Monday, May 21, 2018

Small Town Surprises: the Tulsa, St Louis and Omaha edition

Traveling is all about learning. Sometimes it is something as lofty as learning about yourself when you are presented with different perspectives. Other times, the questions are much simpler. Questions such as: "What the hell am I going to do with all this time in Tulsa, St. Louis and Omaha?"

Turns out the answer is: a lot. Like going non-stop and still not covering everything I wanted to do kind of busy.

Let's start with the first stop, Tulsa. I kicked off my midwestern outing with a visit to the Woody Guthrie Museum, not mind you because I am a huge Woody head. I actually just wanted one of the "This Machine Kills Fascists" t-shirts I had seen on their website. I could have just grabbed one at the entrance which doubles as the gift shop and ran but since I had come this far, I figured I might as well see what this guy was all about.

Featured prominently was the one and only thing I knew about Woody. He wrote "This Land is Your Land".  The original hand-written lyrics are displayed beneath their very own guitar-based chandelier (guitarlier?).

The song was intended as an anthem of inclusion, chastising those who sought to minimize the contributions of women and minorities. Consequently, it is not surprising that he came to loathe his racist NY landlord who did everything in his power to torment African-Americans. Even less surprising: that shitty human being was none other than Fred Trump, Donald's father. Tree meet rotting apple.

The museum also had a couple of sections dedicated to Oklahoma's 1930s dust bowl and how it affected Woody's worldview. Prior to watching their abridged version of the Ken Burns film, I would have thought that the dust bowl was just one more interminable step on the road to crowning an NCAA champion. A virtual reality exhibition shows you what it would be like to be sitting on your porch as an actual dust storm blows through. Note: there was not a single cheerleader to be found.

Woody's passion for social justice was further highlighted with an exploration of the song "Deportee" in which he wrote about a plane crash that killed 28 migrant farm workers. The news reports that followed named the 4 Americans killed but never bothered to identify the Mexican workers. In a nearby multi-media display, where you can play music from artists influenced by Woody, there was a video of the glorious Ani Di Franco singing the song.

I went from not knowing much about really any of the Guthries to leaving the museum with a new found appreciation for a forward-thinking progressive voice, the likes of which we need now more than ever. Also, I got a cool t-shirt.

Next up, I opted to explore downtown Tulsa's art deco district. Let just say, it was pretty f'ing spectacular. If, like me, you are wondering how Tulsa, Oklahoma came to possess such an architectural bounty, it is explained in the small Deco Museum, which is really just a series of display cases in the lobby of an office building. In the 1900's, oil was discovered in Tulsa. Lots and lots of oil. As in, the Tulsa area was once the largest oil producer on Earth. The population exploded from 1,300 in 1900 to 140,000 in 1930. The Tulsa airport was the busiest in all of the US and eventually the world!! In the midst of all this, construction was booming in the style of the day, Art Deco.

Deco wonders not enough? How about a visit to the Center of the Universe? Well, not literally, but that is the name given to an acoustic anomaly which can be found downtown. The gist of it is that you stand in the middle of a circle and yell something, for reasons that no one can explain, the sound comes out with a strange echo-y effect from inside the circle. Anyone standing outside of the circle (which is maybe 4-5 ft across) will hear a distorted version of whatever you yelled.

I often mention my shitty sense of direction and there is no reason that finding the center of the universe should be different. The fact that there was no sign combined with the bunch of people walking around made me a bit leery about just randomly yelling in the middle of a public space. What if I had the wrong spot? I don't have time to be involuntarily committed in the middle of Oklahoma. I lingered waiting for someone else to participate, until finally a guy stopped and asked if I had tried it yet. "Tried what?" I asked as innocently as possible. He then explained the unexplainable and -this part was crucial to me- went first.  I then stood in the circle and did the "1,2,1,2 testing 1,2" thing. Sure enough, there was a weird reverb thing happening.

The Center of the Center of the Universe
This called for a celebration- but doesn't everything really?  I headed to Soundpony, a dive bar-slash-bike shop that happened to play great music.

And speaking of great music, it just so happened out that a certain group of Irish troubadours, who may or may not be directly responsible for this middle America expedition I was on, were kicking off their tour in Tulsa. In their honor, the streets around the arena now had no name.

Next stop: St. Louis, Missouri. The only thing I knew about this city was that there would be an arch. More importantly, said arch is a National Monument. This is significant because of something that will probably be mentioned on this blog a lot. My friend, the one who got me counting countries, saw that he was falling behind and he went and changed the game on me. While I will continue to build my substantial lead where the countries are concerned, I am now trying to catch up to him on the US Park Services National Passport. The goal is to visit as many National parks and monuments and get their stamps in this little blue booklet. 

I got my first stamp at the Gateway Arch NM. I also got my second and third stamps there.  Along with the Arch stamp, there was one commemorating the area as the starting point for Lewis and Clark's expedition and another celebrating their role in the Underground Railroad. That's kinda bullshit. One place should equal one stamp. I may have to revise the rules of this game. Regardless, I'm excited about the opportunity to visit places I wouldn't normally have thought to go to.

Across from the arch is the courthouse where the Dred Scott case was heard. Unfortunately the courtroom itself had to be destroyed to save the crumbling building but the space now houses a museum detailing the ramifications of the Supreme Court's wrong-headed decision that Scott,  a slave who had lived in the free territories, still could not be considered a US citizen or afforded its constitutional protections.

Back across the street, I took the ride in the tiny little capsule up to the top of the arch. While the view, Missouri on one side and Illinois on the other, is interesting, my favorite part was the "making of..." film playing in the lobby. They show from start to finish the construction process that went into building the landmark monument. The crazy part is that no matter how high up they go, no one ever- not once- is shown wearing any kind of  harness or comparable safety equipment. They are skipping from beam to beam 100's of feet up in the air, often while smoking a cigarette, without a care in the world.  As I watched, I wondered how many men had plummeted to their deaths. That question is answered in the film but only leads to more questions. The announcer boasts how the projection was that 13 men would lose their lives during this project (I think that was the number, if not it, something close) but that none had died. Which, woo hoo! It's great, albeit miraculous that all survived but how in the hell did they think 13 (or so) people would die and decide "Totally worth it. Let's go for it.:" It's not like it was a vital structure...a hospital, school, hell even an office building. It was a symbolic arch but they were comfortable hiring 13ish guys who just were potentially not going to make it.

Once the Arch (and it's 2 extra bogus stamps) is checked off the list, St Louis has another must do: The Anheuser-Busch brewery. The tours are free, there are samples and you get to see some Clydesdales.

And the Clydesdales are in the prettiest stables imaginable.

It is one of several stops on the tour that are listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.

History and free beer, that's a hard duo to top but I tried. How about a free world-class art museum that happens to be hosting the first US stop for a pretty remarkable exhibition. That would be the St Louis Art Museum and Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds (which is free of Fridays). 

It  covers the story of two coastal Egyptian cities, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, who through a series of natural disasters, ended up underwater and lost to history around the 8th century CE. Fast forward to 1999 when, using advanced technology, Franck Goddio, an underwater archeologist found these lost cities and managed to excavate hundreds of artifacts. 

This is the stele that confirmed that they had found Thonis-Heracleion.

To think that all these things were just sitting at the bottom of the Mediterranean for hundreds of year and still look so great is astounding to me.

Continuing on to art of more recent provenance, I wandered over to the City Garden where a Niki St Phalle sculpture sits in the park's cafe.

Erwin Wurm's Pink Suit
If all of this seems to artsy, one only had to walk a couple of blocks to a street undergoing full preparation for a Cinco de Mayo street party. Being that it is only Quatro de Mayo, it was doubling as the site of a 24-team Dodgeball tournament.

Yeah, that's right. I said Dodgeball.

From St Louis, our tour went westward to bigger cities- LA, San Jose and Vegas- but soon returned to its small town ways with a brief stop in Omaha. While I was simply shocked by how much there was to do in Tulsa and St Louis, my expectations were now adjusted accordingly. Therefore, I was only mildly surprised as I walked around downtown and the Old Market District to find cool architecture, funky stores and plenty of great restaurants and craft breweries.

Dale! Cubanitos en Nebraska!

This antique market had retro toys, candies, pinball machines, a piano that Lady Gaga played in the middle of a field and a wall of Pez Dispensers. In other words, it was amazing!

If I would have had more time, there was yet another free art museum that I would have loved to have visited but I guess it will have to wait until the next time. To think that I was worried that I would not be able to find anything to do in these small towns...

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