Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Unexpected Falls

Ah, summer, vacation, travel... Tahiti, Banff, Venice, Paris! And Wichita Falls!

Completely different subject, I wonder why no one's ever approached me to advertise on my blog?

Having been there a couple of times now, you know, I really like Wichita Falls a lot. It's - I guess the word I'm looking for is scrappy. They've now been in Stage 5 drought for a while, so eventually they just shrugged and started recycling all their water. Yes, all of it. I heard that one city official bought a bunch of coffee mugs shaped like toilets and slapped stickers with the city's logo on them. And you can now buy a T-shirt that says, "Wichita Falls: Our water is the S#!t."

My contact at the city sighed and shook her head, telling my boss and me about this. "Well, what can you say?" she said. "It is what it is."

It is that, and I admire the calm spirit and clear eyes with which the good folks of the Falls cast aside squeamishness and embrace the practical. In fact, practicality is one of the striking features of this town. This is the town that was named for a set of rapids and falls in the Wichita River, so when a flood washed them away, they just built some new ones. They're very pretty. Sometimes the city turns them off.

They build stuff there that you might not expect in a town that size. There is a paved hike-and-bike trail nearing completion, which will completely circle the city, over 20 miles long. There are mountain bike trails aplenty. Wichita Falls is, of course, the home of the Hotter 'n Hell Hundred, so there's a certain cycling mentality there. They get mad props for the logo alone.

But to me, maybe the most charming thing of all about Wichita Falls is that it isn't charming. It's not cute, it's not precious, it's not the kind of town where you go to buy fudge and knick-knacks (though, that said, you'd be pretty silly to miss out on The Pecan Shed - and there is an antiques district downtown, if you must).

To understand fully what I mean, go visit the Bar-L, or the P2 (I'm partial to the Bar-L because of its beautiful, smoky, unapologetically grungy retro-glamour), sit in your car under the awning, and have the carhop bring you a red draw. In your car. In a to-go cup, if you ask for it.

Not that you're likely to get drunk off them, because a red draw consists of light beer (Bud Light being the preferred variety) mixed liberally with tomato juice. The cognoscenti order them spicy, with creole and salt, so that in effect, you're drinking a Bloody Mary with limited sexual experience. Or the carhop will just bring you a bottle of beer. Whatever.

You can go to an actual dinner theater in Wichita Falls. Who has dinner theater anymore? If you're me, you get the backstage tour, which is incredibly cool because the Backdoor Theatre is housed in the old icehouse, and behind one stage you can see the pulley system for hoisting blocks of ice up from the loading dock. At the spectacular River Bend Nature Center, our guide let us pet snakes, lizards, turtles, and a tame prairie dog, and demonstrated how brown recluses will just back away slowly if you stick your finger in their cage and try to touch them (warning: do not try this at home). I'm itching to get into the Railroad Museum, which has lots of vintage railroad cars and is next door to the old depot, which now holds a farmers' market on weekends. But best of all the Railroad Museum holds the little hut that was the very first Texas Travel Information Center in Wichita Falls, circa 1936. Made me mist right up, it did.

You can tour a city founding father's home at the Kell House, or browse the galleries and sculpture garden at the Kemp Center for the Arts (the city's first public library building, and conveniently right across the street from the Bar-L). The Museum of North Texas History is huge and extensive, and takes up the former offices of a bank downtown, still decorated with the cheap paneling and shag carpet that defined the well-dressed 1970s workplace. And oh, my gosh, the Fire and Police Museum! They haven't got a building yet, just a couple of tin quonset huts, but they have a breathtaking collection of fire engines, fire chief cars, police cars, artifacts, and memorabilia, all carefully stored away with military precision and brought out to display on special occasions.

And, of course, there's the Littlest Skyscraper, the generally accepted story of whose origin seems fairly unlikely, but there it is.

Just outside of town, Lake Arrowhead State Park remains beautiful, though the lake is terribly low. A huge prairie dog colony shares space with picnic arbors and campgrounds, and the prairie dogs have probably eaten their share of french fries, exhibiting neither shyness, nor the girlish figures that wild dogs have. They are ridiculously cute.

So that's Wichita Falls: go there if you can, bring your mountain bike or your road bike or both, and you don't have to drink the water if it bothers you. Just stick to red draws and you'll be fine.

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At July 23, 2014 11:44 AM, Anonymous crosspalms said...

Welcome back! I'd never heard of a red draw before this morning, and now I want one. Or two. And I want to see the littlest skyscraper -- I think my kitchen's bigger than that. If you can convince me Texas is all you, Lyle Lovett and Wendy Davis, I'll cheerfully visit, but I keep hearing about this Perry guy.

At July 23, 2014 7:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

During the primaries for the 2012 election, some visitors from Iowa filled out one of our surveys. "We love Texas!" they wrote in the comments field. "But can you please come take your governor back?"

At July 24, 2014 12:31 PM, Anonymous crosspalms said...

If they had come to Chicago a few years ago, they could have written the same thing!


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