In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, E. R. Bills, author of “100 Things to Do in Texas Before You Die,” spoke with Cristo Rey intern Rosalinda Franco about the inspiration for the book and what new items were added to the second edition. For a Fort Worth-specific bucket list, check out reporting fellow Izzy Acheson’s piece on “100 Things to do in Fort Worth Before You Die,” written by Celstina Blok.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Franco: What inspired you to write the first edition of the book, and how has it changed in the second edition?
Bills: Another author was writing a book for (Reedy Press, the publisher) and told them they should contact me. Their standard M.O. is like “100 Things to do in Austin Before You Die” or “100 Things to do in Houston Before You Die,” and they had this volume called “100 Things to Do in DFW Before You Die.”
I said I’m not really interested in doing one in another city, but I’ll do one about the state of Texas, and so they said we don’t do that. And I said, “Well, I’m interested in that.” I guess they caved, and I wound up doing it. Now they’ve got like four or five different states, so it worked out for them and worked out for me.
I’ve traveled the state of Texas all my life and I’ve always been inspired and amazed at the things you stumble on to. My dad took me on a canoe trip when I was 12 down the Rio Grande from Boquillas Canyon to Sanderson. No GPS, no cell phones. My mother thought it was a terrible idea, a crazy journey into desert wilderness. Being 12 years old, I thought it was kind of tough and I wanted to get back to my Atari. But it left a real deep impression on me and it put the travel and adventure bug in me. So when the Press reached out to me, I was an easy mark. I thought this could be fun if I could do it for Texas, maybe I could explore some more corners, and along the way, I discovered some new things.
That was the inspiration the first time around. The second time they approached me, they said they wanted a second edition. And I was like, I don’t know if I’m interested in doing one because I’m too busy, but I took a look at the first version again, I thought there are some things in here that I probably should have covered that I didn’t.
Franco: I guess you answered a bit in that first question, but how has growing up here in Texas helped you write the book?
Bills: The fact is you could write a book called “1,000 Things to Do in Texas Before You Die” and probably still not cover it all. It’s a huge place. It has natural and architectural wonders. It has great art and so much cultural diversity, which I appreciate.
Most Texans don’t really explore the state. If they live in Houston, they mostly travel around Houston. A lot of Texans really don’t get out there and go to the edge. Some people think we’re being invaded along the Rio Grande, you can go down there and you can walk along the Rio Grande and you’re safe. Some people have no idea of the natural beauty there and in places like McAllen and Brownsville.
Growing up here, traveling around and seeing a lot of the state has been very enriching. I grew up in Aledo. It was a little farm town back then. The first time I went to Caddo Lake, which is out there on the border of Louisiana and Texas, it was like a primordial soup. It was a lake that had a forest in it. I didn’t know they had that in Texas. I knew they had prairies. I knew they had mountains out west, but I just didn’t know that kind of thing existed in Texas.
If you asked me where is the longest stretch of undeveloped (barrier island in the world), I would not have thought Texas. I would have thought California, maybe Florida, maybe Washington state. If you go down to Corpus, go across the causeway and take a ride and go 13 miles, there’s the Padre Island National Seashore. It’s 16 miles long. Undeveloped public beach. All the years I’ve lived here, I had no idea there was a place like that. The year I wrote the first edition, my wife and I took our truck down there. You have to go 20 miles an hour the whole way. There are sea turtles. There are shipwrecks. There’s crazy stuff that’s washed up on the beach. When you get there, it’s like the Caribbean or something. It’s a beautiful turquoise blue, and it’s just kind of amazing. Texas is special in the variety of its natural wonders.
Franco: Was there specific criteria for locations you included in your book?
Bills: They gave me a creative license. You’ve got to go to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. You should sneak out to the Devils River and walk the mile that you have to walk to get to this beautiful, cleanest river in Texas. Nobody goes. It’s hard to get to. You’ve got to go see Caddo Lake, you know, and maybe even go out at night on one of the alligator tours. They’ll take you on a flat boat with a flashlight. There are some real adventures to be had, not on your cell phone or on your computer, not in the virtual world, but in real life. So I didn’t focus on the obvious stuff that maybe normal people who aren’t travelers do. I focused on what I thought travelers would be interested in.
Franco: And so I read that you studied at UT Arlington and that you worked at various Fort Worth publications. How would you say that has affected your knowledge or helped you expand your knowledge of Fort Worth to contribute to this book?
Bills: I got my bachelor’s at Texas State University, back then it was called Southwest Texas State University. And after I graduated, they offered me an assistantship. I started teaching freshman English and pursuing a master’s in English. And then I decided to backpack through Europe for six, seven months, and then I came back and I decided to go back to graduate school. So I went to UTA for about a year (and) I never finished my master’s. The development in my writing occurred when I was a youth, mostly through reading. I think that’s the most important thing. But then in terms of journalism and literary aspirations, it was really developed in Southwest Texas State. It was Texas State where I really got my stride. Fort Worth’s a really neat place in its own way. So it was easy to write about because there’s a lot of fascinating stories here, too.
Franco: Speaking of, you mentioned the Fort Worth Stockyards in your book. What were your first impressions of it?
Bills: I’ve been there several times. I hadn’t been there for a long time and I went recently. It’s very touristy, obviously, and it can be very crowded, especially on the weekends. When tourists are in the Stockyards, I mean, they’re really kind of blown away in that, like there’s this image people have of Texas. No place better exemplifies that than the Stockyards, and so I think it’s kind of a hoot. Now, I grew up around a lot of cowboys and rodeo-type folks. I didn’t become one, but there’s a certain wisdom to some of the stuff that they’re capable of doing. I kind of dig it, but it just wasn’t for me. But I dig the Stockyards. I have a soft spot for it. It may not be my favorite place in Texas, or even in Fort Worth. I mean, I really love the Modern and I love the art museums. And one secret place that people hardly ever mention, TCU has one of the top 10 meteorite collections in the world, the Monnig Meteorite Gallery. I think it’s an amazing thing to go check out. I could go on and on.
Franco: In your book, you also mention a few of these food places that are pretty popular around Fort Worth, like Goldee’s Barbecue, Drew’s Place, and Lucile’s. For people that are coming to Fort Worth or that have not been to Texas, which would you recommend?
Bills: If you like comfort food, or what can be called soul food, Drew’s Place over there on Horne on the West Side has the best fried chicken in the state. They also serve good smothered pork chops. They’re so rich and they’re so filling, but it is incredible. I mean, the restaurant’s been there for a while and it’s Fort Worth family-owned and it’s just great. And I’m a big fan.
Now Tex-Mex, I’m really conflicted. I like Benito’s on Magnolia, mostly because I like the pico de gallo. But you know, a lot of these places like Melis Taqueria on Vickery are good for breakfast tacos. There’s too many. They all sort of blur together.
And now, there are these burger places popping up. There’s Dayne’s BBQ. Dallas-Fort Worth is like a foodie paradise. The Spiral Diner for vegetarian fare. Goldee’s is just a great twist on barbecue. I think it really just depends. I mean, we could talk about that all day.
Franco: Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about that maybe didn’t make it into the book?
Bills: When I was growing up, I remember watching stuff like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Star Wars,” and thinking everything that was cool or exciting happened somewhere else. And as I got older, and especially when I moved back here after college, I started finding out a lot of weird, cool stuff went on here. So there’s a chapter in the book called “Track a Texas Monster,” and it’s just a fun chapter to me. (It talks about) the Lake Worth Monster … the historical record, the newspaper reporting, the sheriff’s report, the sheriff’s deputies’ reports about seeing it throw a tire are sort of crazy. And so here we are. I thought I grew up in the middle of nowhere where nothing ever happened. We have this huge, crazy story, which is fascinating.
Secondly, the little town of Aurora is about 25 minutes northeast of Fort Worth, just on the edge of Boyd and Fort Worth. And there’s a historical marker there that discusses an (alleged) spaceship crash there in 1897 on a Texas historical marker. And (in) one of my other books, “Texas Obscurities,” I’m not necessarily a UFO guy, but the historical record behind this crash is crazy and really fascinating. And so maybe I didn’t grow up in a boring place. Maybe it was more interesting and fascinating here than I realized.
Franco: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I didn’t know that. Thank you so much.
Bills: Thanks for reaching out.
Rosalinda Franco is a reporting intern for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.