OK in Oklahoma Sooner State: In the land where buffalo still roam, you'll also find caverns and canyons, cowboys and Indians, oil rigs and sand dunes -- and a feeling of timelessness.

April 14, 1996|By Ralph Marsh | Ralph Marsh,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

The land that is now Oklahoma was heralded as the adventurous man's last Eden. Free land! the fliers seeking settlers trumpeted. Grass belly-high to a tall horse! Deep black soil never touched by a plow!

In fact, the appeal was so enticing that Okla huma -- "red human," in the Choctaw language -- was nicknamed the Sooner State when whites hungry for Indian soil couldn't wait for the crack of the pistol to start the great land runs of the 1880s and 1890s.

Since those early days, the word "Oklahoma" has called to mind everything from the dusty misery of John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel "The Grapes of Wrath" to the farmers and cowmen who praised the "waving wheat that sure smells sweet" in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!"

The cowboys and American Indians are still there. Bison, oil rigs and prairies, too. You can bet that these were the all-American visions people pictured when you said "Oklahoma."

But a year ago all that changed. Oklahoma became known as the state where "the bombing" took place: April 19, 1995; the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City; 169 dead.

It was the worst act of terrorism the country had ever experienced. And for weeks all the world saw and heard of Oklahoma was devastation and suffering.

A year later, mention the word "Oklahoma" and that shattered building is the image that comes to mind.

But there are other images of Oklahoma that will play on your heartstrings.

Imagine lush, green, hugged-in-close hill country with tabletop plains that shrink a quarter-million-dollar piece of farm machinery into a grasshopper gnawing at a cornstalk.

Envision more man-made lakes sprinkled across the landscape than in any other state, creating more shoreline than the combined Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

See in the mind's eye red mountains of monument-quality granite rising out of rugged plains; lowlands where alligators creep; and the dry desert badlands. And, of course, the prairies where buffalo still roam; and cowboys and more Indians than any- where else in the world.

There are so many images of Oklahoma that frustrated tourism people have tried to divide the state into six "countries" to get a handle on them. For our purposes, let's break it down into three and move counterclockwise around the state: the rugged plains and canyon country of the northwest and southwest, the green mountains and many streams of the southeast, and the tallgrass prairie of the northeast.

Start in Oklahoma City, the center of the state, then head west and north, into the Panhandle. This puts you in the Great Plains, where Black Mesa rises from a dry land of pale desert pastels, cactuses, juniper, pinyon and antelope.

Imagine these plains as they looked when they were the hunting ground of the Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne-Arapaho and Kiowa. Now the plains are the site of winter ice fishing and trout fishing in man-made Lake Etling at Black Mesa State Park, west of Boise City. North of nearby Kenton, a hiking trail will take you to the top of Black Mesa, highest point in the state at 4,973 feet.

As the land spills out of the Panhandle, Alabaster Caverns near Mooreland offer cool year-round cave exploring. Within an hour's drive southeast, a mini-desert erupts into Little Sahara State Park. Its 70-foot-high sand dunes shift so much under relentless winds that early explorers called them walking hills. Dune buggies are for rent there now.

A jog north near Cherokee leads to the Great Salt Plains, where Indians used turkey feathers to fluff the precious white mineral and pack it into rawhide bags. You can dig there on the shore of Oklahoma's Great Salt Plains Lake for the selenite hourglass crystals that occur nowhere else.

In Ponca City, in the wheat and oil plains of the north, a 17-foot bronze statue honors courageous white women who created homes in the raw, new prairie. And on the grounds of the Capitol in Oklahoma City, a 15-foot bronze honors their red sisters who were driven from their prairie homes to make room for them.

Roman Nose

Near Watonga, a hour northwest of Oklahoma City, a huge canyon slashes through red and white gypsum hills, baby mesas and farm fields, forming a mini-world of its own. Three springs gush a million gallons a day.

An old Indian holed up there once, hiding from the white man. His name was Wohine (Hooked Nose) but there were many Indians named Wohine, and he had to take the name Henry Caruthers Roman Nose so he could deal with the white world. When the last of the Indian land was broken up and handed out, Henry Caruthers Roman Nose spurned the fertile farm fields and chose the canyon instead. Wohine pitched his tepee there in his own canyon, out of sight of the white world.

That canyon is now Roman Nose State Resort and Park. In addition to an excellent lodge and golf course, there's trout fishing in one of the two lakes formed when the springs were dammed.

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