As we left Bentonville I was a touch trepidatious about the next leg of our journey. It was Sunday. We left Friday. We were already getting a little loopy and taking bets on when I’d forget what day it was, and now we were headed to the middle of southern Oklahoma and another more-than-packed exhaustion-inducing schedule.
Or so we thought.
The drive was smooth enough, if sobering. Instead of choosing the interstate we elected to take the Cherokee Hills Byway. An official American Byway, this scenic drive turns through Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Taking this route was an intentional continuation of our visit to the Trail of Tears Memorial the day before. The Memorial is not a tourist destination. It’s a place of remembrance that’s lined with Wayside Exhibits which chronicle the brutal and inhumane treatment of families ripped from their homes and forced to migrate to a strange land with no regard for safety, weather, age, health, or basic human decency. Four thousand people died, but the Cherokee Nation endured.
It may seem odd that I wanted to highlight one of the most shameful periods in this country’s history, that I made a point of it. This is a supposed to be a love letter to America, after all. But this love should not be blind. It should be informed with the knowledge of what we the people are capable of doing. As Laura Huffman from the Pulaski County Tourism Board said the previous morning at the Trail of Tears Memorial, “If we don’t remember it and tell the story it could happen again.”
So, remember. But also know that the Cherokees’ is a tale of survival. Because they did survive. The municipality of Tahlequah was incorporated 64 years before Oklahoma even became a state, and it's still there.
"One will not hear the anguished voice of a forgotten and broken people. Instead one might hear the pride of people who faced overwhelming adversity and persevered." – Cherokee Nation, from the Trail of Tears National Park Service map
We followed the Cherokee Hills Byway from the rolling foothills of the Ozarks and along the winding Illinois River. It took us from majestic bluffs of flint, shadowed by the setting sun, to more sedate plains. Its beauty was not what I expected, and I longed for time to pull over and walk along the banks of the river, but we were running late.
Or so we thought.
Yes, yes; I know I said that before. Let me tell you why that statement bears repeating (at least in my mind, and since this is my story I can repeat it if I want to. So there.).
My contact had made reservations for us at Pete’s Place Famous Italian Restaurant. Since we were behind schedule I called to let them know we’d be there about 45 minutes past our reservation. They were quite pleasant, but I had a feeling they weren’t expecting us.
Our visit had been coordinated by the city’s tourism manager. I had reached out to the state tourism board and explained our road trip in the hopes that I could work with one or two destinations to highlight what’s best about Oklahoma. I’ll go into detail later why I love working with tourism boards and visitors bureaus, but suffice it to say that this particular town reached out and planned a whirlwind itinerary for our short visit.
Or so we thought.
(OK, I’m done, I swear!)
We arrived at Pete’s Place and were shown to a private room - because every table at Pete’s Place is in a private room. It quickly became apparent that they didn’t know why we were there. When I explained the “Two Lane Gems Tour,” and who had made our reservation, we learned that my contact had been fired shortly before we had left Elgin.
Turns out Pete’s had no idea why we were coming, our hotel wasn’t secured, and there was no contact information for the people who were supposed to lead our morning tours. The contact details on the town’s website were for the person who was fired (still are), so I couldn’t even reach out to someone from the office to ask them to get in touch with our supposed guides.
I have to tell you, though, that while I was a bit dismayed at how things were handled, or in this case, not handled, I was also relieved. I’m pretty high energy and love learning and exploring, but I wondered how we would manage a third straight day of information overload. We had a loooong way to go on this journey, so the notion that, instead of a private tour of a museum followed by a guided visit to the antique district, we could get up and leave at our leisure was pretty close to filling my morning coffee with a shot of smooth Kentucky bourbon (or giving me one of those Moonshine Marys from Mud Street Cafe), a.k.a. HEAVEN.
The next morning I took my newfound free time to write a few freelance articles, post an update on the site, and basically make sure everything was running smoothly before we checked out of our very clean and very convenient and very inexpensive Econo Lodge and jumped into the unknown. Unknown, of course, is a relative concept for a control freak who scouts out campgrounds so earnestly she can tell you the firepit is on the left side of the picnic table as you back into the moderately shaded site that’s 183 feet from the pit toilet.
We’d driven 871.7 miles and were in the middle of our fourth state. Our first three days were an educational and emotional experience. The next three would test my ability to go with the flow, to be spontaneous, to not plan everything, to have a Jim-like zen. (Which, if you’re wondering, I never achieved, but I got much closer.) We’d had our first road trip Murphy’s Law, and turned it into an advantage. We were ready to continue our journey, armed with the fervent belief that everything would work out, whether it was the way we'd envisioned or something entirely different.