Travel


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.

We want to tell you how much we enjoyed your Texpert Tour on our December visit to Austin. It was our first time in your city, and we happily found you, a true expert on the history, customs, politics, food, restaurants, music, surrounding areas, and more. You made us feel welcome and “at home.” We both thought the tour of the Capitol Building and grounds was a highlight—especially because of your deep knowledge of it all. We hope to return for more soon! Meanwhile, best wishes for a super 2011.

Cordially, Alison and Barry from Connecticut

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high-level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than Ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747 jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2010. That’s about seven full 747s.

In 2010, there were 16 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 38 posts. There were 109 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 43 Mb. That’s about two pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was October 28th with 63 views. The most popular post that day was Georgetown to Luckenbach.

From whence did they come?

The top referring sites in 2010 were TexpertTours.com, images.search.yahoo.com, facebook.com, mariaozawa2u.blogspot.com, and ohamerica.us.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for Texas madrone tree, Comal, Tx New Braunfels, Texas madrone, Comal River, and Comal River New Braunfels.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010:

 

1

Georgetown to Luckenbach October 2010
6 comments

 

2

Romancing the River Walk February 2008

 

3

October Unfolding October 2008

 

4

Before Cowboys August 2010

 

5

Camp Patchouli on Sumac Ridge September 2010
1 comment

Luckenbach Oktober Fiesta

Luckenbach Oktober Fiesta

Repeat clients mean pure gold: they already know they’re in for a great time, and their friends need no convincing. So it was that Sue and Priscilla, who had experienced a Texpert adventure at a wedding a while back, brought their husbands for a special trek during October’s first weekend. It’s wine month in the Lone Star State, and this fact gave structure to an exciting day out.

I picked up the quartet in Georgetown, meeting them in that town’s fine courthouse square. Driving south through Austin, we headed west on the familiar US 290 to our first stop, Bell Springs Winery. Located just north of Drippin’, this is one of the Hill Country’s newest vintners. The young couple who run the store offered my guests several whites and reds in their airy tasting room and sold one bottle.

Luckenbach Picnic

Luckenbach Picnic

Off we went south, then west again to take in the impressive panorama of Singleton Pass, one of the best such near Austin. I showed my passengers the old courthouse in Blanco, and we continued up that village’s namesake river. Over another crest, we found our way to the fabled Luckenbach, Texas, on the banks of South Grape Creek in the Pedernales River valley. Here we marveled at the crowds in the post office, heard live music at the Oktober Fiesta, and got lunch.

Old Railroad Tunnel

Old Railroad Tunnel

A short spin along back roads brought us to the Old Railroad Tunnel. Hand-hacked in 1912, this 920-foot bore under Mount Alamo accommodated trains from San Antonio to Fredericksburg until 1942. Once the line was abandoned and the tracks removed, thousands of bats moved in. Texas Parks and Wildlife oversees the property today as a management area and provides viewing areas for the nightly bat flights. Members of my little party hiked down the canyon to see through the shaft to its other entrance. Even though it was nearly noon, we easily perceived those flying mammals fluttering about, silhouetted by the daylight at the opposite end. This is tunnel vision at its Texas best.

Bottle Break at Torre di Pietra

Bottle Break at Torre di Pietra

Next sipping was at Rancho Pointe Vineyard, another fairly new option. Pleasant place, but no sale here. Heading east got us to Grape Creek Vineyards, one of the most venerable hereabouts. It’s quite elegant and features overnight accommodations in a villa-style B&B. Just next door is Torre di Pietra, a.k.a. Tower of Stone. Here’s where our bunch spent the most time, listening to the lively live music, watching other patrons two-step, and finishing a whole bottle. I greeted my colleague Liz Smith, who conducts wine trips in a vintage WV microbus.

Just outside Stonewall is Woodrose Winery. They also offered in-person musicians and tasty beverages, but received no purchase. Ranch Road 1 led us along the Pedernales through the LBJ Ranch. In Hye was our last wine stop: William Chris Vineyards. Headquartered in a century-old farmhouse, these were the most sustainably produced, hand-crafted, small-batch wines on our entire trip. This establishment makes hay of the fact that they use 100% Texas fruit, grown either in the hills or on the High Plains.

We kept going, drove past the Boyhood Home in Johnson City, and caught US 281, another favorite route through the heart of Central Texas. That way included Marble Falls and Burnet. We parted company back in Georgetown at just about dusk.

In summary: six wineries, numerous historical sites, four river crossings, one wildlife habitat, all creating a full day of scrumptious fun.

How about you? What’s your favorite Texas wine?

British travel writer Tim Moore describes my tour as “idiosyncratic” in this month’s Lonely Planet magazine.

Always seeking to be a better guide, I took an epic journey to Europe this summer. In four weeks, my wife and I visited four countries: England, Scotland, Bavaria, and Austria. More remarkable than the itinerary was that this was my first trip abroad.

A Little Chocolate with Mozart

A Little Chocolate with Mozart

We went not only for pleasure, but to experience how folks conduct tourism over there. Sure, we did a few requisite touristy-type activities, but we also went forth on our own, planning days around our individualized research. Fortunately, we knew someone in both England and Munich. When you’re in a foreign place, nothing beats having the benefit of a local contact.

This was my most important take-away: for people new to Austin and Central Texas, the Texpert is the knowledgeable local, the insider, the friend who offers specific information, wise counsel, and anxiety-free fun. I’m the guy who welcomes visitors as if they’re long-lost cousins, the explorer who’s read a library’s worth of books, pored over drawers full of maps, waded all the creeks, driven every back road, stopped at each scenic overlook, and sampled the best chicken-fried steaks. With me, my clients find their time here is more efficient, less expensive, and quicker enjoyed.

Read a blog about this overseas voyage.

On June 4, just as summer vacation season began, I was privileged to host Linda Lambert, columnist for the Horseshoe Bay Beacon, on a Keep Austin Weird excursion. Here‘s her account of the adventure.

Thanks, Linda!

Drummond’s Flox near Belmont

Drummond’s Flox near Belmont

Nothing but flowers . . .

Prairie Nymphs at scenic Rancho Richey Refuge

Prairie Nymphs at scenic Rancho Richey Refuge

Hike – Pitch – Float

Baby Blue Eyes blanket RRR

Baby Blue Eyes blanket RRR

Indian Paintbrush close-up

Indian Paintbrush close-up

Brilliance near Goliad

Brilliance near Goliad

Thanks for looking!

Get a Load of this Cannon

Get a Load of this Cannon

I can think of many ways to tell a story, but it seems that every story involves telling how the story came to be, and those story clusters intertwine.

Linda and I celebrated our fifth honeymoon with a journey back in time. Our annual custom is to sleep in a historic hotel or bed and breakfast. With this anniversary falling on Easter weekend and because of related plans to take my offspring to see their paternal grandmother in Corpus Christi, I pointed the front bumper towards Goliad.

Friday, April 2, 2010: Linda and I got on US 183 in Austin, known locally as Ed Bluestein, and traced our familiar way through Lockhart to Luling. Normally, we go straight there to Belmont and scenic Rancho Richey Refuge. This time, though, we stayed on 183 as it trended southeast to Gonzales, where the third, successful Texas Revolution began in October of 1835. Here, we crossed the green Guadalupe just after it’s fed by the San Marcos River. Not much farther is Graham Land and Cattle Company, one of the state’s largest feed lots, which can accommodate 30,000 head.

Cuero’s fame claim is their Turkey Trot, held every autumn since 1912, and now called Turkeyfest. The bridge just south spans the deep green Guadalupe river bottomlands, where young Matilda Lockhart and three other children were kidnapped by Comanches in 1829. She was recovered, but didn’t live long after her tortured tribulation. Across the river stood Clinton, now a ghost town, but at one time the seat of DeWitt County and center of the Sutton-Taylor Feud, he longest-running interfamily war in Texas’s past. Our route south passed other small valleys and through a veritable forest of live oaks.

Second in Texas historical importance only to the Alamo, Goliad today is a town of but 2,000 souls. My earliest memory there was from the summer of 1967, when my teenage self attended Camp Aranama, then owned by the Presbyterian Church and located just outside the city. There were four camps of a dozen kids, each six with an adult counselor, divided by gender. We slept in hogans (framed canvas roofs on wooden floors), cooked our own breakfast and dinner, and enjoyed prepared lunch at a central dining hall with the other groups. I’d never before been away from home on my own, but no one heard my soft weeping the first night.

Besides the other standard camp activities, the week’s highlight was the hike. First stop was at the Big Tree, a huge old live oak whose branches curved down to the ground from on high, creating shelter underneath and plenty of climbing opportunities. From there, we campers continued to Goliad proper to see the mission and presidio, sites that continue to draw visitors to the area today.

GoCo CH

Goliad County Courthouse

Long about 1:00, my bride and I rolled into the impressive Goliad Courthouse Square, where the town’s best restaurants and retail outlets face the 1894 sandstone county building. For lunch, we chose the Empresario Restaurant, a long and narrow room enlivened by shiny walls and a score of Harley riders. I enjoyed fried catfish and Linda a chicken salad.

Goliad storefronts

Upper-Floor Galleries

It was Good Friday, so the courthouse, museum, and chamber of commerce were closed. I stood beneath the Hanging Tree (nooseless and not on a box) for a photo. We got other shots of an old for-sale hotel, monument park, and two-storey galleries. Overall, the copiously blooming anaqua trees filled each breath with their sweet, almost narcotic, fragrance.

Hanging Anaqua

Hanging and Anaqua Trees

Then it was on to the Spanish colonial architecture. Mission Espíritu Santo was constructed in 1749, its third location. Under instruction by Franciscan friars, native people built the church, granary, convento, and priests’ quarters while learning what the civilized god required of them.

Mission Espíritu Santo

Mission Espíritu Santo

Exhibits in the museum show life before, during, and after the Spanish settled into the area. Those natives who tolerated the new culture also took care of the planting, herding, and weaving. In fact, we got to witness two volunteers demonstrate spinning and cloth-making. We took photos for some new friends from Austin we met there, and they returned the favor.

Lovers' Mission Flowering

Lovers' Flowering Mission

The Spanish cattle weren’t fenced, so gradually they wandered, went wild, and became the legendary Texas longhorns. Nourished by these vast grasslands, Texas’s great ranching tradition began here. Horses also turned feral and evolved into huge herds of mustangs that roamed the Rio Grande Plains.

Next, we crossed the swift San Antonio River to tour Presidio La Bahía, a fortress built to protect the mission. The gray rock, known as Goliad sandstone, was quarried nearby and still shows in adjacent roadcuts. This is likely the most fought-over spot in the state. Whereas all Texas notes rule under six national flags, this bit of earth counts nine. The green banner recalls the 1813 Gutierrez-Magee Expedition (the first Texas revolution), a red- and white-striped pennant with a single star denotes Dr. James Long’s attempt to wrest Texas from Spain in 1819, and Texians crafted the bloody arm flag when they assumed command here in late 1835.

Presidio Chapel Out & In
Presidio Chapel Out and In

I found the introductory video quite moving, wherein actors portrayed the terrible massacre there on Palm Sunday of 1836. We ambled the reconstructed bastions, walls, and guard huts. The chapel, still original, features a laudable fresco by the “Michelangelo of South Texas,” Antonio Garcia.

Reverence for Fannin

Reverence for Fannin

Outside the parapets stands Fannin’s men’s mass grave and a statue to Francisca Alvarez, the “Angel of Goliad,” who saved many Texas soldiers’ lives. Everywhere, the wildflowers were abundant and indescribably psychedelic.

Fannin Battleground Monument

Fannin Battleground Monument

Two side trips took us east and west of Goliad. At the edge of Fannin, Texas, a pavilion, interpretive center, and granite obelisk locate the Battle of Coleto Creek. On March 19, 1836, Mexican troops surrounded the retreating Texian contingent. Here they surrendered on honorable terms before being marched back to Goliad to undergo treacherous slaughter.

Linda Overcome by Poppies

Poppies Dwarf Linda

Linda and I continued eastward to the edge of Coleto Creek Park and Reservoir. There we found a funky collection of decorated sheds that pass as cabins for the lake’s recreationers. Westward-ho through town again, we stopped at the ruins of Mission Rosario, which were surrounded by tall prickly poppies.

Ervie Jay's

Ervie Jay's

Back at the town square, it was getting to be beer-thirty, so we ducked into Ervie Jay’s for a couple cold ones, then enjoyed a marvelous dinner at the cozy Hanging Tree Restaurant: she the blackened talapia, I a California Club.

All was dark as we drove north towards our favorite B&B: the farmhouse at scenic Rancho Richey Refuge. The night revealed little of the towns along our way—Weesatche, Yorktown, Smiley, and Nixon—but not for long, as we’ll see.

Saturday morning, Linda went back to Austin, leaving me alone at RRR with no vehicle. My kids, Kristiana and Sol, collected me for our trip to Corpus Christi, where we spent Easter with my dear mom.

Monday morning, April 5: the kids left early to return to Austin jobs and school, but I acquired my late dad’s garnet-pearl Toyota pickup truck and took my time heading back. Of the many evacuation routes from the Corpus coast to points of relative safety north, an eastern one uses farm-to-market roads from Gregory to Refugio, where it joins US 183 all the way to Austin. I still hadn’t gotten my fill of Goliad, so I went that-a-way.

Wood Mansion

Wood Mansion

Bayside is a sleepy little settlement on the edge of Copano Bay (named for the pre-European natives), but close by was the “port” of Copano, an important early landing spot along the Texas Gulf Coast. Copano provided a route inland towards La Bahía and Béxar. A granite monument tells its story at Bayside’s beach. Here also is the Wood Mansion, which has faced the sea breezes since 1875. John H. Wood, who shared my September 6 birthday, came to Texas from New York in 1836 to join the Revolution. Wood had helped bury the remains of Fannin’s men before rising to affluence via ranching, military service, commerce, and politics. Half a mile from the water lies the St. Mary’s of Aransas Cemetery, dating from 1857, all that’s left of yet another formerly prosperous coastal town cleared by hurricane. The Fennessey Ranch recalls the Irish who settled the vicinity in the early 1830s. Today, the property conducts nature tours and birdwatching seminars.

King Monument, Refugio Mission

King Monument, Refugio Mission

Refugio was next, a town bigger than Goliad. Here happened another battle during the Texas Revolution just before Fannin’s fate in the tumble-down walls of Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission. A small Texian force under Colonel Amon B. King  fought valiantly against an overwhelming number of Mexican soldiers here, surrendered, and were executed. A tall monument across the street from the Refugio County Courthouse includes a warrior holding the broken sword of defeat. The old mission is long-gone, but the modern-era parochial school built on the original Spanish site reflects the mission style. Other markers at the cemetery tell more about these men and events.

Goliad Memorial Auditorium

Goliad Memorial Auditorium

I continued north across broad prairies punctuated by clumps of trees: plenty of mottes, but no hooples. Within 40 minutes, I was again in Goliad. Just past the Presidio sits the town’s 1936 Memorial Auditorium, part of a series of Art-Deco-style structures built to commemorate Texas’s first 100 years since independence. Its etched words and bas-reliefs relate the area’s history.

On this regular business day, the Chamber of Commerce was open. There I chatted with events coordinator Debra Barker, who supplied names, brochures, and wisdom for bringing tour groups. The museum a couple doors down was still closed, so I couldn’t ask about the meteorite that landed near the Coleto battlefield in 1891. Many other mysteries and ghosts remain to be explored in Goliad.

Now I was able to witness the same roads toward Austin that we’d missed in the dark. Weesatche looks precious, Yorktown boasts a sizable Lithuanian population, a prominence stands somewhere northeast of Nopal, and Smiley’s cylindrical water tower can be seen for miles. In Nixon, I stopped at the Dairy Queen for a MooLatté.

After another pause at RRR, I was back in Austin by 6:00 p.m. As synchronicity would have it, my German Texan class that evening studied the biography of Herman Ehrenberg, a young Prussian adventurer who survived the Goliad massacre.

Mission from Presidio

Mission from Presidio

high lonesome

High Lonesome

Living up to my “Back Roads Scholar” title, I go off the beaten track to find tucked-away spots lost to the speeding traveler. Last month, I was headed to Canyon of the Eagles for a camp-out. In Bertram, I turned north to bridge the Russell and North Forks of the San Gabriel River and find a local road at a cemetery. Here I turned east across a rolling short-grass prairie where only some distant cattle and an Aermotor moved. Within a couple miles, the ruins of Black’s Fort appeared on the right near a shallow draw.

If these stones could speak . . .According to the historical marker there, the fortified dwelling has stood here since 1855, built by William Black as a defensive place against raiding Native Americans. Settlers had moved to the area as early as 1848, and frontier Fort Crogan, staffed by U.S. troops, was built in what’s now the town of Burnet.

Take coverThe Army moved west by 1853, even though attacks were still a possibility. Thus, private forts such as this one were not unusual. More recent research suggests that no Comanche battles ever occurred here, so it was likely a just a strong residence until abandoned in 1868.

I attempted to enter Canyon of the Eagles the back way through Lake Victor and Naruna, but the lane past Lookout Mountain is private.  On both legs of this trip, my path crossed the Austin and Texas Central Railroad tracks. They are famous for carrying the stone from Granite Mountain to build the Capitol in the 1880s. More recently, these rails support the Hill Country Flyer of the Austin Steam Train Association in its pleasure trips from Cedar Park to Burnet.

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