ROAD TRIP

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.

Despite the fact that Bandera brands itself the Cowboy Capital of the World--a warning sign to seekers of authenticity if ever there was one--we felt compelled to stop. First, because it's known for some great honky-tonks; and second, because the Hill Country State Natural Area there offers the best trail riding in Hill Country.

Bandera's Old West building façades are fetching, but most house mediocre food and overpriced cowboy-and-Indian paraphernalia. The most authentic place we saw was a pawnshop. There wasn't much to buy--an old VCR, some knives--but there was plenty to see. One sign exhorted us to join the NRA. Another lampooned the homeless: MAKE BIG BUCKS (TAX-FREE) WITH YOUR OWN "WILL WORK FOR FOOD" FRANCHISE. WE'LL SUPPLY THE CARDBOARD SIGN AND THE THRIFT-STORE CLOTHING.

Our afternoon at the state natural area more than made up for our disappointment in the town. I can't imagine a better way to experience the region's sun-dappled hills than on the back of a horse. Our wrangler from Desert Hearts Cowgirl Club was a feisty former driller technician named Jeanne Beauxbeannes (it's pronounced "gee-nee bo-bi-ni"; she renamed herself after she met the love of her life, a woman). She twisted around in her saddle to regale us with stories about some of her most memorable clients--women from Los Angeles who planned to ride in high heels, a Japanese man who showed up in stiff new cowboy boots and Wranglers, then obsessively photographed armadillos.

That evening, we went to Bandera High School to watch the Bandera Bulldogs play the Wimberley Texans. High school football is taken very seriously in Texas. Games are often broadcast on the radio, and sportscasters do postgame analysis. The Bulldogs have several squadrons of supporters. Besides the usual suspects--marching band, cheerleaders, a couple of majorettes twirling batons--there are the Star Steppers, a pom-pom squad in sequined halters who do a little hand jive whenever the Bulldogs score; the bake sale organizers, who peddle Bandera-blue Rice Krispie treats; and a flag-waving color guard.

I was standing next to a girl who had "64" painted on one of her cheeks. A younger girl sidled up and asked timidly, "Do you know some of the players?"

"Yes," the girl answered, her eyes remaining fixed on the field.

"Do you have any of their phone numbers?"

"A few." She wasn't offering any up, though.

On Bandera's Old West-style main street is a bona fide honky-tonk. When the 11th Street Cowboy Bar opened in 1962, it was the size of a shotgun shack. The original building is still there, but behind it an outdoor stage and a terrace for dancing have recently been added. The members of the Almost Patsy Cline Band look like moonlighting high school principals, but they play like old pros--well enough to inspire dozens of two-stepping couples.

The two-step is a partner dance with one basic step, a sort of syncopated shuffle: right-left, right-left, right-left. Alyssa has been two-stepping since she could walk, so I figured she could teach me. "Here?" she asked, gesturing to the Marlboro men in flannel shirts and boots ferrying their women around the dance floor, arms hooked protectively around their necks. "It might not go over too well."

I suggested we head a couple hours north to Eldorado. The owners of the X Bar Ranch have been running cattle for five generations. But as serial droughts make it difficult to eke out a profit as a rancher, the family's oldest son, Stan Meador, came up with the idea of opening the ranch up to overnight guests. It appealed to us because of the solitude and the rugged beauty. The pool, a former livestock watering tank, is pretty unusual, too.

Stan took us on a sunset hike across the rocky land to look for the pink limestone that characterizes burnt-rock middens, Native American fire pits that functioned as ovens thousands of years ago. The landscape in Eldorado is subtler than in the rest of melodramatic Hill Country. The swells relax and the air becomes parched; oak trees and maples are replaced by curly mesquite, junipers, yucca, and 12 varieties of prickly pear cactus. Alyssa and I ate dinner in town at a Mexican place, Rosa's Casita, where we eavesdropped on the small-town gossip. Afterward, we lay in chaise lounges on the terrace of the main lodge and gazed up at a sky dizzy with stars, then we shuffled back to our cabin to sleep.

There's not much to Eldorado: a gas station, two variety stores, and Rosa's. But what the town lacks in commercial vitality it makes up for in character. Jim Runge grew up in Eldorado as the son of a rancher and then moved away for 35 years. When he returned five years ago, determined to breathe some life into his sleepy hometown, he launched a festival. "Our Running of the Bull is like the one in Spain," says Runge, "only here people run their mouths, telling tall tales." Next came the Del Goatarod, a riff on the Iditarod, with goats instead of dogs, and sleds designed to look like spaceships and baby buggies.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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