On a recent trip to visit my sister in Dallas, Texas, the decision was made to expose my two young nieces to the “Cowtown” culture of the Fort Worth Stockyards. Being that we are who we are, no expense was spared, and no cheesy tourist activity was overlooked; as they say, when in Rome! We wanted to make sure the experience was as close to authentic as possible, but I feared we may be disappointed. The plan was to catch a local train (actually a vintage train ran on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad) to the stockyards, then spend a few hours exploring the area before watching the Longhorns march down the main drag. A train ride back and a quick drive home for fireworks were to conclude our July 4th celebration. The cloud hanging over my head was the concern that it would be a stripped down version of the truth, overrun by capitalist interest.
Saddle Up Cowgirls And Cowboys
The day finally arrives; the girls and I are pumped! My sister and her husband are happy the kids are excited, but looking at me a bit sideways. The drive to the train station was filled with talk of what the train would be like: Would it be loud? How fast will it go? Would there be air conditioning?
As they sat there asking questions, I found myself distracted by the thought that we were most definitely heading into a cannibalized version of American history. Those types of cognitive dissonance are common place for a romantic pessimist, so the day continued with a high level of enthusiasm. All cynicism is lost when we pull up to the station.
The train we were scheduled to catch wasn’t your ordinary train, not unless you time traveled there from the year 1925. The minute the kids laid eyes on it, the clock started ticking. They didn’t care that we had to go into the beautifully restored train station to get the tickets, nor could they grasp the privilege of the experience. All they wanted was to get on board and take it all in.
As we sat in Historic Downtown Grapevine, I watched the passersby eating ice cream and laughing, feeling a wave of happiness. Although we make mistakes, as humans do, our desire to preserve tradition helps keep us humble. On the contrary, we have a bad habit of reducing history for capitalist gain and sensationalize facts in place of authenticity. We have become a society focused on cheap thrills to check off our list – entitled as we believe ourselves to be – regardless of the truth in the experience. I like to believe we just don’t know any better and don’t let those thoughts ruin the day.
Finally, we hear the whistle of the train telling us it’s time. “All aboard!” the conductor yells with enthusiasm, and the girls are pulling us onto the car. Their faces were priceless as they looked around at all the detail; with each new discovery, their eyes widened further. Watching them take it all in reminded me that curiosity and passion for discovery are exactly why our modern culture continues to preserve and consume experiences from long ago.
Then, humorously, the oldest of my nieces turned around and said, “Thank God you got first class because I would have died without air conditioning.” We all chuckled, embarrassed to be having the same thought. I explained to her that we should be thankful because when this was originally built the passengers would not have had that luxury. Her protest at not having seatbelts was a bit harder to navigate; so I told her to just sit still and hold on to me as the train left the station.
As our journey began, I played historian, telling my family all about the train. We were riding on a steam engine built in 1863 and sitting in a car dating back to 1925, designed in the fading Victorian style of the previous era. I went on to explain the tracks were the busiest cattle transport in the country when the stockyards hit their peak in the early 1900s. The history lesson carried on for about 25 minutes before we heard a gunshot outside the train. The excitement level skyrocketed as we came to a stop. What was happening? We were being robbed! Not really, but it was part of the experience so we all played along.
Suddenly, a man on horseback sped by our car dressed like a cowboy and carrying a gun; it was the climax of the trip! When the robbers entered our car, the kids went wild and attempted to arrest him. I felt a bit bad for the actor, but it made for an adorable photo opportunity. A number of smartphones that came out at that moment shifted my perspective a bit. I started to see modern culture as an appreciation for the childlike joy of discovery and the love of the unknown. As adults, we commonly replace the joy of discovery with jaded cynicism and the love of the unknown with the fear of being uncomfortable. Consciously, I don’t agree with these views, but I’m an offender at times like the rest.
Welcome To The Stockyard
The trip continued to the stockyards where we disembarked to have some yummy Texas BBQ, then do some light shopping until the Longhorns were ready for show time. We walked in and out of stores still carrying the old charm of a by gone era, had a beer at the general store bar while the kids pestered us to purchase every useless plastic toy they could find, and tried on some authentic cowboy boots. Not having found anything that made me feel like a true cowgirl, we headed to find a spot to watch the Longhorns charge the street.
Unfortunately, this was the disappointing part of the day. The cattle looked old and a bit sad; I actually felt bad for them. Part of me wanted to yell at the top of my lungs, “Why are we all sitting here exploiting these poor, tired animals? Haven’t they suffered enough?” But a little voice inside said that would be ill-advised today. This was exactly the diluted experience I was worried about; this went too far! The experience would have been just as good without the parade of sad cattle. However, the crowd loved it. They clamored to see, pushing kids and adults alike. Luckily, we needed to catch a train and promptly exited to locate our choo-choo.
The ride back gave me a chance to think about the day. I compared my expectations with reality, and came to this conclusion:
Maybe the best way for us to break out of our jaded ways is to see the world through the eyes of a child. This slight change in perspective could lay to rest our overly cynical nature and usher in a culture that discovers the truth and privilege in experience.
Our July 4th ended as so many others have, with fireworks and tired kids. It was a beautiful day, with beautiful people and a lovely “old-time” experience complete with cowboys. Gotta love Texas!