My Funny Abilene
By Teresa S. Newton
Travel time from:
- Austin - 5 hours /
- Brownsville - 9 hours /
- Dallas - 3 hours /
- Houston - 7 hours /
- San Antonio - 4.5 hours /
- Lubbock - 3 hours /
- El Paso - 8 hours
Cotton and oil may no longer be king, but there's still plenty of wind - and good humor.
My trip to Abilene has been a long time coming. I've known Pennie Boyett for 18 years, and she's told me so much about her old hometown. She talked about the people and places, the myths and legends, and how beautiful West Texas can be.
I wanted to see Abilene with her as my tour guide. So after years of talking about it, we're finally heading out.
We roll in on I-20 Business, past Frontier Texas!, a history-amusement venue, and a big pink flamingo, one of numerous outdoor sculptures downtown. We pull into the parking lot of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, located in the old Texas and Pacific Depot. Across the street, a friendly looking dinosaur peers at a Volkswagen Beetle atop a two-story building.
Obviously, Abilene has a sense of humor.
After gathering up the usual tourist brochures, we stretch our legs downtown. Pennie points out the Paramount Theatre, the Grace Cultural Center and other buildings, noting their historical or sentimental importance.
We step inside Texas Star Trading Company, billed as the "National Store of Texas." Pennie is drawn to a heavenly coffee aroma. "That's 'Abilene Delight,'" says the gal at the counter, pouring Pennie a cup.
I cruise through displays of touristy Texas goodies, laughing at the T-shirts that declare "West Texas girls don't wear lip gloss in a wind storm." Good advice.
A few blocks over, we stop outside Monks Coffee Shop with a "Keep Abilene Boring" T-shirt in the window. "I've gotta have one of those," Pennie says. She picks out a green one from the shelves, passing up the "What Happens In Abilene, Leaves Abilene" apparel.
Back on North First Street, we find even more funny stuff at the small park by the visitors' center. The city displays various outdoor sculptures each year, with some becoming permanent exhibits, Pennie says. A concrete sculpture looks like a man praying on one side, and on the other, it's a face with mouth wide open and little pigs hopping out. Nearby is a tall rusty metal pig with long legs and wheels. Further west, we find giant antlers.
"This is jackalope country, isn't it?" I ask.
"Definitely," Pennie confirms.
She notes that downtown's east-west streets are numbers and the north-south streets are trees, many for trees that don't grow here.
"If they named them after the trees here, it would be Mesquite 1, Mesquite 2, Mesquite 3 ..." Pennie laughs.
A sense of humor is an important quality out on the plains. Between the heat, wind, drought, oil industry crashes and military cutbacks, it might be all you have.
For centuries, these plains were empty except for some deer, prairie dogs and the visiting bison and Native Americans. Spanish explorers rode through in the 1540s. U.S. troops arrived at Fort Phantom Hill, northeast of town, in 1851. Buffalo Gap served as the first county seat. The railroad town of Abilene took the moniker of the Kansas town, destination of cattle drives that passed by.
Over the years, cotton and oil helped the economy. Nowadays, the major employers include Dyess Air Force Base and three universities: Abilene Christian University, Hardin-Simmons University and McMurry University. Hunting and fishing here remain popular with sportsmen. Wind is the newest commodity, with giant windmills popping up throughout the region.
Our walk has left us hungry, so we head to Harold's Pit Bar-B-Q. Pennie expounds on the hot water cornbread, so I order that with a brisket sandwich. The sandwich is wonderful, and the two corn pones with butter are a true dessert. As we start to leave, Harold walks to the front, thanks everyone for coming and sings a beautiful version of How Great Thou Art. Dinner and a show!
Next is a driving tour of town, past the colleges, landmarks, beautiful churches and houses. We cruise through her old neighborhood, past her former home and those of friends.
She takes me back to my truck, then it's south to Buffalo Gap. In the 1860s and 1870s, buffalo hunters camped at this break in the Callahan Divide, an east-west line of hills. It was a bustling town until Abilene took the county seat away in 1883. Today, about 460 folks live here.
We check in at a bed-and-breakfast near Buffalo Gap Historical Village. The b&b, a former parsonage brought in from nearby Clyde, is a simple white house, and we have it all to ourselves. We unload our things and head back to the assortment of small-town buildings, including the original Taylor County Courthouse. The village hosts vintage baseball games, using 1883 rules, but there aren't any this weekend, unfortunately.
At closing time, Pennie suggests a quick drive in the country. South on FM 89 is Abilene State Park and Lake Abilene, where she pulls in. The lake is one of four nearby to satisfy anglers. Her family visited the lake often when her girls were little, she says.
We cruise down the road discussing the wind farms while we pass windmills on the horizon. Northeast of the road was Camp Barkeley, a World War II training facility and POW camp.
The road intersects with US 277 at Coronado's camp. The Spanish explorer parked here in the 1540s, and it is one of Pennie's favorite spots. She reminisces about the weekend outdoor concerts hosted by the barbecue place on the site.
Back at the b&b, I call for reservations at nearby Perini Ranch Steakhouse. There's a two-hour wait, and it's well worth it. I expect a lot from this legendary place, and they deliver. The steak, sides and bread pudding are pure heaven.
Next morning, I quiz some folks at Abilene State Park about the yurts (year-round recreational tents). The permanent tents are popular, and reservations are steady since the park added them a couple of years ago. Pennie and I peek into one. Looks pretty comfortable with a bunk bed, sofa, microwave and small table. There's even air conditioning.
The rest of the morning we walk around the stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the buffalo wallow where the buffalo ... well ... wallowed (it's a fishing pond today). A bird blind on one trail is maintained by the Big Country Audubon Society. We park on one of the two benches inside and look for birds on a list from the park office.
For lunch, we try Lola's in Buffalo Gap. Lola Molina dishes up some green enchiladas, beans, salad and tasty Indian fry bread. She and two gentlemen diners keep us entertained with amusing tales. Afterwards, Pennie heads back home, so I go it alone.
Earlene Hutto meets me at the birdwatching house at Cedar Gap Farm near Tuscola. She and her husband, Homer, built the 25-by-40-foot structure and a nature trail so others could enjoy watching songbirds. Their place is a regular stop for schoolchildren and Audubon Society members. Admission is free, but donations keep the feeders filled.
"Sharing it is so important to me," says Earlene, a semi-retired speech pathologist. She spends her days filling feeders, making suet and checking on houses for bluebirds and black-capped vireos.
Large windows look out to a birder's delight. Feeders, both homemade and store-bought, dangle from trees and poles. Mesquite limbs fashioned into a few arbors are covered with chicken wire that lets songbirds in but keeps predators out. And there are birds, lots and lots of birds.
Earlene and I spend the afternoon watching songbirds and talking about their personalities and funny antics.
The wind is howling for my last day, and I don't want to be outside. A driving tour is in order. Down FM 89 again to Coronado's camp, then straight. My atlas shows a shortcut to FM 126, the road to Merkel, that takes me close to a few towering windmills.
Later, I stop for two historical markers at Mulberry Canyon. The canyon was part of the Military Road and Butterfield Stage-Overland Mail routes. Cornelia Clark Fort crashed here in 1943, the first American woman pilot to die on active military duty.
Back in town, I search for a "linear air park" shown on a local map. I end up at Dyess Air Force Base, and the guard rolls his eyes when he sees my tourist map. It's the base's huge aircraft collection, but tours are only for groups, he says. What is open is the Dyess Visitors Center and Memorial Park, just north of the base, so I go there. The center highlights the life of Lt. Col. William E. Dyess, while the outdoor park honors Dyess AFB men and women who died in service.
Later, I randomly pick Sharon's Barbecue from Pennie's list of local eateries. On the way, I drive through downtown to look at more architecture. On the side of an older brick building: Laughter Funeral Home.
Laughter. I should have expected that.
(Later, I found out this is pronounced law-ter, so the joke's on me.)
Now north to Fort Phantom Hill. Only the chimneys and a couple of buildings from this outpost remain today. "Imagine living here back then," a woman says before catching up with her sons. Back then, there were no noises from cars and jets, no monolithic windmills on the horizon, no lakes nearby. Not much but miles and miles of miles and miles. Rumor has it an officer's wife burned the place down.
Guess she didn't have a sense of humor.
- Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-727-7704, www.abilenevisitors.com
- Abilene State Park (325-572-3204)
- Buffalo Gap Historic Village (325-572-3365, www.buffalogap.com)
- Cedar Gap Farm (325-572-4738, www.bigcountryaudubon.org/birding-locations/cedar-gap-farm/)
- Dyess AFB Visitors Center and Memorial Park (325-793-2199, www.abilenevisitors.com)
- Fort Phantom Hill (325-677-1309, www.fortphantom.org)
- Frontier Texas! (www.frontiertexas.com)
- Harold's Bar-B-Q (325-672-4451)
- Lola's Mexican Food Cafe (325-572-3731)
- Perini Ranch Steakhouse (325-572-3339, www.periniranch.com)
- Sharon's Barbecue (325-672-3330, www.sharonsbarbeque.com)