Texas is vast. Even when you're here in Collin County, stepping out of the state, even for a well-deserved staycation, can feel like you're hitting the road, going far and really traveling — even when you're only an hour north at Choctaw Casino & Resort in Durant, Oklahoma.
"My bag is packed," says our youngest son, bounding into the kitchen on departure day. Clothes? Check. Swimming goggles? Check. Books and snacks for the car? Check and check. Time to roll over the engine and take U.S. 75 all the way up, past the Melissa Buc-ee's and the giant President Eisenhower head. The temperature drops, ever so slightly, as we cross the Red River and welcome ourselves into the Sooner State.
It’s a bright, hot August afternoon as we make our way into Durant, where we are to be hosted for a staycation. In the distance, where the highway curves, there it is, Choctaw — the AAA Four Diamond casino resort, entertainment and convention destination with 1,600 rooms and suites, 16 restaurants, a concert hall, two fitness centers, a spa, and an outdoor pool and a water park. And, of course, lots and lots of gambling. But we weren't here for Lady Luck. We were here for country music superstar Jon Pardi — and kid-friendly diversions.
Dropping off the car at the valet, we head into the new, non-smoking Sky Tower. Understated and classy, it's only two years old and a great, inviting space. Elevators whisk us up to our room, where my wife and I get ready for the concert — our boys' first. I can still remember my first concert at eight or nine — Tony Bennett at the Meyerson in Dallas — and the electricity of seeing music created right there, live. Neither son, a fourth grader and a high schooler, know what to expect as we make our way up the escalator, following the throng of people filing into the Choctaw Grand Theatre.
Inside the theater, the lights are up. It's a large, yet intimate venue. We get our seats behind the mixing deck — a spot that our youngest son astutely notes, gives us a peek at the setlist. Clever boy.
The show starts, and Pardi blows the roof off the place. Our older son, into country music, is familiar with Pardi's music, but three tracks into the show, there's no doubt he is now a complete convert. The entire room is Pardi's, and for me, someone who spent his late teens and twenties going to concert after concert, this is one of the best shows I've seen — an experience made even better after Pardi, who starts playing the drums, throws drumsticks into the crowd, one of which we get. "I cannot believe Jon Pardi touched this," our older son says later that night before we all drift off to sleep. He now proudly displays it in his room.
Sometimes vacations can seem like work. But our plans for the day are wide open: Go to the pool, do kid stuff and relax. The pool opens at 10 a.m., which means we're already downstairs, waiting patiently at 9:59. Vacation requirements for our youngest son are simple: a place to swim, and here, that he certainly has. He’s in hog heaven. A dip in the pool, lounging around, and waterslide after waterslide means we're ready for lunch. We follow a meal at Salt & Stone with video games in the arcade and head-to-head family bowling in The District. The kids love it.
Before dinner, my wife gets some well-deserved relaxation in the spa. "Everyone was so courteous," she says later. "I was so relaxed — I felt like I was melting into the massage table."
Refreshed and hungry, dinner is a delicious meal at 1892, the steakhouse at Choctaw. The service is not only great but so down-to-earth. But it's like that everywhere: People are incredibly polite and friendly — to the point that I, a native Texan, notice. Our interactions were wall-to-wall with courteous and kind people.
The next morning, our last day, is early. The alarm echoes through the room. We're not checking out, oh, no. We are heading an hour north to see bison at a pasture in Murray County, a spot for guaranteed bison viewing, or so I think. We head off down the road, with a stop at Sonic for breakfast, and when we pull up to the viewing spot, we notice an absence of large, furry creatures. The pasture is empty.
"Y'all know where the bison are?" I ask two women, passing by on a morning walk. They haven't seen them in months and heard they moved them to the pasture across the road.
The morning sun beats down. We cross the road and clomp down trails and through tall grass. A gate leading to the pasture depicts a bison, so we can’t be too far off. The morning is heating up, and my fear is that the bison are taking cover in the shade. Off in the distance, a bison ambles through a field, stopping, bending over to eat grass. Where there is one, there are others. Maybe it got separated from the herd? There's a rustle in the brush. Another bison rambles out, followed by another and another and another. Baby bison, awkwardly bring up the rear, with their mamas. And there they are, right next to the fence, eating, only feet away. Beautiful, majestic creatures.
We pile back into the car and head back to pick up our bags and check out. Choctaw Casino & Resort is in the rearview mirror as we make our back home to Texas, only an hour away. My wife and I didn't even gamble, but as a family, we relaxed, ate and sure had fun.