Trip Report: Waco, TX

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.

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A display case of Colt revolvers. There were more Colts at this museum than you could shake a stick at. There were also interactive exhibits where you could try your hand at “reloading” a Colt Paterson and even hold the 5 lb. revolver for yourself.
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A closeup of some Colt Single Action Army revolvers. The SSA is known as the “gun that won the west” and is highly valued today. I’ve been blessed to actually hold one that still fires!
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Among the firearms and other Ranger relics on display are various stunning Western art pieces.

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!)

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Various skulls from other extinct species.
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Closeup of the saber-tooth cat skull.
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An artist’s rendition of what a Columbian mammoth might look like. Note that this rendition is still smaller than the animal would be real life; the light fixture over the mammoth’s shoulders was there first and set the height limit for the picture.
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The remains of an adult male mammoth in the foreground, a juvenile mammoth to the left, and a camel (yes, a camel) in the background.

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?

Book Review: Roughing It by Mark Twain

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Mark Twain in the Old West. It doesn’t get much better than that.

When most people think of Mark Twain (real name Sam Clemens), they think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. What most people don’t know is, aside from writing the tales of these two boys wont to misbehave, he also wrote some very interesting books on his world travels.

In my junior English class in high school, we spent half of the fall semester learning about Mark Twin: his life, his writings, etc. I don’t remember a lot of that, but what I do remember was mention of two of his travelogues: The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It. The brief overview I heard in class was enough to intrigue me to check out these books of his. The Innocents Abroad tells of Twain’s travels, well, abroad, through Europe and the Middle East. Roughing It, written after the former, actually happened first, so I chose to read it first.

What ensues is a mostly-believable tale (Twain had a knack for stretching the truth just shy of the breaking point) that starts at the eastern end of the Pony Express in St. Joseph, Missouri, and heads west from there. Twain and his brother Orion Clemens, who was appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory, travel together and experience all manner of situations, most of which Twain makes humorous in hindsight with his unique wit. He visits Salt Lake City and tells of his observations of and interactions with the polygamous Mormons (and even provides a candid appendix at the end of the book chronicling Mormon history to the date); he presses on to Nevada and tries to “get rich quick” from mining for gold and meets all kinds of interesting characters there; he then heads to California and spends some time in San Francisco before finally setting sail for the Sandwich Islands (now the state of Hawaii) to describe the “conversion” of the natives by missionaries and explore volcanoes.

All along the way, Twain relates humorous conversations, tall tales, and plenty of profound thoughts (such as the fact that the Sandwich Islanders, who squatted on their hams, may have been the first ham sandwiches). As with anything Twain writes, the line between what really happened and what he embellished is blurred, so the reader must take a lot of what he says with a grain of salt. Still, he paints a vivid picture of life in the western part of the country during the 1860s that is worth the read for the history alone, but entertaining because Twain wrote it.

The book also includes illustrations that, along with the anecdotes, are downright hilarious. Below is an excerpt that made me laugh out loud, from Twain’s experiencing a terrible earthquake in San Francisco, and the accompanying images.

The “curiosities” of the earthquake were simply endless. Gentlemen and ladies who were sick, or were taking a siesta, or had dissipated till a late hour and were making up lost sleep, thronged into the public streets in all sorts of queer apparel, and some without any at all. One woman who had been washing a naked child, ran down the street holding it by the ankles as if it were a dressed turkey. Prominent citizens who were supposed to keep the Sabbath strictly, rushed out of saloons in their shirt-sleeves, with billiard cues in their hands. Dozens of men with necks swathed in napkins, rushed from barber-shops, lathered to the eyes or with one cheek clean shaved and the other still bearing a hairy stubble.

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[…]

A certain foreign consul’s lady was the acknowledged leader of fashion, and every time she appeared in anything new or extraordinary, the ladies in the vicinity made a raid on their husbands’ purses and arrayed themselves similarly. One man who had suffered considerably and growled accordingly, was standing at the window when the shocks came, and the next instant the consul’s wife, just out of the bath, fled by with no other apology for clothing than—a bath-towel! The sufferer rose superior to the terrors of the earthquake, and said to his wife:

“Now that is something like! Get out your towel my dear!”

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Another tale that struck me, that also ironically involves clothing, happened during Twain’s visit to the Sandwich Islands. I’ll save my remarks until after the excerpt.

In the rural districts of any of the Islands, the traveler hourly comes upon parties of dusky maidens bathing in the streams or in the sea without any clothing on and exhibiting no very intemperate zeal in the matter of hiding their nakedness. When the missionaries first took up their residence in Honolulu, the native women would pay their families frequent friendly visits, day by day, not even clothed with a blush. It was found a hard matter to convince them that this was rather indelicate. Finally the missionaries provided them with long, loose calico robes, and that ended the difficulty—for the women would troop through the town, stark naked, with their robes folded under their arms, march to the missionary houses and then proceed to dress!—

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The natives soon manifested a strong proclivity for clothing, but it was shortly apparent that they only wanted it for grandeur. The missionaries imported a quantity of hats, bonnets, and other male and female wearing apparel, instituted a general distribution, and begged the people not to come to church naked, next Sunday, as usual. And they did not; but the national spirit of unselfishness led them to divide up with neighbors who were not at the distribution, and next Sabbath the poor preachers could hardly keep countenance before their vast congregations. In the midst of the reading of a hymn a brown, stately dame would sweep up the aisle with a world of airs, with nothing in the world on but a “stovepipe” hat and a pair of cheap gloves; another dame would follow, tricked out in a man’s shirt, and nothing else; another one would enter with a flourish, with simply the sleeves of a bright calico dress tied around her waist and the rest of the garment dragging behind like a peacock’s tail off duty; a stately “buck” Kanaka would stalk in with a woman’s bonnet on, wrong side before—only this, and nothing more; after him would stride his fellow, with the legs of a pair of pantaloons tied around his neck, the rest of his person untrammeled; in his rear would come another gentleman simply gotten up in a fiery neck-tie and a striped vest.

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The poor creatures were beaming with complacency and wholly unconscious of any absurdity in their appearance. They gazed at each other with happy admiration, and it was plain to see that the young girls were taking note of what each other had on, as naturally as if they had always lived in a land of Bibles and knew what churches were made for; here was the evidence of a dawning civilization. The spectacle which the congregation presented was so extraordinary and withal so moving, that the missionaries found it difficult to keep to the text and go on with the services; and by and by when the simple children of the sun began a general swapping of garments in open meeting and produced some irresistibly grotesque effects in the course of re-dressing, there was nothing for it but to cut the thing short with the benediction and dismiss the fantastic assemblage.

You can decide for yourself if the above is (completely) true. In my not-so-humble opinion, the missionaries would have done well to bring only the Gospel and leave the clothes, and their prudish mores, at home.

Nevertheless, if you want a good laugh and a good history lesson, then pick up a copy of Roughing It. It is anything but a rough read; in fact, it is Mark Twain at his wittiest.

Buy Roughing It on Amazon

Read Roughing It for free or read it online at Project Gutenberg