SURE, I ADORE THE HILL COUNTRY. Of course, I have to avert my eyes from a few aws, like towns where I can sling a baby back rib and hit a Home Depot or a Chili's restaurant. (Good-bye Boerne, Kerrville, Marble Falls, and Touristenburg—uh, I mean Fredericksburg.) But if you know where to look, the spirit of the old Hill Country can still be found— in a hidden cabin, a dog-friendly beer joint, an unspoiled stretch of river. So even though I have to dig a bit deeper to uncover its treasures, I'll never stop loving this celebrated heart of Texas.
1. If I were a green kingfisher or an escaped black buck antelope seeking asylum from encroaching suburbs, I know where I'd live—at the 2,300-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area, east of Boerne. Although the adjacent Guadalupe River State Park is, according to park officer Rex Shaddox, "under attack by San Antonio" on summer weekends, when a couple thousand carloads of water-seeking city folk take over the riverside picnic area, the preserve surrounding Honey Creek remains tranquil. Why? Because access is limited to weekly guided tours. The creek, its teal water as deep as a swimming pool, swirls around cypress knees and limestone boulders, one of them known as Dealer's Rock for the land swaps and other transactions that early pioneers are rumored to have negotiated here. Access through Guadalupe River State Park, entrance on Texas Highway 46, thirteen miles east of Boerne; 830-438-2656. Park admission $4, senior citizens $2, children 12 and under free. Two-hour tours Saturdays at 9 a.m., starting at the park's Rust House; suggested donation $2 per person or $5 per family.
2. Maybe it's because I slipped in the back door of the Friendly Bar, a habit that Johnson City locals are rumored to have gotten into during Prohibition, but the folks were friendly, from Debbie, the bartender, to Paco, one patron's pony-size retriever, who chased a stick in the vast, near-empty space. Soon, however, the place would fill up for the Tuesday-night acoustic show. The old watering hole began its colorful life as the King Casparis Palace Saloon in 1916, and Jason Hohenberger, who bought it last September, has refrained from tarting it up with ferns and other froufrou. In addition to Tuesday's shows, he keeps the joint jumping with Monday pool tournaments, Wednesday domino tournaments, karaoke on Thursdays, live bands on Saturdays, and Sunday jams. 106 N. Nugent, half a block north of Texas Highway 290, Johnson City; 830-868-2347.
3. Once a month for the past four years, traditional country musicians ranging from earnest but wobbly locals to professional entertainers like Pretty Miss Norma Jean have taken the stage at the Mason Country Opry, in the town's vintage Odeon Theater. I caught the varied acts at the Christmas show last December, when I was wowed by Frank Torres. He was so soft-spoken during his introduction that I wondered if I'd be able to hear him sing above the house band. I shouldn't have worried. Torres, who works at a grocery store in Brady, roared into action as soon as the music began, belting out "Blue House Painted White" and "Little Red Rooster," threatening to crack the theater's aging plaster. I left my night at the opry with the satisfying feeling of having discovered a great talent all on my own. Truth be told, credit for the Mason showcase goes to the Heart of Texas Country Music Association and Tracy Pitcox, the music director of Brady's KNEL 95.3, which occasionally broadcasts the performances live. 112 Moody, Mason; 915-347-5407; hillbillyhits.com. Fourth Thursday of the month (with some exceptions), $7 to $10.
4. Is it illegal to stalk candles? If so, I've been guilty of this crime ever since I saw Jon Peavy's appealing creations at the Beeswax Company, his little shop in Johnson City, several years ago. Then the store and its ocher-colored, pure beeswax candles simply disappeared (self-imposed exile to Aspen, Colorado, I later learned). Now the company has reappeared in Texas, sharing space in Photography as Art, the sophisticated, spare gallery that Peavy's wife, Lee Ann, opened last summer on the square in Mason. In addition to the coveted toxin-free candles ($1 for a palm-size star to $50 for a hefty block), the couple also sells the work of several photographers, including arresting images of Mexico by Francisco Mata Rosas and the mysterious silver-gel prints of Austinite Dennis Fagan. 118 Fort McKavitt, Mason; 915-347-1099; beeswaxco.com. Closed Sunday.
5. Independent bookstores may be disappearing from urban life faster than you can say "Barnes and Noble," but they're still alive and surprisingly well in the Hill Country. One of my favorites is Backroads Books, in Bandera. Mom-and-daughter team Pat and Susan Harrison fled Dallas and opened the shop in 1998, moving it two years ago into a historic building half a block off the town's main drag. The selections of Texana, contemporary fiction, and children's books alone merit praise, but it's the regular signings and readings—by the likes of local octogenarian rancher-turned-storyteller Bob Ramsey, western writer Elmer Kelton, and mystery master Rick Riordan—that have transformed Backroads Books from a mere commercial enterprise into the center of a literary community. 1107 Cedar, Bandera; 830-796-7748.
6. How fast must you travel to outrun stress? Oh, only about one mile an hour—as long as you're navigating the Llano River by kayak. On a perfect January day—the kind that reminds me why I endure August in Texas—I hired river guide Dub Dietrich, the owner of Hill Country River Adventures, to take me on a watery trek through a pristine slice of the Edwards Plateau south of Mason. While I swore not to reveal our exact put-in and take-out locations, I can tell you that the route included exhilarating (but novice-friendly) rapids, deepwater stretches where fish lurked ten feet below the surface, two-hundred-foot-tall cliffs encrusted with swallows' mud villages, and coves ringed by gargantuan live oaks. I even saw a beaver (okay, it could have been a