||If ever there was a town to get out of in Texas, it would be Austin. Not because there's nothing to do there. On the contrary, I consider it to be one of the premier U.S. cities.... incredible Tex-Mex, great nightclubs, rich in American history, and beautiful natural scenery. The reason you leave Austin is because just about every highway you take out of Austin affords you one more opportunity to Get Lost....
(clockwise from upper left) Bluebonnet Cafe menu cover; Gruene Hall; my son with two cowboys at Lazy Hills; cattle outside Austin; Luckenbach bar with Kimbo (seated)
Head west and you're liable to stumble upon Luckenbach. I can't think of anyplace else I would rather be to do absolutely nothing. This little village, established in the early 70's by Hondo Crouch, is centered around one really cool post office that doubles as a bar. Go hang out there on a 100 degree weekday and just listen. I'm firmly convinced this is where the phrase, "Aw that's a bunch o' BS......" originated.
A few weeks ago we were passing by (within fifty miles, anyway) and decided to pull in for a beer. I never met Kimbo Keaton before that day, but there he sat, doing nothing. I joined in doing what he was doing and listened for a while to a conversation which, given enough time, will always find itself pointed right at you. I mentioned that I was a singer/songwriter. This, of course, prompted Kimbo to reach over and grab a fiddle. Now when something like this happens in most places, you'll see me start to squirm, search for the nearest exit and prepare myself for the inevitable bad recital that's about to begin. Not so here. Kimbo will probably never win any fiddler's convention awards. That's because they don't hand out ribbons at fiddler's conventions for "Best Of Soul". It's my bet that he can't read a lick of music either. This man plays straight from the heart. No scales, just pure melody with reckless abandon. I asked for permission to accompany him on the house guitar that sits behind the counter for just such occasions, and we put our heads together for one all too brief moment. Experiences such as these become truly inspirational in my quest to better my craft as a composer and a player and I am indebted to Kimbo and the people like him who will share their soul with me.
Drive south out of Austin on I35 and you can easily miss Gruene (pronounced "green") on your way to San Antonio. Gruene is home to Gruene Hall, one of America's premiere old-time dancehalls. I notice at least two or three beer commercials on TV every year that are shot there. (I must confess, I performed there in 1992 for a Coors Light commercial myself). Nevertheless, this place is chocked full of history and charm, the kind of charm many newer places try to replicate with a bunch of antiques hung from the ceiling... but somehow they miss. Gruene Hall has evolved over the years into what it is today. The very sparseness of it is captivating. It stands as a memorial to a simpler way of life in Texas and bands will always play their very best there......
One trip to Gruene Hall found me listening to Gary P. Nunn, a quintessential Texas singer/songwriter, croon about his mutual love for Texas and the surrounding areas. Much to my wife's dismay, dancing has never been one of my strong suits. Let's just say that, from the vantage-point of where I stand on stage, I've seen one too many a grown man make a fool out of himself to believe that my version would be appreciably different. But that doesn't diminish my enthusiasm for this place in the least. Here, couples seem to spin in rhythmic harmony to an ocean of ceiling fans floating above. On this particular visit I even hoisted my then seven year old daughter up and waltzed her a couple of times around the floor. But as a rule, sitting, listening, talking, looking, pitching horse shoes and shooting pool are the order of the day for me. As we sat sipping on long-necks, listening to Texas-born music drift out through the open screen windows, across the courtyard draped in Christmas lights and into this small town overlooking the Guadalupe River, it dawned on me that I had, once again, gotten lost in the land of Texico.
Riverside Haven B & B in Gruene serves us as the perfect central location to cover the easternmost portion of the hill country. Maria starts you with a breakfast that might put you in a lounge chair in her back yard overlooking the Guadalupe River for the rest of the day. Hopefully it will put you in one of her canoes to work of the excess tonnage you've just acquired. Whatever the case, her quiet home will let you get away from it all, and yet allow you to get back into the hill country quickly.
If you point your car southwest out of Austin and drive for an hour or so through the hill country backroads of Texas in search of nothing in particular, you may find yourself on a small dirt road in front of a handpainted slab of wood that looks more like a child's best effort to sell you some lemonade. It reads simply "Cave Without A Name, 3 Miles". Such was the case earlier one spring on a weekend jaunt to the hill-country. I knew full well that this was going to eat some time; however my family and I unanimously agreed that this was an essential stop on our day's journey and made the last three miles in a cloud of dust. Henry was preparing to take a load of kids on a fieldtrip from San Antonio "down under" as we pulled up. I cannot honestly recommend that you ever go into a small cave (or any cave for that matter) with a large group of seventh graders (this same axiom applies to movie theatres as well). But we were there and it seemed the logical thing to do, so we bit the bullet. It was a good informal education on caves, despite Henry's having to stop constantly and ask these obnoxious kids to quit shouting and touching the stalagtites. He's getting up there in years, so you're apt to hear the same story two or three times, but there's no extra charge. He'll explain how these guys back in the 30's were sitting on their front porch, when one of the goats grazing about fifty yards away suddenly vanished. They walked over to where the goat was and realized he'd fallen down a hole. Way down a hole. They got some engineers to help figure out how to get their goat back. Further examination revealed the hole turned into a fairly large cave. They actually got the goat out and in the process decided to make the cave a tourist attraction. If you're looking to be a cave curator, you can carry Henry's torch because he told me he can be bought out for about 400,000 bucks, with 50 acres included. He said some real estate guys had been hounding him but he was holding out for someone who loved his cave as much as he did and would keep it going. If you go poke around the town of Boerne, someone will probably be able to tell you how to get there.
Head east out of Austin in the morning and you stand a chance of driving through Lockhart at lunchtime. Make a beeline to Kreuz Market. This is as unique a barbecue joint as you will ever encounter, guaranteed. They serve no beans, no potato salad and, get this.... no sauce! Just meat and bread. They smoke beef brisket, shoulder, prime rib, pork and homemade sausages and all of it's awesome. They've been doing it in the middle of nowhere for 80 years and it's still packed every day.
Marble Falls, northwest of Austin, is a well known summer recreational haven for University of Texas grads to mingle and reminisce. It's also renowned for the homestyle Texas cooking that The Bluebonnet Cafe serves every day. This place is worth the stop for the pies alone. You name the flavor and they have it... done to perfection. It's no surprise that Marble Falls became a hot vacation spot because when you finish eating at the Bluebonnet, you kind of want to find the nearest place to take a nap.
The concept of going to a dude ranch has always been fairly repulsive to me. Riding around on horses with folks from Pittsburgh, Peoria and Poughkeepsie shouting out stuff like, "Look Eunace, there's a jack rabbit!" is not my idea of a vacation. So there I was, at the Lazy Hills Guest Ranch, riding around on horses with people from all around the country and much to my astonishment, I really enjoyed it. They, like me, were there to relax and enjoy the beauty of the hill country outside Kerrville. You can do whatever you want, ride horses, hike, swim in their large pool, or just sit and take in the scenery. Oh, and eat. Based on how much the owners fed us, I now understand why cows get so fat. They try their very best to make your stay a memorable one. One of the things I actually enjoyed the most was meeting "those people" from all over in a place we'd all come to for the same reason. There's something rather disarming about a star-filled Texas summer sky in the hill country. I found those people more than willing to open up and enjoyed the privilege of listening to their stories. As you might imagine, I shared a few of mine.
Young man down in Luckenbach sittin' in an old saloon
He says, "Too bad 'bout the days gone by but I know they'll be back soon."
Sidekick sittin' to his left leans and asks me,
"Have you heard about those new waves out of San Antone tryin' to spread the music word."
How could I forget them when they passed before my eyes.
Surely I should try and understand. I'm a highway man.
Just a highway man.