By Chet Garner
For Texans, there’s no need to cross the Sabine River into Louisiana to experience Cajun culture at its finest. It is alive and well in the southeast Texas town of Beaumont.
10:00 a.m. I started the day with an old-fashioned BOOM at the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum. In 1901, after years of failed attempts, the Lucas Gusher struck it big in Beaumont, and the tremendous amount of oil launched the Texas petroleum age. After watching a documentary to set the stage, I walked the dirt streets of the museum’s recreated boomtown with buildings resurrected from the past, along with authentic artifacts and more history than you can shake a dipstick at.
11:15 a.m. While in the mood for museums, I went downtown to the Fire Museum of Texas to check out its collection of vintage fire trucks, including a 1909 Aerial Ladder Truck. A miniature two-story house offered a welcome refresher course on fire safety, and I definitely didn’t miss the chance to snap a photo with the museum’s 24-foot-tall fire hydrant, touted as the largest working fire hydrant in the world.
12:15 p.m. After my morning history lessons, I was craving Cajun culture, so I walked over to the bustling Crockett Street Entertainment District, which offers a mix of dancehalls, bars, and restaurants, including Zydeco Louisiana Diner. After much deliberation, I decided on a Gulf shrimp po-boy, served on bread imported from New Orleans. How’s that for authentic? I joined other diners outside on Zydeco’s open-air patio and savored every last bite.
1:30 p.m. The only thing that screams Cajun more than its signature food and music is its wildlife—big, scaly, green wildlife—so I drove to Gator Country, an educational wildlife park allowing visitors to get as close as they might want to these toothy reptiles. I learned all about the habitat and dining habits of the American Alligator along with a host of other species. And while I was thrilled to hold a baby alligator, I kept my distance from “Big Al,” the largest cap-tive gator in Texas, measuring 14 feet long and weighing almost 1,000 pounds.
3:00 p.m. Eager to experience more of Beaumont’s wild side, I took a hike in the Big Thicket National Preserve, which protects more than 100,000 acres of undisturbed wilderness. The towering pines and knobby cypress knees left me amazed at the ecological diversity of Texas. I was also amazed to find out that there are actual groups of dedicated researchers who believe that the Big Thicket is inhabited by none other than Bigfoot, including the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy. While in the thicket, I never encountered Sasquatch face-to-face, but I did manage to snag an odd picture (see above). Funny stump or something else? I’ll let you decide.
5:30 p.m. Time to cool off, so I made my way to Village Creek State Park, which park rangers assured me was far enough away from the gator bayous for safe swimming. This beautiful state park adjoins the Big Thicket and has similar astounding diversity. I whiled away a couple of hours swim ming in the park’s spring-fed creek and kicking back on its large white sandbars.
8:00 p.m. My journey to Texas Cajun country reached its grand finale just down the road in Groves at Larry’s French Market. Owner Larry Judice’s grandparents started the business as a grocery store, but as the food and dancing outpaced the groceries, the establishment evolved into a full-swing, Cajun-loving dancehall and restaurant serving up classics like étouffée, boudain, jambalaya, frog legs, and, of course, crawfish! As the live zydeco band played and couples spun across the open floor, I spent the night picking away at my giant platter of boiled craw-fish, corn, and potatoes.
Beaumont’s oil boom may be over, but its bayous, beauty, and Bigfoot live on. So, whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope
to see you on the road.