From Stuckey's to Buccees (Can we stop here?)
PHOTO GALLERY (click on photo to enlarge)
Any trip in the car can be divided up into three areas: Getting Ready, The Actual Drive and The Grand Arrival. But within the realm of The Actual Drive lies a gray area: The Stops Along The Way. This can include the usual activities: stopping for food, necessary rest stops for personal relief (the driver guzzling large cups of coffee along the way usually sets this one off), buying gas for the car and then there are the stops usually advertised on billboards designed to attract the eyes of the kids.
My late father was from Arkansas, so would you require twenty guesses as to where my family went on vacations? Back in the early 60's with the family crammed into his blue Volkswagon, and then later in our 1964 Chevelle, we would roll from Texas to Arkansas en route to either my grandparents house a few miles east of Texarkana or Hot Springs. Along the way a series of billboards featuring a large plywood cutout of a milkshake bigger than the billboard itself would appear every few miles: “Only 83 miles to Stuckeys!” followed by “Only 70 miles to Stuckeys!” then “Only 60 miles to Stuckeys” etc. etc. etc.
As the countdown got closer I couldn't contain myself any longer: “Dad, could we stop at Stuckeys and get a milkshake?” Dad would either look at his wristwatch and say we didn't have time to stop or more often than not just simply bark “NO!” at me. As we finally drove by Stuckeys my little heart would be broken; I wanted one of those milk shakes more than anything else in the world. I swore to myself that someday I would have my own car and if I felt like pulling over for a milkshake, then by God I was going to get myself one of those shakes.
We would drive by billboards advertising all sorts of attractions; if they had the words “gift shop” on them Dad would almost always refuse to pull over. “SEE! A MAN BURIED ALIVE IN A PIT OF RATTLESNAKES!”
In retrospect, I'm sure these trips were as little fun for my Dad as they were for me; driving for hours in an unair-conditioned vehicle with the wife and kid on one of his rare days off from work (my late father was somewhat of a chronic workaholic) but try explaining this in perspective to a young child like myself.
Then there were the places he WOULD stop. Hot Springs had three attractions that for whatever reason Dad was always willing to take us to: the IQ Zoo (now gone) where animals performed tricks for the captivated audience like a tightrope-walking chicken; Tiny Town, which was a Lionel model train track built into a miniaturized scaled-down reproduction of America that looked like an overgrown Christmas decoration ( I think my father must have had respect for the hand-carved, hand-crafted people and scenery) and then there was the Arkansas Alligator Farm...
I've had a fascination with alligators and crocodiles since I was a tiny child; don't ask me why. Maybe it's because they are the closest thing to a dinosaur we'll ever see. But when I was eight years old or so, the big payoff for me being cooped up in a car for six hours was getting to see alligators, if only from behind the safety of a cyclone fence. Since 1902, the AAF has featured huge open pits of alligators lounging around in the sun for the amusement and awe of visitors. Three times a week they have a feeding show I think is to prove the gators are indeed alive; for the most part they just lay around motionless. A small moldy tombstone in one of the pits lies as testament that in 1906 a visitor's dog got into one of the pits somehow and was killed in a feeding frenzy.
The real star attraction, however, of the AAF is The Merman, which for years was enclosed in a glass case in the gift shop, but today is kept in a pungent barn-type shed behind the main building. It was supposedly snagged in a fishing net off the coast of Hong Kong, but it's obviously crafted from the upper torso of a monkey sewn onto the lower part of a large fish of some sort but does indeed look like the shriveled corpse of a very old Asian man who has large talons on his fingers and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. Fascinating stuff to a young child. I would stare into the case as a young boy and try to imagine schools of these frightening creatures swimming in the ocean depths.
A faint memory I have of our family road trips is also that of dining with the family either at unfamiliar dining spots, or more familiar ones like McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken (which my Dad hated and grumbled non-stop about) or picnicking from an ice chest at a roadside rest area.
Back in the 1960s most roadside rest areas consisted of a few crude cement picnic tables which may or may not have had some sort of shaded awning to protect you from either the rain or the hot Texas sun and sometimes a rusty, sludge-covered grill for cooking.
Today Texas has much improved rest stops for weary motorists. There are at least two of the newer nicer ones between where we live and Austin (on both southbound and northbound sides of the highway no less) that offer amenities such as well-lit parking areas, clean restrooms, well-stocked vending machines and even wi-fi, and trust me we always stop there if for nothing else to stretch our legs.
There are still a few of the older ones scattered around Texas highways but most these days are meeting the bulldozer and are considered obsolete by the Texas Highway Dept. On a recent trip back from Gainesville, Texas we stopped and photographed a minimalist roadside picnic area that had these weird square awnings that looked like inverted alien parabolic antennas. No restrooms, no vending machines, just a few bare concrete benches with only the shade of those weird awnings providing relief from the hot Texas sun overhead. This particular area must have dated back from the 1960s or the 70s at the latest; how desperate to get out from behind the steering wheel must a traveler be to use this as a diversion? It's nothing short of amazing it still even exists in an era when anything and everything is a prime target for state budget-cutting.
While driving down Highway 67 we have stopped at an interesting picnic area just west of Glen Rose a couple of times near Chalk Mountain, a near-deserted Texas ghost town with about two dozen remaining residents. It appears to have been constructed of fossils, rocks and stones from the nearby mountain: there are little knee-high walls lining the driveway that runs alongside the entrance and exit drive that appear to have had the stones set in place by hand. This must have taken somebody a long time to assemble and it's actually quite quaint for a nondescript roadside picnic area in the middle of nowhere. The picnic tables offer a very scenic and panoramic view of the Chalk Mountain area. I have been unable to Google anything about this area other than brief histories of Chalk Mountain and that Chris Kyle was killed at a gun range somewhere nearby. The picnic area just kind of appears very suddenly when you are driving west on Highway 67; there isn't much else in the area to speak of. When I stop at areas like this I always wonder to myself about who designed and built this. What stories could these tables tell? But as I stare out at the Chalk Mountain plateau I hear no answers, only a deafening silence. A lone plaque dated 1973 dedicates the park to an Texas Highway Department engineer but offers no other information.
The era of getting from Point A to Point B can be challenging if not only for the time, trouble and expense but staying awake behind the wheel. Also the era of sideshow-like roadside attractions seems to have pretty much come to an end. We live in the Age Of the Future now; we take in information at rates people in the 1950s or 60s could only dream of. Our children and grandchildren are not as easily entertained as us baby-boomers; they take for granted high-tech entertainment such as video games and MP3s and it takes the sudden loss of wi-fi to jar them into thinking about life on this side of the laptop.
Texas has few, if any, roadside attractions such as Arizona's Thing (“What Is It?”) Oh sure we have Inner Space Caverns, the Alamo and the giant statue of Popeye at Crystal City but sadly, these things are almost meaningless to today's youth.
And the billboards for Stuckeys have now been replaced with that of Buccees, a rapidly growing chain of stores dotting the highways that boast of spotlessly clean restrooms, a thousand gas pumps and a WalMart-sized array of junk food, drinks, sandwiches, jerky and chips a-plenty enough to put a dent in anyone's savings account. I wouldn't mind the place so much if they had a place for weary families to sit and enjoy the food, but you are more or less forced to befoul your auto upholstery dining in your car. And on a recent trip from our house to Galveston, I found myself channeling my dear departed father as my grandson begged and pleaded with me to “Please Please stop at Buccees!”
Besides, they don't sell milkshakes...