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.

SA to Henly

SA to Henly

When I know the route my clients use to get to or from Austin, I often suggest things for them to see. Here’s what I wrote for four Canadians recently:

My tour to the Alamo City goes along US 281, one of the prettiest highways through mid-Texas.

You’ll probably notice a strong German influence in San Antonio and in areas north and west. Look for Teutonic names on street signs and villages.

A few miles north of the Texas 46 intersection, you’ll cross the Guadalupe River, perhaps the state‘s lovliest. Beneath the bridge, behold a couple canoe and inner tube liveries that outfit floating and paddling on those swift rapids.

The crossroads of Twin Sisters gets its name from two matching peaks just to the west. They stand on the divide between the Guadalupe River basin and the Blanco River valley.

In Blanco proper stands the original courthouse from 1885 when Blanco was the county seat. Uptown Restaurant serves decent meals, and you can take a short walk into the municipal park to see the second-oldest live oak in the county. Also there is one of my favorite regional breweries, Real Ale, which makes Fireman’s Four and Full Moon Rye.

Please use Ranch Road 165 as a shortcut to Henly. This skirts the river for a few miles. Just past the 2325 junction is Peyton Colony, a Black freedman’s community founded after the US Civil War. You’ll then notice a long upwards slope. Just before the summit, safely pull over and look behind you for one of the grandest views in Central Texas. This is Singleton Pass, which marks the divide between the Blanco River and Onion Creek, a tributary of the Colorado. The Twin Sisters show prominently on the far horizon.

Past Dripping Springs, you’ll begin to see suburban Austin.

There’s more, of course, but these few factoids should enhance your experience a bit. Remember, safety is no accident!

Texas Scenic Regions Map

Mother Nature’s Self-Portrait

Texans are blessed with lots of scenery. Because of our position smack dab in the middle of North America, we enjoy proximity to an amazing variety of landscapes and climates. One way to get a handle on such diversity is to draw a picture. This I did in 1982, and here’s the story behind the map.

Each of the state’s dozen geographic zones claims its own characteristics and personality. The map shows each region’s general boundaries plus elements that make it distinctive: moisture, temperature, vegetation, geology, and soils. Some, such as the Piney Woods, Cross Timbers, and Post Oak Belt, acquired their names from the plants dominant there. Plains and prairies make up half of the regions—no surprise. One recalls a human name. The Trans-Pecos and Rio Grande Plains cozy up to important rivers. I purposefully deemphasized cities to draw more attention to the countryside. Each area will get its own well-deserved chapter in the book I’m writing.

It’s always a cause for celebration to trend from one territory to another, watching the indicators change. In some places, such as between the Edwards and the Llano, the shift is immediate. Others are more gradual, happening over several miles.

For folks to appreciate the Lone Star State’s variation, I give this map to every client who takes a tour or attends a class. It and others like it are useful for planning travel or study anywhere in Texas.

What’s your favorite part of Texas?

Texas Surf Museum entrance

Texas Surf Museum entrance

Corpus Christi, my hometown, plays host to an aircraft carrier you can explore, an aquarium to tour, boats to ride, and lots of other coastal activities. I met my three sisters there in our childhood home, where our dear mom still lives, for the end of 2011. It was a rare treat for us to all be together in the Sparkling City by the Sea for the holidays.

An outing was in order New Year’s Eve, so we piled into a van and headed downtown to a place none of us had ever visited. Next to the Executive Surf Club, the best night spot in town and the site of my recent 40-year high school reunion, stands the Texas Surf Museum. An artful woodie station wagon beckoned us inside. We marveled at the wooden surf board replicas, recreated board work bench, old 8-mm wave-rider films, and other memorabilia. On the north wall is a map of the Texas coast bedecked with grainy photographs of surf shops, boards stuck in the sands, and groups of surfers, many of whom my elder sister, Betty, knew and remembered. I only body-surfed in my time, but we idolized our twin cousins, Gary and Terry, who were and are still avid surfers in Southern California. Lina’s brothers all surfed, too, mainly around Oceanside, where exists the California Surf Museum.

Queen of the Sea

by Pompeo Coppini

We lingered a while in the well-stocked gift shop before strolling across the South Texas Music Walk of Fame to the Club for lunch. In the shadow of one of the oldest shellcrete walls in CC, we gobbled up fried shrimp, chicken wraps, and burgers. After, we drove around our old haunts downtown and uptown, marveling at the Queen of the Sea bas-relief on the famed bluff that separates the two elevations.

Corpus is a wonderful place to be from. Who wants a tour?

Tx HC O Co

Texas Hill Country Olive Company

Wine tasting ranks as one of my most popular touring activities. My clients know and appreciate Texas Hill Country wines a lot these days for their brilliant quality and regional connection. As of this past weekend, however, my patrons and I discovered a brand-new stop on our route at a must-see attraction. The Texas Hill Country Olive Company grandly opened December 10 at its beautiful facility on Fitzhugh Road north of Dripping Springs.

I’d conducted many tours past the impressive sandstone building before, pointing out the rows of young olive trees behind. This day featured much to enjoy. Holiday-hatted co-owner Rick Mensik greeted us as we walked through the door. I got his card and he mine with mutual promises to trade links. First stop inside was the oil-tasting bar. The company makes three oil blends plus several flavors of balsamic vinegar. Off to the left stood the art, several spaces sporting wild horse photographs, paintings, and ceramics. The pressing and bottling room is around back.

Texas olive orchard

Texas olive orchard

To the right of the entrance is the Bistro Café, an open kitchen with a big counter for cooking classes. An Italian chef was baking cookies. Around that were scattered tables and chairs for additional eating and seating. Two musicians and the beer-wine tasting area beckoned us out the north door. Offering samples were Real Ales from Blanco plus three wineries, including Bell Springs. My client purchased a sweet white. I led her to the high fence to see the trees. They kind of resemble nearby live oaks but for their lighter-hued green leaves. Five varieties planted here produce sundry flavors and textures.

Texpert Tours olives

Texpert Tours olives

No sign graces the façade as yet, but we got some pictures. The impressive structure stands a magnificent contrast to the goat ranches next door. Typical of this particular Wine Drive, our next destinations that day were Driftwood Estate Vineyards, Duchman Family Winery, and Trattoria Lisina for lunch. It’s a lovely time of year to sip Hill Country wines and now to also include genuine Texas olive oil.

Bastrop Blackened

Bastrop Blackened

We in Central Texas were witness to a historic conflagration just east of Austin over the Labor Day weekend. The trouble began sometime Sunday and spread rapidly through the Lost Pines, one of the most scenic areas nearby or anywhere. Because of the exceptional drought in this part of the world, humidity is exceedingly low. Ironically, tropical storm Lee that could have brought rain landed near New Orleans and instead caused brisk northeast winds. One small spark, one carelessly tossed cigarette butt, or any other heat source did this, and thousands of acres simply exploded like, well, wildfire.

Earlier that weekend, Lina and I had a marvelous experience at this year’s Kerrville Wine and Music Festival, enjoying the relatively cool nights that the northeast gusts provided. During the singing of the last song at the fest late Sunday, one of our friends said there was a fire in Bastrop. As I returned from Kerrville Monday afternoon, I could see several columns of smoke in the Hill Country and a huge wall of gray and black to the east. Firefighters all over were hampered by the breeze and the dry conditions and were not able to contain or control the situation for several days. Even as of this writing, a few areas still smolder.

I had just driven through that conifer forest late last month. The Lost Pines have always been special to me, being a cut-off remnant of the larger Piney Woods farther east. In addition to their beauty, the trees have provided lumber for scads of homes and businesses all over Austin for generations. The massive Doric columns supporting the Governor’s Mansion’s front porch are solid pine logs from 1856. More irony: those architectural elements almost burned when the house was vandalized in 2006.

The photo above, taken through the car window, shows what’s left of those woods. It was shot Saturday, September 10, just after Texas Highway 71 reopened. Lina and I were on our way to Columbus for her art opening, and we got to see the devastation for ourselves. Not one building, either business or residential, was left standing. The official count is somewhere around 1,400 homes gone. While most of the smaller junipers and pines were only charred stumps, I noticed that many of the taller pines still retained green tops. Given any rain, they might survive to help regrow this ravaged forest.

Until that happens, we seem to have lost the Lost Pines.

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