Looking back at 1998, one can't help but remember the extremes of the weather as the most important factor affecting day trippin' in Texas.
The state started with a wet winter and spring. So much rain fell that I predicted that there would be water in the favorite swimming holes through August. Then came the earth-cracking drought with a record 38 days of the thermometer reaching 100-plus degrees in Central Texas along with a haze of smoke from out-of-control Mexican forest fires.
In the fall came tropical storms moving over the state. One tried to wash away Del Rio and several communities along the Rio Grande. A month later the Colorado River overflowed its banks and flooded towns between Bastrop and the coast.
Along with record temperatures and precipitation, Texans had record low prices at the gas pumps. The average price of gasoline around the state hovered under $1 a gallon.
Fill up the gas tank, crank up the car's air conditioner, and put a new tape into the tape deck because Texans had lots of new places to go last year. One of the more unusual new sights in the state is a 55-foot version of the Eiffel Tower in the northeast Texas town of Paris. The replica of the famous French landmark would be unique enough, but the town added a 10-foot red cowboy hat made of steel with a brass, hand-tooled feather sticking out of a black hatband. Do they call it macaroni?
Closer to home in Austin's Zilker Park, Splash! Into The Edwards Aquifer gives visitors an inside look at the limestone caverns that form underground rivers. The interactive science laboratory makes learning fun (327-8181).
To the east of the Capital City between Austin and Bastrop, the Lower Colorado River Authority opened McKinney Roughs and Environmental Learning Center (512/303-5073). The 1,100-acre nature preserve includes hiking and equestrian trails, access to the Colorado River, three box canyons, and four distinct ecosystems.
In San Antonio, they opened the Texas Highway Patrol Museum at 812 S. Alamo St. Also known as the Department of Public Safety, the state law enforcement exhibits include the Texas Rangers and a Hall of Fame (210/231-6030).
In Fort Worth, they opened the new Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall at Fourth and Calhoun streets. The 183,000-square-foot multipurpose facility is billed as the "last great hall built in the 20th Century" and will be the site of many a unique performance (817/348-2400 or http://www.basshall.com). One of the first performances was the late-night castration of a longhorn statue in the lobby when several patrons complained that the bull was too real.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department turned 75 years old in 1998. Along with celebrations at parks around the state, the parks department held the state's largest Texas Independence Day event at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park to unveil enhancements and improvements to the birthplace of the Republic of Texas (409/878-2214).
Among other additions to the state parks was the opening of Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway (940/328-1171). The 20-mile abandoned railway corridor was converted into public trails between Weatherford and Mineral Wells. Out of more than 700 rails-to-trails conversions in the U.S., Texas has only six. Opened with limited public access were Government Canyon State Natural Area (210/688-9055) outside of San Antonio and Lake Tawakoni State Park (903/595-2938) near Willis Point in northeast Texas.
Wildlife in Texas saw their numbers increase. At Kerr Wildlife Management Area near Kerrville the black-capped vireos rebounded from 27 singing males in 1986 to 338 in 1998. Five pairs of Aplomado falcons are nesting at the 46,000-acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge near Rio Hondo. The gray raptors are being reintroduced to South Texas after pesticides and habitat loss took them to the brink of extinction.
In one of the most significant land acquisitions for nature tourism of the year, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge obtained a $5.8 million tract of land that was destined during the 1980s to become a resort community. The 12,000 acres is habitat for 17 endangered or threatened species, contains a stand of black mangroves, and portions of the Palmito Ranch Battlefield, the site of the last land battle of the Civil War. The refuge is projected to stretch 120 miles from the Gulf up the Rio Grande to Falcon Dam.
This year we lost Barton Warnock, a pioneer botanist in the deserts and mountains of West Texas, on June 9 of a heart attack at age 86. A professor at Sul Ross University in Alpine for 33 years, Warnock had the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas named for him as were more than a dozen species of plants he discovered in the Trans Pecos region.
Dominique de Menil of Houston, an oil heiress, human rights champion, and art patron, died at the age of 89. De Menil amassed one of the world's largest private art collections and opened it to the public in a cutting edge museum in the Montrose district of Houston. In 1986, she joined with former President Jimmy Carter to form the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation. A resident of Houston since 1941, she and her husband John heavily influenced the development of the local art community.
The news that struck day trippers to the bottom of their carnivorous stomachs was the news that Kreuz Market in Lockhart was being split. The Central Texas landmark has been serving no-frills smoked meat at the same location since 1900. The Schmidt family has owned the business since 1948, but in 1984 the business was divided between the sons, who own the restaurant, and their sister, who owns the building. She wants to double the rent. The brothers say they'll move instead. No one knows what effect this will have on the barbecue joint that some meat lovers have declared the best in the nation. The current lease is up on August 31, 1999, and won't be extended past August 31, 2004.
(Thanks to Ann Kelton, editor of the Texas Travel Log, for documenting the events in the Texas travel industry during the year.)