Oddball Texas: A Guide to Some Really Strange Placesby Jerome Pohlen
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This amusing travel guide to the Lone Star State doesn't waste travelers' time telling them where to find antiques in the Hill Country, take breathtaking hikes through Big Bend, or gaze upon the Alamo. Instead, it guides television fans to a modern replica of the Munsters's mansion, leads the nonsqueamish to the world's only Cockroach Hall of Fame, and points the curious towards a small town filled with hippo statues. Among other things, Texas is home to Goliath-sized roadside attractions, and directions are provided on how to reach the World's Largest Six-Shooter, World's Largest Rattlesnake, and World's Largest Wooden Nickel. The accompanying photographs and maps instruct visitors on how to get to these and other extraordinary spots, including the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the Celebrity Shoe Musuem, Alley Oop's Fantasyland, and the Birthplace of Fritos. A dose of wacky Texas history is also included with answers to questions such as Did a UFO really crash into a windmill northwest of Fort Worth in 1897? and What does an Abilene Kinko's have to do with the early retirement of Dan Rather?
"Droll descriptions that make even Bonnie and Clyde and Lee Harvey Oswald seem comedic." The Chicago Tribune
"A great book for browsing . . . great to keep handy on your next trip to or across the Lone Star State." All Info About
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A Guide to Some Really Strange Places
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2006 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
What better place to start a Texas travel guide than the wide-open plains of the Panhandle? Towns and tourist attractions are few and far between, so they stick out like sore thumbs. For example, it might not seem noteworthy that settler Thomas Cree planted a bois d'arc tree beside his Panhandle homestead in 1888 ... but some claim it was the first tree ever planted in the region. To mark this groundbreaking sapling, a gardening plaque was erected along Route 60 southwest of the town of Panhandle. Unfortunately, Cree's tree was accidentally killed in 1969 by road crews carelessly spraying herbicide; a new tree stands in its place.
Is Thomas Cree's tree odd? Perhaps, but not odd enough. We can do better than that. But be sure to top off your tank — it's going to be a lonnnnnng drive.
* * *
National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature
Back in 1993 the mayor of Abilene, Gary McCaleb, was reading Santa Calls to a group of schoolchildren when he got an idea to contact the book's author and illustrator, William Joyce. What started as a request for Joyce to visit Texas turned into something bigger. Why not establish a museum dedicated to the artists who create picture books, right here in Abilene? In 1997, the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) opened its doors.
The NCCIL gallery typically focuses on one illustrator at a time, featuring original sketches and finished artworks, side by side with the books in which they appear. Some of its exhibits are on loan from other museums, and directly from artists, but it also has a substantial collection of its own. Rather than let the art collect dust, the NCCIL lends out its collection to children's museums around the nation.
102 Cedar St., Abilene, TX 79601 (325) 673-4586
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 10 A.M.–4 P.M.
Directions: At N. First St., one block north of the railroad tracks.
Dan Rather can tell you from experience: you better get your facts straight. And your fax. In the waning months of the 2004 presidential campaign, Rather came forward on 60 Minutes Wednesday with new allegations regarding President George Bush's service, or lack thereof, in the Texas Air National Guard. He cited several newly uncovered documents faxed to him by retired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett of Baird, just east of Abilene.
Who was Burkett? The same man who had also crossed Bush's radar during the 2000 presidential election, claiming that in 1997 he overheard two members of Governor Bush's staff — Joe Allbaugh and Dan Bartlett — arranging to "scrub" Bush's military records at Camp Mabry in Austin. Ten days later Burkett spotted an unidentified political staffer, who claimed to be doing research for Bush's autobiography A Charge to Keep (ghostwritten by Karen Hughes), tossing the governor's military pay and performance records into a trash can. The incident took place at what later became the Texas Military Forces Museum (3100 W. 35th Street) on the base. Shortly after making the charge, Burkett's medical disability rating from the Texas National Guard was dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. Needless to say, Burkett had an ax to grind, and Rather should have been suspicious.
The documents in question were faxed from an Abilene Kinko's and bore a few clues that pointed to forgery. Most damning were a superscripted "th" and a proportionally spaced font that indicated the memo was re-created on a modern word-processing program, not an early 1970s typewriter. What made the story even more curious was that several conservative blogs posted elaborate, technical refutations of the documents within hours of Rather's broadcast, almost as if they had been tipped off in advance. Hmmmmmm ...
Could this have been a setup? Those who have followed the career of Karl Rove claim that the incident seemed suspiciously "Rovian," though no smoking gun was ever uncovered. What can't be ignored, however, was how well the Rathergate scandal played into the president's reelection playbook; Rather was disgraced and other reporters started taking a wide detour around the National Guard story. After an internal investigation, CBS fired four employees who worked on the story, and Rather moved up the date for his previously planned retirement.
Abilene Kinko's, 4133 S. Danville Dr., Abilene, TX 79605
(325) 698-3300; fax (325) 698-4500
Hours: Always visible; Store, Monday-Friday 7 A.M.-11 P.M., Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m.-8 P.M.
Directions: Exit north on Buffalo Gap Rd. from I-83/84, then west on Danville Dr., the I-83/84 north-side frontage road, for one block.
Big Texan Steak Ranch
There aren't many places left in Texas where you can still witness a genuine, perfectly legal showdown, except in Amarillo. Here, at the Big Texan Steak Ranch, you can watch a hungry man (and sometimes a woman) go mano a boca with a 72-ounce steak. The battle takes place on a platform in the middle of the restaurant, like a prize-fighting ring without the ropes. If the challenger can down four-and-a-half pounds of charred sirloin, and a salad, and a roll, and a cup of shrimp cocktail, and a baked potato, and dessert, all within an hour, the meal is free. About 35,000 have tried, but only one in seven have walked away without picking up the tab. Among the winners are a 69-year-old grandmother and an 11-year-old boy, and one guy who downed it all in under 10 minutes.
Even if you don't have a Texas-sized appetite, there's plenty to enjoy at the Big Texan Steak Ranch. Try an appetizer of diamondback rattlesnake or mountain oysters ("If you think it's seafood, go with the shrimp" warns the menu). The restaurant is decked out like a fancy barn, with wagon wheel chandeliers and dead critter heads mounted on the walls. Stop in on a Tuesday night and they've got a Big Time Opry. They also host an 80player Texas Hold 'Em Tournament every Wednesday and (gasp!) Sunday. If you want to spend the night, there's the adjacent Western Motel; the pool isn't Texas-sized, but it is Texas-shaped. And if you rode in on your trusty steed, they've got a Horse Hotel as well.
7700 I-40 E, Amarillo, TX 79111
(800) 657-7177 or (806) 372-6000; Motel, (806) 372-5000 or (806) 3710099
Hours: Daily 7 A.M.–10:30 P.M.
Cost: Meals, $9–$30 ($50 for 72-ounce steak meal); Rooms, $39.99–$79
Directions: East of Lakeside Dr. (Rte. 335) on the north-side I-40 frontage road.
They're hard to miss: 10 Cadillacs planted nose down in a field west of Amarillo along old Route 66. They were put there in May 1974 and were intended to be a demonstration of "... sexual freedom, the freedom to make choices, and the ability to just go." Today, the Cadillac Ranch is mostly visited by sullen teens, guntotin' cowboys, graffiti artists, and music video directors, who are just the folks Stanley Marsh 3 (not Stanley Marsh III) had in mind when he financed the project.
Marsh, an eccentric local millionaire who made it onto Nixon's Enemies List, hired a group of California artists known as the Ant Farm to create the work. The Cadillacs were inserted at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and the models were chosen to trace the history of the tail fin from 1949 to 1963: '49, '52, '54, '56, '57, '58, '59, '60, '62, and '64. Bruce Springsteen immortalized the site on his album The River. But, contrary to an oft-repeated rumor, the Cadillac Ranch has never been the site of an Evel Knievel stunt.
As Amarillo grew during the 1980s and '90s, the Cadillac Ranch was in danger of being swallowed by urban sprawl. So, in the summer of 1997, Marsh had the Cadillacs uprooted and moved to a new field two miles farther west.
I-40, Amarillo, TX 79101
Hours: Always visible
Directions: 12 miles west of downtown on I-40, between Exit 60 and 62 off the north frontage road.
Approximately 90 percent of the earth's recoverable helium is located in the ground beneath Amarillo, and in its honor the locals have built a monument to this most noble gas. Helium makes balloons rise, keeps the Goodyear Blimp from blowing up like the Hindenburg (see page 84), and will make anybody's voice sound like Betty Boop. Not bad for something inert.
In 1968, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of helium's discovery by Sir Joseph Lockyear (a non-Texan), Amarillo erected the International Helium Centennial Time Columns, designed to represent a giant helium atom. They contain four stainless steel time capsules to be opened in 1993 (done!), 2018, 2068, and 2968. Each contains 1,000 or so objects, some donated by corporate America — Kent cigarettes, All detergent, etc. — but some good stuff, too. One capsule holds dehydrated apple pie, plant seeds, and Hollywood movies, all protected from rot in a chamber of helium. Then there's the $10 savings account passbook from an Oklahoma City bank, which is earning 4 percent interest. When it is turned over to the U.S. Treasury in 2968, per instructions, it will be worth about $1,000,000,000,000,000.00, a quadrillion dollars, which just might be able to solve the budget crisis, if only we can hold out for a thousand years.
International Helium Time Columns & Helium Pavilion, Don Harrington Discovery Center, 1200 Streit Dr., Amarillo, TX 79106
Hours: Monument, always visible; Museum, Tuesday–Saturday 9:30 A.M.–4:30 P.M., Sunday Noon–4:30 P.M.
Directions: One block northwest of Rte. 400/60 Business (Amarillo Dr./Old Rout 66) on the west side of town.
Ozymandias and Lightnin' McDuff
The year was 1819. Percy Bysshe Shelley and his fiancée, Mary Woll-stonecraft, were riding across the Great Plains headed for New Spain when they came upon two enormous legs made of stone, outlined against the sky, and what they took to be the face of the shattered statue half-buried in the sand. From this, Shelley penned the poem "Ozmandias," and the future Mary Shelley most likely got her idea for the novel Frankenstein.
The face was eventually moved to the Amarillo Museum of Natural History after it was vandalized by students from Lubbock when they lost an athletic competition to an Amarillo team. But the legs of Ozmandias still stand where they have for centuries.
I-27 and Sundown Lane, Amarillo, TX 79119
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Just east of I-27 at the Sundown Lane Exit on the south side of town.
If you want to learn more about the Ozymandias ruins, there's nobody who knows them better than Lightnin' McDuff, an artist and welder who lives along old Route 66 in Amarillo. McDuff has a gallery where he displays his works, goofy animals made out of old machinery and modern pieces that can sometimes be very large — stop on by and check out his work. (Eccentric patron of the arts Stanley Marsh 3 has, at least once.)
Carey-McDuff Contemporary Art, 508 S. Bowie, Amarillo, TX 79106
Hours: Call ahead
Directions: One block north of old Route 66 (Sixth Ave.), seven blocks west of Adams St.
When the WPA mural was unveiled at the Anson post office in 1941, the artist Jenne Magafan was almost run out of town. Why? Not because the mural depicted the town's annual Cowboy Christmas Ball — everybody knew that would be the subject — but because the dancers seemed to be enjoying themselves. The town had outlawed dancing in 1933, punishable by a $5-$15 penalty. There was a one-day exception, however: on the weekend before Christmas locals could gather at the Pioneer Hall for the much-anticipated Cowboy Christmas Ball and not fear fine or incarceration.
In a case of life imitating art (if you can call the movie Footloose art), a group of young 'uns calling themselves the Footloose Club challenged the statute and eventually succeeded in getting it overturned. In the 1990s.
Anson Post Office, 1002 11th St., Anson, TX 79501
Hours: Monday–Friday 8 A.M.–4:30 P.M.
Directions: One block east of Commercial Ave. (Rte. 83) on 11th St., on the northeast corner of the town square.
As you drive north on Route 83/60 toward Canadian, down the last long hill into town, you'll spot a 25-foot-tall green dinosaur atop the bluff on your right.
"That's odd," you'll think.
Actually, that's Aud, as in Audrey, the wife of Bobby Gene "Pig" Cockrell, the man who put that concrete sculpture up there in 1992.
It's the least Cockrell could do for Audrey, considering what she's had to put up with over the years. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see their place near town. The yard is filled with large concrete sculptures: a buffalo, a burro, a wooly mammoth, a centaur, a two-headed dragon ... should I go on? All right: Indians on horseback, a cowboy in an outhouse, Barney the dinosaur.
More? A flying saucer with a family of aliens taking a peek around. Jesus ministering to a lion and a lamb. And a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader Cockrell has titled Once Nude. She was once nude, but Audrey put an end to that.
15115 Marshall Dr., Canadian, TX 79014
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Head east out of town on FM 2388 (Marshall Dr.); watch for the sculptures on the north side of the road.
Big Tex Randall
The sign on the base of Big Tex Randall makes a mighty bold claim: "Biggest Texan." Trouble is, that wasn't true when Harry Wheeler built the 47-foot-tall concrete and stucco statue in 1959, and it isn't true today, either. Big Tex at the Texas State Fair (see page 74) has this Canyon cowboy beat by three feet! Big Tex Randall might be the Biggest Texan if Dallas's Big Tex wasn't from the Lone Star State, but c'mon, the Fair's statue ain't named Big Pierre.
Now any cowboy (or cowgirl) will tell you it's not right to boast about the size of your herd, or anything else for that matter. So is it any wonder this Panhandle braggart was rammed by a semi truck, crushing its left foot? No sooner did he get patched up when somebody shot out the cigarette he held in his right hand. That kind of stunt would get cheers for Annie Oakley, but didn't amuse the owners of this gangly seven-ton monstrosity. When the statue was restored in 1989, a spur was placed in its hand instead.
15th St. and Rte. 60, Canyon, TX 79105
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Four blocks east of FM 217 on the south-side Rte. 60 Biggest Texan? Not even close! frontage road.
As long as we're talking big Texans, there's another colossal cowboy worth mentioning in the Panhandle town of Conlen. Calling Conlen a town is a bit generous since there isn't much more to this wide spot in the road than a grain elevator, a collapsing shed, and a 20-foot-tall statue of a bow-legged, concrete cowboy. His name is Tex — what else? — or at least that's what it says on his belt buckle. He's got a gun, drawn and ready to shoot, so he's the biggest Texan as far as I'm concerned.
Rte. 54 and Jake Rd., Conlen, TX 79084
Hours: Always visible
Directions: On the south side of Rte. 54, one block east of FM 807.
Excerpted from Oddball Texas by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2006 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jerome Pohlen is the author of the Oddball series and a regular travel commentator for 848 on WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio. He is a recent recipient of the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Award for Best Essay.
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