In Praise of Rail Road Towns

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“TRAIN!”

–Gordy, in Stand By Me, 1996

Many of the Crazy Train’s excursions lead us through tiny dots on the map, born of the railroads during westward expansion. Millions of acres lay in wait, untouched by a new breed of American explorers in search of a place to call their own. During the nineteenth century, a herd of iron horses stampeeded westward, forever changing the Western landscape. Likewise, decades later, when the US Department of Transportation paved a spiderweb of asphalt, most of the old railroad towns were bypassed, condemning them to a future of ambiguity. mccloud rail 1930s It was on one of these road trips that I made a connection I’d never made before. Usually, when we arrive in a town, I google its history, and we learn about any little interesting tidbits the town had—or still has—to offer. I usually read a little about how the town was founded, its subsequent growth, and its ultimate decline. Or, in some cases, what continues to keep it thriving.

mccloud train hauling logs It was in one of these obscure little ghost towns that I made an offhanded remark to the tone of, “gee. All these towns are named after railroad presidents and train muckety-mucks rather than the town founders.” My words were still hanging in the air above my head in a bubble as The Hub turned and looked at me in that, “you didn’t seriously just say that, did you?” expression he gets that is at times humorous, and at other times annoying as hell. “Oops. Yeah, Right. It’s a FANTASTIC idea to name those towns after railroad presidents!” I exclaimed, with a guilty giggle.

nera swobe californiaI laughed because, in a way, the Crazy Train has VERY close link to one such town. And what is this link, you may be wondering? In the northern California county of Siskiyou, there’s a tiny dot on the map called Swobe. Depending on which map you use, Swobe, California may, or may not, actually have roads. But, one thing it does not have is a population. Or buildings. Or a sign. Or a zip code. Or a train depot. Or ANYTHING. Swobe is pretty much just a dot on the map.

swobemap So just where did the name for this tiny dot originate? Just who was this “Swobe” person, and why is there a dot bearing his name? My great-grandfather, Dwight Milton Swobe, was born in 1878 in Nebraska, the son of Civil War veteran Col. Thomas Swobe and his wife, Alzina. Col Swobe worked his way up the ranks in the Union Army, ultimately retiring as Quartermaster. It was upon his retirement that he became a partner in Shears, Markel & Swobe of the Millard Hotel, Omaha’s premier hotel at the time, and one of Nebraska’s political centers. His company also provided dining cars for many railroads. swobe dudes It seems that Dwight Swobe got the railroad bug from his dad, because all accounts I’ve read have him working for railroads as soon as he graduated from college. The railroads brought Dwight incrementally west, became a widely respected short line railroad man, and ultimately became president of the McCloud River Railroad in 1921. He saw the Railroad through the devastation of the 1930s, making use of the line for lumber transport. The company was beloved by its employees and became known by them as Mother McCloud for continuing to offer its employees credit in company stores throughout the Depression, and then forgiving their debt afterwards. Dwight raised a family in Berkeley, and, sadly, passed away at the age of 65 in 1943. Mccloud train After his death, McCloud River Railroad honored him by naming a “town” after him. It’s actually just a mile of tracks between markers 12 and 13 along a picturesque span of the Railroad, but the real honor was in the gesture. swobe original mainline 2 Swobe former site 1 Although we rarely depend on the railroads for transportation these days, The Mc Cloud River Railroad, now the McCloud Railway operates as a passenger excursion train, and an 80 mile portion of the former line is being converted into a multi-use trail for hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and other non-motorized sports. train track For a glimpse of my great-grandfather’s railroad, check out the scenery in the classic movie Stand By Me. The infamous bridge the boys run across to escape the oncoming train is the McCloud River Railroad’s Lake Britton Bridge in Burney Falls Memorial State Park.stand04 ***Special THANKS to the people of the McCloud River Railroad and the McCloud Railroad for posting these pictures that I borrowed from you on your webpage. Learn and see more history at mcclourriverrailroad.com, greatshastarailtrail.org/history/railroad-history-summary/, trainweb.org/mccloudrails, ancestry.com, and to my mom, my aunt, and my awesome 2nd cousin Gordon for your assistance in the ongoing Swobe family research!***

Crystal Balls and The Stud: Before the Crazy Train

The Adventures of the Crazy Train typically follows the adventures of all five of us, and it’s usually confined to the borders of the Lone Star State. But, as today is New Year’s Eve, I felt like shaking things up. In honor of the Ball Drop in Times Square tonight, I’m sharing a story from the annals of Crazy Train History. From before there was a Crazy Train. From when there were just two newlyweds on their first adventure.

Yep. I’m going to tell you a little ditty about our honeymoon! I know, right? Y’all are SO LUCKY!

Actually, it’s not about our ENTIRE honeymoon because, well, y’all just don’t have THAT much free time. And honestly, I don’t think we are quite that interesting. It’s about one day of our honeymoon. A beautiful spring day in May 2002 that in no way, shape, or form, resembles today at all. But, I digress.

No, it’s not a sexy story about a secluded romantic island beach with the two of us surrounded by scantily-clad natives fanning us with palm fronds and feeding us exotic fruit between trysts of naked frolicking in the frothy surf of our own private beach. No. Anyone who knows us knows that nothing about that is even remotely believable. No. This is a story about how we took a romantic two-week rainbow Trafalgar bus tour around the UK with 30 strangers, visiting a different city almost every day.

I think this was the first—and the last—time we ever took a tour where we couldn’t call the shots. We went where they told us and when they told us, BUT, we did this for three reasons: Tennents Velvet, Kilkenny, and Guinness. The good stuff from the Mother Ship. The creamy, frothy, deliciousness from the British Isles in unlimited quantities was the driving force behind our decision to hop aboard the Rainbow Bus and follow the Trafalgar itinerary. No drinking and driving on the wrong side of the road for us! We would drink and ride!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2015/01/img_9194.jpgAbout halfway through our trip, the Rainbow Bus pulled into the Irish city of Tully in County Kildare for a visit to the Comhlacht Groi Naisiunta na hElreann Teo. Or, in English, The Irish National Stud. A horse farm. A big horse farm. If you want to get down to brass tacks, it’s kind of an equine-whorehouse where rich people with really expensive pedigreed horses take them in order to impregnate them by other really expensive pedigreed horses so they can make really expensive super-pedigreed baby uberhorses for racing or status— or just so they can have extra super mega expensive horses.

We knew “The Stud,” as it’s called, was on the itinerary for the morning, but it was the afternoon we were looking forward to. See, I like horses as much as the next girl, but touring a horse farm and hearing about horse breeding is only fun for so long. Tales of “Tommy the Teaser” were stimulating, of course, but it was the afternoon in Waterford that we were excited about.

Yep, Waterford. As in Waterford Crystal. We wanted to see the Waterford Factory and watch the artisans create the sparkly masterpieces. And to SHOP in the FACTORY STORE! Ahhhhh….. Nothing gets me all giddy like Waterford Crystal at factory prices. Especially on a weak Euro day. And with free international shipping on purchases over €200? WOO-HOO! I can spend €200 on Waterford in my sleep—especially back in the days of two incomes and no kids.

So, I’m sure you’re wondering what this has to do with New Years Eve. Well, if you’ve ever paid attention to anything besides the musical acts and mindless banter by the commentators (most of whom I have NO CLUE who they are anymore) you would know that Waterford Crystal has EVERYTHING to do with the Ball Drop. The giant ball in Times Square is covered with 2,688 hand-made lead crystal triangles, imported from Waterford, Ireland. Each year, some are changed out with ones with updated designs.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2015/01/img_9193.jpgAt the Factory, there’s a replica of the Ball, and it’s on display where you can see it up close. It’s amazing. After seeing it, I would LOVE to see the real thing in New York. But up close. I hate crowds, so Times Square on New Year’s Eve is probably the last place on the planet I ever want to be.

Back in 2002, they weren’t selling souvenir crystal triangles. But, over the years, I’ve seen that Waterford has started offering them. I may have to start a collection. Maybe the Crazy Train Christmas Tree could eventually look like the Times Square Ball. If The Hub started buying them on our anniversary, they’d start piling up quickly since he counts our anniversaries in dog years. (Theoretically, that’s SEVEN Waterford Crystal triangles a year!) Anniversaries in dog years? That’s another story for another day.

The Time we Took Our 9-Year Old Daughter to a Bar. On a School Night.

Yep. You read that right. We took our daughter to a bar on a school night. But we had a really, really good reason. And no, it wasn’t because we couldn’t find a babysitter.

You see, one of the best things about Texas is that we’ve got some amazing musical legends right here in our backyard. The Crazy Train is based just spitting distance from the Live Music Capital of the World, so we’ve got plenty of concert opportunities.

In 2012, The Hub and I crossed Willie Nelson off our bucket list, but our eclectic little GirlChild was furious to have been left out. You see, Mags isn’t like most girls her age. We’ve not been tortured (yet) with whatever tween chipmunk helium techno bubblegum earworm death sentence that some parents suffer through. She’s got a heterogeneous musical palette that is admirable for a 10 year old girl. Her playlist has everything from Neil Diamond to Taylor Swift.

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(The afternoon before the show.)

So when Willie and Family brought the legendary bus back through our neck of the woods in 2013, we had to go. The 80 year old Redheaded Stranger might not have too many touring years left, so we decided to carpe diem and spring for tickets. Seeing Willie at Floore’s in Helotes had always been on my Bucket List, but the folks in Luckenbach say Gruene is best. Unlike Floore’s, Gruene Hall’s stage is elevated, and it’s a lot bigger, so you’re not packed in like sweaty sardines.

Willie 9If you’ve never seen a show at Gruene Hall, you should. The historic dance hall was built in 1878, and is known as “the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas.” Not much has changed in the last 135+ years. It’s something like 6,000 square feet of wooden dance floor history with the kind of bar that only serves ice cold longnecks. I think if you ordered something pink with an umbrella, they’d be forced to call the Texas Rangers on you. The fact that it’s un-airconditioned is really irrelevant. The design keeps it fairly comfortable year round.

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Tickets went on sale about a month out, so I made sure to be online and ready to pony up with my plastic at the instant tickets went live. In under a minute, I was $312 poorer, but I knew I’d have one excited little girl on my hands.

On the day of the show, we prepared as best as we could.

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Brothers at Grandma’s: Check!

Comfy jeans and boots: Check!

Cooper’s brisket in the belly: Check!

In line at 5pm sharp: Check!

While we were in line, we schooled Mags on the concept of General Admission Seating. There’d be a lot of standing around and waiting, but if she played her cards right, it’d be worth it. We told her that once the gate opened and they took her ticket, she’d need to high-tail it to the stage—front and center—and park it there. Don’t wait for mom. Don’t wait for Dad. Park it front and center and DO NOT MOVE.

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When the doors opened, she flew to the stage and anchored herself right behind a lady in a wheelchair. BRILLIANT move, Grasshopper. She watched, wide-eyed, as Willie’s road crew prepped the stage. When they set Trigger up directly in front of her, she realized that she had the best spot in Gruene Hall.

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About an hour passed before Paula, Willie’s daughter, took the stage. Paula Nelson is a joy to watch. She seems to really enjoy singing both solo and with her brothers and her dad. She has a great voice, and she’s just plain fun to watch. But after a few songs, Mags was tired of waiting for the REAL reason she was there.

But when Paula finished and she saw those braids for the first time UP CLOSE and IN PERSON, she knew that the wait was worth it. She sang. She jumped up and down. She danced. She took pictures. And when Willie threw his bandanas at the end of the show, she freaking caught one. SHE CAUGHT WILLIE’S BANDANA. He threw 2 of them, and she caught one!!! (How do I NOT have a picture of this?!?!?!)

I am SO not kidding. Holy crap. My daughter, age nine, had the most amazing first concert experience ever. She got to see a living legend at an historic venue. She got to stand front and center, and she came away with the ULTIMATE souvenir.

Since thWillie Notee show was on a Sunday night, we chose to crash at a nearby hotel and head back on Monday morning. Knowing that I am not a good enough liar to pull the “she was sick” card, and I am trying to teach her honesty and integrity, I told her it was OK to go ahead and tell her teachers the truth as to why she had missed school on Monday. And I sent a note. With a picture.

A couple weeks later, I saw her teacher and the principal at school. When the principal saw me, she just laughed, telling me that in ALL her years in education, she had NEVER seen such an awesome absence excuse letter. We laughed about it and I shared the story. Only in Texas is taking your 9-year old to a bar on a Sunday night to see a Willie Nelson concert an acceptable excuse from 4th grade!

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Unfortunately, I am afraid I have completely ruined the entire concert-going experience for her for the rest of her life, but I am so happy to have given her this awesome memory. Now she has her sights set on meeting him, but I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as she seems to think it’ll be. But then again, she’s a pretty lucky girl! She just might find a way to make it happen.

(In case you can’t read the note, it says: Dear Mrs 4th Grade Teacher: Please excuse Mags from school on Monday… She had a ticket to the sold out Willie Nelson concert in Gruene on Sunday night and she had to stand in the front row and catch one of Willie’s bandanas! I am sure you understand this once in a lifetime opportunity was too good to pass up. Thank you! Mrs CrazyTrain)

And yes. All these photos are mine. Please be cool and don’t copy ’em.

Balneotherapy–Texas Style; Taking the Waters in Marlin, Texas

Whenever I get a superlative case of the vapors, and miasma brings along coryza, the grippe, and quinsy, or I need relief from my lumbago, lethargy, the ills of overconsumption, or female hysteria, I just need to take the waters. Since Texas is lousy with sulphuric-rich mineral waters, you’d think easing nervous tension and dyspepsia with some old-fashioned balneotherapy, promenading, and repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting water would be a piece of cake, but no dice. There ain’t a single mineral spa in the Lone Star State where a girl can relax for a few days of massages, hot mineral baths, drinking stinky water, and socializing.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1430.jpgMost people speeding up and down I35 pass the Marlin exit with little more than a glance. I mean, really? A landlocked town in Central Texas named for a big saltwater fish? Hmmm…. Sounds, well, fishy.

Marlin is one of those dots on the map you’ve probably never heard of, but who’s history will surprise you. It wasn’t named for a fish, but for John Marlin, an early pioneer and Texas patriot who settled nearby in the 1830s. Marlin was incorporated in 1867 and became the Falls County Seat, guaranteeing its initial growth. Then the railroad came and people followed. By 1892, there were 2,500 residents.

But that was nothin’. It was around then that a surprising discovery put Marlin on the map, making it one of the top tourist destinations in the state.

No. I’m not kidding.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1422.jpgIn 1892 while digging for an artesian well, a hot, sulphur rich mineral spring was discovered. Rumor has it that 174° water shot 75 feet into the air. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, mineral spas were all the rage, so a medical/resort town sprung up (pun intended). Before “germ theory,” antibiotics, and sulfa drugs, doctors thought “taking the waters” was a cure-all for whatever ailed you. All that stuff I said earlier would’ve been cured by taking the waters. Miasma (that “something funky” in the air that caused sickness) like coryza (a cold), the grippe (influenza), and quinsy (tonsillitis). The waters also cured lumbago (low back pain), lethargy (exhaustion), the ills of overconsumption (hangover), female hysteria (PMS), nervous tension (stress), and dyspepsia (tummy-ache), arthritic, and most skin diseases. Remarkably, some physicians claimed it could cure liver disease, mental disorders, and cancer via osmosis during balneotherapy (soaking in the stinky water) and by drinking it.

Hotels and sanitariums went up everywhere. A hospital, various clinics, a “crippled” children’s clinic, and a pavilion with public fountains and a foot bath were built. Tens of thousands of people flocked to Marlin to take the waters ever year. Some say as many as 100,000 visitors a year came to Marlin to take the waters. The Cincinnati Reds held their spring training in Marlin in 1907, and from 1908-1918, the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants) called Marlin home. Legendary Baseball Hall of Fame player and manager John McGraw batted left, threw right, and swore by the healing waters in Marlin. Did I mention that the Giants won the Pennant in 1911, 1912, and 1913? See? Magic water!

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1438.jpgWhen the stock market crashed in 1929, a grand, nine story hotel on Coleman Street was only half completed. The Crash had little effect on Marlin. In May of 1930, the 110-room hotel, which featured a ballroom that could hold 300 guests and an underground tunnel to the Marlin Sanitarium Bath House, became the eighth hotel opened by Conrad Hilton. Yeah. That Hilton.

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1401.jpgThough Marlin held on longer than most mineral spa towns, science and circumstance finally caught up with them. Fires in some of the hotels and spas forced their closure, and advancements in medicine made rebuilding them seem inappropriate. The extravagant claims made by charlatans (eg. sulphur baths as a cure for cancer) annihilated their credibility. Some clinics held on through the 1960s because they incorporated hydrotherapy into a physical therapy tool. But eventually, the stink water craze went bust.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1394.jpgSadly, the town of Marlin is a ghost of what she once was. Marlin is by no means a ghost town, but time hasn’t been kind to this former resort town that once hosted hundreds of thousands of health-seekers. Various murals boast snapshots of the once-vital spa town. Virtually nothing was open on the Saturday of our visit. Keith’s Hardware is one of Marlin’s oldest continuously operating businesses– housed in an awesome 114 year old building. Keith’s employs some awesome people who graciously showed us the massive pulley and lift system that was used to hoist buggies, wagons, farm implements, stoves, and furniture up to the third floor over a century ago. The ghost sign on the building’s west side still stands testament to the history contained within.

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1395.jpgThe only place to take the waters in Marlin these days is at the Fountain Pavilion adjacent to the chamber of commerce. All that remains is a small marble fountain and an empty foot bath.

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1392.jpgAnd yes. The water is warm. And yes. The water stinks. I can’t vouch for how it tastes because the kids were too chicken to taste it, and, well… there’s three of them and only one of me. Plus, I heard that drinking the sulphur water makes you poop, and, well, we were over an hour from home…. so… better them than me.

Kinda sucks that there hasn’t been a rich entrepreneur looking to invest in an historic little town. The crunchy granola alternative health market just might line up for some 19th century nostalgia and turn of the century medical cure-alls. Too bad. I’ve got a girls weekend on my calendar in January, and a weekend of sulphur rich balneotherapy, promenading, and repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting water might be just what the doctor ordered.

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****nb: the pictures that look like I took them, are mine. The ones that don’t look like I took them–the ones from a hundred years ago– I did NOT take. The Marlin pics are from the Marlin City website, and the baseball pictures are from the New York Giants websites photo archives pages (1911-1913).****

Huntsville, Texas and the Greatest Christmas Gift in the History of EVER

We love to browse in vintage/antique shops and local boutiques in the small towns we visit. They’re usually filled with things we haven’t seen before and aren’t likely to see again. It’s fun to talk to shop owners who are usually pretty engaging characters.

On our infamous trip to Phelps, we ended up in Hunstville. We couldn’t do much outside exploring because a huge downpour began once we arrived in town.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1350-0.jpgFor some people, junking/antiquing is boring. But for us, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. The kids enjoy talking to shop owners about shop items (or, as in Goliad, the owners thrilled them with local ghost stories). My kids are “Antique Shop Trained,” meaning they don’t touch (many) things, they don’t run, and, when they follow the rules (which they always do) they can explore on their own. Some owners (like one in Buda) who force us to constantly hold CJ’s hand do not have the opportunity to sell to us because we leave. A child struggling for independence is more likely to cause damage than one who’s learned to respect others and behave accordingly. So, each time we enter a shop, I say loudly, “you know the rules!” and they respond, “yes, Mom!” I then briefly, and conversationally, tell whoever has greeted us our rules, and we’re usually given a wide berth.

There are some shops we fall in love with, and in which we can explore all day. They’ve seen so many cool things. And one bonus of shops, unlike museums, is that we can pick things up, show them to the kids, and buy them if we want. It’s fun for them, and sometimes, if the mood, price, item, and phase of the moon are in alignment, something cool follows us home.

Occasionally, we find something that conjures a memory, and we love sharing those stories. On this trip to Huntsville, I found one such item. This would turn out to be my best gift purchase ever. This NEEDED to be wrapped up with a bow and put under the Christmas Tree for my brother.

You wanna hear the story, huh? Yeah, I thought so.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1340.jpgBack in 1977, McDonald’s was a BIG deal. HUGE. And no one loved it more than my brother, Jimmy. He loved McD’s so much that once when my mom was pumping gas, he slipped out of the station wagon and toddled across a busy 4-lane road, headed for the Golden Arches. He even he had a birthday party in their party room.
/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1323-0.jpgThis was pre-Happy Meal (1979) and McD’s were geniuses at marketing. So, when they offered 10” melamine dinner plates featuring McDonaldland scenes, YES we bought them, and YES we used them. ALL THE TIME. And, as many kids in their terrible 2s and 3s, Jimmy went through a phase where he’d ONLY eat off of his McDonald’s plate. Since we always ate at home back then, our dishwasher ran daily, and Jimmy’s favorite plate was always clean.
/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1337-1.jpgWell, almost always.

One fateful night in 1978, Jimmy’s plate was not clean, and Mom had set the table with the Franciscan Ware flower pattern dishes my parents had chosen when they married in 1970. They were a sturdy, off-white stoneware with a green stripe, and flowers in the middle. They were pretty, and when I saw a set last year, I almost bought it. But I only wanted a few pieces and I didn’t have room… and, wait, I’m getting off topic here…

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So Mom set the table with these dishes. Jimmy looked at his plate and firmly stated that he wanted HIS plate. Mom said it was dirty and he could use it tomorrow. Like a rational 3year old, Jimmy then flung the flower plate across the table, and it hurdled though the kitchen, smashed, and broke. Mom was mad, Jimmy was surprised, Dad must not have been home yet because I KNOW I’d have remembered his reaction.

Days later, Mom and Jimmy were in the kitchen when she saw something on the floor and went to pick it up. Anger flashed across her face as she sternly held it up. “Do you know what this is?” she barked, hoping he would feel some remorse. “A twiangle?” he answered, sweetly, sending my mom into reluctant giggles.

This story has become one of those family legends that gets told whenever we think of it because it’s funny. We laugh because it was cute that he didn’t see the shard of broken plate as a reminder of his tantrum—it was a triangle. The exchange made Mom laugh then, and it makes her laugh now. It’s now legend, and one of those things we collectively remember and laugh about together.

In 2007, Mag was about three, and one night when the whole family was at my folks’ house for dinner, Mom served Mag’s dinner on Jimmy’s McDonald’s plate. After several moves, Mom had come across the plate in a box and thought that letting Maggie use it would be fun. Jim cracked up, recalling his history with the infamous plate, and we retold the story for the millionth time.

After dinner, as Mag brought the infamous dish to the kitchen, she dropped it. The brittle, 30 year old melamine plate broke in half. Jim was devastated. The plate he’d loved so dearly, the plate that had faded into our collective memory and then miraculously resurfaced, was now gone. Traumatically gone. Mom didn’t think Jim would take it so hard, but he did. And as grown ups do, he got over it and moved on, eventually forgetting about the plate that had made such a brief reappearance into his life.

It was on this trip to Huntsville when I saw it on a table in an antique shop. A 37-year old melamine plate with Ronald McDonald frolicking in the leaves with Grimace. It’s not the first thing one imagines when thinking of vintage dishware, but, oh well…. In 1977, I this plate was purchased over a Mc Donald’s counter for about $1. In 2014, I was going to give an antiques dealer exponentially more than that, but it’d be worth every penny to see my brother’s face on Christmas.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1351.jpgWhen we got home, I tucked the plate away, and on Christmas Eve, I made sure it was all wrapped up so I could see Jimmy’s face reaction when he opened it. I couldn’t wait. I suck at keeping secrets, so keeping this under my hat for six months was torture. It was SO worth it. The Crazy Train had never heard the story (since we didn’t want to rub salt in Uncle Jimmy’s wounds after the tragic event), so we laughingly retold the story for the first time in years. And Jimmy carefully wrapped up his plate and stored it where it could not be broken right away.

I only wish I had thought to find a Fransiscan Ware Floral Pattern plate for my mom. I searched eBay after everyone left, but serendipitous encounters with objects are more my style. Someday I’ll run across a single plate somewhere, and when I do, the epic family story will come full circle.

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The Most Awesome Photo-Op Ever! (Or Not.)

About six months ago, a tiny little dot on the map caught my eye.

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Deep within the Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas lies the town of Phelps.

I KNOW, RIGHT?!?!?! I was giddy. Like, pee-your-pants excited. The Phelps Family Crazy Train would have the most legendarily, awesomely, fantastically EPIC Christmas Card Family Photo in the HISTORY of staged family photo cheesiness, and absolutely ZERO Photochopping would be necessary.

Visions of this monumental achievement danced in my head. I was already deciding where I would hang the custom art wrap canvas print of the family photo at the homestead. I had outfits planned, and a date blocked off on the calendar for the Crazy Train’s most celebrated road trip to date. We were going to OUR TOWN!

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Photo Idea #1

Finding a town bearing your last name is pretty flipping cool. After almost 13 years of being asked if I’m married to Michael Phelps (spoiler: I am not) I’d finally found something non-Speedo related that we could commandeer and claim as our own. (Since our kids are swimmers, this is pretty fun during swim season, but I digress.) For all intents and purposes, it’d be OUR town, and when people ooohed and ahhhed over our magnificent family portrait in front of the Phelps city limits sign, I could haughtily chortle, “No… It’s NOT photochopped,” and everyone would be really jealous and when they were out of earshot, they would hurriedly whip out their phones and google their own last names to see if they could find their own namesake towns so they could attempt to replicate my brilliant idea.

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Photo Idea #2

Basic online research told me that Phelps, Texas had been established around a train depot and telegraph station in the early 1870s, and was named for the Phelps-Dodge Company, builders of the railroad. Within four years, there was a post office, a general store, a church, a hotel, and a school. When a spur of the railroad connected Huntsville, sawmills opened up and families poured in. By the late 1930s, the sawmills were closing up and the town dwindled to around 100 citizens, which is about where it was as of the last census.

Now, this is where I violated the first guideline in the Crazy-Train Bible of Road Tripping. If you have a very specific destination in mind, Google it first.

But no. The dream of the perfect family photo had its grip on me, and there was nothing that could penetrate my fantasy. So on a Saturday morning, we loaded up the Crazy Train and headed eastward into the rising Texas sun. Our legendary trip was beginning, and it really would be truly magnificent. Epic, even. We blew through small town after small town, speeding past historical marker after historical marker, and ignoring countless fabulous looking points of interest, making mental notes of all the places we would return to on another trip. We were too impatient to stop, and, well, we were burning daylight!

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Photo Idea #3

After almost three hours on the road, we entered the borders of the Sam Houston National Forest. My heart was pounding. As a documentary photographer, I was salivating over all the photographic opportunities I would have. As a mom, I was so excited and restless and overcome with enthusiasm about what I just KNEW would be the most sensationally unique family picture in the history of EVER.

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All five of us had our noses pressed up against the windows as we entered the forest. The tall dense trees and lush green foliage would make for fantastic pictures! It was even overcast—my FAVORITE weather conditions for portraits because the light is so pretty. We drove and drove… and drove… and… drove. No sign. And finally, Mark said, “You said 6 miles. We’ve gone 8. Check the map.” So I did. We had passed it? What? What the WHAT? Not possible.

So we turned around and I followed the blue dot on iMaps as it completely passed through the word PHELPS on the map.

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Fantasy                                             Reality

You’ve got to be FREAKING KIDDING ME. My heart sank.

We saw a side street, so we turned. Again, nothing. We crossed the railroad tracks. Nothing. We saw one church (that wasn’t particularly old or picturesque) and one street sign atop a leaning, rusty, stop sign.

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The ONLY building in Phelps

Ssssssssssssssssssssssssss…. (That’s the sound of the wind blowing out of our sails).

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The other picture I took in town

No town. No sign. No ice house, no gas station, no ruins, no ghost town, no bones of a former train depot. NOTHING. Nothing but a (maybe 30 year old) church and a dilapidated stop sign with a street sign on top. We drove down every street, every dirt road, every railroad access point. We checked iMaps and MapQuest and GoogleMaps and all of their satellite images. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Bupkis.

My family photo fantasy was completely annihilated. My plans for the deluxe custom printed art wrapped wall canvas were as wiped out of our future as the town of Phelps had been wiped off the map. Three hours of driving. All the places we bypassed without stopping. The envy-enducing Christmas cards that would not happen. All gone.

I was shattered. I didn’t even want to think about a Plan B. I wanted to salvage my Plan A! Just where was this town of Phelps, population 98? Where was the cool, rusty, roached out old city limits sign? Where was the pristine Texas Historical Marker? I wanted to fling myself onto Old Phelps Road and have an epic tantrum, complete with banging my fists in the dirt and kicking my feet.

The “Voice of Reason” behind the wheel made the executive decision that continuing to search the same roads and bit of railroad track over and over would be futile and a waste of time. So he began the journey out of what I now felt was the World’s Most Disappointing Forest.

As we drove along, I saw a sign that read “Dodge: 2 mi”

Me: “Honey, we must go there.”

Him: “Where?”

Me: “To Dodge.”

Him: “Why?”

Me: “So we can take a picture.”

Him: “Ok then…”

So we went to Dodge (which looked EXACTLY like what we THOUGHT Phelps would look like) and we took this picture and posted it on Facebook with this caption:

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 “We’ve gotta get the heck outta here!”

After we finished laughing hysterically at our really, really campy joke, (and our daughter informed us that we were totally stupid) we decided to head over to Huntsville so we could, I don’t know, check out the bail bonds offices and pawn shops and whatever else there was to offer in that po-dunk little prison town, famous the world over as the place where capital punishment is delivered in Texas.

But we were pleasantly surprised. Huntsville was amazing. It was a picturesque little historic town with so many charming old buildings, a cool old courthouse with a Town Square, tons of state historical markers, and Sam Houston State University (which is absolutely stunning). We spent awhile at Sam Houston’s historical estate and checked out some of the antique shops on the Square.

In the end, we had a legitimately fun day filled with so many places on our “return to” list.

And we learned an unquestionably valuable lesson: If you’ve got a specific destination in mind, never, never, NEVER neglect your preliminary research. And always, always, ALWAYS have a Plan B.

(Full post on Huntsville will appear in a future post. And oh yeah, stop laughing at my super awesome drawings. I am a photographer, not an artist.)

Top Ten 2014 Crazy Train Destinations I Haven’t Blogged About… Yet.

We’ve been backroads road-tripping since before the kids– I only just started blogging about it. There are countless places I haven’t written about yet. With all the end-of-year lists emerging, I wanted to share my Top 10 Texas Destinations of 2014 that I haven’t blogged about yet. This is just the tip of the iceberg!

These are in no particular order since they’re so different, so I’ll just list ’em as I think of ’em!

10. Bandera
We went to Bandera for the National Day of the American Cowboy. We had a great day and wanted to spend the night, but learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes advance hotel reservations are necessary, or else you find yourself at Buckees at 3am for coffee.

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9. Shiner
One of these days, we’ll make it to Shiner on a weekday when the brewery is open. Until then, the “Antiques Art & Beer” place is my favorite spot. Especially the ladies room.

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8. Cuero
We had no idea there was a Pharmacy Museum in Cuero (heck, we’d never even heard of Cuero either). From the outside, it looked cool. The lady in the liquor store across the street said it’d been in the works for ever, but still hadn’t opened. Once it is, we’re there!

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7. Mason
For Mag’s birthday, we went on a topaz dig on a private ranch in Mason. It was pretty awesome. Then we explored the downtown square, although everything was closed for the day (weekends are tough for roadtripping to small towns). We’d like to go back and do the whole thing again…. minus the crack.

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6. Hallettsville
We’d heard that Hallettsville is a great little town, but we’ve never been on a day when everything was open. We’ve been through on a Sunday, and we went back for their Kolache Festival where William took the title of Kolache Eating Champion, 10 & Under Division. THAT was a day to remember!

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5. London
Raina and I had High Tea in downtown London. Yes, I’ll blog about it. Not sure if we’ll be headed back, but at least we can tell everyone that we went to London and had tea.

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4. Gonzales and Goliad
Who knew that the “Come and Take It” cannon was still around and that you could actually see it? Both Gonzales and Goliad had a lot of interesting historical spots, and they’re pretty close together. I’m really looking forward to blogging about both places.

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3. Huntsville
I’ve always thought of Huntsville as the prison town. But it was fantastically beautiful. With Sam Houston State University, countless cool historic sites, and all the cool antique dealers on the square, we are definitely planning a return trip.

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2. Walnut Springs
Out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Meridian and Glen Rose is a little ghost town called Walnut Springs. A short trip into a junk shop turned into one of the most memorable Crazy Train afternoons yet. Definitely looking forward to a return trip. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

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1. Phelps
Is there a more PERFECT spot for a family photo than in front of a city limits sign for a town bearing your last name? I know, right?!?!? But, to quote the poet Robert Burns, “But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be in vain: The best laid schemes of mice and men, Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!” In other words, no city limits sign, no ghost town, no family photo…. nothing but a dot on the map. Literally.

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I could go on and on and on. But, why give y’all preview snippets when there are full stories to be told? Here’s to a fantastic upcoming year filled with more fun and adventure with the Crazy Train!

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