From Austin, we took I-35 north, passing a Whataburger every couple miles. It is hard to resist the allure of those orange and white roofs when in the mood for a burger, but we were holding out for the Spanos Coffee Station in Crawford, where President Bush goes for his beef-and-potato fix. Even though my mom never allowed us to eat at restaurants attached to gas stations, I figured she might make an exception for George W.’s hangout. He orders a cheeseburger and onion rings, so I did the same and was not disappointed by the juicy meat and fresh vegetables between the buns. My husband, a chicken-fried-steak connoisseur, can’t stop thinking about the perfect slab of fried beef that he ate up at a table next to a life-size figure of Bush. In fact, he seems to be everywhere in the Coffee Station—in military gear, holding a Bible, and in many photo montages with locals. We sat across from a table full of camo-clad hunters, discussing what quarry they had harvested that day. I guess George W. isn’t the only hunter around these parts.
We heard that there was an Oktoberfest going on in town, but the two older men sitting on the bench in their authentic trucker hats didn’t know anything about it. If the Coffee Station isn’t enough, the celebration of all things Bush continues across the street at the Yellow Rose, the largest of several gift shops in town. Every George W.–related souvenir imaginable is available here, and I even dreamed about the George W. cutout and life-size plastic horse display later that night. On one wall is a poster of different storefronts in Crawford, a testament to just how much of a facelift Bush’s buying the 1,600-acre ranch gave the town of just more than seven hundred. Rumor has it that Crawford, first established in the mid-1800’s, was on the verge of surrendering its charter just before its presidential neighbors moved in. Regardless, the store boasts of its hometown as the “Western Whitehouse,” and has the official collared shirts to prove it.
After our dose of the central city, we headed out to nature to the Tonkawa Falls Park. It was a peaceful spot, and we enjoyed the soothing sounds from the small waterfall and laughter of the children enjoying one of the last warm days before winter. On our way out of the park, we spotted an older couple in authentic German garb; we were certain they had to be headed to some sort of Oktoberfest. Sure enough, the festival was being held in the Crawford Community Center, but you had to buy tickets in advance for the pot luck dinner and dance. Oh, well. Without George W. or anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan, it’s a relatively quiet town, so we waved goodbye to the double-sided billboard, “Home of George W. Bush” and decided to see the countryside.
We parked in Mosheim and took off on our bicycles down FM 317 toward Clifton, about thirty minutes northwest of Crawford. We rode the rolling hills at a leisurely pace, passing an occasional truck or barking dog. There seems to be a dirt path off the main road every couple of miles, so we picked one and traveled down it a ways before taking a break to watch the sunset. But before we knew it, dinner-time bells were ringing in our heads so we packed up the bikes and drove into Clifton for some barbecue at the Bunkhouse.
Between the wood paneling on the walls, the retro sixties furniture, and the charming owner Rick Countryman (yes, that really is this wide-smiled cowboy’s last name), we were sold before our first bite. Countryman works most nights, laughing with the regulars and slicing brisket, which he cooks for eighteen hours. He started the Bunkhouse seven years ago, and when he isn’t working, Countryman enjoys scuba diving and remodeling his house. “It’s really talking to the people that I love the best,” Countryman says, in his East Texas twang.
After sweet fried-green tomatoes and lean brisket, we didn’t want to say goodbye to our warm, energetic new friend, but we promised to return to the Bunkhouse. With our stomachs full and legs happily exhausted from all the exploring earlier in the day, we took a shortcut to the Interstate on our way back to Austin, quite content as we passed Dairy Queens and Dollar General stores time and time again. Rick Countryman and the two elderly men keeping watch outside of Spanos Coffee Station seem so satisfied with where they are in life. And that feeling of fulfillment had rubbed off on us, at least for a little while.