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.

By Kimberley Sevcik, Tuesday, Apr 17, 2007, 12:00 AM

(Alyssa Banta)

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.

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.

We headed south again, toward Luckenbach, made famous by the Waylon Jennings song. On weekends people travel there from all over Hill Country to sit under the live oaks and listen to guitarists and banjo players pick out Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker tunes. The music wasn't memorable, but I was happy to spend the afternoon in the shade, drinking Shiner Bock beer and listening to gray-bearded Willie acolytes pay tribute.

Over in New Braunfels, we hung out at Lone Star Music, which is stocked with the music of Texas musicians--to qualify, they must have been born in Texas or lived in Texas, though there are a few honorary Texans like Johnny Cash. "He loved Texas," the clerk explained. We spent an hour asking for recommendations and getting the clerk to play them for us, and left with a road trip's worth of CDs, wishing we'd come upon the place earlier.

Gruene Hall, Texas's oldest dance hall, is a high-ceilinged place with worn wooden floors, perfect for boot-scootin', which is Texan for dancing. (Gruene, by the way, is pronounced "green.") When we walked in, however, people were standing on the dance floor, rather than surrounding it, and they were facing the stage. Turns out a concert was scheduled that night, and not even a genuine country-western concert. The band opened with "Uncle John's Band."

We hadn't traveled all this way to hear Grateful Dead covers, so we took shelter in the Hoity Toit Beer Joint. We were hopeful when we pulled up: It was a low-slung building on a dark residential street, and the façade was strung with white lights that gave it a thrillingly illicit air. But we were crestfallen to find a trio of women warbling their way through a Shania Twain song. Karaoke night.

A tall guy stumbled to the microphone, and the opening bars to "Walk the Line" came on. A burly man in a flannel shirt asked if I'd like to dance. I warned him that I didn't know how to two-step.

"Just do your best, darlin'," he said.

So I did. I hooked my thumb through his belt loop, moved to the rhythm, and listened to a drunken, football-jerseyed 28-year-old mimicking Johnny Cash, adopted son of the Republic of Texas.

It wasn't particularly Texan, or particularly cultural. But was it authentic? I asked Alyssa what she thought as we drove back to our hotel at 2 A.M. She looked at me like I'd be better off window-shopping in Greenwich. "Hell, yeah," she said. Was it the absence of doilies? The free-flowing Lone Star beer? Or just the improvised nature of it all? I never figured it out, but she's the Texan, so I took her at her word.

Best Boots Ever
Founded in 1915, Little's Boot Co. is now run by third-generation boot maker Dave Little, who has a small assembly line of craftsmen. Little gave us a lesson in the nuances of the art. It involves taking six measurements on each foot, sketching a design, then carving out of leather whatever impossibly intricate images the customer dreams up (such as one pair we saw with a cowboy playing his guitar and standing next to a blooming cactus). 110 Division Ave., San Antonio, 210/923-2221, davelittleboots.com

  • Desert Hearts Cowgirl Club 10101 Hwy. 172 N, 830/796-7001, banderatex.com
  • 11th Street Cowboy Bar 307 11th St., Bandera, 830/796-4849, 11thstreet cowboybar.com
  • Friends of Hospice Thrift Shop 125 N. High St., Uvalde, 830/486-0939
  • Gruene Hall 1281 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels, 830/606-1281, gruenehall.com
  • Hill Country State Natural Area 10600 Bandera Creek Rd., Bandera, 830/796-4413, tpwd.state.tx.us
  • The Hog Pen Hwy. 83 N & Hwy. 337 W, Leakey, 830/279-8408
  • Hoity Toit Beer Joint 421 E. Torrey St., New Braunfels, 830/625-0107
  • The Lodges at Lost Maples Vanderpool, 877/216-5627, lostmaplescabins.com
  • Lone Star Music 1243 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels, 830/627-1992, lonestarmusic.com
  • Rosa's Casita 318 SW Main St., Eldorado, 325/853-2506
  • Simon Brothers Mercantile 2 Main St., Roosevelt, 325/446-2604
  • Uvalde Rexall Drug 201 N. Getty, Uvalde, 830/278-2589
  • The West 114 N. Getty, Uvalde, 830/591-2401
  • X Bar Ranch Eldorado, 888/853-2688, xbarranch.com, tour from $25