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The Long Drive Home
It became the most famous cattle drive route in the Old West, and this year, the Chisholm Trail turns 150 years old. To travel its modern-day path is to journey through the state’s still-vibrant cowboy culture.
By Robert Reid
Published July/August 2017
I’m walking on someone’s unfenced land south of Bison with my new ladypal Kim and Tulsa photographer Shane Bevel, whom we just met. Our feet crunch through bleached prairie grass standing to our shins. We stop to ponder the slight indentions in the earth leading north toward distant fields of yellow canola. Are these old wagon ruts? And is it even okay to be out here?
Honestly, we have no idea.
For all the talk about the Chisholm Trail, it can be a hard thing to find. This fabled cattle trail, which saw millions of longhorns march from Texas prairies to Kansas railroads over a couple of decades, turns 150 this year. And so we’re on a road trip to follow its path.
The trail itself is on and off—mostly off—U.S. Highway 81, which stripes the state west of I-35. A few brown historical markers point off the road—to where is often less clear—while interesting museums in Duncan and Kingfisher are easier to find. Beyond that, I’ve prepared by reading Wayne Gard’s 1954 book The Chisholm Trail, rewatching John Wayne in Red River, and clicking through ChisholmTrail150.org, built for the trail’s anniversary events. But I’m discovering to really feel the trail’s history, and its ruts, can require some imagination and pluck.
“It’s more of a puzzle than a trail,” Kim reckons once we’re back in the car. That’s okay. We like a challenge. But privately, I can’t help but wonder if this is the best turf for Kim’s first real foray into the Sooner State. Our road trip following a disappeared cow trail begins in Texas, where we cross the Red River into Oklahoma via U.S. Highway 81.
“It seems flatter,” Kim deadpans.
Reid fuels up on barbecue at Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch in Rush Springs.
Photo by SHANE BEVEL
We pull first into the town of Terral, where three boys on BMX bikes lazily coast by Martin’s New & Used Shop along a wide, bare main drag. Continuing north, clumps of bright wildflowers—pink, orange, purple, and white—line the highway. The book Roadside History of Oklahoma by Francis L. and Roberta B. Fugate mentions a surviving Chisholm Trail landmark east of Addington, just to our north. There’s no sign, but I try a narrowing road. It dips through a tunnel of trees at a sunken gully then rises, revealing a reddish obelisk at a slight incline dubbed Monument Hill. Kim’s a Colorado girl, so this mound hardly qualifies as a mountain. But I long ago learned the deceptively big reward that slight contours in prairies and plains can give.
“Mountains are great, but they get in the way of a view,” I tease her.
So I’m not surprised when we reach the top of modest-looking Monument Hill to find arresting views as the sun begins to dip on the day. We get out some cold beers out and sit and watch, listening to cows moo and coyotes yelp.
“Beautiful,” she says.
Oklahoma has gotten on the scoreboard.
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Get There: The Chisholm Trail Museum, 605 Zellers Avenue in Kingfisher, (405) 375-5176 or ctokmuseum.org. The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, 1000 Chisholm Trail Parkway in Duncan, (580) 252-6692 or onthechisholmtrail.com. Shooting Star Enterprises welcomes tour groups. (580) 825-3374 or shootingstarhistory.net. To read more of Robert Reid’s journey up the historic path of the Chisholm Trail, order the July 2017 issue of Texas Highways magazine. (800) 839-4997 or texashighways.com.