A world tour around Texas

Over spring break, I went to Paris, Athens and Moscow without even leaving the state

On+this+trip+my+two+accomplices+were+Jeremiah+Zoric+%28left%29+and+Seth+Wittenbrook+%28right%29.+They+are+pictured+here+enjoying+one+of+the+many+statues+at+Everman+Park+in+Abilene+Texas.+Photo+by+Max+Rhodes

Max Rhodes

On this trip my two accomplices were Jeremiah Zoric (left) and Seth Wittenbrook (right). They are pictured here enjoying one of the many statues at Everman Park in Abilene Texas. Photo by Max Rhodes

Max Rhodes, online editor in chief

I had always wanted to go on a big road trip with my friends. Not just a day trip where we all pile in with whoever has the biggest car and go to San Marcos or something, but a real multiple day road trip. We had toyed with the idea as early as freshman year, not seriously of course, but it was something fun to think about. Fast forward to senior year and we still haven’t made any decisions. One day I was looking at a map of the state and was amused by the names of towns that copied other bigger cities or countries. The classic example is Paris Texas. But there are more. Athens, Texas. Moscow, Texas. Palestine, Texas. The list goes on and on. It was the perfect road trip. How would you like to tell your friends that you went to Athens, Paris and Moscow over spring break? So after recruiting two friends and copious amounts of planning, on March 14th 2020 we embarked on our Texas World Tour.   

Day 1

Most of the places we would go to were pretty small. And that was kind of the whole idea, to explore small towns that no one would consider a destination. The common theme was the name of each place, I had done no prior research on whether or not any of these places were actually worth visiting, they were just chosen because of the name and proximity to one another. The towns we would be visiting ranged in population from over 10,000 to under 1,000. Our first stop on day one, New Berlin, was definitely one of the smallest. 

Seth and Jeremiah celebrate our arrival in New Berlin, the first stop on the trip. Photo by Max Rhodes

 

 

New Berlin has a population just below 500, and is a few miles East of San Antonio. It’s not on any major highway, so no one just wanders in there. No one except us, that is. The two friends I convinced to go on this trip with me were Seth and Jeremiah, and we agreed that we should try to get a picture with the city limit sign of each of the places we visited. Anyway New Berlin was very small and probably doesn’t see a whole lot of tourists. We pulled into the town center and saw all three of the public buildings: A barbecue restaurant about the size of a garden shed, a grain and feed store, and what we assumed was a convenient store. The feed store was not what I was expecting, as it was designed with an open garage where you would drive your truck through and have them load hundreds of pounds of feed on it. No place to go inside. It was only 10:00 in the morning so we thought to try our luck at the convenient store. Only problem was that it was actually a bar. Inside were two people, an older woman who was probably the owner of the bar, and a large man with a white beard and black cowboy hat. The woman was very friendly toward us, and assumed we were studiends from U.T San Antonio. We talked with her for a minute, then purchased a few sodas and went on our way. The whole time the man in the cowboy hat did not say a word, but watched us very closely. 

As we got back in the car, and I was looking for the directions for our next stop, two huge trucks pulled up on either side of us. Now, my Honda Pilot may seem like a big car when I’m trying to park somewhere in the city, but it was dwarfed by these trucks. We made it to I-10 and headed east. We had a few more stops that day, but none were as interesting as New Berlin. We went to Columbus and Weimar before settling in for the night in a Super 8 in Nederland, right on the gulf coast to the east of Houston. 

Day 2

After a lovely hotel breakfast we hit the road. We stopped in the towns of China, Cleveland and had lunch near Moscow. They were pleasant little towns, but not all that exciting.

Our next destination was no small town, but the ruins of a huge abandoned sawmill deep in the woods. The Angelina national forest to be specific. Now before we set off there were two main things I was thinking about. First, the mill is in a national forest, not private land, so we would not be trespassing on someone’s property and run the risk of being shot at. And the second was that when I looked up “Aldridge Sawmill” on google maps it offered directions. So nothing to worry about right? Google maps had been good to us so far, so certainly we would have no trouble getting to this place. My god was I wrong.

Google maps had been good to us so far, so certainly we would have no trouble getting to this place. My god was I wrong”

Pulling out of the parking lot of our lunch spot we soon got off the bigger state highway and continued on smaller two lane highways. I would think to classify these as farm to market roads, as there really wasn’t anything along them but houses, but the speed limit was still 65. Now by I-35 that sounds pretty slow, but these roads were not very wide, and had lots of twists and turns. And so deeper and deeper we went into the woods and began to leave civilization behind us. I began to notice less and less public buildings, like gas stations and restaurants, and even less traffic. Even at the beginning I saw plenty of cars going in the opposite direction, but not one going the same way we were. By now we were going down roads that obviously people only went down if they lived in here. 

Then the map told me to turn right, and the road was absolutely not paved, and looked a little sketchy. Not giving thought to the possibility that there may have been another way I pushed onward, hoping it would get better. It did not get better. This was obviously some service road that only high clearance vehicles could traverse, but by that point it was too late to turn back. We had to push onward. I was going no faster than 5mph. Mud was flying into the open window. The poor car kept bottoming out and producing the cringe inducing sound of rock hitting metal. This was a road meant for a Jeep not my 15 year old Pilot.

Finally it was over. We crossed paths with a much nicer looking dirt road. I stopped the car and got out to look for any damage. I’m not really sure what I was looking for but other than being completely coated with mud it looked alright. I was pretty sure this new road would take us there but I was not willing to damage our means of escape anymore than I already had with more bad roads. So we continued on foot. Looking back on where we came from there was a no trespassing sign. For the road that we just came from. No trespassing. Do not go that way, was the way we wnet. Good lord what did that map just put me through. 

Continuing down the real road toward the sawmill I began to see reassuring signs like graffiti on the trees and broken beer bottles on the ground: people had been here before. We walked down the dirt path through the dense woods as I tried not to think about what I had done to the car. It was very quiet out here, no sounds of traffic, just the wind in the trees and the birds. After five or so more minutes of walking we could see the big stone ruins amongst the trees. There were maybe three or four shells of buildings, each about 25 feet tall and all of them covered in graffiti. There were big trees growing inside the buildings, and many of the walls were covered with vines. Jeremiah said they looked like ancient temples in Thailand. We explored the ruins for half an hour or so then started back to the car. I was still worried about long term damage to it, but it was nice to know there was a better road to leave on.

When we got back to the car I was greeted by a large piece of plastic that had half broken off and was lying underneath the car. It was part of the lower engine cover. After looking a little closer I realized that it couldn’t just be re-attached, that it would need to come off. After some more inspection I realized that it would be very difficult to remove. And so I grabbed the pair of pliers from the trunk and crawled down on the sandy forrest floor to work at these little plastic bolts keeping the back half of this huge piece of plastic on the bottom of the car. After cutting my knuckles, sufficiently coating my hands with engine oil and getting nowhere I decided it would be best to cut my losses and cut the plastic. Fourtinentaly I brought my knife with me and slicing it off was not all that difficult. Now I was hot, sandy and oily, but at least the car could be driven again. But our problems were far from over. Leaving from the way we came was not an option, and none of us had any phone signal. Fortunately the map was still loaded on my phone, and although it couldn’t give us directions we could navigate manually. So I gave my phone to Seth and we slowly started along the road. 

Eventually we got to a paved road, and still without any phone signal we made our way back to the highway. I stopped right before we got on and looked at the car one last time. It was filthy. The windshield had still not been properly cleaned and there was mud up to the mirrors. But other than that it looked road worthy. At least I sure hoped it was, we still had over 100 miles to go to reach Athens. This had been a stressful day and I was just ready for a hassle free evening. But a hassle free evening was not what I would get. 

After a unexpectedly eventful day, Athens Texas is a welcome sight. Photo by Max Rhodes

We pulled into the dingey looking Super 8 in Athens and I went to get our room key. The man checking us in pointed out that I was only 18. “Is that a problem?” I asked him. “Yeah it’s company policy that you can only reserve a room if you’re 21.” Faering that we would have to spend the night in the car I pressed him a little further. The man agreed to let us stay for the night. “I’m not just gonna throw you out on the streets.” When I was booking the hotel rooms online a week before there was never any mention of such an age restriction, but I guess they do things different in Athens. I asked him if he knew of any good burger places in town. He asked if we were going to stick around tomorrow, as just about everything was closed on Sunday night. I said yes, while being fully aware that we would be leaving as soon as possible the next day. He told us a few locations that I proceeded to immediately forget. Then he asked us “So what brings you to Athens?” His tone was more accusing us of making a poor decision as opposed to humbled or genuinely curious. “We’re going on a road trip around Texas.” I responded as he gave me the one and only room key. “Ok” he responded, “but why Athens?” We explained to him the theme of the trip, to which he seemed uninterested.

 

Seth wasn’t feeling well, so Jeremiah and I set out to get some hamburgers for him. Miraculously there was a place open, but it was almost a mile away, and I was absolutely not going to drive any more that day. Needless to say by the time we got back that burger was stone cold. Tomorrow would be easier. Although considering what we had been through today easier wouldn’t be hard to achieve. 

Day 3

We were eager to leave the next morning, so we wasted no time getting the car packed up. That day we went to Flint, Pittsburg, Bogota, Detroit and Reno. Nothing significant to report on these places, except that I bought a cowboy hat in Reno. The real excitement was in Paris. 

Paris would be the one of the biggest cities we would be staying at. And we got there with plenty of time in the afternoon to explore. Paris is known for the miniature Eiffel tower with a big red cowboy hat on top, and the cool town square.

We got to the tower, which is right next to some event center and a veterans memorial. This is the first place we had been to so far that looked like it was aimed at some out of towners. There were things like informational plaques and big metal letters that spelled out the city name that one could get their picture with. Yet we were the only ones there. After seeing our fill we hopped back in the car and drove to the town square. 

The Paris Texas Eiffel Tower was one of the only things we encountered on the trip that could be considered a tourist attraction. Photo by Jeremiah Zoric

 

The square was not around a courthouse, as most small towns have it, but rather a small park with a fountain. Music was being played from speakers on the light posts, and there were several antique shops and cafes along the square. And not a soul in sight. Paris has more than just one block of interesting buildings, unlike most of the other places we had stopped at, so we enjoyed exploring for a while. There were more “tourist” oriented things here, like little parks with various musical instruments to amuse children. Or highschool seniors. We had dinner at a burger place right off the square, and were surprised to see a good amount of people in there. They had some insane burgers there, like one with three different kinds of meat. I guess you don’t go on a road trip to lose weight huh?

Back at the hotel after some discussion with the parents we agreed to cut the trip a day short, as things were starting to get pretty bad with the coronavirus. We were reasonably safe out in the middle of nowhere, but it was best not to risk it. 

Day 4   

That morning, after a lovely breakfast at the Paris bakery, I got to look forward to driving through Dallas and Fort Worth. It would be fine, but after driving hundreds of miles on the little state highways through the forest the huge interstate through the prairie was a bit of a sharp contrast. 

After our conquest through the metroplex, we finally made it to Breckenridge, just in time for lunch. Breckenridge was one of the few places I actually knew about before planning for the trip, as it’s near Fort Griffin which I visited a few years ago. Now Breckenridge isn’t huge, about 6,000 people live there, so we were very surprised to see a 10 story bank tower right off of main street. It was by no means modern, but most towns don’t have any buildings over three stories. Before getting a closer look we stopped at a barbecue place for lunch. As soon as we turned off of main street we were on the outskirts of town. The barbecue restaurant, only a block away, sat amongst empty lots and a field with some horses in it. 

The small town of Breckenridge provided to be one of the more interesting places we would visit. Photo by Seth Wittenbrook

After our meal we explored the town a little. Getting a closer look at that tower I saw that it was actually quite old, probably from the 1930s. Around town were lots of murals painted on the side of the old brick buildings, and they were huge. One with some baseball players on it was easily 15 feet tall and 30 long. At the other end of town was the courthouse. Unlike most of the other courthouses we had seen, which were constructed in the 1880s, this was more in the art deco style. Now we could see a connection. The two biggest buildings in this relatively small town were built around the same time. Breckenridge must have found some source of wealth in the 30s, constructed the buildings, then fallen on hard times. Knowing the region it was probably oil related. Who knows for sure, but Breckenridge was definentaly more interesting than expected.

We made the short trek to Abilene, our spot for the night. Although not named after any other city or country Abilene was pleasant enough, and we had a good time wandering around the downtown. I got myself a pair of cowboy boots to go with the hat I bought in Reno, and let me tell you they were not cheap. 150 bucks, and they were one of the cheapest pairs. 

We found ourselves back at the hotel with some time to spare that evening, so Seth suggested we walk to a park. Stepping outside I thought that might not be the best idea. Over the course of the evening jet black clouds had begun to sweep across the sky, and by that point the sky was nearly completely covered. So instead we just walked around near the hotel. Now, Abilene has a highway loop around it, and our hotel was on the outside of the loop. That meant there really wasn’t a whole lot out here. We passed some diners, a Walmart and a huge Coca-Cola distribution plant. Then we made it to the end of the sidewalk. Now there was nothing, just the road and the dark prairie. There was not much traffic, and it was very very quiet. Every minute or so the sky and ground would be illuminated by a flash of electric blue lightning. Then the wind began to pick up. Just when we were about to turn back Jeremiah spotted something moving across the street toward us. It was a tumbleweed. A real authentic tumbleweed. Both Seth and Jeremiah were so excited by it that they had me take their picture with it. We walked back to the hotel, and not five minutes after we got back it began to rain very hard.  

Day 5

The next day we packed up, and as they weren’t offering breakfast at the hotel we soon hit the road. The plan was to have lunch in Fredericksburg then head home. The two hour drive was pretty uneventful, just more prairies. Finally we got to Fredericksburg, and immediately we saw something we had not seen the entire trip: tourists. They were everywhere. We had gotten used to being the only ones visiting the town, but now we were not alone. We had lunch at some German brewery, which was probably one of the better places we ate over the past five days. I didn’t give any thought that this would be the last restaurant I would eat at for a very long time. 

Then we drove back to Austin. Our senior trip was over, and although we were a little disappointed it had to be cut short like this, we had to acknowledge that we were pretty lucky to get to do this at all. And boy did we have a good time. Cutting parts off of my car in the middle of a forest will be something I won’t soon forget. And with that we end the final installment of Rhodes Traveled. Thanks everyone, it has been a fun three years.