Even small towns have a story to tell
Climbing the long ascent of the Sandia Mountains heading east out of Albuquerque, NM we are still talking about the visual impact and the lasting experience of the Balloon Fiesta as we prepare for the long drive back to Florida. For the next four days, we will be averaging about 400 miles a day to reach Live Oak, FL., and Magnolia Fest, the last music festival on this long journey.
More than 10,000 miles have been logged. Leaving from our home base in Florida, we made it to northeast Canada and the Montreal Jazz Festival, back to Florida for a month then left again in September for the southwest and the Austin Music Festival. It ends in Live Oak with MagFest, our favorite small town music gathering. There were other festivals planned that we didn’t make. Springfest in Live Oak, Savannah’s Music Festival and Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC., were cancelled because of an unexpected side trip to Juneau, Alaska. The Green Knight stayed home on that journey.
While we are confident there will be more unbelievable excursions in the future, it’s difficult to imagine anything topping the Balloon Festival. Awaking at 5 a.m. each morning to catch Morning Glow and back at the launch field each evening for Glowdeo and fireworks was not an effort. It was one of those lifetime unforgettable experiences.
Until Albuquerque, I could count on one hand the total number of hot air balloons I had seen in my lifetime.
It’s raining as we pass through Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid was killed and buried in the Old Fort Sumner Cemetery. Since we’re on a fast track to Florida, stopping in Fort Sumner, population about 1250, is not an option.
Continuing on Highway 84, we drove through Littlefield, TX., hometown of the late country singing outlaw Waylon Jennings. It’s not much bigger than Fort Sumner. Seeing Jennings’ name on a small billboard was a reminder that we played his music when we were in Luckenbach, TX, a month earlier.
Muleshoe, TX., makes one wonder how these little towns were named? Muleshoe has a big monument to the mule and is also famous for a wintering area for migratory waterfowl flying from Canada to Mexico which contains the largest number of sandhill cranes in the country. Muleshoe became a town when the railroad arrived in 1913.
Still battling wind and rain, we drive parallel with the railroad tracks for miles as we cross the flat plains of Llano Estacada, the largest mesa in North America. The railroad was the primary reason most of these towns originated. At least from a passing perspective, cotton, sorghum and sunflowers await harvesting.
Back on the highway, we drive through Post, TX., where C. W. Post, the cereal magnet, lived here long enough to have the town named in his honor. He developed Grape Nuts, the first commercial cereal. Consider the difficulty peddling a cereal that doesn’t contain either grapes or nuts. He did well. The cereal is still popular today.
Further down the road, there’s Fluvanna, TX., which originated in the early 1900s as land speculators sold lots in anticipation of the railroad. The Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Railroad closed its local station when a major new highway bypassed the area. In 1915 the town had over 500 residents and now has 150.
After passing through one stoplight towns for most of the day, we arrived about lunchtime in Sweetwater, Tx., a growing and bustling community of 12,000 that also benefited from the arrival of the railroad. Oil was discovered here in large quantities in the late 1920’s and along with cotton and cattle remain among the economic engines for the community. In recent years, wind turbines have added to the area’s economy. Sweetwater is also the home of the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup. Martha made a mental note to return here next March wearing her snake hunting gear.
We arrived in Abilene just before dark and parked the RV in a campground off I-40, just to find a dead battery on the tow car. Within a half hour the emergency roadside service arrived and gave us a jump start. We settled down for the evening but had to keep the windows closed because of the rain.
It is still raining when we left Abilene the next morning and continued as we passed through the Fort Worth/Dallas area. Texas is still suffering from a long drought and welcomes the the rain.
After a long, hard day on the road, we camped in Monroe, La., home of the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame. Thankfully, it has quit raining. Camping neighbors from Kansas were in town to visit the Duck Commander store.
Two days later we pulled into our campsite at Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, FL., and washed away the road dust with several adult beverages while nearby a couple amateur guitar pickers were playing and singing old bluegrass tunes. For the next four days, we’ll have the opportunity to hear Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine and dozens of other regional entertainers before heading home.
It’s been a long, fun trip.
Albuquerque’s very popular Balloon Fiesta lives up to billing
Mass glow of balloons.
With only the occasional “whoosh” sound of a propane burner, we stood amid hundreds of colorful balloons in a near 100-acre field and watched with amazement as they quietly and very slowly lifted off in mass as the morning sun is about to make its presence over the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Special Shape “Glowdeo” features uniquely shaped balloons that are illuminated at night by their propane burners.
One would think it difficult to keep them separated on land and launch as crowded as they are. During inflation they seem to gently muscle their way through any little opening from surrounding balloons and once filled with hot air and sitting upright, they’re off.
What an amazing sight it is for first timers who could probably count on one hand the total number of balloons they have encountered in a lifetime. Today there has to be 300 to 400 of them on the ground in various stages of inflation and preparing for flight.
Started as a gathering in 1972 of 13 hot air balloonists who showed up at a shopping center parking lot to celebrate the anniversary of a local radio station, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has grown to the world’s largest hot-air balloon event attracting up to 750 international participants and millions of tourists over the years. Twenty thousand people attended the inaugural event. Today they expect 100,000 daily to attend the nine day event. That doesn’t include the thousands watching from unpaid venues around the city.
When over 1,000 balloon pilots registered for the 2000 event, festival organizers decided to set a maximum of 750 balloons and changed it again a few years later to 600.
We are dry camped (no electricity, water or sewer hookups) in a gravel parking lot among hundreds of RVs, pull behind trailers and fifth wheels bearing license plates from throughout the country. By luck, we are within walking distance to the balloon launch field. Dry camping is not a problem for today’s modern RV’s. The Green Knight is self-contained with 100 gallons of fresh water, a large holding tank and a generator to recharge the house batteries. We have reservations here for four days.
The overall size of this dairy themed balloon makes it difficult to find the pilot’s basket underneath.
Although it was dark when we opened the front windshield shades on our first morning here, several glowing balloons were already air-born. It’s called Dawn Patrol when balloons equipped with special lighting equipment take off before sun up, providing wind speed and direction information to pilots still on the ground.
We hustled to the launch field where at least 100 balloon crews, maybe more, were in the process of unloading baskets, balloons and other equipment, some of which were compacted and hauled in the back of pickup trucks. To our surprise, spectators are allowed in the midst of the field to watch at close range the inflation and take off. We could feel the heat from the propane burners as balloons were filled and held down by crew members to keep from them going airborne. After launch, this group of volunteers will follow the balloon as it flies miles away for unknown landing sites and help retrieve the balloon and basket.
The balloons lifted off in waves and drifted north in the “box,” a term used to describe wind patterns that are exploited to help navigate the balloons. At low elevations, box winds are northerly and at higher elevations they are more southerly. Pilots can use this effect on calm days to navigate away and back to the launch site. On other days when winds are stronger, balloonists may land on a road, shopping center parking lot, pasture or any convenient location away from power lines. On this near windless day, the pilots kept the balloons clustered over Fiesta Park, giving visitors a long time to view the spectacle.
A stage coach takes to the sky during Special Shape Rodeo.
One morning we watched liftoff and returned to the RV, only to be surprised to see a balloon coming down and drifting very close to the ground over the parked RVs. It appeared the balloon, piloted by a lady, might land on top of the RV’s a row or two away from us. Although low on propane, she managed to keep it adrift for another hundred yards and landed on the lawn of the nearby International Balloon Museum.
The special shape Glowdeo, which showcases balloons of all shapes including a stage coach, milk cow, Elvis, Noah’s Ark and many others, are illuminated at night and held on the ground. We walked among them as they fired the propane burners and lit up the balloons. On a countdown, dozens of pilots would light up their balloons against the night sky in unison. It was very entertaining. The night concluded with a half hour long fireworks show.
There is also a special shape rodeo when only balloons of special shape are permitted to fly. It was particularly crowded on this day because local schools are on holiday. We met some good friends here from Colorado who said it took them more than an hour to drive a mile to reach the Fiesta Park.
Inclement weather interrupted the twice daily launching only once during our four days here.
On that morning we drove into downtown Albuquerque and visited Old Town and found it surprisingly similar to St. Augustine. Both were founded by the Spanish. Had brunch in an old Mexican restaurant and bought a few souvenirs from street vendors.
NEXT: EVERY SMALL TOWN HAS A STORY TO TELL
No fooling, those are Cadillac cars planted in the ground
Still trying to wake up and feeling a bit stuffed from an over-sized Texas steak last night, the Hughes’es left Amarillo early and headed west on I-40 with Albuquerque in their sights. .
Barring any glitches, there should be daylight when arriving in Albuquerque mid-afternoon, leaving plenty of time to find our long reserved spot among a sea of other RV’s from all over the country at the Balloon Fiesta.
A few miles west of Amarillo Martha noticed a strange site in a cow pasture just off the interstate. It appeared to be something, not sure what from this distance, maybe rocks, statues, or something stuck in the ground at a weird angle. I’m driving 40 foot RV being pushed down the road by a tow car and paying attention to the road when Martha solves the puzzle: “”I don’t believe this. It’s a bunch of cars stuck nose-down in the dirt,” she said.
“Are you sure,” I asked, still keeping both eyes on the road. “Why would anyone want to plant a bunch of cars?”
It’s called Cadillac Ranch because several men gathered 10 old Cadillac cars ranging from 1949 to 1963 and simply stuck them in the ground as public art. They showcase the period when Cadillac gave birth then buried the once popular tail fins.
According to Wikipedia, the cars are frequently repainted in identical colors but within a few weeks, the paint jobs are covered with graffiti, which is encouraged by the artists. They were once painted pink in honor of a birthday and black, noting the death of an artist. Although the exhibit is located on private property, it is open to the public at no cost. Just bring your own paintbrush or canned spray paint.
We traveled another 275 miles to Amarillo and didn’t see anything that rivaled the Cadillacs. Land around the interestate was mostly farming, oil pumpers, a few cattle and dairy farms. After crossing into New Mexico near Tucumcari the Saddleback Mesa, which was visible for miles, stood an impressive 5,151 feet high over the mostly flat countryside.
Without difficultly the Green Knight handled the long ascent up Sandia Mountain then the descent into the “bowl” as locals refer to the mountains surrounding Albuquerque. It’s the bowl effect that gives the city a leg up on other ballooning cities around the world and among the reasons that hundreds of balloonists from throughout the world come here to showcase their balloons and piloting skills.
With help from volunteers, we parked in a no frills gravel lot with about a car’s width between campers. On the positive side, the Balloon Fiesta launching field was less than a couple blocks from our camp site.
NEXT: Hundreds of balloons light up the morning sky
Heading west across Texas
With Willie Nelson’s 1968 hit “Waltz Across Texas” playing on the RV’s radio, we left Austin and headed west on Highway 183 to I-40 and on to Abilene for the night. The long, flat roads and sparse Texas landscape might be boring to some, but it’s all new to the Hughes’s who continue marking off bucket list items on this trip to the southwest. Next up is the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. We have three days to travel 850 miles, with overnight stops in Abilene and Amarillo.
The trip from Austin to Abilene was uneventful, traveling on mostly two lane roads with wide shoulders which is convenient in the event we have mechanical issues with the RV. Since we were staying only one night in Abilene, we booked a pull-through site and hooked up to water and shore power only and left the car attached to the RV for a quick check-out the following morning.
Large mesas break the flat Texas landscape on the highway between Austin and Abilene, TX.
The weather had thankfully cooled. In fact, it was 44 degrees when we left the campground for Amarillo.
Lots of flat farming land along I-20, with cotton and grain sorghum appearing near harvest time. At Sweetwater, we switched to I-40 and Hwy 84 and although the landscape changed to more of a flat prairie, mesas were seen in the distance, topped with dozens, maybe hundreds, of wind turbines. The soil, Martha notes in her journal, is red in color and reminds us of Utah. Sweetwater is obviously prospering from the recent oil boom. Their are oil pumping units everywhere along the highway.
The scenery changes little on HIghway 84, lots of wind turbines and oil pumpers and several drilling rigs visible on the horizons. Big tanker trucks hauling fracking liquids to the oil fields are numerous on the highway.
Wind power is big business in Texas. It produces more wind power than any U. S. state and continues to grow. The majority of the turbines are located in 40 different projects around the state including the area around Sweetwater and Snyder.
We arrived in Amarillo, tired and hungry just before dark and camped at the Amarillo RV Park. Since we were staying only one night, we again kept the tow car hooked to the RV and took advantage of a free limo ride to the popular Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the also free 72 ounce steak. However, it’s only free to those who can eat it within a specified time limit. A couple from Oklahoma, also staying at the campground, joined us for the limo ride to the steak house. The four of us ordered steaks which together might have weighed 30 ounces, a far cry from the necessary challenge of 72 ounces. There were pictures on the walls of those who had met the challenge.
The steak house had a fleet of limos that offered free transportation for steak customers at 11 different Amarillo RV parks. That’s a real convenience to over-nighters who don’t want to unhook the tow car.
NEXT: Heading to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta
Austin’s Music Festival brings out a crowd
The Hughes’ reminder of their trip to the Austin Music Festival.
From our campground about 10 miles south of downtown Austin, we drive the interstate into town and take a shuttle bus to Zilker Park, site of the Austin Music Festival. Unfortunately, the closest public parking is more than a mile away. That’s not a deal breaker for us because we walk about 20 miles a week. But, walking back to the car after spending about 12 hours in the Texas heat, is a deal breaker. The shuttle is our only option, even if it means driving out of our way to get downtown.
An average 80,000 people attend the Austin Music Festival daily.
The Texas State Capitol is located in downtown Austin and within walking distance to downtown and the University of Texas Campus. Constructed of sunset red granite from nearby Marble Falls, Tx., the Capitol underwent a $75 million underground extension in 1993. It is taller, Texans brag, than the U. S. Capitol in Washington.
We got to the shuttle early and arrived at the festival site about a half hour before the gates opened and joined a group of about 50 people who call themselves “tree people.” Crowds upwards of 80,000 daily fill the huge open field quickly, sort of like game day at a football field and since there are no reserved seats, savy fans know the importance of arriving early.
Those lucky to be among the first through the ticket gates, race across the field to one of a few trees and like the Oklahoma land rush, open blankets and tarps to stake out their territory in the shade. A geologist from Alaska has been among the first in line for eight consecutive years and always runs to the largest tree which is in the center of Zilker Park. That tree is considered the choice shade spot of the festival. He outran several others and claimed his spot.
With over 130 bands performing on 8 stages during the three day weekend, there was plenty of music to hear. Although it seemed the majority of the bands were playing music more geared to the younger crowd, there was still plenty of music for the older crowd.
The Rotunda in the Texas State Capitol Building, Austin. The rotunda also features a large portrait of David Crockett, a painting depicting the surrender of General Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, and sculptures of Sam Houston–all Texas heroes.
We repeated this schedule for three consecutive days and naturally compared this festival with Montreal’s Jazz Festival(we were there in July) and agreed that both are mega music events, much larger than we anticipated. Although the crowds at both were very well behaved and music was outstanding, we are more comfortable with smaller festivals like Magfest and Springfest at nearby Live Oak; festivals that draw about 5,000 each. Consider Montreal: 3,000 artists from 30-odd countries, more than 650 concerts (including 450 free outdoor performances), and welcomes close to 2.5 million visitors (34% of whom are tourists) as well as 400 accredited journalists. The festival takes place at 10 free outdoor stages and 10 indoor concert halls in downtown Montreal.
A popular place for photos, the reflecting pool at the University of Texas with the Tower in the background.
A Luis Jimenez-Andy Warhol collaboration on display at the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas campus.
Both Montreal and Austin are listed among the top festivals in North America and both are now marked off the Hughes’s proverbial bucket list.
Austin’s festival has become so successful that it expanded this year to weekends–from three to six days. Thankfully we attended the first weekend. The second week was a washout. On the third and final festival day, Austin received a foot of rain in 24 hours. One person was quoted as saying he saw a car floating down the creek near the festival grounds.
WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE
When we visited Austin 46 years ago, we attended a Houston Astros baseball game in the newly constructed Astrodome, at that time known as the eighth wonder of the world. It was the nation’s first domed stadium. Residents of Houston recently rejected a proposal to renovate the facility, which is now slated for demolition.
On the same trip, we visited the University of Texas campus and took pictures of the Tower. The previous year, Charles Joseph Whitman, a student at the university, barricaded himself in the observation deck of the tower with a scoped rifle and various other weapons. In a 96-minute stand-off, Whitman killed 16 Austin residents and wounded many more. Police and armed citizens climbed up the tower to the observation deck and shot Whitman to death.
NEXT: “Waltzing” across Texas
Pigging out on Hill Country barbecue
The Caldwell County Courthouse in historic downtown Lockhart, TX., home of at least 10 barbecue restaurants.
Barbecue joints in Texas are as numerous as the corner convenience store. From walk-up trailers to mega eateries seating hundreds, finding one is not difficult.
We’re based in Austin for the next ten days, gearing up for the annual Austin Music Festival and utilizing the spare time to eat Texas barbecue–the one they refer to as “classic” Hill Country barbecue and featuring the famous smoked beef brisket. To be the classic choice, it’s naturally served without sauce. Locals say the sauce covers the flavor of good, smoked meat, so leave it off. While it is not slathered on the meat during the offset smoking process, it is offered as a side item at the serving tables for those who don’t want to taste the real thing.
But finding the best is not always easy because real BBQ fans’ taste buds span the spectrum from sauce to no sauce, dry rub to no dry rub and brisket to ribs. In Lockhart, Tx., about 40 miles from Austin, the town of just over 12,000 boasts 10 barbecue restaurants. They range from small store fronts to the huge Kreuz Market, a 113-year-old BBQ place that seats hundreds and brags “no sauce, no forks, no kidding!” That line could easily be the motto for this part of Texas barbecue joints.
We visited three mega barbecue places during our Hill Country visit. Coopers Old Time Barbecue in Llano, The Salt Lick in downtown Driftwood and Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Coopers and Kreuz were easy to find but Salt Lick, located in tiny Driftwood, a town with a zip code and not much more, is in an unincorporated area on a Texas Farm to Market Road.
Despite the rural location, Salt Lick’s parking lots will rival those at any big box store. It’s not unusual to find tour buses, packed with tourists from Austin, stacked up on the highway waiting for a parking spot. The place is very big and seats hundreds in several different venues. Salt Lick is also different from the two others we visited–they actually have waiters and menus who bring your food on a plate. Here we both tried the sampler which included brisket, pork ribs, sausage and turkey. An additional order of ribs and turkey were ordered as take out for the next day.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, about 75 miles from Austin and rated by a national television network among the 10 best rib joints in the country, was the smallest restaurant but offered the largest menu. At Coopers, visitors line-up outside the restaurant and follow the smoke into the pit area where the pit master is holding service over a very large open smoker filled with meat. Here’s what we remember seeing: beef ribs, brisket, cabrito, chicken, ribeye steaks, pork chops, pork loin, pork ribs, prime ribs, sirloin and t-bone steaks and turkey. There may have been more offerings that we missed.
Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve features a 60 foot waterfall that cascades into a limestone-walled jade green pool we visited en route to Driftwood, TX.
The pit master takes your order and places it on a serving tray covered with butcher paper. I think we had a piece of most everything in the pit except the cabrito, beef ribs and the steaks. We did order a large cut of very juicy smoked prime rib. From there we walked into the restaurant where the meat items were individually weighed, wrapped and placed back on the tray along with the meat ticket. At checkout four different kinds of homemade cobblers were among the deserts.
We carried the food tray to the sides table and chose the cole slaw, passing over beans, corn on the cob, potato salad and baked potatoes and joined a young couple at a family style picnic table large enough to seat 20 to 30 people. We unwrapped the meat and used the butcher paper as a plate and ate lunch with our fingers, using a plastic spoon for slaw. No forks. The food was spectacular and certainly worthy of Cooper’s annual top five listing in the best of Hill Country Bar-B-Que. Sitting across from us was a couple from near Dallas where he was a working cowboy on a ranch and in Llano for a calf roping contest who shared some “must see’ sites for tourist visiting the area. With a to-go piece of butcher paper, we wrapped the left-overs before discarding the bones and butcher paper in the trash. Coopers doesn’t have waitresses. Customers take care of themselves.
Lockhart’s Kruez Market was so successful that they abandoned their old building and moved to the outskirts of town and built a huge new barn-like barbecue joint, but like The Salt Lick, still manages to maintain the quality that has made them famous in this part of Texas. They offered most of the usual barbecue items, but we had had enough variety and settled for ribs, brisket and homemade sausage lunches served in the traditional butcher paper style. No plates, no silverware, no sauce.
“We really pigged out,” Martha wrote in her journal.
NEXT: Joining the crowd at Austin Music Festival
Returning to the Alamo 47 years later
Mission Concepcion is the most preserved of the five missions and is located several miles from downtown San Antonio. Catholic Mass is held here each Sunday morning and according to a tour guide, those attending are descendants from original settlers here in the 1740’s..
After 46 years, the Hugheses (we were just kids) are returning to San Antonio today to once again visit the Alamo amid talk that the federal government was only days away from closing the doors on all national parks. With the city full of tourist and like the Hugheses, the majority, if not all of them, came with one purpose in mind–to see the historic old Alamo. There would be many unhappy campers if they showed up at the gates of the most visited place in Texas and found them padlocked.
That did not happen. While the Alamo does receive some government funding the historic mission is owned by the state and run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. As a result the Alamo remained open during the shutdown while National Park Service facilities across the country closed their doors.
The Alamo Mission and wall surrounding the grounds.
First-time Alamo visitors are surprised to see the old shrine surrounded by skyscapers in downtown San Antonio. Their vision was no doubt formulated by John Wayne’s 1960 epic motion picture “The Alamo” which showed the mission surrounded by miles of empty and rugged Texas landscape.
In reality, Wayne’s movie was filmed in front of an Alamo replica in Brackettville, TX., about 120 miles west of San Antonio, that still stands today and open to visitors. The replica is a copy of how the Alamo appeared in 1836 and also includes a representation of the village of San Antonio of the same time period. A dozen other Alamo films have been shot there and over 100 westerns, according to Wikipedia.
We rented an audio tape which told the story of the 200 Texans who held off 1500 Mexican troops for 13 days and became the main event leading to the Texas Revolution and its independence from Mexico. All Texan defenders, including Davey Crockett, Colonel James Bowie and William Travis, died in the battle.
One of five missions in San Antonio, the Alamo was originally a mission established by the Catholic Church but was converted to a make-shift fort. It was designed to provide protection against warring natives, not an army bringing artillery to the fight. In fact, President Santa Anna discounted the fort saying it was an “irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name”, according to Wikipedia.
The Alamo Mission was crowded with visitors on our weekday visit making it difficult to see some of the battle scars described in the audio taped tour. However, the fort appeared exactly as we had found it over 47 years ago plus a few more tourists.
Tourist take a ride on a boat on the San Antonio River at River Walk in the city’s downtown area.
After the Alamo tour, we walked across the street, down a set of stairs to River Walk. The network of walkways follows the San Antonio River through downtown San Antonio and is lined with bars, shops, hotels and restaurants. We enjoyed a cold drink in a British pub and watched the riverboats pass loaded with tourists. The popular river walk gained more notoriety during San Antonio’s 1968 World’s Fair. During the past few years the River Walk has been extended to outlying areas along the river, providing walk/bike paths along several miles of the San Antonio.
During our three day visit in San Antonio, we stayed at a RV park adjacent the river where we walked each morning.
NEXT: Austin: A heavy dose of BBQ and good music.
CLICK ON PHOTO BELOW FOR GALLERY PICTURES OF SAN ANTONIO:
Good food at chuckwagon, but not the real thing
On an RV trip out west several years ago plans to attend a chuckwagon dinner at a real, wild west ranch, failed to materialize.
We would have even settled for a dude ranch–one with drug store cowboys but for one reason or another, we missed the opportunity and left the idea on the proverbial mental bucket list.
Visions of sun-burned working cowboys on horseback, mean looking bulls and a bearded old cook crankily doling out beans, biscuits and steaks half cooked over an open wood fire, was what we had in mind. Another cowboy would be strumming a Gene Autry guitar and singing songs made famous by one of the 50’s singing cowboys. If it sounds like a Hollywood movie set, that’s where my vision originated. I grew up watching B westerns as a kid on Saturday afternoon matinees at the local movie theater. I watched them all and managed to perfect the dream in hopes of one day, having a chuck wagon dinner on the lone prairie.
Texas ranches all have distinctive gates that welcome visitors, including this one at the YO Ranch.
A long deer crosses the YO Ranch main gate entrance road.
As we learned at the YO Ranch, a sprawling 55,000 acre working ranch an hour drive west of Kerrville, today’s version of the chuckwagon dinner is slighted more upscale but a fine meal, even without the outdoor cowboy trimmings.
We arrived at the ranch main gate and were immediately greeted by a flock of about 25 wild turkeys which appeared to weight 20 to 30 pounds each. Later we learned from a ranch hand that turkeys there can weigh up to 40.
Once through the gate, we drove over seven miles through rugged Texas land that was mostly inhabited by Texas longhorn livestock. The entrance road was not fenced, giving livestock and other inhabitants free range.
The lodge area provides guests with overnight facilities including a lounge and pool at YO Ranch.
At ranch headquarters which includes several rustic wood and native stone buildings, we found the Chuckwagon and enjoyed a sit-down lunch of fried pork chops, beans, a salad and dessert with other ranch employees in a dining room setting. There was not a cowboy in sight although there were plenty of wild game trophy heads hanging on the walls. One assumes the animals were bagged on ranch property which also offers exotic animal trophy hunts.
Most roads inside the sprawling 44,000 acre ranch were not fenced, leaving plenty of room for cattle and other animals to roam freely.
The YO Ranch has been in existence since 1880. It offers exotic wildlife tours, horseback riding and the opportunity to participate in a Longhorn trail drive. They also offer lodging and meals at the Chuckwagon.
NEXT: Remembering the Alamo
A walk on the wild side in Kerrville, Texas
[codepeople-post-map]Schrieder Park is a very nice city owned recreation facility in Kerrville, Texas, offering Guadalupe riverfront campsites along with a bunch of cross-country walking trails. Trails in the 517 acre park vary in length and take participants into undeveloped, rustic and scenic Texas landscape. It is located a few miles from the city.
However, a prominent sign at the park entrance warned of venomous snakes and panthers.
Martha decided we would walk the campground paved roads, rather than choose one of the trails, adding “No explanation necessary.”
We walked five miles on asphalt roads at a pretty good clip with Martha frequently looking over her shoulder and at overhead tree limbs.
One day in Utopia
June Naylor is the Texas tourist’s answer to Europe’s Rick Steves. A sixth-generation Texan and long-time travel writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper, she is the author of the popular”Off the Beaten Path Texas” which has been our guide book since arriving in the state. Whether its the Piney Woods, Marathon in the Big Bend or Canyon Country in the Panhandle, her book is taking us off the beaten path to less traveled scenic byways with surprises around every corner. And in every little town, she’s suggested restaurants “where the locals eat” rather than those catering to tourists. A believer in
every town has a story, Naylor has managed to hand pick the best Texas has to offer and compiled her findings in a well-done tourist guide.
Scenic vistas between Kerrville and Utopia, TX.
Today, we’re following her suggestions and driving from Kerrville to Utopia for chicken-fried steak at Lost Maples Cafe. Our trip follows Highway 39 southwest where lots of native stone homes from the turn of the century are visible along the highway. It’s typical Texas hill country. The road winds along the Guadalupe River, which, surprisingly, is flowing somewhat despite the extended Texas drought. We pass several resorts, youth camps and huge ranches with typical stone and iron ranch welcome gates, some that cater to hunters seeking exotic trophy animals and kept within the ranch boundaries with high fence wire.
There are few cattle grazing in the pastures. News accounts say many rancher have sold livestock because of the drought. The drought and heat also makes growth difficult for native grasses but it fails to halt the wild growing sage plant which is plentiful and in full bloom. In other hill country areas we have visited, cactus appears ready to bloom, also.
Martha mentions we have no cellphone service, which is not a surprise. We are in the boondocks and seldom meet another car on the highway.
Texas hats are featured in this store in Fredricksburg, TX.
Tiny Utopia, population 227, is a one street town with a few boarded up businesses and a couple others catering to farmers. Except for the pickup trucks parked alongside the highway, we might have driven right past the Lost Maples Cafe and missed out on the chicken fried steak and homemade pies. It is the town’s most thriving business and we aim to do our small part to help it continue.
Although the restaurant seats were half-full, we were obviously the only tourists. We are well off the beaten path. All patrons seemed to be farmers and ranchers. And yes, bring us the house special, I told the waitress, one large and one small. The cooked-to-order chicken fried steak was smothered in white gravy and covered three fourths of the plate, leaving little room for homemade onion rings and a couple pieces of Texas toast. The steak could be cut with a fork and there was plenty of gravy.
In between bites, I had earlier noticed a “Seven Days in Utopia” movie poster featuring Robert Duval, hanging on the wall near the kitchen but gave it little thought, thinking that it might have been some local joke. Finally, I asked the waitress, after ordering a couple pieces of buttermilk pie (mine with ice cream), the reason for the movie poster. She immediately launched into a story about the movie being filmed in Utopia and nearby Fredricksburg and the restaurant’s role.
A private resort along the South Fork of the Guadalupe River in an area popular for swimming, canoeing and fishing
Since the very popular Lonesome Dove book and subsequent television mini-series a couple decades ago, I have been a fan of Robert Duval and was surprised he had made a movie that I did not see. Duval was in Utopia for the filming, took his meals at the Lost Maples Cafe, and more than likely sampled the house special and homemade pies. There were pictures on the wall of Duval with the owner of the restaurant and some staffers. The movie was for real.
“Seven Days in Utopia” is a religious drama and tells the story of a young promising but struggling golfer who landed in Utopia after his car breaks down and meets up with Duval who promises to turn his career around if he would spend seven days with him in Utopia.
The Texas tour book did not mention Utopia’s connection to the Duval movie because it was filmed here after the book was printed. Just another one of those unexpected pleasantries that happen along the road.
Still following instructions from “Off the Beaten Path Texas,” we take Highway 187 to Vanderpool and drove into the Lost Maples State Natural area. The park is home to a thriving forest of Bigtooth Maple trees which are far removed from any maple forest, accounting for its “lost maples” name. The park attracts thousands of visitors during the autumn leaf change. On our visit, we were the only vehicle in the park.
From Vanderpool we took Highway 337 toward Medina and drove through a hilly scenic area with lots of switchbacks and large panoramic views before returning to Kerrville, our home base.
The Guadalupe River near Kerrville, TX.