Since travel has been restricted, I've missed my frequent visits to the States, and it's made me nostalgic for a road trip I took with my father through Oklahoma a few years ago. It's a place that echoes through my new novel Journey to the Heartland, which I wrote during lockdown.
One of the southern states, Oklahoma is bordered by Texas to the south and west, and Kansas to the north, and is part of the Great Plains, which has shaped its history.
We checked into the Ambassador, a 1920s boutique Marriott hotel near all the action, and set off to explore. Oklahomans are some of the friendliest people in the United States and it's almost impossible to meet a stranger here. Everyone we spoke with had a little Irish and Native American in their genes and was keen to share some local knowledge with us.
Did you know, for example, that Oklahoma is the US State with the longest stretch of the original Route 66 still intact? Towns such as Chandler and Clinton dot the route, where museums document the history of this road from the days of its beginning during the depression to its heyday in the 1950s and '60s. We stopped off for a real diner experience at Ann's Chicken Fry House just outside the city, a favourite of Route 66 fans for decades. With a pink Cadillac and an old police Pontiac out front, it's a novel pitstop.
"Okla-homa" is a Choctaw Indian word, meaning "Red People", and one of the most notable features of the Oklahoman landscape is the red earth - the same earth described in the first chapter of Steinbeck's Great American novel, The Grapes of Wrath which is partly set there.
Red Earth is also the name given to a festival held every June in the State capital of Oklahoma City and rated in the top 10 Native American events in the country. There are dancing and singing competitions, showing the talents of the many tribes from across the country, and we were lucky enough to catch it all. It reminded us of the Feis Ceoil. Of course, Dad had to have his picture with Miss Comanche Princess - for the purpose of research, he maintains.
Next we took to the open road, travelling northwest, and Dad insisted on taking control of the wheel of our rental jeep as he loved the wide open plains, dotted with water-pumping windmills and spectres of lone oil drills. Roads are easy to navigate and as little as 10-minutes outside Oklahoma City, the sense of space becomes overwhelming.
In a little over one hour, we arrived in Ponca City. The statue of the 'Pioneer' Woman by Bryant Baker is one of the landmarks in this town and the story behind the man who commissioned this work, Ernest Marland, is a strange one.
Ernest Marland, known as EW, was a millionaire who made his money from oil but lost his fortune in a stockmarket crash in 1907, before making a second fortune only a few years later. The Marland Mansion in Ponca City is worth a visit, but Ernest's personal life raises some questions. After adopting his wife's niece Lydie at age 16, he annulled the adoption 12 years later after his wife died so that he could marry her.
Marland was also a philantrophist and politician who tried to take on the might of the banks but, to the chagrin of many, didn't succeed. After he lost his second fortune following a hostile takeover by what is now known as Conoco Oil, he went on to become the tenth Oklahoma Governor in Washington DC. When he died in 1941, Lydie went missing and the search for her became a national story.
She returned to Ponca City 22 years later and spent the remainder of her life at the chauffeur's cottage on the Marland estate. Her return ensured the restoration of the estate as a national monument known affectionately as the "Palace on the Prairie".
Outside Ponca City, tall grass prairies stretch for miles and herds of buffalo have been re-introduced to roam wild and free. Dad was a fount of information, telling me tales from movies he'd seen and books he'd read about the killing of the buffalo by European settlers. It was the final hardship that brought about the settlement of many nomadic tribes in the 19th century.
The story of the Ponca chief, Standing Bear, is commemorated in the visitor centre just south of the city and en route to a very different Native American story. Two and a half hours' drive south brought us to Chickasaw Country, a reservation, and it is wonderful to see a tribe go from strength to strength over the last 60 years through good management. Nestled among the Arbuckle Mountains, Chickasaw Country is one of the best places to find hidden Oklahoma. The tribe recently rebuilt the famous Artesian Hotel in the town of Sulphur. In its heyday, guests included Grace Kelly and Dad's favourite - John Wayne.
Every author is guilty at some point of drawing on their own experiences for their work. For me, meeting Franchine Allen was the highlight of our visit to the Chickasaw Cultural Centre. She is part Chickasaw, Creek and Cherokee and she not only explained and described the centre, but gave me an insight into the history of her family.
The Chickasaws were one of the "five civilised tribes" forced to leave their farmed lands in Tennessee and Alabama in the 1830s and who walked the Trail of Tears to resettle in Indian country. The traditional village is perfectly constructed in the tribe's tradition with a sample summer house, winter house and Council House for pow wows. Franchine guided us through the archives and exhibits that included rattles made from tortoise shells and instruments made from reeds. The native game of stickball reminded us of hurling and the mound where they buried their dead bears a remarkable resemblance to Newgrange.
We headed back to Oklahoma City to explore Bricktown, a thriving downtown district that has seen a complete rejuvenation over the last couple of years, as old warehouses have been pulled down and new amenities erected. It boasts a basketball and a baseball arena.
Dad and I threw ourselves into this American experience with a hotdog and cup of beer in each hand at the Chickasaw Baseball Park - home to the minor baseball league team, the OKC RedHawks. "Plenty of showmanship and entertainment but not too much ball play," was Dad's verdict.
Oklahoma City is also home to The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Dad was overcome to hear that John Wayne's daughter had dropped by the week before with new memorabilia for the exhibits and I literally had to drag him away from the display cabinets. It was on Wayne's recommendations that Oklahoma was chosen to house this museum and apparently on the day of opening, in 1955, he drove a white horse in through the front doors. The museum houses a huge variety of cowboy and Native American artefacts, and some of the finest western art that can be found in the entire country.
We took the opportunity to be cowboys ourselves when Dad and I checked into the island guest ranch for a short stay. Although he grew up on a farm, Dad hadn't been on a horse for nearly 50 years, but he saddled up as if it had only been 50 days. Staying on a real working ranch gives great insight as to how rural communities operate and the family of ranchers told us wonderful stories of how their way of life has continued for generations. Dad is talking about it still…
Currently, the Government strongly advises against all non-essential travel. See dfa.ie/travel or gov.ie for the latest updates on Covid restrictions
Michelle travelled as a guest of Oklahoma Tourism. For ideas and info, see travelok.com. She stayed at the four-star Ambassador Hotel, marriott.com, and at the Island Guest Ranch, islandguestranch.com
For packages to Oklahoma, see platinumtravel.ie, (01) 853 5000, a fully bonded company that organises bespoke trips.
See redearth.org and chickasawculturalcenter.com for more information about Native American culture. For details of the Museum of the American Cowboy, nationalcowboymuseum.org
Michelle Walsh Jackson's novel 'Journey to the Heartland' is out now, €14.99, and available at kennys.ie. Michelle has just launched a podcast, The Novel Traveller; thenovelpress.com