The road trip from Dallas to Austin was longer than expected and laden with sporadic traffic jams. The checkpoint of hope beamed at Exit 353 along I-35. There were notices along the roadway that teased about the gluttonous glory awaiting at this exit… the Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery… an edifice that housed hunger-satisfying happiness in the form of all things baked and delicious.
We pulled off at the exit. “Wait. Are we in West, Texas? Like, the West, Texas?”
The Belfor Property Restoration services sign answered my question.
Had this road trip occurred a few months earlier, the town would have no significance to me beyond the bakery. I probably would have been amused at the necessary pause to emphasize the comma in West, Texas to avoid confusion. “Oh, where were you west Texas?” “No… West, Texas. West [pause] Texas… a town named West. West comma Texas.”
But unfortunately this town was placed on the map after the tragedy that occurred in April 2013 when a fertilizer plant exploded – killing many and leaving hundreds more injured and homeless. West is a community of about 3,000 that was established in 1859. Most of West’s residents claim Czech heritage. And until the recent explosion, West was most well-known for its Czech Stop where the bakery serves brag-worthy kolaches (ko-la-chee).
Walking through the door of any bakery is a magical experience. The tangy smell of yeasty bread and the sweet fumes of desserts can put any crabby driver in a state of blissful anticipation. If it smells this good, it will taste even better. It was no surprise that the line was wrapped around the room and nearly out the door. The line moved faster than expected. Trust me, it’s worth the wait. They’re open 24/7, so even if you’re driving at odd times through the night, you can still get your fix.
Both the savory and sweet kolaches were wonderful. No wonder their motto is “Delicious is our business.” The klobasnek was a buttery dough encapsulated around melty cheese and a hot dog-like sausage (but way better than a hot dog. Gosh, I shouldn’t have even made that comparison). The fruit kolache, as they’re most famous for was decadently sweet but tamed with the cream cheese topping. I’m actually getting hungry writing this. Can I get a box of kolaches for breakfast (they do, in fact, ship!)?
After our purchases, our curiosity got the better of us. The surge of media coverage after the West explosion had receded as quickly as it intensified. What did the site look like now? Was it cleaned up? Were there any memorials? Was anything going on there? We had heard no coverage since the event. We drove down the road and found the disaster zone.
I felt a little embarrassed by our gawker movements at the explosion site… slow riding vehicle, protruding camera lens from the window… I don’t try to go out of my way to capitalize on tragedy. What started down the road as flying curiosity ended with a grounding reality. Rather than see through the box of the media, I witnessed with my eyes. I silently wished peace for those affected by the explosion. In my mind I paid my respects for those who lost their loved ones. But West was eerily barren. I saw no people around. Only mangled debris and shelled-out houses. A memorial of colorful stars were artfully placed along the road. Orange cones barricaded further access. We respected the signal and retreated to our path to Austin.
Tragedy happens anywhere. Unexpectedly visiting the wreckage near the fertilizer plant in West, Texas reminded me about how important it is to appreciate the big things like home and family and friends, but to remember to savor the little things in life, like a delicious Czech bakery that serves up kolaches and brings smiles to hundreds of locals and commuters daily.