Houston – Halloween Continued – Houston’s Highways and Stetson’s Nightlife…

Okay…so…I learned that my car will survive the remainder of my trip. Major sigh of relief. Check.

I followed in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain at the amazing Himalaya Restaurant, including the honor of meeting and chatting with the chef/owner. Double-check.

As I mentioned, following my four sort of intensively-immersed days in the Texas Hill Country, my plans for the remainder of this little adventure were primarily little things. There were many days that I had very little planned, especially during the day. And my nights, while still in Texas, were mostly spent checking out country-western dance halls I had not previously visited.

Houston is huge. But, it is not so much built up, like New York City, as it is built out. For better or worse, Houston is the poster-child for urban sprawl. The road and highway systems in each of the Lone Star State’s major cities are insane…insane. If you look at a Google map of Houston, for example, and have never been there, you might be scratching your head, wondering what I’m talking about. On your computer screen…zoomed out…in two-dimensions…the highway system appears very simply and neatly laid out. Downtown is sort of in the center of two concentric highway loops, with highway spokes radiating out, more or less evenly distributed.

But, one of the features you don’t see…can’t see…from this bird’s eye view, and in only two-dimensions…are the highway interchanges. Zoom in on pretty much any highway interchange and you will begin to see what I mean. Zoomed-in, these interchanges start to take on the form of an artist’s rendering of a complex, braided, sailor’s knot.

And if you could see a three-dimensional view, you would see that some of the strands of this braided knot are actually two, three…up to five-level, high-flying, fly-over ramps, the highest in Houston (I just read) being 115-feet, the second highest in the U.S.

These fly-over ramps are everywhere…and you can see more under construction everywhere you go. Houston has this reputation of constantly changing…constantly evolving…and you see it everywhere.

I just found this cool video that explains, and takes you on, each level of the above 5-level “stacked” highway interchange. Buckle-up and take a ride:

So, this was actually one of the little personal challenges I gave myself for this trip. In my mind, all of these “little” destinations in the Lone Star state’s big cities would force me to get used to navigating these tangled, high-flying stacked highway interchanges, not to mention the constantly-shrinking and expanding number of lanes (fun fact: the above, 5-level stacked interchange is 27 lanes wide at its widest section. Read’em an’ weep.).

So, my little, harmless excursions served this dual-purpose of randomly exploring different areas and neighborhoods of a few of these major cities, as well as to begin to get more acclimated to navigating their highway systems’ quasi-M.C. Escher-esque feel.

Last night’s hotel was in Pearland…south/southeast Houston. Himalaya Restaurant was in West Houston, between I-610 (aka “The Loop”), and the Sam Houston Tollway, the next of these concentric highway loops.

Tonight’s and tomorrow’s hotel was in Cypress, a suburb of northwest Houston, where I headed after Himalaya, just to check in and unpack. Followed by a little excursion to two Cavender’s Boot City stores, one also in northwest Houston, and the other out in Katy, which is west of the Sam Houston Tollway (actually, I may have driven on a portion of the above stacked interchange on my way to this Cavender’s), and is where I found my second pair of western roper-style dance boots on this trip (pay-dirt, baby!).

You see, we don’t have western-wear stores in New England. Not really. There are a couple/few very small ones, which is great. But, once you’ve seen the selection at one of the big chains in Texas, or out West, you realize that you really need to go to these places if and when you have the chance. Western boots are just too difficult to attempt to buy online, without actually getting to try them on. The fit really has to be just-so.

My final destination for Halloween, was a night out at Stetson’s Nightlife Dance Hall, in Humble, a suburb of north/northeast Houston. See? I was intentionally sort of driving all over Houston. Houston was almost beginning to feel a little familiar to me…this, my fourth visit to the city.

My apologies, but I intentionally did not attempt to take any photos at Stetson’s. I really just wanted to see if I could get some dancing in, and meet some people. Stetson’s was really nice, but its dance floor was smaller than I’d imagined, judging from the photos on their website. But, it was a fairly light crowd (again…Astros/World Series-factor), so there was plenty of room to dance.

When I arrived, a lesson was in progress. As I ordered a bottle of water at the bar, I asked the barmaid if she knew what dance-style the lesson was. She said she didn’t know, but that I should ask the woman dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, seated with girlfriends across the room, and she’d likely know. So, as usual, I went with that, but I was honestly a little hesitant, thinking, “Oh, great. I am a new face. Now, I’m supposed to walk clear across this dance hall…passing plenty of other people…and ask this very attractive woman in a scanty Wonder Woman costume what dance style this lesson is? She is immediately going to think I’ve come over to hit on her. I’m sure this is going to go well.”

So, I was extra-cautious with what I said and my body-language as I approached Wonder Woman and her table of girlfriends, which was the right thing to do, because I could tell that she and her girlfriends were, in fact, a little on the cool-side, sizing me up, intention-wise, as we briefly talked.

Crisis averted, the lesson was a beginner Country Polka…all triple-steps…which I don’t know, but I could pick up beginner patterns. So, I joined the class, and as is customary, I introduced myself to each new follower, as we rotated partners. As I mentioned before, this is a great way to allow the regulars to also size you up to see if you are there to dance, or to try to pick up women. So, I am always very clear, in words and body-language, that I am just a nice guy who is purely there to dance.

Wonder Woman did also join the class at some point, so she and I were paired up at least once during the lesson. She was statuesque, and could easily have been cast as her costume’s character in a blockbuster movie. But, I think her mental jury was still out, regarding what my intentions at Stetson’s were, despite my not even attempting to chat with her during the lesson.

Nothing against Wonder Woman or her girlfriends. They all seemed very nice. But, I wondered…do I somehow…anywhere…remotely…come off as being any kind of a player? If I do, I don’t see it. I understand the concept, but I have no idea how I could possibly telegraph that impression. For me, it is already challenge-enough, simply to enter a new dance hall, eighteen-hundred miles from home, where I don’t know a soul, and eventually muster the courage to ask a woman to dance.

I sat out the second lesson, country waltz, because I knew I would only forget the little I learned in the Polka lesson, if I took the waltz. Once the open dancing started, I did ask one woman from the class up for a Polka, apologizing my way through it, but she said I was doing fine.

At some point, I got up the nerve to approach Wonder Woman for a two-step, I think, and we had a nice dance. Her name is Nancy, as it turned out, and I think she was beginning to see that I was only there to dance and that I was maybe a little nervous about it, being in a new place.

A Nightclub Two-Step came on, and I asked Nancy if she knew it. If you don’t know, Nightclub-2 is a slow, very graceful dance that tends to move around the floor quite a bit. Nancy said she knew the very basic step, but hoped to take more lessons at some point. She was game to try it out with me.

Well, by the end of this dance she could really tell, by not only the way I was leading, but by how focused I was on helping her to have a nice dance, that I was just a nice guy with good intentions and some good dance foundation. From then on, she actually started chatting with me, and we did at least one more Nightclub-2, which we basically had the entire floor for, because no one else was doing it.

Nancy also suggested that I ask a couple more specific women up to dance, friends of hers, who she said were really good followers. And so, I did ask one of those women up for a couple of dances, and we chatted, too.

Another woman from the class also approached me to chat at one point…Ro. She was very nice.

And a guy approached me to invite me in as part of a group birthday photo for one of the women. So you see, people will be watching you out on the dance floor, whether you are aware of it, or not. I think it’s only natural. And it’s one way to sort of size a person up. Is this a sleazy guy, or is he here to dance? Is he hitting on the women in our dance community, or is he a social-dancer, himself?

Nancy said she wanted to send me more detailed info re which nights of the week are best to head to each of the nine major country-western dance halls in Houston, so we exchanged contact info, and she did send me those details. She also suggested that I start using Face Book and Face Book Messenger, because that is how she and her friends communicate about when and where they are going out to dance…for whenever I’m planning a trip back to Houston. So, I still need to work on that.

This was all very innocent, and really nice to be sort of welcomed-in to the Houston dance community.

So, my night at Stetson’s turned out to be my third and final Houston Halloween treat.

South Padre Island – Beach Day…

About three hours south of Corpus Christi you’ll find the beach community of South Padre Island, which is located at the southern end of Padre Island, the longest barrier-island in Texas.  According to Wikipedia, Padre Island also happens to be the longest barrier island in the world.  From the town of South Padre Island, you are only a stone’s throw from Mexico.

I had one afternoon and night on South Padre and my modest goals were to walk on the beach, dip my feet in the surf, and enjoy some fish tacos while sipping margaritas at a beach bar.  I won’t hold you in suspense.  Mission accomplished on all counts.

As far as I could tell, there is only one route to get to South Padre, which you can only enter from its southern end, and that route is surprisingly remote.  You really have to want to get to South Padre to get to South Padre.  But, it’s well worth the drive.

South Padre has a reputation as a major Spring Break destination.  Fortunately, I was there in the off-season, and possibly the nicest time of the year.  The weather and water were easily warm enough for swimming, and there were only a handful of people on the beaches.

My hotel was ocean-front…or Gulf-front.  My room wasn’t quite ready when I arrived, so I broke out the flip-flops from the trunk of my car and headed for the beach.  My hotel was near the end of the developed stretch.  So, this snapshot is looking south from the beach at my hotel.

Facing north, you could see much less development, so that’s the direction I walked, even though I basically had the beach to myself regardless of the direction I headed.

And of course I bumped into a few people who were more than happy to snap my picture, just so I could have tangible proof that I’m not making any of this up.

My room was ready by the time I finished my walk, so I unpacked, got settled in, and immediately headed out for dinner.  Laguna Bob’s is a beach bar/restaurant I had on my list.  It’s on the waterfront of Laguna Madre, the narrow body of water separating Padre Island from the mainland, so I headed there.

I sat at the bar of the outdoor deck, where there were also tables.  There were quite a few people at the tables, and only a few at the bar, but everybody was having a good time, joking around with each other and cajoling the barmaid as they ordered more rounds.   So, these were mostly regulars.

It wasn’t long after I started in on my fish tacos and first margarita before a woman a few seats down from me at the bar, who had been focused on the football game on the TV near her, started up a conversation with me.  She asked me about the French fry combo that came with my tacos…no joke.

A second woman sat down with the first, and before I knew it, I was having a great conversation with a retired librarian from the Dallas area, and her aunt, who lived about two hours west of South Padre, in McAllen (if I have that right).  As always, it seems I only need to mention this road-trip, and I make new friends.

Both of these women were great to chat with and volunteered a raft of information, both about Texas and about resources for finding all kinds of hidden gems of Texas.  In turn, I am going to share with you the two main sources among a list that they wrote on a scrap of paper for me:  the Texas Country Reporter, and the Texas Bucket List.

And you thought this post was going to be nothing, but self-indulgent fluff!  I knew I had a point in there, somewhere.  I just wasn’t sure how I was going to get to it.

So, everyone is having a great time out on the deck and they are keeping the two barmaids very busy…lots of cocktails and beer.  And it wasn’t long before another lively woman from one of the tables came over to the three of us…total strangers…and invited us over to her table of friends to chat, laugh and watch the sunset over the water.

Are we seeing another pattern?  This is just how so many nights went on this trip.

So, here’s a quick snapshot of the sun setting over Laguna Madre, from the deck of Laguna Bob’s…a fitting conclusion to my one night on South Padre.

Corpus Christi – Dia de los Muertos Festival…

For anyone keeping track back home…I am now in Corpus Christi, TX, and it is Sunday morning, Oct-29.  I’m heading to South Padre Island, the southernmost Gulf barrier island in Texas, just as soon as I finish this post.  I have zero plans for South Padre, other than just to see it…maybe walk a beach…sip a margarita…and relax for one night.  Monday, I’m heading to Houston for three nights, before slowly…reluctantly…working my way back to CT.

Yesterday, Saturday, I spent the day in Corpus, mainly because my trip-route coincided with a Dia de los Muertos festival here.  I had done some reading about these festivals, and thought that one might make a nice photo-op.  These are the lengths I’m more than happy to go to, in the mere hope of maybe…just maybe…capturing a few nice images.  Yes…of course I’m crazy.  You ought to know that by now.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m learning how to use this new portrait lens I got for this trip.  It’s very challenging to use…especially for “street photography”…which is what this festival is all about.  I got to the festival early and spent less than two hours strolling and photographing, before I felt I had really captured about all that I had hoped for, and was ready for a break.

As I’ve been stressing…and this is just what I am comfortable doing…with the exception of the Native American dancers, I approached every subject-person, and anyone else involved (including face-paint artists and parents (in the case of child-subjects), before I started taking photos.  Sometimes, the opportunities were so in-the-moment, that I hand-signed and gestured to a subject who was in the middle of a face-paint session, asking if it was okay to photograph them.  The answer was always yes.  I also gave out this travel-blog sort of business card to everyone, as well, as further reassurance that I was on-the-level.

There was also a display of about a half-dozen “tricked-out” Low-Rider cars on display, so I tried to capture them, as well, particularly for my friend, Marc, back home, as he is a car enthusiast.  It was pretty cool to see them up-close.

So, here goes…  Welcome to…

I don’t think I got anyone’s name during the entire stroll, but I do want to thank all of the photo-subjects for their generosity and trust in allowing me to photograph them.  I hope they are happy with the results.  Everyone was very kind and really fun to work with.

Note: If this is your first visit to this travel-blog, just click on any thumbnail photo, and a large-size photo-gallery will open up, that you can scroll through. 

These first two women…the face-painter and her subject…were super-nice.  I always feel like it is an honor and a gift to be allowed into a “moment”, and I try to capture that moment in images.  It’s just the way that I approach attempting to get the shot.

Then, I saw the Low-Rider cars, immediately thought of my friend, Marc, and just had to try to do them justice for him.  I don’t know that I did, but here you go…

This next woman and her face-paint artist were one of those where I think I had to gesture and hand-sign my request to photograph them, because they were also involved in their own moment.  They were very kind to allow me in…

Then, I bumped into the Native American dance performers…incredibly difficult to capture due to lens, bright sunlight contrasting with dark shade in the same image and pinpoint depth-of-field/focus on moving targets in foreground or background…

And the traditional Mexican dance performers, who I was able to capture a little, posing and standing still, as well as during their performance.  The environment was not nearly ideal.  Physical obstacles restricted me from getting as close as I really wanted to, or as clutter-free as would have been nice.  I just tried to work within the limitations I had…

This third girl was very cute.  It seemed like she really wanted me to photograph her, but at the same time, she also wanted me to capture her “game face”…

This next woman was another who just immediately caught my eye.  And she immediately focused on me, looking directly into my lens, after giving me the go-ahead to shoot, in response to my awkward hand-signs and gestures.  She was a very good sport and a very cool lady…

This next young woman literally stopped me in my tracks.  And she could see it, too.  I’m pretty sure my jaw just dropped on the pavement, right then and there.  She was very nice, and was with a couple of girlfriends, who stepped out of the frame without my even saying anything, when I asked permission to shoot.  Each of these “mini-shoots” happens very fast…and then… it’s over.  So, I feel like it’s practically a miracle to capture these moments that will never happen again…

This next young woman was just a “cool chick”, in my book.  She noticed my camera-model right away and said she used to have the same one, but regretfully had to sell it for college expenses.  I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell her in the moment, but just wanted to tell her, now, that she did the right thing.  Finish college, first.  Then, you can get a good job, so that you can buy yourself another nice camera…

I seemed to have a very easy time, quickly connecting and chatting with all of these subjects.  This young woman was no exception.  I don’t have “it” photographically-speaking.  I am not photogenic.  But, this young woman has it in spades…

I found myself continuing to return to the booth of the first face-painting artist I had bumped into.  All of the artists were very friendly, but she and I chatted the most.  So, this red-headed girl caught my eye, as she was sitting patiently for her face-painting.  A mother and another girl…the red-headed girl’s friend…were standing off to the side.  At first glance, the second girl did not look as if she was wearing any face-paint, because she was standing in profile to me, watching her friend get her face painted.

After I finished photographing the red-haired girl, I noticed that the second girl looked slightly sad, so I wondered had I done something.  Then, the second girl turned her head toward me, and instantly, I figured it out.  She had a very cool half-mask, face-painting, that I couldn’t see, because her head was turned, and was feeling just a little left out that I hadn’t asked if I could photograph her.

So, I instantly asked the second girl, and the mother, if I could photograph her.  The second girl instantly perked up and smiled.  That was a close one.  It just didn’t occur to me that someone might feel left out, if they didn’t get photographed…

So, this was my afternoon at the Dia del los Muertos Festival.  As you can see…I may not be posting every day…but, I’m having a great time!

Catch up with y’all again…further on down the road…

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.

Austin, Texas…a little diversion…

Before I get back into the Hill Country, I’d like to share one of many little “happy accidents” that are common when anyone travels.  I’m still in Austin…mostly recovering from fun demands that I put on myself in the Hill Country, and working on catching up on blog posts.  But, I still need to eat, don’t I?  And my friend, Joni, had asked me before this trip, if I could include some photos of good meals/restaurants that I find along the way, so this is partly for Joni’s benefit.

So, yesterday afternoon I Googled “Mexican Restaurants”.  A list of restaurants came up.  One near the top of the list had good ratings and was less than a half-mile from my hotel.  My hotel is right on US-290, a main artery, rush hour traffic was already pretty bad and it was only 3:00pm, so I headed to this nearby restaurant for simplicity.

If you ever find yourself in Austin, go to this restaurant…Hecho en Mexico…which means (I had to look this up.)…Made in Mexico.  Very cool.  Address: 6001 West William Cannon, Suite 100.  This is South Austin.

I am not a foodie.  But, I do like Mexican dishes made with mole (moe-lay) sauce.  I’m lucky to find a Mexican restaurant in CT that offers any dishes made with mole.  Hecho en Mexico offers three different moles and offers a brief history and description of each one in their menu.

I leaned heavily on my waitress’ expertise, who was very sweet, extremely attentive and very informative, for everything I ordered.  Sadly, I didn’t ask her name, but she allowed me to take her picture, shown here, shaking the particular margarita that she suggested I try (best margarita ever).

I asked her which mole she would suggest, and which meat to have with it, as well as which beans.  On her suggestion, I went with the Mancha-Manteles with pork and charro beans, pictured here…amazing.

And for dessert, I went with the flan, which I love…but, I’m used to unadorned home-style.  This flan, which is made at the restaurant, was from another planet.  As my son, Nat, would say…it was flan-tastic!

Again, I don’t normally eat like this.  At home, I don’t go out to eat very often, and when I do, it’s nothing fancy.  So, this was a real treat.  And if you’re ever in Austin, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to Hecho en Mexico (did I just sound like a TV commercial???).

Okay…now, back to the Hill Country…

Texas Hill Country – Day-1 (Thursday) – Part-1 – San Marcos to Devil’s Backbone Tavern…

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.