State 36: Oklahoma March 30, 2018
“Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plains”
We woke up in a Walmart in Wichita well rested, and ready for a brand new day. Today, we drive 55 miles South to the 36th state on our cross country journey to discover America and find a new state to call home; Oklahoma: Discover the Excellence. Discover the Excellence? I don’t get it! Although my research failed to uncover the origin of the slogan, I did discover a fascinating fact about the state. Oklahoma is a cultural epicenter with over 50 distinct languages spoken by the state's residents of English, German, Scottish, and Irish descent. Moreover, 55 federally recognized Native American tribes call the state their home. Hey Oklahoma, why not develop a slogan that celebrates your states multiculturalism? The state would have been better off with; Oklahoma: Where the Wind Blows. Nevertheless, will Oklahoma’s diversity inspire the Cross Country Couple to call the state our new home? We can’t wait to begin our week of exploration in Oklahoma!
Our first task of the day is a 47 mile drive West to the tiny town of Wakita for the Cross Country Couple's “Roadside Attraction” for Oklahoma; the “Twister Museum”. Twister was a 1996 blockbuster disaster adventure movie starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as storm chasers researching tornadoes. If you were among the almost 55 million people who purchased movie tickets, then you already know the plot. If you have yet to see the film, it is a movie you should certainly see as it is quite the nail biter! During the Summer of 1995, the tiny agricultural town of Wakita (pop. 344) was transformed into a Hollywood set. In one of the last and most famous scenes of the movie, Aunt Meg’s house and the entire town of Wakita is destroyed by an F4 tornado with no warning! The Twister Museum interprets the filming period in the town's history, preserves and displays artifacts from the movie, and features a compilation of photos and homemade videos made by the citizens of Wakita who witnessed the filming of Twister. The building which today houses the Twister Museum, served as the “on location" office, set dressing room, and art department during filming. We had previously visited another Hollywood on site filming location, which you can read more about by clicking here. I have seen “Twister” at least 5 times, and could not wait to visit the town where the movie was filmed! Please see the pictures below.
Although we happened to visit the Twister Museum on the day it was closed, one of the staff members graciously agreed to open up for a private viewing for the Cross Country Couple! Upon entering the front door to the museum, I was immediately presented with a façade of a bank used in the filming of the movie. To give the impression of a “Main Street” appearance, numerous false fronts were built in front of existing stores, and some were even built where no stores existed! To film the shots after the tornado, the facades were reduced to rubble, and debris was strewn throughout the streets. Some of the original buildings which were in poor condition, were actually demolished! To make the mock destruction even more realistic, the filming crew is rumored to have raided a nearby Salvation Army, purchased all of the clothes on the rack, and spewed the streets, trees, and outsides of homes with pants, shirts and underwear! The artificial destruction was so believable, a news helicopter which happen to be flying over Wakita immediately landed to investigate.
The next noteworthy artifact I encountered was the original “Dorothy 1”, one of four used in the movie. In the movie Twister, “Dorothy’s” were meteorological instruments placed in the path of an approaching tornado. The goal was for “Dorothy” to be sucked up into the vortex to provide insight into the inner workings of a tornado. As you may recall from the movie The “Dorothy 1” was destroyed when Bill Paxton's truck was wrecked by a twister! In addition, Warner Bros. donated many of the photos on display at the Twister Museum offering a rare behind the scenes look of the production process. In addition, a compilation movie by local town residents revealed what life was like in a town doubling as a movie set. Please see the pictures below!
Above all else The town of Wakita will be immortalized as the home of "Aunt Meg" in the movie Twister”. The house in Wakita the filming crew chose to use as “Aunt Meg’s” home was abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. The house was actually refurbished by the film's construction crew only to be totally demolished during the filming. It actually took two attempts, and the use of a crane to make the home collapse!
Now, it is time to talk about the stars! “Twister” Executive Producer Steven Spielberg visited Wakita, and actually filmed certain segments of the movie out of the front doors of the museum. When not filming, Helen Hunt kept to herself, and spent most of her time in her trailer. On the other hand, Bill Paxton was the town's favorite star from the cast! Paxton always took time to sign autographs, pose for pictures, and even tossed a football with the locals. In addition, Paxton also donated his personal Twister pinball machine to the town of Wakita, which currently resides in the museum. Warner Brothers held a casting call in Wakita, and many local residents were used as extras for background shots during filming.
Every May at the start of tornado season, the Twister Museum serves as a launching point for actual storm chasers as The movie “Twister” is credited with bringing tornado chasing into the mainstream. In addition, the museum displays dozens of autographed photographs of Meteorologists who have previously visited. Please see additional pictures below of our visit to the Twister Museum.
While it was fun spending an afternoon visiting the set of one of my favorite films, the plot of the movie “Twister” hits a tad too close to home. On July 10, 1989, I almost was killed when a F4 tornado ripped through my family’s home in Hamden, Connecticut, and the day’s events are forever ingrained in my consciousness. It was a day seeming to be no different than any other. I was an 8 year old kid playing a card game, and watching TV on a sunny summer evening in my parent's bedroom. All of a sudden, the weatherman appeared on TV and said, “A severe thunderstorm warning is in effect for New Haven County”. No sooner than those words came out of the Meteorologist's mouth, the TV cut off, and the lights followed seconds later! Upon looking out the window, I saw the strangest colored sky having the appearance of pea soup, and in a matter of moments darkness enveloped my entire neighborhood! The ear piercing screeching thunder followed by the sound of smashing glass are sounds which haunt me to this day! The roaring sound I heard next was as if twenty trains were going straight through the room I currently stood in. I screamed in fear as loud as my 8-year-old lungs would allow, but could not even hear the sound of my own horror! Just then, my house began to violently shake as if it was being ripped apart and hurled into the night! I immediately ran for the basement!
A sense of safety overcame me when I finally reached the basement landing. As I reached out to close the basement door, a sudden strong gust of wind flung the door wide open with me holding unto the knob! At the last second, I wedged both of my feet beneath the top step preventing me from being blown away! I spent the next few minutes battling against the ferocity of the wind. It was a fight for my very survival! I faced certain death if unable to close that door! I pulled on that door knob with all of the might my 8 year old body could muster, and it slammed shut with such force I was flung against the wall! Uninjured, I made my way down the basement stairs, and waited for the storm to pass!
I remember exiting my home after the tornado, and was barley able to recognize my own neighborhood! The thick lush pine tree forest behind my home was a now a debris laden field! The car my mother had picked me up from camp an hour prior now sat in front of my home impaled by remnants of my neighbor’s roof. Down the street, I saw a three story home with its entire West wall missing, but in one of the bedrooms a jar of Vasoline still sat on the dresser! Another house had been entirely lifted clear off its foundation, deposited 2 feet to the left, but appeared otherwise undamaged! The mighty oak tree I had stood beneath daily waiting for the school bus, now laid smashed and splintered across the road.
In a matter of 15 minutes, my entire life had been upheaved, but thankfully my family emerged unharmed! The July 10, 1989 F4 tornado I survived was the most powerful ever recorded in Connecticut, and you can see a film of this tornado’s destruction by clicking here. While I don’t fear tornadoes on a daily basis, I do possess a greater appreciation than most for their unpredictability and indiscriminate destruction. Visiting the “Twister Museum” in Wakita was a fun and quirky way to pay tribute to Oklahoma’s tornadic history!
After departing the Twister Museum, we drove 122 miles South to Edmond, OK the hometown of the Cross Country Couple's "Famous Person" for Oklahoma: Shannon Miller. Shannon Miller is an Author, cancer survivor, and retired world renowned Gymnast. With a total of 7 Olympic medals, Shannon Miller is the most decorated Olympic Gymnast in US history! In addition, Miller has won 9 World Championship Medals, 59 International Competition Medals and 49 National Competition Medals making her one of our countries most accomplished gymnasts! Miller is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, the International Gymnastic Hall of Fame, The Woman’s National Sports Hall of Fame, and the only woman to be twice inducted into the USA Olympic Hall of Fame for both individual and team performance!
After retiring from Olympic competition at the age of 19, Shannon received her undergraduate degrees in marketing and entrepreneurship from the University of Houston, and a law degree from Boston College. Despite all of Miller's accomplishments, her most challenging battle was yet to come! In January of 2011, Shannon was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer; a disease from which fewer than fifty percent survive! Miller had a baseball sized tumor surgically removed, and underwent an aggressive chemotherapy regimen. With faith and perseverance, Miller emerged cancer free, and had a miracle baby girl in 2013 named Sterling!
Rooted in her own personal struggles, Miller transitioned from Olympic athlete to advocate for the health and wellness of women and children. In July 2010, Miller launched Shannon Miller Lifestyle: Health and Fitness for Women. Miller's latest endeavor aims at encouraging others to overcome their own personal challenges, and to empower themselves to make health a priority through education and awareness.
In 2015, Miller published her autobiography entitled; “It's Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life”. Miller's memoirs takes the reader on an inspirational and incredible journey from her humble beginnings as an Oklahoma child, to her rise to gymnastic greatness, and through her personal fight against cancer to save her very life! Today, Shannon Miller remains active in gymnastics and Olympics as a commentator and analyst, travels the country as a motivational speaker, and continues to advocate for the health and wellness of women and children. Miller currently resides in Florida with her husband, John and her two amazing children, Rocco and Sterling.
While it would have been wonderful to have personally met Shannon Miller, we were regretfully unable as she no longer lives in Oklahoma. Instead, we visited Shannon Miller Park. Originally commissioned as Liberty Park in 1972, It was rededicated on May 12, 2001 as Shannon Miller Park in honor of Edmond's very own 7-time Olympic gymnast! Located next to the local library, the 0.87 acre park features an outdoor stage, benches to read borrowed books, and an 18-foot-tall bronze statue of Shannon Miller designed by artist Shan R. Gray. Please see the pictures below of the park honoring America's most accomplished gymnastic Olympian!