If I had one of those blabby, know-it-all navigation systems in my car, I’d rip it out right now. I don’t want to know the shortest route to my destination. I don’t even want a destination. I just want to wander the Hill Country along my favorite creek-hugging roads.
I begin in Dripping Springs, west of Austin, because that’s where I’m lucky enough to live, although the town has been whacked by the double-edged sword of progress: blossoming commerce versus water woes and traffic. But if I turn south off U.S. 290 onto County Road 190 (Creek Road), I’m soon in a rural world of organic farms and hypertidy vintage ranchettes. Onion Creek, my constant companion, more or less ignores me, busy as it is carving and shaping its limestone bottom.
Near the end of the road, a dip, a curve, a creek crossing, a dense thicket, and a dilapidated farmhouse create a spookily beautiful spot. I’m spinning its fictional history—a gorgeous widow, false accusations of witchcraft, that sort of thing—when I reach Ranch-to-Market Road 165 and an entirely different mind-set. In this open landscape, which somehow seems sunny even on this foggy winter day, dark imaginings are impossible. Heading left through grasslands and alongside sheer cliffs, I top a hill, and suddenly the Blanco River valley spreads out before me. If I floor it, I feel certain my boxy Subaru will soar into the gray-white sky and land safely several miles away. But then I would miss my right turn onto CR 410 (Middle Creek Road).
I immediately come upon an iconic Hill Country trinity of stone fence, cottage, and cistern and a sign—an actual sign—of great portent: “Warning: All vehicles drive with caution next 8 miles. Limited sight distance. Sharp curves. Low hanging tree limbs. Roadway subject to flooding. Large profile vehicles use extreme caution. Here be dragons.” Cool (even if I did make that last line up).
Sure enough, the Squiggly Arrow Sign Company must have made a fortune along this roller-coaster roadway. The Franklin Family Ranch swallows up some primo real estate along Middle Creek, and I begin to wonder if I could get the Franklins to adopt me. I learn later that I can stay at the ranch without forsaking my own parents—as long as I’m with a group of teetotaling Christians on retreat or a hunter willing to pay $250 a day, plus fees as high as $6,000 per kill. So much for that.
I instantly leave my ranch envy behind (along with my stomach) when I plummet down an Alpine-worthy slope, through an elfin cedar thicket plastered with No Trespassing signs, and into Middle Creek. Yes, into it, following the road right down the middle of the streambed for a good thirty feet. (Repeat after me: I will not attempt this route after a heavy rain.)
The wild ride ends at U.S. 290. After the briefest jaunt left on the buzzing highway, I turn right onto CR 215 (Miller Creek Cemetery Road). When I get too starry-eyed about the olden days, a visit to an early Texas cemetery like this one clears my vision. A historical marker and a weathered gravestone explain how Thomas Felps and his wife, Eliza, were killed by Indians along nearby Cypress Creek in 1869. A trio of small gravestones speaks to the heartbreak of the Maddox family, who, between 1906 and 1908, buried three infant children.
From the cemetery, the road loops back to 290, where I zig to the right and then to the right again on U.S. 281 before immediately taking the first left, onto CR 203 (Miller Creek Loop). Soon I’m on open rangeland, with the frequent growl of tires on cattle guards reminding me to stay alert for suicidal bovines. I stop in front of a botanical behemoth marked with a hand-lettered sign reading “Largest oak tree known in Blanco County.” I’m not just gawking; I’m listening too. Raised on a steady diet of Disney movies, I have a hard time shaking the notion that trees, if they’re gnarly enough, can talk. But this one remains silent. I roll on and, a few minutes later, pass the turnoff for Selah, a 5,500-acre ranch that was transformed from scruffy to lush by its owner, J. David Bamberger, land steward and eternal optimist. (You can visit if you attend one of the scheduled workshops, but don’t you dare drop by unannounced: 830-868-2630, bambergerranch.org.)
Before long I emerge in Johnson City, passing by LBJ’s boyhood home. I cross U.S. 290 and tootle around the irresistible courthouse square, noting that a second art gallery will open soon but also that several buildings sit empty, including the enormous Feed Mill, an exuberantly restored old silo complex that’s for sale. I turn right onto 290 again for another mile or so before heading left on CR 204 (Flat Creek Road). Now the fog is so thick I can’t see the gumdrop-shaped hills that I know are here. I’ve even been to the top of one, Rattlesnake Mountain, an aerie that was once the site of LBJ’s deer (some say “dear”) camp and is now the home of the artist Benini and his wife, Lorraine. (Nah, I’m nothing special. With prior arrangement, you too can visit the studio and sculpture garden: 830-868-2247, sculptureranch.com.) I pass the Preserve at Walnut Springs, an exclusive two-thousand-acre development where a small herd of Longhorns is gathered near the entrance like anxious salesmen.
Soon the road ends at CR 205 (Rocky Road). Turning left, I set a course toward Blanco and let the landscape of stubby oaks, olive-gray hills, ridgetop vistas, and native grasses, silver with fog drops, lure me into la-la land. And frankly, that’s my real destination on this drive, not a series of places but a state of mind, as close as I’ll ever come to nirvana unless I resort to pharmaceuticals.
On my left, I’m vaguely aware of a slew of flat limestone rocks lined up like a giant serpent’s