I love small-town names. Earlier this month we drove through Paradise, a nearly abandoned mining town in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. Last week, we visited tiny Utopia in the Hill Country of central Texas.
We’re on our way home to Dallas and the names of these two towns pretty much sum up our Year on the Edges of America adventure.
It’s been grand.
We are both happy and sad to be heading home. Happy because it will be wonderful to see friends and family again, especially sweet to hug my 91-year-old mother (who visited us five times over the past year at select locations along the perimeter of the U.S.) and revel in long showers without worry of running out of water.
Sad because our return signals the end of our Trip of a Lifetime. Never again will we travel so simply for such an extended period of time, experiencing the breadth and beauty of America from – literally – sea to sea.
Returning home means playing catch-up to the mundane tasks that make up the business of life: Taxes. Dentists. Unraveling a Social Security snafu. Snagging health insurance. Care and upkeep of all the material things we’ve done without for the last 12 months.
Finding life’s new rhythm.
But that’s for tomorrow at Tara. Today we are loving our amble across Texas, southwest to northeast, with the aim of arriving in our Dallas driveway on Friday, one year to the day after our departure.
Below are a few final-week excerpts from my journal….
Leaving Big Bend
It’s a big driving day from Rio Grande Village to Seminole Canyon State Park some 222 miles northeast. G makes another five-star dinner on our two-burner stove, seafood linguini in a pesto sauce.
We read the evening away. I’m loving The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck about how he and his brother spend a summer driving a team of mules and a covered wagon across what’s left of the Oregon Trail.
Buck reveals himself in the 2015 book as an informed and witty writer, also a keen observer of America’s social condition. He writes at one point of how the trek becomes “a plodding social observatory, and the contradiction of being able to see the modern world more clearly from the vantage of a nineteenth-century wagon appealed to me. Seeing America slowly was, in a way, like eating slow food – I wasn’t covering much ground in a single day, but I was digesting a lot more.”
The next day, we leave the Casita in the park and head to Devils River State Natural Area, 100 miles away, driving through the largest angora-wool-producing area in the world. According to area literature, this region accounts for 97% of all the angora wool in the United States and about half of the world’s angora production. (A savvy reader of this blog with Wyoming wool roots suggests that this stat is exaggerated; I’ll add a caution here that I’ve not independently verified the park’s claim.)
No wonder we see so many sheep along the way. That and road kill. We’re on narrow farm-to-market roads, and it’s clear why all the pickup trucks here have big, grinning guard rails across their front bumpers.
Finally we turn onto Dolan Creek Road. It’s a 25-mile drive back to the trailhead to Devils River, one of the most remote waterways in all of Texas. The river is just 94 miles long (a good portion of that is underground), flowing from Val Verde County into the Amistad Reservoir on the Rio Grande near Del Rio, population 36,000. It’s a well-graded dirt road for about 20 of the 25 miles, due largely to the ongoing installation of a huge pipeline across a swath of this otherwise unspoiled region.
We spot a Common black hawk along the way, as well as the first Mockingbird we’ve seen in months.
We pass four lovely primitive campsites along the way, but it’s doubtful we’ll ever bring the Casita here; a couple of gravelly inclines are just too steep. There’s a gate and from there it’s a one-mile hike down to the river.
Here’s a shot of the tucked-away river from San Pedro Point in the Del Norte Unit at Devils River State Natural Area.
This is a camp for the convenience of paddlers who take multi-day trips down the Devils River. Yes, there is whitewater along the way. Perhaps we’ll do that some day….
Returning to the scene of the crime
There’s lots more to do in Seminole, which we highly recommend, including hiking the canyon and biking out to the dramatic confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers. But we’ve done these things on previous visits and we’re eager to get to Kickapoo Cavern State Park, the official launch site of our Year on the Edges of America last March. So we pack up and head out the next day.
We arrive at Kickapoo shortly before noon. It’s sunny and the campground is full – unlike this time last year, when it was raining off and on both days we stayed there. Still, we’re able to park near the site where we buried our Aspirations for 2018 a year ago. (I wrote about this exercise at the end of this blog post at the time.)
Mom was with us for the first leg our our trip back then. Here she is with me at our Kickapoo campsite shortly before each of us wrote down three private aspirations for 2018.
The three of us each rolled up the paper on which we’d written our aspirations, tied a ribbon around the roll and then put them in this canister for burial.
We took photos of the site in hopes of being able to find it a year later. This is what it looked like then…
Here’s a short video of what it looks like this month.
And yes, despite heavy rains and other natural happenings in the intervening year, we are actually able to find the buried canister.
Mom’s in Dallas waiting for us. So we’ll wait to open the actual canister – assuming we can pry the rusted lid off – and revisit our thoughts from a year ago when we’re together with her there….
Soon, we’re back on the road.
Cabbage and cows
We aren’t sure where we’ll stay the night, but we’re not worried. We’re enjoying the scenery.
The desert landscape fades to agricultural. Cabbage and cows. Then there are more trees, bigger trees.
We pass several exotic ranches with nine-foot-tall fences, some with barbed wire along the top. We glimpse an oryx and a small herd of gazelle.
We also see more deer, more roadkill and more border inspection stations.
We actually have to stop for questioning at an inspection station just west of Uvalde – Matthew McConaughey’s hometown – more than an hour northeast of the border.
Soon we’re in the Hill Country. We arrive just in time for Mardi Gras, Bandera style.
Rambling through the Hill Country
We park on a tiny street near the Medina River and walk to our favorite establishments in our favorite Hill Country town, the 11th Street Cowboy Bar and Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon.
We especially like the cowboy bar on Wednesday nights. You can bring your own meat and grill it over pits under the stars to live music. But this isn’t a Wednesday.
Bandera does Mardi Gras up fine. All weekend. We’d just missed the parade, which featured two of my favorite organizations – the Sisters on the Fly vintage trailer club and the Motor Maids of America women’s motorcycle club.
Afternoon turns to evening. Lots of country funk. Shiner. Popcorn. People-watching. Billiards. BBQ. DQ.
Here’s the town’s history and its signature statue.
I love bar signs.
We decide to stay an extra night.
The next day, I convey family greetings from a former Pulitzer Prize board pal in New York to her cousin’s family, owner-operators of the John-Wayne-infused Old Spanish Trail restaurant in downtown Bandera. The daughter is ecstatic to hear from cousin Kathleen: “I love her to pieces!”
Breakfast here rocks.
We spend a couple of leisurely hours at the outdoor music fest at the Frontier Times Museum. My favorite ballad: Lullabies, Legends and Lies – which, sadly, I didn’t snap to fast enough to record. But this one’s pretty good, too.
The museum is interesting. I’m amazed at the number of bound books it has dating to the 1700s.
We take a late-afternoon walk up the Medina River, conversing with ducks and geese along the way. It takes us awhile but we finally identify this beautiful bird with the flashy eye makeup as an Egyptian goose, a non-native species invading central Texas from sub-Sahara Africa.
It is here that I sustain the only injury of our yearlong trip – a bee sting to the fingertip pad of my left pinky. I was FaceTiming my mother from creekside on my iPhone and the bee, unbeknownst to me, apparently wanted to participate. It didn’t appreciate being squished accidentally when I hung up the call.
Damn. Days later, my finger is still swollen and sore.
Back at the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, we chat with Jason from west of Houston and Elizabeth from Laredo. (This photo is courtesy of Jason.)
He tells us the sentimental story of his 90-year-old hat, which he got from Cactus Jack’s hat barrel, and invites G to put it on.
Jason is “full-blood Czech on both sides” though he was born in Texas. He recommends that we check out The Apple Store in Medina the next day. (Apple as in the fruit, not the technology company.)
So we do.
It’s a beautiful 13-mile drive to Medina, up and down, with tight, winding curves this way then that. Medina is the self-proclaimed Apple Capital of Texas.
At The Apple Store, we munch a delicious apple oatmeal cookie and get a free sample of the apple cinnamon ice cream with the apple cinnamon sauce. We wind up buying to-go a cup of apple-infused coffee, an apple turnover and a jar of apple butter in memory of my late father, for whom apple butter was condiment of celestial delight.
I tell general manager Carolyn that Jason sent us; she smiles and says Jason is one of their best customers.
From there we cruise through Kerrville, another one of our favorite towns. We pass yet another exotic ranch. We see a variety of elk and antelope. We hug the Medina River for awhile, then the Guadalupe….
We stop spontaneously at Sister Creek Vineyards in Sisterdale … just saw the sign along the side of the road. It doesn’t look like much. But we go in and inspect the premises.
They are spotless.
We share a tasting of eight of their wines, which G pronounces “honest and straight-forward.” We buy four bottles.
Later, we see a beautiful Redtailed hawk just off of Old Blanco Road. And then a Kite.
We land in Blanco State Park in the afternoon, a park along the Blanco River about an hour north of San Antonio and the same distance west of Austin. The river is named for the white limestone rock that lines its banks and streambed. G and I picnicked with the ducks here once more than a dozen years ago.
We watch a family of hungry cedar waxwings pluck red berries off the Texas hawthorn bush just outside our Casita’s “dining room” window. An adorable titmouse has a passion for G’s birdseed; so do a lovebird pair of cardinals. An American robin preens for us. The dogwood trees are already in full bloom.
We bike around the park and into the tiny town. Love this old oak tree, dating to the 1800s. (Look closely to the left of the trunk and you can see a bench, giving you a sense of scale.)
Lunch is leftovers; dessert is DQ, where there’s a framed all-you-can-eat-ice-cream-for-10-cents coupon hanging on the wall, dated Aug. 4, 1938.
Final approach to Dallas
We wake to the oh-so-familiar song of the White-tailed dove … and putter our way over to Lockhart, about an hour east to visit friends, Sue and Kirk.
Sue and I worked together at The Dallas Morning News until she retired in 2006, and all four of us have enjoyed Texas Associated Press Managing Editors forums over the years, as well as University of North Texas’ Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conferences.
Dinner is at Black’s Barbecue, of course – the most famous of Lockhart’s four – yes, FOUR, count ’em – BBQ joints. It’s great to catch up. We overnight in their driveway….
Now we’re off again, heading toward our last night on the road. Here’s a map of our amble(s) across Texas.
We’d hoped to spend our last night at Colorado Bend State Park, just west of Lampasas. That’s the very first place G and I ever camped together some 15-16 years ago.
We’d been married less than two years when we moved to Dallas in 2002, together for less than three. We were still tent camping back then. I remember that it rained that night, and a deer wandered up to our picnic bench the next morning to join us for breakfast.
But Colorado Bend is a tiny state park and it turns out they’re booked solid.
So we’ll just have to overnight somewhere else before cruising into Dallas tomorrow….