On a whim, I decided to take a Friday trip down to Waco. Having passed through the city many times en route to other destinations, I’d never stopped there for more than a bite to eat. I wanted to get away for the day, and since Waco is slightly over a one-hour drive from home, it made perfect sense as my destination.
The two biggest attractions in Waco, from what know, are Baylor University and Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia. However, my biggest attraction to Waco was the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, something I had seen the signs for every time I passed through yet never visited. (That’s the law enforcement agency, not the baseball team. Chuck Norris, not Nolan Ryan.) In researching other things to do in Waco, I discovered the Waco Mammoth National Monument, an archaeological site with in situ remains of Columbian mammoths that is operated by the National Park Service. With those two items on the itinerary, plus a lunch at Captain Billy Whizzbang’s Hamburgers, the day looked to be a good one.
Camera in tow, I left home at 6:45AM and made a quick stop to top off my gas tank. I also checked my oil, something good to do before any road trip. All that done, I hit the road.
The drive to Waco early in the morning is pretty uneventful. One of my dad’s road-trip philosophies is to find a semi driving about the speed you want to travel and follow behind him. This strategy is good for two reasons: one, the semi cuts through the wind, allowing cars behind to travel in a slipstream (i.e., reduced drag on my car); and two, it takes some pressure off the driver of the car, since not much is going to happen between the semi trailer and the car’s front bumper. If something happens, it’s going to happen in front of the semi, and if worse comes to worst, he’ll take the brunt of it. I was able to “link up” with a southbound truck from Oklahoma and follow him all the way into the city. For anyone who doesn’t think much about this tip, ride in an older car like mine that has some rattles, clanks, and wind noise, and you’ll notice that the trip behind a semi is a whole lot smoother and quieter than it would be otherwise.
I arrived in Waco just after 8:00AM and made a stop at WalMart to use the restroom and buy a Rand McNally road atlas (“The Book of Dreams,” as Neil Peart would call it—and I would agree), something I’d been meaning to acquire as a backup to GPS and in preparation for future road trips. That done, I drove to the Ranger museum and hung out at the adjacent city visitor center until the museum’s doors opened at 9:00AM. A tip: stop at the visitor’s center to receive a coupon brochure with discounts for many attractions and restaurants.
The Ranger museum did not disappoint. In fact, it contained a whole lot more than I thought it would. I spent over three hours there admiring displays of firearms, equipment, and other memorabilia. The 45-minute film they show is a bit dated, a History Channel documentary on VHS, but still very informative in that it provided me a starting point from which to interpret and appreciate everything else the museum had to offer. For $8 ($7 with the coupon), it was money well-spent.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I had my camera on the wrong setting (I’m still learning how to use a DSLR!), so most of my pictures either came out really bad or not at all. Still, here are three of the best that showcase just a fraction of what the museum has to offer.
Following my museum visit, I drove across town to Captain Billy Whizzbang’s for a hamburger lunch. I think I had seen a billboard for this place as well, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the old magazine Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang and was reading about it that I made the connection with the restaurant. Anyway, after driving through Beverly Hills (not California, but with almost as much traffic), I arrived and ordered a hamburger with their famous WhizPigg patty (half ground beef and half bacon) and tater tots on the side. It was delicious and I could have gone for another one, but decided that was probably enough cholesterol for one day.
Back in the car, I drove alongside Lake Waco to get to the mammoth park, which is located far enough outside the main city of Waco that it’s surrounded by farmland. I paid $5 for a guided tour with a U.S. park ranger, and didn’t have to wait too long in the heat for the tour to begin.
I call the place a park because there are trails and picnic tables available free of charge and open to the public. The park ranger explained that before it was run by the National Park Service, it used to be a dairy farm. Two boys were playing in the woods one day and came upon a large bone, which they took to Baylor just down the road and had identified as a mammoth femur. Forty or so years later, and excavations have uncovered several fossils of Columbian mammoths, which are quite larger than either wooly mammoths or African elephants. Our park ranger explained that they could be as tall as twenty feet at the shoulder, and that humans way back then were crazy enough to hunt something that big. (I’m sure we still are, if there were something that big to hunt!)
A building had been built around the main mammoth dig site in order to preserve the specimens and allow visitors to view them in situ. Our park ranger guide pointed out a knot on the adult male’s ribcage that was evidently the result of a sparring match with another male (over a female mammoth, of course). One thing I thought was very interesting was that there was a camel found among the mammoths. Our guide explained that, some 65,000 years ago, there was a breed of camel that probably looked more like a llama or alpaca and that lived with the mammoths as a sort of watchdog against predators, since the mammoths likely had poor eyesight. He also showed us the different strata and how the mammoths found in that one dig site died thousands of years apart, and likely in different ways.
The tour complete, I walked the trail back to my car and headed for home. It was another uneventful drive, albeit on a busier highway later in the day. I couldn’t find one semi to hang with, so wound up jumping from semi to semi (always passing safely in the left lane). At least that segment of I-35 isn’t under construction!
Final thoughts: I would definitely visit the Ranger museum again, as there’s a lot that I know I didn’t fully appreciate. I plan to read some books on the Rangers so I have a larger knowledge base for my next visit, whenever that may be. Captain Billy Whizzbang’s was pretty good, and I’d go back for another burger and tots, although it’s pretty far off the highway and, thus, most everything else there is to do in Waco. I’m glad I visited the mammoth monument and I learned a lot there, too, but I’m not sure I’d go back again. The price was reasonable enough, and I’m happy to support their efforts in digging up more fossils, but there’s not much else to see or do there.
Thus ends the day-trip to Waco, hopefully the first of many similar day-trips and weekend trips to come. Next up: Fort Griffin?