Visiting the Beauty of Central and West Texas
Before the Stay at Home order for the Covid-19 virus, my son joined me on a Graytripper jaunt for a brief respite from the uncertain medical news and the dire economic predictions. We also thought there might be a chance of finding toilet paper in smaller towns; that part of the idea proved wrong. We chose the hill country for the beautiful scenery and the warm breezes that were heralding the coming of spring. Our home base location was Fredericksburg. The area around Fredericksburg is surrounded by a flourishing number of wineries and distilleries. Wine and beer are not my drinks of choice but recently, a new industry has entered that area - olive oil production. Texas is not generally thought of as an olive producing state but in truth, the state's climate is well-suited for the growth of olive trees. As a result, several olive oil companies have opened in the hill country offering tastings and different product selections much like the wineries. Finally, something that I can get into. I totally love olive oil and use a lot in cooking and in dressings for salads, so the first venture of the trip was to the Texas Olive Oil Company in Dripping Springs, Texas.
Dripping Springs is located about 55 miles east of Fredericksburg and calls itself the "Gateway to the Hill Country." The town is one of the hill country destination sites for the wineries and distilleries that attract many tourists. In 2011, a town ordinance was introduced that reduced outdoor lighting and it became a Dark Sky Community and began drawing large crowds of astro-tourists who came to view the stars with little or no light pollution. Dripping Springs is also on the Texas Hill Country Christmas Lights Trail and Events and the downtown area becomes a Christmas gala with lights, shopping, craft booths, a petting zoo, pony rides, and train rides. One thing we discovered on this trip is that GPS can get a little "squirrely" when we were on back roads but we had no trouble finding our way to the Olive Oil Company and, running between rain drops, we headed inside to a wonderland assortment of olive oils and other products.
The Texas Olive Oil Company was founded in 2009. The company has 17 acres, 16 orchards, 2,000 olive trees and a large guest center. There is a tasting area set up with samples of every type of olive oil a person can imagine. They also have balsamic vinegars for tasting and I discovered a peach vinegar with a delicious flavor. I just couldn't figure out what type food it would taste better with. (If anyone has any suggestions on how they would use peach vinegar, please let me know.) There is also a bistro style restaurant that features meals made with the company's products. I was told they also make delicious bread but unfortunately, they had already sold out the day we visited. Tours of the company are available and they also offer cooking classes, wine & vinegar tasting, and...karaoke. I indulged myself by sampling all the various olive oils. Each one had a rich, smooth taste and the spices in the infused oils were delicate and did not over-power the flavor of the olives. All in all, this was a wonderful place to visit and I hope to return someday when the weather is better and we are no longer practicing social isolation.
Since our first day had been pretty full, we decided to head back to Fredericksburg for a good dinner at Mamacita's and then call it a day. We had scheduled a drive down to Bandera, Texas for the next day and wanted to get on the early road.
Starting out the next day, we were happy to see that the rain clouds had dissipated as we headed south on Highway 16 towards Bandera. The drive from Fredericksburg to Kerrville was just a short trip and, unknowing to us, after leaving Kerrville we would be starting a very scenic and winding drive from Kerrville to Bandera. My son and I have traveled extensively through the southwest and the drive we were on reminded us of similar areas we had driven through in the northern part of New Mexico. The road was a relatively narrow two-lane highway with hair pin curves and steep inclines followed by steep descents. We passed grass lands with cattle and natural fields with the barely visible blue and white tops of the newly blooming iconic Texas bluebonnets. We drove through the town of Medina then crossed the Medina River outside of Bandera. This side-trip was very nostalgic for me. We were headed to the Mayan Dude Ranch, a place that I had spent a lot of time visiting each summer for three years from the time I was almost 16 until the final summer when I worked on the ranch from June through August. That's been about 65 years ago. I was very interested to see how much had changed from the last time I was there. As we drove down a dirt road to the ranch office area, we passed a very handsome peacock standing next to the corral, proudly displaying his beautiful tail feathers for the benefit of nearby riders who were saddling up for an afternoon trail ride. Seeing all the horses and riders in the corral was reminiscent of my earlier days on the ranch when we were awake and ready by 6:00 a.m. to round up the horses for the morning breakfast trail ride. While I was there, I always rode a beautiful gray mare. Her gait was as smooth as gliding across ice and I don't remember ever being bounced in the saddle. I used to whisper in her ear that she was an "Old Gray Mare" but I think she got the last laugh. She went to greener pastures and I am now the Old Gray Mare!
We entered the office and I noticed that the building really hadn't changed that much. A very pleasant lady greeted us and I explained that we were just visiting and I was re-living the days of my cow-girl youth. Years ago, the ranch was run by the Hicks family. They had two sons, Don and Mack. Don and his wife Judy took over the management of the ranch when Don's parents retired. I asked if they were still there and was surprised to find that the nice lady I was speaking to was their daughter. We spent a little time catching up and I was sad to learn that Don had passed away only four months earlier. After visiting the office area, we toured the dining room (At age 17, I ate my weight in bread pudding made by the best bread pudding cook in the world.) we looked in at the bar where I used to sell beer until it was discovered that I wouldn't be 18 for two more months, we went to the pool area, we visited the gift shop, and then drove around the area to see the guest accommodations. There seemed to be a lot of visitors at the ranch and I was happy to see that dude-ranch life is still popular. The Mayan ranch is a wonderful place for a family visit. There are a lot of activities and many trails to hike. The pool is large and great for kids. There are also dinosaur tracks visible on one of the trails and it is all encompassed by the natural beauty of the hill country.
Our visit there was wonderful. I felt happy knowing that the ranch is still productive and I hope to go back for a little longer visit. As we were driving out, for just a fleeting moment, I could feel boots on my feet, a hat on my head, and I could hear the creaking of a leather saddle as my gray mare carried me on a wild ride through the pastures and hills of the ranch. I had truly been riding "Wildfire." (A nod to Michael Murphy.)
The next day, was our longest tour day. We took Highway 16 north to Llano passing through the Willow City Scenic Loop on our way. The bluebonnets were just beginning to bloom but there were areas with fields sporting a blue cast from all the early flowers. My son had not seen the beautiful spring flowers of Texas for several years so I was glad that some had made an early appearance. Llano has the perfect small-town environment. It is located on the Llano river and is only about twenty-five miles from Enchanted Rock and Lake Buchanan. It is also rich in fossils and minerals and there are claims that gold can still be found in the area. That is a fact that I learned after we left the area which is probably just as well since the rest of our time would have been spent with a pan and a shovel while we succumbed to Gold Fever! Llano is known for good barbecue and we stopped for an early lunch at a place recommended by a friend - Coopers Old Time Pit BBQ close to the Llano river. This stop was the first time we experienced social distancing. Diners inside the restaurant were seated six feet from each other and there was no table service. Even with the new restrictions, the Bar B Que was very good and our lunch was worth the stop. After eating, we drove to a park near the river and decided to walk off our large lunch. The water level was high due to the recent rains and it made a very picturesque setting for photos of the dam. I happened across a large clump of bluebonnets blooming profusely in spite of growing in just the smallest amount of dirt in a crack between the sidewalk and the curb. The survival instincts of the plant could have been a harbinger of the coming weeks of Covid-19.
Leaving Llano, we headed west to Mason and then took Hwy 77 north to San Angelo. The drive from Llano to Mason was beautiful with bluebonnets lining each side of the highway. That area is probably one of the best places I've seen for wildflower viewing. After about 2 hours, we arrived in San Angelo and headed straight for the Cactus Book Store in the downtown area. This book store specializes in Texana and Western Americana and has a large collection of books by Elmer Kelton. The Cactus book store has been featured on the Texas Country Reporter TV program and was named "Best Western History Book Store" by True West Magazine. My son and I both like Texana novels and Elmer Kelton is one of our favorite authors. Needless to say, we spent a little longer than we had planned looking through all the shelves of one of the most interesting book stores I have ever visited. The variety of the inventory and the numbers of books were amazing. If you are a reader and you like good western or Texana writings, you have to put this store on your list of places to visit. If you are too far for a visit, you can request a catalog by going to their website at www.cactusbookshop.com and sending an email. The owner, Felton Cochran, was a personal friend of Elmer Kelton and I'm sure he has a lot of stories to tell. Visiting the book store alone justified the two-hour drive.
The city of San Angelo was established in 1867 and was located across the North Concho River from Fort Concho. Fort Concho is a part of the Texas Fort Trail and it is one of the better-preserved frontier forts in the United States. It was built to protect the settlements from hostile Indian attacks. The fort was built near five major trails including the Butterfield Overland Mail Route and the Goodnight-Loving Trail. A regiment of Buffalo Soldiers were posted at the fort from 1869 - 1885. Fort Concho has now been declared a National Historical Landmark.
At the beginning, San Angelo was known for its saloons, prostitutes, and gambling. Later the town became the county seat for Town Green County and with the availability of a good water supply, ranching and agriculture began growing in the area. The nearby fort gave the town a regular supply of business and money as the soldiers spent their paychecks in the local establishments. By 1909, the frontier town had become the hub for several rail lines, including the Santa Fe Railroad. The town continued to grow from the shipments of goods through the city and the railroads made San Angelo one of the leading cattle and sheep markets in Texas. The oil boom of the 1900s turned the town into a regional center of the oil and gas industry and the manufacturing industry grew with the production of a variety of products ranging from denim jeans, iron and steel to electronics and oilfield equipment. As we were driving through the town and the surrounding area, a feeling of old Texas came over me and I could almost see the herds of longhorn cattle watering along the banks of the Concho River.
The San Angelo area includes Odessa, Midland, Sweetwater and Abilene. This part of Texas is in direct contrast to the Pine forests of the Big Thicket in East Texas but the beauty of the western area of Texas is tied to its history. That part of the state is rugged and early settlement life was hard due to the topography and extremes of weather. The ranchers and cowboys of years past and even in today's time, had to be strong and resilient to be able to exist in a dry, windy, and sometimes brutally hot climate. The rocky and weather-beaten land adds character to the beauty of the surrounding area and seems to perfectly personify the word "Texas". All in all, this was another successful trip and each time we visit an area, we learn something new about the wonderful Lone Star State.
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