Round Top, Texas — We started off in the middle of a sweaty Dallas rainstorm, a huge spring downpour that darkened the sky and pounded the top of our rented Chevy Suburban like fists against the window of a closed Krispy Kreme.
Our goal lay 300 miles south in the bucolic cow country of Texas, a usually sedate corner of Fayette County that transforms itself every April and October into a sprawling city of circus tents packed with trash, treasures and the transcendentally odd.
The antiques festival is centered on the tiny bend in the road where it all began 35 years ago -- Round Top -- even though antiques fever has since spread into a handful of neighboring towns. All in all, more than 30,000 people attend.
I had come to this collectors' mecca with my sisters, Mary, two years older, and Peggy, six years younger. We collectible-crazy women were on the prowl. Our prey: old radios, garden wicker, vintage games, purse banks, underpriced bark cloth and prints by R.A. Fox.
I'd first heard about Round Top three years ago from Mary, who lives in Dallas. Acres and acres of antiques, she said. Millions of hard-to-find items spread out before you in the brilliant Texas sun, all at negotiable prices.
Round Top is the willowy younger cousin to the beefy Brimfield show, held three times a year in Massachusetts. Brimfield is bigger, brisker and known for its die-hard collectors, some of whom gather before sunrise, wearing miners' lamps to illuminate the goods while keeping their hands free. But Round Top exudes a down-home Southern charm. Martha Stewart shops at Brimfield; Aunt Martha shops at Round Top.
As did my family.
Mary had come to Round Top four times in four years, each visit marked by some legendary find: a primitive dough bowl, an Art Deco loving cup, a pristine '30s bread tin. Peggy had been here once, returning home to Seattle with an exquisite painting of calla lilies in a pie-crust frame and a grocery bag full of vintage fabric.
I wasn't after early American this or late French that, but I did have collections to fill out: 1940s cookbooks, lively kitchen chalkware and, if I were truly fortunate, an old accordion. In antique parlance, I went for "smalls."
Sure, I could probably find most of these things on the Internet, but in my book that would be cheating. True antiquing is all about the hunt.
Fighting off the fever
OUTSIDE Dallas, the pounding rain let up and we were driving through swaths of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush, passing kitschy Texas truck stops and barbecue joints.
After a few hours we were deep in the heart of Texas, our gigantic Suburban flying past dilapidated barns, fields of goats and grazing longhorns.
Turning onto a small country road, I noticed people's yards had suddenly filled with cabinets, quilts, wagon wheels and turn-of-the-century tools. Hand-lettered signs and waving children invited us to stop and shop. My sisters and I grinned as we passed a sign indicating Round Top was just a few miles away. We could almost smell the Restor-a-Finish in the air.
Cresting a hill, our stomachs fluttering with anticipation, we descended not into a peaceful patchwork of quaint antiques booths but a monstrous traffic jam. The Suburban came to a stop behind a U-Haul truck with New York plates, and we stared at the serpentine of cars, vans, campers, trucks, trailers, pickups and flatbeds spread out before us. Round Top seemed days away.
"Don't worry, it goes fast," Mary said.
"I'm starving," Peggy said, then sat bolt upright. "Say, is that a Fox print?"
I glanced to my right but couldn't see the Fox. All I saw were piles of elaborate iron gates, mounds of quilts, shelves full of pottery. Leaded glass windows were stacked by the dozen. Antiques -- or something resembling them -- were everywhere. Piled on tables, spilling out of the back of trucks, cluttering the pastures like the aftermath of a very neat tornado. It was overwhelming.
The pressure inside the car built.
"Can we just park here?" I asked, gazing longingly at a table heaped with smalls. "I think I see some chalkware over there." Plaster-of-Paris chalkware, whose cartoonish images were popular in the '30s, crumbles like dust and is hokey, but I am a sucker for the stuff.
"Yeah, and I'd like to go check out that print," Peggy chimed in. Suddenly two men jumped out of a car ahead of us and made a run for a tent. Peggy and I struggled with our door handles.
"Stop it! Stop it!" Mary yelled, locking us in. "You're not going anywhere! Not until we get to Round Top!"
A meal and a feast
Forty-five minutes later, we ditched the Suburban in a field of cars and stormed into the historic Rifle Assn. Hall of Round Top, population 81, where founder Emma Lee Turney first set up shop 35 years ago.
We descended like the three Furies, flying past old hooked rugs, flawless Amish quilts, burnished mahogany radios and a frightening set of chairs made out of cowhide, hoofs and horns.