Miniture nativities on a tray

Souvenirs, like these tiny nativities from Hendley Market in Galveston, help keep the memories of past trips alive. Photo by Will van Overbeek

I’ve been thinking a lot about souvenirs lately. It began when a friend of mine reminded me that I used to collect tiny shoes when I began traveling across Mexico to work on a guidebook. The “traveler’s shoes” were minuscule leather huaraches, handwoven in the marketplaces and sold as tokens of luck. In other places, I found different styles: little clogs in the Netherlands; in New York, glittering red shoes a doll-size Dorothy would have worn, reminding me that wherever you go, there’s no place like home. I don’t know exactly why, but I stopped collecting traveler’s shoes in the ’90s. The collection went into storage, and I had forgotten about them until the recent halt to travel inspired me to revisit memorabilia that takes me mentally on the road.

Some are souvenirs I can still hold in my hand but others have stayed close to my heart, long after there was any trace of them. San Antonio holds two such memories. The first is a metal disk my father used to allow us to buy out of a vending machine at the Pearl Brewery, back when it still made beer and housed a museum featuring Victorian horn furniture. The machine was as intriguing as the token, clanking and whirring as it allowed us to stamp our initials and the date onto the soft metal. My brother and I both claimed one.

Also in San Antonio, but many years later, I became enchanted by the molding machine at the San Antonio Zoo. I was in my 30s—admittedly way too old to covet a souvenir—and yet I had to have that miniature plastic gorilla. I don’t know if those crazy retro machines are still in action at the zoo, but I plan to find out as soon as the gates open again. There was magic there that was pure 1950s science fiction.

Molded souvenirs again found their way into my heart at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Grand Prairie. A wheeled cart like a paleta wagon rolled out vats of colorful melted wax that allowed me and my then young son to capture replicas of our hands. He plunged in a chubby hand holding up a peace sign; I went with the hand sign for OK. I used those mementos as bookends for years, a captured memory of the day we’d headed out with no specific plan during the stretch of a summer’s free hours. Those hands held lots of giggles, but now I remember that signal for peace and my assured sense that all in my world really was OK in a different way.

Isn’t that what souvenirs are all about? Memorializing a moment in time when one day, or even one hour of a day, turned out to be so special that we need something tangible to capture it forever.

In Farley Boat Works guided boat-building workshops, novice boat builders craft wooden boats with custom flourishes.

In Farley Boat Works’ guided boat-building workshops in Port Aransas, builders craft wooden boats with custom flourishes. Photo by Michael Amador

The wax hands eventually crumbled away after a series of moves, the gorilla long ago escaped my archive. That silver disk is stashed away somewhere I can’t recall, probably in the cache of stored things that have no shelf life but that I cannot part with. Among those things is a keychain attached to a tiny plexiglass rectangle wherein a miniature three-dimensional hologram of my son and me is captured. We’d been wandering a mall in Tokyo, jet-lagged but delighted with a world in which we had no language, when we happened upon the souvenir kiosk. We squeezed together for a photo and what resulted was a piece that reminds me of the moving photos in the wizard’s newspaper that Harry Potter read.

I haven’t outgrown souvenirs, but I don’t often buy them anymore. Now, I’m most likely to fill my pockets and bags with things one can’t buy. On my window shelf over my kitchen sink there is an assortment of sea glass and shells that reminds me of yearly beach combing on South Padre. Baskets get filled with dried flowers and seed pods from backroad wanderings and spur-of-the-moment picnics.

My brother opened my eyes to the glory of found objects, especially the ones that are often overlooked. Like my mother before him, his eye is always on the unexpected prize: sometimes it’s bright and shiny scraps of metal, other times the rusted or patinated remains of something no longer recognizable. He might gather up a bottle cap for its logo or a tiny glass bottle from a long-ago burn site. These pieces have no value but to us, because we find history in them, made-up tales we spin out as a campfire game. Like the mementos of the natural world we gather—antlers to arrowheads to porcupine quills—they feel like sacred objects just because they’ve made their way into our hands and imaginations. As with the other souvenirs in my life that are intrinsically linked to memories, long after these found objects are lost to moves or time, the stories we crafted around them remain.

That is what travel gives as forever souvenirs: good stories to tell and tell again, especially important when we are, for whatever reason, temporarily grounded.


The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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