"We must be staying here in the off season," my boyfriend, John, remarked as we walked over a wooden footbridge and down a long gravel path through the woods that connected a tiny parking lot to our bed and breakfast at White Rock Creek. "Well, not really," I replied. "It's pretty much always the off season in Waco."
The woods were quiet that morning save for the sounds of dozens of birds fluttering in the canopy and in the fallen leaves below; just a few hours earlier, I'd watched cardinals, robins, and a determined woodpecker from our balcony with a mug of coffee in hand. The still calmness outside our little B&B bungalow—complete with fireplace, whirlpool tub, and king-sized bed—mimicked the quiet that met us as we ventured out into Waco on a Sunday before churches across the town had let out.
Though it's home to the world's largest Baptist university—Baylor University, founded in 1845—and, now, an equally massive football stadium on the banks of the Brazos River, Waco is still a small town in most ways. This is a nice way of saying that it can be boring here, and that the town, despite centuries of history stretching back to the Huaco indians, for whom the town is named, doesn't really do a lot to lend itself to tourism.
This is depite a recent tourism push by the City of Waco, which saw representives visiting Houston recently and touting such Waco-area attractions as the Dr Pepper Museum (the soft drink was created here) and Homestead Heritage, where a colony of Anabaptists make a living by showing off and selling their hand-crafted quilts, candles, and even cookie mixes made with whole grains processed onsite at the Heritage Gristmill. I did not attend this Waco tourism board luncheon; having lived in Waco for four years while attending Baylor, I already knew the town well. And while I enjoyed my time there, I wasn't sure my preferred repertoire of activities—aside from the cute-as-a-button Cameron Park Zoo—would make for good tourism opportunities.
When I lived in Waco, I spent quiet days exploring the abandoned ruins of the Paul Quinn college campus (now partially converted into a community center); I walked across disused railroad tracks that spanned the yawning width of the Brazos and read books while overlooking the river, perched on the old trestles; I laid on the Lake Waco docks with friends in the sunshine at Koehne Park, listening to the blue-green water lap at the shores; I hit the Health Camp for milkshakes and Dubl-R for cheeseburgers; I loaded up my car with friends and junk food, heading west to Gatesville to see a cheap drive-in movie. Attending college at Baylor and living in Waco was very much like attending college and living in a small town in the 1950s—though this is as much a compliment as it is a criticism. I mean, would it kill a few places to stay open on Sundays?
"What did you do for fun here on the weekends?" my befuddled boyfriend had asked the night before, upon seeing how little activity Waco generated on a Saturday night. "Waco teaches you how to make your own fun," I replied. "For better or worse."
But over the course of our short weekend away there—one spurred by the unlikely idea that the town is actively trying to promote itself as a tourism destination—I was surprised to find myself recommending the town on more than just its Dr Pepper-based merits (though, to be fair, the Dr Pepper Museum is legitimately great and well worth your time).
We spent a good portion of our Saturday afternoon hiking through Cameron Park, just northwest of Baylor's campus and Waco's slowly evolving downtown. I'd forgotten how good—and how challenging, especially for cyclists—the trails in the 400-acre park are, rising steeply and eventually presenting you with dramatic view of the Central Texas plains below the 100-foot limestone cliffs that rise on the west bank of the Brazos. We sat on an outcropping and listened to the buzzing of crickets and beetles in the dense thicket of woods behind us. "Waco is a lot like Austin," John mused, "without all the people."
And without much of the culture, it should be said. We attempted to get some of that via kolaches in West—a 15-minute drive north of Waco, and famous for its Czech heritage—but found ourselves put off by the hour-long wait to order at the Czech Stop. Instead, we drove back to Waco and ate uninspired King Ranch chicken casserole and sandwiches at the Elite Cafe, a moderately upscale diner whose two claims to fame are its age (94) and its most well-known patron (Elvis Presley). Better to stick to Waco's two specialties when you're in town: burgers and barbecue.
Burgers are best eaten at Dubl-R, a tiny shoebox shack off the beaten path on Herring at 18th. Inside, the line cooks banter with each other and the diners as they grill cheeseburgers and deep-fry jalapeño strips, which are then called Texas toothpicks and served with ranch dressing. "Rachel. Jennifer. Elizabeth. Jessica. Pretty white girl name. Hey. HEY," one of the line cooks snapped at a patron wearing a Baylor T-shirt who was too engrossed in her cell phone to pick up her order. She finally looked up. "My name is Catherine," she responded, quizzically. "Well, I called you every other pretty white girl name in the book!" the line cook offered.
Watching the scene go down that Saturday afternoon between glimpses of the football game playing on a small TV mounted next to the grill, John whispered: "I want to stay here forever." Later that night, he found another spot he didn't want to leave: Vitek's, the 99-year-old barbecue joint famous for its Gut Pak, essentially a Frito pie hopped up with chopped barbecue beef and Vitek's sweet Central Texas-style sauce. Afterward, we considered visiting The Dancing Bear—a craft beer bar near campus—or the town's cocktail bar, a new spot called Muddle, but decided against either in favor of milkshakes at Health Camp, where we sat on the curb like teenagers under the bright neon awning and waited for our desserts. I got a butterscotch malt, John got a cherry-cheesecake shake, and we headed downtown to walk them off as we ate.
We parked near the Waco Suspension Bridge that opened in 1869 and, for a time, cemented Waco as a major center of commerce for both cattle and cotton. Today, it's fully pedestrianized and lit up like a Christmas tree every night. From here, I could point to famous landmarks like the Alico building—the only "skyscraper" to survive the vicious tornado outbreak in 1953 that all but leveled the rest of Waco's downtown—and the elegant Beaux-Arts dome of the cathedral-like McClennan County courthouse. From here, we could see the new McLane football stadium shimmering over the water, and the gold spires of Baylor's campus beyond it.
We strolled up and down the Brazos on the quiet riverwalk—devoid entirely of any commercial entities, unlike San Antonio's version—eventually making our way back up to the suspension bridge, where we spotted a group of Baylor students laughing hysterically.
Curious, we edged closer to them. They were tossing something off the side of the bridge: flour tortillas, which they were aiming to pile up on top of an abandoned bridge pylon several yards away. When a tortilla hit, the group cheered. When it missed, it floated to the water below, where nearly a hundred ducks had gathered for an unexpected tortilla feast. "See?" I nudged John. "You make your own fun here."
And if you're the kind of person who does like to find their own way, instead of having it mapped out and shown to them via a neatly printed tourism brochure, maybe Waco is a great place to spend the weekend. Maybe you like exploring old churches without audio guides, or maybe you like trekking out to barbecue restaurants like Vitek's and Tony Demaria's that aren't thronged with long lines of 'cue hounds. Maybe you like biking on trails that aren't flooded with people, or visiting small museums other people may find a bit silly in their specializations: the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Ranger Museum, the Dr Pepper Museum.
Maybe you don't care about the nightlife, except for taking post-dinner strolls before retiring fireside in your little bungalow. Maybe you don't care that a lot of things are closed on Sundays. Maybe you like staying at remote bed and breakfasts in the woods—not because Waco doesn't afford better options (though it mostly doesn't), but because you want to fall asleep under a canopy of bright stars and wake up to the sounds of woodpeckers and robins in the morning. Maybe gazing at the stunning stained glass collection inside the stately Armstrong-Browning Library sounds like fun, as does shopping for antiques in stores that don't come with Round Rock price tags, or driving out to a riverbank where a particularly well-preserved herd of wooly mammoth fossils protrude from the earth, or even feeding tortillas to ducks.
If so, maybe Waco might not be a terrible place to spend a weekend after all.