly wide variety of museums. The 1889er Harn Museum is a historic homestead actually staked in the 1889 Land Rush. The 45th Infantry Division Museum features exhibits from a century of the division's history, antique artillery and guns, uniforms and a cartoon collection by Bill Mauldin. The Firefighters Museum has a collection of antique firefighting equipment, and the Oklahoma Museum of Art has European and American paintings, tapestries and furniture from the Renaissance era to the 20th century.
But the prize is the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, at 1700 NE 63d St. This institution, which Congress proclaimed a national memorial in 1957, is a combination museum and shrine that celebrates the entire culture of the cowboy west and includes one of the finest collections of western art anywhere. You don't have to love rodeo to admire the sculptures of Frederic Remington or the paintings of Charles M. Russell. This is where you can see "The End of the Trail," the haunting 18-foot-high sculpture depicting the defeat of the American Indian that James Earle Fraser created for an exhibition in San Francisco in 1915.
The Cowboy Hall of Fame has something for everyone. The serious art, all on western themes, includes paintings and sculptures by Remington, Russell, Fraser, William R. Leigh and others. Remington's "Hunters' Camp in the Bighorn" and Russell's "Red Man's Wireless" are among the prizes of the collection.
One wing of the Cowboy Hall of Fame includes the Rodeo Hall of Fame, where the saddles, trophies and other memorabilia of rodeo stars are on display. To a tenderfoot, one western saddle looks pretty much like another, but connoisseurs of rodeo may find this interesting.
Then there's the John Wayne Collection, all the art, guns, knives and books that the Duke collected in his lifetime along with mementos of his movie career and his great collection of kachina dolls, carved figures of Hopi dancers. Wayne's portrait hangs nearby in the Western Performers' Hall of Fame, along with those of Gene Autry, Walter Brennan, Barbara Stanwyck and other western film stars.
Children might prefer a gallery devoted to "The West of Yesterday": an authentic chuckwagon, a reconstructed gold mine, a sheepherder's wagon from Montana, the Silver Dollar saloon, all gathered along a western-style street complete with wooden boardwalk.
Outside, beyond the 29-ton statue of Buffalo Bill Cody, are the Freda Hambrick Botanical Gardens, one of the most colorful places in Oklahoma City. "Buried in the grounds," according to a brochure describing the collection, "are the great bucking horses Midnight and Five Minutes to Midnight. Nearby is the grave of the infamous rodeo bull, Tornado."
The National Cowboy Hall of Fame (1700 NE 63rd St., 405-478-2250) is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day; admission is $4. For more information on Oklahoma City, contact the Chamber of Commerce, 1 Santa Fe Plaza, Oklahoma City, Okla. 73102, (405) 278-8900, or the Convention and Tourism Bureau, 4 Santa Fe Plaza, Oklahoma City, Okla. 73102, (405) 278-8912.