Apr 22, 2011

Salty Plains, Rock Star Cows and Mother Nature’s Light Show

Our daughter, Callie, is 13 years old and as teenagers so often do, she has a memory like an elephant. Two weeks before spring break she says, “You’ve been promising for-eee-ver that we’d go on a family camping trip. Now is the time.”

We intuitively realized that if there was to be any peace in the Struby household again, the family camping expedition could no longer be delayed. We sorted through sleeping bags, got the camping gear in order, browsed TravelOK.com for just the right spot, and finally settled on the Great Salt Plains State Park near Jet. Callie was fascinated with seeing plains made of salt, and I knew from researching there were plenty of things, in addition to the Salt Plains, to keep my crew entertained.

By cruising the back roads, our favorite way to travel, we made the drive from Oklahoma City in an easy two and half hours.


We camped for two nights right on the shores of the Great Salt Plains Lake, ate gloriously tasty food cooked up on our handy camp stove, and survived a big rain storm in our tent just fine -- no drips, leaks or miserable, soggy sleeping bags. And by the way, it’s no lie that everything tastes better outdoors.


On a chilly afternoon with storm clouds skittering across the sky we headed out to the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, 32,000 acres of open water, wetlands, prairies, woodlands and farm fields that lie just a few miles north of the lake, and one of nine National Wildlife Refuges in Oklahoma. The refuge is a very special and important place, habitat to more 300 species of birds, designated a Globally Important Bird Area, a Member of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, and it’s critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane.


On the way to the refuge we happened across this picturesque old farm house resembling a watercolor painting.


Being a hobbyist photographer, I made the whole family stop and while I was clicking away, far in the distance we heard a mooing ruckus, and looked up to see a herd of cows trotting toward us, obviously on a mission. Whether they thought our arrival signaled chow time or they were just curious, by the time they arrived the sun was peeking out and they were ready for their close-up. They posed and posed and posed some more, reminding us a bit of rock stars.


At the refuge headquarters, this pretty sight greeted us. Even though we visited before spring kissed everything green, the beauty of the refuge is reflected in Bonham Pond, where refuge staff offer Wildlife in the Classroom programs to kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.


Bird, birds, birds were at every turn on the Harold F. Miller Auto tour, a 2.5-mile drive that meanders through the refuge by ponds, wetlands and farm fields. There’s ample room to pull over and walk or take photos and we did so several times, serenaded by a symphony of bird songs and calls.


Spring was busting out all over.


Silvery trees made a splash against the dramatic backdrop of storm clouds.


And then it was time to visit the Salt Plains. That white stuff isn’t snow – it’s salt, real salt. After the forested wetlands and throngs of birds at the refuge, the Salt Plains seemed wildly empty, and although we were disappointed we couldn’t dig for the rare hourglass selenite crystals found here (digging time is April 1 through October 15) -- we were suitably impressed by the plains’ grand scale.


Even though it was coolish, cloudy and stormy during some of our visit, the weather didn’t keep Callie from exploring the shoreline. And way out in the lake what looks like an island in the distance is just that. It’s Ralstin Island, a very important part of the refuge. At about six acres, the island is Oklahoma’s largest rookery a.k.a. bird nursery for nesting birds, and hosts more than 30,000 birds during breeding season. Shhhh. Human visitors not allowed – don’t want to wake all those babies – but the refuge office offers live footage of the island via their remote cameras from April through October.


It’s never too cold and you’re never too old to play in the sand.


The sun came out and everything went sparkly.


And then along came dusk and a stunning light show from Mother Nature that beat anything on the movie screen hands down. We pulled our camp chairs to the water’s edge, sipped on a bit of wine, and reveled in the glory.




Apr 19, 2011

Museum of Osteology

I've been working for the Tourism Department for quite a while now. I've spent this time meticulously combing over various maps, websites, travel brochures, promotional materials, and just about anything else you could imagine in an attempt to unearth all the cool stuff to do here. It's crazy that after all this time, I'm still discovering things I had no idea existed... sometimes right here in my own city!

That was the case last week when Lacey and I stumbled across the Museum of Osteology in OKC.

I had heard tales from friends about a store named Skulls Unlimited that sold human and animal bones, but never really thought much of it beyond its status as a morbid oddity. It wasn't until doing a little research for an unrelated project at work that I found out this place really does exist, and that it has a museum attached to it.

While I've been curious about the store for while, I always felt a little sheepish about window shopping for human skulls - luckily the museum offered a perfect excuse for me to indulge my curiosity without being judged by the types of people who find the viewing of human remains to be a little weird.

The museum is incredibly well put together, filled to the brim with creatures big and small. Placards help visitors contextualize the miraculous way in which our bones make us function, adapt, and evolve to our surroundings.

As a fairly literate guy, I was surprised to find how little I actually new about the inner construction of the animals we share this planet with.

How many gift shops do you know have this for sale?

The Museum of Osteology was unlike anything I'd ever seen in Oklahoma, and I am being completely honest when I say it made a lasting impression on me. For better or worse, one of those impressions involved an unshakable reminder of the fragility of my own existence.

Luckily there's a cure for having one's mortality prominently on display for an hour: comfort food!

Yes. Anyone who knows me in the slightest has an intimate understanding of my love for the Del Rancho Steak Sandwich Supreme.

For those of you not from here, Del Rancho is a legendary chain of burger joints who's existence is ingrained in the psyche of every true Oklahoman. Del Rancho has ran the same series of television ads since the seventies, and their signature dish, the steak sandwich supreme, should probably be considered for the official meal of Oklahoma.

Anyways, as luck would have it, there's a Del Rancho just a few miles away from the museum...

Greatest meal ever conceived.


Apr 12, 2011

Sooner Dairy Lunch

Since this blog is all about exploring Oklahoma like a local, I have to share one of my favorite burger spots in Norman. It just so happens that I can walk to this place from my house, making Sooner Dairy Lunch a frequent destination for our family. Judging by the Norman Transcript Reader's Choice awards lining the counter, I can tell I'm not alone.

Located on Main Street a little east of I-35, Sooner Dairy Lunch has been serving up handmade burgers and malts for 56 years. I suspect little has changed in terms of the menu or car fulls of customers since opening in 1954. The drive-in is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and closed Sunday and Monday.

More often than not, Randy greets us at the counter window to take our order. He's the son of the original owner and is part of the second generation who operates the family business. Randy claims he's more of a people person than his brother who opts to work the grill.

I ordered a cheeseburger and couldn't resist a handmade chocolate shake. I love that the food comes wrapped in white butcher paper, reinforcing the classic simplicity of this entire dining experience.

Most customers choose to eat in their cars or outside on the picnic tables. Grayson was entertained by the bar stools at the small inside counter so that's where we enjoyed our meal. Our vantage point made it easy to hear Randy greeting customers by name and catching up on family news with the regulars.

After enjoying our meal, we decided a trip just isn't complete without some cold soft serve for the walk home.

Apr 6, 2011

And This Week's Snapshot Answer is...

The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid!

Per TravelOK.com:

"The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, located in Enid and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society, is a 24,000 sq ft facility that features five exhibit galleries interpreting the settlement and development of northwest Oklahoma. In addition, the Humphrey Heritage Village, a living history village on the grounds of the complex, features four historically significant buildings including the only remaining 1893 Land Office. Come to the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center to celebrate the spirit of the Cherokee Strip pioneers and to experience one of the most significant heritage visitor destinations and educational resources in northwest Oklahoma.

Visitors to the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center will enjoy more than 12,500 sq ft of climate-controlled exhibit space. Connect to the excitement, hardships and determination of the people who made the land run in the museum's Land Run Theater, or visit the "End of the Day" exhibit to witness a three-dimensional, authentically reproduced camp scene complete with a covered wagon and other items settlers would have brought with them. The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center also features beautifully landscaped grounds that include "The Homesteader," a bronze statue by renowned Western artist Harold Holden.

This museum houses a varied collection of historical material including numerous eyewitness pioneer accounts, oral and video histories and more than 8,000 original and reproduced photographs, many of which depict the drama of the historic Cherokee Strip Land Run. The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center houses 10,000 artifacts including the first portable drilling rig invented by George E. Failing in 1930.

Come to this museum and browse through exhibits containing household objects and agricultural tools that were necessary for homesteading in the Outlet. The center also features material related to the discovery and development of the region's oil and gas industry and items documenting the development of the nation's first fully-integrated petroleum company. Using its rich collection of artifacts, photographs and documents, the museum expertly traces the history of the Cherokee Outlet and the people who settled there, making the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center a must-see."

Apr 5, 2011

Snapshot: 04.05.2011

Alright dispatchers, its time again for another snapshot! Can you tell us where we were when we took this shot?