Some say it is the green hills, rising out of the flatlands as Texas’ gateway to the west, that make the Hill Country special. Others are drawn to the noble oaks, the pastoral fields, the artesian springs from which rivers flow clear and cold past limestone bluffs, the abrupt ravines and pocket canyons, the rock-strewn ranchland, the fine sturdy craftsmanship of its German towns, and the even sturdier stock of people who built them. For me, though, the real beauty of the Texas Hill Country lies in its many contradictions. The Hill Country is the geographic and emotional essence of Texas, yet it is like nowhere else in the state.
The Hill Country is an abrupt change from the plains to the east, but it is by no means mountainous, like far West Texas. The land appears gentle, but it has thin, difficult soil—but no part of Texas has more wild-flowers in the spring. The Hill Country shares in none of the great Texas myths: no cotton, no cattle kingdoms, no oil. In an urban state, it remains a place of small towns and villages. Railroads bypassed the Hill Country because of the difficult terrain, and even today, with the exception of Interstate 10, no heavily traveled major highway traverses it, thank God.
President Lyndon Johnson brought the first national attention to the Hill Country in the sixties, when his ranch east of Fredericksburg was the Texas White House. Until then, the Hill Country was a well-kept secret, known primarily to well-to-do folks from Dallas and Houston who sent their children to summer camps on the Guadalupe River around Hunt. That anonymity, it turns out, was a blessing. While practically everywhere else worth visiting in the American West was getting loved to death, the Hill Country remained unsullied.
The first wave of visitors who started showing up in large numbers twenty years ago or so were bluebonnet lovers, peach eaters, canoeists and tubers, fishermen and hunters—your basic harried urbanites fleeing the city in search of an escape. Many were inspired by a 1975 song called “Luckenbach, Texas,” sung by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. It didn’t matter that the song was written by a Memphis producer and a Nashville musician who’d never actually been to the little village with five buildings, including a dance hall. Their sentiment in romanticizing the Hill Country experience was dead on target, as expressed in the refrain, “Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics.” Crowds responded in kind, returning to the roots they never had.
More recently, though, movie types have been moving in from Hollywood, and a second wave of vis-itors has come from all over Texas and the world beyond. The word is out that the Hill Country has the same enchanting natural beauty once attributed to places like Santa Fe, Se-dona, Scottsdale, and Carmel. But being discovered often comes at the expense of the very qualities that attracted visitors in the first place. Hill Country land values, formerly pegged to the amount of tillable soil or the availability of water, are escalating rapidly based solely on aesthetic beauty. Visitors are being turned away from Enchanted Rock whenever the parking area fills to capacity. The Hunt general store now carries the Sunday New York Times. All of which raises the specter of the Hill Country’s becoming more of a hot spot and less of a state of mind.
For all of my adult life, I’ve visited places in and near the Hill Country—Kerrville for the folk music festival, Fredericksburg for peaches, Llano for barbecue, the rivers for swimming and canoeing. Yet, I have seldom thought of the Hill Country as a single place, rather than as individual destinations. So I got in my pickup and started driving. I came back with a route I call my ultimate Hill Country tour—a four-hundred-mile trip that can be done in a weekend but that I savored over four days. I purposely excluded towns on the geographic fringe, such as Llano, Brady, Rocksprings, and Burnet (sorry, but the Hill Country is not north of the Colorado, at least not in my book), and places that have already made the transition from bucolic small town to big-city suburb, like New Braunfels, Boerne, and Dripping Springs. Also bypassed were stand-alone tourist destinations like Bandera and the LBJ historic attractions on the way to Fredericksburg. But if you want to find out what the real Hill Country is all about, hop in and see for yourself—before it changes too much.
Devil’s Backbone to Fredericksburg
SAN ANTONIO AND AUSTIN are the usual entry points to the Hill Country, since that’s where the major highways are. But mile after mile of suburbia deflates the drama of entering the hills. A better approach is from San Marcos on Ranch Road 12. Just west of Interstate 35, the limestone escarpment known as the Balcones Fault rears up dramatically from the prairie. About four miles past the turnoff to Wimberley are two classic examples of Texas roadhouses, Riley’s Backbone Place and the Devil’s Backbone Tavern (both are named for the ridge line called Devil’s Backbone). Riley’s is a hangout popular with Southwest Texas State University students headed to nearby Canyon Lake, but the Devil’s Backbone Tavern is more my style, with a fireplace and a just-plain-folks clientele.
The vistas finally kicked in just beyond the two beer joints, as the road began its serpentine ride atop the Backbone, which separates the Blanco and Guadalupe river basins. I pulled over to a picnic area on the right about a mile past the taverns so I could take in the views of the Blanco winding its way through gentle Wimberley Valley. I’d arrived in the Hill Country.
The first town, Fischer, is one of the smaller German settlements in the region, distinguished by a 121-year-old community dance hall and a nine-pin bowling club— nine pins being another imported German tradition that persists in the Hill Country. (Although the bowling club is private, members usually tolerate visitors who stop in for a look.) Fischer’s town store closed back in the eighties, but the tin building on cedar posts remained open as the post office, with all the store’s fixtures intact. Three years ago, Gertrude Fischer, the fifth-generation postmaster, took early retirement after nineteen years on the job. Once she stepped down, higher-ups in the Postal Service directed that the post office be relocated next door in a new modular structure resembling a trailer home.
How could anyone shutter up a historic building almost a hundred years old? I put that question to Gertrude, who was picking up beer cans outside the old store. I liked her answer. “My daughter’s going to reopen the store, sell trinkets, maybe even do barbecue, if she ever slows down,” she said. But there isn’t a timetable for the grand reopening. “Her wrecker business is keeping her busy enough.”
After Fischer, the hills began to flatten, and I headed for Blanco, one of the Hill Country’s more underappreciated burgs. The town’s namesake river is shallow, swift, and eminently swimmable. A nature trail leads from the town square to the river, but I prefer Blanco State Park, which borders the river as it passes beneath U.S. 281. More than once I’ve impulsively pulled over in the midst of a summer trip to cool off by the dam in the park.
I blame Blanco’s image problem on its loss of the county seat to Johnson City in 1891, leaving the stately courthouse on the square without a purpose. I’m happy to report that Blanco finally seems to be getting over that misfortune. Christmas lights now adorn the old abandoned building year-round, and practically every storefront on the square is rented. There’s enough commerce to support two chat ’n’ chews—the venerable Blanco Bowling Club Cafe just off the square, known for its truckstop-style enchiladas and its nine-pin alley in the back, and the Pecan Street Cafe and Bakery on the square, whose fresh-ground coffee, herbal tea, and sweets cater to a clientele that didn’t formerly exist in the Hill Country.
By this time I was feeling the urge to get out of the car and onto the land, but the lack of good trails is one of the Hill Country’s few drawbacks. To find one, I had to head north to 5,212-acre Pedernales Falls State Park. I took the roundabout route through Henly, because there’s an eyeball-dazzling vista, looking back toward Blanco, following the climb out of the river basin. At the park, I tromped down a well-trod path shaded by oak and juniper, rolled up my pants, and commenced to leap from rock to rock in the falls, which aren’t Niagara-like ninety-degree drops but rather a sloping mega-rapid.
Leaving the park, I chose the back road into Johnson City, the town founded by Lyndon Johnson’s forebears. Long moribund, Johnson City is finally showing signs of rebirth: I have seen every parking space around the intersection of Main and Nugent filled at lunchtime. Many of the visitors are shopping and eating at the Feed Mill Mall. (I prefer two highway restaurants, Charles’ for burgers and cobbler and the Hill Country Cupboard for chicken-fried steaks.) You can’t miss the mall. Started three years ago by an artist named Charles Trois, the whimsically redesigned mill has likenesses of zebras and an armadillo cavorting atop the old stacks. I explored the mill’s maze of shops, including one called The Enchanted Olive (which was named for the merchandise instead of the proprietor), a wine-tasting room, and out back, a petting zoo, a big red fire engine, and a carousel. Back on the street, I found a handmade pickled-pine bench for $364 at The Lodgepole fine home furnishings and an hecho en Puebla pickled-pine wardrobe for $700 at Lagartos, which specializes in Mexican imports.
The LBJ National Historical Park, including Lyndon’s boyhood home and his grandfather’s log cabin, was just a block away, and I decided to revisit the excellent photo exhibit at the headquarters. Afterward, I stuck with my plan to avoid the heavily traveled strip of U.S. 290 between Johnson City and Fredericksburg that passes the Johnson ranch. Instead, I took the back road north of Johnson City that cuts across rolling hills and lush Pedernales River bottomland. Notable by their absence were billboards, power lines, and along some stretches, even fences. This wasn’t some contrived version of the Hill Country for tourists and weekend ranchers. This was the real thing.
It was 22 miles from U.S. 281 to Willow City, a wide clearing in the cedar brakes. I stocked up on drinks and munchies at Harry’s on the Loop, the convenience store and beer joint that is the last pit stop before the most scenic stretch of highway in this part of the Hill Country—the Willow City Loop. The 18-mile drive descends to the floodplain of Coal Creek, twisting and turning alongside the creekbed. Along the way, the limestone of the Hill Country yields to the pink-granite boulders of the Llano Uplift. The yucca-speckled cliffs and craggy outcroppings were the sort of terrain that I’d expect to find in the high country of Big Bend, not in northeastern Gillespie County.
The loop ended at Texas Highway 16, and the turnoff to Enchanted Rock was just up the road. Coming in from the north, through Llano County, was worth the roundabout approach for the sight of the humongous granite dome rising 425 feet above the scrub oak, Texas persimmon, Mexican buckeye, and prickly pear along Sandy Creek. Ten thousand years’ worth of human presence has been recorded around the big ol’ chunk, which itself is estimated to be a billion years old. Indians who once lived in the area attributed mystical powers to this batholith, as the rock is technically known, and believed that spirits lived inside it. Enchanted Rock does seem to have an inner life, as I have heard it creak and crack in the evening following a warm day.
Modern pilgrims are discovering that it’s more and more difficult to find an empty pew in this holy church of stone. Since Enchanted Rock was designated a state natural area almost twenty years ago, the visitor count has skyrocketed, exceeding 350,000 last year. State parks officials recently instituted a controlled-entry policy: Whenever the parking lots fill up, which is more often than not the case on spring and early fall weekends, further visitors are barred from entering. I got lucky; even though it was a perfect 70-degree day, a few spaces were still left. I made the ascent (something practically any able-bodied person can do with relative ease) and was rewarded with the best panorama there is of the Hill Country.
I resisted the temptation to drive up to Llano, where Kenneth Laird’s, Cooper’s, and Inman’s heat up the best barbecue in the vicinity, only to encounter road signs bent on luring me to beef-jerky heaven at Rabke’s Table Ready Meats five miles east of Crabapple. In the end, though, I took the roads less traveled: Gillespie County’s extensive network of paved back roads. Making use of the county map provided by the chamber of commerce in Fredericksburg (210-997-6523), I picked my way through undulating farmland toward Cherry Spring. Along the way, I discovered several outstanding examples of the built-to-last German limestone style, including the old Cherry Spring School (Das Alte Schulhaus), the Gothic limestone Christ Lutheran Church, and the magnificent three-story Rode home and its adjacent massive limestone barn. The once-closed Cherry Spring dance hall, with its rough cedar exterior, cedar-plank tables, and posters of Webb Pierce and young Elvis Presley on the wall, reopened on weekends this year. I headed toward Doss on a road that turned out to be a dead end but not a total loss: I conversed with a large flock of talkative sheep, watched an armadillo root for insects at the edge of the road, and spotted upward of a dozen wild turkeys gobbling through the brush.
I gave up on Doss and headed south on U.S. 87 to the Hilltop Cafe. What was once a derelict gas station is now an unpretentious roadhouse diner run by Brenda and Johnny Nicholas that is one of the hot spots in the Hill Country. Brenda and Johnny specialize not in German fare but in Cajun and Greek cuisine, reflecting the couple’s ethnic backgrounds. Memorabilia from Johnny’s days and nights as a touring musician are tacked to the walls and ceiling, and a vintage pinball machine provides the requisite atmosphere, which is sometimes enhanced on weekends by appearances of his musician friends, such as pianists Nick Connally and Floyd Domino and guitarists Stephen Bruton and Steve James. Although reservations are absolutely required when dining on Friday and Saturday nights (book at least two weeks in advance), I arrived in the late afternoon, when there were plenty of tables. I opted for a gyro—a beef and lamb sandwich that would have passed for authentic even in the Plaka in Athens—over the gumbo or the shrimp Mytilini bathed in garlic. It was only ten miles to Fredericksburg, but the difference between rural north Gillespie County and the county seat is measured in more than miles.
Fredericksburg to Kerrville
WITH ITS OUTSTANDING NINETEENTH-CENTURY BUILDINGS (famed Tex-as architect Alfred Giles lived here), its two hundred bed-and-breakfast inns in the Sunday-house tradition, and its unabashed Teutonic flavor, Fredericksburg is the Hill Country’s most charming big town and one of its most historic. Even the facades of the Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have Deutsch-Tex ornamentation. From May 3 through 12, the whole town will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the arrival of John O. Meusebach and 126 German immigrants. But the next morning, I felt that I was already in the midst of a festival. Main Street’s wide sidewalks were clogged with tourists making their way from shop to shop.
Unlike most small towns in America, Fredericksburg’s downtown never did decline. The Palace movie theater still shows first-run films; Dooley’s continues to uphold the tradition of the old five-and-dime; the Olde Thyme Fun Shop stocks whoopee cushions, hand buzzers, plastic vomit, and other timeless jokes, pranks, and magic tricks; the Bauer Toy Museum displays a scale model of League City, circa 1930, and too many old kiddie cars, trucks, trains, guns, and rocking horses to count; and established businesses such as the Dietz and Fredericksburg bakeries operate pretty much the same as they always have.
But on closer inspection, Main Street (a.k.a. Hauptstrasse) has undergone quite a transformation. In addition to the profusion of specialty shops and upscale flea market stalls between the courthouse and the old Steamboat Hotel (now the Admiral Nimitz Museum and Historical Center), there is a cluster of smart, high-end home furnishing stores catering to the new Hill Country style. Another store sells nothing but dulcimers, manufactured in town. At Varney’s Chemist Laden, the retail store on Main for the Fredericksburg Herb Farm, located six blocks away, bottles of herb-flavored vinegars were practically flying out the door. I counted three establishments featuring ice cream and sodas—and one, the Clear River Pecan Company, which touts its fudge, had a line of customers that extended out to the sidewalk. There were no dominoes in the Domino Parlor Antique Shop, nor domino players. All across town, the restaurants were packed, especially the German ones—Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn, the Plateau Cafe, and upscale Der Lindenbaum. Is it just a matter of time before a Victoria’s Secret, Chili’s, or Godiva chocolates opens for business and T-shirt shops outnumber bakeries?
The thought sent me fleeing to Cross Mountain, on the north side of town. I took a fifteen-minute walk up a path to the top of the tallest hill around, 1,915 feet above sea level, topped by a sheet-metal cross. From this height Fredtown looked serene and postcard-perfect, snuggled into emerald pasture lands. I kept the image with me as I left town and headed east to Luckenbach, hoping to recover from the memory of Main Street’s hordes.
The sylvan scene at Luckenbach was just as I remembered it: The tin store, the town’s business office, the old gin, and the dance hall with its shutters closed hadn’t changed a bit. A couple of ol’ boys pitched washers while a fresh-faced kid in a raggedy cowboy hat was strumming his guitar. An older couple was loading souvenirs into the trunk of a Cadillac with Iowa plates. In fact, about the only new thing in twenty years has been the bust by the front of the store of the late Hondo Crouch, the professional old coot and storyteller who made Luckenbach synonymous with laid-back.
VelAnne Howle, the town manager, confided that keeping Luckenbach laid-back has not been easy. “For a while we had a problem with bikers and drunks, but we’ve got that under control, so families can have a good time here without being harassed.” Howle has expanded the line of T-shirts, postcards, and other souvenirs for sale in the store, where “Sheriff” Marge, the cantankerous barkeep, and Jimmy Lee Jones, her fellow bartender and a Willie Nelson look-alike, serve cold longnecks and soda pop to customers. The venerable dance hall lights up on most Saturday nights. Tish Hinojosa, the Austin country-folk singer-songwriter, will host the Bluebonnet Ball there on April 6.
VelAnne offered to show me the back road to Comfort. She shut down the office and enlisted her assistant, Maggie Montgomery, to accompany us. We headed west on Grapetown Road, passing near the palatial ranch home of Madeleine Stowe and Brian Benben, who are among the many Hollywood celebrities who have bought land around Fredtown. We stopped at Grapetown to admire the arch above the driveway of the Eintracht Schuetzenverein, the 109-year-old shooting hall where the community marksmanship competition is still held every year. Back on the road, Maggie pointed out the abandoned town of Bankersmith, an old rail stop that she said was once “patronized” by train robber Jesse James. We pulled over at the turnoff to Alamo Springs, an aging hippie enclave, to take in the view of the Old Tunnel wildlife management area. I couldn’t see the entrance to the abandoned 920-foot railroad tunnel dug through the hill that divides the Pedernales and Guadalupe river valleys, but Maggie told me that at sunset you can see the tunnel’s colony of bats emerge. On Saturday and Thursday evenings from June to October, Parks and Wildlife guides lead tours to the tunnel entrance (call Blanco State Park, 210-833-4333, for information).
VelAnne said Comfort was her favorite German town in the Hill Country, not as well preserved as Fredericksburg but a whole lot looser in attitude. Settled by radical Free Thinkers from Germany, who fled political and religious persecution, the town sets itself apart by having the state’s only Civil War monument to the North on a public street: the Treue der Union monument on the west end of High Street, commemorating the loyalist soldiers of German descent who were killed by Confederate troops at the Battle of the Nueces in 1862.
High Street, Comfort’s main thoroughfare, appears to have been frozen in time. The businesses housed in solid limestone fortresses and old clapboard homes appeared to cater as much to locals as to out-of-towners, typified by the Ingenhuett general store and the Comfort Common shops in the old Ingenhuett-Faust Hotel. I admired the pine antiques at Southwestern Elegance, rare books at the Old Fire Station Antique Mall, and European crystal at Fritzi’s. The prices were generally lower than at comparable stores in Fredericksburg or Kerrville. I was particularly taken with Faltin and Company, one block off High on Main, housed inside an Alfred Giles building that was as fine a work as the hand-painted china, petit point, filigree, and antique desks sold inside.
True to the town’s freethinking origins, the Comfort Art Gallery is actually an artists guild, or cooperative. Rather than merely showing films, the Seventh Street Theatre has converted to staging live dramas with local actors. VelAnne said that if I wanted to know anything about anyone in town, I should see Gael Montana, the proprietor of the Comfort Barber Shop. But Gael had already hung out the closed sign for the day, although she thoughtfully left the checkerboard on the shop’s porch in case anyone got a hankering to play.
By this time it was getting dark. After a mess of ribs at Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q, VelAnne and Maggie headed back to Luckenbach and I drove on to Kerrville. The Hill Country’s biggest town (population: 19,134, nearly three times the size of Fredericksburg), Kerrville spans the Guadalupe River. It was the region’s first resort and retirement community, a place where sufferers of tuberculosis, like country singer Jimmie Rodgers, came to recuperate in the twenties. But the completion of Interstate 10 touched off a growth spurt that has obliterated most of Kerrville’s small-town ambience.
Still, the older part of downtown rated a stroll. My attention was drawn to a wooden duck decoy and an ancient red scooter at the Water Street Antique Company and Tea Room (“The Hill Country’s Largest”), and to Spanish pueblo doors at nearby Artesian Accents, but it’s hard to say whether the items or their prices (a steep $165 for the scooter; a bargain $412 for the doors) were more noteworthy. The 127-year-old Schreiner’s department store, next door to the original Schreiner mansion, was more to my liking. Lunch in the new Hill Country was Cajun-style pork roast, mashed potatoes, and fresh—not canned—green beans accompanied by a glass of Burgundy at Joe’s Jefferson Street Cafe, housed in a two-story restored Victorian mansion (at least there’s chicken-fried steak on the menu), polished off by a fizzy Coca-Cola at Pampell’s Antiques and Soda Fountain. Another local attraction is the Cowboy Artists of America Museum, but since my appreciation of Western art is limited to the cartoons of Kerrville native son Ace Reid, I decided to roll on down the road.
Kerrville to Concan
THE BUSY HIGHWAY WEST OF KERRVILLE starts out through one of the least appealing commercial strips found in the Hill Country, but the scenery soon improves. At Ingram, I took a brief detour on the Old Ingram Loop, to a collection of rock buildings that has been gentrified into something of an arts and crafts colony, and returned to the main road for some of the prettiest riverfront and most expensive real estate in the Hill Country. Lining the cypress-shaded banks of the Guadalupe were lavish private homes constructed of limestone that define the local version of gracious living. Intermingled with the homes were the occasional resort, upscale and downscale, and summer camps, whose cabins were visible from the highway. In Hunt, where the two branches of the Guadalupe come together at a great wading spot, I detoured two miles up the North Fork road to view the replicas of Stonehenge and Easter Island statuary that a rancher has placed in a pasture. More weird architecture awaited me back in Hunt, where the unusual wood, cement, and limestone facade of the Hunt Country Store owes its inspiration to the cedar-chopper-meets-Gaudi school.
Beyond Camp Mystic, the South Fork road became curvier as it crossed and recrossed the Guadalupe numerous times, and the landscape turned rockier and drier. Then the river was gone, the oaks gave way to juniper, and the Hill Country faded into the desiccated ranchland of the Edwards Plateau. I turned south toward Vanderpool, through more of same, until the road suddenly dropped off the plateau into Sabinal River Canyon, the site of Lost Maples State Natural Area. This is one of the few places in Texas where you can see fall colors—if you can get through the traffic jams on November weekends. On this spring afternoon, though, the park was almost deserted. I had my choice of two four-mile hiking trails and took the one along the river. But irritating signs prohibiting any contact with the water led me to cut the hike short and get on to one of the best drives in Texas—RR 337 to Leakey (that’s “Lake-ee,” as in water, not “Leek-ee,” as in faucet). It climbs back to the canyon’s rim and begins a rollercoaster ride through the highest, steepest, and most rugged part of the Hill Country. For the next eighteen miles the highway switchbacks up and down a series of ridge lines, skittering along the edges of sheer cliffs and dropping down into wrinkled, creek-carved valleys.
I stopped in Leakey, where most of Frio Canyon’s businesses are located, and grabbed a real milk shake made with Blue Bell ice cream at the Leakey Drug Store. The little town borders the Frio River, which, next to the Guadalupe, is the Hill Country’s most popular waterway, particularly the seventeen miles between Leakey and Concan. Along its banks are vacation homes (less chic than those on the Guadalupe), stables, cabins, campgrounds—and ever-popular Garner State Park. On warm weather weekends, the Saturday night dance at the park’s pavilion is the social event of the entire western Hill Country. I settled in for the night at Neal’s Lodges in Concan. The appeal of its screened cabins is a location on a bluff above one of the best swimming holes on the Frio. I jumped in immediately, and I am pleased to report that its water is clean and clear, at least until the summer invasion of the Hill Country.
Concan to Blanco
THE HOMEWARD LEG OF MY HILL Country tour took me first to Utopia, a sleepy hamlet on the Sabinal River where the social idealism of the town’s name is reflected by the community gardens (organic, of course) and a bottled water plant. At Vanderpool, I picked up RR 337 again, but the vertigo-inducing views of the previous day’s wild drive on the western segment of the road were replaced by pastoral scenes and fields of wildflowers. The rural setting, the easy curves, the cloudless sky, and the aroma of spring made driving in the Hill Country pure pleasure. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
My reverie was broken by Medina, a once-declining town that has been reborn as the Apple Capital of Texas. Although the Texas International Apple Festival won’t be held until the peak of harvest season, on the last weekend in July, I still got my fill of this increasingly popular Hill Country specialty crop at Love Creek Orchards. This combination bakery, cider mill, and country store is the repository of all things apple: strudel, jelly, mulled cider, chutney, ice cream, earrings, peelers, live saplings, even apple-strudel coffee beans. It was enough to make me forget peaches—until summer.
Near Bandera the road climbed up Bandera Pass. It doesn’t look like much, but this modest piece of high ground has twice played a role in Texas history. Spanish troops battled a band of Apaches here in 1732 and established the pass as a line of demarcation separating the two civilizations. One hundred ten years later, a small group of Texas Rangers reestablished the line by fighting off a Comanche war party twice its size at the same spot. Later the pass was guarded by soldiers from Camp Verde; its former location, now on private land, is noted by a historical marker. A U.S. cavalry outpost established in 1856, Camp Verde was the site of an Army experiment, promoted by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, to use camels as pack animals on the frontier. The Civil War brought the experiment to an end, and occupying Confederate troops let many of the camels run off. Four years after the war, Camp Verde was abandoned.
On the other hand, the Old Camp Verde General Store, established 139 years ago to accommodate troops on weekend leave from the camp, is thriving. One of the finest general stores in the entire Hill Country, the current building, built at the turn of the century, has a shaded porch, a large patio, and gardens next to a creekside park. The store sells all kinds of implements, tools, toys, books, maps, seeds, camel memorabilia, and sundry useful and useless items found only in general stores, such as pickled eggs and rat cheese. I loaded up on five kinds of jellybeans from the old-fashioned candy section.
I was smelling the barn now. I drove straight through Comfort, made a side trip to Waring just so I could say I was halfway between Welfare and Comfort, and crossed First Coffee Hollow Draw—and Second Coffee Hollow Draw. At Sisterdale, symbols of the new and old Hill Country are the two main attractions. I passed an idle hour sipping Cabernet Sauvignon at the Sister Creek Vineyards, feeling as if I were in a European painting—vineyards, a rock farmhouse, spreading oaks, a perfectly manicured lawn. Call me provincial if you want to, but I can’t imagine that the South of France could be more pleasant. Plus, I don’t think there’s anywhere in the South of France like the Sisterdale General Store and bar down the street. I pulled up a stool at the one-hundred-year-old bar and ordered up a cool one from Valerija Woolvin, the radiant white-haired bartender with a decided accent. In a matter of minutes, I learned that Woolvin doesn’t merely tend bar but also serves as hostess and referee for the games of dominoes, moon, and 42 that are played Tuesday afternoon and Thursday night. She’s also the town historian, who likes to recount all the rich and famous folks who’ve stopped at her store over the years (“That Dan Rather, he was something else,” she chuckled cryptically). She guided me from the bar to the store, where she showed off a life-size cutout of George Strait holding a can of Bud Light, with Strait’s autograph across his shoulder.
I reluctantly took my leave of Valerija Woolvin and got back on the road. Twenty miles of curves and hills later, I arrived at the junction with U.S. 281, the primary north-south highway through the Hill Country. San Antonio was a straight shot south. Blanco was seven miles north, and beyond it the turnoff to Austin. Home was fifteen minutes away, a pleasant ramble along the unsullied Little Blanco River valley to a nice little spot near Devil’s Backbone. You see, I discovered that I liked the Hill Country so much, I moved there.