Deep in the Heart of Texas
“Y’all not from round here, are ya? Ain’t nobody drinks Buuuud. This is Shiner Bock country, sir.”
And with that the barman passed over a golden-labelled bottle of ale. I was in Luckenbach, Texas, population 3, a small town in the Hill Country west of San Antonio. It was to be the starting point for an adventure deep into the heart of Texas, a road trip to discover the smaller side of the big state.
The Hill Country is known as much for its wildflowers and Harley-hugging roads as it is for being in the Bible Belt of America – a place where God meets guns, traffic yields to longhorns, and TexMex and ribs are a staple diet. Even the towns have great names; you can travel to Welfare in the morning, visit Comfort in the afternoon and spend the night in Utopia.
‘Luckenbach, Texas’ was made famous by a Waylon Jennings song and is not so much a town as a gathering of buildings. Located just off Highway 290, the post office is also the general store and the saloon is out back. It’s renowned for its live music scene so we arrived in time to see the ‘picker circle’ – an improvised mish-mash of musicians who gather under an old oak tree and pass around a pick, each playing a song with the others joining in.
"Da-da ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, diiinnng," the unmistakable sound of a banjo was slowly echoed by a guitar, "Da-da ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, diiinnng.” Everybody chuckled at Duelling Banjos being played, and I half expected someone to call out “Squeal like a pig, boy!” as a nod to Deliverance. Thankfully it was not to be as the banjo player ended with a flourish before passing the pick to the young cowboy on his right. He broke straight into that ol’ country classic, “Cocaine’s gonna kill my honey dead.” It was time to explore.
Not far from the circle in front of a wooden building sat Cassey, co-owner of the Snail Creek Hat Co. “Howdy, y’all look like you need a hat!” While I didn’t take her up on her offer I did ask about what’s in style. “Welllllll,” she drawled, “Over yonder you can see that they come in all shapes and sizes,” pointing to the audience. “I used to be able to tell a Texan from a Dakotan just by looking at their hat but now it’s about personal preference.” She and her husband Glen use water to shape the unstructured palm leaf hats they get in. “In West Texas they angle the brim like this,” she said, folding in the sides like a paper dart. “It means the hat’s more aerodynamic and the winds just pass right on through.” Much as I was tempted to buy a cowboy hat, I opted instead to see the real thing in action, and where better than the Cowboy Capital of the World.
Bandera, Texas, earned its moniker after the Great Western Cattle Trail drives of the 1880s, where at one stage there were more cattle and cowboys going through the main street than all the other cattle trails in the United States. More recently they’ve had a number of rodeo champions come from Bandera, which just gives extra points to their town spurs. Everywhere you look there are authentic buildings, early Americana and signs advertising the next rodeo (Friday). We were here to see the most Western event of them all – the gunslingers shootout.Every weekend the Bandera Cattle Company celebrates its heritage with a re-enactment of real scenarios from the town’s past.
Taking a seat on the bleachers behind the Visitors Centre we watched as the period costumed cowboys slowly took up their positions, one drinking ‘whisky’, another playing cards, and our host, Dennis, sharing some of the local history. “God damn, that wasn’t meant to happen!” Dennis had just shot himself in the groin with a blank. It looked like it hurt. “You’re as dumb as a box of hammers!” yelled one of his compatriots to much laughter from the crowd. The show went on for an hour, with kids having the chance to be deputised afterwards.
It was enough motivation for me to take the plunge and go buy some cowboy boots. After much assistance I settled on a pair of Justin’s that have been produced since 1879, “Made by his daddy’s daddy and his daddy’s granddaddy before him.” Quite chuffed with my new purchase we rocked up to our accommodation, a Texan ‘dude ranch’. There are a number of dude ranches near Bandera that offer accommodation, meals and activities all rolled into one – think of it as AirBnB meets the Warkworth Rodeo. We chose the Twin Elm “For Western Fun.”
As it was getting dark when we arrived the owner pointed us towards the campfire and invited us to join her for ‘s’mores’. S’mores are a Texan treat where you roast marshmallows over a fire ‘til they’re ohhh-so-gooey and then add them to a graham cracker topped with a slice of chocolate. With full tummies the next morning we took advantage of our surrounds with a horse ride led by some of the local hands. Wading through the Medina River, past the fallen trees and down the trail, we got to experience their daily life at a leisurely pace.
Bandera was also where I discovered how deeply ingrained religion is. On the way into town we noticed a number of flags at half-mast. I politely enquired when we got there, “We saw some of the flags were at half mast, has someone important died?” The lady stared straight back at me and said, “Jesus”. It was Good Friday.
Moving on quickly after insulting the entire state of Texas, our next stop on the small town tour was Fredericksburg. Established by a German baron in 1846 after signing a peace treaty with the Comanche Indians, the town is considered the capital of Hill Country. Fredericksburg’s main claim to fame is being the birthplace of Admiral Chester Nimitz who led the US Pacific naval effort in World War II. The town houses the fantastic National Museum of the Pacific War and it made me proud to see the New Zealand flag flying (at full mast).
The best part of Fredericksburg however is just outside of town. It’s called Wine Road 290 and comprises 15 different wineries in the area. In Texas a winery does not necessary mean a vineyard; it could simply be wine retailer. We didn’t let a wee detail like that put us off as we slowly pulled in to The Vintage Cellar.
We’d already tried some of the local Bending Branch ‘Thinkers Blanc’ so that was a mandatory buy, but what caught my eye was the “Pour It Forward” chalkboard. Like a ‘random act of kindness’, the idea is to buy someone a drink in advance by writing up an occupation on the board. Unfortunately, no one had written ‘Parched Kiwi’ but if I’d been a fireman, marine, zookeeper or teacher it would have been a very boozy afternoon.
Leaving the Hill Country the next day we noticed that the landscape had changed, speckled with political billboards. Texas is staunchly Republican – represented by Senator Ted Cruz – and even here it’s hard to escape the slogans in the midst of an election campaign.
Looking around as the last of the sun’s rays lit up the wildflowers on the side of the road, we passed a “Make America Great Again” sign. Something tells me that the locals don’t have anything to worry about. This land of cowboys has never had a problem being great.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct Auckland to Houston (14 hours); Houston to San Antonio is a 1 hour flight; Hill Country is a 1 hour drive away
Visas: Apply online for the USA ESTA visa waiver for up to 90 days
Location: Hill Country, Texas, USA
Original publication: New Zealand Herald