John E. Hoover
writer, broadcaster, photographer


    The Panhandle Way

    (Panhandle route is the cooler way to get to Denver)

    Originally published in the Tulsa World, July 11, 2013


    I've lived in Oklahoma for 31 years, but on a recent family trip to Denver, I did something I never thought I'd get to do: drove through the Oklahoma Panhandle.

    Here are a few recollections and observations.

    First, if you're driving to Denver or Wyoming or off to some mountain ski trip or to any of the great national parks in that direction and you've never been through the Panhandle, just do it. You will not regret it. It's about 450,000 times cooler than that endless, flat expanse between southern Kansas and central Colorado. I mean, nothing against the Great Plains, other than the eight hours of sheer boredom. It also beats going through Amarillo, if you don't mind the solitude.

    Including all the stops for photos and gas and drinks and beef jerky, it took exactly one hour more driving through the Panhandle to Denver (11 hours) than it did driving through Kansas on the way home (10 hours). If you like history and scenery and have the hour to spare, don't miss it.

    U.S. 412 west out of Tulsa (through Enid) merges with Oklahoma 3/U.S. 270 just west of Woodward. Dedicated in 1986, the highway bears signs that read, "Governor George Nigh's Northwest Passage." Nigh came up with the idea when he was lieutenant governor as a way to keep vacationing skiers and their tourism dollars in Oklahoma just a little bit longer.

    One of many buttes in the Cimarron River valley just east of Woodward.

    Just east of Woodward was a pleasant surprise: lots of mesas and small buttes along the Cimarron River basin. Striking scenery in all directions.

    Not far from downtown Woodward (pop. 11,944), probably a nice homage to Western Oklahoma's rich prehistoric paleontology, is a huge stegosaurus replica (and baby), with a sign that reads, "Stegosaurs roamed the Earth about 5,000 years ago." Maybe that depends on what your definition of "years" is.


    This sign at a small roadside park welcomes visitors to the Oklahoma Panhandle.

    Fort Supply (pop. 330), has history of a more recent sort. The Oklahoma Historical Society is preserving and restoring five military buildings dating back to 1875, the often tragic days of the U.S. Army's skirmishes with the Plains Indians. It's certainly worth a look.

    Once you reach Slapout, you know you’ve arrived.

    A football coach who played at Panhandle State once told me, "Once you've reached Slapout, you know you've arrived." He laughed really hard when he said it, and I never understood why. Until now. Slapout is the first, uh, town you see after you've entered the Panhandle. There's a highway sign on both sides of town that says "Slapout," and that's good because you'd never know otherwise. On the north side of the highway is a gas station/convenience store (Slapout Service), with a sign proclaiming, "Population 8." That's what the 2010 Census said, anyway. On the south side are two more buildings, with a handful of houses behind them. That's it.

    Whipping winds

    You can see for miles in any direction from Oklahoma 3, and never did I see fewer than three oil rigs at one time. There's a high spot on the highway just east of Guymon (pop. 11,823) from which I swear you can see both Kansas to the north and Texas to the south.

    The few trees here grow north, constantly whipped by a strong south wind.

    Few trees are seen from the Northwest Passage, and they grow either in solitary confinement or in small groves. And they're all leaning to the north, some drastically so, whipped by the unremitting winds.

    There are few actual barns, but lots of Quonset huts - you know, the half-tube WWII structures usually made of corrugated metal. I haven't researched the reason for their prevalence over typical barns in the area, but it would seem common sense that these buildings are more resistant to relentless winds and frequent snowstorms.

    I didn't get off the road, but I'm pretty sure I saw Goodwell from Oklahoma 3. Compared with the eternal flatness of pastures and farmland, it looked like Emerald City glimmering in the distance.


    This steer seemed more interested inour right-side up SUV than that upside-down car.

    About 12 miles east of Balko (pop. 623), there's a car flipped upside down in a cow pasture on the south side of the highway. It reminded me a little of the Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, where a handful of Cadillacs are half-buried in a pasture just off I-40.

    Stop and snap a photo of the Balko High School football stadium. It's a few miles west of the town itself, but the high school and athletic complex is right on the highway. It's humble, but it's a nice diversion if you've been driving for seven hours.

    Finding mountains

    Cimarron County Courthouse on Main Street in Boise City includes directions on how to drive around it. 

    Boise City (pronounced "boyce," pop. 1,266) has a really cool town square - literally, a square courthouse in the center of town - but my favorite stop was No Man's Land Beef Jerky, where the jerky is appropriately tough, flavorful and inexpensive, not like the soft, bland overpriced stuff so prevalent in stores today. The owners even pointed me to the quickest route to Black Mesa (the highest point in Oklahoma) and Black Mesa State Park. Gorgeous scenery, including a cool petrified forest just inside the park gate. Lots to see and do here if you have the time.

    It's an extremely scenic 45-minute drive (including a couple of white-knuckle adrenaline-rush moments) from Boise City through Black Mesa State Park to Kenton (pop. 17), the westernmost town in Oklahoma, 442 miles from my house in Broken Arrow. They observe Mountain Time, though the time zone actually starts at the New Mexico border about two miles west. There are some sad, ramshackle structures on Main Street, a few modest houses to either side, Black Mesa to the north and some smaller mesas to the south. The starkness of the landscape in and around town was kind of depressing, but at the same time it was uplifting to see people could make a living in such a place. These are surely the hardiest of Oklahomans.

    Make no mistake, cellphone coverage is hit-and-miss in the Panhandle. But if you're passing through (and who isn't?), prepare yourself for exquisite desolation. Once in extreme northern New Mexico, where the scenery is simply phenomenal, we drove for more than an hour - some 30 miles of that on a well-laid gravel highway, and almost all of it in open-range cattle territory - with no cell service whatsoever. Let that be a warning: make sure your vehicle is in tip-top shape. In addition to the cattle trotting literally alongside our SUV, we saw mule deer, coyotes and possibly even small mountain goats.

    Our final destination was Denver, but we spent a half-hour at the Capulin Volcano National Monument (it closes at 5 p.m. Mountain Time, and we pulled up at 4:30), about 65 miles from Kenton (it's an hour and 45 minutes over gravel road). It's a short drive up the mountain, and you can park at the top and actually walk down into the crater, with stunning vistas on all sides. (On the walking path inside the crater, several colorful rock lizards flitted around us.) There's a cool little curio/grocery shop nearby in Capulin, N.M., and from there, it's almost all interstate into Denver, nearly four hours through elk and bear country with the Rocky Mountains - including majestic Pike's Peak - on your left.

    Guymon has several parks and, like most places in the Panhandle, rightly shows pride in the region’s history.

    Outside the "big towns" like Guymon or Boise City, here's basically what we saw in the Panhandle, ranked from most to least: grass, utility poles, cattle, oil rigs, windmills, abandoned/burned out/dilapidated farmhouses, tractor trailer rigs, pickup trucks, Quonset huts, trees, working farmhouses, grain elevators, cars, people. (In New Mexico, we drove for more than an hour and saw just one other vehicle. It was blissful.)

    I snapped a few photos of our trip with my iPhone 5 to accompany this piece.

    If you get a chance, drive the Panhandle, the best part being the jut north from Boise City into Black Mesa. Yes, it's a little extra time. But it sure beats all those wind farms in eastern Colorado and western Kansas.


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