Abilene transforms into a charming holiday destination every December.
In the winter of 1908, a mysterious package addressed to young orphan Art Atchinson Aimesworth arrives at the Abilene ranch home where he lives with his aunt, uncle and little sister. Attached to the package is a note reading “Open the box. Assemble the contents. Come NORTH. Yours, S.C.”
So begins William Joyce’s 1993 picture book Santa Calls. This year, like young Art, my wife Laura and I are also heeding Santa’s call to come north. Butisn’t our point of departure, it’s our destination.
Our adventure in Abilene begins not at a ranch, but at the state park. After a long drive, we’re met in the late afternoon at the entrance by Superintendent Ryan Hunter, who guides us through a series of turns to what may be the park’s most storybook setting.
A small grouping of yurts, with their round frames and conical tops, are nestled into a wooded corner of the park like a cul-de-sac of gnome homes. Assistant Superintendent Candyce Johnson is waiting outside our yurt with a key and a smile.
“I’ve turned the heat on for you,” she says as she opens the door. Inside, the yurt’s wooden frame crisscrosses the circumference of the walls. Unmade bunkbeds (we brought our own bedding), a futon-style couch, two electric lights, a mini-fridge, microwave and small dresser make up the room’s furnishings. Restrooms and warm showers are just a short walk away.
It’s not fancy, but it’s charming and comfortable.
With the dinner hour approaching, both Hunter and Johnson give the same recommendation; looks like we’re going to a ranch after all.
Thein nearby Buffalo Gap is just a few miles down the road. Reservations are recommended for the restaurant, which sits inside an old ranch house with rough-hewn wooden walls and a plank floor. The furniture is a rustic hodgepodge — the dining chairs don’t match the table, and they may or may not match each other — but it all comes together in a comfortable, pleasing whole.
In addition to making award-winning steaks and hamburgers, proprietor Tom Perini, who runs the restaurant with his wife Lisa, is a convivial host, checking in on his dinner guests as he makes his way around the restaurant. He joins us at our table for a few minutes, first inquiring about our meal (it’s delicious), then adding flavor to our dining experience by peppering it with delectable anecdotes.
My favorite was about the time when several men in suits came to visit. Perini thought they were from the insurance board looking for violations. Instead they were restaurant entrepreneurs trying to discover — and copy — what it was that made his steakhouse “real Texas.”
“What makes it real Texas?” he asks. Perini gestures broadly around his restaurant and laughs, a hearty, rich baritone.
“It just is,” he says. “They didn’t get it. I’m sure somewhere they probably have a chain of restaurants now with Texas stars all over the decorations and Longhorns on the back of every chair. That’s not Texas.”
Then he leans back and grins. “They’ll never get it.”
As we walk to our car, a full moon crests the nearby tree line, the bright-white light complementing the warm orange glow of the incandescent string lights in the parking lot. The ranch exudes its own kind of magic, and we drive off, a little bewitched.
The night is still young, so we drive into Abilene in search of magic of a different sort. We find it among the more than 100 outdoor displays at Christmas Lane.
Celebrating its 30th year, Christmas Lane (canceled for 2020) is a real community event, with handcrafted displays from local businesses and organizations. A low-powered FM transmitter lets us tune in to the holly-jolliest of music as we drive around to see it all, from the plywood cut-out Charlie Brown Christmas scene (whoever painted Pigpen did an incredible job) to Abilene State Park’s reindeer-pulled camper. The sense of community is so delightful that we drive through the displays twice, discovering new wonders.
Filled with holiday cheer, we head back to the comfort of our yurt. As we approach the state park, we find that the darkness has transformed distant windmills into a chorus line of synchronized Rudolphs, their red noses blinking in unison. It’s a perfect ending to the day.
In the morning, after breakfast at the nearby— their griddled gingerbread is spectacular — we head back in time at the museum.
While the museum showcases the expected collection of artifacts and taxidermied wildlife, the things that make it unique are its “spirit guides” — holographic actors who, in character, tell the stories of the Comanche and Kiowa chiefs, buffalo hunters, Buffalo Soldiers, cattlemen, lawmen and outlaws who left their mark on this part of Texas.
Laura and I spend more than two hours exploring the museum. A museum photograph lingers in my memory: a small group of men dwarfed below a literal mountain of buffalo bones bleached white by the sun. These bones were what remained of the millions of buffalo slaughtered here a century and a half ago.
It’s a haunting visualization of the steep price that others — of all races and species — have paid to bring us to this point. Laura suggests it’s also a call to action, a charge to future generations to learn from the mistakes of the past and to leave this world better than we found it.
A few blocks from the museum, we spot a hand-drawn chalkboard sign touting “Pizza on Earth.”pies are delicious, but the highlight is the appetizer: a toasty baguette warm from the wood-fired oven — its crust crisp and flaky, its center chewy and hot — smothered in hand-made basil butter.
Full of history and pizza, we head back to. Laura wants an afternoon yurt nap; I’m looking forward to exploring the park’s trail system. I ask the park’s Kyla Gust for the inside scoop.
“You’ll want to see the old water tower,” she tells me, “and Buffalo Wallow. The Elm Creek Nature Trail is the prettiest walk in the entire park.”
Being in the park off-season has advantages. With so few visitors, the only human sounds I hear are self-made: the gentle huff of my own breath, the dull thud of each footfall — plus the occasional car passing on the highway.
Recent rains have left shallow pools across sections of the trailway, but I don’t mind wet feet. Based on tracks left in the soft dirt, a deer and a raccoon were of a similar mindset. I won’t see them — a carpet of dried leaves covers the trail ahead, making stealth impossible. But Gust is correct: the bird songs, the waterway, the trees and the plants along the trail are lovely.
Crossing a small bridge over a spring-fed rivulet, I am caught off-guard by the loud whoosh of a great blue heron taking flight. While it soars off to more private places, I walk on, awestruck and inspired. Twenty minutes later my reverie is broken with a buzz from my cellphone. I make a mental note: next time, leave the phone in the yurt.
I emerge from the trail’s end to discover a different sort of flora: a 10-foot Christmas tree of colored lights. Campers have begun setting up for the park’s annual Fa La La in the Forest. Started by the Friends of Abilene State Park in the early 2010s, the Saturday-evening event sees park visitors dress up their campsites with festive lights and decor. Park admission is waived for the evening, though a $5 donation per carload is suggested.
“It’s a big deal,” says Dustyn Anders, the park’s office manager. “We’ll have 300–400 visitors drive through this weekend to see all the campsites aglow with lights.”
That evening we return to Abilene to visit the Storybook Art Adventure Trail, which begins outside the convention center at the Adamson-Spalding Storybook Garden. Here, statues of beloved storybook characters — including Stuart Little, the Three Little Pigs and a stubborn Tyrannosaur who doesn’t want to go to bed — stand bedecked in Christmas lights and festive decorations. The trail proceeds down Cypress Street (a sign proclaims it Storybook Way), wraps around North First Street and ends outside the.
Along the way, statues and stone benches line the street. Each bench is engraved with storybook quotes from books whose art has been featured at the NCCIL, colloquially dubbed The Nickel.
As we travel down the trail, reading quotes from favorite stories and passing statues of the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman, we arrive at Everman Park. Here, statues of Dr. Seuss’ most famous creations stand illuminated under the lights of a giant Christmas tree.
All save one: on this night, the Grinch’s spotlights are mysteriously dark. I’m delighted by this turn of events; considering the season, it seems like the grinchiest thing ever.
As we continue toward Cedar Street, we pass by Abilene’s original storybook sculpture and come face to face with none other than Art Atchinson Aimesworth, sitting aboard the Yuletide Flyer, heading north. Looking up, I notice that nearby Cedar Street also bears an honorific title: Santa Calls Lane.
And there, on the corner outside the NCCIL, stands Santa himself. William Joyce’s Nicholas St. North, carved in bronze, smiles out at us.
“Merry Christmas,” he seems to say. Merry Christmas, indeed!
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