Posted on November 30th, 2009

You know that occasional burst of inspiration that enters your brain? The one that encourages you to take an idea, no matter how ambitious, and follow through with it? Jeff McKissack, a Houston postman-turned-artist, actually did it. He built an enormous folk-art monument dedicated to oranges.
Known as The Orange Show, the 3,000-square foot structure is McKissack's homage to what he called "the perfect food." Standing among modest suburban homes just east of downtown Houston, this bizarrely compelling artwork is comprised primarily of brick and concrete, accompanied by metal sculptures, mosaic tilework, and various objects McKissack found along his postal route.

The Orange Show's absurdity-bordering-on-lunacy factor is rather fascinating, and McKissack's devotion to his subject is admirable in a disturbing kind of way. He apparently believed his life work — it took him nearly 25 years to assemble his collection into a publicly accessible venue — would become a major tourist destination, but somehow it never really caught on with the masses. Regardless, it remains an intriguing folk art environment unlike any other you’ll ever encounter, and it's certainly worth visiting the next time you're in Houston.

Posted on October 16th, 2009

Here are a few words you hardly ever hear together in a sentence: "It's better in Waco than Austin." But when it comes to comparing city zoos, you can shout Waco's praises from high atop Mount Carmel.
Austin's zoo does its own Austin-y thing respectably (a focus on rescue animals, rural location in the hills, large petting zoo) but Waco's Cameron Park Zoo is a surprisingly wide-ranging and enjoyable experience.

I recently made the trek to Cameron Park Zoo with Max and his Cub Scout pack for a special behind-the-scenes nocturnal safari tour. After feeding bison, viewing jaguars, and creating contraptions for the skunks' breakfast, we set up our pads and sleeping bags in the aquarium where we were lulled to sleep by the soft sounds of bubbling tanks and peaceful visions of gracefully meandering sea life.
The following morning, we had the zoo to ourselves, allowing a public-free environment for crazy Cub Scouts to scream at animals and run amok. In the process, we trekked the zoo's natural pathways through a loosely based theme of following the Brazos River through different habitats. We had up-close views of orangutans, elephants, lions, tigers, giraffes, meerkats, and rhinos. We discovered Where the Wild Things Are. Turns out, they're in Waco.

Posted on September 30th, 2009

It's always fun to scare up a Texas ghost town. There are nearly 200 ghost towns in the Lone Star State, and though many are merely structural remains of houses at forgotten rural intersections, there are others with genuine ghoulish appeal.
In the East Texas Piney Woods, thousands of people thrived nearly a century ago in a busy logging community called Aldridge before abandoning the site practically overnight. Now located in a remote and dense area of the Angelina National Forest, the dead-quiet Aldridge sawmill ruins offer a completely contrary scene to its previous buzz of equipment and activity.

Once bustling with hundreds of homes and several saloons, hotels, and churches, Aldridge workers logged East Texas’ largest longleaf pines--some more than 30 inches in diameter. When the tree supply was depleted by 1920, however, the residents and their families packed up and moved on to the next swath of dense woodland, leaving behind several large-scale mill facilities.
The enormous and stark concrete walls of these buildings are all that remain, offering an eerie juxtaposition to the surrounding natural beauty of the enchanting second-growth forest that emerged in its place. Similarly intriguing are the remnants from local teenagers--graffiti, beer bottles, and flip-flops--who frequent the ghost town to do what they do best (my Forest Service guide simply noted, "A lot of innocence has been lost here.").

Though forest officials discourage publicizing Aldridge's location to deter even more teenagers from discovering and destroying it, legitimate visitors can get a map and directions from the visitors center. Just be sure to hide your cans of spray paint and beer before entering the ranger station.

Posted on September 3rd, 2009

Want to wrangle the Texas mystique? Then head 'em up and move 'em out to King Ranch.
This magnificent 825,000-acre South Texas spread (larger than Rhode Island) embodies ranching history, with vintage cowboys, century-old stables, and its own breed of hearty cattle. After spending an entire day touring its massive operations and visiting with an impressive range of King Ranch employees, I discovered why it’s considered the birthplace of American ranching.
The highlight was speaking with several Kineños (King's men), descendants of the original vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) who've worked the ranch for generations. My conversations with these men were fascinating, covering everything from traditional cowboy activities -- cattle wrangling, branding, horse training -- to developing the legendary King Ranch cattle breed Santa Gertrudis, to overseeing various elements of the ranch's agricultural and entrepreneurial empire throughout the world.

The ranch also owns several noteworthy properties in nearby Kingsville, including the King Ranch Museum and King Ranch Saddle Shop. Both offer extensive (and aromatic) items representing the fascinating legacy of this ranching entity, where cowboys still ride horses, drive cattle, and put in a hard day’s work from sunup to sundown.
After a full day of not-so-hard work on the ranch, I headed 20 miles south to the small town of Riviera for dinner at King’s Inn. It’s billed as one of the best seafood restaurants on Texas’ southern Gulf Coast, and for good reason. Be sure to order the lightly breaded fried shrimp, filled with freshly caught flavor and accompanied by the restaurant’s famous spicy tartar sauce (the waiter was sworn to secrecy, though he admitted it contained bread crumbs, “lots of eggs,” and serrano peppers). This stunning sauce enhances everything from the homemade bread to the accompanying slices of fresh, juicy tomatoes.

Posted on August 20th, 2009

My salivary glands start functioning days ahead of time when one of my favorite restaurants is near my work-related travel destination. This time, the big draw was Joe Cotten's Barbecue in Robstown, about 15 miles north of the legendary King Ranch in Kingsville.
Joe Cotten's is the definition of old school--there are no menus, only a selection of several meaty options offered verbally by the old guys on the wait staff (who all wear charming maroon blazers straight out of 1947). Actually, these are probably the same guys wearing the same jackets from 60 years ago.

The food is absolutely amazing, and the beef brisket--offered in both fatty and lean varieties--is the main draw. It's tender and robust, with a smoky mesquite flavor that's unmatched in other Texas barbecue joints. The sliced pork and succulent sausage are almost as tantalizing.

Keeping with the old-school approach, the meal is served on a sheet of wax paper accompanied by a tangy pickle, whole jalapeno, and fresh hunk of tomato. Not surprisingly, this venerable venue doesn't take credit cards, so be sure to have cash on hand since the prices are about the only thing that have changed at Joe Cotten's since 1947.

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