At home on the range...
ANDREA McVEIGH discovered her Huckleberry Finn side sitting at a campfire in the heartland of Native America....
S'mores - ever since I was a child I'd read about them, along with stories about American summer camps and tales of huntin', shootin' and fishin' holidays.
It appealed to my Huckleberry Finn sense of adventure, and finally, here I was, sitting beside a campfire at a ranch in Oklahoma - the heartland of Native America - with a group of people, who, just that morning, had been strangers, but who were now firm friends. A s'more, for those who don't know, is a traditional campfire treat - a shortened moniker for the words 'some more' - consisting of a roasted marshmallow and a layer of melted chocolate, jammed between two pieces of cracker. And boy, it tastes great.
On a road trip through Oklahoma, my husband and I stopped off at two different dude ranches for overnight stays. Dude ranches are places where tourists can experience a taste of the Old West for a day, a weekend or longer. After all, if you're in cowboy country, why stay in an anonymous chain hotel when you can stay in an authentic ranch?
We really were, like the Gene Pitney goes, '24 Hours From Tulsa' when we did our research on Meadowlake Ranch, located 15 minutes outside Tulsa city, in the heart of former Indian territory. We'd already driven though Ponca City, named after the Ponca tribe, stopping off to visit two of the area's main attractions, the historic 55-room Marland Mansion and the Standing Bear Native American Memorial Park with its walking trail winding through native grasses and wildflowers.
Humming '24 Hours From Tulsa', we drove up a gravel road to the ranch's main lodge, where we met owner Tom Warren - as country as they come, chewing on a fat cigar, with his gun in a holster at his hip and a well-worn cowboy hat on his head.
We'd arrived in time for lunch, a steak barbecue. "This is Oklahoma, take us as you find us," explained Tom, who operates an easy-going schedule at his ranch. There's no time-table and no obligations, just the chance to do as you please, whether that's learning to throw a tomahawk or go fishing, canoeing, hiking, swimming or horseback riding.
Tom pointed us in the direction of our cabin. "I've put you in Sir Paul's cabin," he said. We looked at each other: "As in Sir Paul McCartney?"
Yes, nodded Tom, and we later found out that Sir Paul had indeed done his own Route 66 road trip for his 66th birthday and had stayed at Meadowlake.
So we unpacked our cases in one of the three lakeside log cabins - all of which feature a living area, kitchen and private patio next to a lake (there are also two other cabins and three Indian tipis to choose from) - in the footsteps of the man who wrote Yesterday.
With more than 1000 acres of rolling hills, spring-fed lakes and gentle open prairies, Meadowlake is the stuff of old B&W cowboy movies and after lunch Tom took us on a tour of the ranch, pointing out where we could have a go at bow-and-arrow practice, after which he took us to the shooting range to fire rifles and pistols. We had never shot anything before, but soon we felt as comfortable holding a rifle as John Wayne felt on a horse.
The next morning, we hit the road again, taking in cultural highlights such as Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum of the Americas, to soak up its collection of American art and history, and the Philbrook Museum of Art, motoring onwards to Tulsa for a two-night stopover at the chic Mayo hotel and an evening out at Discoveryland's open-air performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Oklahoma!
Seeking out some native Indian culture, we spent the next day in downtown Tahlequah city, the county seat of Cherokee County nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. It's also the capital of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation, and you'll find street signs in the Cherokee language along with English.
Cowboys and Indians may be synonymous with Oklahoma, but so is music, at least as immortalised in the song Route 66, which passes through the state's charming towns and roadside diners on its route from Chicago to LA.
Route 66 gave us another song to belt out as we passed 1950s diners and modernist motels, stopping off at the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton on the road to lively Oklahoma City. Our visit coincided with the annual three-day Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival. June 2011 marks its silver anniversary, when more than 1200 American Indian artists and dancers will gather to celebrate their heritage.
Its dance competition offers the rare chance for dancers from different tribes to gather together in one venue and its grand parade sees the streets of Oklahoma City throng with representatives from more than 100 tribes, in full tribal regalia.
For cowboy culture in Oklahoma, you can take in a live cattle auction at Stockyards City or earn your spurs with a visit to the truly fascinating National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. After an overnight in the city's highly-rated Colcord Hotel, onwards we drove, to Tiger Mountain Ranch, where the old west comes alive in Henryetta - the 'Rodeo Cowboy Capital of the World' - in Okmulgee County, to meet Sharon Glidden.
Here we enjoyed another beautiful lakeside setting. Sharon was a wonderful hostess, making sure we were rested and fed before introducing us to Anna and Moses Littlebear, who look after the native Indian side of the ranch, offering craftwork and archery, as well as rather luxurious tipis to stay in. I started working on some Indian beadwork while Moses - who is of Comanche, Cherokee and Chickasaw descent - handcrafted me a pair of moccasins.
The sprawling lodge offers a fantastic 'en famile' B&B experience, and what sets Tiger Mountain apart is that you can 'go cowboy or go native', thanks to its emphasis on promoting native Indian culture and history, courtesy of Anna and Moses, as well as cowboy culture. And experiences are tailored to your interests, so if you find you're enjoying one activity in particular, more than the others, you can change your itinerary.
After dinner at the huge family table, we had an extra treat in store - cowboy songs as well as native Indian dance and story-telling from Anna and Moses. Cowboy songs are different from country and western music, as Roy Madden pointed out. By day he's the Executive Director of the Henryetta Chamber of Commerce but he also sings and writes his own cowboy 'trail' songs. After Roy's captivating music, it was time to push back the settees and roll up the rugs as Moses showed us the steps to some native dances.
Oklahoma offered so much more than we could ever have hoped for. It's a place where you can live out your Wild West fantasies and come away with a lifetime of wonderful memories - as well, of course, as the recipe for s'mores!