More than you might have imagined
by Robert Painter
Hot Air, Hot Steaks, Cool Cowboy Hats, Cool Boots, Terrific Museums, Great Wind Farms and One Really Clever Zoo – and, that’s not all! For a small West Texas city there’s a lot going on and you will be surprised at some of the unique things you’ll find here.
In its 15th year the Big Country Balloonfest is still a small festival, but a fun and friendly one. The pilots all know each other and it’s a great place for a hot air balloon encounter. I flew early the first day of this two day event and had a wonderful flight, soaring over Abilene and watching as the other balloons touched down for their landings. At the mercy of the wind, some of the potential landing spots were already taken so I lucked out and got a little extra time in the air as we searched for a good, safe spot. I’ve been to bigger ballooning events, but this one offers all the thrills and exhilaration you can hope for as you soar over the city, wave and talk to people on the ground and enjoy the excited faces of school children as they race to be close to the balloons landing in their school yards.
The wind that carried our hot air balloons is put to a lot more use in West Texas than just providing a little recreation. The largest wind farms in the world are just outside of town. I’m not sure why some folks don’t like them, but I have found that I really enjoy watching them. I guess partly because of the sheer size. I think they’re beautiful and I know they’re functional, so what more can you ask. They are relatively quiet and certainly majestic. I went inside the base of one and was amazed at the size. When you watch the blades turning they don’t seem to be going that fast, but, in reality the tips are moving at over 200 mph. Probably the best way to get a feeling for the speed is to look not at the actual blades, but instead look down and watch how quickly the shadow passes by.
If you enjoy things Western you won’t be disappointed with a visit to Abilene. During my visit the U.S. Steer Roping competition was being held so I managed to spend a couple of hours at the event. I watched the men competing, but noticed lots of kids in the stands, some of whom were wearing enormous, new belt buckles. It turned out that they were some of the winners of the children’s events. Now that would have been fun to watch, too, but there was so much going on that I couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Time to take a break and chow down to a really special steak. At least that was my plan till I heard about the Battle of the Burgers on the Today Show. At Perini Ranch Steakhouse while everyone else in my party was enjoying terrific steaks, I just had to try the burger that won the burger battle. I can tell you it was delicious and I love burgers, so it has to be good to make me happy. Big, juicy and cooked to perfection. I looked at all the steaks around me, but I knew I had two more nights in Abilene to get my fill of West Texas beef.
I have two pairs of cowboy boots and I enjoy wearing them. They’re pretty decent boots, but nothing compared to the fabulous and fancy footwear from Leddy Boots. These boots are made for walkin’, dancin’, ropin’, ridin’, and performin’. Cowboys buy them, entertainers buy them, politicians buy them, lawyers buy them, just about anyone who wants a great pair of custom made boots buys them. You tell them what you want and they make what you want. The boots are not cheap. You can pick the color, the style, the leather and write the check. If you want alligator, bull hide, reptile . . . even fish you can have it made at Leddy’s.
Of course, if you’re going all out with a treat for your feet, you won’t want to neglect the top end. You might as well have a custom made cowboy hat as long as you’re shopping in Abilene. So, wander over to the 5D Custom Hats & Leather shop and have owner Damon Albus fit you for just the style of hat to suit your needs. He’ll help you select exactly the right hat for you, from the shape and size of the brim to the crease that tells other hat wearers a little about where you might be from or what you do for a living. It may not be an easy decision, because you can pick from a variety of styles and materials. Your pocketbook may help guide you. Rest assured, however, that you will be expertly fitted and will have a really high quality hat on your head.
Now that you’ve learned how to dress like a cowboy you’ll want to learn more about the real Texas frontier. There’s no better way than to visit Frontier Texas! You may be surprised at the state-of-the-art technology that helps you relive the Old West. Some of the characters are so real that you will find yourself completely immersed in their stories. I was surprised to see my old friend Buck Taylor leading the way through the exhibits. O.K., not really Buck, but his image in an imaginative presentation with life-size holographic figures that speak to you directly with first-hand stories of life on the frontier. You may remember Buck from his days on Gunsmoke, or in more recent productions. I know him as an outstanding artist and a true example of Old West courtesy and civility. He lives on a ranch with his wife Goldie where he does his painting and maintains a cowboy lifestyle not too far from Abilene.
By now you may have worked up an appetite again so you might want to head for the Lytle Land & Cattle Company for a mesquite grilled steak. It seems that rib-eye’s are pretty popular in these parts so you won’t go wrong with that selection.
If you’re as lucky as I was, you may find that the Abilene Philharmonic is performing while you’re in town. If so, don’t miss it. You’ll find that Abilene is not just a “cowtown.” Or, at least, you’ll find that it can be a very sophisticated cowtown. The Abilene Civic Center has a wonderful auditorium and the symphony is delightful. Fortunately, for me, the superb classical pianist Di Wu was playing. Ms. Wu has performed around the world since her professional debut at age fourteen, winning a number of piano competitions.
If you can manage to be in town during the West Texas Book & Music Festival you may have a chance to visit the impressive Paramount Theatre, a restored movie palace from the thirties. The Brave Combo was playing the night I attended and the music was unbelievable. They seemed to be able to play anything and everything and they even played most pieces in a style completely different than expected. For example, a classic piece might be played as rock, or a rock piece played as a polka, etc. My verdict – a wonderful evening and great fun!
If you have children with you there is one place you simply cannot miss. If you don’t have children with you – goanyway, you’ll love it. Housing over 500 animals you’ll surely find your favorite. I loved the white tiger, the jaguars, the bison and the ocelots. Probably the ones that will get most of your attention, though, are the giraffes. And, for good reason. There is a walkover that allows you to view them up close and at eye level. Maybe I should say tongue level, because that’s what will grab your attention. You’re allowed to feed them and when a foot long tongue reaches up to take your goodies out of your hand you and your children will be having the time of your lives.
Another great spot for the kids, and you’ll love it, too, is the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature. I especially enjoyed the pop-up books. You’ll pick your own favorites.
The Grace Museum had three major exhibits running during my visit. I particularly enjoyed the Texas Art Seen exhibit that showed how artists from across Texas portrayed the people and places of Texas in the early to mid-20th century. The Grace is actually three museums in one. Included are the Art Museum, the Children’s Museum and the History Museum (showing life in Abilene from 1900 to 1950.) The Children’s Museum had a variety of hands-on exhibits that I enjoyed when I could find one not surrounded by the kids.
It’s time for another quick little break, so head over to the Candies by Vletas. It’s located in the Historic District downtown. Look for the old R.E.A. Baggage Depot and you’ll discover delicious hand-dipped chocolates to hold you over till the next meal of Texas beef.
But, before you go searching for that next meal, spend some time wandering around the city. There is a great book with the title “Abilene Landmarks An Illustrated Tour. It shows 100 of Abilene’s most historic buildings. Many of these are public buildings, like the Grace Museum, that you can easily tour. Others are private homes that you can view from the exterior.
You might want to start your historic tour with a visit to the Buffalo Gap Historic Village. You might even be able to watch an 1880’s era base ball game. The collections of early firearms, Indian artifacts and historic maps are intriguing. If you’re from Florida you’ll probably love the one that shows Florida much bigger than Texas. The authentic log structures are an education in themselves.
I believe that the public art displayed by a city tells a great deal about the character of that city. I have lived in places that called themselves “art cities,” but had no great public art – just many, many art galleries. Abilene, for the past 28 years has held an outdoor sculpture exhibition and, during that time, has arranged to exhibit some of the entries for periods of time ranging up to two years. Also, local groups have purchased some of the sculptures which are now on permanent display in the city – that number is now up to twenty five.
As you might imagine there are also events that are uniquely Texan. Wouldn’t you like to play Buffalo Chip Pasture Golf? Bring your handgun and be part of the Cowboy Action Championship. Or, bring your shotgun and join in the Annual West Texas Celebrity Dove Hunt. You are a celebrity aren’t you?
If you fall in love with Abilene and want an excuse to visit on a regular basis – send your high school graduate to college here. Home of Abilene Christian University, Hardin-Simmons University, McMurry University and a half-dozen other higher education institutions you can see why Abilene has a degree of sophistication that a lot of other cities of similar size might be lacking. In case you were wondering, the population is about 120,000.
I confess. I didn’t tell you about the Wetlands Boardwalk, the Elm Creek Project, the Creepy Crawler Center, the Prime Time Family Entertainment Center, Downtown Dayz, the Center for Contemporary Arts, the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum, Fort Phantom Hill, The Abilene Dragstrip, the Abilene Speedway, the Diamondback Golf Club, or even the wonderful railroad exhibits in the depot. You’ll just have to discover all that and a whole lot more during your own visit to Abilene.
Keep on Traveling.
When You Go:
https://www.abilenevisitors.com/: Abilene Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. Request a copy of the Abilene Visitor Guide. Calendar of things to do and how to get there.
https://www.frontiertexas.com/. Frontier Texas: Hours, events, prices, etc.
www.abilenetx.com/zoo. Abilene Zoo
https://www.bigvountryballoonfest.com/. Answers to all your questions about the Balloonfest.
https://www.saylesranch.com/. Check out these delightful Guest Houses for your visit.
Story and photos by Robert Painter, Luxury Adventure Travel Editor.