grassy hillside ccThere’s a desire that builds in me after too long a time away from Trans-Pecos Texas. The final winter weekend of 2016 presented an opportunity to scratch that itch when I learned that the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve would be open. Lina and I chose to combine this year’s wedding anniversary trip with a hike in that seldom-accessible property.

Thur, 03-17: My phone alarm broke our slumber at 4:55 a.m. on Saint Patrick’s Day, and up we sprung. Threw all last-minute items together and into Twinka, L’s two-door Hyunda, and rolled out at 6:00, while outside was still dark. Streets weren’t badly crowded, but we marveled at the steady stream of cars heading into town. A light mist dampened our windshield. Westward ho!

Isaack'sDay dawned by Fredericksburg, and the sprinkling abated. Seamlessly we merged onto good ol’ I-10 and attained 83 mph. By tradition, first stop is breakfast at our favorite café in Junction, where we arrived at 8:30. Helen is the very same waitress who’s worked there since I first began going west in the mid-1970s. She claims to remember me. The Junction Special consists of two of everything: bacon strips, sausages, pancakes, and eggs over easy—all washed down with steaming coffee.

Oop sign cuAfter filling Twinka’s tank, we were under way again, on and on, zooming past Sonora and Ozona, crossing the Pecos at Sheffield, exiting onto TX 349, which followed the Pecos into Iraan. There I showed Lina the city bathhouse and Alley Oop Park (where my first family had camped when daughter Kristiana was young). There we posed as Alley and Oola. HowLin Oop Oola

Alley Oop

The Iraan Museum wasn’t yet open, but we chatted with maintenance man Tory, who answered questions about the facility and our next destination. Would have gassed there, but a computer reinstallation nixed our chosen pumps.

Castle GapWinding west on US 190, we turned north onto TX 305, crossed the Pecos again, and shortly found McCamey. US 385 then headed to Castle Gap Road, which we traced a mile east or so to get a photo of the Gap. It was a major trail landmark and route in stagecoach days. Amazing. Back in McCamey, we gassed yet again, then continued non-east on 385.

Noticed well-watered fields on the approach to Fort Stockton, and again towards Balmorhea. Flowing irrigation ditches led us to Uncle’s Convenience Store, the one we’d found on our 2014 California trip. There, we bought thick and crispy potato chips, our only food since the yuuuge b’fast.

TX 17 offers a terrific introduction and advance to the Davis Mountains. I especially love Wild Rose Pass, which edges Cieniga and Chihuahua Creeks. Before long, we pulled up to Fort Davis’s Butterfield Inn and stepped inside Along the Trail Antiques.Lee's Wild Rose Pass

Kelly Prude checked us in and escorted us to Cabin 2, set in the southwest corner of a compound of three others of identical—though mirror-image—other ones, each with a brick and native-stone fireplace. I guessed the dimensions at 18 by 21 feet. Above the queen-size bed was a vaulted ceiling. Main room had a big La-Z-Boy couch jammed into the bay window and a drop-leaf table up against the teal-painted far wall. No other opening illuminated the interior. A TV occupied the northwest corner on a triangular shelf, and the fridge, microwave, and armoire fit the northeast. A closet and bathroom sat on the left end of the space. After bringing our effects inside, we shifted the couch to the foot of the bed and placed the table in the bay, curing any awkwardness.

Looking for info and maps of the preserve, we strode to the Chamber of Commerce, which offices in a former feed store. It was closed, but we helped ourselves to several brochures. Adjacent was the library, where director Toi Fisher greeted us with a 3D printer and lots of great data on hiking and dining and building history. She spoke highly of Maddog’s Cantina, just around the corner in a structure we remembered from our 2007 visit as a pizza parlor.

Figuring to cook and eat in, imagine the shock and shame when we realized we’d packed no utensils. Plan B: go to Maddog’s. Funky and ramshackle it was, with a big bois-d’arc poking through the roof. Only two other tables were taken when we sat down. E_____, the one waitress, took our order. Dismayed were we when the burger and veggies came 40 minutes later and not to our specs. The place filled up as we finished. After pointing out the establishment’s foibles and learning that the credit system was nonfunctional, I handed the embarrassed serving girl a five and a twenty.

Next door, a dollar store supplied us with our forgotten items: a couple ceramic bowls, a pair of oversized coffee cups, four dessert spoons, and two stemless wine glasses—all for a mere ten bucks.

In the room, we settled in to watching 50 First Dates and Hogan’s Heroes, the latter not aging well. Finally got to bed after surrendering to my laptop’s connectivity stubbornness.

Friday, 03-18:  No alarm this a.m. Cloudy in Fort Davis, 34° at 8:11, NE winds, quiet except for Eurasian collared doves cooing and the family next door stirring. Lina did online research into the artist Arthur Tracy Lee, whose book of Fort Davis paintings I committed to gifting her. Annoyingly puzzled over how the expletive I could have neglected to bring my black wool beret, I questioned my experienced traveler qualifications.

Lina was chomping at the bit to get on out and head for the high country. She packed meals and snacks. After a nagging time getting out the door, we were at last underway after 9. A bright day illumined our road into the mountains along Limpia Creek past McDonald Observatory, which now boasts another dome on a nearby peak. Plenty of cholla grew along the way, but none presented itself for harvest.

Just past the Madera Canyon roadside park opened the new gate into Davis Mountains Preserve. Pulled up to the spacious visitor center and stepped inside. Cruciform, the central square of the edifice features a soaring roof with windows all around in every direction and exposed wood beams. Off to the left side of the entryway stands an office; to the right is one of a couple dorm rooms with six bunk beds each. The southeast corner features rest rooms with showers; NE wing contains a spacious kitchen. In between are lounging, presentation, and dining areas.

center lobbyGreeting us were Dierdre (last syllable pronounced ah) Hisler, project director, and Gary Freeman, a retired UT botany professor and volunteer. They oriented us to the situation: no driving Twinka on the rugged and rough road into the property’s heart, but we could likely hitch a ride with better-equipped patrons. Almost immediately, a tall fellow with a gray beard called me by name. It was Don Alexander, fellow Kerrvert and biologist who comes on my Quiet Valley Ranch nature walks. With him was his niece Alison James, a Nature Conservancy employee in Montana, twin of Wendy of Ike and, utterly remarkably, cousin to my Capitol co-worker James Chapman. Also along were Uncle Ian, an older man with a cane. Who else should walk in but Scott Newsom, our Austin buddy Leigh’s brother. To our heaping gratitude, Dierdre loaned us her personal vehicle, a white four-wheel-drive, four-door Tacoma. Off we went.

Mt Livermore portraitThe 4.9-mile lane offered plenty of creek fords and bumps, against which I held on mightily to save my beleaguered crooked spine. Just past a wind pump and empty iron tank at the end of this road, we parked and set out up a jeep trail that led to a narrower path. Our goal was Tobe Spring, the name reminding us of our best friends back home. Up and up we ascended. Don knew many plants and trees, and I knew others, introducing him to the manzanita, madrone’s cousin. We all marveled at the silver-leaf oaks here and the frequent ponderosa pines. Also painfully evident was the massive wildfire that swept through here in 2011, consuming 60,000 acres in its rage. Drought increases in this now-warming world. I apologized to the grasses and forbs for us civilized humans’ fault.silver-leaf oak cu

Saw a red-tailed hawk and a couple woodpeckers, heard one or two high-altitude planes. Otherwise, things were quiet enough to whisper. At one point, Ian stopped and the rest of us strode on. Photo’d L under the champion ponderosa pine. Closer and closer we came to Livermore’s baldy knob and eastern cliff, but could spy no humans up there.L under chamPonderosa cu

Stopped by an algae pool for lunch: avocado and cheese sammiches with hard-boiled eggs. We each brought precious drinking water in our Zion National Park vessels, mine a purple collapsible pouch. I rested on prickly pine mulch and closed my eyes while Don and Alison climbed up a bit farther.

H&L by algae pool cuAll done with repast and relaxation, we descended, using different muscles. L’s knees gave trouble. I experienced shortness of breath from the 7,000-foot altitude, but otherwise fared well enough. Rejoined Ian and got back to the vehicle around 3:00.

Bumpity-thud back to the center, we asked a gal for a group shot of our merry crew. Inside, we drank more lemon water, sprawled on a couch, and conversed with our gracious hostess. Folks arrived in a steady stream, each getting the same earful about trails, camping, programs, and facilities. I pledged my support to Dierdra, who will soon initiate a Friends of the Preserve club.merry crew in DMP ccu

Saying our reluctant so-longs, we traipsed out to see Scott’s curious camping trailer, which metal lids form work surfaces. From racks hung a towel plus pots and pans and lids. An open grate by yon tongue supports his propane tank and fuel bottle. A tailgate holds a spigoted jug of water. Various boxes contain everything else. The whole device operates quite efficiently but without the Chuck Wagon’s charming personality—just sayin’.

The famed Davis Mountain scenic loop took us 45 miles back to the town via Sawtooth Mountain, Rock Pile, the road to Valentine, a much-built-up Bloys Camp Meeting, Davis Mountain Resort, Point of Rocks, and sweeping views of high-altitude grasslands. The 25-mph speed limit at the village square appealed to me. Back in our cottage, we drank beer, wine, and wodka and ate soup. Much resting ensued, and I wept from music such as that of Joan Baez, Grace Park, the Roaches, Cocteau Twins, and others. I edited L’s latest novel chapters, and we watched Perry Mason, Twilight Zone, and part of Dark Knight before crashing for good.

Saturday, 03-20: Awakened to a cold and cloudy last day of winter. Bundled up as much as possible by donning navy trousers and two long-sleeve t-shirts beneath an orange Oxford. First stop: thrift store adjacent to a stone former tourist court across from a current tourist camp. Providence provided me with a $5 Scottish wool Trilby, which matched my coat’s lining. We chatted with the cute young clerk there and with the enthusiastic fellow out in the gallery, located inside one of the former lodging rooms.

Officers' RowAt the fort, Ranger Bill Manhart gifted me a roster from the 1870s, which showed that my great-grandfather “H. Frick” earned $75 per month as a blacksmith. Walked through exhibits in barracks, officers’ quarters, the hospital, and a Native American wikiup. Took photos and kept warm. At Bookfellow, paid $75 cash for Captain Arthur T. Lee’s frontier landscapes in an out-of-print volume.madrone trunk

Refueled and steered south on TX 118 to Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute’s Nature Center, joyfully greeting our hiking companions from the day before. Ralph the volunteer checked us in and sold me guides to the Botanical Gardens, where Lina ambled, and Modesta Canyon Trail, where I stepped. My path plunged steeply into this crevice where two distinct geological formations butt together: Sleeping Lion rhyolite and Weston basalt. Scrambling was fun, and at the bottom I marveled at the gurgling trickle, little ponds, several birds, and blooming mountain laurel and madrone. Shot a one-minute video of this panorama, which you can see here (111 Mb file).

rock pillarsUp again, past rock pillars and sweeping vistas (now sunny) and back to the center, where L and I sat on the porch to enjoy cheese and guacamole on sprouted bread while gazing out towards Livermore. Marvelous there was the display of Earth’s geologic ages, with representative rock samples from each. Missed the mine exhibit, but found the whole experience most delightful and highly recommendable.

Tall RockWound down Musquiz Canyon past Mitre Peak into Alpine. Found Museum of the Big Bend behind Sul Ross State University in a 1937 lamella-arched stone building. Fab was the Tall Rockshelter panel and Livermore Cache. Ditto the surveying display and Tom Lea’s art.

Paisano Peak cuZooming westward, we learned that Paisano Pass’s name came when two Spanish explorers greeted each other (paisano = countryman) here. This is the highest elevation (5,074 ft.) on the Sunset Limited railroad line. Took a fine shot of the peak, as well. Continued past the lights viewing installation and into Marfa (named for a character in Brothers Karamazov), listening to its public radio, KRTS.

Circled ‘round the scales-less Presidio County Paisano interiorcourthouse and parked at Hotel Paisano to explore. Almost a carbon copy of Van Horn’s Hotel Capitan, here Giant runs 24/7, and the place oozes hipness. Declining to drink or eat the high-dollar offerings there, we tried Planet Marfa from an online listing. It was way cool, but offered only chips and salsa. Mando’s on the town’s west end brought us satisfying enchiladas, chile rellenos, and Big Bend Brewing Tejas Lager.

wood-fired hot tubLiz Lambert’s El Cosmico amazed us with its uniformed desk clerks, wood-fired hot tubs, Mongolian yurts, hammock grove, group kitchen, canvas-walled outhouses, tipis, safari tents, cozy lobby, and colorful vintage trailers. Stopped at the former-gas-radio station and met Joe Nick’s engineer during his Texas Music Hour of Power. He’d been there the week before.

As dusk overtook, we retraced our route ten miles east to the viewing area and angled Twinka southwest towards the Chinati Mountains. Even before complete—though moonlit—darkness, lights appeared way out on the horizon. L remained skeptical and even bored as we attempted to discern patterns in the locations and twinklings. The state-supplied structure gave some shelter from steady north winds, and I overheard at least one local gentleman verifying my memory of flashing orbs and hues. Endured until 9:35.

The waxing Worm Moon outlined a few roadside peaks on our way into Fort Davis. Remarkable was the lack of streetlights in town, a nod to the observatory’s dark skies initiative. We readied our bags for an early departure, drank beer and wine, and performed ablutions. I set the alarm for 4:01.

Sunday, o3-20: Rolled out of Fort Davis at 4:40 a.m. under pale lunar illumination. Could just make out mountain silhouettes as we steered down Wild Rose Pass. Bizarre was seeing red lights of the wind generators blinking in unison. Sun rose precisely in the east on that Spring Equinox just past Ozona. Pulled into Fig Cottage, our Upper-East Austin home, at 11:30 a.m. after 424 miles.

When can we go again?

Youth camps have graced the Kerrville area of the Texas Hill Country since the 1920s, but Presbyterians were the first denomination to start a summer church camp there. Methodists, Lutherans, and Catholics soon followed suite. Currently, one can visit nearby Mount Wesley, Camp Chrysalis, and TECABOCA.

Mo Ranch is a 500-acre conference and camp center west of Hunt, which is west of Kerrville. Formally a Conoco Oil Company retreat, Mo Ranch takes its name from corporate executive and former owner Daniel J. Moran, who created much of the grounds’ singular infrastructure with repurposed oilfield pipe and locally quarried limestone. The Presbyterian Church acquired the property in 1949.

Map of Mo Ranch

Map of Mo Ranch

I first visited Mo Ranch as a child when Dad took me there during one of our annual summer vacations in the hills. We stayed at Casa Bonita Lodges on the Guadalupe River’s South Fork. Nearby stood the Helter Skelter Shelter and the Hodge Podge Lodge. One morning, while the rest of the family (three sisters and our mother) enjoyed other activities, the males drove around to the Guadalupe’s north branch. Nine river crossings separate Hunt from Mo. Even on that first visit to the resort, I remember the renowned slide, down which thrill-seekers ride a short board into the river. Somewhere there’s a photo of young me standing next to the slide. In the early days, the narrow highway wound through the property; today, a new bridge bypasses the former entrance.

After attending junior-high-age Camp Aranama, the logical next step in my maturity was to go to Mo, which I first did as a camper in the summer of ’69. It was then that I met Sallie H., whom I regarded as my best girl, though she didn’t. Boys stayed in the River Dorm, girls in Loma Linda. During the week-long outing, we campers listened to contemporary songs such as The Sound of Silence and discussed them, always with a Christian slant. Canyon wrens would serenade us during dances and services in the auditorium. We ran across the catwalk, which floor you could see through, daring each other to look down. We’d drop toast off the structure to see if it would bounce. I took walks next to the Guadalupe and marveled at old outbuildings. The promise of romance electrified every encounter.

We enjoyed Cokes in the Teen Canteen and bought James Avery jewelry in the book store. I learned about Malcolm Boyd and Marshall McLuhan, buying their books. I’ve still got The Medium is the Massage and later discovered an audio version. Those ideas would be pivotal in my communications studies at UT later. Summer of ‘70 was the year Hurricane Celia hit Port Aransas dead-center. I had escaped to Mo earlier that week, and heard that Corpus was destroyed—an exaggeration. I also went to a choir camp at Mo one off-season, from which I still cherish the sheet music.

Sallie proved to be a powerful attractant to my getting to Austin, along with my big sister’s pioneering move there. Ironically, Sallie left Austin just as I arrived.

Presbyterian University Students at Mo Ranch, 1974

Presbyterian University Students
at Mo Ranch, 1974

I attended a bible church for my first couple terms at UT, but returned to the familiar Presbyterian fold in my junior year. That meant more trips to Mo, mainly for retreats during fall, winter, and spring. The photo shows one such visit. That’s me on the far right addressing our group outside the River Dorm. I’m not sure what I’m saying, but a good guess is a recitation of Prinderella and the Since, which I’d memorized back in high school for speech tournaments. My travel log records this trip on April 26, 1974, dutifully counting those nine river crossings. With each bridge, excitement would grow. A similar church group returned to Mo another time, camping at The Rapids just upstream of the facility’s more developed areas. On a different occasion, I provided music for a dance in the auditorium.

Flying Roof Yurt at Mo Ranch, 1975

Flying Roof Yurt at Mo Ranch, 1975

After obtaining my first degree (RTF) in December of ‘74, I was footloose and fancy-free for a few brief months. In early 1975, I heard about a hands-on workshop happening at Mo Ranch, so out I went. This was my first meeting with William S. Coperthwaite and my first time to help build a yurt. Bill, as he’s known, designed the modern yurt, a permanent version of the nomadic tents used for centuries in the steppes of Central Asia. Under Bill’s direction over a couple weekends, a crew of volunteers erected two nine-sided yurts just north of the catwalk. Each featured a flying roof of cylindrical sections. We’d hammer and saw by day, then hold conversations about architecture and social design in the evenings. These unique structures were meant to be staff quarters. The yurts lasted several years, but were, unfortunately, razed when new, unimpressed management took over. I, however, began a long relationship with Dr. Coperthwaite that continues to this day and that led to my building two yurts of my own.

Mo Ranch exemplifies a place of significant life happenings. The Hill Country is a special place on its own, but Mo became an even more extraordinary slice of those hills. Everything that makes the region attractive I found at Mo Ranch: juniper tree aromas, distant vistas, cold running waters, stout limestone ledges, and indigenous wildlife. Add to that physical beauty the important experiences of adolescent infatuation, hard work, deep thought, and fun times—and Mo remains unforgettable.

June 8, 1974, from the HWR Travel Log:

On that Saturday, I was exploring southwest of Austin. I remembered that my high school algebra teacher, Turner Ferguson, taught riflery at a camp called Friday Mountain Ranch during the summers, so I drove into that gate to look for him. This was only three years since I’d graduated from Corpus Christi’s W. B. Ray. Once inside, I asked a staff woman who told me that Mr. Ferguson hadn’t been there in a while. In my usual way, I inquired about the camp itself and read a historical marker near a venerable limestone building. Here’s what I learned:

Johnson Institute from the South, 1936

Johnson Institute, south elevation, 1936

The Johnson Institute was founded in 1852 by Professor Thomas Jefferson Johnson from Virginia. In 1868, he built the impressive two-storey, ten-room structure, which housed offices and students in residence. The school endured until 1872, after which the property changed hands several times. Another teacher, Dr. Walter Prescott Webb, purchased the 630 acres surrounding the Institute in 1942. It was Webb’s idea to start a youth camp at Friday Mountain Ranch, which admitted boys first and girls later. Surveyors had named the prominence for the day they discovered it.

I didn’t stay at Friday Mountain but about half an hour, then continued on my journey. It wasn’t until later, though, that other, more interesting facts presented themselves.

I minored in geography for my first degree at The University of Texas at Austin, then sought a bachelor’s in that discipline in 1977. I enrolled in every class I could find that contained the word Texas, especially history and geography, so before long I was reading books by the above-mentioned Webb and J. Frank Dobie and Roy Bedichek. They were each associated with UT and were also close friends who spent much time together debating great ideas. Schools in Austin are named in their honor, and a statue depicting them in lively conversation greets patrons of Barton Springs Pool, one of their favorite hangouts.

Texpert with the Three Friends

Texpert with Bedichek, Dobie, and Webb

The three Gentlemen of Letters often stayed in the fortress-like structure at Webb’s ranch. It was there, on the second floor of the south wing, that Bedichek secluded himself during the entire year of 1946  to write his first book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist. In it, “Bedi” skillfully weaves philosophy, art, and observations of the Texas landscape. The tome’s been a great influence on me, giving rise to the signature line below my tour company e-mails: “Adventures with a Texas Geographer.”

Friday Mountain hosted co-ed camps through the 1980s. In 1991, the International Society of Divine Love bought the land and wrought extensive changes. Today, it’s one of the largest temple/ashram complexes in the US and the oldest in Texas. The beautiful grounds and classic Hindu architecture form the setting for festivals, worship, dance, and yoga. I enjoy pointing it out on my Hill Country treks. Its current impressiveness, however, comes at a woeful price: the designers so altered the old Institute’s structure that no hint remains of its original function or heritage. New windows, doors, and roofs completely mask the vernacular stone. Even the nineteenth century founders’ graves are relocated. Consequently, in 1992, the Texas Historical Commission revoked the building’s official designation, its original integrity lost.

It seems tragic to me that historical marking coveys so little protection on old monuments such as this. Now, folks such as myself must tell the missing tales. What do you think?


Travel Log, Vol. I

HWR Travel Log, Vol. I

Although traveling and exploring Texas has been my life-long pursuit, I begin earnestly to do it in 1973, just after buying my first automobile. Still at UT studying radio-TV-film and living just off campus, I could walk to class, but on weekends drove my car. The Dodge Dart Sport Convertriple was so designated because it was three vehicles in one: a regular five-person sedan with a sunroof like a convertible and a fold-down back seat and openable trunk that made it a cargo carrier. For its blue color, I named it Humphrey Blowdart.

Desiring to keep a record of areas visited, I bought from the Co-op a small spiral-bound notebook, which became the first volume of my travel log. Its price tag testifies to the march of time. Not yet possessing a clever nickname, I was just HWR in those days, so that was the journal’s heading. The subtitle: “consisting of notes, observations, facts, stops, and distances of trips taken between March 8, 1974, and June 18, 1977.” The format was columns headed by Date, Mileage, Place, Route, and Time, with a new entry for each halt or road change. In the beginning, Humphrey showed a mere 8,246 miles on the odometer; the last notation in Volume I was 53,071.

Inside the log’s front cover is taped a list of official national CB 10-codes, a vivid reminder of the “breaker one-nine” fad. On the second leaf is a three-year calendar clipped from an almanac for ‘74 through ‘76. On the back pages and scattered here and there are budgets, calculations, and random scribblings, including the draft of a letter to a judge after I was awarded a speeding ticket.

Lots happened between those trips. I moved from the center city to the southeast part of Austin, finished my first degree, built my first yurt, began working in the Capitol, lived at scenic Rancho Richey (before it was a refuge), attended a Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, began my broadcasting career in Fredericksburg, worked at the UT ID card center, went nuts over CB radio as the “Earth Brother,” bestowed on myself a catchy title, moved to Uvalde to work in commercial radio, moved back to my beloved Austin, took several geography courses, and slacked in scads.

All this information forms the basis of my upcoming memoir/guide to Texas travel. The log and its subsequent three volumes literally tell my life’s journey, just as the Party Pages relate my history as a series of celebrations. Both convey the joy one guy feels while doing what he loves.

How would you write you autobiography?

Lina at Palacios Seawall

Lina at Palacios Seawall

It’s a tradition for Lina and me to commemorate our wedding every year by sleeping in a historic hotel or bed and breakfast. For our seventh this April, we added two other criteria: the place must be next to the ocean and a destination where neither of us had ever been. Tall orders? Filled!

It was Maundy Thursday, so traffic was slow getting out of Austin. We got to Gonzales just about dusk, but found no good restaurants. We grudgingly settled for Whataburger, but it was the last supper we’ll ever try there on a holiday evening.

At Yoakum, we diverged onto TX 111, which took us southeast across the Lavaca River and parallel to the Navidad. At Mount Olive (appropriate to the day) during a brief leg-stretch, we heard a fabulous amphibian chorus. Darkness surrounded us, but the almost-full moon arose to guide our way.

All we remember about Edna was its theater’s brilliant neon sign. Crossing Lake Texana was a bit surreal in the moonlight, but we knew our destination was getting close. At Midfield our route veered due south, and at 10:30 we pulled into Palacios.

This is a beautiful location overlooking Tres Palacios Bay, which is one of three smaller arms of Matagorda Bay. By our arrival, the big moon shone over the barely rippling waters. Except for a few fishermen’s low voices out on the pier, the waterfront park was refreshingly quiet.

Peaceful Pelican B&B owner Edith greeted us on the wide porch, showed all essentials, and left. We had the whole place to ourselves and explored the many corners. The McGuire House dates from 1910, built by an educator for herself and family. Martha Pearl McGuire taught music and performance upstairs, and a preparatory school stood out back.

Today, the rooftop widow’s walk is accessible from the third-storey attic suite, itself large enough to sleep six. We occupied the spacious Magnolia Room, which featured a king-size bed and bay window facing the sunrise. Per Lina’s wishes, the private bath included a clawfoot tub. It was late by the time we closed our eyes.

Returning in the morning, Edith prepared us a breakfast of fruit-stuffed French toast. Also at hand were plenty of coffee, tangelos, sausage, and juice. Unquestionably a local authority, our hostess regaled us with house and village history. On Edith’s urging, we set out to explore the bayfront on foot, first strolling to a nearby antique boutique.

HR with Pearl, the Peaceful Pelican

HR with Pearl, the Peaceful Pelican

After gathering out things and checking out, we drove to the Luther Hotel, which dates from 1903. Originally facing East Bay, the structure was moved to its present south exposure in 1905. Still in business, this venerable wooden inn personifies quaintness. Just offshore from the lodge stood a series of circular pavilions. One from the 1930s and 40s hosted popular swing dances, housed a café, docked sailboats, and supported folks fishing. Over time, each of these fabrications met its destruction when tropical cyclones careened ashore.

High winds are a fact of life along the Coastal Bend. Record storm was Hurricane Carla, which struck Matagorda Bay dead center on September 11, 1961, armed with 171-mph gusts. On that date, I was a nine-year-old lad living not far down the coast in Corpus Christi. That howling night, my family slept in our home’s hallway away from exterior walls and windows. Only a transistor radio connected us to the outside world. Carla caused a 22-foot tidal surge that flooded most of Palacios, including a foot of water in the McGuire home.

Other momentous events from the past shaped this seaside town. The French explorer La Salle’s misadventure happened just around the corner on Lavaca Bay in 1685. Uncovering his wrecked ship Le Belle was a major archaeological feat for the area in 1995, and Palacios provided volunteers and infrastructure to the artifacts’ recovery. Lina and I visited Edith at the City by the Sea Museum, where she works when not renting rooms. Situated in the historic R. J. Hill Building downtown, the displays bring La Salle and Carla to life.

Hotel Blessing lunch buffet

Hotel Blessing lunch buffet. Photo courtesy Texas Bob

On our way north again, we lunched in the coffee shop of the equally vintage 1907 Hotel Blessing in that town. For a decent price, we feasted on the daily buffet of veggies, macaroni, potatoes, several meats, tea, and cobbler, most served up from two classic cookstoves. We also learned about A.H. “Shanghai” Pierce, an important regional cattle magnate, and visited his grave.

With the usual reluctance and joyful feelings, we retraced our route northwest, seeing beautiful scenery in the daylight that we’d missed before. T’was a brilliant spring, and we’ll likely return to those lovely Texas bays.

Platt Crossing

Platt Crossing

Austin’s outdoors hold many hidden gems. In particular, I just rediscovered a public place that isn’t a park or preserve per se. The Austin Water Utility owns frontage along 3.5 miles of the Colorado River’s north bank near Bergstrom Airport. The 1,200-acre Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant offers a major bird observatory, manufactures Dillo Dirt compost, hosts the Center for Environmental Research, and partners with several ecologically minded organizations. Among them and headquartered in an ecohouse on the Hornsby Bend site is Austin Youth River Watch. They held a party last weekend that featured a walk though woods down by the riverside.

Fellow geographer and guide Elizabeth Welch, who directs the youth programs, is a wealth of information about the flora and fauna there as well as their cultural uses. She led us past several ponds and tall stands of wild rice to the Colorado’s edge, which had been the historic Platt Crossing.  In view were violet henbit, catchweed bedstraw, variegated bull thistle, and teeny speedwell. We saw evidence of beavers and heard that otters were nearby.

Pecan: State Tree of Texas

Pecan: State Tree of Texas

At the end of the trail was the biggest pecan tree I’ve ever beheld. Leaning downstream from some ancient flood, this gargantuan being overwhelmed our little group. Six of us couldn’t have joined hands around it. On the ground were remnants of last fall’s nuts—the small native type. Still dormant, this and other Carya illinoensis will likely bud in April. The tree would have witnessed the Hornsby family’s arrival here in 1832.

In collaboration with Travis Audubon, Hornsby Bend offers frequent owl prowls at night and other birding events. The facility is open to anyone every day from dawn to dusk. The Center is accessible off FM 973, and the nature trail is at the end of Platt Lane.

Trees Before Numbers

Trees Before Digits, 1839

Last time, we learned the origins of Austin’s north-south street names. Here’s a narrative of the grid’s other half, the numbered east-west streets.

When Edwin Waller and his merry crew began to build the Texas Republic’s new capital in 1839, the Colorado River was lined with an almost impenetrable thicket. Spanish explorers had avoided this scary area in their explorations 100-plus years earlier. For Waller, however, the trees presented an abundant resource almost as valuable as the river’s water and the ground’s rocks: lumber.

Again, as in other cities, streets got the names of important trees. North Avenue (an exception, 15th Street) was at the top. Then came Walnut (14th), a tree that yields some of the prettiest furniture material anywhere. The stout bottomland hardwood also gives nuts.

Peach (13th) isn’t, strictly speaking, a Texas native: it was carried from Persia to Europe by the Romans. The ornamental cherry laurel is sometimes called a wild peach, but the two aren’t related. Settlers would bring peach trees with them to plant in their gardens.

College Avenue (12th) is another exception to the naming convention. Austin was to host an institution of higher education, but the early plans placed the campus west of Capitol Square. Later, the university was moved north of the old city, but UT still owns properties to the west.

Mesquit (spelled without the ending e on the map, 11th) is a thorny legume that grows extensively on the Texas plains. It can be a nuisance, but the bean pods are edible, and the trunks make fair fence posts. Nothing beats mesquite blossom honey in the spring, and many barbecue cooks swear by it for smoking meats.

The Mulberry (10th) grows in wet and dry areas, and its fruit becomes a tasty jam. Ash (9th), another bottomland hardwood, is prized for making baseball bats. Hickory (8th), cousin to walnut and pecan, makes a stout tool handle.

Bois d’Arc (7th), also in the mulberry family, is known as Osage orange for its bark’s color and horse-apple for the globular fruit that’s supposed to repel roaches. Does a great job on elephants, too. Wonderfully durable, its name refers to the making of bows for arrows.

Pecan is the State Tree of Texas, a marvelous shade tree for our lawns and an important agricultural crop. In wet years, the nuts come due in mid-November, just in time for the pies and pralines of the festive season. Even before Austin’s second building boom of the 1870s and 80s, Pecan Street (6th), standing as it does above the high-water mark of the Colorado River and a straight-shot in from civilization, became the main commercial strip. Today, the seven blocks of historic structures between Congress and the former East Avenue (now IH-35) serve as Party Central for the Live Music Capital.

The Pine (5th) grows in East Texas, formerly near Bastrop, and in the mountainous Trans-Pecos. Its workable wood goes into flooring, furniture, and framing. Cedar (4th) is what many locals call native juniper. True cedars exist only in the Middle East and Western Himalayas. Both the red juniper (east) and Ashe juniper (west) logs make excellent fence posts, and the resin repels moths. Juniper berries (their cones) flavor gin and add spice to venison and pheasant.

Cypress (3rd) loves to hug the water’s edge. Its lumber is soft like pine but with a tan color. These trees, like their redwood and sequoia cousins, can live immensely long lives—almost 2,000 years. They drop their needles in winter, which is unusual for conifers.

The stately Live Oak (2nd) differs from most of its deciduous relatives in that it stays green throughout winter. It sheds its leaves in the spring just before blooming and sprouting new foliage. Also blessed with long life, at least three Texas specimens are more than a millennium in age.

Our final exception, Water Avenue (César Chávez) referred to its paralleling the Texas Colorado, the longest river entirely inside the state.

In about 1890, the tree streets were changed to numbered ones. This was to facilitate navigation and postal delivery. One can see the former botanical designations on historic signs along Congress Avenue and East Sixth. Honoring the original titles, Austinites enjoy the Old Pecan Street Festival spring and fall, look at glass art in Pine Street Station, and enjoy cocktails at Cedar Street Courtyard.

6th at Neches

6th at Neches

Streets Named for Rivers

Plan of Austin, 1839

Among the many reasons Austin is a unique city, its street-naming pattern seems especially remarkable. Laid out by Edwin Waller in 1839, the new capital of the Texas Republic edged the largely unknown frontier. Residents understood the region’s basic layout well enough by its rivers, most of which had had titles since the days of Spanish exploration.

So, similar to what other towns had done, Waller named the north-south streets here for major Texas rivers, but he did so geographically. West Avenue marked the western boundary of the 640 acres, and East Avenue (now IH-35) contained the other side. Between, except for Congress, the streets literally map the state’s great streams.

Flanking Congress are the two big Central Texas waterways, the Colorado and Brazos. Driving east or west offers a geography quiz: if you just crossed Trinity, what would be the next river? Notice one mistake: in reality, the Red River flows east of the Sabine.

Using minor streams, this naming convention continued into new areas as the city grew, but with only general geographic correlation. In East Austin, you’ll find Brushy, San Marcos, Medina, Waller, Onion, Attayak, Navasota, Angelina, Comal, Concho, Leona, and San Saba. West of Lamar is Blanco and Pecos. Shoal Creek gets a boulevard, and Bull Creek a road.

Whereas, after a big rain, streets seem to turn into rivers, this is how the opposite happened.

Next time, we’ll learn the secrets of Austin’s east-west streets.

After a couple decades of mulling, I’ve finally begun writing what will become my first official publication. Entitled A Traveler’s Guide to Texas Geography, it will combine memoir with trip advice. New guidebooks about the Lone Star State appear every year, but few of them relate much about the landscape. Mine will do this, based on my more than 38 years of adventures around this fascinating region. The book will be based on my meticulously kept trip logs and will make good use of many maps. Using Austin as a starting place, journeys will radiate out in all four cardinal directions. I’ll include details about back roads, prominent peaks and ridges, creeks and rivers, and climate types plus historical hints. Stay tuned for progress reports, and please wish me luck.

Texas Senate Chamber

Texas Senate Chamber

The Texas Capitol Building remains the USA’s largest statehouse and stands 14 feet taller than its counterpart in Washington, D.C. Situated on a hill around which the city of Austin was designed, the impressive structure is a must-see for every visitor. The Capitol brims with marbles and canvases which together offer an inspiring overview of Texas heritage. Of the structure’s many rooms, the Senate Chamber contains perhaps the most elegant art collection.

Paintings line the chamber’s walls. Depicting influential individuals or significant events, these frames put human faces on facts of Texas’ momentous history. Almost all of these people got Texas cities, counties, or both named for them. Here’s a sampling:

Behind the Lieutenant Governor’s desk is one of the few known life portraits of Stephen F. Austin, the city’s namesake. In the early 1820s, Austin brought the first and greatest number of Americans to Mexican Texas to be colonists. As busy as he was attending to his people in the years before and during the Texas Revolution, he could spare little time for a formal portrait. Nonetheless, while in New Orleans in 1836 to raise support for the revolutionary cause, he sat for this image and gave it to his sister, Emily. Austin died later that year.

Not all who rebelled against Mexico during the Texas Revolution were Anglo-Americans. Prominent among revolutionary Tejanos was Lorenzo de Zavala, a physician, journalist, and scholar who was the fledgling republic’s first ad interim vice president. He was one of a few signatories to the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, who had had previous diplomatic, legislative, ministerial, and executive experience. Residing just across Buffalo Bayou from the San Jacinto Battlefield, de Zavala died in November of 1836. His granddaughter, Adina, gained fame in 1905 when she helped save the Alamo from demolition.

Although Texas stood alone in its struggle for independence, many bands of volunteers from the American South came to aid the Texians. One such group was the Georgia Battalion from the central reaches of that state, numbering some 220 men. With them, they carried a flag hand-made by 18-year-old Johanna Troutman of Knoxville. The single blue star stood on a white background with the words “Texas and Liberty” beneath. Miss Troutman lived, married, and died in Georgia, but her remains were brought to the State Cemetery in Austin in 1913. A Pompeo Coppini statue marks Troutman’s second grave. For her banner needling, she’s often called the “Betsy Ross of Texas.”

Two enormous works hang on the Chamber’s back wall. Both executed by Ireland-born H. A. McArdle, they depict the most memorable battles of the Texas Revolution. The artist spent several decades in painstaking research for the paintings, collecting artifacts, interviewing witnesses, and visiting sites.

Standing seven by 12 feet in size, Dawn at the Alamo is a visual allegory of one of history’s most valiant defeats. Though architecturally accurate with respect to the fort’s general layout, the scene takes liberties in showing the main heroes, David Crockett, James Bowie, and William B. Travis, together in the same frame at the same moment in the early hours of March 6, 1836. In truth, these defenders were not near each other during the battle, but they certainly died fighting for the same grand ideals. The point here is to tell a symbolic story, conveying timeless principles of bravery and sacrifice. A single star peeping though the dense clouds above the chaos, along with the first rays of sunrise, portend eventual victory.

The slightly larger Battle of San Jacinto offers a broad landscape of the 18-minute mêlée on the afternoon of April 21, only six weeks after the Alamo’s fall. Clearly visible in the foreground are both Mexican and Texian warriors, including officers Filisola, Castrillón, and Almonte with Houston, Lamar, and Rusk. Towards the rear, General-President Santa Anna, disguised in civilian attire, is fleeing on horseback. Subtitled “Retributive Justice,” the painting implies the comeuppance of good over evil. The artist completed this work before Dawn at the Alamo so that the few yet-living veterans of the battle could enjoy the painting.

Alas, though an excellent artist, McArdle lacked self-promotional skills and was never paid for these canvasses. His heirs received a small check from the state 19 years after his death.

In baggy trousers and a white vest is Mirabeau B. Lamar, second of but four presidents of the Republic of Texas. The Texas Congress had decided that the new capital city would be named for Austin, but it was Lamar’s influence that fixed the location in the hamlet of Waterloo. He had visited the area in 1838 while still vice president and, like so many more folks to come, had fallen in love with the locale. During his administration, the new Republic began its educational system. When Lamar wasn’t riding his horse or founding colleges of his own, he was a romantic painter and poet, which activities presaged the city of Austin’s reputation as an artistic community. He designed the full-legged pants he wears in the painting to give more freedom and comfort while riding, a fashion he expected would spread. It didn’t, but probably gave the city its first weird slant.

Thomas Jefferson Rusk came to Texas in 1834 in hot pursuit of his embezzling Georgia business partners. He never caught them, but instead got caught up in the Texas Revolution. Rusk served as the Republic’s inspector general, San Jacinto commander, secretary of war, congressman, and supreme court chief justice. When Texas became a state, Rusk and Sam Houston were elected to the US Senate.

Yet another veteran of San Jacinto was Robert McAlpin Williamson, the legendary Three-Legged Willie. An attack of “white fever” in his teens left Willie’s right leg bent at the knee and unusable, so he got around on a wooden peg leg, which became his third. In addition to his soldiery, Williamson was supreme court judge, representative, senator, and author.

Two portraits claim their subjects to be last the survivors of San Jacinto. Alfonzo Steele (1817 – 1911) fought and was wounded in the battle, and Sam Houston rode Steele’s horse after Houston’s own had been killed. William P. Zuber (1820 – 1913) had been in the rear guard during the engagement. As an elderly man, Zuber served as a tour guide in the Senate Chamber.

Albert Sidney Johnston, a West Point graduate who enlisted in the Texas army as a private, went on to become adjutant general and Secretary of War for the Texas Republic. He also served distinguishably in the Mexican War and was offered a commission in the US Army in 1861. He, however, chose for fellow Southerners and was perhaps the Confederacy’s greatest general. His death during the battle of Shiloh was a severe blow to the Lost Cause.

The portrait of Jefferson Davis hangs to the left of the central podium. He had been Secretary of War for the US just prior to the Civil War. The only Confederate president, Davis narrowly missed hanging for treason after the war, but was highly revered in the South throughout his life.

Lyndon B. Johnson never served in the Texas Senate, getting elected first to the US Congress in 1937, then as vice-president and president. His grandfather, however, was an unsuccessful political candidate in the turn-of-the-20th-century Populist Party, and his father served in the Texas House.

Barbara Jordan was the first black woman to be Senator in Texas, 1967. Her main issues were voter registration and wage law. In 1972, she became the first Southern black woman elected to the US House of Representatives. Jordan’s fame expanded during the Watergate hearings for her staunch support of the US Constitution. The city’s airport terminal and several schools are named for the esteemed orator.

Other paintings show more modern figures, such as Henry B. González and A. M. Aiken, but their stories will be told elsewhere.

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