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