In Choctaw, Oklahoma means 'land of the red people'. The recorded history of the region began when Spanish explorer Coronado traveled through in 1541, searching for Eldorado, the "Lost City of Gold." The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forcibly, and cruelly, relocated many southern Native American tribes to Indian Territory. And in the spring of 1889, all hell broke loose on these plains when the first of seven land runs opened the territory to a hardy bunch of hardscrabble homesteaders.
When Tom Sheets and his two brothers, William and Martin, were forced from their Missouri home at a tender age by their cruel stepmother, Tom had little hope of ever becoming a man of property. He worked odd jobs to support himself until age 18, when he rode a horse west. And he didn't stop until reaching the West Coast. While Tom was working on a ranch near the Snake River in Idaho, the rancher told him of the 1893 Oklahoma land run slated for the Cherokee Strip. The rancher wistfully added that if he were a young man he'd make the run himself. That advice and the fast horse the kindly rancher gave him were all the encouragement young Tom needed.
Riding north from Oklahoma City, Jeff Armitage and I first pass through Edmond. This upscale Oklahoma City suburb started out in 1887 simply as a watering and coaling station for the Santa Fe Railroad. Edmond Burdick, Santa Fe's traveling freight agent, was the town's namesake.
Queen of the Prairie
State Road 33 leads east into historic Guthrie. Born on the prairie in a single day during the first Oklahoma land run on April 22, 1889, Guthrie became one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi River. Over the next few years, the ornate Victorian buildings that masons erected on the prairie earned the city its title as "Queen of the Prairie."
Much of that magnificent architectural legacy has been preserved in Guthrie's historic district. By the time of its transition from Territorial Capital to Capital of the State of Oklahoma in 1907, Guthrie had municipal water service, a mass transit system, electricity and - I kid you not - underground parking for horses. State political forces were conspiring against the Queen of the Prairie, however; and in the middle of the night on June 11, 1910, the Oklahoma state seal was spirited off to Oklahoma City, which became the new state capital. After losing its economic base, Guthrie endured a 70-year period of decline until its restoration and rebirth began in the 1980s.
Motorcycle & Gear
Just south of Guthrie, on US 77, we pass the drive-in theater featured in the movie Twister. Digitally destroyed by an EF5 tornado in the movie, in reality it gleams like new in the summer sun. It's arrow-straight along the rural scene of US 77 north, passing by small towns with red sandstone buildings, until crossing Skeleton Creek on an old steel truss bridge, where a series of tree-shaded ess curves begin on the tranquil banks of the Cimarron River. Our riding inclinations, however, are anything but tranquil - it's time to do a little turn and burn on this twisty tarmac while it lasts.
Into the Cherokee Strip
Tom Sheets rode his new mount back to the Midwest to work, and he and his brother Will conditioned their horses for the 28-mile run into the Cherokee Strip. An old prospector who had spent a lot of time in the Oklahoma Territory helped them find the ideal starting point on the southern Kansas border. By September 16, 1893, the two brothers' horses were in peak condition. Armed troopers on horseback patrolled the front of the 226-mile long line of 100,000 anxious homesteaders to maintain order. They were authorized to shoot and kill anyone jumping the blast of the noon starting gun, and in several instances they did just that. When the starting guns went off, though, some of the troopers, unable to avoid the thundering mass of wagons and horses racing south at breakneck speed, were trampled to death in the melee.
Perry, Oklahoma, which lies within the former Cherokee Strip, was one of the official locations where homesteaders filed claims. The Cherokee Strip Museum, located on a five-acre tract of land in Perry, contains interesting exhibits, artifacts, photographs and documents tracing the history of the Cherokee Strip and the 1893 Run. The museum complex also has a reconstructed one-room school of the era.
Further north on US 77, we see oil and gas drilling rigs and pump jacks all over the prairie landscape in every direction. When this area first produced oil in 1921, it became known as the Tonkawa-Three Sands Field. From 1923 through 1925, the field produced between 23 and 28 million barrels of oil annually, but then declined rapidly and was finally abandoned in the mid-20th century. New drilling and recovery technologies, combined with the skyrocketing demand for petroleum products, have given the Three Sands Field new life recently. (But, of course, since the date of our tour, the price of oil has declined precipitously.)