Before I drove three hours west of Austin to Sonora, I’d texted my siblings the Google Maps link for JL Bar Ranch, Resort & Spa. We always keep one another up to date about our travel plans, but this time I’d also just wanted to brag about my weekend getaway.
When I finally arrived at the resort around 7 p.m. on a Friday and saw a turkey-crossing sign as I drove up the long entryway, though, I realized I’d willfully missed a crucial detail. I’d been so fixated on the “Resort & Spa” part of the name that when I booked my stay at the end of February, I’d imagined myself lounging around in a hotel robe all weekend, wandering down warm halls from the spa to the hot tub. I’d packed two swimsuits. Somehow I’d completely overlooked the “Ranch” part (and the extensive list of shooting and outdoor activities on the website). But a turkey sign? Nobody has turkeys around just for fun.
When I checked in at the Main Lodge, a two-story lounge in the middle of the 13,000-acre spread, the front desk receptionist handed me a room key and itinerary and then gave me a quick tour. I quietly took in the wildlife and hunting paraphernalia that served as decor, from pictures of owls to an array of taxidermied animals and head mounts. The Christmas tree made out of antlers added a subtle touch. We stepped outside onto the back deck, where she pointed out the hot tub, right next to the pool. Outside. In 43-degree weather. I wouldn’t be hanging out in any body of water this weekend.
After I got to my Lonesome Creek guest room, I pulled out my phone to amend my earlier humblebrag. “This is a HUNTING resort,” I texted my older brother and two younger sisters.
“Ohhh no,” my sister Funmi texted back.
“Girl, what they got you out there doing?” asked my other sister, Helen.
“I knew it was a hunting resort, but I didn’t know,” I tried to explain.
“Yeah, I saw that in a movie once,” Funmi replied.
“What movie?” I asked.
After settling in, I bundled back up against the cold and hustled a few yards to the resort’s grand dining hall, the Lonesome Creek Lodge, with lofty vaulted ceilings, large windows, a fireplace, and fewer mounted heads than the Main Lodge. Sunday through Tuesday nights, the JL Bar dinner menu is à la carte, but Wednesday through Saturday, the dinners have a fixed theme. Friday was “Fiesta night,” a.k.a. Fajita Friday. I sat alone at a round table for four and watched as the servers laid out a family-style feast: a sizzling plate of beef, shrimp, and chicken fajitas that came with tortillas, Spanish rice, and beans, as well as pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream. It looked ridiculously extravagant for one person. One of the servers very politely asked me what the hell I was doing at JL Bar by myself. “Are you just coming out for a weekend away?”
I mumbled something affirmative and tried to ignore how uncomfortable I felt. But as a lone Black person at a hunting resort in Central Texas, I felt conspicuous. Around me were mostly white couples or groups of friends, and—judging by all the references to the hit TV show Yellowstone that I would hear over the weekend—it seemed as if they’d all had a clearer idea than I had of what type of resort JL Bar was. As an introvert with solitary tendencies, I’m used to doing things alone. But the pandemic had thrown my relationship with solitude off balance. There’s a stark difference between choosing to attend the occasional movie or gallery show alone and enduring months of forced isolation. As I was venturing back into socializing post–booster shot, I still hadn’t quite hit my stride when it comes to knowing when I wanted to be alone or with others. This experience quickly felt like one that would have been much better if I’d had at least one friend with me.
The feeling of being the odd person out didn’t go away the next morning, as I sat on a horse in 33-degree weather, riding through the ranch’s quiet landscape. I’d expected a bit more excitement on the excursion, one of the ranch’s many outdoor activities, but because my equine experience consists solely of the two times I’ve ridden a horse around a small circle, Jon Joseph, the equine operations manager, saddled me with Chexamillion, a steady brown horse known for his calm demeanor. Too calm. So calm, in fact, that he quickly fell back several yards behind Joseph and the two other guests on the ride—two friends celebrating a birthday. I wanted to join in on the idle conversation I could hear ahead of me, but because I was so far behind, I just sat quietly bored and stared out over the gray landscape.
After lunch at the lodge, I drove over to the Spa at JL Bar, which is housed in a small building near the main lodge. In the lobby, gentle meditation music played over the speakers while I scanned a row of products from CBD Care Garden, a product line the resort partners with. The spa offers an array of therapeutic options, ranging from a sixty-minute Swedish massage to hydra facials, hand and foot treatments, brow shaping, and chin waxing. For an extra $50, any treatment can be upgraded with CBD. My treatment started with a gentle exfoliating sugar scrub, after which I took a quick shower to rinse off before returning to the room for a sixty-minute deep tissue massage. I told the therapist about how my right hip had suddenly started bothering me at the beginning of the year (a casualty of my being over thirty, I assume) and asked a few questions about the benefits of the CBD I’d added.
According to the spa’s website, benefits of CBD include anti-inflammatory properties, pain reduction, and a “clear and calm mind effect.” All I know is that I’ve always found it hard to fully relax into a massage, but here, I was so loose and zen that I kept drifting in and out of sleep during a session that seemed to stretch out into a blissful forever. I don’t know yet if the science holds up, but I’m going to thank the CBD for that.
When I showed up for the wine tasting later that afternoon, I was still floating on a high from my massage and was feeling less self-conscious about how much I felt I stood out. There were about a dozen of us: a couple from San Antonio, a couple from Austin, a couple from Michigan, and a group of friends (at least one of them was from Canada). And me. I was too excited for my first wine tasting to care about being the only solo taster. We sat at two tables at the back of the dining hall, taking delicate sips and nibbling on charcuterie to draw out the flavors as we sampled six wines, primarily from Napa Valley and Italy, while JL Bar’s sommelier, Sydney Béïque, gave us a crash course on innovative wineries, the chemistry of wine, and ideal food pairings.
I managed to retain only two simple facts: I really enjoy sparkling red wine, and when shopping for wine at a chain store, I need to make sure to pick a bottle at the back of the row, since it’s the least likely to be affected by fluorescent lighting. I was simply enjoying the novelty of the experience, quietly nodding and murmuring in agreement like I knew what anyone was talking about. At one point, the friendly woman from Michigan leaned over and mentioned that a red wine we were tasting smelled like licorice. I dutifully picked up my glass to take another whiff as if I knew what actual licorice smelled like.
But her attempts to make small talk spoke to her welcoming nature. At dinner that night, when she spotted me sitting alone at another table for four, she crossed the hall and invited me to join her and her husband. Over that night’s themed barbecue meal (the brisket was dry, but I enjoyed the Llano pork sausage and the cast-iron-skillet cornbread), we talked about our families and our careers. It was the first time in a long while that I’d made a spontaneous connection with strangers—one of the more fun quirks of being alone that I’d forgotten about.
Over the course of that Saturday, my initial misgivings about being alone at the resort had turned around. But I still wanted to lean a bit more into the hunting activities, so I picked the one that most appealed to me, with my general lack of interest in guns. Sunday morning, before I checked out, I met Keith Russell at the 3D archery range behind JL Bar’s General Store for an hour of solo archery lessons.
At first, I was taken aback by how quickly he put the bow and arrow in my hands. But once he’d demonstrated how to notch the arrow, pull back the string, take aim, and release, there wasn’t much for me to do except try it out myself. It helped that I’d chosen a compound bow, which didn’t rely solely on my strength for the tension in the string. Russell has been shooting arrows for three decades (he later showed me his personal bow, which had so many features it looked more like a gun than a bow), but he was a patient instructor. He was calm and friendly and almost annoyingly encouraging. “Good!” he would say after I completely missed my target.
“You keep saying ‘good,’ but I don’t think I’m doing good,” I muttered.
Something felt off about my aim, and after about ten minutes in which Russell kept reminding me to use my right eye to aim because I kept reflexively using my left, he paused my shooting. I’m right-handed, so he’d assumed my right eye was more dominant and had given me a right-handed bow. But he gave me a quick eye-dominance test, during which I pointed my finger at a knot in a tree and alternated closing each eye, we discovered that my left actually worked harder than my right.
“You’re right-handed and left-eye dominant, so you’re kinda backwards”—typical—“but that’s okay!” Russell said, before running to his truck to grab me a left-handed bow. According to him, it’s far easier to train myself to shoot with my other hand than it is to change my dominant eye. Now holding the bow in my right hand, I drew back the string with my left, aimed with my left eye, and was pleasantly surprised by how much easier and more natural it felt. After a few shots, I hit the target I’d been aiming for, a small foam bear fifteen yards away, a couple more times and then moved on to the next target, a foam-and-plastic deer twenty yards away.
I fell into a quiet rhythm, notching arrow after arrow and shooting my way from fake animal to fake animal, increasing my distance. I felt giddy every time I hit my target, only to immediately frustrate myself again by switching to a new target that posed new challenges. After I shot an arrow right through the chest of the deer, I moved to the turkey, a much smaller animal 25 yards away. “I love to humble myself right after I’ve done something I’m proud of,” I explained to Russell. Right as my hour was running out, I finally landed an arrow in the chest of a fake antelope 35 yards away. I was so excited, I jumped up and down and let out a rugged squeal of delight. It was “the perfect shot,” Russell said.
Before I got in my car to make the drive back to my quiet apartment in Austin, I texted my siblings pictures and videos of me at the 3D archery range. I included a picture of the turkey, with another braggy comment: “I hit the turkey in the face.” They responded with hearts and exclamation points, as well as a reference to The Hunger Games.
My weekend had started off rocky, with me feeling overly self-conscious, but had finally turned around just as it was ending. I’d gotten a useful reminder to keep reevaluating my relationship with solitude, and I’d stepped out of my comfort zone. If nothing else, I was leaving JL Bar with basic knowledge of a new survival skill, one that might get me through a Purge-like scenario.
Rates for the Lonesome Creek rooms begin at $449 per night, with a two-night minimum. Some activities require an extra fee, including horseback riding ($180 per person), wine tasting ($95 per person), and 3D archery ($75 per shooter). The Spa’s sugar scrub (which includes a Swedish massage) starts at $185 ($50 for a CBD upgrade). Themed dinners start at $29.95 (Fiesta night) and $32.95 (Barbecue night).
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Two More to Try.” Subscribe today.