Friday, April 30, 2010

Canyon Country and the Missing Cheese Factory

On our fifth episode we headed out west to travel a stretch of north-south highway through Caddo and Blaine counties.

Red Rock Canyon State ParkState Highway 8 is one of Oklahoma's oldest state routes, originally plotted in 1924. Back then this road stretched border-to-border, going all the way from the Kansas state line to the Red River. In the Sixties the southern end was lopped off, so now OK-8 ends near Cyril, Oklahoma.

Most of the road's 180 miles cuts through the region of Oklahoma our tourism department calls Red Carpet Country. One look at the soil and you'll see why they call it that! But we learned there's a whole lot more than red dirt to see.

We decided to explore this highway where it runs along the ancient red sandstone canyons and mesas carved by the Canadian River. Two of Oklahoma's most unique state parks are situated here, on a stretch of Highway 8 that runs from Watonga to Hinton.

Roman Nose
Roman Nose State Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and opened in 1937.

The name of the park is sort of a curiosity. Plains Indians and Romans weren't known to have much interaction- not that I know of anyway. Roman Nose was originally going to be named Big Springs State Park. The similarity of that name to other parks prompted the organizers to name it after Chief Henry Roman Nose- the man who lived there until his death in 1917.

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Now you're probably wondering why a Cheyenne warrior would describe the shape of his aquiline nose by the name of a defunct empire 4,000 miles away. No? Well, I did. And it turns out the guy wasn't named Roman Nose after all- he was born in 1856 and named Hook Nose. It wasn't until he'd been shipped around the country for six years learning English and becoming a tin-smith and getting baptized that his name suddenly became Henry Caruthers Roman Nose.

So the name of this park sounds a little odd. But it’s certainly more interesting than Caruthers State Park.

This little town used to have a cheese factory. Watonga Cheese opened in 1940 and was well known throughout the state. A freakish weather incident put an end to all that when the remnants of Hurricane Erin moved inland and strengthened. The tropical storm blew the roof off the Watonga Cheese Factory, and took away the town’s status as a cheese powerhouse along with it.

Not to be deterred, Watonga still holds their annual Cheese Festival each October. And town boosters still search for the illusive cheese magnate who will restore their cheese industry to its former glory.

Red Rock Canyon
This park is tiny compared to many of Oklahoma's state parks. The main road is only one and a half miles long- but the smiles per gallon are high.

There are several of these red sandstone canyons in the Hinton area. This particular area was turned into a city park back in the Thirties- later to become a state park in the Fifties. Before that it was known to shelter Indian hunting parties and outlaws on the run. 49ers traveling the California Road carved ruts in the red clay with the wheels of their covered wagons. Today the park is a favorite stop for camping, picnics, hiking and rappelling.

When we arrived the Park Ranger was a little surprised to see us. Or maybe I should say, surprised to not hear us. Turns out the canyon road has become a favorite spot for bikers to rev their uncorked engines so the canyon walls echo with the noise. Not exactly a practice that endears motorcyclists to the locals.

We rode into the canyon with our eyes wide open, instead of our throttles. As the road snakes down into the canyon you’re transported to another place. This landscape is something more akin to Colorado or Utah. I had never seen anything like it in Oklahoma!

Helpful links for plotting your own journey through canyon country...

Two Wheel Oklahoma

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It's a Travel Show

Two Wheel Oklahoma is a television travel show featuring the motorcycle rides of Brad Mathison and Rex Brown along the scenic highways and backroads of Oklahoma.

Each episode highlights a stretch of road or historic route and explores unique destinations along the way. Tune in three times a week on the Cox Channel.

We hope you'll come ride along.

Brad and Rex: co-hosts of Two Wheel Oklahoma