Nineteen ninety-nine: hot, dry, and touristy.
The most devastating event of the year was Mother Nature's cruel joke of a prolonged drought in much of Texas, the Southwest, and northern Mexico. Most of the best swimming holes were dry throughout the summer. A long, hot summer it was.
The weather didn't stop visitors from swarming to the state in record numbers. According to the Texas Department of Economic Development, tourism pumped more than $34 billion into the state's economy. The top 10 attractions were the Alamo, San Antonio River Walk, Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington, San Marcos Outlet Malls, State Capitol, Fort Worth Stockyards, Padre Island National Seashore, Astrodome, Sea World Texas, and the San Antonio Zoo.
Texas sports teams had one of the best combined years in modern history. The dream of an I-45 World Series between the Rangers and the Astros went unrealized again, but the Stars brought hockey's Stanley Cup to Dallas, the Houston Comets won their third consecutive WNBA title, and the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA championship.
The successes put voters in a very generous mood. San Antonio approved a $175 million new home for the Spurs only six years after the Alamodome opened. This happened four months after the league championship came to a city that has turned down several bond issues to build a reservoir for a municpal water supply. Instead, the city is content with being the largest city in America relying on an underground aquifer and taxing hotel rooms 16.75 percent.
The prize for highest hotel tax in the nation goes to Houston, where visitors pay 17 percent. Much of the money goes to pay for a new baseball park that opens next year to replace the Astrodome, as well as a new hockey arena.
Not everyone in the state was making a living at the public trough. The Ayers family of Austin received the President's Award from the Nature Conservancy for preserving more than two-thirds of their 6,700-acre Shield Ranch. The family donated a conservation easement to the Nature Conservancy of Texas, permanently restricting development on the ranch along Barton Creek in Western Travis County southwest of Austin.
The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory outside of Lake Jackson, 50 miles south of Houston, opened to the public with the help of the Nature Conservancy of Texas and Dow Chemical. The 36-acre nature preserve on land once owned by Stephen F. Austin's sister currently offers hiking trails and interpretive programs. For information, call 409/480-0999 or visit http://www.gcbo.org.
Also opening this year was Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park on Lake Buchanan. A joint endeavor by the Lower Colorado River Authority, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Presidian L.C. of San Antonio, the new park offers camping, cabins, eagle-spotting boat tours, a swimming beach, and hiking trails, with more amenities to be added later. The park is northwest of Burnet off TX 29 at the northern end of RR 2341. For information call 800/977-0081.
In Fredericksburg, the George (the senior) Bush Gallery of the National Museum of the Pacific War opened at the Admiral Nimitz Museum. The 23,000-square-foot addition to the nine-acre complex uses state-of-the-art technologies to transport visitors to World War II. For information on the state museum, call 830/997-4379.
Four years after Selena Quintanilla Perez's death, the statue memorializing her on the Corpus Christi waterfront still attracts thousands of visitors. Many of the tourists included a visit to the Quintanilla recording studio where the Tejana star worked, so a museum was added.
Admission is free to the displays of dresses and outfits worn by the slain singer, awards, sketches, and even a newspaper article of Selena as a fifth-grade spelling bee champ. The museum is open Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm at 5410 Leopard St; 361/289-9013.
Across town on the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, the exhibit of Columbus' sailing ships closed. Officials at the visitors bureau (800/766-2322) say that the three wooden replicas will probably return to Spain, where they were built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the voyage to America.
In San Antonio, Mr. Pooh, a 31-year-old polar bear who lived in the zoo for 20 years, died. At Fossil Rim Wildlife Center (254/897-2960) near Glen Rose, three Mexican gray wolves were born into the population of 200 existing in captivity. At the beginning of last year, the Fort Worth Zoo added a new baby Asian elephant to their pachyderm exhibit. The first baby elephant born at the 90-year-old facility is one of only 436 Asian elephants in captivity and approximately 40,000 living in the wild. To check on the calf's progress call the zoo at 817/871-7050 or http://www.fortworthzoo.com.
All in all it was quite a year for day trippers in Texas. Austin Bergstrom International Airport opened to rave reviews. Esquire magazine listed Louie Mueller's Barbecue in Taylor and Cooper's Bar-B-Q in Llano among the five greatest barbecue joints in America. And in Beaumont, the Fire Museum of Texas added "The World's Largest Fire Hydrant," a 24-foot-tall gift from Walt Disney Studios, to their collection. Ain't it a great world to explore? ... Happy 2000 and many more.
Coming up this weekend ...
Antiques Show at the K.C. Hall in Brenham offers aisles of furniture, glassware, memorabilia, and food vendors, Jan. 8-9. 409/251-9455.
Country Music USA in Yoakum earned the 1999 Country Music Live Show Award for the third straight year by Country Music Organizations of America. The 22-year-old show presented by local Rotarians happens every second Tuesday of the month, including Jan. 11. 361/293-2309.
Coming up ...
Janis Joplin Birthday Bash in Port Arthur celebrates the rock legend's birthday with live music at the Civic Center and Museum of the Gulf Coast with the induction into the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame, Jan. 15. 409/985-5583.
Lake Whitney Photography Contest sponsored by Arrowhead Resort has a deadline of Apr. 30. Photographers receive a 15 percent discount on accommodations through Apr. 16. 254/694-3044 or http://www.arrowheadatlakewhitney.com.
Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is now available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.