Hitchhiker Sign – Vinita, OK

This is a heartwarming story, tale of childhood trauma, and a very long introduction to the famous signpost on the Will Rogers Turnpike all in one.

In 1995, the University of Tulsa basketball team was playing in the Missouri Valley Conference. For most people, that probably wasn’t a big deal. But in my childhood, it was huge. Both my parents were alumni and growing up in Tulsa, a significant part of my childhood was attending TU basketball games.

University of Tulsa basketball was such a prominent part of my childhood, I found out I needed glasses at a home game. My mother felt I wasn’t paying enough attention to the game so asked me the score. I answered honestly that I didn’t know. She pointed to the giant scoreboard hanging over the court and told me to read the illuminated numbers. I couldn’t. A week later, I was the nerd with a new pair of glasses at my middle school. 

So the TU basketball team playing in a conference game was a very big deal.  The game was scheduled for St. Louis so my dad bough tickets and was nice enough to take me along for a father-daughter road trip. My dad and I had a wonderful weekend together. We watched basketball, visited the Arch, and he told me stories about when he had lived in St. Louis with my mother before I was born. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories with my father, just him and I watching the Golden Hurricanes on the road.

Finally, it was time to return home. We were travelling south on the Will Rogers Turnpike after dark. After we passed under the Glasshouse, which was still the World’s Largest McDonald’s at the time, my father pointed out a small rectangle sign on the side of the road.

“Did you see that?” he said.

“No, what was it?” I asked.

“Don’t pick up hitchhikers,” he replied.

By the side of the highway there is a yellow rectangle sign stating, “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates.” I had never noticed it on previous road trips or, if I had seen it, I had never given it much thought.

My father then told me that Vinita was the site of an insane asylum. The most violent and deranged criminals were locked away there. It was a real life Arkham Asylum. But every once in a while, one would escape. They stood by the side of the road, waiting for some foolishly kind person to stop and offer them a lift. Or for a car to break down a couple of miles from the rest stop. That is when they would strike.

“And that is why you should never pick up hitchhikers in Vinita,” my father said.*

Being the naïve child I was, I believed him. I became convinced that all the campfire stories and urban legends you heard about killers with hooks and chainsaws were absolutely true and probably happened in Vinita.  As a teenager I would remind my friends with new driver’s licenses to never pick up hitchhikers, especially in Vinita. When I traveled the Will Rogers Turnpike, I always had a full tank of gas and drove a little quicker to get away from the area.

I have since learned that, like all my father’s best pranks, this one had an element of truth but was not so dramatic. Vinita is the site of the abandoned Eastern State Hospital for the Insane.  When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the mentally ill were originally cared for through contracts with private sanitariums. Within a few years, the state allocated land for a public facility and began accepting patients at the Eastern State Hospital in 1913.

By 1954, it housed over 2,000 patients. Patients included individuals with pending criminal charges determined to be incompetent to stand trial and those who were found not guilty by reason of insanity for various crimes. However, it was hardly an Arkham Asylum and I’m not aware of any Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees ever staying there.

The Eastern State Hospital has since been abandoned and replaced by the Oklahoma Forensic Center, also located in Vinita. The Oklahoma Forensic Center serves as the largest state-run inpatient behavioral health facility with beds for 200 patients. The original Eastern State Hospital buildings remain standing and reportedly haunted. It is the allure of the supernatural that reportedly brings visitors every year to experience a haunted house on its languishing grounds.

So did anyone ever escape? Yes!** A cursory Google search turned up a few old news articles about escapees from the Eastern State Hospital. A teenage girl who had been found unfit to stand trial for the murder of her brother eloped in 1988. She turned herself in to police in Texas and was returned to Oklahoma. She would later plead guilty to a reduced charge in her brother’s death.

Another escapee was Clyde Powell, found not guilty by reason of insanity after killing his mother due to his delusions. He was incarcerated in the Eastern State Hospital, from which he would escape twice. The second time was in 1991 when he failed to return back to the institution after a leave pass. I haven’t found any information about how he was returned to the facility. But I did find a court case that states he was released after serving 20 years in the institution and ultimately being declared sane.

I didn’t find any articles about a mad killer on the loose attacking hapless young motorists. Nor do I expect to. I believe that was just my father having a bit of fun with his naïve little girl. Which is something I appreciate. Every time I drive the Will Rogers Turnpike and see a rectangle yellow sign bearing the bold printed words, “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates,” I think about my dad and remember our awesome road trip. I also remember that I owe him at least one good prank.

* As I was writing this post, I texted my dad about some of the details of our trip. When I reminded him about his horrifying tale of murderous hitchhikers, this was the response:

Dad: *laughing emojis*

Me: Oh my gosh, you scared me! I thought killers were roaming Vinita waiting for my car to break down for years!

Dad: That was the point.

** After discovering this new information, I texted my father to ask if he knew there had been actual escapees when he told me his little campfire tale. His response, “I didn’t know. Happy coincidence.”