DURING MOST OF MY LIFE I have cherished the Hill Country, as have large numbers of my fellow Texans. It is a swath of rumpled terrain whose eastern and southern edge sweeps in an arc some two hundred miles long from the Austin area down past San Antonio and west to not far from Del Rio, on the Mexican border. This curving boundary is a rise of hundreds of feet from lower, flatter lands to the east and south and is known as the Balcones Escarpment or Fault Line, the result of an upheaval in Tertiary times. Here prairies end against heights dark with juniper and oak, the valleys between them watered by cypress-shaded rivers and creeks, the escarpment itself spouting forth great springs here and there from its cavernous aquifer. Containing all or parts of more than twenty counties, the hills have a less emphatic border on their northwestern inward side, where valleys and draws grow shallow and blend into the ranching grasslands of the wide, semiarid Edwards Plateau, of which the Hill Country itself is the eroded fringe.
Since well over a century ago, the region has been a sort of reference point for natives of other parts of the state, and mention of it usually brings smiles and nods. Not much of it is spectacular in the manner of high mountains and craggy seacoasts and such places, but we care about it—the dissected, elevated landscapes unlike the areas where most of us live, the un-Texan cool spring-fed streams, the fishing and hunting if we’re inclined that way, the people and their towns and farms and ranches and their rather distinctive history.
In earlier times, farm families from flatter and more fertile lands within reach, sometimes two or three families in a group, would trek to the hills in wagons during the summer, after crops needed no more care and had been laid by till harvest. The hill breezes were dry and healthful, the peaches and plums and melons ripe on nearby friendly farms, the bass and catfish and perch active in clear streams beside which these folks would set up camp under great pecans and oaks, staying for a week or two to fish and loaf and talk and cook and eat and swim. When young, I knew old men and women who as children had regularly gone along on such expeditions, and their recollections were idyllic. As a youngster in the twenties and thirties, I saw the region on trips south from Fort Worth with my family, and later, when I was in college, groups of us, with our girls and (in those days) a faculty chaperon and his wife, would go there to sun and swim for long weekends at a “camp” with primitive cabins on a pretty river. Later still, after World War II, when I was a lowly English instructor at the university in Austin, I came to know the hills better. Driving out to see relatives in the little German town of Boerne or friends with a cottage on the Guadalupe upstream from Kerrville, I often strayed from the route to poke around. One special memory is of stopping off now and then at New Braunfels, where copious springs fed a small lake in Landa Park, at the head of the short Comal River. Fishing, I would work along the riverbank or rent a tiny wooden skiff and row out on the lake to cast to Rio Grande perch, cichlids and reputedly inedible. But they were staunch fighters on a fly rod in the swirling springwater.
In recent decades, after some years away from Texas, my main trips to the hills have involved visits to friends near Fredericksburg, more sojourns with those on the Guadalupe, and every spring a rendezvous with a few old comrades on the James River, a tributary of the Llano that wanders through rugged country in Mason County. There we emulate our predecessors in such places by camping and fishing and philosophizing for four or five good days. At that season migrant birds from warblers to avocets and hawks are swarming through, and each evening we watch as a couple of million Mexican free-tailed bats rise in columns from a nearby cave like windblown smoke, starting out on their nightly bug hunt.
IN 1718 SPANISH SOLDIERS AND priests established San Antonio on its river issuing from escarpment springs, but their efforts to set up further missions and forts north of there were thwarted by two successive warlike groups of Indians. Both of these were horseback invaders from plains to the northwest—first the Apache, then later the even fiercer Comanche and allied Kiowa.
The first Anglo-American colonists in Texas, arriving in the early 1800’s, made no attempt to settle the hills but chose better farming land elsewhere. Hence the initial pioneers of the Hill Country, or a heartland portion of it, were Germans brought here through the ineptitude of an organization of titled aristocrats in their homeland, the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, most often referred to as the Society, or Verein. It was a disastrous outfit, underfinanced and often poorly administered. For instance, the more than three million acres of Texas land on which it bought colonization rights, sight unseen, turned out to be a drouthy expanse ruled by Comanches, stretching from the northern edge of the hills westward onto the Edwards Plateau itself. There, recruited immigrants were to be set up on farms that would make the wilderness bloom, causing real estate values to skyrocket and enriching the noble investors.
But during the period from late 1844, when the first immigrants reached Matagorda Bay and found far too few wagons waiting to carry them inland, to 1847, when the Verein went broke, only a handful of the more than