When the opportunity arose to plan a place to visit for my boyfriend Andrew’s birthday I chose the town of Mineral Wells. I am fortunate to have a boyfriend who shares my interest in obscure and cheap destinations. Mineral Wells seemed like the perfect place to spend a relaxed weekend: it boasted a haunted hotel, a historic mineral water well, and a Fossil Park where you could actually take home anything you found. Andrew was very excited about the Fossil Park, while I was happy to see that they did not have an admission charge.
The night before we left Andrew looked through the brochure from the Fossil Park while I studied one on the Baker Hotel.
“Look here,” I pointed out to Andrew, “It says that the hotel is haunted!”
“Oh! Do you think we’ll see the ghost?” Andrew replied. “Is it someone famous?”
I explained that, although famous people had stayed at The Baker during its heyday in the 1920’s, I seriously doubted that Will Rogers and Judy Garland were still hanging around the pool.
“And besides, the whole building is condemned; we won’t be able to go inside.” Andrew wondered if we might be able to sneak in under the fence, but I decided we would stand at a safe distance and snap photos, as I did not want the opportunity to see if the Palo Pinto County jail was also haunted.
As soon as we arrived and stashed our belongings in the hotel room, we left to explore the downtown sights. The Baker hotel was an impressive sight, even with yellow caution tape draped across her front, and a plain metal chain link fence surrounding the grounds.
“Look!” Andrew motioned toward an overgrown hedge. “There’s the pool that Clark Gable could have peed in.”
We left the Baker and made our way to the outskirts of town, to the abandoned landfill borrow pit that was now the Fossil Park. We stopped in the gravel parking area, and I pointed out a sign that said the place closed at dusk. There was also a warning to beware of dangerous animals and insects. Andrew unloaded our gear while I dowsed the both of us with mosquito repellant and wondered out loud if there were bears in West Texas.
“No, just snakes I imagine,” Andrew answered, as though this would console me. We made our way into the sandy gully where we could dig for fossils.
Andrew arranged his tools — a small shovel, a brush, and a colander for sifting, and sat down in the dirt while I cautiously walked around, kicking at the dirt and looking for anything that might resemble either a fossil or a snake. We found several pieces of ancient sea lilies — little wheels of rock with perfect lines radiating out like spokes. I imagined them waving underwater in an ocean 300 million years ago. As it grew dark I began to worry about mosquitoes and then about marauding coyotes, so I suggested that we start packing up.
“Oh no! I’d like to stay just a little longer. I might find a trilobite, or maybe a shark tooth,” Andrew protested.
I reluctantly agreed to linger a bit, and as a cloud of hungry insects began to settle on my arms and legs I decided that I would wait in the car. I settled in and kept an eye on the glow from the light that Andrew had strapped to his hat. As long as the glow stayed in one place I could be assured that Andrew had not been carried off by coyotes or bears. The longer I sat there, and the darker it grew, the more I became convinced that the faint howls and yips I heard were not from stray dogs or coyotes, but from some other worldly creatures, perhaps werewolves. Just when I wondered if we had reached the point in our relationship where I might be willing to face off a herd of starving zombies for my sweetie, I saw the little light rise up and start its way toward the car.
“At last!” I said when Andrew opened the door and climbed in. “I thought you were going to spend the night out there.”
“I just hate to leave,” he said. “I might get up very early tomorrow and come back out. You can stay asleep at the hotel,” he added when he saw my expression.
The next morning we woke to the sound of pouring rain and I tried to console Andrew over the lost opportunity.
“I know it’s not as exciting as sitting in the hot sun all morning digging up little fossilized plant wheels,” I offered, “but we could stop by the Washing Machine Museum.”
I’d seen the sign for this improbable destination the previous day as we were heading downtown. The museum was located in an actual working Laundromat, “The Laumdronat”, and the words “Free Admission” were included on the front of the building.
We got there just as a light drizzle started, and I got ready to dash inside, but Andrew stopped me as I reached for the door handle.
“Look at that man there,” he said. “He’s looking at us.” I glanced over to the front window of the Laumdronat, where a rather large fellow was standing, staring morosely out into the rain.
“Oh it’s okay,” I said, “He’s just doing his laundry.”
“He looks angry, like he doesn’t want us to come inside and bother him. He could be a serial killer!” Andrew replied. While I allowed that even serial killers must wash their undies, I didn’t think that the man posed any threat to us, and eventually Andrew agreed that we would risk venturing into the Washing Machine Museum. I wondered if they had a gift store, postcards for sale, or a place to pose for a photograph.
The place was indeed a working Laundromat, and the antique machines included manual scrub boards, and some of the very first electric and gasoline powered machines with wringers. I asked the laundry room attendant, a busy middle aged woman dressed in blue jeans and an apron, if it was okay to take photographs.
“Oh sure,” she said, “Just help yourself.”
There were some machines lined up against the back wall of the place, but most of them hung, securely I hoped, from the ceiling. They hovered over the actual, working machines and as the sounds of swishing washers and tumbling dryers filled the room, I could imagine the machines above us thrumming and bumping through the wash cycles.
“My grandmother had a machine like this one.” I pointed to a model with a hand wringer on the side. “She made her own lye soap to wash with,” I said. “It smelled like ashes and animal fat.” I pictured my grandmother wringing out the week’s wash, her long gray hair in a bun and her hands red and chapped from the fierce work of laundry.
“I don’t think that would be a popular combination now,” Andrew said, and I agreed as I inhaled the warm, flowery scent of modern detergent.
We finished our tour of the museum and held the door for the large man who had been watching us when we walked in. He did not look nearly as threatening while carrying a pink plastic basket filled with freshly folded clothes.
We drove past the Baker hotel on our way out of town, and I glanced up to see a sheet of plastic waving, like an ethereal hand, from the broken casement of a window on one of the upper floors.
“It’s too bad we didn’t see any ghosts.” Andrew said.
“Yes.” I replied, as I thought to myself that ghosts are often found in the most unlikely places, and we are often haunted, not by the unknown, but by things that are instead very familiar.