Patriotism was alive and well at the International House of Pancakes as I stopped with three hungry girlfriends for some brunch on the way out of Austin. After filling our stomachs with red, white, and blue pancakes and roughly 64 ounces of coffee per person, we hopped in the car sufficiently caffeinated and set the GPS for the historic little town of Gruene. The highways were also ablaze with our national colors, only instead of strawberries and blueberries, they took the form of swirling lights atop police cars patrolling the roads throughout the Fourth of July weekend.

Having decided to forgo the Shiner in favor of a peaceful day of antiquing and people watching, the four of us drove down I-35 singing to the radio and daydreaming about a future after graduation. “Just think,” my friend Bethany said, “ten years from now we’ll be driving out here with our families to one of our summer homes.” Her comment was laughed off as we watched signs for Gruene’s most famous restaurant, the Gristmill, appear as far out as the San Marcos outlet mall.

A mere 45 minutes after waddling out of IHOP and running into very little traffic at all until the famous Gruene water tower was in sight, we found ourselves dodging hundreds of bikini-clad coeds crossing the streets with their inner tubes and cooler-toting boyfriends.

Gruene has two major river outfitters: Gruene River Co. and Rockin’ ‘R’—the latter seemingly preferred by the majority of people floating down the river. The Rockin’ ‘R’ offers “raftin’, toobin’, canoein’, caterin’ and campin’ at five locations” (according to its Web site) and is the only river outfitter in New Braunfels with locations on both the Guadalupe and Comal rivers. Everyone looked to be in high spirits, but upon feeling the wave of 104-degree heat crash over me as I hopped out of the car, I had a sneaking suspicion the ecstasy everyone else was experiencing had more to do with whatever was in the coolers than the weather.

I snatched a little map from a stand by the parking lot, and we set off to make the loop starting at the intersection of Gruene and Hunter roads and circling back around to New Braunfels Avenue. Gruene is filled with an array of small boutiques and specialty shops, and because there is a large range of selection to be found, from the beautiful handmade clay ornaments at Buck Pottery to the sumptuous soy candles at Pookie Jane’s, there was something for everyone. My favorite shop was Tipsy Gypsy, a quirky women’s store filled with imported clothing from around the world and a noteworthy selection of Mexican decor and accessories. To keep our energy up as we shopped, the girls and I popped into the Gruene Haus, a Texas-themed gift shop that offers copious daily samples of salsas, jellies, honey butter, mustards, dipping oils, and more.

As we made the rounds, we couldn’t help but notice how the demographic was so different from the crowds we first encountered. No one in our group was seven months pregnant or pushing a stroller, which put us in the minority. I guessed that all of the non-floating single guys and gals were soaking up the air-conditioning and blaring country music coming from Texas’s oldest dance hall, Gruene Hall (perhaps you’ve seen the T-shirts?). Despite my sighs at the adorable baby clothing and bedding in Stepping Stones Gift Shop, I mused to myself how comfortable I was with the fact that it was not quite, as Bethany had predicted, ten years from now as I weaved sans stroller in and out of the aisles of the Gruene Antique Company. The edifice is 6,500 square feet and filled with antiques from Henry D. Gruene’s TX Landmark mercantile building (c. 1903); it marked our last stop of the day before giving in to the less-than-subtle Gristmill advertising.

We were seated immediately and waited on by a sweet young waitress who insisted we try the famous onion rings. Other recommended favorites included the chicken-fried steak, baby back ribs, beef tenderloin salad (“popular with women,” we were told), and, of course, a variety of sandwiches. We ordered the obligatory onion rings for the table, and I opted for the grilled chicken spinach salad. The dish is a massive pile of spinach topped with bacon, Greek olives, feta, red peppers, grilled chicken and dressed with a creamy vinaigrette that had the tartness of a vinaigrette with the overall taste of a thin ranch dressing. After we ate our fill, we decided the next obvious course of action was to split some strawberry shortcake. The fresh whipped cream and beautiful Texas strawberries were the topping to both a tasty dessert and wonderful day.

On our way back home, we all agreed that, despite our girlish fantasies of families and summer houses, the moral of our trip had been perfectly summed up by Gruene’s motto at the top of my handy map: Gently resisting change since 1872. Gruene proved to be the perfect place to remember the gift of our independence.