Moody Gardens’ ICE LAND Opens Saturday!


    What’s inside that huge, white tent at Moody Gardens? It’s visions of Christmas Around the World, carved entirely from ice.

     This holiday season, grab your ear muffs and set off on a chilly journey around the world without ever leaving Galveston Island with a visit to Moody Gardens’ ICE LAND exhibit. Returning with a brand new theme for its sixth year, this frosty phenomenon has become a favorite of visitors and locals who have made it part of their annual holiday traditions.

     The process begins when 6,000 300-pound blocks of dyed ice arrive from College Station, dyed in an array of colors. Just to put it into perspective, if those ice blocks were lined up they would stretch 4.46 miles.

     Even Elsa from “Frozen” would surely be impressed!

     A team of 25 professional ice carvers from Harbin, China carved over 100 sculptures in just 45 days completing over 1,080 hours of work in a tent kept at a bone-chilling nine degrees. Brrr…..

     After several years of hosting the event Moody Gardens President and CEO John Zendt is still impressed with the undertaking. “The craftsmanship and artistry of these carvers is truly spectacular. The precision is quite remarkable as you consider this work is done free-hand with just chainsaws and ice picks. For example, the Statue of Liberty, just of the massive landmarks being featured in this year’s ICE LAND is itself over 20 feet tall.”

   When you arrive at ICE LAND, you’ll be issued a full-length blue parka especially designed for the frigid temps ahead. Special hint here (and I’m speaking for experience) – BRING GLOVES! Even if you pull them off occasionally to take photos, you’ll be soooo glad you did.

     Once you’re bundled up, you’ll enter the 17,000 square feet of exhibit space and “travel” along a path between famous sites from around the world, including a giant windmill, the Alamo, Russian nesting dolls, Egyptian pyramids, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China and more with some towering 35 feet in the air.

     And of course they haven’t overlooked the most famous gent of the season. Santa appears occasionally in the festive variety of fashion and styles he wears while delivering goodies across the globe.

 

     What’s a family attraction without a slide, you say? No worries. In the center of the exhibit, visitors can climb the stairs to reach nutcrackers standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower, then glide down a 30-foot ice slide to land at the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a slippery, slide-y (yes, that’s a word!) photo app waiting to happen.

   The bravest of visitors can linger after seeing the sculptures and  “chill out” with refreshments in the log cabin style Shiver’s Ice Bar, a watering hole made completely of ice. Yep…including the tales and stools. But don’t take off your mittens! Even the flames in the fireplace are carved from the frozen stuff.

   One thing’s for sure: it will be the coolest thing you do all season!

   In addition to ICE LAND, Moody Gardens will feature seven other attractions as part of Holiday in the Gardens including the Cirque Joyeux Dinner & Show, Festival of Lights, an outdoor ice rink, train rides, Arctic Slide, Rudolph 4D, and 3D holiday films.

  ICE LAND will be on display Nov. 14 – Jan. 12. Admission for adults is $28.95 and $23.95 for children and seniors. Super Value Days start at $8.95 for Festival of Lights and $19.95 for ICE LAND with an additional $5 off for seniors and children at ICE LAND. Super Value Days start at $19.95 for ICE LAND with an additional $5 off for seniors and children at ICE LAND. Super Value Days are Nov. 17-21; Dec. 2, 9 and 16; and Jan. 5-12.

Click here for a calendar of of all of the special pricing opportunities…you can save a bundle before you bundle up!

   For a calendar of daily hours, special discount offers and hotel packages call 409-744-4673 or visit their website here.

Want a peek into the process of creating this icy wonder?

Click here!

Fairy, Texas: A Tiny Legacy with a Big Heart

     Driving through Central Texas recently, I made a detour to visit a Fairy . . . and the tiny town named after her.

     In a state that likes to brag that “bigger is better,” the town of Fairy Texas in Hamilton County named themselves after a surprisingly diminutive member of their community.

     Originally known as Martin’s Gap it was named after James Martin, a settler killed by local Indians in the 1860s while driving cattle through a “gap” between two mountains in the area. He was buried at the foot of one of those mountains.

     As you can see from the map, it isn’t “on the way” to anywhere particularly…but it’s worth a road trip diversion.

     When a post office was requested for the town in 1884, locals renamed it “Fairy” to honor Fairy Fort Phelps (1865-1938), the daughter of Sallie and Battle Fort, a former Confederate Army Captain and lawyer.

     One of the smallest Texans ever, Fairy was just 2’ 7” tall and weighed about 28 pounds. Her size didn’t stop her from leading a somewhat normal life and becoming one of the most beloved people in her community.

     Her namesake town once had a cotton gin, school, general store, café and businesses to serve the ranchers in the area.

     Fairy had four younger brothers: Henry; Hugh Franklin; William “Battle,” Jr; and Walter Herbert – all of whom were average heights.

     Fairy and her father taught area children at a school in their home for many years. One story reflects how respected and well liked she was by her students. The tale states that it became necessary for Fairy to paddle an unruly student, but she couldn’t high enough. The student himself lifted his teacher onto a chair so she could paddle him.

     The petite young lady even married twice, once to William Y. Allen in 1892 and again to T. J. Phelps in 1905, but both marriages ended in divorce. Probably not surprisingly, she never had children, but she did live into her 70s and is buried with her parents at…yes…Fairy Cemetery. The sign on the gate alone is enough to back you look twice.

     Fairy’s post office closed in 1947, and the school consolidated with Hamilton schools in 1967. A Baptist church, community center, volunteer fire department, a few homes and one historic cemetery are all that endure.

     The stories of a petite woman who lived life to the fullest remain with the residents, and those who stop to visit her gated grave.

     The tiny town’s cemetery is interesting on its own for a variety of style of distinctive, handmade grave markers. Many exhibit expert stone carving skills, but others include one constructed of petrified wood and another meticulously covered with sparkling, local minerals.

     Oh….and if you’re curious what locals are called, they are “Fairians.” How cute is that?





Ghosts of the Emily Morgan Hotel

     “Good evening, Mrs. Maca,” the desk clerk smiled as she handed me my room key card. “We’ve booked you in a suite on the haunted floor.”

     It definitely wasn’t the usual greeting I receive at a hotel check-in, but obviously someone on staff had Googled my name . . . and I have to say I was pretty delighted.

     I was in San Antonio speaking about cemetery symbolism at a paran
ormal conference, of all things. My books about Galveston cemeteries and ghosts have certainly opened up some unusual venues for me. And although I must admit that my choice to stay at the Emily Morgan was based on an admiration for its elegance and location (right next door to the Alamo, for heaven’s sake!), the stories of its hauntings may have played a part in the decision to choose it. It is known as one of the three most haunted hotels in the city.

UNUSUAL PAST

     Now a part of the luxurious Doubletree by Hilton chain (yep, that means their famous fresh cookies at check-in), the thirteen-story building wasn’t always a hotel.

     The striking Gothic Revival structure opened in 1924 as the Medical Arts Building, with the first four floors being doctors’ offices and a pharmacy. Other levels included a psychiatric ward (seventh floor), the top two floors served as surgical wards, and of course – a morgue in the basement.

     The towering building features unique ornamentation and a copper roof with wood ribs. The most unusual adornments are undoubtedly a variety of gargoyles (actually “grotesques” since they have no downspouts) that surround the building, each portraying a medical ailment that might have been treated within. They’re slightly reminiscent of some stone carving from the movie “Ghostbusters” about to come to life. There are even flying monkeys for those who look closely.

     One of the more “princely” – though certainly not handsome – examples wearing a crown was perched right outside a window of my room, and it was fascinating to see him so close-up.

     It remained a hospital for about 52 years before being converted into an office building in 1976.  Luckily for those who appreciate her beautiful architecture, the Emily Morgan (named after the Yellow Rose of Texas) was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Alamo Plaza Historic District the following year.

     In 1984 it opened as a luxury hotel, and in 2012 it underwent a multi-million dollar renovation before being reopened as part of the Doubletree group.

     I suppose that should be our first clue, since one of the common superstitions about spirits . . . or is it a fact . . . is that they tend to get “stirred up” during renovations of their surroundings.

     Considering the amount of suffering and death the walls witnessed for so many years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “energies” from the past are reported to remain.

SPIRITED ROOMIE, ANYONE?

     Throughout the weekend I heard hotel guests inquire of each other if they had had any ghostly experiences, anxiously hoping to hear the answer “yes.” When comparing room numbers, my answer was usually met with a lot of interest, and I invited people up to check out my room for themselves whenever my timetable allowed. There was even a YouTuber who took video. More often than not, the visitors ended up being just as intrigued by the beauty of the view and the room as any otherworldly roommates I might have.

     I found it amusing that even a few attendees of the paranormal convention, which was held at a reputedly haunted mansion, left before all of the festivities were over to return to the Emily Morgan to seek out their own “encounters” in impromptu ghost hunts.

     Would you stay on the 13th floor of a notoriously haunted hotel or do you think that would be bad luck?

     Poppycock, you say – hotels don’t have a 13th floor! Ah, but we all really know the truth, don’t we? A glance at any hotel elevator board and you’ll see they’ve conveniently skipped from the 12th to the 14th when numbering floors to avoid any superstitious guests being uncomfortable. So the 14th floor actually is the 13th.

     The Emily Morgan has taken these superstitions into account at an entirely new level by omitting the room number 1408. You see, when you add those numbers together you would realize they equal 13 on the actual 13th floor.

     Regardless, there have been reported ghostly occurrences on almost every floor, with the 7th, 13th and 14th being the most active.

12th & 14th FLOORS

     Guests on the 14th floor have often specifically requested to stay on this notoriously haunted level. As one of the former surgical wards where numerous deaths occurred, the expectation of ghosts is somewhat understandable.

     Room occupants in the past have reported opening doors to the hallway only to see hospital scenes playing out in front of them, complete with nurses pushing squeaky-wheeled gurneys.

    When they shut the door to gather their wits before reopening it, the scenes vanish.

    Much more unpleasant is the report of a lingering scent of antiseptic, which I was quite grateful not to have noticed.

     The perception something cool brushing up against guests has been noted on both floors. Would it be a relief on a hot summer night, or send unwelcome chills?

     Utilities seem to be of special interest to spirits on the 12th floor, including flashing lights and impish water faucets. Dripping noises can be heard in the middle of the night, with investigating occupants discovering the bath faucets to be completely cranked open.

     I must admit that I heard an incessant dripping of water as I was admiring the full moon outside my window, but after investigating I decided that someone on the floor above me must have a slow draining bath, as there was no water actually running in my room.

     Bathroom doors visibly opening and shutting have also been witnessed, which is odd since the extensive renovations should have taken away any explanation of “off kilter” doors.  

     Having heard these stories, I considered myself pretty darn brave to take a soaking bath both nights of my stay . . . but I just couldn’t resist the immense “champagne Jacuzzi” tub. Thankfully, the spirits left me to unwind in peace.

     I even heard one report that the Emily Morgan’s swimming pool, a triangular feature situated on an outcropping of an upper floor, was constructed out of the stainless steel from the medical center’s operating tables. Though I couldn’t find anything to confirm this, it sure makes a great story and would have been an ingenious (if eerie) example of repurposing materials.

IT HAS ITS UPS & DOWNS

     One ”phenomenon” at the Emily Morgan that I can confirm through personal experience is that the elevators seem to have a mind of their own.

     The elevators are said to often to ride up and down without a single rider or skip past a floor that a rider has requested by pushing the button, because . . . c’mon, ghosts just wanna have fun.

     When you step onto one of these conveyances, take a bit of patience and be ready to accept an adventure if it should present itself.

     Front desk attendants are said to receive phone calls –from these same elevators-even when no one is inside.

     One of the creepiest experiences reported by visitors is that the elevators (regardless of which floor was requested) have taken their passengers below ground to the basement level, where the morgue once was.

     Meeting rooms and housekeeping are the only things housed there today, but it is said that even employees keep their time there to a minimum. Among the things reported to have been experienced there are dancing orbs (there are no windows, so they couldn’t be reflections) and disembodied voices. I wonder what they have to say?

     The most dramatic – verging on unnerving – experience I had at the hotel involved the elevators. It was witnessed by numerous other guests and staff, but I’ll keep this one to myself (sorry).

OTHER “RESIDENTS”

     Other floors in the hotel come with reports of a woman’s shrieking cries in the middle of the night, transparent apparitions moving from room to room and passing through walls or even gazing into the mirror as guests check their appearance. Which of these would you be brave enough to see or hear?

     The staff confirms that occasionally guests request to switch rooms, citing that the activity in theirs is too much to endure.

     Did they actually experience something paranormal or did they take the hotel’s ghostly tales too close to heart? Only they will know for sure, but I suggest you check in and decide for yourself.

     Employees of the hotel are happy to share their own experiences or stories they’ve heard, and if they aren’t scared, why should we be?

     Ghosts or not, the Emily Morgan Hotel remains high on my recommendations for accommodations in the city of San Antonio. The beautiful architecture and interior spaces and gracious staff are unparalleled.

Did You Say . . . Funeral Museum?

     One of the least known and most fascinating museums in Houston surrounds a topic that not everyone is entirely comfortable discussing – funerals.

     The National Museum of Funeral History isn’t only a great idea to visit around Halloween, though. The tasteful curation of a fascinating collection from across  generations and cultures will soon have you roaming around wondering why you haven’t visited before.

     I admit I hadn’t visited the museum since they were in their original, much smaller space so I was wowed by the 30,500 square feet of exhibit space is filled with fifteen permanent displays that explain topics from the lives and deaths of popes, to presidential funerals and the Day of the Dead celebration as well as visiting exhibits.

     My favorite room is filled with historical hearses, which will especially amaze car enthusiasts.  Rare horse drawn carriages from the 19th century sit beside the actual hearses that carried actress Grace Kelly and U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford. There’s even a 1916 Packard funeral bus large enough to hold a coffin, pallbearers and up to 20 mourners.

 

     The museum even has Roy Rogers and Dale Evans parade car…and you have to see it in person to believe it!

     Around each corner are unexpected surprises, including a replica of Snow White’s glass coffin and displays of funeral details of the rich and famous.

     A collection of fantasy coffins from Ghana, West Africa captures the personalities of the departed. Imagine being laid to rest in a wooden coffin carved to resemble an eagle, a chicken, an airplane or even a Mercedes Benz! They are truly pieces of art.

     Other exhibits explain the history of topics like the history of embalming or 19th Century mourning. They’ll open your eyes to a part of history that isn’t often talked about, but can of course be bypassed if you’re with younger ones who you’d rather not have view them.

     Rest assured though, there is nothing gory or blatant about any of the displays. And yes, there’s a gift shop with a great selection of conversation-starters to commemorate your visit.

     Whether you’re looking for something you consider a bit creepy to visit for Halloween, or an unusual museum that your friends probably haven’t even heard of…this is the spot.

     Find days, times, and other information to place your visit here: National Museum of Funeral History.

 

 

A Kiss for Luck: Shamrock Texas


     I’ll admit that because Irish (my maiden name is Shanahan), I loved the town of Shamrock even before I arrived just for it’s cute name. What I found is a place that’s adorable for much more than just the moniker it’s had since its first postmaster named it in honor of his Irish mom at the turn of the last century.

 

TOWER STATION & U-DROP INN

    Of all of the unique stops we made along Route 66 in the Texas panhandle, this small town just 15 miles west of the Oklahoma border had one of the most recognizable buildings to fans of the Pixar movie “Cars.”

   The Conoco gas station and diner at the corner of Highway 83 and Route 66 inspired the design of Ramone’s “House of Body Art” paint and body shop in the film. If you’ve seen the movie, you’re sure to recognize it immediately.

 

   This Art Deco-lover’s dream was designed by Pampa architect J. C. Berry and built by James M. Tindall and R. C. Lewis in 1936, for a whopping $23,000. Quickly nicknamed the “Tower Station,” it was the first commercial business Shamrock had on Route 66.

   Made up of a streamlined gas station and office, a diner named “U-Drop-Inn” (get it?), and a retail space that was soon incorporated to expand the popular diner.



   The brick and concrete building sculpted with curved Deco relief curves has two side canopies, and two obelisks sitting on top. The tallest tower over the service station and is almost 100 feet in height. Topped with a metal tulip and adorned with letters spelling “Conoco,” it succeeded in luring in passing tourists. Glazed green and gold terra cotta tile walls and blazing neon light trim added to the attraction, day and night.

     Reported to be “the swankiest of swank eating places” and “the most up to date edifice of its kind on the U.S. Highway 66 between Oklahoma and Amarillo” it quickly became one of the most fashionable stops on the Texas stretch of 66.

     In addition to drawing tourists in from the road, the U-Drop was the place local parents would sit and visit on Saturday nights while their kids were at picture show at the Texas theatre down the street.

     Open 24/7 it had a reputation for friendly waitstaff and delicious food, and was surely a welcome sight for tired, road-weary travelers.

     John Nunn, the original owner, passed away in 1957 and the structure changed hands a few times. In the 1970s the station was converted into a Fina station. But the new era had begun when traveling was more focused on the destinations than the adventure of traveling itself, and Route 66 sights took a back seat.

     James Tindall, Jr., the son of one of the builders, purchased the landmark in the early 1980s, but closed it in 1997. Ironically that was the same year it was added to the national Register of Historic Places.

     Two years later the First National Bank of Shamrock purchased the iconic building and donated to the town of Shamrock. A careful restoration was completed in 2003 recovering its Art Deco charm.

   Repair of the station included the use of 508 linear feet of LED lighting to replace the original neon, which was often damaged by harsh Panhandle weather.

     Luckily for today’s travelers, the Tower Station complex has been turned into a Visitor Center and small memorabilia museum where you can get a feel for what it was like in its heyday, and sit in Elvis Presley’s favorite booth! They even have era hats to use as props in your photos. The shop also carries a small assortment of Route 66 souvenirs.

     Travelers now come from all over the world once again to visit the Tower Station. One of the ladies volunteering in the shop pointed out that they has already had people there from over 100 countries this year alone.

   What you might not expect to find is a row of Tesla car chargers in the side parking lot, but the juxtaposition of old and new is pretty darn neat.

BLARNEY STONE

Kiss It, It’s Irish!

     One of Shamrock’s biggest claims to fame is that it has a piece of the actual Blarney Stone from Ireland.

     If you aren’t familiar with the original Blarney stone, it is a large piece of limestone built into the battements of Blarney in Cork. According to legend, kissing the stone will endow the kisser with the “gift of gab.” As a writer, I think that could come in pretty darn handy!

     In a tiny strip of property named Elmore Park on East 2nd Street, sits an allegedly theft-proof, crash-proof (for wayward trucks, I assume) concrete cylinder with a neatly cut piece of the legendary stone embedded in the top. The landmark is Irish green – of course – and has a depiction of Blarney Castle painted on the side by a talented local artist.

     A bronze plaque explains that the stone was placed there on March 17, 1959 (St. Patrick’s Day) by Texas Secretary of State, Zollie Stearley. According to the Shamrock official who brought it to town, the segment of stone was accidentally knocked off of the original at Blarney Castle. Local lore says that the chunk’s arrival was so important that Shamrock’s mayor called out the Texas Highway Patrol and the Texas National Guard, who reportedly stationed a sub-machine gunner atop the drug store as the stone was wheeled into town. If it isn’t quite true…well, it sure makes a good tale.

And if it IS true, I bet it made for a great show.

     If you didn’t know the Blarney Stone was in the park, you might stop anyway just to snap photos of the cute signs depicting St. Patrick and a leprechaun. But since it is, well…what harm can a kiss do?

WATER TOWER

     Shamrock is also home to a different sort of “tower” – the tallest riveted water tower in the state….and you know how we Texans like to build the biggest and best. I must admit I’ve never seen such attention and documentation given to a town water tower. It’s definitely worth a few minutes to wander the lot where it stands downtown and take in some of the old photos, informational plaques and murals that explain how they constructed this monster. Taking into consideration that it was built in 1915 and cost just over $6,000, it’s pretty impressive..

     Shamrock also still has a handful of motels that have survived several reincarnations since the days of Route 66, and a beautifully restored 1926 Magnolia gas station.

     You’ll thank your lucky stars – or clover – if you take the time for a stop in Shamrock.





Groom – Leaning Tower

     Watch out, it’s about to…huh…maybe not.

     Ladies and Gentlemen, the Leaning Tower of…Groom?

     It’s not everyday you see a water tower leaning this precariously. There are stories that it was side-swiped by a tornado (not unheard of in the Panhandle), shaken by a tremor (not so likely) or even struck by a wayward aviator. But the real story behind the popular roadside attraction in Groom, Texas is much more inventive.

     Ralph Britten, owner of a restaurant and truck stop along Route 66 purchased the water tower from the nearby town of Lefors, about 35 miles away. After hauling it all the way to his land he learned that the tower couldn’t serve its intended function because it didn’t meet code requirements.

     Considering his options, Britton came up with the idea of using the power as an attention getting gimmick for his business. He had “Britten USA” painted on the reservoir and, using only a bulldozer to lift the tower into place buried one side part way in the ground while leaving the other appearing to be suspended in midair. Yep, two of the tower legs are actually hanging above ground, with the tower itself leaning at an 80-degree angle to the ground.

Vintage Postcard of the Tower Fuel Stop

     Pretty neat trick.

     For those of you who appreciate the physics and engineering aspect of this feat, you’ll be interested to know that Britten partially filled the tower with water, which put its center of mass near the base directly above the two supporting legs. If the tower had been either fully filled or left empty, the angle would have caused it to topple over.

     Even if the mechanics of it don’t interest you, it’s hard to resist stopping to take a look at the popular roadside attraction. It served its purposed drawing customers to the café and fuel stop until they were destroyed by fire a few years ago. All that remains is the tower and the remnants of the Tower Truck Stop sign.

     The tower is still holding its ground, though and is one of the most photographed Route 66 oddities in Texas.

     The leaning tower isn’t the only claim to fame in the small town of 535 people though. It also is home to a short stretch of the original Route 66, and the seventh-largest freestanding cross in the world (190 feet tall)…both of which travelers could zoom past if they weren’t on the lookout.

     Groom was also the inspiration for Cross Canadian Ragweed’s song “42 Miles” which basically laments about a car breaking down in the town just 42 miles from its intended destination. If you’re curious, you can hear the song here.

     The leaning tower is just off the interstate, and a photo opp will only take about five minutes of your traveling time – well worth the stop before heading out to see the next offering of Route 66.

Conway’s Slug Bug Ranch

     Out of all the stops we made during our Route 66 trip, one was hands-down my teenage daughter’s favorite. She got to spray paint, explore and take lots of fun photos having the place all to herself almost the entire time we were there.

     So many travelers pass up the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas without even knowing it’s there and they’re definitely missing out.

     If you’re looking for a cuter, smaller scale roadside attraction than the famous Cadillac Ranch, the Slug Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas is for you.

     Also known as the Bug Ranch, VW Ranch and Bug Farm, it may be less famous and quit a bit smaller than it’s Cadillac Ranch inspiration, but it’s just as fun…maybe a bit more. It’s certainly less crowded!

     But it didn’t always look this way.

     The Longhorn Trading Post and Rattlesnake Ranch and gas station was opened by the Crutchfield family in 1967 on I-40 to lure tourists traveling down Route 66. The abandoned Conway Motel and Café sits on the next lot.

The Trading Post as it originally appeared.

     Unfortunately by 1970 more than half of the population of the small town moved away. In 200 Conway only had 20 citizens, and two years later Love’s Truck Stop was built on the opposite site of I-40 taking away much of the business the Crutchfields depended on.

     The owner plotted a parody on Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch to bring travelers back across the overpass. Using off-road equipment, Crutchfield buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose down in the ground outside his shop.

     He built it, and they came…at the ready with their spray paint cans. The new attraction drew the attention of media and tourists, but wasn’t quite enough to safe the business. The family abandoned the decades old business in 2003, but the VWs remained – bumpers in the air.

     We pulled into the parking area at the Bug Ranch, avoiding the broken asphalt and potholes, to discover there was only one other person on site. A nice surprise after the crowds at the Cadillac a couple of days before!

     As we piled out of the car getting our camera gear ready, the man came over to give a friendly warning not to climb into the Bugs and uttered the word that will always get me to take notice, “Snakes.”

Snackes in the Slug Bug Ranch
See anyone hiding in here?

     He asked me if I wanted to see one, and of course I said yes! As we leaned slowly into the cab of the first car body we could easily see a slithering occupant that would prefer the tourists leave him alone. Enough said (and seen). We thanked the man for the heads up, and he drove away.

      Luckily just because we weren’t going to climb inside the cars didn’t mean we couldn’t still paint on them (cautiously) and take lots of photos – which is why we were there.

     We wandered around the VWs with a few leftover spray paint cans from our visit to the Cadillac, happy to take our time. Just like the Cadillac, the cars were mere shells without windows or tires. A few still had doors, though they were permanently open due to the combination of weathering and paint.

Empty Trunks at the Slug Bug Ranch
Shadows of Empty Trunks

     What is it about VW Bugs? Even when they are in scrap metal shape, they’re still so darn cute! And I think all of the colorful paint made them even more so.

     After adding our little bit of color to the metal canvases, we moved on to the other antique car on the lot. This one was still in an upright position and had seats, though they aren’t ones that would have been comfortable to sit in for more than a moment. I carefully checked for slithering residents before hopping in for a quick photo – because I couldn’t resist. But please note, I’m not suggesting that you do the same!

     There were three buildings accessible on the lot as well, and countless people have visited and left their marks. The one closet to the cars was in the most intact condition, but wasn’t very intriguing after an initial look around.

     The two other buildings, which had served as a curio shop and gas station years ago, had obviously enticed more visitors to come inside and let their creative juices flow.

     Barn swallows have nested inside the curio shop and swooped at us protectively if we got too close to their nests, so we gave them plenty of room. Someone’s note on an old table top that “Birds don’t exist” made us chuckle since we had just been dive-bombed by some feathered residents.

     Earlier visitors had left artistic and not-so-artistic contributions, Bible verses, poems and jokes. It was obvious that some had come prepared with a plan and some (like us) just shot from the hip.


My daughter couldn’t resist spray painting some positive messages for others to find, and taking in the designs left by others.

     There were more rooms past the main area, but due to the ceiling caving in and piles of what was probably insulation we didn’t venture back in that area.

     While she was adding her graduation year to some old theatre seats outside, I spotted a family with young kids near the VWs and wandered over to share the snake warning with them.

     Their horrified expressions told me they had already been inside the vehicles. They said they had put one child at a time inside the one where a snake was clearly visible if you looked, and taken several photos. Yikes! They considered themselves lucky, but decided to get the heck out of there and on down the road.

     The abandoned gas station had the least graffiti, though there was quite a bit there including warnings of a zombie apocalypse. (Good to know!) There were also quite a few dangling electrical wires that, though I’m certain weren’t hooked up to anything any more, I would definitely not want small children (or distracted adults) around.



 

 

 

 

 

 

     All in all, the three of us had a good time exploring the property and actually stayed quite a bit longer there than we originally planned. Even if you can swing in for a couple of minutes though, I’d recommend it. Where else will you see a field of VWs planted in a row?

     These Bugs have fun written all over them – literally! To find the Slug Bug Ranch and leave your own mark, take Exit 96 off I-40 and turn south. It’s open and easy to find, just about 30 miles outside of Amarillo. 










Hey, ‘Mater – Check out Combine City!

     Rev your engines and head out to Combine City for a chuckle-worthy spoof of Amarillo’s famous Cadillac Ranch.

     
Even though I went in search of this unusual sight about ten miles southeast of Amarillo, seeing it in person brought to mind visions of Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen out tractor-tipping in the animated Pixar movie ‘Cars.’

 

     See the resemblance? Gotta love people with a sense of humor and the gumption to make a vision come true! And…just for the record…this installation began several years before the 2006 movie was released.

     If a Cadillac buried bumper-up in the ground is considered art…why not a tractor?

     In 2002 when Orville Ladehoff finished stripping the all the usual parts from his 1970 combine, he didn’t think it was worth the effort to cut the ‘carcass’ up to sell for scrap. His wife Gracie suggested that he just bury it…and that gave Orville an idea.

     After digging a hole with his backhoe, the farmer slid the combine in with the front end rearing upward. Since the two-acre field he executed this feat in is next to Farm to Market Road 1151, other locals quickly noticed, and began bringing their own worn out combines to add to Orville’s collection.

     He even purchased a few more, stripped them of parts and brought them to the ‘herd’ as well. The collection dates from the 1950s to the 1970s.

     The last of the fourteen combines from to be planted (Orville prefers that word to “buried”) was in February 2008. But visitors still come to take photos – even senior photos, writers still pen articles about it, and the field of up-ended combines is still bringing smiles to all those who seek it out.

      Read more about the Cadillac Ranch that inspired Combine City here.

 

 

Holy Cow, It’s the Big Texan Steak Ranch!

     If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.

    While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.

     Holy Heartburn, Batman!

     When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.

     As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.

     These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.

     One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).

     In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.

     It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.

     In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.

     The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!

     If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.

     Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!

     Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.

     Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”

     When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!

     Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.

     Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?

     Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.

     The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)

     Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.

     We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.

     Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.

     While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)

     Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.

     I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.

     The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.

     If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.

     Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.

     Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.

      For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored  heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.

     I highly suggest putting the Big Texan Steak Ranch at the top of your to-do list when you visit Amarillo. Just be sure to bring your appetite!





Palo Duro Canyon: Adventure on a Grand Scale

     I thought that when people referred to Palo Duro as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” they were probably overstating things . . . until I saw it for myself.

     The second largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 820 feet deep. It’s the second largest park in the state park system – 28,000 acres (over 45 square miles) with 28 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. That’s a lot of territory!

     People have inhabited the canyon for about 12,000 years, and its history includes exciting chapters like Comanches and the Goodnight Trail. But This time around our family just focused on the absolute beauty of nature.

     Texas bought the land for the park in 1933. Civilian Conservation Corps workers spent five years creating the park, a cabin for their home base, the winding road to the canyon floor, the CCC Trail, and the El Coronado Lodge (now the Visitor Center). The craftsmen used local stone and wood for building materials and furniture, and forged decorative metal ornaments.

Boots were definitely more appropriate for riding horses than walking the canyon!

     After our morning ride along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon (more about that in my last post)  we headed to the state park, ready to see more of the stunning scenery. Initially, we intended to swing in for a short visit since we knew the clothes we were wearing (long sleeved shirts, jeans and boots) were perfect for riding, but not for hiking. Once there though, the views lured us further and further into the canyon, anxious to see what was next.

    Just a couple of miles inside the entrance, we made our first stop at the visitor’s center (the original the El Coronado Lodge) that was built by the CCC, so it was fitting that exhibits included some fascinating relics of the Corps’ days in the canyon. There’s also a small gift shop, though I’ll mention a more “souvenir-y” option  later in this post.

 

     The vistas from the vantage point outside of the lodge were so enchanting, we knew we had to go at least a bit further into the park.

     We took Park Road 5 which winds down to the canyon floor, circles clockwise in a 16 mile loop and slowly climbs back up to the rim.

Be sure to pick up a copy of a map of the canyon and its trails before leaving the Visitor Center.

     The first, short trail we ventured out on was relatively easy, but it was quickly apparent that at 11:00 a.m. it was already too hot (in addition to inappropriate clothing) for us to take on any of the longer trails. We were still fairly close to the rim, and the canyon floor would be about twenty degrees hotter!

     The view from even the least challenging trails are more than worth the effort and heat!

     Each one we investigated offered increasingly impressive scenery.

     Some of the trails were quite rocky and others were red dirt that I would have expected more in Oklahoma.

    Four geologic layers are exposed on the canyon walls, that seem to change color depending on the time of day and season of year – just one of the reasons Palo Duro draws so many amateur and professional photographers.

     Once I heard the erosion features referred to as “Mexican skirts” it was hard to get that image out of my mind. It’s really appropriate, don’t you think?

“Mexican Skirt” erosion feature

     The park provides enough diversity in its habitats to be a comfortable home to quite a variety of wildlife, in addition to part of the state herd of longhorns. Coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed and mule deer, and many species of snakes and lizards. We saw several roadrunners darting across the terrain, which reminded me of living in El Paso when I was little – and the birds seemed to be everywhere.

Palo Duro Mouse…look at those adorable ears! Photo courtesy of WTAMU.
Lots of creatures large and small make their homes in the canyon.

     You might even spot some wild turkeys. Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a “rafter?” There’s your trivia for the day!

 

 

 

 

 

     Two threatened species also live in the canyon: the Palo Duro mouse (which only lives in three Texas counties) and the Texas horned lizard (the State Reptile of Texas).

     Along our driving route we passed several picnic and camping areas. When I return for my next visit (and make no mistake about it…there WILL be a next visit!) I’d love to stay in one of the cabins on site. Imagine waking up to these views.

 

 

     One of the most pleasant surprises we encountered was fields or wildflowers, as well as individual flooring plants that had stubbornly pushed their way up through the dry dirt. In central and south Texas many wildflowers were already past season in June.

    Indian blanket, American basket-flower (shown in photo), sunflower, paperflower, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss, sand sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus decorated the canyon floor and made the area appear to be more of a place for living creatures than desolate and empty.

Like mother- like daughter. My girl doing what it takes to get the shot!

     Even though we traveled the majority of the distance by car, we drank a LOT of water. Staying hydrated in the canyon (which can reach 130 degrees in summer) is non-negotiable!










     But if you think this vast canyon, however arid, couldn’t possibly be romantic I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Sharing this grandeur (not a word I use lightly) with the ones you love is a memorable experience.


     We pulled over one last time at the base of the canyon to check out the trailhead for the famous Lighthouse formation.

“Lighthouse” in the distance

     The Lighthouse Trail is the most well-known trail in Palo Duro Canyon. It’s considered a moderate hike ( 2.72 miles each way) but having arrived during the heat of the day without the proper shoes, we vowed to return at another time to venture off to see unusual 310 foot tall formation. I walked just around the initial bend of the trail to take a photo (though far away) of the lighthouse, which looked small in the distance.

     The park has posted multiple warnings about the danger of heat and dehydration at the head of the trail, and even staffed a tent with a ranger to provide information and advice to people before they set out. Although I certainly didn’t envy her, it was impressive how seriously they took visitors’ safety.

     By that time we had worked up an appetite and exhausted our water supply, so we headed to the Palo Duro Trading Post on the rim for a late lunch. They don’t serve anything fancy, but you know those times you’re so hungry everything taste like the BEST (fill in the food blank) ever? Yep, it was one of those days. The staff was friendly, service fast and tables clean. Hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs seemed like the find of the day. And the ice cream? C’mon…what do YOU think?

     The Trading Post also offered a fun variety of souvenirs from T-shirts to mugs to jewelry, all very reasonably priced.

Happy with our visit and satisfied appetites, we left the park to go back to the hotel to take off those boots and give our feet a rest before heading out to see more of Amarillo.

     If you only have time to visit one place in the Texas Panhandle (and that would be a shame), Palo Duro Canyon State Park should be that place.

     When you go, remember to:

  • Bring and drink water

  • Wear sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing

  • Have your camera ready

  • Bring and drink water

  • Pick up a map before you head out

  • Wear comfortable, supportive shoes

  • And…you guessed it…bring and drink plenty of water!

     Do you prefer to hike, bike or drive through sites like this beautiful state park? I’m interested to know!