Ryan Polk’s office is just around the corner from mine. In the space he shares with the city’s Main Street coordinator, Meredith Brown, he labors long and hard drawing out-of-towners to Kilgore.
In a normal year, one not cursed by The Plague, Ryan has a pleasingly long and varied list of events and attractions to tout. Folks come from around the world – or at least a goodly distance – to attend the Texas Shakespeare Festival, the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, Rangerette Revels. From lesser distances they arrive for KilGogh Art and Wine Festival, the annual derrick lighting, World’s Richest Acre Park, East Texas Oilmen’s Chili Cook-off.
Ryan’s task is not an impossible one, but it’s demanding... he devises creative ways to draw visitors to our restaurants, gas stations, motels, retail shops and then looks for the most cost-effective way to reach his target audience. Visitors to the Pipe Organ Festival might not be the same demographic as those that come for the Shakespeare Festival, Ryan’s job is to appeal to both groups.
This year, the tourism director’s job has been more difficult. Kilgore’s major events were canceled for at least one season by concerns about COVID-19.
It’s hard to know what, alternatively, might bring visitors to your town.
A half-dozen years ago, I rode my motorcycle to Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. I joined another 175 or so motorcyclists at a gathering called Dust2Dawson, staged there annually on the Summer Solstice.
The event – it has become a major fund-raiser for some local charities – commemorates the delivery of Jim’s ashes.
In 1982 Jim and a pal known to the motorcycle community as Cash... both from Dilly, Oklahoma... rode their motorcycles to Alaska, then rode the Top of the World Highway east to Dawson City. On the way, they detoured off the road, turning north at Chicken, Alaska to the community of Eagle. Inspired by the breath-taking views, they swore that when the first of them died, the survivor would bring his buddy’s ashes back to Eagle.
Cash died first; Jim delivered the ashes. Dust2Dawson celebrates Jim’s loyalty.
Beyond D2D, Dawson City relies on tourists who come to visit the cabin once occupied by the gold rush poet Robert Service, tour the idled gold-mining dredge, skinny dip in the Yukon (no, I didn’t) and to taste the Sour Toe Cocktail at the Downtown Hotel.
In the 1920s, brothers Louie and Otto were prospecting near the Yukon River when Louie got his feet wet. It was winter; if you’ve read the poetry of Service, you know winters there are cold. By the time the brothers got back to their cabin, Louie’s foot was frostbitten. When his big toe became gangrenous, Otto cut it off and – motivated by Heaven only knows what – put it in a jar of bourbon to preserve it. Years later, a local who called himself Captain Dick put Louie’s toe in a glass of bourbon at the hotel bar and drank the bourbon. The Sour Toe Cocktail was born.
In the intervening years, many thousands of tourists have sipped from a glass of whiskey and “kissed” Louie’s big toe. (It was tempting, but not tempting enough.)
All this is a roundabout way of saying in this, The Year of the Plague, Ryan could use some help. If someone, somewhere has preserved a body part – ideally one accidentally removed in an oil field mishap; I’m thinking of a thumb or a finger, not an entire hand – we might attract the kind of tourist who’s not intimidated by communicable diseases.
The writer is a former newspaperman who’ll go almost anywhere if it means riding a motorcycle. But he probably won’t kiss the toe.