On the road to Toad Suck

A string of convertibles – all with tops down — left last Saturday morning for a leisurely road trip from Hot Springs Village to Toad Suck, a little town in Arkansas with a name that invariably makes people laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. The excursion was a fall event for members of the loosely organized convertible-owners group “Escape the Gate.”

There may be a few “wannabe convertible owners” among the 190 names on the email list of this group, but on this day 52 people gathered in a parking lot just outside this planned, gated community. We departed in 26 shiny automobiles on an hour-long drive through scenic byways and fall foliage.

The planned destination was lunch at Toad Suck Bucks, a riverfront steakhouse with its own unique story, situated on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River not far from the lock and dam that share the name.

The eatery is a lively place from Thursday through Sunday, featuring comfort food and good service, cold beer and good bourbon, as well as pool tables and shuffleboard inside and live music on the patio Friday and Saturday evenings. It’s lively and informal, and everyone there seems to know their neighbors.

Toad Suck Bucks has been drawing a crowd for 23 years. Except for a few more dollar bills stapled to the walls and columns today, it probably hasn’t changed much since it first opened. Toads – what else? – are a décor element.

The owner doesn’t normally fire up the grill until 2 p.m. on Saturday and at 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

However, owner Ted Buck agreed to be there early to accommodate the convertible crowd on this Saturday. He was in the kitchen turning out burgers and fries, catfish sandwiches and fried bologna sliders, grilled shrimp and pork tamale bites, assisted by his wife and regular crew who pitched in to assure that the people-pleasing quality of this country-favorite diner was intact. Buck still found time to shake hands and explain the history of this quirky Arkansas treasure.

It’s a unique find, but it’s not at all unknown. Toad Suck Bucks boasts a Facebook following of 7.4K, with nearly as many likes! The interior is as quirky as the name, filled with mismatched tables and chairs that can be reconfigured at will to fill any need. There is a sign that proclaims: “No profanity, please,” and another hand-lettered sign hangs from the ceiling near the kitchen as the dessert menu. I’ll bet it changes often, based on what’s in season, or maybe just at the whim of the baker.

Parking isn’t a problem, and it’s obvious that when the weather allows, the “party” naturally spills onto a patio that’s filled with picnic tables and comfortable lawn chairs! Open bulbs are strung for evening illumination and there are no posted closing hours!

Buck returned to his native Arkansas following military service in both the U.S. Navy and Air Force – he laughingly agrees that’s unusual, and he eventually settled on this quiet spot in this peaceful part of the state. A couple of homes and several outbuildings exist on the property today, and a single sign at the head of a long driveway leads newcomers to the site.

He says he operated a flea market in the building that now houses the restaurant, then he bought a pool table to pass the time with friends. One pool table wasn’t enough, so he bought several more, and more friends arrived. Buck once served simple snacks, with BYOB get-togethers the norm. Then, he adds, “Someone suggested we grill some steaks.”

Toad Suck Bucks was born.

Getting there isn’t always easy. No billboards proclaim its existence. There was a several-mile stretch of dirt road that had drivers wondering if we had all taken a wrong turn. Our colorful convoy prompted other drivers to stop, wave, and let us pass as we made our way through small towns and turned across lanes of traffic. I’ll wager we could have asked directions from any one of the residents had we actually thought to do so. Despite the dust, our group arrived intact, and later Buck shared the “easy way” to keep us all on pavement on the way home.

All in all, it was a perfect autumn day for a top-down drive along country roads, an excursion that makes for fond memories. Ken Buck has surely been doing something right for the past couple of decades, and many of our group vowed to return. Add 52 more “likes” to the total!

Big Brutus

It sits today on the Kansas prairie like a kind of mechanical orange dinosaur, but this giant electric shovel was once an operating mining machine used to extract coal from shallow veins that run through surrounding farmland.  In 1963, the parts were shipped on 150 rail cars to be assembled on the site. The behemoth stands 16 stories tall and weighs in at 11 million pounds. Its boom alone is 150 feet long, and each dip of its shovel could hold enough material to fill three rail cars – the equivalent of 90 cubic yards or 150 tons.

Sadly, Big Brutus performed its duties only for 11 years. It was used to unearth shallow veins of coal at depths down to about 65 feet. Smaller equipment was then used to fully extract and move the coal. By 1974, the process was no longer economical, but Big Brutus was left in place, deemed too expensive to move.

It’s not the biggest shovel ever built; the record-holder was three times its size, but Big Brutus is the largest to survive. Donated by the Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company, it forms the core of the mining museum that was established in 1985. In 2018, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, visitors to the site marvel not only at the size of Big Brutus, but also at its story. One could spend several hours to view all the exhibits and actual machinery displayed at the non-profit center. It tells the story of mining in this part of the world, and it is fascinating. It also provides a glimpse into what life was like in Kansas in times past.

It is awesome to stand next to the metal tracks that tower over my head, and know that those gears once moved this machine across the landscape, albeit at a snail’s pace. Visitors may climb up to sit in the cab of Big Brutus, pose for photos on its platforms or in its shovel, and see small-scale models of other mining equipment in action in the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center in West Mineral, Kansas, is open seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

It may be an unlikely destination for a family vacation, but it’s captivating, to say the least! The truth is that Big Brutus is equally impressive for adults as for children!

Big Brutus was only one of the destinations that I visited recently on a three-day press trip through southeast Kansas. Read more of my stories and impressions in the coming days. As those of us on the trip agreed, “There’s a lot of Kansas in Kansas.”

Eureka: What an experience

I don’t quite know what to say about Eureka Springs. It’s equal parts history, natural beauty and distinctive character. And for a quick weekend getaway, it’s a delight! There’s a lot to like about this small town (population only about 2,100) in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. It’s unique, and in some ways it feels stuck in time. That, too, is part of its mystique. It has charm, for sure.

Eureka Springs was first settled in 1879, and named on July 4 of that year. There are wonderful old homes — many of them now B&Bs — that rival San Francicsco’s “painted ladies.” Log cabins, imposing stacked stone family homes and simple, single-story cottages exist along steep inclines and winding lanes. There are pizza places galore. There are casual diners and a few fast-food outlets; there are fine dining places with white linen tablecloths and attentive waiters. Old-fashioned bars attract a biker crowd come to ride the high curves and twisting back lanes. A local brewery and plenty of watering holes with more than their share of character and characters attract lively, friendly crowds.

On the labyrinthian streets, you’ll find historic buildings housing trinket and t-shirt shops, underground grottos from which the “healing waters” once flowed freely, an old-time photo parlor that proclaims “Weddings Performed” and distinctive hotels and eateries. Street art and street musicians coexist in the small downtown. Public sculpture and old memorials are much in evidence, as are the public buildings and hotels with historical plaques.

A well-preserved Carnegie Free Library is a commanding presence on one of the main streets, and it’s still in use. The old depot and railroad roundhouse are attractions at the edge of town; a popular excursion takes visitors on a four-and-a-half-hour trip over restored Eureka Springs and North Arkansas track. You can also book a lunch or dinner expedition ride to enjoy a trip into the past in a restored dining car. Along the way are extraordinary scenic vistas.

For a first-time visitor, an orientation ride on the “hop on-hop off” Eureka Springs Transit is a must. Ride the four different routes for an overview of Eureka Springs. It’s as much a local public transportation staple as tourist aid, taking passengers almost anywhere in, and out of, town. Its price is more than reasonable at $6 a day for unlimited time and distance. You’ll rub shoulders with local residents toting grocery bags, and others on their way to work or heading home after a long day.

The varied routes are perfect for exploring at your own pace, and it certainly beats walking up and down steep hills on foot, or trudging long distances in unfamiliar territory.

Drivers are helpful and knowledgeable, even willing to “bend” the schedule a bit so a rider can hop off and grab a free paper, or snap a cell phone photo of a giant sculpture from just the right angle! Stops are plentiful along each route and trams run every 20 to 30 minutes all day long, so there’s ample time to explore a site — or several — should you choose to do so.

We drove to Eureka Springs — it’s a pleasant four hour trip from our home. We traveled through pretty country on curving two-lane state highways. But, once there, we parked the car and rode the tram. It brought us to Thorncrown Chapel, where we were entranced with the architecture and the story of this inspiring place. The soaring wood and glass structure is perfectly integrated with its natural surroundings. The tram also brought us to the famed Passion Play site, with its recreated ancient Jerusalem stageset and other themed attractions. The 65-foot high Christ of the Ozarks statue, reminiscent of similar works in Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon and Havana, towers above the surrounding forest, but is perhaps more impressive from a distance than it is up close.

The downtown trolley station is well-situated for a walk around town. Visitors can enjoy lunch, browse funky shops, visit the historical museum or simply admire wall murals and interesting architecture. Spend as long as you like, knowing that another tram will arrive within just minutes. On a walk about town or in any neighborhood, you’ll find something wonderful around almost every corner: a grotto carved into a hillside, an iron fence dripping with flowering vines, the suggestion of a face in a towering old oak, a lush garden with a bubbling fountain, whimsical yard art decorated with strings of lights, or a house clinging to a cliffside over a massive boulder. There is beautiful statuary and whimsical signage.

We could have disembarked for a visit to the Crescent Hotel, built in 1884 and known for its resident ghosts and always-fully-booked ghost tours. Its site, at the crest of the highest hill in Eureka Springs, is reason enough to want to spend some time there (which we did, later the same day, when we returned for pizza at the fourth-floor Sky Bar. The view was mystical, with a haunting landscape of moving mist that shrouded the mountains all about us. Gleaming white in the distance, the Christ of the Ozarks watched over the setting with outstretched arms.

Although experiencing Eureka Springs can feel a bit like entering a time warp, being thrust into the long-ago culture of a small town is magical, if a bit disorienting. Residents insist that everybody knows everyone else, and that no one bothers to lock their doors. We stayed just two nights at The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B conveniently located on Spring Street. Its location put us only a few steps from the trolley stop, and we were greeted by waves from friendly passengers as we enjoyed breakfast on the front porch, served with a smile by Innkeeper Will Lawlor, who is himself a relative newcomer to Eureka Springs. We enjoyed chatting with him, and sharing our impressions of this interesting historic destination.

Is Eureka Springs worth a visit? Absolutely. It’s nothing if not unique!

About Arkansas

It’s called the Natural State, or sometimes the Diamond State. After moving to Arkansas in the midst of the pandemic, my husband and I have now been residents of this state for a full year. We have settled into a new routine, and now we’re more than ready to venture out to see what prompted those labels for Arkansas. Within minutes of our home are both a national park and a national forest. Numerous state parks, mountains, lakes, rivers and historical sites are not much further afield. Getting to them is easy by car, and we have already enjoyed quick road trips on back roads to learn the lay of the land, as they say.

We like what we see.

We also just acquired a “new to us” vehicle, purchased with the sole intent of having fun as we explore some of the interesting highways and byways of our adopted home state. It’s a convertible, so we can feel the wind in our hair on pleasant drives when weather permits. As anyone who knows me knows, I typically try to avoid interstate highways, much preferring back roads and curvy lanes where it’s easy to catch a glimpse of wildlife, wildflowers in the fields, odd signs and old buildings.

We like pulling off the road to have a closer look if we see something interesting, and we have been known to follow hand-lettered signs to classic car shows, country stores, out-of-the-way fudge shops, charming churchyards and old battlefields. Bear that in mind as I take you to some unique destinations. We have found also that there are plenty of friendly folks in smaller towns, folks who, for the most part, are only too willing to stop whatever it is they’re doing and tell us about what we’re about to discover.

Sometimes we pack a picnic, or we’ll stop for a quick bite and a cool drink anyplace that seems a little quirky. We might look for a quaint B&B or a rustic cabin, but many of our jaunts don’t require an overnight away from home. Most of the time we don’t make reservations. We are footloose and fancy free at this point in our lives. Until we are free to travel globally again without restrictions, warnings (or masks) we will probably stay closer to home. We have decided that’s okay for now, so we’re busy planning more regular getaways. I hope you’ll come along.

Here’s a peek just to whet your appetite for what’s to come. I take lots of pictures, so they’re the focus right now — the stories will come later; I’m saving my words for later and longer trips. For now, I’ll just share some Hot Springs sights, beginning with random shots around Hot Springs and the home turf that we have come to love.

In case you’re wondering, the hot springs still flow . . . and, like many other locals, we make a weekly trip to the city’s free spigots to fill our water bottles. It’s nature’s gift to us, and it’s really good water!

We want to explore Hot Springs more fully, and we will do that this winter, when it becomes somewhat quiet again after summer tourists leave. The National Park that encompasses the city just celebrated its centennial. Land that contains the natural thermal springs was set aside as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, but the area was mapped initially under an order to explore the southern Louisiana purchase, issued by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804.

The sprawling Ouachita National Forest extends westward from the Hot Springs area throughout much of Arkansas and into eastern Oklahoma, and it too is only minutes away, with all its natural beauty. We want to get out to the forest more as well. And Arkansas state parks, judging by Petit Jean where we spent a wonderful couple of hours not long ago, is not only delightful, but it’s an easy day trip!

Old Salts, Salt Licks and Pretzels . . .

They may not actually have much in common, but there is a common thread — Salt constitutes a ribbon of continuity from ancient times to the present, and beyond. It is essential for life. Luckily, salt in its various forms is abundant on earth. Processing techniques have been employed for millennia, and salt as a commodity was once prized as much by nations as by individuals.

Today, the love of salt extends to specialty varieties, including Himalayan sea salt, black salt, Celtic salt, smoked salt,  and rare, expensive Fleur de Sel from Brittany, among others. Every type of salt has its dedicated advocates. 100_2120

But who knew that pretzel salt comes from a small East Texas town?

It’s true. Every pretzel consumed all across the United States has salt crystals extracted from the massive salt dome situated deep below the Texas prairie about 75 miles east of Dallas.

Salty Travels and Tales

I had heard of Grand Saline, but I never — ever — gave its name much thought until I learned last year that it has been the home of a Morton Salt mine for nearly a century.

In the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of visiting the planned nuclear waste repository (WIPP Site) near Carlsbad, N.M., prior to the time it received its first shipment of  radioactive waste. I treasure a large chunk of salt that I brought up from that salt cavern almost half a mile underground. Now I also have two small rock salt crystals extracted from below the earth’s crust in Texas. They are much harder; and they are clear.

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I also remember sailing around Salt Island, in the British Virgin Islands. My companions and I didn’t dive the wreck of the Rhone, nor did we step ashore on the island, but we were enthralled to learn that current inhabitants still pay an annual rent to the Queen — a one-pound bag of salt.  Traditions die hard!

Then, just a year or so ago, I visited Ston, a small town in Croatia, where salt has been harvested from the shore of the Adriatic for centuries. Of course, I brought home a bag of Croatian salt. I regularly buy unusual salts at the grocery store. We enjoy cooking with them, and sampling the various textures and flavors.

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In addition, my husband and I were recently gifted with a beautiful book, “Salt,” by Mark Bitterman, along with a Himalayan salt slab, designed for grilling; it is supposed to embue meats and vegetables with natural salty flavor. We are eager to test it!

So, it was with a sense of expectation that we took a day trip recently to Grand Saline. Its history extends back in time to about 800 BC, when the local Caddo Indians collected salt from surface marshes. Those same drying flats supplied Confederate soldiers with salt during the Civil War.

The salt flats still exist on the mine property, but are no longer publicly accessible. But evaporative salt is still processed in much the same way, although on a much larger scale than formerly.

To my disappointment, tours of the mine itself were discontinued, because of federal (OSHA) safety regulations, in the 1960s, but visitors to Grand Saline can learn the history of the mine through exhibits and a 14-minute video at the Salt Palace, a funky little building right in the heart of town. It actually boasts salt block siding, but licking it is not really encouraged!

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About that Pretzel Salt

The underground salt dome, said to extend downward at least 20,000 feet from the surface, is vast. It is said that this single salt deposit could supply this country’s needs for many thousands of years. At a level 750 feet below the surface, where mining 100_2124operations take place today, the salt dome measures approximately 1.5 miles in diameter. The “mother bed” of salt is said to be a remnant of an ancient sea. Underground temperature is a constant 75 degrees.

Each underground salt “room” is about 75 feet wide and 25 feet high, with solid salt pillars for support that measure 130 feet square. Future expansion will enlarge existing rooms to 75 feet in height from floor to roof. Trucks and all mining equipment are brought from the surface in pieces and reassembled in the mine. Approximately 100 miles of roadway wind through the caverns, and mining operations continue underground 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The salt deposits are 98.5% pure NaCl. Grand Saline is one of only two Morton Salt plants to produce both rock salt and evaporated salt; it produces all major grades of evaporated salt, including dendritic (flaked) salt, and is the company’s sole producer of shaker products and salt substitute potassium chloride.

Salt, of course, is not just for eating. Because of its purity, the salt extracted from the Grand Saline mine is also earmarked for pharmaceutical use. Salt is, after all, salt — but what is taken from the earth at Grand Saline mine is deemed unsuitable for most industrial uses because it is too pure. Although it could be used to melt snow, that would, in effect, seem wasteful! 

Our visit to the Salt Palace was enlightening. Poking around Grand Saline on a beautiful early spring day was pleasant, although there’s not much there other than the Salt Palace. But it’s an easy day trip from Dallas or Fort Worth, and it’s always fun to get out on the back roads; you never know what you might find!

I will never again take salt for granted, but will instead savor the many varieties that are available. And, for sure, I’ll continue to collect salty stories.

Planning the perfect vacation . . .

I don’t think it used to be difficult to plan a vacation. There was once a time when it wasn’t even about the destination — we just picked a place and figured out how to get there. We often didn’t even think about being there, or what would be involved in finding lodgings and food. Getting away was the focus.

Lately, however, no matter how much I would love to be my former spontaneous self, I find that planning is necessary. And therein lies the problem, as they say. Planning ahead (the old visual joke comes to mind) has never been my strong suit.

The dilemma — and a solution

As always, there is much too much world and far too little time. Comfort rules today. Long flights are no-no’s. Even long, leisurely road trips are less appealing than they once were. Packing and unpacking was always a pain, but now it’s a great turnoff!

Schedules, for the most part, are just not happening. Quick weekend trips are perfect, sans crowds and traffic. That all adds up to some serious travel limitations.

So, in considering where to celebrate an upcoming anniversary, my spouse and I started planning early. Many possibilities came to mind.

Cruises — of course! An island — conducive to relaxing days of little more than beach-sitting and book-reading — always a good choice. A long weekend in New Orleans — tempting because it’s been too long since we were there, but again — the drive!

What then; and where?

Paris!

We laughed. Then we laughed harder. And it was settled.

You see, we were married in Paris! Yes, that Paris!

But that Paris is not where we’ll be headed the end of this month. A trip to that Paris will require considerably more advance planning. It will have to wait.4289545362_a3906198e6_o

Instead, we’ll be spending this anniversary in Paris, Texas, only about two hours from our home, reasonable enough for a quick getaway.

We settled on Paris, Texas, with some giggles and guffaws. There is not a single scene of the town in the movie that bears its name; there is, however, a “quaint downtown square” with a pint-size replica Eiffel Tower. It’s notable because of the red cowboy hat perched at its peak, even though it’s only about 70 feet high.

We have always enjoyed small Texas towns — our favorites have quirky personalities that fit well into our idea of fun. This Paris fits the bill nicely.

So, we’ve booked a stay at a local B&B and run an online search of eateries and attractions, in addition to the Eiffel Tower. It all sounds promising!

As for eats, we expect Paris is much like other small Texas towns. We’re sure we’ll find the local coffee shop and favorite burger joint. There’s also a catfish cafe, a Japanese/sushi spot and a traditional steak house. We’ll be looking for others.

For this weekend, at least, we won’t have to brush up on our French or pack any “goin’ out on the town” clothes. And that’s just the way we like it!

Photos by Joseph Novak/Flickr

Mainely good: Up country, Down East

Maine in the summer is full of good things: salt air, brisk nights, bright sun, wispy clouds, lobster, ice cream parlors seemingly on every corner, breathtaking scenery, a lazy way of taking one day at a time and putting aside the rush.

There’s also traffic; getting anywhere by car is apt to take twice as long as anyone thinks it should, with distances measured in time rather than in miles. And, yes, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in the car in order to see it all.

But Maine is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s hard to resist coming back — and the more one returns, the longer one wants to stay.

Yesterday’s excursion took us along the back roads of Midcoast Maine from Wiscasset, the self-proclaimed “prettiest village,” northeast to Belfast, another old seafaring village about 50 miles distant. 101_3156Then we clung to the seacoast to reach Camden, where Mount Battie stretches to the sky along one side of scenic Route 1 and the surf crashes against the rocks on the other side.101_3149

It was a leisurely drive, interspersed with frequent stops for photos, some “on purpose” wrong turns, and a drive up the bluff to view storied offshore islands from the heights at Point Lookout in Lincolnville.

Summer is alive with color — vibrant flowers, lobster buoys glistening in the sun, colorful sails silhouetted against the sky, canoes and kayaks forming their own artistic displays in their racks.101_3015

Farm stands and roadside booths abound — offering everything from fresh strawberries and blueberries to ever present lobster rolls, fried clams, and whoopie pies (definitely a Maine thing!) 101_3107We even found ice cold Moxie for sale by the bottle. Yes, it still has a medicinal taste, but apparently it has never lost its appeal.

We made a stop at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, and were thunderstruck by the beauty of huge floral hanging baskets. Alas, it’s still a bit too early for Maine sweet corn. But that’s another story; instead we stocked up on fresh strawberries, tomatoes — both red and green, and on purple carrots!

Make no mistake: Eating your way through Maine is half the fun.

Our lunch destination, and one of the main reasons for the trip, is an unassuming eatery with a loyal following in Belfast. Behind bright yellow doors at 96 Main St. is a thriving vegetarian lunch spot (open for dinner one night a week) that also has an in-house produce market, bakery and flower shop. The owners are all family, and their history in Maine dates to 1969; Chase’s Daily opened its doors in 2000.

Good food and sustainability are hallmarks of the operation; the owners and operators are down to earth, realistic and nothing if not approachable. The food is good, with unexpected layers of flavor and unusual ingredients; the ambience is pleasant, the wait staff congenial and the history heartwarming.

Maine has changed over the years, but in important ways this state remains the same as it was decades ago when I first visited. It’s still a little foreign, perhaps a little provincial, and rough around the edges at times. Portland, the largest city, is a cosmopolitan 101_3181center today, full of fine restaurants, hotels, shops, museums and galleries.

But, get out to the country and there’s still a whole wide world to explore. That’s part of the delight, and that’s the reason for the traffic on the coastal highway. You need to get out of the city and away from the resorts to really experience Maine. As a state slogan proclaims: It is “the way life should be.”

Up country and Down East are not only destinations; they are states of mind.

The open road: Traveling tips

101_2217Fast food isn’t particularly good for the waistline or the pocketbook! And, no matter how familiar, most of it is nothing to write home about.

So, this summer, why not slow down a little to nurture your spirit as well as your body? Whether you take a quick weekend jaunt or an extended trip across the country, here are some good ways to make your next driving trip a memorable one:

Pack a picnic basket

Seriously. There was a time when a wicker basket was a staple in the back seat or the trunk of almost every vehicle. Those were the days when people planned a day’s journey based on the distance between gas stations, and pulled off the road to enjoy a field of flowers or a lakeside vista. Today, with conveniences available at every highway exit, it’s not so necessary to plan ahead, but having a picnic basket full of good food still makes sense.

Fill yours with hard boiled eggs, a package of mini carrots or sugar snap peas, cans of sardines and packets of tuna, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of crusty French bread, crackers, and homemade granola or trail mix. Bring along either a round of Brie, a wedge of blue, or some string cheese that can stand being out of the refrigerator for a few hours. Include apples, oranges and dried fruit, and maybe some homemade cookies. Pack plastic plates, glasses and silverware, a roll of paper towels and a plastic tablecloth. Include a blanket or quilt for sitting on the ground.

If you’re taking a long trip, restock at a local grocery store; forego the chain restaurants. Forget the cooler full of soda, but bring a large thermos filled with iced tea or lemonade. In cooler weather, fill the thermos with hot chocolate, tomato soup or chicken bouillon. Invest in refillable personal water bottles and fill them with tap water. When you get hungry, get off the road and get out of the car. Park by a stream or find a city park: Walk around, lounge on the grass, walk the dog, and let the kids run!

Get off the road – go local

Turn off the interstate occasionally. Even if you want to make good time getting to your destination, you’ll be surprised how invigorating it can be to take a scenic route or venture onto a back road. Forget the GPS and the app, and buy an old-fashioned road map, the paper accordion-folding kind that you spread out on the hood of the car, the kind that shows small towns, county roads, twisting dirt paths, historical sites and topographical features. Then make time to explore.

Leave the smart phone in your pocket and teach your children map-reading skills; get lost on purpose, just so you can find an alternative way back to the highway. Cultivate spontaneity! Take a few chances. Laugh a lot!

The highways were built to move goods and people quickly from place to place, and they do that well. But, any journey can be as interesting as the destination if you take a turn through the countryside and small towns along the way. It’s a whole different world view and one you don’t want to miss. Stop to photograph wild flowers, historical markers, spectacular views, a herd of longhorns, or an old barn. Look for the unusual. Stop at farm stands and “pick your own” orchards. Buy freshly-squeezed orange juice in Florida, fresh shelled pecans in Texas, cherries in Washington or just tapped maple syrup in Vermont. WP_20160508_007 (1)

Keep a travel journal

Don’t worry about the literary quality; just make it personal and it will be memorable. Simply write quick notes to keep in an old three-ring binder and punctuate with doodles, postcards, snapshots or restaurant business cards. Or take notes on your digital device to accompany the pictures you snap: Transfer the notes and photos to an online journal when you return home. Just be sure to date (and place) the entries so that you can look through actual or virtual pages later to recall specific events.

Your kids will love reliving this part of their history, and you can tell friends and relatives about your experiences.  Write about the wild flowers or the weather; the long, boring miles of highway, or the squabbles in the back seat; add anything that describes the moment! And don’t wait for an epic two-week vacation to Europe to begin journaling. You don’t have to be born with a sense of adventure to enjoy travel. You simply have to keep your mind open to possibilities, your heart open to fun and your eyes focused on the new sights all around you.

Slow down and look around

Take advantage of state tourist information centers as you cross state lines. Great sources of information,  they are staffed with knowledgeable volunteers, and often offer snacks, coffee and cool drinks. They also provide a welcome break from sitting! Many states also have upscale, modern rest stops with clean rest rooms, playgrounds and picnic tables.

Turn off the highway and head for a small town square. Look for a local café, or a diner with lots of cars parked outside. Chances are you’ll discover friendly people, good food and good times. Strike up a conversation with your server; ask questions about the area if it’s new to you.

Travel without reservations if you don’t have a deadline, and look for local hotels in small towns rather than chain motels along the highway. Consider it a bonus if you find a charming country inn, a lakeside cottage at a state park, or a historic hotel in the heart of a Midwest city. Another way: Take day trips to other towns in your area. You’ll be surprised at the things you discover!

Walt Whitman said it pretty well:

         “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 

         Healthy, free, the world before me, 

        The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” 

Fishing in Waxahachie? Oh, yes!

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Sometimes the best places are close to home, just undiscovered.

And sometimes all that’s necessary to find great food is to listen to friends.

Both were true this past weekend as my husband and I took a pleasant drive to a small town just 30 minutes south of Dallas.

Getting off the highway is key to discovering the best Texas towns. I have known Waxahachie for many years as the site of the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and I have been down that road several times. But I had never before gotten “off the road” to get into town.

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On this trip, however, the destination was Waxahachie’s downtown square, across the street from the historic Ellis County Courthouse.

The reason? A friend had recommended that we try a newly-opened restaurant. Actually, the friend and a partner own this newly-opened restaurant, and we were only too happy to be invited to sample the fare prior to the grand opening.

Both the restaurant and the town are unexpected treats.

Fresh and Local — and Seafood!

The Fish Grill is a labor of love many months in the making. Open for only seven days when we visited, it is sure to enjoy a long and healthy life. Retired architect Dana Wenzel partnered with Chef Christopher Stanford, a fifth-generation native Texan to bring a beautiful old bank building back to life as a charming and eclectic downtown eatery.

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The Fish Grill, Waxahachie

The building dates to 1900 when it was Citizens National Bank. It served at one time at the Ellis County Tax Office, but had stood forlorn and empty for a couple of years when Wenzel and Stanford found it. Well-known Dallas developer Jim Lake of Design District and Bishop Arts District fame, had already seen the potential for a restaurant in the space.

Features include the original vault doors, ornate brass 101_2138handrails, stunningly detailed wall and ceiling medallions, and native stone inserts in polished wood floors. A mezzanine and upstairs bar offer patrons spectacular views of the stately courthouse and other historic buildings.101_2147

Large, arched windows let in lots of light, and etched glass doors both lead outdoors and can be closed to provide private dining areas.

There are vibrant red-orange walls, modern art, linen cloths and napkins, and a friendly vibe — it is immediately welcoming. And the menu is as special as the space.

Menu offerings are Stanford’s creation, with a layering of flavors that is at once satisfying and unique. The goal, according to Wenzel, is to produce “good food to get out to the world,” and the governing philosophy is “fresh and local.” All seafood is from the Gulf — none of it arrives frozen. Other menu offerings, including the catfish, pork and beef, vegetables and greens, are locally sourced.

The word is that if it’s not in season, you won’t get it at The Fish Grill — that includes the battered fried oysters and the Grilled Strawberries au vin rouge!

Our lunch began with an impressive Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, highlighted by a piquant tomato sauce  with bits of onion, pepper, avocado and just the right amount of spice. We followed that with Fish Tacos and the ultimate comfort food — Mac and Cheese, served with grilled shrimp.

The only appropriate comment? Delicious! The only downside? No room for dessert, tempting as those grilled strawberries were. The bonus? Enough food in “packed with a smile” to-go boxes for additional taste treats at home.

After leaving the restaurant, we took the time for a walk around the courthouse, a tour of WP_20160410_027the abundant antique shops on the square and its adjacent streets, and a leisurely drive past the impressive gingerbread homes that characterize this town. Waxahachie obviously takes pride in its past and looks toward its future. It has the feel of a gracious, cultured college town; actually it was once the home of Trinity University, but that’s another story.

Because there are other stories to be told about this interesting little Texas town, you can be sure I’ll be returning to Waxahachie, and I look forward to enjoying more — perhaps many more — meals at The Fish Grill.

 

Along the road: The giggles are gone

The road goes on foreverIt’s hard to know just what will trigger a long-forgotten memory; it’s harder still to know just where that memory will lead. A small piece in last Sunday’s paper mentioned that the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 22 — 50 years ago. Of course, here in Texas we all credit Lady Bird Johnson with the impressive expanses of bluebonnets and wildflowers along our highways. That’s all good.

But highway beautification as a national mandate — Wow, I missed that one, I guess, in my youth. Actually, now that I think about it, I was living in Europe at the time — billboard proliferation along American highways was not something I concerned myself with then. But, on Sunday, that little news story suddenly brought back the memory of red and white Burma-Shave signs — and the realization that the act signed into law that long ago October day most likely spelled the end of a long tradition. Those clever advertising messages sometimes contained important messages; they certainly prompted adult smiles and kept young minds occupied for almost 40 years.

The 1965 Outdoor Advertising Control Program did not actually mandate the removal of signs, and it really didn’t force states to control those massive billboards. It was designed to discourage excessive signage along the Interstates, and stipulated that development funds could be withheld for non-compliance by the states. In that way, it was effective. And the Interstate highway system soon supplanted most of the older highways.

You had to be there: Missing one of the signs could sometimes be the cause of tears; more often, an attempt to fill in the missing word or phrase spawned uncontrollable giggles. It was, for generations of kids, one of the few fun things about road trips — often long, hot, dusty treks along not-so-good highways. Towns in most of this United States at that time were far apart, usually small, and boasted no readily available “fast food.” Gas station and rest room stops were the result of advance planning, for the most part.

Summer or winter, travel could be iffy — heat, cold, mechanical problems, flat tires, boredom, seemingly endless stretches of blacktop. Radio station signals made news and music unreliable across vast distances. But the signs — oh, those signs! We all looked forward to them. The “game” became who spotted the first sign first. Then, everyone “won” as the message was revealed across the miles. At the height of their campaign, Burma-Shave had 7,000 signs in all but four of the Lower 48 states.

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Yes, the occasional giant billboard may have ruined the view, distracted drivers and “polluted” the landscape. But, Burma-Shave signs? Although I haven’t thought about them for decades, I miss them. I’m also sorry  I  couldn’t play the game with my own child; I have trouble even explaining the concept to my grandchildren. But, then, today we travel on smoother Interstate highways — and the kids are plugged in to their own virtual world of movies, music or audio books.

The times have changed — but, the “road goes on forever.” I’ll just spend the rest of the day humming that tune and laughing about those verses! There’s currently a new interest in Route 66 and its associated memorabilia. Sadly, though, Burma-Shave signs seem to have disappeared forever.

Some of them were totally about the shaving cream. In 1932:

You’ll love your wife

You’ll love her paw

You’ll even love

Your mother-in-law

If you use

Burma-Shave

Others were just plain clever! From 1945:

‘Twould be

More fun

To go by air

If we could put

These signs up there

Burma-Shave

Sometimes they had important messages. Here’s a good one from 1949:

When frisky

with whiskey

Don’t drive

‘Cause it’s

Risky

Burma-Shave

Another:

Ashes to Ashes

Forests to Dust

Keep Minnesota Green

Or we’ll ‘

All go Bust

Burma-Shave

They could also be a little risque. This one’s from 1959:

Baby your skin

Keep it fitter

Or “baby”

Will get

Another sitter

Burma-Shave

You can read more of the iconic road-sign jingles, indexed by year at Burma-Shave.org.