I NEVER THOUGHT I’D SEE the day when I’d miss gun racks in the back windows of pickup trucks, but I almost do. I miss the old Texas Hill Country, where Adolph Hofner and the Pearl Wranglers performed at outdoor dance halls under the stars. I miss the days when cowboy shirts never had buttons and coffee with a friend was still a dime. Many of the stubborn, dusty, weather-beaten little towns, roads, trucks, jeeps, people, and animals are gone now. But if I could, I would surround this magic kingdom with the fragile, freckled arms of childhood and keep it the way I remember it.
All through the fifties, the Medina post office had a sign on the wall that read “Do Not Spit on the Floor.” Today, of course, it would be unthinkable for anyone to spit on the floor; that would be almost as verboten as smoking. Medina is a small, dry town in a wet county that, to paraphrase my father, has been slowly dying for more than one hundred years—that is, until now. After standing strong through droughts, fires, and floods, Medina, along with much of the heart of Texas, is finally experiencing something that may change it forever. And as Joseph Heller once warned, “Every change is for the worse.”
I’m referring, of course, to the fact that the whole world seems to be moving to the Hill Country. Some folks in Kerrville are celebrating getting a Home Depot, while yuppies in Houston and Dallas are running away from home as fast as they can. Where are they going? You’ve got it. They all want a home, far away from the dome where the Cowboys and drug dealers play. “Trade the smog and road rage for the stars and the sage”—that’s what them developers say.
Texas Highway 16 from Kerrville to Bandera is one of the most beautiful drives you can take on this planet. By day you’ll travel through rolling hills, past green valleys and wooded canyons, over sparkling creeks, and under blue skies. By night the stars will shine even brighter than all of the above. The hills protect us, and the canyons keep us cool in the summer, and the animals go about their secret business as they did before any of us were here. Yet even the natural beauty of the land registers in our consciousness only as another theme park of the modern mind.
There is a phenomenon that sometimes occurs around small towns like Medina that some call the “hidy sign” but I call the “Medina wave.” A driver encountering another vehicle on the highway will casually, effortlessly raise his index finger from the wheel in a brief salute, acknowledging the other driver, the countryside, and life in general. The other driver, unless he’s new to these parts, will respond in kind. Occurrences of the Medina wave diminish as you reach the outskirts of the bigger towns, disappearing almost completely as you travel farther, or at least that’s how it used to be. With so many new people in the area, the custom is vanishing like the fast-moving tail of a comet. These days, you’re just as likely to see drivers saluting each other with their middle fingers.
Like it or not, the peaceful, scenic, bucolic Hill Country is being dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The old-timers who once worked the land, who drove horses and carts over these hills, who still give directions by the bends of the river, now sit in little coffee shops in little towns and watch the parade of progress. The folks from the big city are escaping the madness, believing they are making a new life for themselves in the wilderness, possibly not realizing what the old-timers already know: that sooner or later, no matter where you go, you always see yourself in the rearview mirror.
Though the Hill Country has always been warm and friendly to newcomers, tradition demands that you be born here or dead before you’re truly accepted. My family has owned and lived on the same ranch on the outskirts of Medina for fifty years, yet many of the locals still refer to it as the old Sweeney place. The Reverend Sweeney was a circuit preacher who lived here in 1921, drove a Model T Ford, and kept meat down in the well for refrigeration. In the twenties the Sweeneys traded the ranch for a restaurant in San Saba that quickly went belly-up. Several years ago, five generations of Sweeney women came through on a road trip, and a lady close to ninety gave me a message to give to my octogenarian friend Earl Buckelew. She said, “Tell John Earl the little Sweeney girls came by to say hello.” Rivers run deep in the Hill Country.
Yet some things go on as usual. Utopia has a new restaurant called Garden of Eat’n. Bandera continues to be the hell-raising Cowboy Capital of the World, with the Silver Dollar still featuring live country bands and sawdust on the floor and the Old Spanish Trail still serving a chicken-fried steak as big as your hat in its John Wayne Room. The cedar choppers have all but disappeared from Ingram, and the disgruntled dentists keep pouring into Hunt. Some people brag about the new Kerrville Wal-Mart, but others are just as proud of a local institution with a memorable moniker: the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library. And back at the Medina post office, a Volvo has just driven up with a bumper sticker that reads “Free Tibet.”
And the old-timers, like old dogs in the sun, are vaguely aware of traffic jams and conservative little towns like Fredericksburg now transmogrified into shoppers’ paradises. Meanwhile, in hillbilly heaven, Slim Dodson sips his coffee, remembering a time long ago when the neighbors asked him why his cats were always going into their garbage cans. He told them, “They wants to see the world.” Earl Buckelew is there too. He recalls once showing some acreage to a guy from the city who wanted to know if the land was any good for farming or livestock. “No,” said Earl. “All it’s good for is holding the world together.”