Thursday, July 24, 2014

Beyond The Beach: Getting There and Back

When I plan a trip, I consider getting to the destination to be half the fun. 

We're gonna rock down to....
This tradition began when the kids were really small and needed frequent potty-food-stop-bugging-your-sister/brother breaks. I have scheduled stops at Elvis' birthplace, Lincoln's boyhood home, a lock on the Ohio River, fruit stands, NASA, the world's largest floral clock, the original bourbon chocolate candy factory, nature hikes, waterfalls, cemeteries, and many, many more.

Our vacation to Galveston this week was no exception. Our trip there (in my parents' borrowed minivan, due to both of our cars being at least borderline on-the-fritz) included:

Breakfast at one of those "where the locals go" restaurants in McAlester, Oklahoma.

A visit to see the World's Largest Peanut in Durant, Oklahoma.

Lunch at a gas station/barbecue/expensive snacks, cheeses and jellies store, which I have been told is a Texas thing, but I'm not complaining, because my sammich was goooood.

Then we were in Galveston, and the week was half great/half crappy (LITERALLY - asshole seagulls). Fortunately, I saved the best stuff for the return trip home.

We headed out of Galveston, where the skies and the gulf were both turbulent, to a swamp southwest of Houston. A swamp. In Texas. In July. Who goes to a swamp in Texas in July?

People who have a daughter who wants to see alligators, that's who!

Brazos Bend State Park was the destination for our alligator expedition. We pulled up to the entrance, where we were greeted by a park ranger. She gave us a map and directions to the nearest lake (there are several on the park), and rattled off a list of Do's and Don't's of alligators. The lakes have gravel trails around them, and the trails of two of the larger lakes connect. I asked if we could wear flip flops on the trail, and the ranger said, "You CAN, but I wouldn't." 'Nuff said. We changed our shoes and headed out.

One fortunate thing about the day was that it was slightly cooler than normal, i.e., it was only 89 degrees and the humidity was about 189,000%. We were sweating before we left the parking lot. We walked to the lake, where there was a small dock, eyes darting around as we walked, watching for alligators (Rule #3: Keep a safe distance of 30 feet from alligators at all times. Dyanne's Rule #3(a): No problem.) 

My son, daughter and I had just stepped onto the gangway to the dock when my husband, who was behind us, asked if we had seen the one under the gangway.

Ummm, no.

My daughter (and remember, this whole stop to see gators was HER wish), started to freak out (the first of many, MANY times while we were there). My husband walked off the path and got MUCH CLOSER THAN 30 FEET and took pictures, while the alligator laid in the water and glowered at him. My daughter begged and pleaded for him to get back on the walkway (Rule #3 again), and he finally joined us on the dock. We saw three gators from there. They saw us and made no bones about it. One of them actually turned in the water so he could eyeball my son and me as we looked out over the water from above him. Alligators are nothing short of creepy.

We slogged through the humid air as we walked the path around the lake. My daughter was like a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, she was so jumpy about the possibility that an alligator would come up out of the lake or be lying on the path (again, HER BIG WISH was to see gators). We rested at a viewing tower at the halfway point, where a couple of men were fishing in the lake. One of them pointed to the water below him as we passed, and there was a gator, lurking, watching him fish. He told us that gator would lie there, waiting, and if he caught a fish, the gator would snap it off his line before he could get it reeled in. "So, I'm really catching fish for the gator," he laughed. (Rule #4: GIVE THE GATOR THE DAMN FISH [a slight paraphrasing]).

We finished our walk, drank bottles of water out of the cooler when we returned to the car, then stopped at the visitor's center before leaving the park. No gators on the path while we walked (Rule #5: If you see a gator on the path, do not try to go around it or step over it; turn around and return the way you came. Refer to Dyanne's Rule #3(a), above).

Air conditioning on full blast, we headed north to the next stop of the route home:

Located in Huntsville, Texas, home to 7 state prisons, including a penitentiary that formerly housed Texas' death row (due to overcrowding, the death row inmates were moved to a prison in another city; however, they still perform the executions there), the prison museum fell under my radar when I was looking for a place for us to stay on the way home from the beach. We stayed in a Huntsville hotel seven years ago when returning from the beach. At the time, we did not know that it was a prison town, as in LOTS of prisons, as we stayed on the south side of town and then passed several of them on our way out of town the next morning, and we weren't real keen on a repeat stay, especially since I read somewhere that Friday was the day prisoners get released. Guess what night we would be staying in a hotel. Yeah.

We may not have wanted to spend the night in Huntsville, but by golly, the two Orange is the New Black fans weren't going to miss a chance to see a display of real shivs! We only had about an hour to spend in the museum, as our foray into the world of the Texas gator took us a little longer than I had scheduled, but it's a fairly small museum, and we were able to see most of it before closing time.

It was also surprisingly busy. I read that inmates who were released that day would often head straight to the museum, but no amount of eavesdropping led me to believe that was true that day. We did get to see the shiv display, plus one about Bonnie and Clyde, inmate art, prison riots, and a moving pictorial one about last statements.

Note at bottom: "This is my last meal, and damn it, I want it served hot on however many plates
and bowls it takes to keep from mixing any of it up together..."
Food rules matter.

Inmate art, made from toilet paper, and included here just for
Jenn @ Something Clever 2.0
Before leaving Texas, we ate at Whataburger, because they are everywhere (and there's a good reason they are everywhere, because even though the french fries were meh, the burgers were good) and In-n-Out Burger, because my son has always wanted to eat at one. 

We drove into Oklahoma and made one last stop, in McAlester, driving to the outskirts of town to take a look at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. It is very old, very rundown, very scary. We drove past it slowly, then turned around and came back, stopping the car for a few minutes just to look at the rows and rows of fences, the razor wire, the guard towers.

"No one ever go here to stay," I said. All members of my family quickly promised, and we slowly drove off.

"Do you think the guards are looking at us, taking down our license plate number, because we look like we're casing the joint?" asked my son.

"Let them," I answered. "This is your grandparents' car."


  1. LOL Great pics the last line made me laugh and all those gators yeah I would be skittish too. Sounds like a wonderful trip. have a wonderful weekend. :)

    1. The gators were so creepy. The park alleges they don't know what people taste like, but I'm feeling they'd like to give 'em a try.

  2. I want to vacation with you! That sounds so fabulous and I'm glad that your family at least seems to appreciate your planning efforts. Love it! :)

    1. Girl trip! Girl trip! Between me and Christine, we could find all kinds of fun stuff to visit!

  3. What a memorable trip! I haven't heard of Whataburger, but I do enjoy the burgers at In-N-Out. I didn't realize In-N-Out had any restaurants in Texas.

    Your report of the alligators reminds me of the time I was in Yellowstone and a bison decided to use the boardwalk as his walking path. No one needed to convince me to get out of the way! Hope your daughter enjoyed seeing all the alligators!

    1. There are a couple of In-N-Outs in Dallas only. Saw one from the freeway on the way down, so we stopped on the way back up.
      I would definitely give the bison the right-of-way.

  4. awesome vacation... all that razor wire reminds me of home! hahahaa ....not really ... it reminds me of work... meh.... anyhow... gators! fabulous gators!!! and classic last line... hopefully homeland security wont be knocking down granpa's door anytime soon!

    1. It was so shiny....
      Remember, this is the man who shot a flare gun into the lake on 4th of July and nearly hit a boat sitting in the dark in the water, watching fireworks. I think he's on their Watch List already.

  5. I drove through and stopped in several places on Alligator Alley in Florida. I didn't see one alligator :( Was I ever disappointed. When I was at beaches on the Gulf of Mexico did I see any dolphins? Nope! I guess I'm just not lucky as I wanted to at least see one alligator during my 4 drips to Florida. Oh well maybe next time. Prisons I love (to visit that is) There's something about prison stories, movies and TV shows that just attract me. I guess it makes me feel good that I'm not in one. Would you plan my next vacation for me as it looks and sounds to me like you'd be the perfect vacation planner.

    1. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one fascinated with prisons! Have you watched Orange is the New Black yet? Because you MUST if you haven't.
      We spent a week in Rocky Mountain National Park and never saw a bear or a big horned sheep. Elk by the dozens, but no bear.
      As I told Mrs. Always Random, GIRL TRIP! I do vacations on the cheap - most of the stuff I find to do is free or nearly so.

  6. It looks like your trip was amazing!!! We have a jail in our town, too, and rumour has it that they get released on a Sunday. Did you go with your girl friends, or with your kids? Next time come to Canada.

    1. It was with my husband and kids (15 and 19). Is your prison a big, scary one with layers and layers of razor wire?
      I've only been to Canada once, and that was just at Niagara Falls. That would be a fun destination, though. If I ever go, I'll let you know!

  7. Fantastic. Zilla would probably be all over the gator stop - it's a thing for her. Given that all of my childhood recurring nightmares included alligators or crocodiles, I'll be the one in the car with the windows rolled up.