WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF BUCKET-LIST TRAVEL — a time when many of us maintain a to-do list of places we hope to visit someday. It’s a healthy behavior, one that keeps us looking ahead, aspiring and dreaming. But it ignores a big fact: Travel often means going to places we never really wanted to go, due to business, family obligations, or other demands. In the face of that reality, part of being a good traveler is the ability to turn an obligatory journey into something that feels like a vacation. Case in point: Oklahoma City.
When my 15-year-old daughter’s Grafton-based riding team qualified for the Interscholastic Equestrian Association Western National Finals in that city in June, there was no question we’d make the trip. The only question was whether we could break away from the riding arena to find good meals and fun activities — and to turn the five-day trip into something worth the hassle and expense.
By the time we boarded our return flight, we’d visited museums, compared steakhouses, and ridden a mechanical bull, and we’d had a thorough immersion in cowboy culture. Among our group of travelers — seven teens, six parents, and two coaches — several weekend bags contained new cowboy boots, along with a few championship ribbons. And even if Oklahoma City is not a top-of-mind destination, many of us came home convinced it deserves a place on most bucket lists.
THERE ARE NO nonstop flights from Boston to Oklahoma City, but several airlines offer connections through Atlanta or Dallas, among others. We flew JetBlue to Dallas and drove three hours north from there, passing horse ranches and billboards for roof replacement that serve as a reminder that this is Tornado Alley. To an East Coaster, OKC has the stereotypical feel of a Midwest city, much like, say, Indianapolis. The central city is compact, a cluster of high-rises surrounded by a sprawl of suburbs that’s easy to navigate, with little traffic. Hotels can cost half of what they do in Boston.
We spend much of our time at the Oklahoma State Fair Park (405-948-6700; okstatefair.com), a complex of barns and arenas 5 miles west of downtown. Thanks largely to this facility, Oklahoma City claims to host more equestrian events than any city on the planet. October 11 to 18, for example, is the Grand National & World Championship Morgan Horse Show, while October 25 to November 2 will bring the US Team Roping Championships to town.
During our visit, the National Reining Horse Association Derby, an annual event with $650,000 in prize money, is taking place in one arena. It features riders who guide horses in a series of fast, spinning maneuvers and sliding stops. In another arena, the country’s best middle and high school Western horseback riders — including teams from the Hillside Meadows Equestrian Center in Grafton, Massachusetts, and Pond Hill Ranch in Castleton, Vermont — compete in reining and in “horsemanship,” a slower-moving event in which athletes in Western wear are assigned unfamiliar horses that they walk, jog, and lope while holding ramrod-straight posture.
In the rings, tractors drag the dirt smooth between competitions, a process reminiscent of Zambonis polishing ice rinks. In bleachers, the mostly female riders apply hair spray and boot polish, calming nerves before the judging. Signs on fence rails warn against talking on cellphones while riding. One booth offers equine massage services. Outside, farriers hammer horseshoes while pedestrians dodge manure.
Today horses are a luxury good, part of America’s vast recreational economy — but until fairly recently they were work animals that helped men and women run the ranches crucial to the Western economy. That history is celebrated at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (405-478-2250; nationalcowboymuseum.org), 6 miles north of downtown Oklahoma City. One display illustrates the different chaps, boots, spurs, and saddles used by cowhands. Another catalogs 1,300 types of barbed wire, an innovation that reduced cattle’s ability to roam, making cowboys’ work far easier. There are exhibits devoted to the history of rodeos, cowboy movies, frontier cooking, and antique firearms. At the museum, I am surprised to learn that cowboys were prevalent well into the early 20th century. Large galleries display cowboy- and Indian-themed sculptures and paintings. Late one morning near the entrance, a group of Native Americans performs a ceremonial dance in front of The End of the Trail, a 17-foot-high plaster sculpture of an Indian rider on a horse.
Cowboys retain a certain mystique: They’re cool. Spend enough time in these environs, and you’ll find yourself wondering Could I pull off a cowboy hat? Or cowboy boots, maybe? (For me, the answer is no on both counts.) Alternatively, you may think I bet I’d be really good at riding a mechanical bull.
We decided to test that out. With help from Yelp, I locate a bar named Sooner Corral (405-793-0790; www.soonercorral.com). I call around lunchtime and ask about bringing some 15-year-old equestrians for a visit, worried it may be 21-and-over only. “Sure,” the owner tells me. “If you’re here before 11 p.m., it won’t be crowded. Just ask for me at the door.”
At 9:30 on a Friday night, six girls and five adults pull up at the roadhouse, a 20-minute drive southwest of downtown. At the door, bouncers wave metal detectors, searching for weapons. Inside, a sign warns against underage drinking. “This is a place for making babies, not serving them,” say the neon letters. Nearby, the young women mostly wear Daisy Dukes; men favor sleeveless T-shirts to show off tattoos. Once the shock — we’ve taken our teen daughters to a roadhouse — wears off, the parents grow comfortable. By midnight, this dance floor will feel more risque than a Miley Cyrus video, but at mid-evening the place is only a quarter full, no one bothers us, and the scene is safely PG-13.
The owner lines the girls up in front of the mechanical bull, set in a roped-off area and surrounded by deep pads on the floor, and offers a few pointers. “It’s sort of like dancing, but instead of moving your hips from side to side, you move them forward and back when the bull bucks,” he says.
Each girl takes a turn, with the owner working the controls and keeping the rides fairly gentle. “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” plays in the background. Nearby on the dance floor, the twentysomething crowd begins line dancing. Three of the five parents go for a ride. Most sport goofy grins, and no one falls off.
As he powers down the bull, the owner calls over the DJ, who leads the girls to the stage. “All the way from Boston, Massachusetts, let’s give a big Oklahoma welcome to the champion riders from the Hillside Meadows equestrian team,” he shouts into the microphone. The dance floor erupts in cheers. By 10:30, we’re all back in the cars and safely en route to the hotel.
LIKE EVERY REGION, Oklahoma has its distinctive foods. One is the onion burger, which legend says was a creation of the Great Depression, when people added heaping piles of onion to ground beef to extend it. I try one at Bunny’s Onion Burgers (405-949-2949; bunnysonionburger.com), in a strip mall west of downtown, and it’s decidedly meh. The region also features taco and Tex-Mex places every few blocks; we try several, but nothing stands out.
I have better luck at Pappy’s BBQ (405-290-7551), a block from the State Fair Park. In its front window is a placard advertising a bail bondsman, and over every table hangs a roll of paper towels — both good signs. Its menu consists of just a few types of smoked meat and sides, and the counter staff spoons the food directly onto wax paper on a plastic tray — they don’t even bother with plates. Over two lunches, I try the brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. If I’d spent a week at the State Fair Park, I’d probably have eaten at Pappy’s every day.
Downtown Oklahoma City’s primary dining-and-entertainment neighborhood is Bricktown, a roughly 10-block neighborhood east of the city center that features almost 50 bars and restaurants, a minor league ballpark, horse-and-carriage rides, and a canal offering water taxis and tours. Think Quincy Market, with a much higher bar-to-shopping ratio.
We choose Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse (405-272-0777; mickeymantlesteakhouse.com), considered one of the city’s top restaurants. It’s decorated with memorabilia from the Oklahoma-born Yankee slugger — including his 1956 Triple Crown — and our large group samples steaks, fish, and various kids’ entrees. (The risotto wins particular raves.) But aside from the Yankees decor, the food is much like a Capital Grille, and we might as well have been in Chestnut Hill.
The city’s best dining choice requires some perseverance: Cattlemen’s Steakhouse (405-236-0416; cattlemensrestaurant.com) doesn’t take reservations, and on weekends it can be an hour or two to get a table. Cattlemen’s is located west of downtown in Stockyards City, once home to the meatpacking plants that were the capital’s dominant employer. Even today, there are live cattle auctions here on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the neighborhood is filled with leather-goods stores. While we wait for a table, our Massachusetts equestrians spend time exploring a few, concentrating on Langston’s Western Wear (405-235-9536; langstons.com); several buy new boots and riding jeans.
Our group of 11 agrees to eat dinner at 4 p.m. to limit the wait. Cattlemen’s, which opened in 1910 and famously changed ownership during a 1945 dice game, is an old-school steakhouse, whose bona fides include serving John Wayne, Gene Autry, and Ronald Reagan. It’s a mish-mash of spaces — a darker dining room, a lighter lunch-counter area — and we’re seated in a tiny private room near the back.
Before our food comes, our red-aproned waiter brings two large platters filled with cups of sour cream and butter. One mom can’t believe the size of it — as if we’d use that much fat on our baked potatoes, she says, snapping an incredulous photo. When our steaks arrive — the rib-eye is the restaurant’s bestseller, but the petit filet mignon is the most popular order at our table — the waiter has everyone check for doneness; all are perfect. By the time the meal is finished, we’re all out of sour cream.
As the waiter clears the empty plates, the parents at one end of the table look down at the smiling teenage equestrians. “This trip was so much fun, you girls better qualify again next year,” one mom says. The girls raise their sodas and offer a cheer.
HOW TO RIDE A MECHANICAL BULL
1) Before you mount, make friends with the bull operator, who controls the speed and depth of the bucking and spinning. Tell him you’re a rookie and want to start slowly. “The big misconception is you’re going to get up there and ride until you get thrown off,” Roberts says. In fact, most operators are happy to give you a fun ride that won’t leave you sprawled on the padded floor.
2) Jump aboard and grab the strap with your non-dominant hand, using an underhanded, palm-up grip. Put your dominant arm up, bent upward at the elbow into an L shape. Clench your legs tightly, and push your heels into the bull’s side.
3) As the bull begins bucking (that’s the forward-back rocking motion), keep your hips as close to the strap as you can. “The center of the bull is the quiet in the storm,” Roberts says. “Think about a teeter-totter — if you want the least amount of motion, you want to be in the dead center.” When the front of the bull bucks up, lean forward. When its backside comes up, lean back.
4) Don’t look down: If you look in a particular direction, you’re likely to go there.
5) “It’s always good to wear a cowboy hat. Grab it with your dominant hand, holding the top part, not the bill. You’ll look great for the photo opp.”
6) Do not, under any circumstances, ride the bull with another person. “A lot of times at bars you’ll see two girls riding a bull together. We call that the ‘instant nosebleed.’ ”
To get up close with a mechanical bull in Massachusetts, visit Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill (508-543-3945; countrybarma.com) in Foxborough, which has riding Sundays through Thursdays starting at 8:30 p.m.