Texas Highway 16 is an odds-and-ends highway, seemingly cobbled together from bits and pieces of preexisting roads. I’d be tempted to call most of it a two-lane blacktop except that the color has faded to gray. It starts on the west side of San Antonio, cuts a swath through the Hill Country, then steers a semi-straight path northward through the west central part of the state to end some forty miles south of Oklahoma. The country it bisects, especially the northern half, is pure Texas: hilly and hardscrabble, full of limestone and red rock, prickly pear, yucca, and juniper. If, like me, you enjoy solitude with just a little company now and then, this is your road.
I headed west out of San Antonio on a blustery day, eager to reach the Hill Country with its soothing purple vistas and lambkin-like clouds. My first stop was Bandera, the self-styled Cowboy Capital of the World. No visit here is complete without a stroll around the sprawling Frontier Times Museum, a mesmerizing if spooky repository of Western memorabilia, yellowing Life magazines, a forties permanent-wave machine, and a dressed flea. For total cowboy immersion, stay at one of the dude ranches like the Mayan. Or try the more citified Mansion in Bandera, a bed-and-breakfast in a nineteenth-century limestone house (tip: The remodeled rooms are best). The most fun lunch spot is Mac and Ernie’s Roadside Eatery, a really bare-bones spot in Tarpley, twelve miles west of Bandera. Here talented chef Naylene Dillingham-Stolzer cooks in an open-air kitchen, frying up catfish and grilling pork tenderloin, the latter of which comes with a sweet-tart Vietnamese dipping sauce.
To me, the prettiest part of Highway 16 is the shady stretch between Bandera and Medina, where the road dwindles down to two narrow lanes next to the Medina River. The hamlet of Medina itself has become the unofficial apple capital of Texas (have you noticed that every Texas town is the capital of something?). The Love Creek Orchards cider mill and store is apple-doodad headquarters and also sells fresh local apples in season, from late July into October. You can get a light lunch here or at Keese’s Bar-B-Que down the street, and if you’re in town at night, try Love Creek’s “grill thrill” on Thursdays. A trip to Medina also demands the purchase of a whole apple pie, from either Love Creek or Tootie Pie!, where pie queen Ruby Lorraine “Tootie” Feagan makes fabulous five-pounders. As I left town at dusk with one of Tootie’s monsters riding shotgun, I was treated to a Sistine Chapel–quality sunset of creamy clouds shot through with pink and gold. I wouldn’t have been surprised if cherubim and seraphim had come bursting out of them like cheerleaders at halftime.
Within living memory, Kerrville was a distinctly Western city; now the poor dear is franchised to death. I found a few shreds of local character in Old Town, a moderately interesting shopping, arts, and dining district centered on the intersection of Earl Garrett and Water streets. Here I also peeked into the Hill Country Museum, located in a fine Romanesque edifice that famed architect Alfred Giles designed as a home for rancher and banker Charles A. Schreiner. The best eating I discovered was the Southern-style cooking, including steaks and fresh seafood, at Joe’s Jefferson Street Cafe, in a two-story Victorian house. By the way, for lodging, try the appropriately Western Y.O. Ranch Resort Hotel. There are also chain motels galore on Texas Highways 27 and 16.
If Kerrville is—or was—cowboy to its core, Fredericksburg is genetically German. Of course, these days the tidy nineteenth-century stores cater less to locals than to marauding herds of visiting boomers. Even so, I love Fred, so let me tell you my favorite places. I do lunch at the Peach Tree (creative soups, sandwiches, and quiche, cottage setting), and I would have to be abducted by aliens before I would miss dinner at the Hill Top Café, the most soul- and gimcrack-filled place in the area. For lodging, I like the log-cabin-mit-Jacuzzi at the Chuckwagon Inn.
When I’m frivolous and flush, I prowl Homestead and Friends, a shabby-chic home-furnishings and accessories store. On this visit, though, I felt serious, so I stopped at the small, excellent Admiral Nimitz Historic Site, a collection of World War II memorabilia including a creepy two-man Japanese submarine.
North of Fredericksburg, the Willow City Loop is one of the prettiest drives in the Hill Country. (From Fredericksburg, head northeast on Highway 16 for 14 miles, turn east on FM 1323, and go 2.7 miles to Willow City. Harry’s is to the right; the loop goes left.) It’s gorgeous in the spring, when cactus blossoms and wildflowers spangle the gullies and boulders. As dusk fell halfway through my leisurely, 13-mile drive, I spotted a field of deer watching my car with utter composure. Not even one white tail twitched in alarm.
If those deer had been in Llano, though, it would have been “Bye-bye, Bambi.” Guys and gals come to the Deer Capital of the World, no less, to hunt and to gnaw on brisket at not one but four local barbecue joints (Cooper’s is still my favorite). I was sorry that my travel schedule didn’t leave time to try the Cajun fare at the highly touted Llaneaux Seafood House. Shopping opportunities boiled down to a row of slightly wacko antiques stores on Highway 16 immediately north of the bridge (anybody need a stuffed white Arctic fox?). Before turning in for the night at the nicely decorated Hill Country Suites motel, I walked around the town square to take in Llano County’s splendid Second Empire–style courthouse, dark except for one mysterious light in an upstairs window.
The landscape turned rocky but flatter as I left Llano the next day. Little granite outcrops erupted from pastures, and the earth took on a rusty tinge. At one point a shadow flickered across my windshield—a turkey vulture tilting and soaring in the blue, blue sky. Cemeteries are far more abundant than towns out here. At Baby Head Cemetery, some nine miles north of Llano, a historical marker disclosed that the vanished community had taken its name from the remains of an infant found after an Indian raid in the 1850’s. Good grief.
As I continued north the towns dwindled in size. San Saba is bigger than some but still quiet. I hunted up the Oliver Pecan Company to buy a bag of pecans (it may be a hanging offense not to, given that San Saba is, you guessed it, the Pecan Capital of Texas). Goldthwaite has a nice little park near the south city limits where you can let the kids run amok, fall off the swings, and cannonball into the swimming pool. In contrast to most towns around here, Comanche is practically a metropolis. I saw the famous oak tree on the town square where young Martin Fleming hid from the Comanches in 1854. (The town is not named Fleming Head, so I assume the lad escaped.)
Of all the little towns along the northern reaches of Highway 16, I’m fondest of Strawn, largely because it’s home to An Ancient Art Handcrafted Soap Company, where co-owners Shanah Coe and Becky Lenoir cook up two dozen wonderfully fragrant all-vegetable-oil soaps in a little kitchen in the back of their shop. Suddenly I was famished (the aroma of the oatmeal-spice soap must have gotten to me), so I headed for Mary’s, a plain cafe with a surprisingly varied menu, for blackened chicken breast (tender if greasy) and homey fries.
At Possum Kingdom Lake I found—besides the usual motley roadside collection of real estate offices and weathered summer houses—a nice lakeside picnic spot with the evocative name “Public Use Area Number 4” (from Park Road 36, you go a mile west on FM 2951). Right before sunset on my last day on Highway 16, I blasted through Graham, notable for having the biggest town square in the U.S. (covering nearly thirteen acres), and headed for Loving, hoping to make it in time to have a postcard imprinted with the famous Loving postmark. (Every year thousands of valentines and wedding invitations are sent to Loving to be mailed.) But I miscalculated the time and the post office was closed. Drat. When I called kindhearted postmaster Sherry Kincaid and told her my sad story, she immediately sent me a letter with this year’s February 14 postmark. Now, wasn’t that a Loving thing to do?
Admiral Nimitz Historic Site, 340 E Main, Fredericksburg; 830-997-4379; $7, seniors $6, children ages 6+ $4, children under 6 free
An Ancient Art Handcrafted Soap Company, 108 N Central (Texas Hwy 16), Strawn; 254-672-5421
Chuckwagon Inn Bed and Breakfast, 1156 FM 2093, Fredericksburg; double rooms $119 to $149; for reservations, call Absolute Charm at (830-992-9659)
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, 604 W Young (Texas Hwy 29), Llano; 325-247-5713
Frontier Times Museum, 510 Thirteenth, Bandera; 830-796-3864; $5, seniors $3, children 6-17 $1, children 5 and under free
Hill Country Museum, 226 Earl Garrett, Kerrville; 830-896-8633; closed Sun-Tues; $5, students $2, children under 6 free
Hill Country Suites, 609 Bessemer (Texas Hwy 16), Llano; 325-247-1141; double rooms Sun-Thurs $69.99, Fri and Sat $89.99
Hill Top Café; (from junction of US 290 and US 87 in Fredericksburg, go north on 87 for 10 miles); 830-997-8922; closed Mon and Tues
Homestead and Friends, 230 E Main, Fredericksburg; 830-997-5551
Joe’s Jefferson Street Cafe, 1001 Jefferson, Kerrville; 830-257-2929; lunch and dinner Mon through Fri, dinner only Sat
Keese’s Bar-B-Que, Texas Hwy 16 across from the post office, Medina; 830-589-7474; Breakfast and lunch daily
Llaneaux Seafood House, 102 Legion Dr, Llano; 325-247-3663; dinner Wed through Sat, lunch Sun
Love Creek Orchards Apple Store, downtown Medina on Texas Hwy 16; 830-589-2588 or 800-449-0882; lunch daily 11-3
Mac and Ernie’s Roadside Eatery, downtown Tarpley, 1999 FM 470; 830-562-3250; lunch Wed, lunch and dinner Fri and Sat; no credit cards
Mansion in Bandera, 1007 Hackberry, Bandera; 830-796-4590; single kings $175 to $350
Mary’s Café, 119 Grant (Texas Hwy 16), Strawn; 254-672-5741
Mayan Dude Ranch, 1.5 miles north of Bandera on Mayan Ranch Rd; 830-796-3312; $150 per day, per person, children 13 to 19 $95, 2 to 12 $70, under 2 free (includes three meals)
Oliver Pecan Company, 1402 W Wallace, San Saba; 325-372-5984 or toll-free 800-657-9291; closed Sun
Peach Tree Tea Room and Gift Gallery, 210 S Adams, Fredericksburg; 830-997-9527; lunch only
Tootie Pie!, 129 Industrial Drive, Boerne; 210-737-6600; Mon-Fri 9-6
Y.O. Ranch Resort Hotel, 2033 Sidney Baker, Kerrville; 830-257-4440 or toll-free 800-967-3767; double rooms $89 weekdays, $119 weekends