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.
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.
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?
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:
On my way to Pedernales Falls State Park I stopped briefly at the Blanco River State Park in Blanco. You could do a free 10-minute quick drive-through, or pay the nominal park fee. I opted for the drive-through, since the park is primarily for camping, fishing and swimming.
The striking feature is the color of the river. It’s difficult to capture it well, but it is representative of the color of all of the rivers and creeks I saw in the Hill Country…a sort of transparent to translucent green jade. I was later told by Gil (Jill) one of my lodging hosts, that the color of the creeks and rivers changes, and that she thinks that the water reflects the color of the trees on the banks, which change over the course of the year.
Anyway, here are just a couple of quick snapshots of the Blanco River that I jumped out of my car to get. They don’t really show how deep the jade color is, but they’ll give you an idea.
Pedernales Falls is another story…really more of another planet. It’s a 6-mile drive into the park to get to the short trail to the falls. In CT, six miles is likely bigger than the entirety of any park, itself. Before I saw it, I was thinking, “Oh…picturesque water falls, lazily flowing over some rocks.” Pedernales Falls is not that kind of falls. To me, it was a little unnerving.
You begin by looking down over the falls area, which is expansive. The falls area…on this dry day…was probably a couple/few-hundred yards wide and stretches out in both directions as far as you can see. From high up on the viewing area, it looks like a series of fairly smooth, gradually sloped and descending rock ledges, interrupted by pools and ponds of water. Peaceful enough.
Here are a few individual images and one panoramic image of the falls from the viewing area. They really don’t capture what you are seeing, but it’s the best I could do.
If you’re a little adventurous (which most people are), you can take the single narrow stone stairway down onto the rock ledges and explore them to your heart’s content. The first thing is, you don’t realize how vast the ledges are until you are walking on them. The second thing is, once you’re down on the rock ledges, which look fairly smooth from the viewing area, you realize that they are actually full of all different size and shaped smooth shallow holes, worn in from the water over the millennia…basically stone Swiss-cheese…and that there are cracks and drop-offs all over the place, so you have to watch every step you take.
And as you begin to explore, it’s very easy to lose track of where that single narrow stone stair trail is, that dropped you onto the ledges, since there are no signs. But, all of the rock and water textures and features continue to draw you further out onto the rocks. And you wonder where the falls are. You wonder where all of the water is that created all of the holes in the ledges and that left pools and ponds of water behind. A part of me was a little disconcerted and a little anxious, but it’s probably mostly just my nature.
Here are a few random photos from down on the ledges. They don’t at all capture the Swiss-cheese texture, unfortunately. But, the enormous boulder that’s jammed into the huge hole in the cliff face might make you wonder how it got there.
Other visitors are also wandering around on the ledges. They don’t seem the least bit concerned. Eventually, I decided to begin to head back to the stone stairway. Because of all of the holes and cracks and drop-offs, it takes time to carefully pick your way back, especially since you lose track of just how far you have wondered.
And then, I couldn’t find the stone stairway. It’s just one, narrow, unmarked opening in a steep slope covered with brush and boulders. Again…there’s no sign. They couldn’t put up a little sign? A sign would probably get washed away, so I understand the logic.
I ended up combing back and forth over the slope a few times before I found the exit stairway. That was a little nerve-wracking, because I’m thinking about flash-floods, despite it being a dry day. That’s just how my mind works. I’m a worrier.
I was also wondering how anyone could get quickly off the ledges in the event of a flash flood, since I only saw the one narrow exit. Once back up to the viewing area and on the short trail back to the parking lot, I bumped into a young man who told me that he grew up in the Hill Country and that as a Boy Scout, he had taken trips to the falls, where he was cautioned that it’s a fine line between when it’s safe to be down on the ledges, and when it is not…if there is water flowing over them. Because, if a flash flood starts, the water could be eight feet deep and surging in about ten minutes.
In the end, I was glad that I was able to explore the ledges on a dry day, despite no dramatic falls to view. The ledges were interesting enough to explore.
Hey, y’all! I’m back! I’m in Austin right now. Got here yesterday, late afternoon, and I’ll be here for the next two nights.
Really sorry for the long absence…but, you can’t say that I didn’t warn yuh. Between the temperamental Wi-Fi at the B&B and the guest-ranch where I stayed, and the activity-rich environment I was immersed in, there was just no reception and no time to post.
But, I’m gonna try to start makin’ it up to you, now. Just know…I was in Hill Country heaven for the past four days. I’m just not sure I’ll be able to adequately convey what it all felt like…but I’ll try.
So, I spent my first day in the Hill Country, generally in the east/northeast region…San Marcos…Devil’s Backbone…the historic Fischer Dance Hall (unfortunately closed until later in the day)…Blanco State Park…Pedernales Falls State Park…and ending the day at The Italian Place, a very cozy B&B in Stonewall, a very small town a little west of Johnson City on Highway-290, one of the main roads in the Hill Country.
Driving through any of the Hill Country, I’m not sure there’s any way to convey the feeling of what you’re seeing, in photos, or even in a video for that matter.
There are endless rolling hills and the valleys between them…endless…one after another in some areas…some hills are more gentle…some are long and steeper, and descend just as long and steep on the other side, after you crest the top, like a rollercoaster. There are all kinds of hills…and all kinds of curves. After all…they don’t call it the Hill Country for nothin’. Sometimes, there’s a long, straight, flat stretch. Most of the time…you’re really out in the middle of nowhere…ranch country.
It’s arid country. The soil is either a hard, dry, pale tan clay…or rock. The trees are generally shorter and stockier than I’m used to in New England, and are primarily oak, juniper and cedar…and there are a lot of pecan trees. The landscape is sprawling. There is so much open space that it’s nearly hard to comprehend. As a New Englander, I am not used to being able to see out into the distance very often. In Texas, in general, you’re able to see out into the distance pretty much everywhere. And in the Hill Country, that distance is filled with hills and valleys.
Trees can be in groves, with a little space between each one. Or sometimes they dot the landscape, with various bushes, tall grasses and cactus filling in some of the spaces. And there are also dense forests. Creeks, streams and rivers are everywhere. Flooding and flash-flooding are constant issues and dangers. They are a part of everyday life in the Hill Country. There are constant road signs warning to watch out for water on the roads. There are even water gauges along the roads that measure the potential flooding in that spot…in feet.
A lot of roads are lined with fences. You frequently pass ranch gates along the road, with the ranch’s name or monogram on or near the gate, and a gravel road disappearing into the distance.
Speed limits vary widely from 25 or 35 mph in towns and around particularly sharp curves…up to 70 mph out in the countryside. Speed limit signs approaching broad curves out in the countryside, caution you to slow down to 65 mph. If you’re not doin’ 70/75 mph out on these roads, you’re holding up the lone pickup truck bearing down on you.
All of that said, the landscapes that you are driving through are beautiful and often expansive. It’s a rugged beauty that is so foreign to me, being from lush, green New England.
My first stop was supposed to be a bar called Devil’s Backbone Tavern. GPS directed me to “Riley’s Tavern on the Backbone” (in hindsight, I think I just turned in too soon). I saw “Backbone” in the name and figured it was just a name-change since the twenty-year-old article I was basing my Hill Country tour on, so I stopped there. Riley’s is a funky bar with lots of “stuff” all over the walls.
People look at you in Texas…they look you over, and are not bashful about doing it. They will also immediately strike up a conversation with you as soon as you walk in the door. This is just the way it is. The handful of locals (I hope “locals” is okay. “Residents” sounds too formal.) hanging out at Riley’s looked me over as soon as I walked in, but were also immediately friendly and funny, as soon as I self-deprecatingly introduced myself as a tourist. I instantly liked this vibe, so I decided to stay for lunch. As I was perusing the brief chalkboard menu on the wall, a woman sitting at a nearby table suggested I order one of Riley’s burgers, so I did, and started to settle in.
Then, I brought in my camera and asked the lone barmaid (is it barmaid or barista?) if she’d mind if I took some pictures…again, explaining this road-trip vacation. She was very friendly and was perfectly fine with it.
As I made myself more comfortable, I noticed the local guys starting to cajole the barmaid about something, but I couldn’t understand what at first. Then, the barmaid came out from behind the bar and proceeded to launch into a perfectly executed handstand, right on the concrete floor, apparently for my photographic benefit. This is what the cajoling was about. It happened so suddenly, that I barely had a chance to get my camera up into place.
So, she did it again, remaining in a perfect handstand on the barroom floor, long enough for me to grab one photo. Unfortunately, with the portrait lens I’m using, I was too close to capture her full-length, but here is her torso in handstand position. No joke. No one is steadying her.
Everyone is cracking up throughout this demonstration. So, obviously, I’m thinking, “This is my kind of bar.”
Then, without warning, the barmaid launched into a perfectly executed cartwheel on the concrete floor. No warning, so I wasn’t able to capture that. But, how cool is that? Welcome to the Hill Country.
My burger was delicious, by the way. After all…this is cattle country. How could it not?
After the handstand and cartwheel, I asked the barmaid if I could take a couple of photos of her behind the bar. She was happy to oblige. She and I looked them over and decided these were the two best.
At some point, a gentleman suggested that I go to the bar next door…the Devil’s Backbone Tavern. I think I said something like, “I thought this was the tavern. You mean there’s another one?” They said, this is Riley’s. The historic Devil’s Backbone Tavern was just a couple hundred yards away. So, guess what?
I don’t know why, but it was only as I was saying my goodbyes that I asked the barmaid her name. She said her name is “Ethney”. Very cool name.
Next stop…the historic Devil’s Backbone Tavern…just a couple hundred feet or yards further down the road.
The interior of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern is old and dark.
Again, upon entering, I immediately introduced myself to the lone barmaid as “just a tourist”. There were two gentlemen at one of the couple small tables, and another gentleman at the bar.
This place is old…nearly one-hundred years old, according to the barmaid, who immediately began giving me a tour. I already had my camera with me, and again asked if it would be okay if I took some photos. She said it would be perfectly fine.
First, she showed me the famous Hearth Keystone, located in the small hearth at the far end of the tavern. Local lore says it looks like the devil. They may be right. In-person, it’s very dark, and hard to see the detail. Here is an over-exposed image I was able to get.
Did I mention that this Tavern is supposed to be haunted? Now, I don’t believe in such things…but, if anyplace was haunted, this would be it. You can just feel the history of this place.
Next, the barmaid took me through an old wooden door into the rarely-used tavern dance hall. Now, this dusty old room certainly looked haunted. It was very cool.
Oh, and this time, I asked the barmaid her name, early-on. Her name is Megan. Megan let me take a couple of pics of her behind the bar. Here’s the best one.
The tavern room is long and narrow. Along one long wall is the bar, itself (above photo). And taking up virtually the full length of the other long wall is this very cool, vintage shuffle-board game…still actively in use.
So, I was already off to a pretty good start in the Hill Country.