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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