Back in the spring, USA Today sent me on assignment for their quarterly GoEscape travel magazine. What set this assignment apart from every other gig I’ve been on was the fact that I didn’t know where I was heading until I got to the airport at 6am.
An hour before taking to the sky, my editor sent me an email. I was off to Dallas, Texas. It was my job to get under the skin of the Big D.
I’ve included a PDF version of the article as it appeared in the magazine, and my original text for easy reading. You’ll notice that no one ever keeps my original title. Ha!
Hunting Velcro Pygmies
By Flash Parker | April 1, 2013
For USA Today: GoEscape Magazine
“New Orleans is a very interesting place,” said Ravi the taximan as we tucked into the departures corral at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. “The accent is a little funny, and the food is sometimes spicy, but the culture is unique. I hope they send you there for the Mardi Gras, and the Bubba Gump Shrimp.” I told Ravi I would send him a postcard and some Gump gear if I ended up in Louisiana. Ravi had a unique way of reconciling place and space, much like everyone who knew about my impending mystery trip. My mother argued that a weekend at Disneyland was like visiting all 50 states at once; my fiancée thought it would be nice if I was sent to Hawaii (as long as she could chaperone); and my best friend hoped to meet me in Vegas, though he admitted that we could never tell anyone.
I checked my watch; there were a few minutes until 5am and the revelation of my destination, so I scanned the airport’s big board for clues. I watched a foursome wheel their golf clubs through the entrance en route to Phoenix. A happy family tried to make space in their luggage for hockey skates ahead of their trip to Halifax, while a hunting party headed for Anchorage packed their orange vests and camouflage hats into their carry-on luggage.
Unlike these folks, I didn’t know where I was going to be spending the next three days. That meant I had no idea what to pack, though I tried my best. I took a quick inventory of my gear and chuckled to myself: camera; moleskine notebook; HoldFast camera strap (the fact that the strap looks like a holster is always good for street cred); passport; flashlight (it can be dark on the way to the bathroom); a hockey puck, otherwise known as a Canadian peace offering; and a pair of extremely snug lightning bolt undies, just in case I ended up someplace hot. These next three days were going to be great if I was sent to a place where preconceptions could guide me, but what if I landed somewhere my imagination couldn’t help? I would have to rely on the twitterverse if I was going to get at the cultural core of wherever I ended up, and reach out to local folks the moment my destination was revealed. I planned on tweeting local chefs, mixologists and bartenders in my quest for good eats and quirky bevvies. If I got a hot tip about a local secret, I was going to enlist the help of my follows to suss it out. If I bumped into someone on the bus who was willing to point me in the direction of a good time, I was going to drag them along for the ride. Over the next three days I would be the ultimate Yes Man, ready and willing to experience all that this fresh new place had to offer. I steeled myself against the challenge as a buzzer went off in my pocket. An email from Jim Lenahan, my editor and the mastermind behind this adventure, told me that I was headed to Dallas, Texas.
Before my plane took to the air I took to twitter. I was after the essential experience; I wanted to know where I could find an iconic view of the city, a market awash in local color, and a watering hole where tall tales flowed from native storytellers like beer from broken taps. By the time I arrived in Dallas my twitter feed had blown up with recommendations both mundane and remarkable. It seemed like everyone who had ever lived in, heard of, of passed through Dallas had an idea for me. One furtive follower suggested I spend some time with the Velcro Pygmies, known to frequent Dallas in the springtime. My request for more information about these mysterious pygmies went unanswered. I had tips, tricks, lists and an itinerary, but the experience was going to be realized in the way I interpreted this information.
ON THE LACK OF TUMBLEWEEDS.
Much to my chagrin my first few moments in Dallas were not spent dodging cattle on dusty streets populated by tumbleweeds and maverick cowboys itching for a hitching post. Dallas was not the reel of scenes lifted from Lonesome Dove I expected it to be. Instead, the city was sleek, slick, and stylish. My on-the-fly sleuthing had failed to uncover a ramshackle saloon, but I knew I could find one if I looked hard enough. I was intent on kicking in a set of double doors with my brand-new cowboy boots and announcing myself as the new sheriff in town. I hailed a taxicab and asked the driver what he knew about the Wild West and the Velcro Pygmies; he raised an eyebrow as he looked at my reflection in the rearview mirror. “I think you should speak with the Old Monk,” he said. I asked the driver to deliver me to this Old Monk; we had much to discuss.
I settled into prime real estate at the Old Monk’s bar. It was 4:30 and the joint was already filled with the city’s well-dressed, well-manicured, and well-mannered. I tossed my camera on the bar and hollered for something local. Riley the barman slid a frosty Deep Ellum IPA down the bar and into my hand. He nodded, I nodded. He didn’t call me pardner or ask if I was from around these parts, but I didn’t hold that against him. As I took to imbibing Riley scribbled notes on a pad of paper. He suggested I try the Capitol Pub, The Double Wide, and The Gin Mill. I asked for directions, so he drew me a map. I had trouble reading the map, so he offered to show me around. Riley even offered to help me locate the Pygmies, though he had never heard of them previously. We were finally getting somewhere.
Before we could set out for the Capitol, a patron at the other end of the bar asked if she could offer her two cents. She bore a striking resemblance to Kate Capshaw, and her husband claimed he looked like Garth Brooks. Who was I to say no? By the time I stepped back into the sun my itinerary had quadrupled in size, and I’d had more drinks poured for me than any visiting foreigner since Dirk Nowitzki brought the NBA title home to the Mavericks. The next few hours saw me pulling pints of craft ale from the taps at the Capitol, waxing poetic with literary rebels at Heroes Lounge, and working through the Tex-Mex masterpieces at the Blue Goose Cantina. The goose eggs made me happy, but I’d be lying if I said I stopped there. An evening stroll south along Greenville Ave led me through a quaint residential neighborhood and into Good Records, a vinyl playground where I was sure to discover the Velcro Pygmies. Alas, the sonically informed employees had never heard of them, but offered to turn me on to Smile Smile, Calhoun, and The Rocket Summer. I popped on a set of headphones, settled into a bean bag, lost myself in the music, wondering where I was going to end up next.
Next was clear across town, all the way to the Belmont Hotel on the outskirts of Oak Cliff. One tweeter mentioned the panoramic views of the downtown skyline, while another extolled the virtues of SMOKE, the modern smokehouse next door. Everyone else told me to be careful in this part of town. I took a martini to the patio and asked after Oak Cliff’s tough reputation, when it seemed more hipster than hard-ass on the surface. “We like it that way,” a fellow patio lantern told me. “If it didn’t have a bad reputation, there’d be no space out here to watch the sun go down.” Trusting that logic, I put myself at the mercy of the smoke pit in chef Tim Byres’ kitchen. Even if Oak Cliff’s streets were piled high with burning coals, I would walk across them for a taste of whole hog and blue cheese slaw. Dessert unnecessary.
SOME KIND OF WELCOME.
Rain and Texas go together like barbecue and peanut butter, which is to say not at all. Yet Dallas is a remarkably green place, and the sprawling Farmer’s Market, just south of the Main Street District, is a showcase for what a little bit of wet weather can do. My original plan was to collect fresh ingredients and prepare a feast, but I doubted my twitter followers would be able to help me craft a dish out of Mole, prickly pears, and hominy kernels. My culinary repertoire is rather limited, and I have no idea how to use a molcajete. Instead I learned a little bit about Texas honey, nothing about Texas tea, and met a man who mates melons for a living. I tucked into a long line at the Pecan Lodge, a market institution famous for southern barbecue. I waited an hour before ordering the Hot Mess; shredded brisket and sweet potato, with a side of M-m-mac n’ cheese. I joined a fitness class in progress down at the other end of the shed, just so I didn’t feel guilty about my mass consumption. I did have trouble focusing on the instructor, considering the class took place between the spicy pickle cart and the barrel-aged olive oil stand, while the sweaty couple in front of me discussed the ingredients destined to end up in their pork rind casserole. I was starting to fall in love with Dallas.
A gust of wind blew me clear past the upmarket boutiques, malls, and bistros of downtown and into the historic West End, where I found tourists posing for macabre photos on the x that marks the place where JFK was shot. Kids played on the grassy knoll while conspiracy theorists shared secrets outside the County Administration Building. I toured the Sixth Floor Museum and witnessed the place where Lee Harvey Oswald changed American history forever (a man outside hawking conspiracy propaganda tried to convince me otherwise). I wondered aloud why the Dallas Arts District does not receive more national attention, and was told by a trio of acutely attuned Nasher Sculpture Center valets that southerners know how to keep secrets better than the rest of the country. Feeling culturally gratified, I decided to take a break from history and play on the freeway.
Klyde Warren Park is a multi-purpose space built over one of the city’s busiest roads, buffered on one side by an armada of food trucks, and an open air library on the other. During one brief stretch I played a game of Frisbee golf, chased a gourmet slider with excessively colorful cupcakes, lost a game of chess to an 11-year-old prodigy (and a game of checkers to his 9-year-old sister), and was drafted into a soccer match. As I lay on the grass entirely overstimulated, I watched heavy gray clouds roll overhead. I switched off my phone, hushing the incessant twitter chirps, and decided that if my trip ended now I would go home happy. Not that I was going to let that happen. I’m a glutton for a good time.
PACHYDERMS AND COWBOY HATS.
By the time I arrived at the Deep Ellum Brewery it was 2pm and happy hour was nearly over. I self-guided through the beer list and asked the barman if the honey in the Oak Aged Doppelbock came from the Farmer’s Market. He didn’t know, but he pretended to care.
Zack Fickey, resident Event Planning Ninja, climbed the elevated platform and stood among the towering brew tanks as the fauxhemians and skinny-jeaned ne’er-do-wells gathered. Zack lauded Deep Ellum’s uniqueness, praised its history, and called for everyone who loved the browbeaten neighborhood to support local artists, and to drink good beer. I raised a glass with the rest of the crowd, and decided to vote for Zack if he ever ran for president (and if I were given a vote). My tour ended when I bumped into Oscar, a Fort Worth native showing some out-of-towners a good time in Dallas’ most important cultural enclave. Oscar introduced me to his friends, and they invited me to Fort Worth. I hesitated. I felt like there was so much more to see and do in Dallas. “We’re going to hunt down the Velcro Pygmies tonight,” Oscar said. “Have you ever heard of them?”
Oscar told me that Pygmies are nocturnal. We had time to kill before we went hunting, so we pulled on our boots and went mudslinging in the Fort Worth stockyards. We helped a cowboy haul his saddle to the rodeo grounds, had our boots shined outside the Pink Cadillac, got lost in a children’s maze made of old fences, and bought tickets to a Randy Travis concert going down at Billy Bob’s, home to slot machines, bad attitudes, and the world’s largest belt buckle. We ordered pints of blood and honey at chef Tim Love’s White Elephant Saloon (I did not kick in the doors), and speculated on why a grown man would fill his bar with hundreds of porcelain pachyderms. A local musician named Ryan Riley sang a tune while Oscar and I ordered boom boom mushroom burgers from the Love Shack next door. Oscar and I talked at length of the differences between Dallas and Fort Worth. In Fort Worth, people still wear jeans and cowboy boots, men order whiskey on the rocks, and steak is not a dirty word. If Texas had been defined along musical lines, Dallas would be a saxophone, and Fort Worth would be a banjo. “I would have also accepted cowbell,” Oscar said. We were getting along great. Twitter sent us for margaritas at Chimy’s (mine had a can of Red Bull sticking out of it), steak at Cattleman’s, barbecue at Railhead, and happy hour in the West 7th Cultural District, where we raised local Rahr Beers at the Durty Crow. We didn’t find a chuckwagon or have time for a campfire cookout, but given another couple of days I’m sure we could have.
It was late when our party arrived at Sherlock’s Pub & Grill in Arlington. I was growing ever anxious; we had talked little of the Pygmies, and I was beginning to doubt their existence. Oscar told me to close my eyes and allow my ears to guide me. The cacophonic sounds of 80s glam rock drew us to the stage, and I struggled to make sense of the kaleidoscopic light show, the smoke, and the endless tendrils of big curly hair that whipped from one side to the other. Velcro Pygmies frontman Cameron Flener teased the crowd into a frenzy and screamed Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics into the grenade-shaped microphone while the dance floor writhed below him. We had finally found the Pygmies. There was nothing left to do but dance.
I didn’t get a chance to ask the Pygmies if they like donuts. If I did, I would have invited them to breakfast at Hypnotic in Lakewood, a hip East Dallas food factory famous for their chicken biscuits and liberal use of bacon. For breakfast I had Kaye’s biscuit, with pepper jack, whipped cream cheese and fresh jalapenos, and the Evil Elvis and Canadian Health Care donuts. If James and Amy St. Peter ever decide to franchise, I hope they stay away from Toronto. I’d buy stock in donut holes and park myself in front of their kitchen. The pair sent me off with a snack for later, which I promptly ate while wandering around White Rock Lake. The surrounding park, adjacent to the Dallas Botanical Gardens, is a quiet oasis divided from the skyscraper infinity of downtown. I cast a few lines over the water with a fisherman named Miguel, and wondered if there was anything else I could possibly catch. My new friends and my amateur online tour guides had helped me see and experience more of Dallas in a 48-hour span than I ever thought possible. The pages of my notebook were stained by salsa, coffee, donut frosting, steak sauce, and spilled margaritas, personal Rorschach inkblots that represented individual memories from a whirlwind weekend. I flipped to a new page, filled my pen with fresh ink, and scribbled where next? along the first line.
MAKE TIME FOR:
US Post Office
251 W Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth
Built in 1993, this historic relic is a mash-up of Beaux Arts and Art Deco design from architect Wyatt C. Hedrick, and an enduring symbol of Cowtown’s bygone boom years.
John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza
646 Main St., Dallas (214)747-6660
Simple and striking, the JFK Memorial was designed by architect Phillip Johnson as a cenotaph, or open tomb, signifying the late president’s freedom of spirit.
Fort Worth Stockyards
130 East Exchange Ave., Fort Worth (817) 625-9715
Rodeos, cowboy boots, swing-door saloons, crawfish boils, and Old West charm: the stockyards will get you close to the Texas of your imagination.
Dallas Running Tours
Explore the city on foot, and sweat off your barbecue embellishments. A six-mile run showcases many of Dallas’ best sights.
Bishop Arts District
West 7th St., bishopartsdistrict.weebly.com
This trendy neighborhood in North Oak Cliff is home to indie bars, restaurants, theatres, and galleries. Annual events like UrbanStreetBazaar, Brew Riot, and 1st Thursdays lend a community vibe.