Let me guess your latest US trip itinerary.
You flew to Los Angeles, where you posed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and people-watched on Venice Beach. Then you probably drove the California State Route 1 to San Francisco and toured Alcatraz.
Post-California, you hopped a plane cross-country to New York — maybe with pit stops in Vegas and Austin — where you traded Ubers for subways and beaches for high-rise. Am I right?
Yep, I know I’m right because it mirrors my last trip to the US, and I’m fairly certain I’m not alone.
According to research conducted by tourism marketing company Brand USA, Aussies visiting the US are pretty much only interested in heading straight to California or New York, but by sticking to the coasts, we’re missing out on a whole lot of the good stuff in the middle.
In fact, according to Brand USA’s research, not one state from the Midwest made the top 10 destinations of interest for Australian travellers, and I’m as guilty as any of us. But now, after taking a long overdue trip to “flyover states” such as Oklahoma and Kansas, I can tell you that we’re all making a very big mistake.
It’s a big country and Australians are missing out on some of the best parts. Picture: iStockSource:istock
The Midwest is full of vibrant, eclectic cities, upscale food and drinks and a rich history — all served with a side of cowboy charm.
They have all the mod-cons of a big city like LA and New York, but with small-town hospitality and unique charm. win-win.
Here’s what you didn’t know about “flyover country”.
IT IS SURPRISINGLY HIPSTER
The craft beer scene in the US isn’t confined to Brooklyn.
The industry in the Midwest is growing quickly, thanks in no small part to both Oklahoma and Kansas recently signing legislation to end an outdated post-prohibition law that restricted the sale of full-strength beer and hampered craft brewers. That’s good news for the local craft beer industry and good news for you.
Check out Central Standard Brewing, a local brewery in Wichita, Kansas — known for its sours — which recently won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, the Oscars of the beer industry.
Even if you’re not a beer lover, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the region’s thriving night-life. Kansas had statewide prohibition longer than any other state in the US, so speak-easies are a huge part of its history.
If cocktails are your thing, head straight to Dockum. Not only is it one of the Wichita’s swankiest bars, it’s located in an old bank vault, which you get to via the basement (and a wooden door) of the Ambassador Hotel. Grab a cocktail and feel like Al Capone.
Away from the drinks, the Midwest is also an unexpected cultural heartland.
Hidden away in downtown Oklahoma City, on a scenic, tree-lined street, you’ll discover the Paseo Arts District — a bohemian neighbourhood known for it stunning Spanish revival architecture which is home to more than 80 artists, more than 20 galleries and dozens of quirky boutiques.
And who needs New York and Miami’s celebrated art deco architecture? In Oklahoma’s second largest city Tulsa — about two hours northeast of Oklahoma City — you’ll find one of the country’s largest concentrations of the stuff and you don’t even have to endure LAX for the privilege.
The city is also home to the Philbrook Museum of Art, a museum housed in the former home of oil tycoon Waite Phillips, which is considered one of the top 50 fine art museums in the US.
The garden at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Picture: iStockSource:istock
Even with all its hipster gentrification, Middle America still offers a lasting connection to the Old West. After all, why travel to the Midwest if you won’t see a cowboy hat or get called “ma’am”?
Oklahoma and Kansas, in particular, are still firmly rooted in rodeo culture, and you’ll feel it everywhere you go.
Just blocks from Oklahoma City’s young and trendy Bricktown district, you’ll find yourself in Stockyards City, the site of the world’s biggest live cattle market, where you can also meander through shops specialising in bespoke cowboy hats and boots or grab a steak at the famed Cattleman’s Steakhouse.
The Bricktown district just east of downtown Oklahoma City. Picture: iStockSource:istock
You can learn more about the state’s western heritage by visiting the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, which boasts the world’s most extensive collection of American rodeo photographs, barbed wire and saddlery.
The museum also holds the annual Western Heritage Awards which honours the top works in western music, film, television and literature. Instead of a poised, gold man, winners receive the “Bronze Wrangler”, a bronze sculpture of a cowboy on horseback.
If browsing western museums isn’t immersive enough for you, you can experience yourself what life was like in an evolving cattle town of the 1800s.
Old Cowtown, in Wichita, is a 9.3-hectare living museum with more than 50 historic and recreated buildings, including businesses (general store, barber shop, saloon, blacksmith, etc) and residential (from lower-class dwellings all the way to the home of the esteemed Wichita City Eagle editor, Marshall M. Murdock).
It’s like Westworld, minus the violence. However, stories of perseverance and courage that define the American West aren’t just reserved for the cowboys; the area has a rich Native American history and Oklahoma and Kansas have a deep connection to America’s indigenous people.
Oklahoma is home to the third largest number of Native American tribes in the country, including the largest of the federally recognised tribes, the Cherokee Nation.
Another of the state’s bigger tribes, the Chickasaw Nation, have built a must-see museum on their land in Sulphur, Oklahoma, generously allowing others to celebrate and connect with Native American culture and history.
The Chickasaw Cultural Centre — about 1.5 hours southeast of Oklahoma City — is one of the largest and most extensive tribal cultural centres in the US and is absolutely worth a stop in your itinerary.
THE CITY THAT PAYS YOU TO LIVE THERE
Move over San Francisco, Oklahoma is going to be the next Silicon Valley. Looking to draw young tech geniuses, creatives and other digital nomads to the state, Tulsa created a special program that offers grants to eligible applicants who commit to living in the city for a year while working remotely.
Beware Portland, Tulsa is coming for your hipsters. Picture: iStockSource:istock
By enticing young professionals to stay for at least 12 months, the city hopes these newly minted Oklahomans will stay and refresh the community — and the initiative seems to be working. (I overheard a bearded man in a local coffee shop proclaiming Tulsa to be the “new Portland”.)
And believe it or not, the traditional red state of Oklahoma even voted in favour of legalising medicinal marijuana this year, making it the 30th state in the US to allow broad access to marijuana for medical purposes.
More surprisingly, the campaign didn’t appear to have significant funding from any major national drug policy reform groups that have helped to pass the legislation in other places, including Australia.
And Kansas looks close to following suit, too. The state’s incoming Governor, Democrat Laura Kelly, is a supporter of cannabis reform.
Given that the legalisation of medical marijuana is often seen as the first step to the recreational legalisation of the drug, California soon won’t have that on the Midwest either.
This reporter travelled courtesy of Brand USA and American Airlines and stayed at Marriott Hotels.
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