Just call it mini-Houston.

Trip Start Mar 30, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Huntsville State Park

Flag of United States  , Texas
Monday, May 4, 2009

Huntsville has a population of about 35,000, and every one of them seems to drive 24 hours a day. Without blinkers. Tailgating. Ignoring pedestrians. Let's call it a warm-up for Houston. Employees don't say a word when you walk in a store. People don't look at each other or say 'hello' on the sidewalk. Definitely a big-city vibe for such a small town, especially a college town. Not nice.

Miles of I-45 access roads are being converted from two-lane to one way, which locals must be boycotting because they simply ignore the yield signs. Several times when exiting the interstate, I narrowly missed being t-boned by cars who barreled through these new intersections. Twice I made the mistake of using a pedestrian crosswalk on the square: once, a car squealed to a stop within inches of me, and the other time I just had to stand in the middle of the road until traffic backed up so I could make it the rest of the way across.

Think I'm harping on Huntsville? Absolutely not. I'm actually holding much of it back! Let's put it this way: everything was a battle in Huntsville. (Mom says Mercury was in retrograde. I say it's also the prison vibe, but more on that later.*)

Huntsville State Park was large, green, and had nice trails, but the employees were cold, and sometimes downright rude. Maintenance ran a tractor-pulled leaf blower for HOURS, then seemed surprised when I complained about the noise, taking great glee in telling me that the hand-held blower was coming next. (All I said was that if I had known they were going to run loud machinery, I would've planned to spend the day in town. Shouldn't I hear birds or something? I mean, it's a PARK, people!) It was even loud enough to hear on the wooded hiking trails. Oh, and since they didn't finish, they had to do it for several more hours the next day. Then, two nights brought groups of screaming, cursing teenagers at the swimming beach across the lake around 11:30pm; quiet time starts at 10 but, of course, the park would not provide an after-hours phone number so I had to get up and deal with it myself. I blinked my police-size flashlight at them a few times and finally vroomed over there, but had scared them off already. (It's probably a good thing they didn't have to deal with me at that point.) Of course, by then I was wide awake and couldn't go back to sleep.

Museums, movies, restaurants and other businesses had web sites with inaccurate information, a few had active sites even though the businesses no longer existed, and many had no web site at all;  therefore, several times I drove through all that traffic just to find that something had moved, was closed on a day they were supposed to be open, or only opened by appointment. Oh, and the Alabama and Coushatta Indian Reservation no longer offers tours or a visitors center. I'm telling you, there are bad Arkansas vibes in this town.

There were a few highlights, though, that kept me from packing up and leaving early. Just a few. 

Two squirrels kept me close company, waiting for handouts. (They loved my homemade trail mix, even the yogurt-covered raisins.) One afternoon I was napping, half-awake, and heard a loud bang. I stumbled out of my tent to find two huge black birds, at least a foot tall, and a squirrel on my picnic table. I shooed them off, then found that my banana and an entire cantaloupe were missing! The raccoon had to be hiding close by, because I can't imagine that a squirrel is strong enough to carry a cantaloupe. Oh, and the velcro and webbing strap on the top of my Dry Sack couldn't stand up to prying squirrel fingers; from then on, I hung it on the lantern hook.

At dusk, I made a point of starting the fire and sitting still, and was rewarded with a nightly raccoon visit, and I saw my first armadillo ever! Cute little rolly-polly thing, but seemed just as blind and deaf as a possum. I never saw an alligator, although I sure kept an eye out on the swampy parts of the trails. Two white herons appeared too quickly to photograph. And the frogs were so loud that I could hear them clearly, even through my ear plugs when trying to sleep. I'll try to upload the recording I made.

I'd bought a new pair of jeans in Dallas, figuring I'd find a Viking dealer who'd remember who I was (former national educator) and let me hem them in the store. Instead, Doris at Fabric Carousel graciously allowed me to use one of her classroom Berninas. We had a great time chatting about Bernina, Viking, and the inside scoop on the sewing business. Although she mainly carries quilting fabric, Doris also had a small selection of nice garment fabrics; I picked up a natural linen with a wide band of multicolored sequins, which should make a pretty skirt.  1101 12th Street, (936) 295-8322.

Cafe Texan, site of one of those near-miss pedestrian incidents, served up my first Texas chicken-fried steak, and it was delicious! I had to scrape off a lot of gravy to reveal the crunchy coating, but what I ate was good and peppery. The mashed potatoes were the real deal, full of skins, and the green beans had bits of ham. The peach 'cobbler', though, was canned peaches with a bit of soggy granola on top - glad it came with lunch, because it wasn't worth paying for. And since the server confirmed they don't make their pies, I'd just skip dessert here and load up on dinner. Anyway, I'd heard the hamburgers are terrific but, honestly, I was excited to get some veggies! It's on the square at 1120 Sam Houston Avenue, (936) 295-2381. Be sure to park on their side because you don't want to walk across the street!

Okay, another bar has been set: all future barbecue will be compared to the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Thirty-six years ago, the Church started serving meals as a fund-raiser, and it's been going strong ever since. I'd read rave reviews online and couldn't wait to feast! The restaurant is actually a small house next to the Church, and the smokers are just a few feet from the road. As I was walking across the parking lot, I spied a couple and fell in behind, saying "you look like you know what you're doing, so I'll just follow you". They laughed, stating they'd just said the same about me! So we newbies crowded in together, and the gentleman (Clint?) behind the counter gave us the drill. I asked about his favorites and ordered the same: a ribs, brisket and sausage plate. Oh, my, my! The brisket just fell apart, the sausage had a little spicy kick, and the ribs were crusty and meaty. I used sauce on a few bites to try it, and it was sweet and spicy, but the meat needed nothing. Since he'd done such a great job recommending the meal, I asked Clint to pick me some pie to take, so I enjoyed the rest of my barbecue with sweet potato pie that night in camp. Currently, they're open 11am-7pm Thursday-Saturday, but it's best to call first. (They don't have a web site.)  (936) 295-2349

This is definitely not a highlight, but since it's my final stop before leaving town I've put it last. Huntsville is the home of the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, the Huntsville Prison, and the Texas Prison Museum. I never planned on visiting this museum but, since almost everything else I wanted to do was closed or didn't exist anymore, I was stuck. Or, actually, stuck because the other choice was the Holocaust Museum. Anyway, I drove in to find that there was a ceremony starting on the grounds, so I parked in the back and walked in. The bad vibes immediately slammed me in the gut, and the 3-minute introductory video did nothing to change that. It details the history of how prisoners were mistreated, how one prisoner lawsuit lasted for 25 (35?) years, and how reforms were finally made. It then proudly proclaims that Texas houses over 150,000 prisoners, more than any other state, and that it's a huge business for Huntsville. And while they are more than happy to house all these prisoners, they have no control over how many there are, since that's 'up to the justice and parole system', and all they can do is lock 'em up.

Yes, it was cool to see one of the handguns found on Bonnie and Clyde when they were arrested (a pretty, pearl-handled .45), the Prison Rodeo stuff was interesting, and the variety of official weapons was impressive, but most of the remaining exhibits showcased all the evil things humans can think to do to each other in and out of prison.  Cases were full of weapons prisoners constructed out of everyday items, including a softball made of paint chips scraped off the wall - yes, paint chips - that was stuffed in a sock and used as a bludgeon, and a carved wooden knuckle-buster embedded with razor blades, for example. A wall of photos detailed exactly how prison employees were killed by inmates. A case full of harnesses, yokes and tools used when the prisoners worked the fields, along with the batons guards used to beat them. They even have the official electric chair. But the icing on the cake was a large photography exhibit of victims' family members, complete with details about each death row inmate's crime and final statement before being put to death, and a response from the victim's family. I made it through three and had to quit.

I came out to find a large crowd and the ceremony underway. I'm not sure if it was honoring all prison employees killed on duty, or only the ones from the past year, but there was a riderless horse, a color guard, taps, and a gun salute. I was too far away to hear much, but there was also a small choir that sang all the verses of "Amazing Grace". I stayed through the end and felt a bit better.

Regardless, I'd had enough of Huntsville and it was time to move on. Once I got back to the park, hordes of arriving weekenders confirmed it was time to go. So I packed up (I'm getting faster at this!), gave my last two sticks of wood to the new neighbors (easy to be nice since I was leaving and they couldn't pilfer my tent), skipped the $12 refund for leaving a day early (8 customers waiting in the office and only one person behind the counter), and hoped for a better time down the road.

(You know, as I type this I'm wondering why I went to Huntsville in the first place. Oh, that's right, it was because it was on the way to Houston and the park had miles of hiking trails. Heck, if I hadn't been run out of the park by the blowers, maybe I could've enjoyed those trails and had a better story to tell! As it is, I'm more tense than when I arrived.**)


* The lady who collected admission at the Prison Museum said that the town gets by on money from the prison and Sam Houston State University. In her opinion, no one welcomes or wants any other business to succeed. She said there's a general attitude of complacence, and no one seems to try very hard.

** I know, I know, it's times like this that make the great experiences even better by contrast. But it's still a pain to go through!
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