This Ain't Connecticut
If you're looking for barbecue, boot-scootin', and banjo-pickin'--and maybe an actual cowboy--then get on over to Hill Country. It's small-town Texas at its quirky best.
After flying halfway across the country, then driving eight hours on a featureless highway, I wasn't thrilled to spend my first night in Texas in a motel with this sign on the front door: IF YOU'RE SKIPPING SCHOOL, THEN SKIP THIS PLACE, TOO.
"Does that mean what I think it means?" I asked my friend Alyssa. She nodded.
Just that morning, we had set off on a best-of-Texas road trip. The state famously tried to secede from the U.S. in 1861, and it still feels like a separate country, with a separate culture. Texas has its own flag, its own music, its own dances, its own cuisine, its own dialect. It even has its own costume: Ignoring fashion trends, Texans continue to wear the same ten-gallon hats, Western shirts, and cowboy boots that they've been wearing for 100 years.
I'd convinced Alyssa, a born-and-bred Texan, to be my guide in the Hill Country. Instead of experiencing the cultural riches of the Great Republic, however, we were hanging out in a motel popular with teenagers looking for afternoon delight.
Thanks to the movies, some people think Texas is one big, flat, dusty plain. But the hills outside San Antonio aren't just speed bumps. They're rugged limestone buttes blanketed in cypress and live oak. THIS IS GOD'S COUNTRY, reads the city-limits sign outside Hondo. PLEASE DON'T DRIVE THROUGH IT LIKE HELL. We rushed respectfully along the roads toward the town of Uvalde, past shops offering "creative taxidermy" and steak houses with marquees welcoming hunters.
All the while, we kept an eye out for genuine general stores--ones that sell more farm supplies than doilies and potpourri. The best, Simon Brothers Mercantile in Roosevelt, has an impressive diorama of stuffed bears and possums and sells a brand of feed called Pig-Out alongside hippie jewelry made with turquoise and carnelian. The jewelry maker doubles as the town's postmaster.
Alyssa's sense of what was sufficiently Texan and what wasn't had the unequivocal authority of a fashion editor's list of what's in and what's out. Restaurants that were praised in my guidebook were no-go. So were quaint B&Bs that yearned for New England, overpriced barbecue joints and Western wear, and any place that smacked of prepackaged fun. Wherever we went, we looked for one or more of the following: a resoundingly local clientele, more customers drinking Texas beer than California wine, and a distinctly Texan sense of spontaneity and ease. As a result, we found ourselves more than once listening to the marriage woes of town eccentrics and shopping for cowboy boots at pawnshops and thrift stores.
In Uvalde, Alyssa picked up a pair of Justin Roper boots for $4 at the Friends of Hospice Thrift Shop while I coveted the new boots and Stetsons at The West. Then, at Uvalde Rexall Drug, we shared a Frito pie--chili in a corn-chip crust--at the 1950s soda-fountain counter, which also serves such old-time favorites as pimento-cheese sandwiches and limeade. The irreverent owner, Alan Carmichael, has run the place for 44 years and knows his customers by name.
Alyssa also wanted to take me to an off-the-radar rodeo, one that eludes what she called, with Texan derision, "window-shoppers from Connecticut." Somewhere southeast of San Antonio, we pulled over at a sign that said ¡BIENVENIDOS A MEXICO! Inside a pistachio-green cinder-block corral, men in sombreros and chaps urged their horses to chase after bulls. Mexican rodeo, or charreada, is definitely a sport for purists: The San Antonio Charro Association mandates that riders must wear chaps made of leather (even in the 100-degree summers) and must pull the bull down by its tail rather than lassoing it, a balletic feat requiring the charro to stretch his torso away from his horse. It was thrilling in the moment, and distressing in the aftermath, watching the reluctant, dazed bulls being herded back into the corral for yet another round.
Driving through Leakey, north of Uvalde, we came upon The Hog Pen, a converted gas station with a barbecue pit the size of a propane tank. Buddy Casteel bought the building, which he and his girlfriend planned to open as an antiques store, but then the pair split up. He didn't have an eye for antiques, but he knows how to make barbecue. Now he smokes brisket, chicken, pork chops, and boudin in one half of the shop, and his son runs Dirty Earl's Squeaky Clean Detailing in the other half. Alyssa and I split a delicious pulled pork sandwich. The meat was tender and smoky and just a shade spicy.
We spent the night at the Lodges at Lost Maples, which borders a gorgeous state park where we took a late-day hike along limestone creek beds beneath an orange-and-yellow canopy of trees. The inn is a quintet of cedar cabins done up Texas-quaint. Expressing state pride through interior design is common around here: We found at least a few pieces of Texas memorabilia (a tic-tac-toe set substituting boots and hats for x's and o's, for instance) at every inn and many restaurants. And always the Lone Star flag--fluttering at the gate, hung on the wall, woven into a doormat. In the morning, the Lodges' innkeeper, Jeralyn Hathorn, delivers warm, homemade pastries in her pickup.