KENTON, Okla. — The Oklahoma Panhandle has never been for the faint of heart.
Before becoming a part of Oklahoma Territory, this strip known as No Man's Land was a haven for outlaws and land squatters. Later, during the Great Depression, severe drought and blinding dust storms turned the region into the Dust Bowl. The strong survived, and today the Panhandle of Oklahoma is made up of dedicated ranchers, a growing Hispanic population and awe-inspiring views of rural life at its finest.
Though I've lived in Oklahoma 20 of my 28 years, I'd never trekked out to the Panhandle until recently. The eastern point of the Panhandle is a three- to four-hour drive from Tulsa or Oklahoma City, and it takes another three to four hours to drive across the 170-mile (274-kilometer) swath of land.
Here's what to know and see in Oklahoma's Panhandle.
The Panhandle hosts some unusual festivals with rural themes. Beaver, a town of 1,500 in the eastern Panhandle, is best-known for a spring event, the Cimarron Territory Celebration, which honors the families who settled the area 100 years ago. The event includes an old-fashioned church service, chuck wagon dinner, horse-shoe throwing contest, carnival and parade, along with the Cow Chip Throwing Competition. Some call it an ode to nature; others just call it smelly. Either way, the event has been a big draw for the area since it started in 1970. The Cow Chip contest will be held the week of April 12-19 this year.
On the other western side of the Panhandle, Boise City hosts the Santa Fe Trail Daze featuring the World Championship Posthole Digging Contest on the first Saturday in June. That's right; competitors vie to see who can dig the deepest hole in a set amount of time. Competition is divided by men, women and children. Chamber of Commerce President Kim Mizer says it's not as easy as it looks. City slickers, she says, oftentimes get a lot of smashed fingers.
NOT JUST ANY CALF
Founded in 1934, the No Man's Land Museum in Goodwell features exhibits about the history, economy and ecology of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Guns dating back to 1800s line one wall, while an archive of newspaper articles detail the plight of local residents during the Dust Bowl and their sometimes bitter feelings toward John Steinbeck and his acclaimed novel "The Grapes of Wrath" that popularized the term "Okie." The word was seen by many as derogatory but in later years became a term of endearment for people living in the state.
Another collection tells the history of barbed wire. Homesteaders initially didn't accept the inexpensive wire they called "Devil's Rope" because they thought it would injure the livestock or fail to confine them. But the most noteworthy piece at this Panhandle museum was born more than 80 years ago and had two heads. The two-headed calf that stands upright in a glass viewing box was born in 1932 on a farm 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of Goodwell. It died a few weeks after birth, and college students preserved the body for display at the museum.
Countless abandoned, dilapidated structures and aging cars dot the landscape in the Panhandle, a sign that people have packed up and left for greener pastures. In some cases, entire communities have become ghost towns, leaving behind relics from other times — uninhabited homes, schools and even stores that may still harbor clothes, furniture and toys.
It's tempting to explore but be careful about trespassing. Some structures are off-limits, tucked away on private property. Others are closer to roads and allow for a closer inspection.
A RACE TO THE TOP
At 4,973 feet (1,515 meters), Black Mesa is Oklahoma's highest point. It's located in the far west of the Panhandle — about as far west as you can go while still being in the state — and extends into Colorado and New Mexico. The Black Mesa Nature Preserve and Black Mesa State Park are filled with 23 plant species and eight different types of animals. Hikers can follow a trail to the top where they will be greeted by breathtaking views of Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico.
Fewer than 20 people live in the tiny community of Kenton near Black Mesa, but the town still sustains a museum and a post office. A convenience store along the town's main street closed in recent years. While the rest of Oklahoma observes Central Time, the residents of Kenton are a part of the Mountain Time Zone.
BRING A (PAPER) MAP AND BE FLEXIBLE WITH ACCOMMODATIONS
Don't plan on relying on your iPhone or other GPS technology in No Man's Land. Cellphone coverage is spotty at best, and my phone's GPS only worked a fraction of the time. There's something to be said about not being wired to technology while exploring new surroundings, though. I actually enjoyed pulling over to the side of the road to pull out my paper map so I could figure out where to go next.
And make sure you have enough gas in your car to get to your next destination. It can be miles between filling stations and hours before another car passes you by.
As for accommodations, Guymon — the largest community in the Panhandle with a population of about 12,000 — is the only place where visitors will find chain hotels and motels including Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn and Best Western. Elsewhere, mom and pop motels are available for travelers. The prices are fairly cheap. For $70, I stayed in a motel in the town of Beaver that pleasantly surprised me with a flat-screen TV, hardwood floors, free wireless Internet, clean linens and colorful posters decorating the walls.
Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton .