Summer Out of the City: The Pines of East Texas
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One of the joys of being a wildlife educator is the travel. Yes, you do spend most of the year in the city, where large school districts and elite private schools can easily fund the money to routinely schedule your programs. But, the real adventure is in the travel to small, out-of-the-way towns. Small churches and rural libraries spend the entire year hosting cake sales and car washes to raise the funds to have us visit their community once each summer.
As you drive due east from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the landscape rapidly changes from concrete and suburbs to tall, towering East Texas pines. The air becomes laden with humidity and smells of freshly mown grass and dry pine needles. Glimpses of swampy, bayou lakes, laced with cyprus knees, peek out between stands of heavy trees. Oil pumps, some rythmically moving up and down like egrets, others frozen in time, are sprinkled along the roadways, remnants of a fading era.
Between the long stretches of green are dots of small towns with names like Big Sandy, Uncertain, and Mount Pleasant. Each town has its own unique appeal, but almost always you’ll find the town square and historic courthouse, flower pot-decorated antique shops, peaceful white chapels, the local feed store, the old town graveyard, and historic houses ranging from cajun cottages to Victorian gingerbread. As in all of Texas, each town has a central railroad station, which is what allowed the town to prosper in the first place. Most are now defunct and abandoned, others still serve to transport freight and you can still hear the whistles on a set schedule.
Food is important in East Texas and each town has a favorite local cafe featuring the cobbler of the day. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a roadside stand selling local peaches, corn, and homegrown East Texas tomatoes. My favorite? The roadside crawfish and shrimp stands that you’ll find close to the Louisiana border. And, of course, there’s East Texas hot links, a special recipe sausage only found here and served with a fiery, hot sauce (of course).
I never feel more welcome than in East Texas. The small towns are filled with warm, welcoming folk, each yielding the distinctively lilting East Texas accent, mixed with a hint of Louisiana low-country drawl. “Where y’all from?” is always the curious first question, usually followed by the offer of a sweet tea or a Dr. Pepper. The audiences, both children and adults, are delightfully curious and awestuck by something as simple as a hedgehog. And, politeness abounds. You’ll hear “yes, Ma’am” dozens of times each visit and you never have to hold your own door. Who needs summer in the city when you’ve got East Texas?