We live down in the southwest corner of Austin. When we have to travel north it always makes me laugh that we can drive 27 miles and still be in the same city. But when it’s time to get out of town and out into the Hill Country, that same number of miles takes us to the doorway of a completely different world.
On a recent Sunday Floyd talked me into taking a drive out to Johnson City and its surroundings, about 80 miles from home. Recent motorcycle excursions had made him familiar with some especially pleasant routes, and all the rain has made the landscape exceptional. We’d go in the car so Travis could come along. Floyd knew a place to stop for lunch where we could eat on a patio with The Dude alongside us.
As I posted on Facebook, as we climbed into the car it was looking like a fabulous day for a drive. But there were some bright spots showing through the cloud cover, and I’ve learned over the years that my dear spouse always has excellent ideas about weekend activities. It’s usually best to sit back and go along for a ride.
I’m also starting to think I’ve become such a homebody that without encouragement I might never leave the house again. Between yard work and sewing, I can be happily occupied for days and weeks at a stretch. It’s important for me to be dragged out the door and out the the neighborhood every now and again.
Then you take a left somewhere and the road is narrow and all curves, the roadside all wildflowers and barbed wire fences. When you step out of the car to catch a photo, a great silence makes itself known. You can hear the wind, if there happens to be one.
We admired this big barn – either old or built in the fine old style of local barns. It’s hard not to fantasize about living a life in a place like this. I should say it’s not hard for me; Floyd, having grown up with a “yard” big enough to be mowed with a real tractor, has no romantic notions about such an existence. I must think I’d be living like a Hill Country Martha Stewart, with a staff of dozens to make my every domestic and landscape daydream come true.
At one point the road narrowed still further, and became rough. We went through a space between fences and over a cattle guard – I should have taken a photo of the sign “Loose Cattle,” because I thought it would be funny to remark on such assumptions about bovine promiscuity.
It was a vast neighborhood of pastures and cattle guards. (For the uninitiated, cattle guards are a series of metal pipes laid across a hole that spans from one fence post to another, perpendicular to the road. Evidently cattle don’t like tip-toeing across a series of metal pipes to get to the other side, so they work as well as a gate and no one has to get out of the vehicle to open and close all those gates.) Under almost every tree were knots of cows, chewing. We passed by this one slowly. She looked as if she was almost thinking about moving out of the road.
I was a little worried about the cafe. It was Father’s Day and there could be mobs of families who hadn’t gifted their Dad something like the Hyde Park House Tour or the neighborhood ice cream social – either one of which I am sure would thrill most dads to pieces (riighht!). Floyd’s last trip out there was RoT weekend, the Republic of Texas motorcycle rally; there had been dozens of bikes parked in the dusty lot and a crowd of unhappy-looking customers. He’d turned around and left, unfed.
But this day the patio was pretty much deserted. We made ourselves comfortable. Floyd went inside for beer and to let a server know we were out there. If there’s anything better than a drippingly cold beer on a hot afternoon, I don’t know what it might be. We sat under that tin roof and kicked back, ignoring whatever the sky seemed to want to communicate.
The walls of the patio were fancifully decorated with artwork interspersed with personal messages. I imagined some regulars had participated in its creation. This must be an excellent place to sit in the evening and listen to a band; all that’s missing are a few ceiling fans to discourage flying intruders from making themselves at home. But we were in the mood to make ourselves perfectly happy and content with conditions as they were.
Which was a fortunate thing, since between the time we ordered our lunch and the time it arrived, a 20-minute downpour very nearly reduced the fun level. I mean to tell you, it came down. Deafening sheets of rain. It dripped between the seams of the tin roof; it bounced off the top of the painted wooden walls and onto our table and chairs; it stood a good six inches deep at the base of the steps into the restaurant. We saw some impressive acrobatics by highly unlikely-looking acrobats as people made the stretch between the sidewalk and the first step.
Lunch was toothsome, if slightly soggy, and when it was done we headed out for a little more touring before starting home.
So much of the Hill Country was settled by east Europeans – particularly Germans and Czechs – that we weren’t surprised to come across an old cemetery with plainly German roots. “Grapetown,” said the sign; and for sure there are remnants of wild grape vines draped everywhere in the area. Wikipedia tells us it was founded in the mid-1800’s on South Grape Creek. Perhaps the founders would be pleased to see the thriving vineyard industry springing up all through this part of Texas.
There were neat pink granite headstones carved with German names and inscriptions; there was a headstone like a concrete log commemorating August Klinksiek’s career as a woodsman; and there were headstones on which names and known dates seem to have been scratched into wet cement with a stick.
There were three stones close together that looked like this one on the left. The names appear to be Mexican, and though they were placed in the main part of the cemetery, the clearly impoverished form of their memorials tells a story of how life was for them out here as well.
This old sign must reflect what the Wikipedia article points out, and I am sure you know: that Grapetown “is noted for being the site of the first annual Gillespie County Bundes Schützenfest,” kicked into gear when its sängerbund (singing club) and schützenbund (shooting club) combined.” Which sort of explains the decorative rifles.
“The Grapevine schützenbund is still active and participates in the annual Gillespie County Bundes Schützenfest, sometimes being the host. The county event includes crowning of one or more Schützenkönigs (shooting kings), a parade and a Saengerfest,” or so Wikipedia says. I think my dear spouse, with a pretty impressive skeet shooting past, should dust off the old Beretta and go for it, don’t you? (When I asked him, he declined, saying he was pretty sure it was a rifle event. I think he went on to explain that some of the old-timers used three-barrel rifles, each barrel a different bore so you could most effectively shoot whatever it was you had come across. I was holding Travis’s ears shut and singing Lalalalala at that point, so I’m not 100% certain. How do people know these things anyway?)
Grapetown is also the location of an Historic Landmark schoolhouse, that opened – again according to Wikipedia – “with the stipulation that no political or religious activities be held on the property.” Now there’s the common sense that seems so characteristic of my Eastern European peeps! (I’m half Polish, but my Irish half seems to have canceled out the common sense in my case.)
It was time to meander back to Austin. We took our time, pausing to take a look at interesting features like a sinkhole that seemed to occupy both sides of the road we were blithely driving along on. ? It’s a pretty interesting level of trust in the infrastructure, to drive right over a sinkhole; but this one didn’t seem bottomless or frightening in any way. Instead, it was intriguing and not without charm. I wish you could hear the murmur of the month’s rainwater pouring into it from the green, green countryside.
On my next visit through the area, I hope to get a few more photos of some of the old abandoned structures. Each one tells a story of hard work and what must have been a very new existence for Eastern European settlers. What on earth must they have thought of scorpions, tarantulas, and venomous snakes? Not to mention the heat!
It’s always hard for me to envision people coming from cooler climates, disembarking in Galveston and traveling in horse-drawn wagons up and across Texas, somehow deciding, This must be a good place to settle. Did they perceive something about the soil? Did they decide the creeks would be a good source of subsistence? Or – and this is how I would have felt – did they decide they’d just had enough of travel? I’m not going another meter, is what I would have wailed.
In the days since our road trip the rain has subsided and dropped out of the forecast. The sun has returned to show us who’s boss, and although I don’t much mind daytime heat, I’m really glad to have an air-conditioned place in which to sleep. The neighborhood pools are full of hollering children and dog-walkers are sorting themselves out into early morning and late evening excursions. All the grands will come over on Friday for a pool party and pizza.
And in one of our most dependable means of knowing the season has really arrived, our clouds are forming into the massive white entities that will float across the hard blue sky for the rest of what has become, at last, a Texas summer.