Although I was once a card-carrying member of Camp Fire Girls (not to be confused with Girl Scouts), it had been a good ten years since I’d pitched a tent, roasted marshmallows, or devoted an entire weekend to the pursuit of nature.
Our SUV was filled with outdoor gear when my husband, Jacob, and I left Austin, headed west on a drizzling, dreary Saturday morning. By the time we hit Dripping Springs, the skies were clear and blue. After a quick bite at the Silver K Cafe, in Johnson City, it was on to Junction, which, a billboard informed us, is officially “The Front Porch of the West.”
Mention Junction to any football-crazed Texan and you’ll get the same response. Yes, it is where Texas A&M football coach Bear Bryant notoriously trained his 1954 Aggie team in 100-degree heat without water breaks or rest from dawn ’til dusk. But it’s also the place where the North Llano and the South Llano rivers meet, yielding the city’s literal namesake, and where birders and nature-lovers can find a peaceful retreat.
A few miles into Junction, we hit our destination: South Llano River State Park, a true embodiment of the great outdoors. Sprawling West Texas hills cover the park grounds, roughly five hundred acres. We stopped at the front entrance to pay for our tent space and then headed through the grounds, ready to get our camping adventure started. Not surprisingly, several other city-dwellers had the same idea. We passed a trail of RVs, and though those folks got credit for exploring nature, I wasn’t quite sure they were all really roughing it (one RV was equipped with a digital satellite dish).
Once we set up camp in the designated tent area, sans running water and electricity, Jacob and I decided to hit one of the park’s rugged bike trails. It turned out to be a virtual touring zoo as we encountered families of white-tailed deer, armadillos, and wild hogs. They didn’t seemed bothered that they had to share their home with humans, and they moseyed on their way.
At the end of the trail we ran into a Texas Parks and Wildlife officer who told us to come back in March when about 250 wild turkeys “put on quite a show” for the hens. “It’s funny,” he said, “to watch and see what stupid things they’ll do next.” We got a sneak peak a few miles later, when we saw two turkeys with their tail feathers fanned out in a jewel-toned display strutting by a group of hens. The hens seemed unimpressed, but that could have been because mating season had not yet hit full force.
All of the fresh air and exercise had quite an effect on our appetites, so we pounded the pavement and headed back into town. A mid-afternoon snack of a gigantic chocolate éclair—big enough to share—from the Sunshine Café and Bakery was just what we needed. Driving down Main Street, I assumed this tiny town of 2,618 to be the kind of quiet place where strangers tend to stick out a bit and where life revolves around churches and schools. Local historian Frederica Wyatt, curator of the Kimble County Historical Museum, confirmed my assumptions and gave us a brief background on Junction’s origins.
The county was constantly a site of brutal Indian raids. “The forts missed us, so we didn’t have a lot of protection,” Wyatt explained. But by 1876, the year of the last Indian raid in Kimble County, Junction officially became a town of ranchers. These days, ranching is still one of Junction’s main industries, but the place has expanded to include a bustling cedar mill industry and a Texas Tech campus (which now includes the site of Coach Bryant’s football training field). Of course, local parks and tourism—and a very busy hunting season—keep a steady flow of visitors traveling through this small West Texas hamlet.
Night was falling quickly, so we headed back to the campsite. Although I’m sure the strictest definition of legitimate camping would require a campfire, a burn ban was in effect, and we had to make do with a propane lantern and stove. Hot dogs and S’mores were the perfect courses to end a day of hiking, biking, and trekking. While I’m a night owl by nature, the country darkness fell heavily on our site, and it only seemed appropriate to snuggle into a sleeping bag and follow nature’s schedule.
The next morning we woke up with the sun to the sound of a crowing rooster and chirping birds. Hot oatmeal made over the propane stove was a welcome meal in the chilly morning hours, and as soon as we finished, we threw on our jackets and grabbed our fishing poles. As we hiked to a nearby creek our only companions were a few wandering wild hogs and an occasional deer. They seemed to understand we weren’t looking to interfere with their journey, and they didn’t want to interfere with ours. According to a park ranger, each part of the creek promised a different type of fish: catfish, bass, or trout. We tried our luck catching bass and trout, but the wind was blowing east, which meant we were doomed from the start if the old wives’ tale—“When the wind is blowing in the east, ’tis not fit for man or beast. When the wind is in the west, ’tis fishing at its best”—is to be believed.
With one last bike ride through the wild, untouched West Texas terrain, we said good-bye to South Llano River State Park. Back on the highway, I was already beginning to miss the unbridled freedom of spending every waking moment exploring nature at its most pristine. My old Camp Fire Girls leader would have been proud.