OKLAHOMA CITY—The West is a relative term. In the country’s earliest days, it meant the Appalachian Mountains. Then the region beyond the mountains. To many it meant all of America west of the Mississippi, or the Great Plains, or the Rocky Mountains, or beyond.
In my imagination, it always meant Oklahoma and beyond. Arkansas has a fair claim to being a western state. It is, after all, beyond the Mississippi River. If you ever saw the movie True Grit, you know that Mattie Ross set out to find her father’s murderer from Arkansas. The opening scene in the movie called to mind the courtroom of Judge Isaac Parker, known as “the hanging judge of the American West,” who held court in Fort Smith, Ark.
There are also more modern indicators. We saw our first dead armadillo in Arkansas, at milepost 75. We encountered the first billboard for The Big Texan restaurant in Arkansas at milepost 80. The Big Texan is a restaurant in Amarillo that advertises a 72-ounce steak. That’s nearly five pounds of meat. If you can eat it and all the fixings in an hour, it’s free. If you don’t make it, the meal costs $72. More than 50,000 people have tried, but only about 10,000 have made it. In 1987, former major league pitcher Frank Pastore got released by the Texas Rangers, drove to Amarillo, and ate the meal in just over 8 minutes. It was a record that stood for 21 years until Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, a professional eating competition champion, beat it in 2008. Pastore by then had become a nationally known Christian radio talk show host. Always a good sport, Pastore congratulated Chestnut on the air.
Despite all that, to my mind Arkansas is a southern state, and Oklahoma is the first western state along Interstate 40. Oklahoma is where trees give way to grasslands, and then to semi-arid prairies. It is where the land flattens out and you can get 100-mile views. It is where we began to see windmill farms and pump-jacks—sometimes called grasshopper pumps or “thirsty birds,” the above-ground portion of an oil well—now part of the landscape of the modern American west.
It is also the home of the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
The fact that my 14-year-old daughter Morgan did not know about the Oklahoma City bombing provides evidence enough that we need such memorials. Missy and I explained to her that before she was born, in April 1995, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. It remains the worst domestic terrorist attack in American history. The memorial includes a reflecting pool and a survivor tree, among other features. The Survivor Tree is an American Elm that, almost miraculously, lived through the blast mostly undamaged. Perhaps the most moving part of the memorial is the Field of Empty Chairs, representing the empty chairs at the dinner tables of the victims’ families. Each glass and bronze chair bears a victim’s name. Nineteen small chairs remember the children who died. Three unborn children killed in the blast have their names engraved on their mothers’ chairs.
Another striking feature of the Oklahoma City National Memorial is the Gates of Time, huge bronze gates with time stamps. The eastern gate bears the time 9:01 a.m., the last moment of peace. The western gate marks 9:03 a.m., the first moment of recovery.
And what a recovery it has been. When the bomb went off in 1995, Oklahoma City was still feeling the effects of a two-decade slump. In the 1960s and 70s, the center city decayed and the drug trade flourished. One particularly notorious murder spree occurred in 1978, when gang members murdered six restaurant employees execution style in the restaurant’s freezer.
It is not precisely accurate to say that the bombing led to the city’s rebirth. To be fair, Oklahoma City had begun a recovery before the bombing. A massive public-private partnership called the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), began in 1993. It brought the downtown area back to life. The government played a role in this re-development, but in this deepest of red states, that role was kept to a minimum. Entrepreneurship led the way, and by 2010, more than $3 billion in private investment had created a new entertainment district called Bricktown, as well as thousands of new business and residences. The public part of the partnership added a baseball park, and civic and convention centers.
But there can be no doubt that the Oklahoma City bombing energized the city’s leaders, focused residents’ efforts to rebuild, and generated the nation’s sympathy. The memorial became a part of the resurgence, attracting 350,000 visitors a year, more than 3 million since it opened.
Another tragedy also contributed to Oklahoma City’s resurgence: Hurricane Katrina. While New Orleans recovered, the city’s National Basketball Association team, the Hornets, needed a temporary home. It picked Oklahoma City. The town went berserk, developing what Oklahoma City columnist Adam Knapp called a “full blown love affair” with the team. After two years, the Hornets moved back to New Orleans, but Oklahoma City had proven it could support a professional team at the premiere league level. In 2008, after Seattle’s relationship with the mediocre SuperSonics soured, that team moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, making the playoffs every year since then. It even advanced to the finals in 2012.
The team has, in a strange way, become a symbol for a city now used to fighting back. Its very name calls to mind the fact that Oklahoma City is in tornado alley and is also the home of Tinker Air Force Base. Sturm und drang—“storm and drive”—are now a part of Oklahoma City’s message to the world.
Oklahoma City is also where the road we have been traveling begins to follow the route of the fabled U.S. 66—sometimes called “America’s Mother Road”—and turns due west. So we leave the Oklahoma City National Memorial, head south past Bricktown and the Chesapeake Energy Arena where the Thunder plays its home games. We get once again on I-40 and drive under the SkyDance Pedestrian Bridge which spans the interstate and connects downtown to the Oklahoma River. The SkyDance Bridge, a spectacular sculpture as well as a footbridge, is the most recent of the MAPS public-private partnership projects.
When we emerge from beneath it, the late afternoon, western sun is bright in our eyes. The rays reflect off Oklahoma City’s new and gleaming skyline to our right, and America’s Mother Road lies ahead.