The road to the West from Fort Worth is well defined. Interstate 20 takes you to Abilene and points beyond. If it is efficiency you are after, I have no quarrel with that plan. But life is (hopefully) more than getting from point A to point B. To test that hypothesis, last Saturday the Nesters explored an alternative–State Highway 180–and were rewarded for their curiosity.
State Highway 180 runs parallel to I-20. We took exit 414 from I-20 onto Hwy. 180. Had we wished, we could have remained on that road until turning south on Hwy. 351 just west of Albany, arriving in Abilene having traveled a scant 12 miles more than the Type A over-achievers who remain on the interstate. Given the open-road nature of the trip, anyone with a radar detector and a risk-friendly nature could probably shave the time difference down to about zero.
We had no desire to actually go to Abilene other than the fact M’Lissa’s sister lives there, which presents the chance that some of Lynda’s fabulous pecan brittle will be available for unannounced visitors. Foregoing the peanut brittle, we stayed on Hwy. 180 only as far as Breckenridge. For the return trip we zig-zagged north to Graham before circling back. As you will see, the Nesters were wise trip planners.
The total excursion was 221 miles round trip from downtown Fort Worth. With sightseeing, shopping and eating thrown in, that itinerary made for a full day, but parts of the trip could be accessed independently for those who are either pressed for time or seeking fuller exploration.
Highway 180 leads you straight to downtown Weatherford. Well before you get there, the spectacular Parker county courthouse dominates the scene. Being an attorney, I am a connoisseur of the 254 seats of justice we have in Texas. If there is a prettier one than Weatherford’s, I have yet to run across it. Before we got to the town square, however, we stopped at a thriving farmers market that offered a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables alongside locally-canned delicacies. We opted for squash and a basket of Parker county peaches. M’Lissa put the peaches to good use the next day by baking a cobbler that exploded in my mouth. Given the experience, I would take these fresh-off-the-farm peaches against anything available in the high-price produce sections of the grocers to the rich and famous where we sometimes shop. Particularly because I am neither rich nor famous but eat like I am.
Next stop was the square around the courthouse. For folks trying to turn back the clock, or at least slow it down, courthouse squares are great launch points. All too often though, the exercise is one of imagination. The buildings still exist but commerce has been stripped from them by Sam Walton and his big-box brethren, all conveniently located and too big for the mom and pop stores to fight. Attorney offices and bail bondsmen keep these squares from true ghost town status but there is neither vibrancy nor a sense of community.
Not so for Weatherford. A wide variety of stores, boutiques, eateries, salons and the city pharmacy hummed with energy and visitors at mid-morning on a normal Saturday. The no-vacancy status was true not only for the square itself but for several side streets extending from the square. While there were several places worthy of review, two establishments stood out. The Rhema Boutique houses fashion-forward threads for the relaxed lifestyle in space that can only be described as spectacular. M’Lissa loved the clothes, I loved the tin ceiling. Next up should be Antiques on the Square, which bears an admittedly pedestrian name but offers a sophisticated, varied and well-priced inventory. In contrast to many antique or vintage stores, there was room to maneuver. We settled on a couple of books but have our eye on a great clock we hope stays in the store until a return visit for the Peach Festival on July 11. In both stores the service was friendly and welcoming. We could have spent the rest of the day in Weatherford and been perfectly happy and well-fed, I am confident.
But the West beckoned us so we made the short trip to Mineral Wells. Remember the paragraph about ghost downtowns? Welcome to Mineral Wells. In the 1930’s and 1940’s Mineral Wells was a boomtown, fueled first by the reported therapeutic benefits of the city’s “crazy water” and then a large military training post during the war. Thus, the Baker Hotel which was at one time the tallest building outside a major metropolitan center and frequent host to movie stars and other celebrities. Today the famed structure is in sad disrepair, an unfortunate metaphor. At this point the Nesters were regretting–really regretting–not eating in Weatherford. YELP offered promising reviews for the Blackhorse Café but it is only open for lunch on weekdays. We opted for Brazos Market and Bistro as our only option.
Forty-five minutes later Mineral Wells was redeemed. The best grilled cheese sandwich ever for Steve and the best chicken salad ever for M’Lissa. No kidding. Plus, the staff were boosters for the city, advising visits to the nearby Clark Gardens, the Crazy Water company and the Washing Machine Museum. No kidding. Given the time constraints, we did not take advantage of any of these options but it is nice to know we have them in our back pocket for any return visits.
Next stop Breckenridge, flying by Pilot Point. Fort Worth claims the distinction of “Where the West Begins” and that may have been true when cattle arrived at the Stockyards via dusty streets. Today trains deliver the bovine and the streets are reserved for Lexuses (Lexi?). The rolling terrain and abundant vegetation surrounding the city suggests East more than West. So Fort Worth’s claim seems to be based more on a Chamber of Commerce slogan than reality. By Breckenridge all that changes; the landscape flat, with brown as the predominant color. It is obvious that Breckenridge’s occupants are much more likely to be roughnecks or ranch-hands than the denizens of Starbucks in Sundance Square. So the Nesters anoint Breckenridge as the town where the West now begins.
As further proof of that fact I give you two beautiful pieces of evidence. First, the high-school mascot is the Buckaroo, which is very Texan if not all that surprising. The Buckaroo statute on top of the school entrance, however, is deliciously western. Second, there is a working oil well immediately next to the concession stand at the high-school stadium. If that does not say “the West,” I do not know what could.
Breckenridge is a small town with obvious civic pride and a well-kept downtown, but other than the Buckaroo and stadium oil well, the only remaining attraction is the town’s series of well-done murals. Our favorite was the “Spirit of the Buckaroos,” commemorating Breckenridge’s multiple state championships. The 1950’s were a good time to be at Breckenridge High (5 state titles in 9 years) and from the looks of things, not much has changed.
From Breckenridge we headed north to Graham, arriving apparently a week late. The previous weekend, Graham hosted “The Food Truck Championship of Texas” to the enthusiastic reception of thousands. The weekend of our visit was decidedly quieter but the town was charming. The National Theater offers first-run movies in a refurbished 1940’s setting with a wonderful pizzeria occupying the former city hall next door. Although several inviting shops were on the square, the best shopping was at the Double R Trading Company on the way into town on Highway 67. Audrey’s Closet started as a postage-stamp sized retailer but the owner’s ability to find unique and tasteful items mandated a considerable expansion. Enough space that two beautiful Golden Retrievers now patrol the store, looking for love and finding it. The Vintage Pearl next door offers Dallas clothing at Graham prices. The owners of each were on hand with stories, advice and smiles.
On the way out of town we stopped in at Wildcatter Ranch, a relatively new ranch-style hotel and restaurant, set on a hilltop with porches and rocking chairs perfectly positioned to capture the Texas sunset. Other than the charge for renting the 14,000 square-foot main house, the room and cabin rates seemed reasonable with plenty of activities to choose from. Still, porch time might be on top of my list. If you wish, the trip home allows for a detour to Possum Kingdom, one of Texas’ most beautiful lakes. By the time we were back to the nest we slept well, dreaming of peaches, grilled cheese, chicken salad and Golden Retrievers.
The summary: Weatherford is close and awesome, with the Peach Festival (July 11) coming up; if you are in Mineral Wells, Brazos Market is a go-to eatery; Breckenridge could be the small town in any movie about Texas and Graham offers a great alternative to Possum Kingdom. Get on the road, Nesters!