Wandering through Waco

Normally when my husband and I visit his family in Texas, we stick to Houston and Austin (where they live). This past Christmas, however, we had some more time to visit close friends in another, smaller city of roughly 130 000: Waco.

I didn’t know much about Waco but when I told other people I would be going there, they were quick to jump on David Koresh’s cult that left 80 people dead in 1993. Apparently the rural complex at the Mount Carmel Centre just outside Waco attracts many tourists to this day. We did not go there.

Instead, we went to a site in downtown Waco that is emblematic of how the economy of the city has changed in the last few years, giving it a better reputation and thousands of tourists each year: Magnolia Market at the Silos. This food truck park + garden + bakery + antique stores + seed supply store sprawls across two and a half acres under two grain silos. The market is the result of the success of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s hit HGTV show Fixer Upper.

Unlike most of the world, it seems, I had never heard of this couple, nor their famous show. I toured their big warehouse full of farmhouse chic furniture and home goods, but I honestly didn’t find it much different than similar home stores in Vancouver. But I was told Joanna Gaines was the one who made that barnyard look famous (shiplap, anyone?), so what do I know?

Speaking of fixing up homes, we stayed in one (not by Chip and Joanna), but by East Waco entrepreneur and community activist Nancy Grayson, who also runs the Lula Jane‘s bakery just down the road on Elm Avenue. You can read more about her and the bakery in this article. The Airbnb, called “The Peach House” was fabulous. I loved all the details of this fully restored house, including the door knobs, the sun room, the original wood floors. And what’s a better welcome than freshly baked goodies waiting for you?

I learned this style of a house is called a “shotgun” house. Why, you ask? Here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say:

Shotgun houses may have derived their name from that room format, as it was sometimes said that a bullet shot from the front door would pass through the house without hitting anything and exit through the back door.

These houses originated in the Southern United States and were the most popular style from the American Civil War to the 1920s.

The house is within walking distance to Waco Suspension Bridge that opened in 1870 and was the first bridge to cross the Brazos River. A steel cable suspension bridge, it became the prototype for other suspension bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge (I included a photo of that below to compare the two). Originally it was open to traffic (beginning with cattle, then stagecoaches, etc.) but now it’s only a foot bridge.

Just a little ways down Brazos River is another beautiful bridge: The Washington Avenue Bridge built in 1902.

As you may know, I have a thing for bridges so it was delightful to come across these two in Waco (we were only there for a day though, and catching up with friends was more important than seeing ALL THE SIGHTS). For instance, we didn’t go to the Dr. Pepper Museum. The drink was invented in Waco, but seeing as I don’t like that drink anyway, I don’t think I missed much.

I’ll leave you with a few other notable downtown buildings: McLennan County Courthouse and the ALICO building, a 22-story office building, the tallest building in Waco and the second oldest skyscraper in Texas. Like the Waco Suspension Bridge, these two buildings are also on the National Register of Historic Places.

All postcards found on Wikipedia, sourced from the University of Houston Digital Library.

Small Town Texas, Big Taste

On our Christmas trip to Texas I told my husband (the Artist) that I wanted to see more of Texas.

So we went to Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas with a fun name to say (the “g” is silent). We toured the outside of Stephen F. Austin State University, his alma mater.


I thought these circular dorm buildings were particularly interesting. I was reminded of the round room we had in the turret of the Empress Hotel in Victoria.


We walked through the arboretum along the creek where we took in some swinging benches, lovely bridges, and alarming student public art.




The trail opened out onto a grove of pecan trees, aptly named Pecan Park.


The downtown was small but charming with its cobblestone streets and red brick buildings. The 28 degree Celsius weather certainly didn’t make it feel like Christmas, but it was fun to see the decorations regardless.



They sure know how to do their window displays.




But what I’ll remember most about Nacogdoches are these Texas-sized onion rings my husband accidentally ordered, wanting to make sure the four of us had enough. After living in Canada for so long, he forgets what “Texas-sized” actually means. Oh we had enough alright. The pile was so high a table of eight looked at us incredulously when the waitress placed it in front of us.


The other small town we visited was Lockhart. It has a beautiful courthouse but we went for their barbecue at Smitty’s Market.


This unassuming place (behind the motorcycle) was named one of the Top Barbecue Restaurants in Texas, and my taste buds would agree. The smell that hits you when you walk into the barbecue pit is enough to get you salivating, and you’ll be salivating for a while as the line-up is long (for good reason, though it goes pretty quickly).


You watch the apron-clad employees take the meat from the smoker and cut it on a table right in front of you, the walls black with decades of built-up grease (it opened in 1948). My father-in-law warned me not to lean up against the walls because you’d be taking some of that grease home with you.



De-li-cious. We devoured brisket, ribs, and pork chops on the tailgate of his truck. A stranger walking by took in the sight of the three of us and said, “Ain’t that the life?”


In that moment I felt like this bumper sticker I got in my stocking was not far off the mark.


Keep Austin Weird

I apologize for being MIA on here this past week. I was in Texas where I stared at the domed ceiling of the State Capitol Building in Austin; stood underneath the Gerald D. Hines Water Wall in Houston; smelled the seaweed-infested beaches of Galveston; posed in front of Texas’ oldest dance hall in Gruene; and dropped my mouth at the size of their college football stadiums, fast food drinks, and Buc-ee’s gas stations that look more like a Walmart.

Renaissance Revival architecture of the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Renaissance Revival architecture of the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Looking up from the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol

Domed ceiling of the Texas State Capitol

Texas Memorial Stadium at University of Texas in Austin.

Texas Memorial Stadium at University of Texas in Austin

Before this trip, the furthest south I had been was Oregon. Texas is only a two-hour time difference from Vancouver, but it felt like a completely different (albeit fascinating) world. Many of the stereotypes are true: American flags on houses, stores, and car dealerships, spaghetti-style highway systems (made me appreciate Vancouver’s highway-lessness even more), and big portions of everything, especially food—so much so that there’s even a “Texas size” option on many restaurant menus.

Have you ever seen onion rings this big?

Luckily there were 4 of us sharing these beastly yet delicious onion rings.

I got used to seeing these colours everywhere

I got used to seeing these colours everywhere

But I was also pleasantly surprised at many things—particularly in Austin. Like how green and pretty it is after stopping over in Phoenix, Arizona, and how snazzy their skyscrapers are, like this Frost Bank Tower with its owl-like face:

Frost Bank Tower. 33 floors & 3rd tallest building in Austin. People say its owl face helps keep Austin weird.

Frost Bank Tower. 33 floors and 3rd tallest building in Austin. People say its owl face helps keep Austin weird. One critic said it resembles an enormous set of nose hair trimmers. What do you think?

I loved strolling along Town Lake, experiencing TexMex food, and taking in the plethora of live music acts along Sixth Street competing for your ears and your wallets. Austin is the self-proclaimed “live music capital of the world” and in staying there for a few days, it’s easy to see it’s a hip, artistic, friendly, and vibrant city. Being introduced to Texas through Austin was probably the best and least shocking way of meeting this strange state—although the 33 degree Celsius heat was shocking enough to almost send me running back into the airport. Thank goodness for AC in every single building.

Lady Bird Lake in Austin (but what everyone still calls Town Lake)

Lady Bird Lake in Austin (but everyone still calls it Town Lake) with a view of downtown skyscrapers. Pretty, eh?

6th Street - home of live music, pubs, and tattoo parlours

Sixth Street – home of live music, pubs, and tattoo parlours. Locals call it “Dirty Sixth”

I was also surprised to learn that Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan was the original city to birth this phrase intended to promote small businesses. This happened in 2000, and Portland followed in 2003. In honour of that slogan that you can find on banners, billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts, here are my favourite “weird” Austin photos, most of them from South Congress Street (or “SoCo”) which I would compare with Vancouver’s Main Street, although I think SoCo is even more eclectic.

Keep Austin Weird sign on South Congress Street

Keep Austin Weird sign on South Congress Street

public art near Town Lake

public art near Town Lake

a favourite local Austin business

a favourite local Austin business

Austin Motel

A classic Austin lodging that sums up the city’s ethos pretty well

A costume store that has everything you could possibly imagine and things you don't want to.

A costume store that has everything you could possibly imagine and things you don’t want to

Allen's BootsAlligator skin boots

Called the "grandaddy of all local music venues," where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous musicians played.

Called the “grandaddy of all local music venues,” where Stevie Ray Vaughan and other famous musicians played. Opened in 1957.

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue by Town Lake

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue by Town Lake

Yard Dog art gallery featuring American folk art on South Congress Street

Yard Dog art gallery featuring American folk art. Allen’s Boots just up the street where I even tried on a few pairs. Not the alligator skin ones shown above though.

South Congress Street

View looking downtown from South Congress Street. Can you spot the State Capitol Building straight ahead in the distance?

Austin has a lot of food trucks. Here's a crepe place in a space shuttle

Austin has a lot of food trucks. Here’s a crepe place in a space shuttle next to an art market.

I’ll write about Houston and the other places I visited some other time, but to finish off this post, I’ll leave you with my favourite weird Austin photo. There are hardly words.

Just in case you're unsure about finding your car...

Just in case you weren’t sure which car was yours…