Faraway is close at hand . . .

It recently occurred to me that the small town in Texas I now call home is the “faraway” to most of the world’s inhabitants. It’s still true that most places on earth are totally unfamiliar to most of us, even though we refer repeatedly to “the shrinking planet.” There are enough faraway places to keep me occupied for several more lifetimes!

In preparation for the next getaway, I have lately been googling “best things to do in . . .” as an attempt to separate “must do’s” from “possibles.” I’m trying, as always, to jumpstart trip-planning. It’s a task I never finish in advance, but half the fun of going is facing the unexpected. The other half is the anticipation of what’s already decided!

Learning about home . . .

On a whim, I plugged in “best things to do in Burleson, TX.” It was more than just interesting, just short of enlightening. I have started a new mini-list of places to go and things to do right here in my own faraway place. I still qualify as a new arrival, at least in the eyes of born-and-bred local friends.

There are plenty of newcomers to Burleson, drawn by proximity to Fort Worth, reasonable prices, good schools and a distinctive small-town aura. There is a unique vibe — a progressive attitude with pervasive ties to the past — and no shortage of friendly people. This dot on the map was established in the early 1880s as an interim stop for the railroad running south out of Fort Worth.

Later, in 1912, an interurban rail line from Fort Worth to Cleburne also operated a station in Burleson. That depot still stands today. It is, in fact, a cornerstone of the town’s historic district, the focus of a cosmetic redevelopment plan that extends several blocks in each direction from city hall. The historic depot and two early interurban passenger cars will figure as prominently in the city’s future as they did in its past, when trains rumbled through 10 times each day.

Freight trains still run twice daily, sounding mournful whistles and stopping traffic at local crossings. I like that, because I’ve been a lifelong fan of trains and train whistles. (Can you guess why? Because they take people to faraway places, of course!)

Where commonplace and uncommon meet

During my online search, I learned:

There is a periodic ghost tour that makes at least five stops at local “haunts.” There may be no regular schedule, but that tour is on my list!

There is a Coldstone Creamery — how I’ve missed that, I do not know, but I am no stranger to other ice cream shops and numerous pizza parlors!

In 1920, the population was 241. The 2010 census reported 36,690 residents, and next year’s count is likely to exceed 50,000. Whether that is good or not depends largely on one’s point of view.

There’s at least one popular sports bar that features karaoke nights. I will probably continue to miss that attraction, a decision regulars there will surely applaud!

Learning new things about the place I call home made me stop and think about the other places I’ve been recently, those with histories that span many centuries. Burleson is only a child on the world stage.

But my small Texas city is charging forward, growing and taking giant steps to build a sound, healthy, connected community that is good for business, good for residents, supportive of its students and its seniors, welcoming to newcomers, and attuned to citizen wants and needs. It is progressive in all the best ways, and still manages to cherish its past.

It is comfortable.

Reality is the intruder . . .

There are still working farms within Burleson’s borders, along with golf courses and city parks, a creek-size tributary of the Trinity River, a stocked fishing pond, and two local wineries. Its previous rural character is still evident, and getting anywhere in town takes only minutes.

It remains small-town enough to boast large turnouts for summer music and movies on a blocked-off downtown street, for local holiday parades, and for patriotic observances at the city’s Veterans Plaza. It is a place where one can stumble upon painted rocks, left in public places by the volunteer artists of Burleson Rocks. They are meant to be found and treasured by passers-by. And several of its buildings are enlivened by colorful, larger-than-life murals.

It is a place where friends can meet for a spontaneous dinner out without making reservations, and where the sounds of live music drift from a local craft brewery/eatery’s rooftop deck on pleasant evenings. The drumbeat of high school marching band practice punctuates early mornings in the early fall, and local high school football games attract Friday night crowds.

Rabbits and possums are regular backyard visitors, and finding Texas longhorns, horses, donkeys, and even young camels grazing in a field is not entirely unusual.

Even though a busy Interstate runs through it, my city is not a tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination. But if you find yourself in Fort Worth for business or pleasure, Burleson is only about 20 minutes south of the high-rise office buildings and hotels, and it beckons to visitors with the promise of an entirely different Texas experience.

The Old West

20151108_111650It may actually be more a lazy stroll than a “drive,” but the longhorns and the drovers never fail to gather a crowd as they appear for their twice daily parade down Exchange Street. The historic Fort Worth Stockyards District is not exactly the Old West. But when the buildings and the beasts are reflected in the sparkle of children’s eyes,  it does seem almost like the Old West. If only for just a moment.

As they parade down the cobblestone street, herded by “cowboys” on horseback, these impressive animals give us just a glimpse of that past, the time of “beef on the hoof.” Familiar cattle trails stretched like highways across the plains, into the high country and on to railheads and markets throughout the West and Midwest.20151108_113639 - Copy (2)Men and animals, in those days, were both larger than life. At the heart of the legends are the longhorns and the stampedes.

Today, Fort Worth’s herd probably couldn’t even be prodded to take off running, but it’s still quite impressive to see the big beasts with their six-foot horn-spans up close and personal. It’s even possible to climb on the back of a tethered longhorn in order to pose for a snapshot.  It was a beautiful day — crisp, clear and sunny. In the stockyards district, the towering buildings of modern, downtown Fort Worth fade away.

It’s the spectacle that draws people, and although it bears little resemblance to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, to cattle drives of old, or to a working ranch, it does transport spectators back to the day when Fort Worth truly was “where the West begins.” 20151108_111447

It’s the spirit of the place, as well as its heritage.

I, for one, am very happy to stand on the sidewalk, admire the architecture, speak with the patient horsemen and smile at the children who are excited equally by the horses and the “cows.” In a period of about four years from 1866 to 1870 more than four million head of cattle passed through Fort Worth, and were “driven” along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kan. Then, other trails developed, as did other markets. The range was open, and beef was a diet staple.

Those days, however, actually did not last long. The growth of settlements, the arrival of the railroads and westward expansion all took their toll. The long cattle drives were hard on the cowboys and hard on the cattle, and they were over by about 1890.20151108_113946

As a product of the American West, I am aware of other cowtowns: Miles City, Mont., Medora, N.D., Las Vegas, N.M. Some have played prominently in my past. I know the names — Abilene, Dodge and Wichita, Cheyenne, Greeley and Prescott; Amarillo and Wichita Falls back in Texas. I know the stories. I grew up with the lore. They all retain some of the spirit of the frontier. So, too, does Fort Worth. And that is comforting.

Even though Fort Worth is not a frontier town today, it is protective of its cowtown past and personality. These urban longhorns live on here, and they get their daily exercise by parading along a route that played such an important part in the development of the country, the taming of the West and the feeding of the nation. 20151108_114431 (3)

Driving around Texas, it’s still possible to spot longhorns grazing on private land. After many years, the breed is today making a comeback, not only for sentimental reasons, but also because lean beef is much in demand. Only in Fort Worth, though, is it possible to see them in this way, on twice-daily cattle drives, close enough to reach out and touch!

Not only is it worth a trip to see the Fort Worth herd; it’s a trip back in time, one that is highly recommended and fun for old and young alike.

Note: The history of the Fort Worth Stockyards is fascinating, and special events, including rodeos and livestock auctions, are still held here. Read More. In 1976, the area was designated a National Historical District.

Photograph of longhorn pair via Flickr by Amy the Nurse; all others by author.

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