Bauerlein Creek

Bauerlein Creek

Much is written about the Texas Hill Country, and its reputation as the state’s Heartland is well-deserved. It’s certainly one of my favorite places to guide folks, and I got to do that again at a higher level one recent weekend. This trip connected me with some of my earliest childhood memories as well as an ancestral past. The two days and one night packed multiple wallops.

My art-teacher wife, Lina, wanted one more getaway before school began, and she found an attractive-looking bed-and-breakfast near Bandera. Always keen on including others, we invited our friends Michael (MT) and Irene to come along as “clients.”

The main difference between just driving around on your own and going with the Texpert is that my approach is much more scientific and tied to literature and the humanities. When you travel with a naturalist such as myself, you get raised awareness of valleys, peaks, river basins, trees, grasses, wildflowers, and whole regions. Add history and culture to the mix and you end up with a total immersion experience that is about as removed from a regular tour as Versailles is from a hut. My point of view more closely matches that of Native Americans, the people who were here long before Europeans.

We began Saturday with Michael driving us in his own vehicle and me navigating. Out US 290 from Austin, we veered southwest to Singleton Pass, which presents one of the finest Hill Country vistas anywhere near the Capital City. Here was our first photo opportunity. Leaving behind the Colorado River tributaries, this commanding sight looks across the Blanco River valley to the next ridge. On the horizon stand the Twin Sisters, matching prominences that mark the ridge beyond which flows the Guadalupe.

Next stop was Blanco city proper, where we took lunch at the Sunrise Café on the square. Service was slow, but the meals tasty. I had the chicken tender salad. Afterward, we walked into the 1885 courthouse, now a community center. The Blanco County seat moved to Johnson City in 1890, but this stately old building has been restored. Out on the grounds was the town’s monthly market day, and we strolled to the city park to see a big live oak, by all accounts the second-largest in the county.

Big Blanco Tree

Big Tree, Blanco

Onward south on US 281, then west through Kendalia, a tiny town in Kendall County named after George Wilkins Kendall, a Republic of Texas newspaperman who also pioneered sheep ranching in the state. From there, we sped to Boerne (pronounced burney), cruising past its lovely parks along Cibolo Creek. Two nearby commercial caves, Cascade Caverns and Cave Without a Name, offer travelers an escape from the Texas summer heat, but we kept on. Within another half-hour, we’d arrived at our intended destination.

Bandera calls itself the Cowboy Capital of the World. Indeed, few images of this state are as strongly iconic as the mounted cattle herder, and this village of 976 people carries the effect to its extreme, authentically. Dude ranches abound as do rodeos, wild west shows, country music dance halls, Indian powwows, stage coach rides, and chuck wagon breakfasts. No wonder people go there from around the globe to soak up this larger-than-life subculture.

Thanks to Hollywood, most out-of-staters think the cowboy times went on forever. I still get asked whether we ride horses to school. They most certainly do in Bandera, but, truthfully, the whole head-’em-up, move-’em-out frontier-western era lasted only about 25 years. By the middle-1880s, the railroads had arrived in Texas and there was no reason to drive steers up the trail. And with the invention of barbed wire, the open range was quickly fenced. Agribusiness became the norm, and the cowboy settled down as a ranch hand. Today, most cattle are driven by pick-up trucks, not from horseback.

To those visitors who wish to play cowboy, I say go for it—it’s fun. But it’s not the Texpert way, as we’ll see.

Strung along Bandera’s one main street called Main Street are eateries, drinkeries, stores, and other commercial outlets. Looming large is Old Texas Square, a two-storey structure that fills an entire block. Its Court Yard Hotel advertises all-new theme rooms. The tidy courthouse stands aside with its red dome. Slowing only to gawk, we continued north to our lodging a few miles out.

Casa de Amigos consists of two casitas or three-room apartments that are connected to each other and built across a treed courtyard from the main house. Inspired by the architecture of San Miguel de Allende, proprietors Pat and Cindy constructed the place a dozen years ago. Everything there’s painted mauve, even the concrete longhorns. Our hosts were friendly and informative. We unpacked, got settled, rested, then went back to town.

Dos Casitas

Dos Casitas

Texas’ geographic diversity is matched only by its ethnic variety. One of the largest population of Polish immigrants in America is centered around Panna Maria in Karnes County south of San Antonio in 1854. A second round of new arrivals from Poland came to Bandera. This community revolves around the 1876 St. Stanislaus Church, where we read historical markers and graveyard inscriptions. These had special meaning to Irene, who is of Polish descent.

Sundown at St. Stanislaus

Sundown at St. Stanislaus

Our appetites were making themselves known, so we perused available cafés. The OST (Old Spanish Trail) Restaurant offers traditional Texas cuisine and trappings, including a salad wagon. You sit on a saddle to drink at the bar. We feasted on catfish and hamburger steak in a corner of the John Wayne Room.

OST Salad Wagon

OST Salad Wagon

Bandera presents amazing nightlife for such a small locale. We ambled to three dance halls, all featuring live C&W bands. The 11th Street Cowboy Bar covers most of a block just off Main and is marked by a spinning windmill. In front and of particular note to dyslexics is its Bra Bar, which displays a prostitute license from 1890s Tombstone, AZ. Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar has a street-level entrance which leads down stairs to the sawdust-covered dance floor. It was the only hall we visited that was air-conditioned. Lastly, we circled through the Bandera Saloon, whose band invited us to hang around. Having fulfilled our interest in downtown, we returned to the Casa and played Hungarian rummy into the wee hours.

Pat and Cindy served us our scrumptious breakfast in their open-plan dining room. Just outside, white-tail deer also enjoyed a morning meal. We got more information about Pat’s civic involvement and their frequent group vacation trips. An amazing fact we heard is that Irish people began the town’s bars. He urged us to return for the Labor Day weekend to witness the longhorn parade and, especially, the pig wrestling. We wondered about the Indian gathering juxtaposed with mounted cowboy shooters. Pat assured us that no shots would be fired at Indians.

Feeding Charismatic Megafauna

Feeding Charismatic Megafauna

We packed, said our good-byes, and previewed the day’s itinerary. Michael expressed curiosity about lands further west. I instantly prepared a route that would take us in that direction towards my childhood stomping ground.

Chickenized Cadillac, Bandera

Chickenized Cadillac, Bandera

I grew up in Corpus Christi: sparkling city by the sea, the Riviera of the Gulf Coast. All around were level fields of cotton and sorghum, no geology aside from sand dunes, and salt water. That was the only world at hand, but my father, who was from San Antonio, would transport us to places he frequented as a kid in the Hill County. There the earth rises into the sky, rocks lie where the gods left them, and streams flow cool, clear, and sweet. Our family’s favorite spot was Frio Canyon, which is carved by the coldest river in the state.

It was my supreme pleasure to introduce this landscape to our adult group. We took Texas 16 up to Medina, known as the Apple Capital of Texas, which holds a festival every July. From there, it was up the West Prong of the Medina River. We pulled over onto Bauerlein Creek Road to photograph the little stream there at a wonderfully quiet ford. A teeny spring in the creek bank issued a frigid, life-giving flow. The sycamores’ aroma was particularly soothing. We felt remote from civilization.

Irene and her Big Lens

Irene and her Big Lens

Ranch Road 337 soon began a steep climb out of the Medina catch basin and up to the divide separating it from the next valley. Sharp curves are the rule here, and we were fortunate to see a couple of rare madrone trees on high slopes. Nothing spoiled our views of distant hilltops and deep glens other than the new power lines that wouldn’t stop following us. As one Native American gentleman once remarked, the only thing more amazing than our modern infrastructure is why we think we need it.

Once over the top, Mill Creek led us down to Vanderpool on the Sabinal River. Just upstream is Lost Maples State Park, a great place to go in the autumn. Other side of Vanderpool, MT was amazed by a gate. We then continued along a snaking scenic road with 10-mph curves near Meridian Mountain. Our highest elevation was close to 2,000 feet.

Climbing Road Ahead

Climbing Lane Ahead

Plunging again, we crossed my beloved Frio River in Leakey (pronounced lake-ee). After a refreshingly shady wade and refueling, our merry crew continued to Rio Frio, where the mighty Landmark Oak has stood for about a thousand years. Here, too, is evidence of an irrigation canal hand-dug in the 1860s. All along these byways, I pointed out to my companions the many lodges and cabins my family had stayed in so many years ago.

Frio Lina

Frio Lina

Landmark Oak

Landmark Oak

By this time, the day was getting warm, and we weren’t about to leave Frio Canyon without swimming. Luckily, a famous public place to do that was but minutes away.

Garner State Park was named for John Nance Garner, a feisty Texan who had been one of FDR’s vice presidents. I call the facility the Yosemite of Texas because of its beauty, popularity, and half-dome of a bluff.

Garner Cliff

Garner Cliff

On this Sunday before public school began, however, the park was notably empty. We procured snacks at the concession store, then wound our way through the campgrounds. Finding an out-of-the-sun spot near the 1930s CCC pavilion, we ate, lounged, and got fully wet in the Frio’s swift current. The water was as clear as I remembered, but not quite so cold on an August afternoon.

With great reluctance and satisfaction, we pointed the front bumper eastward. Our way led us again over ridges and down dales, this route through Utopia and Tarpley, then back to Bandera. My aim was to visit the Frontier Times Museum; my purpose was to search for any records it might have on my great-grandfather Claus Henry Frick, a German transplant who had been sheriff of Bandera County in 1874. Alas, contrary to info on a printed brochure, the museum was closed.

Frontier Times Museum

Frontier Times Museum

To revive our spirits from travel, we refreshed ourselves in the cute Dogleg Coffeehouse, again on Main Street. From there, through Bandera Pass, our next stop was Camp Verde, famed as focal point of the 1850s Camel Experiment by the US Army. With all the desert lands in the West, reasoned geographer George Perkins Marsh, why not try beasts of burden that are acclimated to such surroundings? Celebrating the strange but not altogether unsuccessful episode, the Camp Verde General Store touts many a dromedary motif.

Camp Verde Camel

Camp Verde Camel

We crossed the Guadalupe at Center Point. Another quarter hour later, I showed my client friends the charms of Comfort, Texas. Here was the stronghold of German free-thinkers, who were indifferent to a deity and spoke Latin to each other. Here also are ultra-quaint shops and lodgings, not to mention stout architecture and the only Unionist monument south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Its tale deserves retelling.

Just outside Comfort is a bat roost. Built in 1918 by San Antonio mayor Albert Steves, the unusual structure at one time housed 10,000 flying mammals. That city was one of the first to protect bats, and this tower on Steves’ private land helped reduce the mosquito population in Comfort. Only one other structure like it still exists, but it’s in Florida.

Bat House

Bat House

We had intended to check out Sisterdale, home to a fine winery and more freethinkers, but the highway was under construction. Instead, we followed the crumbling San Antonio-to-Fredericksburg railroad grade to the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, also a busy bat habitat. The evening not dark enough to watch that emergence, we stepped into Alamo Springs Café for some supper.

It’s a rollicking place: nothing fancy, but the establishment brags on the best burgers in town, even though there’s no town. We shared spinach, bacon, garlic, and jalapeño quesadillas, washing them down with beer and smoothies. This proved to be a fitting climax to our mini-adventure.

Ninety minutes later, just at sundown, the trip ended at our residence on the trendy Upper East Side of Austin. Without a doubt, I had proven to our friends that there’s a story around every bend in the Texas Hill Country, and I’m here to tell you every one.

Bandera presents amazing nightlife for such a small locale. We ambled to three dance halls, all featuring live C&W bands. The 11th Street Cowboy Bar covers most of a block just off Main and is marked by a spinning windmill. In front and of particular note to dyslexics is its Bra Bar, which displays a prostitute license from 1890s Tombstone, AZ. Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar has a street-level entrance which leads down stairs to the sawdust-covered dance floor. It was the only hall we visited that was air-conditioned. Lastly, we circled through the Bandera Saloon, whose band invited us to hang around. Having fulfilled our interest in downtown, we returned to the Casa and played Hungarian rummy into the wee hours.

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