From Waco we continue our southward trek toward the city of Galveston, we hope to spend a few weeks there and enjoy time at the beach. It is about a five hour drive so we decided to break up the trip with a stop over at the small Texas town of Onalaska. Before I tell you about this stop, I wanted to tell you about an unexpected event that occurred as we were traveling..
..It got cold! Really cold. Outside temperatures dropped into the twenties!
Who knew Texas could get this cold?? Obviously, not us. When we hit the road in October of 2017 our intent was to always stay in 70°ish weather, so we brought no winter clothes! Clothes are heavy and we try to travel as light as possible. So when the temperatures plummeted, we were forced to wear every article of clothing we brought just to stay warm!
That's what we looked like whenever we went outside. Strangers would drop their pocket change in our hands and encouragingly say: "Don't give up. Things will turn around"! We had to resign ourselves to the notion that we were in for a run of cold weather, so we detoured to a local Goodwill store and bought some winter jackets (later on down the road, when the weather finally did warm up we donated the clothing back).
Something else that we discovered during our stretch in bitter cold weather and that was that our RV is not very airtight. Although promoted as a "four seasons" RV, I think that really means four "mild" seasons. If its windy and cold outside, its breezy and cold inside. Even with the furnace running, RV's can be very drafty. I would stand in one spot and be warm and toasty then move to another a few feet over and be poltergeist cold. There have been a few nights where I've had to sleep wearing a woolen cap because of the unpleasant fluctuation in temperatures (there is only a thin wall of sheet-metal between the head of our bed and the outside elements). But I count this as a temporary inconvenience for the ability to see this beautiful country. The pioneers who crossed the plains in covered wagons faced much worse.
In preparing this post, I questioned Lorraine as to how we came to chose such a nondescript stopover location that was so far off our direct route, but neither of us could remember. We surmise that in an evening past, over a communal campfire --a place where RVers gather to swap travel stories and road conditions-- that another RVer must have raved about the RV park and its proximity to Lake Livingston.
This RV park overlooks beautiful Lake Livingston. And since it also had concrete RV pads, we gave it 5 out of 5 stars. Here are a few pictures taken around the campground:
This turned out to be a unique campground. It's rare to have such a well-maintained park with such amazing views. Many evenings we would take our chairs and a cold drink to the shoreline and watch the tangerine sun set over the Texas horizon.
SIDE NOTE: At the time of our stay in November of 2018 the nightly rate was $34.78. Today (March, 2022), the nightly rate is $56.43. That's a 62% increase! Of course, back then diesel was also selling for around $2.65/gallon. Those were the good ol' days!
Onalaska was a name chosen by the town's founder, William Carlisle who opened a sawmill here in 1904 (it grew to become the largest sawmill in Texas) and named the surrounding area after a fictitious location in a Scottish poem, "The Pleasures of Hope". Interestingly, Mr. Carlisle also named the towns of Onalaska, Wisconsin, Onalaska, Washington, and Onalaska, Arkansas (now defunct), where he started additional lumber mills! The mill shut down in 1938 due to the Depression. Much of the area has reverted back to farmland.
The next order of business was to go exploring. Our first stop was the nearby town of:
This is your typical small, conservative Texas town. It's downtown was interesting mix of thriving feed shops and closed five and dime stores. The type of small, blue-collar town that makes up most of the American landscape.
There's not much to do in this town of 5,000 people but to restock your sundries and if you have time hike some of the scenic trails along Lake Livingston:
A UNIQUE ATTRACTION!
Have you ever wanted to sleep in a castle? Yes, you can do this here in Livingston! We stumbled upon a bed and breakfast that allows you to do just that:
For about $106/night, you can sleep like royalty in this one-bedroom manor. This home was built by a German couple who wanted to bring the "old-world" castle experience to America. If you're interested in learning more, you can check out their listing on Airbnb.
LEARN A LITTLE ABOUT LIVINGSTON HISTORY:
In the middle of the city is a tribute to the technology that built this community:
This massive locomotive was used to haul trees to the Carlisle Lumber Mill. Prior to this acquisition, lumber had been hauled by oxcart.
On the following day, we drove over to the town of HUNTSVILLE.
Birthplace of Sam Houston
What first comes to mind when you hear the name Huntsville? For me it was Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Well this is no coincidence, as it turns out this town's founder, Ephraim Gray, named the town after his birthplace: Huntsville, Alabama!
Huntsville is a "company town" that serves an industry that is practically recession proof: prisons. It is home to the headquarters of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the town's largest employer. The headquarters has resided here since Texas' founding as a republic. It is also home to the Texas State Penitentiary.
Three out of four residents of this small town are prisoners and most of the remaining residents are employees. They say, "It's hard to find a person in Huntsville who doesn't have an affiliation with the prison system", but they don't say to which side of the bars they are referring! We learned all this when we visited the Texas Prison Museum, home of "Old Sparky".
This is "Old Sparky" the name given to the electric chair inside the prison. 361 prisoners met their fate in this chair from 1924 - 1964.
This museum gives a good overview of how Texas' prison system has evolved over the years.
I also found it to be a (unexpected) tribute to the ingenuity of its inmates. No matter what restraints the system put in place, prisoners would find and exploit its weaknesses. It's a shame such ingenuity and talent could not be harnessed for good.
Below are some of the pictures we took while at the museum:
If rodeos interest you, the prisoners here used to put on one of the largest rodeos in the state. The event was conceived in 1931 by Lee Simmons, who was then general manager of the prison system. Not only was this a much needed distraction from the mundane life most prisoners faced, it was the most popular sporting event in Texas for many years attracting over 100,000 attendants annually.
The prisoners even provided the musical and entertainment interludes. Contrary to popular belief, the only time prisoners wore striped uniforms was during the rodeo.
"There but for the grace of God, go I"
This was an interesting, yet very somber, attraction dedicated to the inhumanity of humans. While I know prisons are a reality of living in a fallen world --and some people truly deserve to be here-- it is sad to contemplate the number of decent people, who through one or two extraordinarily bad decisions, spent unproductive, psychologically-taxing time behind these cold, stone, inhumane walls. Transient decisions with long lasting consequences. The thought of being confined to a restrictive grey, 5'x12' windowless cell for any extended period of time, sends ice-cold shudders down my spine. I wish I had the answer for sifting the truly repentant from the truly twisted, but I feel a start might be to march every middle-school student down a corridor of an active prison (done absolutely safely, of course) where they can interact with (non-violent) inmates and hear their stories, perhaps they will learn that actions always have consequences and that you can't get something for nothing. If it deters one person from having their name appear in this museum, it would pay for itself!
SAM HOUSTON'S HOMESTEAD:
The legendary Sam Houston led one incredible life. Born in 1793, at the age of 19, he served as an aide to General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, he later would serve as President of the Republic of Texas, Governor of the State of Texas, Governor of Tennessee, U.S. Senator, and Tennessee congressman. He also led the Texas Army in the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive victory of the Texas Revolution. He also was an unsuccessful candidate for the presidential nomination in 1856 and 1860. Whew! It is why the city of Houston is thusly named.
But wait! There's more! As a teenager he ran away from home and lived among the Cherokee people for three years where he learned their ways and their language. The tribal chief gave him the nickname of Raven (which is why the mascot of the Sam Houston State University is a raven!). Years later, when President Andrew Jackson (D) ordered the expulsion of Native Americans from Tennessee, Sam Houston intervened on their behalf.
Another surprising fact I learned was that he was adamantly opposed to the American Civil War and fought to keep Texas from seceding from the Union, which made him very unpopular among his constituents.
He spent the last three years of his life in Huntsville. His last words to his wife were "Texas, Margaret, Texas." He died on July 26, 1863.
If there was ever a Texan I'd like to go back in time to meet, this would be the person. I don't think there is a historical figure that so dramatically (and selflessly) influenced the future of a territory as this man. That is why it seems fitting that Texas erected a 70' statue to him and his and his legacy (it is located just outside of Huntsville). He was an outsized character who in many ways was the embodiment of Texas itself. The sheer size and audacity of the statue seems appropriate.
Below are some pictures we took while visiting the area:
SAM HOUSTON NATIONAL FOREST:
If you like some pleasant hiking trails, check out Sam Houston National Forest.
AN INTERESTING ENCOUNTER:
As I've mentioned in prior posts, one of the most fascinating and aspects of our travels is the intriguing people we've met. "Chance happenstances" have allowed us to interact with others whose orbits wouldn't always coincide with our own. The young couple we met here was no different. For reasons that will be made clear below, I have chosen to be discreet about their identity. Let's just call them John and Jane.
One evening, after setting up our camp chairs to watch a tangerine sun slowly slide below the Texas horizon, Lorraine noticed a young couple struggling to take a selfie. She approached them and offered to take their picture. One thing led to another and an intense conversation ensued. As it turns out, the young man had just finished serving a lengthy prison sentence for a drug-related crime. While "inside" he had a religious conversion and later began corresponding with the young lady in the picture below. A relationship bloomed and they have been almost inseparable ever since. Well.. almost.
John got himself in some trouble one evening and because he was out on parole, a small problem became a big problem..
One evening while traveling by himself, he got his car stuck in the mud. He wasn't far from the home of an old "acquaintance", so he walked there to call a tow truck. He waited and waited but the tow truck never arrived. Not having a way home, he decided to stay the night. He chose poorly. Because that very night, the police happened to come calling. As John told it, his acquaintance was illegally stealing electricity from a nearby utility pole. The police came to investigate and happened to see drug paraphernalia. A warrant was issued for John due to a parole violation.
As we talked, tears rolled down their faces. John told us that he was going to turn himself in the next day. The prospect of going back to prison so terrified him that he was even contemplating fleeing. I felt so sorry for him. Standing before me was a scared child in the body of a young adult. Again, "transient decisions with long term consequences". The three of us counseled him that running would not solve his problem but only compound it. We offered words of comfort from Scripture on how "the eyes of the LORD range throughout the entire earth, to strengthen those whose heart is true to him." In other words, God will not come to the aid of an unrepentant person. It was an emotional conversation and the struggle going on in John's heart and head was real, and one in which I could not truly relate.
After about an hour of fellowship, we parted ways. Prayers were said, phone numbers were exchanged and hugs were shared.
For a few months afterwards, Lorraine kept in touch with Jane. John had gone before a judge, who showed him leniency and he only had to spend about a week in jail. As time went on, Jane's frustrations grew as John fell back into his old ways. Bad friends corrupting good morals. Given that Jane's responses to Lorraine's texts dwindled over time, we assumed she put that relationship in her rear view mirror.
We felt sorry for them both. Jane, the true victim in all of this, was caught up in the vortex of John's actions and paid a heavy emotional price. On a personal level, we were so grateful that God had our paths cross. Even though this chance encounter happened over three years ago, it is still just as vivid in our memory as if it occurred yesterday. We don't know whatever became of John and Jane but we pray for them from time to time and feel we were blessed to have such an encounter. In hindsight, we wondered if our choice of this out-of-the-way location was more "ordained" than randomly chosen. We hope it was the former.
ON A LIGHTER NOTE:
Although this is the second November that we've spent in our RV, this Thanksgiving was the first one that was celebrated with just the two of us. It was bittersweet. My wife's cooking was incredible with all the usual fixings, but it poignantly brought to mind the many joyous Thanksgivings of the past spent with family members. There were some celebrations where we had close to thirty people in our home!
And now, it's just the two of us.. And we also forgot to get pumpkin pie.
But as we've discovered so many times in the past, when you're staying at a campground, you're staying with another sort-of family. When the campers next to us found out about our dessert dilemma, they quickly brought out their leftovers and Thanksgiving did not pass without the fruity, starchy-sweet flavor of home-made pumpkin pie. Another evening of good company around a crackling campfire.
This Thanksgiving, I thanked God for the kindness of strangers.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about the small town of Onalaska, Texas. This is a beautiful part of the state with lots of scenic hiking trails and fishing holes. A great place to come if you want to relax.
From here we are headed to our next axis point, the seaside town of Galveston!