AUSTIN (KXAN) - It's funny how things go down in the world. A decision made by a bunch of strangers two years ago turns out to have fundamentally changed the lives of two Austin teachers.
Aaron Mason, 34, a high school level special education teacher at the Austin Independent School District 's Clifton Development School and Anne Cornell, 39, an art teacher at Austin's Palm Elementary School had been dating for about a month when city officials announced the cancellation of the popular Trail of Lights Festival in Zilker Park .
Disappointed, the two teachers went looking for an alternative and they found one at the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites in La Grange, Texas .
As it happened, the pair arrived early and had some time to kill, so they headed to the Fayette County Courthouse.
"I'd never been into a historic courthouse," said Mason, "and it was really neat because it's got a big courtyard in the middle of it. And it's like you go in and it's kind of like a university with hallways around the inside rooms and whatnot. But it had a big atrium with a fountain and everything.
"I just thought it was the coolest thing. I don't know, it sparked an interest."
A big interest, as it developed.
"So we were standing outside the courthouse," Cornell added, "and I said, 'You know, my parents started visiting all the county courthouses in Texas, but then they moved to Colorado and they never finished.'
"And Aaron said, 'Well, let's do that.'"
So as December, 2010, gave way to January, 2011, Cornell and Mason added the Williamson County Courthouse in Georgetown and the Burnet County Courthouse in Burnet to the list of conquered points on the Texas map and the march to 254 county courthouses was underway.
To mark their path, the couple did what most folks would do. Cornell and Mason jumped on the Internet. It was not the first time they had turned to the Web for guidance. You see, they actually met each other on an Internet dating site---twice.
"We met four years ago," Mason recalled, "and we went on one date and didn't really hit it off and then two years later, almost exactly, we met again on a different Web page and did hit it off. It was kind of random.
"My brother had gotten married and somebody at his wedding was like, 'Online dating works,' because that's where he met his wife. And I thought I would give it a shot.
"And Anne came up as one of my 'recommended' people and I was like, 'I remember her.'"
Mason didn't forget how things had gone before, but he decided to try again.
"I think it's all about timing," he said. "It's all about timing. Yeah, we definitely hit it off the second time."
Timing was also important when it came to the courthouse road trip thing. Because of their jobs, the couple could only travel on weekends, holidays and vacations. They made the most of every opportunity.
"The real point," Cornell said, "where we kind of went, 'Oh my gosh, this is really real,' was our first spring break. We went to East Texas and it wasn't one of our bigger trips because we were still new at it.
"We were only seeing five or six a day and that was a big day for us at that time. But we were also camping out every night at a different state park and it was a lot of together time and a lot of really beautiful courthouses, too."
"And (we saw) beautiful countryside, too, because you see all of the state when you do this kind of thing."
"It (the courthouse) was just gorgeous," said Mason. "They had just finished restoring it, the Texas Historical Commission , and it wasn't even open to the public yet.
"And we were walking around outside of it and this guy stopped us and asked us what we were doing. And we told him about our project and he took us on a tour. It turned out he was the county auditor and we got to meet a judge. It was fantastic!"
"Loving County has the smallest population of any county in the U.S.," said Mason. "You drive into the county and there's nothing but ag land and no houses or anything like that.
"And then you get to the county seat and there's just the courthouse and the post office and that was it."
In Winkler County , also in west Texas, the courthouse was bigger, but the atmosphere was just as quaint.
"In Kermit ," Cornell said, "the woman actually took us up and down the oldest elevator in a Texas courthouse. It had the gates and she had to actually use a bar to stop the elevator at the right place and kind of jimmy it a little bit to make sure we were up there. It was really fun."
Traveling, as they did, during times most of the courthouses were closed, the couple would usually just stop and poke around a bit and then take some photographs to post on their blog. Sometimes, though, they got lucky.
"Being able to go into the courthouse," said Mason, "especially when it's been redone, it makes it such a more fulfilling experience because some of the courthouses that we saw were
not that fantastic on the outside.
"But when you go inside, the attention to detail that some of them spent and the chance that you get when you meet the people inside; people that work at the courthouse don't generally meet people that are there to visit and see the building.
"So when we would tell them what we're doing, they would be like, 'You got to see this or you got to see that and they would show us parts of the building that, you know, people don't normally get to see."
But inside or out, the unfolding journey delighted this man and woman.
"I got more and more interested in seeing what the courthouse was going to look like and what architect it was going to be," Mason recalled.
"You start to notice little things. Once you see enough of them, there's the little fine details that start to come out.
"So I guess that it was always the interest in the next town and the next courthouse that really kept it going."
That and the interest in each other. Halfway through the project, Mason and Cornell, blessed by their time on the road together, decided to get married. In March, they'll return to Waxahachie in Ellis County where they discovered the most elegantly beautiful courtroom of the journey. That's where they will become husband and wife.
First, though, there is one more courthouse to mark off the list. Around 2:00 Saturday afternoon, Mason and Cornell will head downtown to Austin 's Travis County Courthouse to complete their goal. Then it will be off to Scholz Garten on San Jacinto Boulevard for a celebration party with family, friends, and anyone else who wants to show up.
So what comes after that?
"Our next project," said Cornell, "is to visit all the state parks."
"Lots of camping," Mason added, "lots more travel. And, you know, we camped and visited a number of the parks over our trip and I realized how much there is to see at them. They're just such great facilities, you know. So I'm really excited about moving on to that."
And that brings up perhaps the most valuable lesson the couple learned along the courthouse tour, something from which we can all benefit.
"If you're traveling during the week, courthouses have nice bathrooms," said Cornell.
"And they don't expect you to buy anything," her fiancé grinned.
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