Texas Hill Country – Day-4 (Sunday) – Part-1…Double U Barr breakfast & Dixie Dude Ranch Trail Ride…

Sunday was my last day in the Hill Country, so I wanted to savor it.  Losing myself on the back roads, hikes, great meals and honky-tonks was just what I needed to sort of restore myself.  So, if you ever need to get away from everything…and I mean really getting away from it all…the Hill Country is certainly one place that will do that for you.

I finally did have the presence of mind to take a few snapshots of our last Double U Barr Ranch breakfast, courtesy of our generous hosts, Brett and Gil.  This morning, “Sticky French Toast”, Alsatian sausage and a potato-cheese dish were on the menu, along with eggs and fruit, if I recall.  The Sticky French Toast, in particular, was out of this world.  Here are a few pics:

Before breakfast, I had bumped into Gil on her front porch, and had the opportunity to chat for a while about how she and Brett found, purchased and began to renovate the Double U Barr Ranch.  I won’t go into details, but it’s a pretty amazing story.

Then, we got talking about all of the pecan trees…a grove of them, really…in their front yard, where the deer are always hanging out.  Gil explained the process of harvesting them, which is labor-intensive and which leaves the tips of your thumb and index finger nearly-permanently stained brown.  Gil and Brett harvest the pecans themselves, and this fall is the first time that they are going to begin selling fresh shelled pecans by the pound.

Later, over breakfast, Gil showed us her very first pound of bagged and labeled pecans that she had shelled.  I immediately jumped at the chance, and asked if I could buy them.  Gil said, “Sure!”  So, I am the proud owner of the first pecans produced for sale from the Double U Barr Ranch.  Cool?

Sadly, then it was time to say my goodbyes, because I had a date with a horseback trail ride at the Dixie Dude Ranch, on the other side of Bandera, and could not be late.

Again, I really lucked out in my pre-trip research by happening upon the Dixie Dude Ranch.  It is the oldest, continuously operating dude ranch in the Hill Country, and is a working ranch, as well.

The Dixie Dude Ranch has remained focused on keeping things very rustic, which is really what you want, if as a tourist, you are in search of fulfilling your “inner cowboy/cowgirl”, and which is a major ingredient in this ranch’s formula for continued success.

Here are a few pics of the exterior:

And yours-truly on his trusty ride, Sheriff:

I was in a small group of five or six other riders with one cowboy leading, and one guiding from the rear.  Sheriff was positioned at the end of the group, so I took the opportunity to chat-up the thirty-something cowboy at the back.  It turned out that he is a real cowboy, seventh-generation Texan, and used to ride the rodeo circuit, until recent fatherhood demanded that he stay closer to home.

So, I got a great education in the Dixie Dude Ranch, the rodeo circuit and the Hill Country landscape, etc. over the course of the ride.  The ride, itself, despite being entirely at a walking pace, was rugged and rocky.  There were short, but suddenly steep dips and inclines, always brushing against low branches of the cedar and juniper trees, winding our way up to a scenic ridge and back down again.  It was everything I could have wanted from a Hill Country trail ride.

As we approached the main parking area, I could overhear the riders in front of me laughing about a trail of cat-prints on one of the cars.  As I caught up to the same area, I could see that, in fact, this turned out to be my car:

I had forgotten that I had woken up to a downpour with lightning that morning, which had passed as suddenly as it started.  That left muddy clay puddles around that one of the Dixie Dude Ranch cats must have found before exploring my car, while we were all out on the trail.  The perfect ending to the perfect trail ride.

Texas Hill Country – Day-3 (Saturday) – Part-3…Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon…

After dinner at Mac & Ernie’s, I headed back to the Double U Barr Ranch to get cleaned up for my last night in Bandera.  My destination was Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon, and I brought my DSLR camera, because I had stopped in the night before, and saw photo-ops all over the place.

The owner, Arkey Blue, is still around, and according to my host, Gil, he is an incredibly generous and supportive man, particularly with his employees.  He pays his barmaids and waitresses in cash after their shifts every night.  Gil said that one time, Arkey noticed that one of his employees needed new tires and told the employee to go to the local tire shop and tell the owner to put a set of tires on his/Arkey’s tab.  Gil’s daughter even worked at the silver dollar for a while.

The Silver Dollar has a door on Main Street in Bandera, but the saloon is actually in the basement.  It’s a little dark (like all true honky-tonks should be), and there’s memorabilia plastered all over the walls.  There is even sawdust spread across the small, concrete dance floor.

As I got to the bottom of the stairs from Main Street, and was paying the nominal cover charge to the hostess, I asked her if it would be okay if I took some photos of the band (showing her my DSLR).  She called over to the lead-guitarist (they were between songs) and asked him.  Jessie, the guitarist, said, “Sure! Take all you want!”

That’s how friendly it is at Arkey’s.

Here are some photos of the band that I was able to capture:

Now, I haven’t mentioned this, but before my trip, I had a travel-blog card made up, to give out to people to help break the ice, and let them know, I was only on vacation and was photographing and writing about this adventure.  That card has already come in very handy, and was particularly helpful in navigating Arkey Blue’s.

First, when I am actually photographing, I’m moving all over the place, trying out different angles, crouching to get low angles, etc.  This activity naturally draws a lot of attention.  And as I’ve said, Texans are not bashful about looking you over, or even approaching you to ask what you’re doing.

So, as I began moving beyond photographing just the band, I began introducing myself to people and asking them if they’d mind me photographing them…behind the bar…shooting pool…whatever.  And when I felt it might be helpful, I’d pull out a card, give it to the person and explain my road-trip.  This went a long way to dispelling any potential misinterpretations of what I was doing, and actually triggered my making a bunch of new friends.

Here are some photos of some of the folks at the Silver Dollar:

At one point an entire table of about eight people were watching me, and one gentleman from the table finally approached me.  I gave him a card and explained my trip.  Then, another man from the same table joined the conversation.  Before I knew it, the first gentleman offered me a drink…a whiskey and Coke on the rocks.

You see, at many bars and restaurants in the South and Texas, there is a term called a “Set-up”.  I always wondered what that meant, but could never find a definition on the internet.  But, as Brett at the ranch explained, a Set-up means that patrons are allowed to bring their own bottles of liquor…whiskey, tequila, rum, whatever…into the bar or restaurant, but they have to buy the soda, water, etc., from the bar.  They can even bring in their own ice buckets and cups.

So, this gentleman was offering me a whiskey and Coke that he made for me himself, from his set-up.  To me, that meant that he knew I was on-the-level, and was almost an apology…or a “no hard feelings” kind of thing…for looking me over.  He also invited me to his table, where I met everyone and just hung out for the rest of the evening.

Here are a few photos from this group of new friends:

 

Another older couple also approached me…very friendly.  They were from Oklahoma and drive their RV to Bandera…about a ten-hour drive.  We chatted, as well.  Here’s a nice photo of them:

So, this is how it goes.  I realize I’m going to get looks when I really start getting in my photography zone, so I do everything I can to reassure folks around me…and ask permission…so, that we can all have a good time.  I am in heaven on nights like this.  It’s an honor to meet everyone I meet, and to be given the opportunity to photograph these slices of honky-tonk life.

Texas Hill Country – Day-3 (Saturday) – Part-2…Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery…

Out on Ranch Road 470, you would pass right through Tarpley and Mac & Ernie’s, if someone didn’t tell you they were there.  Like many small towns in the Hill Country (and in Texas, in general), Tarpley consisted of one, small, non-descript general store, a similarly non-descript honky-tonk (which I didn’t even see, but Brett and Gil mentioned it), and Mac & Ernie’s, which is also so non-commercial, that you would easily cruise right by it, if someone hadn’t told you about it.

But, Mac & Ernie’s is a hidden gem.  Gil told me…I hope I have this right…that either Mac or Ernie had been a chef at a 5-star restaurant in San Antonio, but decided to move out here.  Lucky Tarpley and Bandera.

Mac & Ernie’s is an extremely low-key, modest, friendly establishment that you just have to go to.  When you walk in, there is a chalkboard menu on the wall.  You place your order at the counter at one end of the open-kitchen design.  And if you want dessert, you’d better order it NOW…because it won’t be available later, if you wait.

Here are some snapshots of Mac & Ernie’s exterior, kitchen and chalkboard menu (notice the crossed-off items.  I arrived at 5:30.  I took the menu snapshot after I had my dinner):

I ordered the pork kabab with homemade pesto…a-MAZ-ing (and notice you are being served amazing food on Styrofoam plates.  LOVE it!):

When I was ordering, I asked Paula, who took my order, if I should wait to order dessert.  Paula informed me that there is one slice left of the one dessert being offered, so I’d better order it now, if I want it.  Of course I took Paula’s advice!

Here is my dessert…chocolate-walnut pecan-pie brownie with fresh whipped cream!  Out…of…this…world!

So…where are you going to go out for dinner, when you find yourself in Bandera?

Texas Hill Country – Day-3 (Saturday) – Part-1… Scenic Drive and Lost Maples…

Another couple, retired, was staying in the Texan cabin, next door to mine.  The routine was, the guests would head up to the main house at 9:00am for what turned out to be a-MAZ-ing breakfasts, made and served by Brett and Gil, along with conversations that helped us get to know each other a little, and get ideas of places to go and things to see in the greater-Bandera area, depending on our interests.

I wish I had the presence of mind to have snapped a few pics of the first morning’s breakfast: venison bacon, venison sausage, homemade fried green tomatoes, Gil’s homemade biscuits with gravy (she taught us the proper way to prepare them on our plates…you break up the whole biscuit and drizzle your own gravy over it), scrambled eggs made with eggs from the ranch, yellow tomatoes and red habanero peppers from their garden.

I didn’t know how to eat the whole habaneros (which were small enough to eat whole, but pack a bite), so Brett instructed me.  You first take a bite of other food, then take a little bite off the tip of the habanero, while the original bite of food is still in your mouth.  Then, chew the mix together before swallowing. Worked like a charm.  Adds just a little kick to whatever you’re eating.  Now, I want to try it back home.

So, this was how guests’ mornings started on the Double U Barr Ranch.  I highly recommend staying here when you’re in the area.  I got very lucky finding this lodging during my pre-trip research.

Today, my main goal was to hike one of the trails at Lost Maples State Natural Area, which I think may be one of the few…or the only…place in the Hill Country, or Texas, to see fall foliage colors.  I was there too early in the season to see the foliage, but that was fortuitous, since the park has limited parking, and the park and main road to the park get jammed up with traffic at the height of the foliage.

Brett suggested that I take the East Trail at Lost Maples, as this is the one with the highest elevation and best scenic views, so that became my goal.

Brett and Gil also highly recommended that, since I was going to be out that way, that I should stop for dinner on my way back, in Tarpley at Mac & Ernie’s, which is where Brett said that he and Gil always go when they want a special dinner in the area.  So, I added Mac & Ernie’s to my day.  With ranch breakfasts as amazing as Brett and Gil’s, I knew I was in for something special at Mac & Ernie’s.  You just have to go with the flow when you get local insider info like this.  I’ll get into Mac & Ernie’s in my next post.

I had also planned a scenic route to get to Lost Maples that started west of Kerrville, which is north of Bandera and is the largest town in the Hill Country.  My entire route for the day made a large counter-clockwise circle from Bandera…north to Kerrville (where I stopped for an oil change.  That’s how many miles I’m logging on this trip!)…onto TX-39 west…out to Ranch Road 187 South…down to Lost Maples…continuing south on RR-187 (after my hike) to Ranch Road 470, out to Mac & Ernie’s in Tarpley…and returning to the Double U Barr Ranch in Bandera.

But, the stretch from Ingram (southwest of Kerrville), down along the Guadalupe River, and continuing down RR-187 South to Lost Maples was the main scenic route.  This was beautiful countryside, and was arguably my second favorite scenic drive in the Hill Country.  The entire Lost Maples area is beautiful.

As Brett suggested, I did hike the East Trail, and as a park ranger suggested when I got to Lost Maples, I did the trail loop counter-clockwise, which is a little easier than clockwise.

Following my experience hiking Enchanted Rock, I opted not to take my DSLR camera, or my cellphone, to save weight (the DSLR is a bit brawny), and for fear of dropping and damaging my cellphone (which I’m relying so heavily on for GPS on this trip) on the rocks (which luckily did not happen at Enchanted Rock).  In hindsight, it would have been nice to have a couple of snapshots from the trail and the scenic overlooks on the ridge, but it was one less thing to worry about, not bringing them.

The East Trail is about 4 ½ miles long and is beautiful.  It’s also very challenging and a bit treacherous on the two steep stretches (heading up to the ridge…and then back down).  But, the lengthy level areas…leading to and from the steep stretches and along the ridge…are really pleasant.  The level stretches at the lower elevation cross a number of trickling brooks via stepping stones, which is cool (and challenges your balance!).

Hiking the loop counter-clockwise, the steep ascent to the ridge heads nearly straight up the side of the hill via a mix of natural rocks and manmade rock steps (versus any sort of traversing back and forth).  This is easier on the way up, when your legs are fresher.

The steep descent is a seemingly endless loose-rock-and-gravel slope that heads nearly straight back down the hill.  Although you really need to watch each and every step to avoid gaining any momentum, whatsoever, and to avoid slipping on the loose gravel, I think this is still a little easier than climbing down an endless stone staircase when your legs might be close to rubber by this point.  Just my personal preference.  Folks were hiking in both directions.

By the end of this hike, it was getting to late afternoon, and Brett and Gil strongly recommended that I get to Mac & Ernies before 5:30 (it opens at 5:00), because items on their limited menu quickly begin to get crossed off, the later you get there.  So, off I went.  Yikes!

Texas Hill Country – Day-2 (Friday) – Part-3…Bandera and the Double U Barr Ranch…

By the time I finished the hike at Enchanted Rock, I needed a meal…a late lunch or early dinner.  My original plan was to stop at the Hilltop Café, just north of downtown Fredericksburg.  I had read about the Hilltop Café in my research for this trip.  It sounded like a very cool, funky place.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that it is closed from 2:00pm to 5:00pm, and it was now about 3:00pm.

But, I was headed that way, anyway, so I stopped in.  It was closed, but as I was confirming the closed sign on the door, a very friendly woman came to the door and asked if she could help me.  I briefly explained my trip and my interest in seeing what the Hilltop Café was all about…and she invited me inside, not only to show me around, but to give me the history of the place and of the blues-guitarist owner, Johnny Nicholas, who has played (and still does) with many well-known musicians, like Bonnie Raitt.

I was actually too tired to take any pictures, despite Kayla, my guide, telling me I could take as many as I’d like.  So, this is one of those situations where I know I’ll have to come back.  If you are in the Fredericksburg area, you should definitely check it out.  It’s one of the coolest places in the Hill Country.

I was still looking for somewhere to get a good meal, so I asked Kayla.  She suggested Hondo’s on Main Street in Fredericksburg, so I headed there.  Now, I didn’t make the connection at first, but Hondo (reading his abbreviated bio on the Hondo site), was the self-proclaimed mayor of Luckenbach, TX, among many other things.  Hondo was a character, according to everything I’ve read.  And his spirit lives on at Luckenbach and Hondo’s On Main, and many other places in that area of the Hill Country, I suspect.

Hondo’s is another stop you should try to make if you get the chance.  The vibe is very funky…and the food is great.  I opted for the pulled pork tamales.  Here’s a photo of my nearly half-gone half-dozen:

And by the time I was done with my dinner, I was too tired and it was getting too late for any more scenic drives, so I decided to skip the latter plans on my turn-by-turn directions and head straight to the Double U Barr Ranch, just outside of Bandera (cowboy capital of Texas), where I’d be staying for the next two nights.

The Double U Barr is a guest ranch, but they have quite a few animals…half a dozen longhorn steer, chickens, dogs, cats…along with the armadillo that was rooting around the front porch of my little guest cabin…and deer all over the yard.

Here are a few random snapshots I captured:

Here is the main house and my cabin…the Cowboy cabin (there are two.  The Texan being the other), as well as the main driveway with pecan trees to the right.

And here are my hosts…owners of the Double U Barr, and two of the kindest, nicest, friendliest and most helpful people you’ll ever meet…Brett and his wife, Gil:

Whether alone or in a group, Brett was extremely sociable and loved conversation.  Gil was more reserved in a small group, but one-on-one, she had as much to say as Brett.  I learned so much about them, how they bought and renovated the ranch over the past twenty years, Bandera and the Hill Country…from the inside.

There were two last stops in downtown Bandera that I wanted to at least briefly check out this first night in Bandera, so as soon as I got settled and freshened-up in the Cowboy Cabin, I headed out into the pitch black night (have I mentioned that outside of any town (and minimally in small towns, for that matter), there are absolutely no streetlights in the Hill Country?  The Hill Country is as dark as pitch at night.  It can be very disorienting.  You really have no idea what direction you are heading in, driving at night, unless you live there and gradually get used to how to get here and there.)

So, the two downtown Bandera destinations were, the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, and Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar (I could not find an official website), a true sawdust-on-the-dance-floor old-school honky-tonk.  Both were one easy walking block from each other, so it was easy to get a glimpse of both at one time.

I knew I was going to be in Bandera for another night, so I did not bring my DSLR camera, and only took a couple of snapshots with my cellphone.  Here is one from the ceiling of the indoor bar of the 11th Street Cowboy Bar that I’ll leave you with, just to give you an idea of what you are in for when you go:

Prelude to the Texas Hill Country…

From Houston, I’ll be spending my next few days taking some scenic drives (actually, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 miles of scenic drives…yikes!), visiting a few of the very cool nature preserves and, hopefully, dancing at a couple of dancehalls or honky-tonks, all in the Texas Hill Country.  The Hill Country is generally…arguably…considered the prettiest region of Texas…outside of the Big Bend National Park region in the southwest.  The Hill Country is beautiful, but in my limited experience, so far, I’ve found many areas of Texas quite beautiful for a variety of reasons.  That said, I’ll be starting this portion of my trip at the eastern edge of the Hill Country, in San Marcos, which is south of Austin.

According to the website, texasthestateofwater.org, geologically-speaking, the area of the Hill Country is comprised of the 31,000 sq. mile Edwards Plateau, plus the 5,000 sq. mile Llano Uplift, which is located inside the Edwards Plateau.  Other figures I’ve found, state that the area of the Hill Country ranges from somewhere between 8,100 sq. miles, to around 14,000 sq. miles.

By comparison, Connecticut, my home state, is a mere 5,543 sq. miles in area…the entire state.  Suffice it to say, the Hill Country is a big, open landscape, comprised of rolling hills crisscrossed with many streams and rivers.  It’s pretty country, no matter how you look at it.

This leg of my trip is a happy accident that evolved out of a huge mistake on my part, early in my trip-planning.  In my research, I stumbled onto a very long, detailed article online, in Texas Monthly Magazine, titled The Ultimate Hill Country Tour, which I didn’t realize until I was in too deep, had been published twenty years ago.  Written by Joe Nick Patoski, a Hill Country resident, the article is a meticulous description of the author’s quintessential Hill Country scenic drives, along with some favorite places…restaurants, shops, nature preserves…to stop along the way.  After dipping my toe in the Hill Country on my last trip three years ago…Hamilton Pool PreserveThe Salt Lick BBQLuckenbach…I was hooked and wanted to see more.

The author did not provide a map, so I made the crazy decision to comb through every detail of the article…scribbling notes in the margins…highlighting passages…piecing clues together…and eventually…after days of intense scrutiny…pretty much figured out every state highway, byway and back-road he had described, mapping it all out in Google Maps.

Mr. Patoski drove this route in four days, which is how I have it laid out, with a couple/few deviations.  I’m hoping I’m allowing enough time.  It’s a lot of curvy, hilly, back-road driving with nicknames and road-names, like “Devil’s Backbone” and “Willow Loop”, plus stops for some scenic hikes.  And I hope I have enough energy after driving and hiking all day, to enjoy some dancing, out at a couple of cool dancehalls.  Google Maps claims my driving times are reasonable.  But, we shall see.

If you look at a map of central Texas, and begin literally or visually drawing an irregular, counter-clockwise loop (maybe a lasso would be more appropriate)…connecting the dots…starting from Austin…north to Lampasas…further north to Meridian…west to Comanche…southwest down to Brady…further southwest down to Junction…due-south to Uvalde…east to San Antonio…and back north, returning to Austin…you will have generally outlined the area known as the Hill Country.  This is not my route.  My route falls inside this rough perimeter and is considerably more irregular…more like the beginnings of a child’s Spirograph drawing.

Here’s a link to this cool Cartoon Map of the Hill Country (click on the 4-arrows icon at bottom-right of image to enlarge) that I came across in my trip-planning.  If you look closely, a little northeast of Johnson City in pale letters, you’ll see Pedernales Falls State Park.  This will be one of my nature stops.  North of Johnson City, you’ll see Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, a pink granite dome rising 425 feet above the surrounding landscape, the second largest granite dome in the U.S., which is known to be a very cool spot for hiking…another planned stop.

And in the southwest area, north of Vanderpool, you’ll see Lost Maples State Natural Area, which is another hiking area and planned stop, that’s known for being the best place to view fall foliage in Texas, during the last two weeks in October and the first two weeks of November, depending on the weather.  From what I’ve read, there is limited parking at Lost Maples, and the park and main road can get very crowded during the peak season, especially on weekends (which is when my schedule brings me there), so I may be setting myself up for disappointment.  I’ll just have to wing it.

I’ll be staying in the Hill Country for three nights, two of which I’ll be staying in a guest cabin on a working Longhorn cattle ranch in Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital” of Texas.  I also hope to be able to go on a horseback trail-ride on another ranch in Bandera.

My point is, there is a lot to see and do in the Hill Country, and you can really only get to a few things at a time.  Also, you might think I’m crazy, devoting all of this time to scenic drives…and you may be right…because, among many other attractions, the Hill Country boasts an extensive wine-trail, with over fifty wineries, and I’ll be lucky to have time to stop at even one on this trip.  But, aren’t wine-trails best enjoyed with company?  So, since I’m ridin’ solo, I’ll save the wine-trail for another time.

I’m explaining all of this in advance, partly because the Hill Country is just that…hilly.  And partly because, despite how crowded the cartoon map makes it look, the Hill Country is also mostly very rural, open countryside, so my internet…as well as my GPS…may be spotty.  I don’t want my family or friends to be concerned if I don’t surface for a few days.  I’m sure I’ll be fine, and will just be having a blast, getting myself lost in the Texas countryside.

I’ll be spending a couple of days in Austin on my way out of the Hill country, so hopefully, I’ll have some time to catch up a bit there, if I’m behind.  As always…best laid plans.  I really don’t know how any of this will work out.  All I can do is plan and go.