Oklahoma: The “Reel” Wild West

Text: Bill Dragoo, Susan Dragoo • Photography: Bill Dragoo, Susan Dragoo

“Let’s go take a look,” said Bill, a familiar gleam in his eye.

I sighed, knowing nothing would deter him. As we made the turn for Hwy 80, which snakes along the eastern edge of Fort Gibson Lake deep in the Cherokee Nation, a road sign announced, “High water, 3 miles ahead.” Nevermind that the sun was already close to the horizon on its downward journey, and we were still far from the end of our route. But I knew better than to discourage him, a technique that always has the opposite effect. “Sure, let’s do,” I said.

It was a glorious road, leaves skittering across the pavement as we flew by on our BMW R 1200 GS Rallye, the low rays of the sun lighting up the trees and the lake beyond. The first patch of high water was nothing; the lake had receded and the road was almost dry. We breathed easy, thinking that was the worst of it. Then, around the next bend, the road disappeared into the lake.

How deep? Bill, I feared, was about to test the waters. Standing, we rode in, watching the yellow centerline fade into the depths. Wet feet were a given at this point. Erring on the landward side of the presumptive road, we edged a bit too far and found ourselves among the buried muck and sunken limbs. It was nerve-racking for an instant, but Bill expertly coaxed the big machine back onto the road, pushing a bow wave ashore like a barge run aground. I just shook my head as we continued on what appeared to be one of the best motorcycle roads in Oklahoma—when it’s dry.

This was our third and last night out on a tour with wild swings in scenery and weather. Oklahoma is a melting pot of ecosystems, and we’d started in the Central Great Plains on a cold, rainy day, cruised through the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and the Cross Timbers woodlands in equally dismal weather, and emerged into the Ozark Forest ecoregion showered with sunshine, all in a few hundred miles.

The Dawn of the Western

Our tour retraced landmarks associated with Oklahoma’s significant (and underappreciated) role in the emergence of the Western movie in the early 1900s. While the landscape most closely associated with the American West in the minds of moviegoers may well be the towering red sandstone spires of Monument Valley in Utah and Arizona, the earliest filmmakers sought the most authentic settings and real cowboys and Indians, and to find them they went to the prairies of Oklahoma Territory.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the July/August 2020 back issue.