Tough Cookies Road Trip: Women's History in Texas and Oklahoma

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The highways of Texas and Oklahoma -- wide, straight and fast -- are great for road tripping. And the rural scenery -- vast, placid and 2/3 sky -- is good for the soul. Interstate 35 also connects three museums that pay respects to the tough cookies who helped settle the rugged Southwest: the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, the Museum of Women Pilots and the Pioneer Woman Museum.

You could do this 300-mile trip in a couple of days, but why rush? Each museum is full of fascinating stories of women who dared, and the road to reach them has myriad delightful digressions.

Driving Tip: The Texas Travel Information Center at Gainesville is new and snazzy, with friendly travel counselors, WiFi, a large selection of brochures, free coffee, clean restrooms, vending machines and more. The center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; restrooms are open 24 hours.

Start: Fort Worth, Texas || End: Ponca City, Oklahoma
Distance: 305 miles
Length of Trip: 3-4 days

Stop 1: National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame
Fort Worth, Texas

Begin your trip by learning about the tough-as-barbed-wire women ranchers who are the most authentic of cowgirls. The museum also has displays on the rhinestone variety of cowgirl -- no less tough -- including footage of rodeo competitors in the arena, rodeo memorabilia and interviews about life on the circuit. Even Hollywood cowgirls are paid tribute here.

Plaques in the museum's grand rotunda honor the 200-plus women inducted into the Hall of Fame so far; you can learn about honorees through interactive kiosks upstairs. They include not just classic cowgirls, but women with the "cowgirl spirit": artists, activists and more (Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, for example).

Fort Worth calls itself Cowtown, but it's actually a sophisticated city that invests heavily in the arts. Plan to stay a night before you hit the road.

It's a bit of a drive on 35-W before you get out of the Metroplex -- the ever-growing sprawl emanating from Dallas and Fort Worth. Stay the course through Denton, home of the University of North Texas (check out its big new football stadium), until you reach Gainesville, about 70 miles from Fort Worth. There, you might detour for a driving tour of some of the town's Victorian homes and perhaps a snack from the Fried Pie Co. & Restaurant, which is in one of the historic buildings on the square surrounding the Cooke County Courthouse. Right over the Oklahoma border, look for the massive WinStar World Casino.
Sophia DemblingOklahoma City National Memorial and Museum

Stop 2: Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

This little museum is on the 2nd floor of an obscure building on the grounds of the Will Rogers World Airport. The Ninety-Nines is an international organization of female pilots based in Oklahoma City. Amelia Earhart was the group's first president, but she was far from the nation's first licensed pilot. That was Harriet Quimby, licensed in 1911 as one of only 46 licensed pilots in the United States at the time, but killed in 1912 when she and her passenger were thrown from the plane. The tales told here cover everything from the challenges of clothes for early flyers (long dresses could tangle in the controls) to the establishment of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) to the first female to pilot a commercial jet, in 1973.

The museum is open weekdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the first Saturday of each month, so plan accordingly.

Spend a night here before you tear yourself away from Oklahoma City (there's lots to do, including the excellent National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the moving Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum) to continue north, building in plenty of time for a detour to Guthrie, about 5 miles from I-35 on State Highway 77. The capitol of the Oklahoma territory from 1890 to 1913, Guthrie today has one of the nation's largest historic districts, a downtown of red brick buildings housing antiques stores, gift shops, boutiques, restaurants and more.
Sophia DemblingStatue in front of the Pioneer Woman Museum

Stop 3: Pioneer Woman Museum
Ponca City, Oklahoma

The Pioneer Woman Museum recently underwent extensive renovations, and new exhibits honor and explore the lives of not only the hardy and pragmatic homesteaders who settled the state, but women who pioneered in other ways, from politics to pop music. The museum is small but goes deep with artifacts and lots of text, looking both at the sometimes grueling lives of pioneer women -- for example, the "weekly affliction" of laundry day and a wooden bedstead in which nine children were born -- and at the stories of individual pioneering women who were either born in Oklahoma or distinguished themselves while living in the state.

MORE WOMEN'S TRAVEL: Letters to Our Younger Selves

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