The End of the Trail is a sculpture by James Earle Fraser

Every Cowboy State

We have visited every cowboy state. It has taken almost five years to do this. Said another way, with the exception of Alaska, we have camped in every western state. I call this a milestone. This is not to say that there are no cowboys in states we have not yet visited. There are also plenty of cowboys in Alaska and Canada, maybe next year.

Fort Smith

Crossing Arkansas this spring we entered the cowboy states at the traditional place. Perhaps as a cowboy state, Texas was first, followed by Oklahoma. Fort Smith is located on the Arkansas Oklahoma border along the Arkansas River. In the mid-1800s Fort Smith was at the edge of the frontier.

The Arkansas River at Fort Smith. We visited on our quest to visit every cowboy state.
The Arkansas River at Fort Smith.

Oklahoma, west of Fort Smith, was Indian Territory. It was the home of the displaced Indians from across the east and south. The 1830s regretfully was marked by the exile of the Five “Civilized’ Tribes of Indians from their traditional lands in the east and south. The Cherokee call the forced march the Trail of Tears. They started their walk from North Carolina. The Seminole Indians had an even further walk starting in Florida. Overall more than thirty-five tribes were “granted” reservations in Oklahoma.

Trail of Tears route marker near Fort Smith.
Trail of Tears route marker near Fort Smith.

For many, Oklahoma was the chosen destination well more than a thousand miles from their homelands. Many innocents died during the forced march. Not long after this as you may recall, there was the Oklahoma Land Rush (1889) which further took reservation land away from the Indian Tribes.

No God west of Fort Smith

The full quote is “Ain’t no law west of St. Louis, ain’t no God west of Fort Smith“. The quote was quite popular in the mid-1800s and it especially applied to Oklahoma. Justice was at the court of Judge Parker who was called the hanging judge.

The hanging judge

Judge Parker was assigned to Fort Smith (1873) and like in the John Wayne movie True Grit, outlaws would cross into Oklahoma having the perception that they were beyond the reach of justice. Like John Wayne’s character, Bass Reeves was a US Marshall working mostly in Oklahoma.

The basement jail holding cell is right below Judge Parker's courtroom in Fort Smith.
The basement jail holding cell is right below Judge Parker’s courtroom in Fort Smith.

Bass Reeves was an escaped slave who fled to Oklahoma and learned the Indian languages. He became the first black lawman west of the Mississippi. Overall Bass Reeves was responsible for more than 3,000 arrests. Many eventually stood trial in Judge Parker’s court and some took their last steps on the gallows behind the Fort Smith courthouse.

Every cowboy state

Of course, our trip crossed Arkansas and we stopped at Little Rock and Fort Smith along the way. After Arkansas, we crossed Oklahoma and Kansas on our way to Nebraska. This three-state journey completed our quest to visit and stay in every cowboy state. You can see collected stickers for our map (picture below) for every other cowboy state we visited during our previous year’s travels.

Every Cowboy State map.
Every Cowboy State filled in; Alaska, the midwest, Ohio Valley, and the northeast remain. We’re not done yet.

During our trip through Oklahoma, and winding up the last of our cowboy states, was cold weather. Colder than we had hoped, but we already covered and nearly beat to death that topic in previous blog posts. The most surprising thing was that between Fort Smith and Oklahoma City was that we only saw one oil well (and it wasn’t pumping). North of Oklahoma City we saw a few more oil wells (not pumping) all the way north to Kansas. As I contemplate fuel prices, if there was a “real” fuel shortage, then wouldn’t the pumps be pumping? But I digress.

Federal Building Monument

In Oklahoma City, we visited the site of the Federal Building Monument where a deranged terrorist bombed the Federal building. The blast tore off the front of the building killing 168 innocents including 19 children in the daycare center. More than 650 other people were also injured.

Oklahoma City Federal building memorial. We visited on our quest to visit every cowboy state.
Oklahoma City Federal building memorial.

The coward chose the Federal Building in Oklahoma City specifically because it was an easy target with a high chance to kill the most innocents. The memorial is fitting and emotionally moving and even though we don’t want to dwell on this kind of thing we are really glad that we went there. It is a must see.

Rescue team five inscriptions at the Oklahoma City Federal building memorial.
Rescue team five inscriptions at the Oklahoma City Federal building memorial.

Cowboy Museum

Oklahoma City has the best museum that we have gone to… ever. The Cowboy Museum. The real name is the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The Cowboy Museum is easily at the Smithsonian Museum quality level. The displays are first class. They are well laid out in a huge building and we only saw the indoor half of the museum. It was too cold to visit the outdoor exhibits. When we go back to Oklahoma City we most certainly will stop again.

Life size diorama in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. We visited on our quest to visit every cowboy state.
Life-size diorama in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

TV cowboys included

Every aspect of cowboys (and Indians) is completely covered, including a section dedicated to Hollywood depictions of cowboys. You might say that the focus was cowboys but really it covered so much more than just cowboys and really the “western heritage” aspect of the museum was just as big as the cowboy coverage. Farms, ranches, gold rush, and western migration were all covered. Some museums cover specific events as well as the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum does. No museum anywhere we have gone to covers the big picture any better than this museum.

Painting of Walter Brennan by Norman Rockwell at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Painting of Walter Brennan by Norman Rockwell at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

On our way to Kansas

Heading north out of Oklahoma City we stopped at Perry Lake. While there we visited Perry (small town) and Stillwater (college town). Both towns deserve a longer stay. The lakes in the area really deserve a good investigation of wildlife from our kayaks. While we were there, the weather was still too cold to play that way.

Life-size Buffalo Solder at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Life-size Buffalo Solder at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

We enjoyed our route through Oklahoma but again the weather was too cold for outside exploring. I have the feeling that Oklahoma needs to be investigated in the fall. If you spend time here, March is too cold. April is too dangerous due to the thunderstorms and tornados. Summer is obviously too hot. I think that September and October might be wonderful.

Kansas from south to north

Kansas is the last state on our milestone to visit every cowboy state. Our first stop in Kansas was Wichita and we stayed for four nights. While in Wichita we didn’t do much except watch the snow melt. We were stuck inside hoping that the snow would be gone before we were scheduled to move again. In Wichita, we stayed at McConnel Air Force Base Krueger Recreation Area. They have a very nice campground.

Life-size Texas Longhorn at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Life-size Texas Longhorn at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

Snowbound in Kansas

Just like I mentioned, March is too early to cross Oklahoma. April 1st is too cold in Kansas. We knew this before our arrival but went anyway. We knew what we were in for so as to not beat this horse (being already dead) anymore. I describe our weather adventures in this post. January in April.

Teller of Tales painting at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Teller of Tales painting at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

One of the ways I have been dealing with the weather on our route this year is to stay flexible. I described this method in our April 3 post, written and published while we were waiting for the snow to melt in Wichita. The post is titled and the emphasis is Into the cold, ahead of the storms

Painting of the Grand Canyon (oil on canvas) at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Painting of the Grand Canyon (oil on canvas) at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

Anyway, the method is to wait until the weather clears and then get down the road. As I look back on our spring, even though we got blasted by weather several times, the method worked. A far better method would be to stay south until the weather warms. We didn’t do it this way and regret it. What we don’t regret is being in Oklahoma and Kansas. They were fascinating.

Abilene Kansas

Abilene Kansas was not on my radar. If you google Abilene the first four hits you get are about Abilene Texas. Abilene Kansas comes in after Texas on google. The population of Abilene Texas is about 125,000. The population of Abilene Kansas is something shy of seven thousand.

Painting of a whitetail buck at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Painting of a whitetail buck at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

Abilene Kansas is a tiny town with a huge attraction and I am so glad we went and stayed there. Going there required a reroute but it was so worthwhile. Even the Smithsonian Magazine named Abiline Kansas as one of the “Best Small Towns to Visit”.

What could be so great about Abiline Kansas?

Abilene Kansas is a small town at the north end of the Chisholm Trail. This town is where the train picked up cattle on the Kansas Pacific Railway to ship east to market at much higher prices. If that doesn’t qualify Abiline as a cowboy town, I don’t know what would make the cut.

Abilene Kansas
Abilene Kansas

Abilene Kansas is also home to the Greyhound Hall of Fame (we didn’t go there, not that I don’t admire amazingly fast dogs). In Abilene, you can also ride the Abilene and Smokey Mountain Railway (we did not). In summer you can enjoy can-can dancers and mock gunfights in the old town area (it wasn’t summer when we were there). The Abilene is also home to the world’s largest spur towering more than 28 feet tall (we didn’t see it).

So what did we do in Abilene?

We went to Abiline specifically to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home. I am going to save this subject for later. Here is the brief-brief.  The Eisenhower display in Abilene Kansas is the best depiction of life in the 1950s that I have seen. It really lays out the situation of the world and the changes between World War II and when I start remembering things in the 1960s.

President Eisenhower's boyhood home in Abilene Kansas.
President Eisenhower’s boyhood home in Abilene Kansas.

Stockton & Nicodemus

Our last stop in Kansas was the city park in Stockton. Stockton is 1/6 the size of Abiline but of course, we didn’t know that before we got there. Overall, we should have stayed longer in Abilene and less time in Stockton. Then maybe we would have seen that really big spur.

Stockton city park has campsites and I think we were the only camper there for our entire two-night visit. Overall it was a tiny town in farm country in western Kansas.

Nicodemus Visitor Center.
Nicodemus Visitor Center.

We made a day trip to an even smaller town named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was founded by homesteader ex-slaves freed after the civil war. Kansas, being a slave-free state was attractive to ex-slave blacks who founded Nicodemus. Now there is a National Historic site at Nicodemus  Historical Society and Museum that is operated as a National Park Museum.

Life as an ex-slave in Nicodemus was very hard and most of the population made the trip west with almost no money and no farm equipment. The town has nearly become a ghost town several times and still hangs on nearly by a thread and a whisper.

Windy

Seeing the potential for dangerous winds we departed Stockton and rerouted to the only place that I thought we would be comfortable in fifty knots of sustained winds spread over four days. Here the winds were from the northwest and I needed a place to hide. So on April 4th, we made a two hundred-mile dash to Ogallala Nebraska.

Specifically, we stayed at Ogallala State Park on the afterbay of Lake McConaughy. Our location was behind the dam, which is 162 feet tall. The way to get to Ogallala State Park was to cross the dam and then turn on the next road to the east.

Cattle money in Abilene Kansas on display.
Cattle money in Abilene Kansas on display.

Wind streaked across the lake causing crashing waves on the dam for three days. After topping the dam the wind then made Lake Ogallala look like a large white water river. We were camped facing away from the wind at the state park. I was a little worried that we would lose a few trees in the campground. Mostly, we were safe, much safer than we would have been in any exposed place.

While we were there, semi-trucks lost control, blown over by the wind on interstate 80 just to the east of our campground. The only day we ventured out, into the wind was a mistake. Every place we drove to had worse winds than our campground.

The one day we ventured from our hideout at Ogallala State park we went out to dinner and found that the restaurant was a hunting lodge for the owner. In this picture, you don't see the elephant in the room. In ways it is sad.
The one day we ventured from our hideout at Ogallala State park we went out to dinner and found that the restaurant was a hunting lodge for the owner. In this picture, you don’t see the elephant in the room. It was creepy and sad.

Next Year

So now we have visited every cowboy state and nearly every southern state. This year we added Arkansas to our map and then the cowboy states of Oklahoma and Kansas. It didn’t qualify as a quest to visit every cowboy state, but it didn’t just happen without a plan. Next year we may go to the northeast or maybe instead we might go to Alaska.

Links to places mentioned in this article.

Fort Smith National Historic Site

Oklahoma City Federal Building Memorial

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Krueger Recreation Area

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum

Nicodemus  Historical Society and Museum

Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area

7 thoughts on “Every Cowboy State”

  1. The weather out west has been brutal this Spring and you guys have definitely faced all of it. It’s great that you were able to see so much, though. We only had 2 nights in Oklahoma City when we went, so I saw the memorial but missed the museum. Some of those small lesser known museums really pack the biggest punch. I look forward to hearing more about Eisenhower. I’ve heard great things about his presidential library. Oh, and my vote is for Alaska! (Not that you asked.) 🙂

    1. Did you make it to Alaska? We can’t remember.

      I have lived in southern Spain (have not been to Portugal yet). You are going to love it. My choice would be the furthest southern coast of Portugal. On a weather note in Portugal, don’t expect to see the sun in the winter or clouds in the summer. You are going to have so much fun.

      1. We did not make it to Alaska. We were supposed to go during the summer of 2020, but that all went out the window because of the pandemic. I’ll always regret not making it there, but that’s life. Maybe someday….

        As for Portugal, we’re looking forward to exploring the whole country, but yes, the south sounds pretty incredible. At this point, we really just want to be wherever the sun is shining.

  2. Hope you will make it to Goodland Kansas.

    The high plains helicopter museum has a replica of the first patented helicopter.

    It also tells the story which is humorous & interesting.

  3. Great photos to accompany your write-up. You’ve got me adding numerous places to our ‘bucket list’ – but this summer, for us, it’s all about Alaska! Safe travels.

    1. We haven’t decided but are leaning towards Alaska. Although San Diego to Maine sure would get us lots of new states on our map.

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