[I need to open this post with a note to my sister-in-law, so excuse me for one second. Dana, if you read this post to Marye, just skip over all the parts that mention our having been on a two-wheeled vehicle, okay? Thanks.]
These days if I want a Sunday lunch with my spouse, my best bet is to invite myself onto the back of his BMW and head out of town.
This week we chose Gruene, a little town on the Guadalupe River just north of New Braunfels. My last trip down there was in May, on one of my school-break meanders; it was a very quiet weekday with hardly anyone in sight. On this Sunday afternoon at the tail end of July, the place was bustling with people, and it looked like a whole lot of us had the same thought: lunch at the Gristmill.
You’re looking at the busiest intersection in downtown Gruene right there, where Hunter Road and Gruene Road intersect, the latter taking a quick left just beyond this bank of flowers, and a very quick drop down to the river. It looked as if all the tubing places we passed today were doing a bang-up business – evidently the highly controversial ban on glass containers hasn’t deterred the beer-loving tube floaters one bit.
There would be a twenty minute wait for a table, as might be expected; but when you’re sitting in the shade under a canopy of leaves, a breeze blowing up from the water, a sort of country-blues singer playing acoustic in the background, and free refills on lemonade, what’s twenty minutes?
These kind of experiences are the closest I’ll ever come to Texas in the old days, before every indoor space was air conditioned to arctic levels. You have a kind of dampness to your skin, but it cools as soon as the breeze comes up again; and if you feel warm you take a deep enough drink of your lemonade to catch hold of an ice cube. This you may hold in your mouth as you feel your temperature drop; you may chew it up with a new level of empathy for practitioners of what some people find a highly annoying habit; or you may take that ice cube between your fingers and rub it lightly across your wrists. There’s no need to stand on ceremony when everyone is doing all they can to savor the heat without collapsing from it.
Oddly enough, we who live here are far more likely to complain of cold weather than a 100-degree day, especially when we’re sitting at wooden picnic tables under a leafy sky, music in the background and lunch smells in the air. A hot summer day seems normal. And beautiful.
I have a theory that you cannot obtain a great view and good food in the same place, ever. I’ll make one possible exception for the River Cafe in Brooklyn, but I haven’t been there since one night in 1982 when the Manhattan skyline was glorious, the much-excoriated (at the time) Twin Towers lit up and breathtaking even if people did say they looked like boxes the Chrysler Building might have been packed in. The night was too romantic for me to even remember the food, but I do recall my beau falling short of cash and phoning his friend to come help us out. I was having too great a time to even be embarrassed.
But I digress. I went way too far around just to tell you that I thought lunch at the Gristmill, despite its leafy venue overlooking the river, and its evocative surroundings of old worn brick and mysterious structural elements, was delicious. Floyd had a mountainous club sandwich on a roll; I had spinach and mushroom quesadillas; we split an order of fries that were oval slices of potato cut to an eighth of an inch in thickness and fried. Even the cole slaw was yummy, each ingredient present and accounted for, and the teensy squares of jalapeño not overpowering at all.
It seemed important to share a fluffy creamy dessert that involved strawberries, and I say this as someone who does not generally favor predominantly white desserts. This was the day for a white dessert.
Or maybe I was simply savoring a Sunday afternoon with my best guy friend.
While we were waiting for our lunch, we read about Gruene because someone had left their tourist brochure at the table. Floyd had wondered as we pulled into town how such a place had come to be, and it seems a man named Ernst Gruene had arrived a little further south in New Braunfels in 1845. Finding land hard to come by, Mr. G. and his frau had found land down river and planted it with cotton. It seems the family thrived until the 1920’s when the boll weevil and the Great Depression took their toll.
The brochure says Mr. Gruene first built a little house in town in “early fachwerk style.” Having no idea what that meant, we strolled over after lunch to see. I still have no idea what it means, so I am running over to Chrome to run a Google right now.
Well, that wasn’t too helpful. The only description I found in English was a house with a stone foundation and timber construction. Still, it is an adorable little house that appealed to my old New England sensibilities: you would need a few dozen doilies and at least one tiny drop-leaf table to live in a house like that.
It stands to reason that the one business in town that has been in continuous operation since the mid-1800’s is the dance hall and saloon. We wandered in and listened to the very toe-tapping music for a few minutes, marveling at the old ceiling fans and the worn wooden floor. As is typical of the Texas dance halls I’ve seen, this one has a platoon of picnic tables and benches, with a generous dance floor toward the back.
Think of it: 150 years of music, dancing, arguing, falling in love, haggling over cotton prices, making arrangements above- and below-board; who are all the people who have worn those wood floors smooth? Were town meetings held there? Big decisions made? Hearts set aflame and hearts broken?
We didn’t linger long in Gruene; we’d come for lunch. I had no need to wander through what is one of my favorite antique stores for the second time in three months. Besides, we had no room for purchases and I’ll be back in October for the Texas Clay Festival – maybe even when my niece Chris is visiting. Having come into town on I-35 (don’t even ask), we took the long way home through the Hill Country, out past Canyon Lake and from there into Wimberley, more or less figuring out the route as we went.
It is a good thing, I think, to travel openly on the winding back roads of Texas in summer. On this afternoon, the sun was serious, the white clouds dotting the sky merely decorative. Although I haven’t yet committed myself to a Kevlar riding costume, I was in jeans (!), sneakers (!) and long-sleeved white knit cotton. Still hotter than Hades, but the experience of riding right there out in the open air made me think of Laurence of Arabia trading in his British military uniform for the long flowing robes of the desert. I fully understood the benefits of being swathed in cotton from head to toe.
The heat rises up at you in waves, apparently at random, as you speed over miles of sunbaked pavement. Any exposed skin seems held to a fire. If you stop at an intersection, or to check the map, perspiration hurries to do what it is meant to do; and then once you’re in motion, you can feel your skin amazingly cool under the pure white fabric.
We found ourselves on a narrow road where parched grasses made mockery of the roadside signs warning of low water crossings. I had to smile, too, at the “Bridges May Be Icy” signs that haven’t yet been folded up. I imagined that if bridges were icy at this time of year, people passing by might strip naked and lie gratefully on them, causing all kinds of traffic problems.
We encountered no ice, but we did cross one little one-lane crossing that was quite slick, with a few inches of water running over it. Afterward we stopped to take a drink and pay attention to the setting: the green river down below the trees where we stood, nearly-ripe grapes draping down head-high. As far as we can tell, this is a quiet little stretch along the Blanco River.
While we stood pondering the map and testing the grapes, an oversized golf cart was delivering three tubers and one three-legged dog to the water’s edge. It was a good day for being in the river.
Right here, right now I must say that as we rode along the River Road in Wimberley, I saw some of the most beautiful landscape I have seen in my thirty years in Texas. The darkly shaded road, the peaceful, uncrowded river where people floated slowly in quiet conversation or solitary silence – well. If I had a half a million dollars I might try to buy a home right there, but they rarely come up for sale. No wonder.
By the time we crossed, yes, the Austin City Limits, I was drained and parched as an very old sponge. I kept thinking of that scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Butch and Sundance are riding hard to escape the lawman with the hat. At some point they reach a lofty rock outcropping where a pool of water has thoughtfully collected, and Butch falls straight back into that water with grateful abandon.
As we pulled into our neighborhood, I wanted to jump off the back of the BMW and run into the Hilltop Pool fully clothed, unmindful of neighbors’ disapproving stares or the contents of their treasured offsprings’ diapers.
Instead, bring the epitome of discipline that I am, I waited until we were safely at home. I even played fetch with Travis in the side yard for a while (not too long, as he had taken a good run with Floyd in the early morning hours, down to the dam where he had a great swim and some truly meaningful “fetch”).
Finally I made my way into the house, to the room where the big tub resides. A few inches of cold water and a splash of lavender bubble bath were all I needed.
It was an excellent afternoon.