A Safari in Texas
Why animals and a Chrysler Town and Country Probably Don’t Mix Too Well
And we’re off again on another exciting road excursion. This time we’re headed back to that great barrier island on the Texas Gulf Coast known as Galveston. For the record, this is our third trip to G-Town. OK, so nobody calls it that except me just now but repeating the name “Galveston” a third time was going to get boring. The first time was a trip my wife and I took with her family when our son was about 8 weeks old. A month after that trip Hurricane Ike destroyed much of what we had seen including some notable landmarks in an otherwise sleepy city by the sea. The second time was just last year when we rented a house for the week with my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and several of my wife’s aunts and cousins. Also for the record, Galveston was site of the the worst natural disaster ever to befall the United States when, in 1901, a major hurricane made landfall and swept as many as 12,000 people out to sea. Lucky for us, the weather looks calm this week.
Most folks, when traveling with two children in an overpacked minivan on a five hour trip, like to take the most direct route, avoiding as many potentials for pitstops as possible and saving the precious few that do arise for necessary purposes — as in “Daddy! I have to pee!!!” Not us. We have mastered the art of turning a relatively short drive (hey, it’s Texas, five hours gets you into the next county) and turning it into a phenomenally long but always fantastic voyage. So after a long night of packing and cleaning (having consumed every morsel of food in the fridge because no one wants to come home to rotten food) we began the day quite piously with 8AM mass. I suppose we could have been asking God’s blessing for a successful trip. Instead I was musing on the fashion choices of several of my fellow older parishioners. Hey, I’m only human. Did I mention that after 25 years I’ve decided to give up on shaving? I’m a teacher. It’s summer. Look, when I was 13 it was cool. Now that I’m almost 37 it’s a drag. So I was making those subconscious judgments at mass while scratching my hot and itchy face. I foresee a beard trimmer in my immediate future. But as soon as Father announced “Go forth, the mass is ended” we went forth. A quick stop for coffee and a whole bunch of breakfast burritos I did not need from McDonald’s and our vacation was underway in earnest. It got real.
To say we like to get off the beaten path is kind of like saying that Michael Jackson was a tad bit eccentric. The most painfully obvious route for us would be to get on I-45 and follow it to the Gulf. Boring. So instead we headed into East Texas and a region known as “the piney wood”. Not sure why they couldn’t conform to the conventions of English and call it the piney woods but, whatever… Our first stopover was in a tiny town called Jacksonville. For some reason my wife and I thought it would be fun to take the kids on a ride through a drive-through safari. I envisioned being escorted to an armored vehicle with iron bars separating me from the few majestic creatures that would approach it. In short, I was thinking of the words “safe distance”. And then Mrs. H. dropped this gem on me. “So… yeah, the safari thing? I found out that we drive ourselves through it.” I contemplated slamming the breaks but realized that our rockin’ Town and Country would probably disintegrate given the posted speed of 80 MPH on the road on which we were driving. “We do what now?” I said aloud. “We drive through it ourselves. Oh boy… Do you want me to drive? Are you going to be scared?” she said. I know my wife well enough to know that this was not a challenge to my testosterone but a genuinely loving and concerned offer. The truth is I was scared out of my mind. But then there’s that testosterone thing. And there was no way I was going to not drive through a safari now that someone had suggested I might be scared to do so. She then went on to say “…and Mom, don’t worry about the cost. Just don’t freak out or anything. We’ve got it covered.” Turns out that the place charged a fee of something like $13 per vehicle occupant. Upon hearing this, Wilma remarked “Couldn’t you just drop me at the gate and circle back for me when you’re done?” Nice try, lady. If I’m driving through this thing, then you’re coming along too.
If the animal wants to stick it’s head in your car you just pat ’em on the nose and say ‘shoo now!’
So here we were, an hour and a half into our trip, miles “off course” but exactly where we wanted to be. We checked in at the “welcome center”. The nice young lady behind the counter went over the rules for us. “Here are the protein pellets to feed the animals with, you know hon, so you can get ’em closer to your ve-hi-cle. If the animal wants to stick it’s head in your car you just pat ’em on the nose and say ‘shoo now!’ Don’t let them think you’re scared, now, y’hear? They know the drill. If ya’ll be wantin’ to move on and especially with the bigger critters, they’ll just kinda tap at your car or somethin’? Ya’ll can just start inchin’ forward and they’ll scram. OK?” My God, that was almost as painful to write as it was to hear. After I mentally interpreted what she had said into proper English I looked at her in all sincerity and asked “What do I do if the animals attack me?” She stared at me with a puzzled look and said “I don’t think that’s ever really happened before, sir.” I contemplated responding with “Good job. You did grammar and stuff!” Instead we got into the car and headed out onto the red clay roadway that lead through the safari.
And about ten minutes into our trip I asked my wife “How long’s this thing estimated to take?” Her response of “an hour and a half” lead me to rejoin with “Then we’re about to learn what happens when you run out of gas on a game preserve.” Yep, we had to exit the safari, drive seven miles on fumes, fill up, and return. Should have checked my gauges first. Now here’s the neat thing. There were some pretty cool animals. Clearly they had all been tranquilized and I don’t care what the safari people say. Their liability would be too great otherwise. But for safe measure I did have several Valium pills ready to mix into the bags of feed. We started out being approached by alpacas. That was neat. They walked right up to the car and lazily waited until we tossed pellets at them. Then we saw white tailed deer. Up next were four large bison. They were followed by speckled deer. “Ooh, an ostrich! Look, it’s more deer.” Are you following the pattern? This must be the business model taught at Harvard these days. When opening a safari park and you cannot find enough safari animals, just fill the place with deer. To be fair, the camel came right up to our car and actually stuck his head in the window. A bit freaky, yes, but funny, too, based on Sonny Boy’s reaction.
We continued to drive through this place and my daughter piped up with “What’s our next stop?” We told her we wanted to visit the tiny tourist trap of Nacogdoches. “Hey,” she said, whispering to her brother, “We’re going to Nag-a-no-jez next.” He was quite disinterested. He was too busy naming the safari animals. “Mommy! I think that one (the zebra) should be called Ze-be,” he said with glee. “And that one (the camel) I will call Cami.” I must not have been paying attention to his nomenclature. Moments later I spit out my drink when he tried to grab the attention of the errant antelopes (with the twisted horns) by yelling out the window “C’mere, horny!” I looked up to see that he (my son, not Horny) had moved over to get a better view. Now he was sitting atop a suitcase belonging to my mother-in-law. Remember her? She had a double mastectomy not long ago. “Wilma, do you know what’s in that case he’s on top of?” I asked. “Oh, just my ta-ta’s dear,” came the reply. Good to know her prosthetic boobs were packed for the trip.
This little jaunt was nearing it’s end when some of the ugliest animals we encountered made their appearance. I think they were from India and they resembled oxen who’s faces had been smashed with bricks. Worse yet, they had flies surrounding them. Windows went up immediately. My wife then muttered under her breath “We’re not feeding you unless you’re healthy you disgusting beasts.” Who knew she took this so personally?
After exiting the safari-land adventure park we continued on, passing through the many small towns of the region. We stopped for early dinner in Na-ga-no-jez as my daughter called it. Finally, after a quick stop at Texas’ most famous chain of roadside rest stops – Buc-ee’s – to fill up on junk food and coffee, we reached our destination for the night. That would be a hotel about thirty minutes north of Houston.
And if we had driven here directly we would have made it before lunch. But we would never have encountered the mountain woman behind the desk at the world’s most awesomely strange drive-through animal park. Also, the zebra licked me.