I love traveling, particularly by car. Whenever we hit the open road, my worries lift. I feel freer, more like myself. Without the restrictions that other types of travel can bring, we take side trips and stop as often as we want. And driving works well for our family. Since packing means including more items than the human mind can fathom, we’ll never be able to fly without chartering our own plane. Flash is quite the pack mule. With his suitcase brimming, some clothes on hangers, and his backpack looking eight months pregnant, he’s ready to go. I never know what's in his backpack, except for the flashlight peeking out of one of the pockets. A flashlight. For a hotel stay. For those treacherous moments when we brave the barren wasteland of Hilton or Embassy Suites. You never know when there will be a blackout, and the backup generator will break. Being the efficient one, my goal is to take as few bags as possible.
“How long are we staying?” Flash always asks when he sees my to-be-packed clothes, categorized by seasons, in piles on the bed.
“A week? It looks like you’re packing for a term in Congress.”
“This is Texas. You can have four seasons in one day, and I don’t want to be caught off guard.” Flash can’t protest too loudly; he packs more shoes than I do.
"You can fit more in your suitcase, if you roll your clothes," Mom used to tell me. With years of experience packing for Dad when he traveled for work trips, she became an expert. So I’m a roller. When Cowboy goes to camp, I start packing his bag two weeks ahead of time. I roll each outfit, as well as sleepwear for each night, and place them in designated gallon-size zippered freezer bags. There are "Daytime Clothes" bags, "Sleepwear" bags, and an "Extra Underwear” bag. Because you can never pack too much underwear. Then I pack costumes, for the nightly themed parties, into more labeled bags. I leave no room for fashion guesswork, although one year we picked up our pajama-clad teenager from camp. I didn’t care. He had no broken bones, survived without us for five days, and was fully clothed. And these days, the line is blurred between what constitutes day wear versus sleepwear; I’ve seen adults in the grocery store looking as if they’re going to a slumber party.
While Cowboy’s at camp, Flash and I vacation. For 4 out of every 365 days of each year, we’re on our own, making the most of every moment. During this time, it’s become tradition to visit small Texas towns when absolutely nothing is going on in them, which usually means on Mondays through Thursdays. Apparently, Small Town USA doesn’t expect tourists to show up until Friday nights. After dropping off Cowboy, we spend two days in our first town, then move on to our next town, always searching for entertainment in the nooks and crannies of life.
I’ve often thought I’d enjoy living in a small town. As long as Walmart was no more than 10 minutes away. I like the idea of everybody knowing everybody else in town. My Dream Town is similar to the town in Groundhog Day, or like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
A few years ago, I visited my friend Medovnik. She’s the Martha Stewart of Robertson County, Texas. Being proud of her Czechoslovakian heritage, she drove me to a bakery that she frequented in the nearby town of Calvert. Zamykal Gourmet Kolaches was run by twin sisters. They had kolaches galore, but the best part of our visit was hearing the sisters talk about their grandmother, from whom their special kolache recipe came. For a monetary tip, the sisters would sing for customers. When they heard I’d just had a birthday, they sang a Czech birthday song to me. Since then, they’ve closed up shop, but meeting them was the epitome of what I look for on my travels throughout Texas – adventures that are unique and personal.
Last summer, we stayed in Brenham for a couple of days while Cowboy was at camp. After unpacking our bags at a bed and breakfast, we were back on the road within seven minutes, looking for live music. Which led us to Kenney, Texas. We packed plenty of bottled water for the long journey ahead, and arrived fifteen minutes later. As we pulled up to The Kenney Store, which I’d found on line, I was still looking down at Google Maps on my phone.
“Oh my gosh, we’ve been here,” Flash exclaimed.
Looking up at the store front, I recognized the screen doors in front of the big wooden front doors. Once upon a time, several years earlier, we’d gone searching for Newman’s Castle near Bellville, and got a little lost. At the time, we’d gone into The Kenney Store to check it out; it consisted of a bar, a jukebox, and some slot machines.
“Flash, I remember this place,” I told him on this second visit. “They didn’t have food or music. But their website advertised both.” I thought perhaps they’d installed a vending machine next to the jukebox. Instead, what I found inside was a larger looking establishment, with tables and chairs set up, plenty of food being served, a back porch area added on, and three old cowboys making music on a small stage. It was perfect. I signaled to Flash that the coast was clear and we wouldn’t starve. We found plenty to do in Brenham, including enjoying the amenities at our B & B, for two days.
Often, we continue our vacations after picking up Cowboy from camp. He’s a great traveling companion, always game for anything. But of all our trips in Texas, for Cowboy and me, the Hill Country feels like our second home. From the view at the Oasis Restaurant on Lake Travis, to dancing in Gruene Hall, to the river walk of San Antonio, to the glassblower on the outskirts of Wimberley, to sitting by the creek in Luckenbach, to the peaceful walks around Fredericksburg, to climbing Enchanted Rock, we hold fond memories. In our early married years, Flash and I went to Wimberley every year for our anniversary. Before our honeymoon, he’d never seen such hills in Texas. The first time I drove us through Bandera via State Highway 16, he was stunned. Our car’s gears were working overtime on the inclines.
“I didn’t know Texas had a mountain,” he said. It felt like a mountain, minus the sheer terror we experienced while driving up a Colorado mountain years later; I aged 10 years going up and 15 years coming down that one. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation when you’re fervently praying you survive the experience. So far, the most breathtaking views I’ve seen in Texas were on our impromptu journey down Ranch Road 337 E, going west from Medina. I just picked a direction to drive, and we took off. The twists and turns as we climbed higher and higher were intoxicating. We later learned that Ranch Road 337 W is part of The Three Sisters (aka The Twisted Sisters) route, which also consists of Ranch Roads 335 and 336; the drive is a popular motorcycle ride. I can’t wait to go back and drive all three.
But Flash doesn’t have the full appreciation for the Texas hills that I have, because he’s never experienced the flat plains of West Texas. Driving out to McAdoo to see where Mom grew up, I thought I’d die of boredom at the ripe age of 13. The monotony was excruciating, and I was convinced that explorers decided the earth was flat while they were traveling to McAdoo from Houston. But I wanted to see where Mom was from. The farmhouse was still there, a long house covered with stucco and painted white and green. Mom barely recognized it; when she’d lived there, it was an unpainted four-room frame house, square, with a screened-in porch across the front. We got out of the car and walked around for a while, and I tried to imagine what it had been like living there. The town looked deserted; even the post office looked like it had closed up. I didn’t see a single person on the streets. As we traveled southwest from there, it was a relief to visit Monahans Sandhills State Park – any kind of hill would do.
Before each of our vacations, I research on line for no less than six weeks to find the perfect accommodations. When Cowboy travels with us, he has no interest in quaint – a high-rise hotel with a pool, hot tub, and free breakfast buffet is his style. So, when he’s away, we opt for a B & B. Now that I’m over the age of 50, and internal combustion is a possibility, the amenities must include a pool for my sake, even at a B & B. Through the years, we’ve never stayed in a below par bed and breakfast; they’ve all been lovely and had character. We did, however, book a room at an establishment that we’ll never forget, and never return to.
We’d been married for a couple of years and, as usual, I was the one planning our anniversary trip. Thinking I needed to spice things up and be more adventurous, I found a place off the beaten path, outside of Wimberley. Living on Lindquist Time, we got a late start on our trip, so it was dark when we arrived. There were three buildings on the property, but not a soul around. The owner had mailed instructions regarding which building was ours and where to find the key. When we drove up, yellow porch lights were the only lights in the darkest pitch-black spot on the planet. Warily, we got out of the car. We didn’t take our luggage out, just in case we had to run for our lives back to the car. Visions of well-lit hotels danced in my head.
As we walked down the sidewalk to the main porch, I led the way for my brave Flash. All he could see were the two eyes on the back of my Cats (the musical) t-shirt ahead of him, which freaked him out. As if two bright yellow eyes would somehow be floating in front of him. Quickly, we found the key, unloaded the car, and headed to the two-bedroom cottage.
When we entered, we were still the only two people there. Well, the only living people. The décor was Native American, and I worried that we were standing on some kind of ancient burial ground. Why, oh why, did I try to be adventurous, booking a room in a more rural area? I lamented to myself. Why didn’t I make a reservation smack dab in the middle of Wimberley? Or Austin? Or just stay at the Hyatt back in Houston?
Staring at each other, we knew there would be no romantic evening for us. Going to bed, we’d stay fully clothed, with shoes on, so we could flee when the apparitions began to taunt us. We glanced at the spears hanging in the cottage’s main room - our weapons of the warfare that would soon ensue. We took our luggage to the bedroom, but dared not unpack.
Suddenly, we heard a noise. I wished, above all else, that I’d taken some kind of martial arts instead of taking ballet in college. Flash, suddenly courageous, walked toward the kitchen. I followed closely behind. Okay, I rode piggyback on Flash. As we rounded the corner, I held my breath, ready to belt out a scream that would put Janet Leigh’s in Psycho to shame.
Standing in the entryway to the kitchen were two other people. Fully alive people, not zombies. They were an older couple, and weren’t wearing ski masks or carrying weapons. We sighed with relief.
“Oh my gosh! We’re so glad to see two other people here,” I blurted out, “this place is spooky.”
“Yes it is,” the wife replied. “We’re glad y’all are here too!”
The four of us burst out laughing, relieved we’d make it through the night after all, or die together. We didn’t see the other couple much after that. But knowing they were on the other side of the house made all the difference.
Since then, we stick closer to towns. Adventure can be overrated. And I still daydream about living in a small town. At home, our community is relatively smaller than others around us. We have festivals, a Christmas parade that lasts approximately seven minutes, and a little town square with light posts, benches, and a stage where musicians perform or outdoor movies are shown. Almost everywhere I go with my son, I hear, “Hi Cowboy.” As I turn, it’s often someone I’ve never met or whose name I’ve forgotten. I wait until they leave before asking Cowboy to tell me their names. He’s a familiar face around town. Even when I’m shopping without him, employees ask me how he’s doing. They’ve seen him grow up, and they’re proud of his accomplishments, as am I.
I’ll always love traveling in Texas, and I’ve got miles and miles yet to see. But when it comes to home, perhaps I’m closer to my Mayberry than I once thought. Perhaps I’m living my dream right now. And Walmart is only eight minutes away.