Writer-at-large Suzy Banks talks about her feature story, "Head for the Hills."
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story? And how much driving was involved?
Suzy Banks: If you charted my routes through the Hill Country, it would look like the flight path of a one-winged bee with a drinking problem. In hindsight, I wonder if my lack of focus was intentional; it meant I had to keep heading back into the Hill Country again and again and again . . . and who wouldn’t want an excuse to do that? Don’t tell the IRS, but I sort of lost track of my miles. I think I didn’t want to acknowledge my disorganization and admit even to my mileage log that I went up to Mason, oh, about six or seven or eight times and down to Leakey about four times. But if I had to guess—and I will on my tax return—I think three thousand miles is a decent estimate. I know I racked up at least one oil change. I started doing a little scouting work as far back as September; I got really serious about the piece in December and January.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research did you do? Some of these places seem remote and off the beaten path. How did you find such out-of-the-way places?
SB: Some places might be remote, but I’m not sure there is anything such as “off the beaten path” in the much-beloved Hill Country. My initial opening to the article was: “Hidden Hill Country? You’ve got to be kidding. I might as well look for an unknown character on the Sistine Chapel.”
As for research, I started on the Web and by looking through the disgustingly large number of Texas guidebooks I have, some dating back to the forties. I didn’t look through the guidebooks so much for what to cover as for what not to cover.
I am also a compulsive brochure-picker-upper. I love handouts (of the informational variety). I have boxes and boxes of stuff, from cheap little flyers to glossy four-color media booklets on Texas travel destinations that I snag wherever I go. So I spent a couple of happy days going through my paper treasures. Then I got on the horn and chatted up the few folks I know who live in the hills. Finally, I got in my car and behaved erratically, just driving west or north or south from my home in Dripping Springs, sometimes with no notion where I’d wind up at night. And all along the way, I’m picking up those brochures, along with local newspapers, business cards, and every map I see. I now have a box full of just Hill Country literature that weighs about twenty pounds. I’m so proud.
texasmonthly.com: In your introduction you mention that you bypassed towns that had a Home Depot or Chili’s restaurant. Do you feel like the Hill Country is getting too populated? If so, why? If not, why not?
SB: Oh, don’t get me started on the rampant development of the Hill Country. Nowadays, when you head west out of Austin or San Antonio or New Braunfels or San Marcos, it takes eons before you reach any hills that aren’t hidden beneath garish billboards or under creepy subdivisions whose pseudo-poetic names are based on the very things they destroyed: Oak Creek, the Preserve (!) at Bee Cave, the Vistas of Sawyer Ranch, Clear Water Estates. And then, just when you think you’ve discovered that increasingly rare combo of hills and country, here come the traffic snarls and the name brand wastelands surrounding Boerne or Kerrville. And poor Fredericksburg. Did you know Mason’s unofficial motto is: “We’re not like Fredericksburg”?
texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite thing you did on this assignment? Why?
SB: The kayak trip on the Llano—it was an impromptu trip on what turned out to be a picture-perfect day on a picture-perfect river. I had just spent a few days in the madness around Kerrville, and the tranquility of the trip and the unsullied landscape really restored my flagging enthusiasm for the Hill Country.
texasmonthly.com: You seem to have spent a lot of time in or near Mason. Why? Was Mason your home base?
SB: I did find myself drawn back to Mason again and again. It seemed to be the right mix of just enough action (of the right variety) like the Country Opry and the immediate beauty of the practically unspoiled countryside. Or maybe I just liked Mason because it was pleased to announce that it wasn’t another Fredericksburg. At least not yet: There are rumblings in the hills that even Mason has become too artsy and pricey.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
SB: How widespread and dramatic the damage was from last summer’s flood, especially in the Rio Frio and Bandera areas. Some houses and businesses simply disappeared.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything unusual (besides being chased by pigs) happen to you while working on this story? If so, what?
SB: I kept meeting dogs in every bar I went into. That also restored any lapse in my enthusiasm for the country.
texasmonthly.com: What would be your ultimate Hill Country weekend getaway? Where would you stay, what would you do?
SB: That’s tough. If it were early spring or fall, I think I’d gather up a group of my friends and rent the house at Dutch Mountain Ranch, adjacent to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. We would hike and mountain bike and pretend we owned the place. In the summer, when I crave water, I’d try to book a few nights at Cabin 10 at the Frio River Cabins just north of Garner State Park. I’d play in the river beneath giant cypress trees all day, then I’d hike Lost Maple at sunset (I ain’t scared of a few pigs . . . ). I’d wind up the day at the Cowboy Bar in Bandera, petting dogs and maybe catching some live music. Or I might stay at Canyon of the Eagles and spend the day kayaking on the lake (and intentionally falling in), stargazing, and eating a gourmet dinner at night.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to this assignment?
SB: Seeing the roads strewn with the pelts and carcasses of so many animals and birds—deer, opossum, and raccoons galore, plus way too many foxes, ring-tailed cats, hawks, porcupines, dogs, and cats.