In Search of True Texas: To Waco and back again

“This is the height of Texas living!” Joe exclaimed, transfixed by the object of our Waco roadtrip.

I imagine that’s a common thought among Waco visitors, most of whom are middle-aged women making the pilgrimage to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ urban canvas, which they have not only “fixed up,” as the title of their show suggests, but also, with their neo-utopian marketplace Magnolia, transformed into a destination. 

But there are precisely two schools of Waco tourists: the aforementioned viewers of Home and Garden Television, and Joe, my younger brother. The former group intends to study the simplicity of repurposed farm goods, ironically passed off as “style,” while consuming exorbitantly-priced lattes–an expense that is somehow justified by the fact that the beverage was hand-crafted in the Gaines’ own bakery and is now adorned by heart-shaped foam. When sipping those drinks and perusing the aesthetic brainchildren of the celebrity couple, “the height of Texas living” almost certainly comes to mind. Yet, the latter Waco tourist spoke the phrase a healthy dozen miles from downtown, beelining for the subject of his, and only his, central Texas fantasies: the Royal Flush.

It had been about a year since I first suggested to Joe he visit me in Texas. After pondering what might interest him in the state he knew little about, he proposed, “I want to go to Waco!”

That’s a sentence very few people have ever spoken, or heard, especially outside the context of HGTV. But quickly he explained his reasoning. The Generation Z jock-type that he is, his extent of Texas tourism knowledge began and ended with YouTube videos he had seen of the Royal Flush, a daunting waterslide in the backwoods of Waco that propels its riders down a slick, saturated incline before launching them skyward over a blue pool of triumph. The activity, easily glamorized by GoPro videos of evenly-tanned, six-packed teens, is understandably attractive to a child who sees himself as one. Not to mention, the utter name “Royal Flush,” which shares its comedic value with the type of humor most frequently utilized by my brother and his all-too-popular high school cohorts, is on-brand for the clientele it wins.

The Road

It was early afternoon when I received the ultimate text I can get from my child of a brother. 

“Fire up the grill, ole Joe’s coming in hot!”

I’ll spare the details that led to that phrase’s ubiquitous use between the two of us (and only the two of us) and just tell you that it translates to “my plane landed.” 

That was my cue to wrap up my shopping at a nearby Ross and slide over to San Antonio International Airport, where on this July 4th my stars and stripes shirt and cowboy hat was hardly the most patriotic attire. A patron of Frontier Airlines unashamedly squeezed his body–one that fit the profile you can imagine for someone taking a discount airline from Florida to Texas–into an American flag onesie.

Joe, an elitist when he chooses to be, appeared somewhat dazed from the previous two hours of sharing a pressurized tin can with more of the like, but quickly perked up when he saw my hat. He scanned the terminal and found just one other Texan crown, worn by a tourism concierge–a scarcity he used as evidence to indict my attire as a futile attempt to assimilate with, as Lawrence Wright states so eloquently in his book God Save Texas, a “nostalgia for an ersatz past that is largely an artifact of Hollywood.” Nevertheless, Joe happily wore the hat when I offered it for our walk out to the car.

Texas really is all about stereotypes, mostly imagined by outsiders but very much played into by locals. That makes the subtleties of this vast and diverse state all the more amazing to me, now in some sense a “local,” as I discover the state’s beauty interwoven with the amusing Texan landmarks deemed authentic post-hoc. But it also makes the outsider, especially Joe, oblivious to those subtle charms, which must appear as exceptions to the rules of bigger, bolder, and with more firepower. 

“I want to take a picture and post it on Instagram with the caption ‘Everything is bigger in Texas,’” Joe told me as we sped up I-35, playing perfectly into my point with his conditions. “I don’t even care what the picture is of, I just want to use that caption.”

Luckily for him, I already intended on stopping at the epitome of ‘bigger in Texas’: Buc-ee’s. The all-in-one travel stop with hundreds of gas pumps, sparkling clean restrooms of seemingly-endless stalls, 69-cent soft drinks, made-to-order sandwiches, fresh fudge, a bakery, jerky of any kind of game you’d like, and Texas-themed home decor for sale, one step above Cracker Barrel and, if you squint, just a step or two below Southern Living, is the Texas road trip stop.

Buc-ees’ sheer size allow them to reign supreme few and far between, a geographic dilution celebrated, and romanticized, by their roadside billboards over a hundred miles out reminding the road tripper of the top two reasons to stop, namely: “#1 and #2.” Not only does Buc-ee’s reign in Texas, with each store’s jurisdiction larger than the airspace of a medium-sized city, but they tower in size and success over their eastern competitors in the growing trend of gas n’ grub. 

That’s my alliterative attempt at coining a term for popular, upscale gas station eateries mislabeled in their praise as “convenience stores.” Buc-ee’s, like the Sheetz’s and QT’s of the world, offers touch-screen ordering and a smorgasbord of fresh, hot food items. Likening Buc-ee’s fudge or Wawa’s hoagies to whatever products you might pick up at a 7-11 is akin to placing Panera in the same class as McDonald’s. So I propose elevating their status with a new term. If you don’t like ‘gas n’ grub,’ how does ‘curbside counter’ or ‘drive-by deli’ sound?

Whatever you want to call it, their greatness, especially Buc-ee’s, cannot be ignored, even if its monstrous size, borderline-crude billboards, and ridiculous merchandise are mere sprinklings of that inauthentic, stereotypical Texas exhibited in the name of Lone Star liberty. Buc-ee’s did, however, perpetuate one stereotype accidentally. Their parking lots are the only true remnants of the lawless wild west. The most I’ve ever feared for my life was walking on the sidewalk-less pavement from my parking spot in another zip code through a four-way parking lot interchange regulated by zero stop signs. There, I faced on old Texan standoff between a Cummins truck and its driver bee-lining for the nearest diesel pump, a minivan that was somehow packed with seven children that all needed to urinate, and a Boy Scout bus whose leader was already eyeing the 75 mph sign on the highway. I can’t confirm that these are the true identities of the drivers I stood off against in that anarchic intersection, but I can confirm that you will encounter those same travelers inside any given Buc-ee’s at any given time.

Back on the highway, I offered Joe one of the ripe Fredericksburg peaches I had picked up from a roadside stand a few days prior to supplement the chicken wrap he had just inhaled. Fredericksburg, Texas, arbitrarily attractive to me because it shares its name with my Virginia home town, is nestled west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, a cooler, more verdant area conducive to finer agricultural products like wine, peaches, and pecans. These nuanced treasures are the kind of charms overshadowed by the brisket and beer version of Texas, perhaps as much hidden by Texans for their effeminate nature as ignored by visitors for their lack of boldness.

“Ummm…okay,” Joe responded, happy to eat but skeptical of my excitement for the fruit, clearly unaware of its value. 

“Eat it over the bag,” I urged, gesturing towards the smiling Buc-ee’s beaver mascot looking up from our new trash bag. I really preferred a light cleanup after this road trip rather than a deep, peach juice scrub.

I should have been more specific as he dug in while leaning over the outside of the bag, draped on his lap like a makeshift placemat, as the wet innards of the peach dripped precariously down the ruffled plastic, threatening my car’s interior.

When I had finally convinced him to open the bag, he was essentially finished. Maybe the peach’s smallishness also contributes to its non-Texan feel. 

“Texas is so cool,” Joe gazed in wonder beyond both sides of the highway. “It’s so open and flat, you can see everything.”

He’s used to a more congested interstate corridor, between Washington, D.C. and Virginia’s Fredericksburg, and he was also simply happy to be out of the clutches of our parents, with whom he had just spent a vacation week as an only child. “It’s so different from Virginia or Ohio or Florida,” citing some of his most recently-visited states.

Somewhat ironically, I heard the exact opposite from my old college roommate Andrew barely a day later. “I was shocked at how similar it looked to Ohio,” he told me, having recently played a frisbee tournament in an Austin suburb. “It was so flat.”

Admittedly, Andrew is from a much more rural portion of the Buckeye state than Joe had seen, but their differing opinions say a lot about perspective and expectation, one perhaps fueled by cowboy stereotypes and the other happy to see anything more rustic than the east coast.

Most Texans live in the triangle tipped by Dallas in the north, San Antonio in the south, and Houston in the east. So a road trip from San Antonio to Waco, about 90 miles south of Dallas, is a drive through real Texas. Once past the Longhorns’ stadium and red-clay capitol building in downtown Austin, Joe and I began to notice what real Texans value. And it’s remarkably similar to what Joe, I, and many of our friends do as well: Ross.

Perhaps that’s too specific, but their motto speaks for any of the stores in question, “Dress for Less.” At just about every developed highway exit between San Antonio and Waco stands a strip mall equipped with at least two of Ross, Marshall’s, Burlington, or T.J. Max. If any three are present in one location, Joe celebrates a “Trifecta.”

And given the solid chunk of Texas’ 30 million people living on that stretch of I-35, those strip malls appear at such an absurd frequency that you can hardly swing a dead cat in central Texas without hitting a Ross.

I certainly value Ross for its inexpensive, dressier shirts and cheap shoes, of which they carry a surplus in the ridiculous size I need. But as a baseball nerd, I cherish Ross principally for its random collection of fitted hats, generally marked off at least 70% from retail price, often featuring officially-licensed Major League Baseball caps from obscure teams located nowhere near the store. In fact, I had been looking through those hats in San Antonio when Joe sent his arrival text.

Joe loves Ross because, on a high schooler’s budget, it’s the best place to stock up on the clothing “fashionable” enough for his wardrobe–clothing that, in 2019 for a lacrosse-playing frat boy wannabe, appears more like what you’d wear deep sea fishing or to a beachside bar than for any of the activities he and his counterparts actually participate in. 

Needless to say, Joe was thrilled with the local haberdasheries.

The Brazos

But first on our Waco agenda for this July 4th evening was the event to end all events, at least as far as Texan patriotism goes: the eighth annual Fourth on the Brazos Corn Dog Eating Contest. Before I get too far, the Brazos is a river that runs right through Waco southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. But to answer your first question: Yes, somehow the Wacans (I don’t know if Waco citizens have a demonym, but this seems as good as any) had put on seven previous corn dog eating contests that ended with few enough hospitalizations or deaths to merit holding an eighth. 

Fourth on the Brazos resembled every other official town Independence Day event I’ve ever seen. Rows of food vendors surrounded a field of people much more interested in waiting for the sun to set than interacting with whatever overzealous, microphoned individual was trying to elicit audience participation from the center stage. But the moment the corn dog contest was announced, the crowd sprang to life, rushing the stage to form a mosh pit more impressive than at any non-country music concert.

Maybe the most disappointing side note of this trip was that Joe and I had not learned of the contest until it was too late to enter. Although, as the contestants took the stage, it occurred to me that may have been a blessing. Joe and I could have linked up, put on an oversized shirt, stuffed it with pillows, and still been smaller than half the eaters. But there’s also a certain wanderlust for the ability to say that you participated in a Texas corn dog eating contest.

It pains my journalistic spirit to simply say the contest went about as you’d expect. Ten men smashed fried mystery meat into their faces using varying strategies; some slid the dog off the stick, one saturated his dogs in water before presumably trying to slide them down his throat, and another somehow ended up smashing crumbles of corn dog into his mouth like that one kid at a four year old’s birthday party who has clearly never been taught how to effectively eat cake. All the while, a woman who was definitely not being paid enough, paraded behind the men holding a giant Styrofoam corn dog, which was given to the winner either as a trophy or a model of what he could expect to appear in his toilet in anywhere from one and 72 hours. 

The winner, by the way, ate six “Texas-sized” corn dogs in three minutes. It’s safe to say that if either Joe or I had participated, the enduring icebreaker fun fact would have been “I once lost a Texas corn dog eating contest by five dogs.”

It was 7:20, and the sun was still blazing on the exposed Waco festival. Since the fireworks weren’t set to begin until 9:15, and since Joe and I were not bound by a picnic setup, a family agenda, or anything for that matter, there was no chance we’d stay put for two hours. Next door, however, was a veritable playground by our estimation in McLane Stadium–the home field of the Baylor Bears football team. Joe and I, easily-entertained sports geeks, wandered over to at least peer into the hallowed halls once reigned by Robert Griffin III before his single season of NFL mediocrity followed by a deep dive into the obscurity guaranteed by the job title “Cleveland Browns quarterback.”

Fortunately for us, however, a steady stream of partygoers was passing through a set of glass doors on the side of the stadium, gathering in an official-looking lobby before ascending an inviting escalator into what a sign called “The Baylor Club.” In the lobby sat a welcome table where two women greeted the guests with a plastic wristband, but it was hardly a TSA-level checkpoint. The white women’s attention was easily diverted while they greeted a gaggle of presumably high-rolling fans smiling in anticipation of all the free wine they’d be drinking at this proven non-exclusive event as Joe and I slipped up the escalator in no need of wristbands. Our intentions were pure, mind you.

Upstairs we waltzed, surprisingly not that underdressed (or maybe unsurprisingly because this was a 4th of July party in a football stadium), into a reception the likes of which I can only compare to the all-you-can-eat FOX Sports Club at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. Conceited Caucasians milled about, always with a drink so at least one hand looked natural while they improvised comfortable gestures with the other, attempting to make casual conversation with similarly-looking fans who have also shelled out large sums of money for amenities they now felt entitled to enjoy. At least that’s how I profiled the crowd with my judgmental eyes.

Joe and I easily could have scored some free food, but in the name of ethics we just strolled out to the outdoor seating section and enjoyed the Waco air while we used the stadium’s wifi to post Instagram videos of our wiffle ball adventures earlier in the day. Nothing identified a Miller childhood summer back in the day quite like wiffle ball.]

Ben Lawler would have been proud of the whole charade, and if there’s one thing he taught me aside from ‘act confident and you won’t be questioned’’ it’s to make quick work of shenanigans like these. So Joe elected that there was no sense in not going to Ross since we had to wait for the fireworks anyway.

After a march back to the car and a quick drive down the highway, the sun was beginning to set as we located Ross–the only store in a long mall opened at this late hour on a holiday. They were set to close at 9 p.m. Nothing says Texas like “we’ll sell you cheap clothes as long as you want, but I’ll be damned if I miss the fireworks.”

As darkness descended on Waco, so did its citizens on the Brazos–particularly on its many bridges. After parking, Joe and I sped walked to a pedestrian bridge where we enjoyed a pleasant, but distant view at the fireworks shot off beyond the stadium, about a half mile from our vantage point. The official show was supplemented by a few independent sideshows visible from our central location. It’s quite amusing to watch the fruits of a Texan’s attempt to walk the tightrope between entertainment and certain injury that the lore of midsummer pyrotechnics promises. 

The Slide

The real fireworks, and the purpose of our entire trip, came the next morning. Anticipation built as our surroundings drifted further and further from what can be considered western civilization as we navigated deep into the bundok to BSR Cable Park.

The park itself, I assure you, can only be legal in Texas. A narrow gravel road leads up to the main office, along which parking just kind of happens without much rhyme or reason. It appears that a wealthy Texan decided he could make more money by opening up part of his land as a wet and wild recreation center. In one lake, or pond I suppose, are mounted several ramps and other such obstacles for wakeboarding. At the back of the park is a large wave pool for legitimate surfing, around which snakes a lazy river that, based on Trip Advisor reviews, may contain some actual snakes in its warm water. But the crown jewel, the height of Texas living if you ask Joe, is certainly the Royal Flush–four parallel slides that shoot the rider straight down before redirecting him skyward with just enough velocity to make the experience terrifying without rendering the water landing “life-threatening,” although after some of my landings I may argue otherwise. The lifeguards providing oversight to the attraction might as well be anti-lifeguards because they launch all four sliders simultaneously, creating a prime opportunity for midair collisions upon end-of-slide flight.

The stately slide empties into a gleaming blue pool, surrounded by a handful of picnic tables and some wooded shade–a beacon of summer paradise, which, upon Joe’s sight, earned his on-brand praise: “the height of Texas living.”

Joe wasted no time after setting his belongings on a table before charging toward the entrance staircase, not even securing his wallet and phone, which I concealed for him inside his bag as he began outfitting himself with a required life jacket. There, I caught up to him before we both ascended a challenging climb up a sheer wooden incline carpeted by astroturf, which throughout the course of the afternoon contributed to leg-day-like gains. 

“Are you ready for the inaugural flush?” I shouted through my grin, a few steps behind Joe on the incline the park intended to pass off as a staircase. 

He looked back, smirking, too excited to condemn my intentionally-suggestive question.

Since we arrived at the park’s opening, there was no line delaying our first slide, so Joe was flying down as soon as he arrived at the top. I had barely reached the pinnacle myself by the time I saw him careening down the chute, briefly skid against the left side wall, and reorient himself toward the center before submitting to the physics of flight and flinging skyward in a posture seemingly unfriendly to a water landing. But in his compact, nimble athleticism, he used his momentum to flip backwards and land on his feet in the deep, beckoning pool.

I’d seen him flip off diving boards for years but was still impressed by his physical improvisation. A few girls also watching from the top deck gasped.

“Can you do that?” one asked.

“Flip?” I inquired. “No, I’d probably land on my face.”

I hadn’t flipped off a diving board since I was 10 years old and had a substantially shorter rotational diameter. I was up for some childlike fun, but I didn’t want to attempt my first flip of my 74-inch frame backwards at 30 miles an hour.

As Joe swam off I hurled down, also contacting the left wall and for the first time in my life aware of the functionality of eyelashes, which fended off the unrelenting spray kicked back by my heels.

The landing was much less epic. I didn’t really do much of anything and somehow broke the water’s surface tension with my feet–a clean, but nevertheless forceful entrance into the pool. The limp noodle strategy, as it were, backfired on my second attempt, as my momentum carried me more supine than upright, and I contacted the water by the broad side of my ribcage, assessing my welfare as I bobbed to the top. The life jacket forgave some of the firm contact, but I still feared some internal bleeding and minor organ damage once the adrenaline wore off. Fortunately, no symptoms of the former injuries appeared. 

On a subsequent slide, I successfully shifted my momentum forward and landed in a pseudo-cannonball style, my right thigh and glute penetrating the pond with a powerful thud, producing a splash impressive enough in size and sound to elicit a few “oooh’s” from the onlookers, more in sympathy to my apparent pain than in awe of the spectacle, according to Joe. 

That pain, while slightly noticeable at the time, manifested itself more substantially in the following days. I came home with quite the bruise on my hamstring.

Meanwhile, Joe mastered. On his back, on his stomach, head first, feet first, he could fly off the chute, twirl, and land comfortably on his feet. Oh, what I’d give to be 12 again. Or at least the size of a 12-year-old; Joe’s actually 18. 

They say that time flies when you’re having fun. Experience tells me that’s true. What they fail to mention, though, is that time absolutely stands still when repeated physical assaults deteriorate the body from the outside while an unnaturally lengthy influx of adrenaline drains it from within. Such was my realization when Joe and I had not been at BSR Cable Park for three whole hours, one of which was spent on the lazy river, and we were both waiting for the other to call it a day.

I may be too old to pull off a high-speed water pummel unscathed, but I’m still young enough to regenerate energy with pizza and Powerade. So after a quick lunch, I decided we would best spend our Waco afternoon seeing the sights that the more high class tourists of the town sought out–that is, Magnolia Market.

The Market

Chip and Joanna’s crown achievement of gentrification in Waco is somewhat difficult to pin down. The defining feature of their “block” is a pair of 120-foot silos. The actual Magnolia Market is a multi-tiered craft fair pandering to the domestic type looking to find that perfect “piece” to make their kitchen more *insert cliche HGTV buzzword here.* Outside is a formidable turf surface with free-to-use lawn games, which Joe and I sized up for its potential wiffle ball dimensions should we ever return while the sun was not transforming the entire marketplace into the world’s most efficient melanoma factory. Surrounding the lawn, a dozen or so food trucks line the outside of the square for those working up an appetite while mentally redesigning their white picket fence domicile. So is the whole area called Magnolia Marketplace? Or just Magnolia? Or the Silos? I don’t know. And I didn’t stay long enough to find out.

I didn’t even go into the bakery, despite enthusiastic recommendations, because the queue to enter was at least a hundred people long. 

The entire spectacle, as a tourist attraction, was comparable to the American Pickers store in Nashville: a hoard of television fans rubbing shoulders in search of inspiration from their reality show idols with not nearly enough authenticity to go around.

A reasonable distance from both Dallas and Austin, Waco is a fine day on a Texas road trip. But if you’re looking to stay in the city for more than a few hours, I’d look elsewhere around town for “the height of Texas living.”

That night I caught up with my old college roommates via video chat. As I sat in the living room of our AirBnB, Michael Keller’s interest was piqued by the wall decor appearing behind me in the video feed.

“Steve, is that shiplap?” he asked, a little too excited by the idea that perhaps I had somehow begun interior decorating myself.

I had actually never heard of shiplap before, but after Michael explained the rather unusual concept we concluded that the ornament was not real shiplap but a similar slab designed to give the urban home an ironically rustic look.

The space, which was no doubt arranged with a “modern farmhouse” Fixer Upper theme in mind, also featured two six-square windows to nowhere hanging on the opposite wall. 

The Return

The following morning, with nothing on the agenda, Joe and I packed up and slowly made our way down I-35 toward San Antonio, where we had a hotel booked. Taking on Texas’ challenge, we stopped at several Ross stores before abandoning our shopping spree when it became apparent that each location somehow had the same collection of overstock men’s clothing. 

In Austin, we meandered around Zilker Park for an hour, sweating through our t-shirts, where the only thing ruining the view of the city across Lady Bird Lake was the swarm of paddleboarders and kayakers in a perfect illustration of the capital’s swelling population. 

What Austin has gained in locals, San Antonio has in tourists, or perhaps locals choosing to act like tourists. It doesn’t help that San Antonio’s two main attractions, the Alamo and the river walk, coexist in the geographical heart of the city–a pairing that has attracted the buildup of even more tourist traps like the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum and every restaurant competing to sell the cheapest margarita for the most money.

For the amount of times I’ve walked along the river downtown, squeezing between vacationing couples trying to enjoy their chips and salsa and military guys navigating to their next bar, I’m honestly shocked I haven’t seen anyone fall in the river. I’m sure it happens, and it looks to be an unbelievably dirty dip that local medical students should explore for previously-undiscovered waterborne illnesses.

As it is, I’m not a big fan of that section of the river walk. I took Joe north a few blocks where the sidewalk arteries unclog a bit, and a walker can actually enjoy the old Spanish architecture and the many hanging plants adding atmosphere along the way. 

In fact, leaving the river walk crowds behind is much like navigating away from any given Texas city on the highway. As the population density decreases, the surroundings come into clearer view, revealing their serenity to those willing to traverse the vastness of the state.

That vastness is unmistakable on the long return from the Alamo City to Del Rio, always a mildly depressing drive for me as it signals the end of a usually-relaxing respite from responsibility. But, especially after a weekend like this, the serenity is clear too. Coal trains chug alongside me for miles, rugged ranchers sport their cowboy hats for practicality, peach stands await passing Texas motorists looking to stretch their legs after hours inside a Dodge pickup, and a harsh sun beats down on an unrelenting landscape of cacti and cattle in a majestic display of Texas stereotypes–stereotypes, which, in their vast natural habitat, enchant in their authenticity. 

Those that can appreciate that don’t need rustic decor or craft beer or a river view of the state capitol to truly taste Texas. They have their own standard, fueled by the fierce independence still championed by the state, outfitted perhaps by Ross, and demonstrated well by a waterslide that tests the limits of sensibility and challenges the standard of Texas living.


2 thoughts on “In Search of True Texas: To Waco and back again

  1. Selden Fritschner July 15, 2019 — 10:33 am

    You didn’t see all of real Texas if you didn’t visit College Station where you can still walk on wooden sidewalks to the bars and shops just off campus.

    1. I’ll have to schedule a trip for the fall! Can you score me some football tickets?

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