Until last weekend, I never had been to the Texas Hill Country. Not the real Hill Country, west of Waco and Austin and San Antonio. But after a quick journey to a funeral, I can now say I’ve seen a decent portion of the Hill Country. And I thought enough of it to write about.
The Hill Country is a 25-county region of Central Texas and South Texas. Its defining features are rugged hills with thin soil atop limestone or granite. The weather gets progressively warmer the farther south you go, and the Hill Country is marked by tourism and retirement communities.
I’m mostly a metropolitan man when it comes to Texas. Here to Dallas. Dallas to Waco or Austin or San Antonio. Here to Dallas and on to Houston. Here to Amarillo and south to Lubbock. Fly to El Paso. If I get off that track, I’m still usually on an interstate. I-10 east out of Houston, into Louisiana. I-20 east out of Dallas to Louisiana. About my only adventurism has been going to Lubbock via Wichita Falls.
But when my wife needed to attend a funeral last Saturday in Kerrville, Texas, and ended up headed there by herself, I said hold on. I’m going with you. And so I did. Here’s what we saw and heard.
YOU CAN’T OUTRUN THE LONG ARM…
Kerrville sits about an hour southwest of Austin and about an northwest of San Antonio. The best way to get to Kerrville is to go south on I-35 to some point, probably between Waco and Austin, and jaunt over. But I couldn’t leave until about 2:15 p.m. Friday. That meant going through Dallas or Fort Worth during rush hour. No thank you.
So we drove to Wichita Falls, caught U.S. 281 and headed south. Kerrville is some 300 miles south of Wichita Falls, depending on exactly which way you go. I know, 300 miles on a non-freeway seems awfully daunting. But I was in a free-spirit sort of mood. I like seeing things I’d never seen before.
Unfortunately, just as the adventure started, I saw something I’d seen plenty of. A Texas peace officer.
A Wichita Falls cop pulled me over and gave me a speeding ticket going out of town. I had decided early in the day, we’re not in a hurry, we have no place to be tonight, just drive the speed limit. And so I did: 75 mph on the H.E. Bailey Turnpike, whatever the posted speed was throughout all the Texas towns and open road we traversed. I put the Mazda on cruise control and didn’t get in a hurry.
But in Wichita Falls, the speed limit goes from 75 mph to 60 mph, and I didn’t use cruise control going through town. Just leaving the city, the cop pulled me over and said I was doing 75. Maybe I was. I wasn’t meaning to drive fast.
Lord knows I’ve deserved 100 tickets when I was driving fast on purpose. But it’s a bummer to get a ticket when you’re not even trying to speed. The last ticket I got also had a Wichita Falls connection — I got cited for speeding on the highway between Wichita Falls and Lubbock, going to the 2012 OU-Tech football game. Drive 75 mph in Dallas and people will yell at you to get out of the way, they’re in a hurry. But drive 75 mph on the open range, and you’ll get written up.
Going the 300 miles from Wichita Falls to Kerrville, we passed through a variety of towns I’d heard of but never traveled through:
* Jacksboro: population 4,500. Nothing overly descriptive, but the home of long-time TCU coach Abe Martin and PGA golfers Rik and Don Massengale.
* Mineral Wells: population 16,000. A massive, abandoned building sits a couple of blocks east of U.S. 281 right in the middle of town. Turns out it’s the long-shuttered Baker Hotel, which had quite the run as a resort when the mineral springs and spa of the area were all the rage. The Baker Hotel closed in 1963, reopened a little and closed for good in 1972. I can’t describe how big the place is. It’s got to be 14-15 stories tall, plus quite wide. And now it’s decaying. Looks like something out of a Batman movie.
* Stephenville: population 17,000. We just skirted Stephenville, so I didn’t get much of a look. It always sounded like a nice place; the football hotbed where Art Briles produced championship teams before going to the college ranks. The part I saw wasn’t anything to get excited about, but again, I didn’t see much. Stephenville was home to rodeo cowboy Ty Murray, NFL quarterback Kevin Kolb, the singer Jewel and a golfer by the name of Ben Hogan.
* Hico: population 1,300. Claims to be the hometown of Billy the Kid, but the true identity of Billy the Kid is in question, so who knows? The sun sat on us at Hico, so everything else was in the dark.
* Hamilton, population 3,000. Nothing distinctive.
* Lampasas: population 6,000. Looked like a nice place, but it was dark. We stopped at a Sonic for dinner — with 300 miles of non-freeway driving, relaxing over a nice sit-down dinner was sort of a non-starter; plus, I love Sonic — and kept going. But it gave me the chance to tell the Dish the story of Johnny “Lam” Jones. In the 1970s, the University of Texas managed to recruit two running backs with the same name. Johnny Jones. One was from Hamlin, the other from Lampasas. They quickly became known as Johnny “Ham” Jones and Johnny “Lam” Jones. Lam Jones also made the 1976 U.S. Olympic team as a sprinter. Makes you wonder, what would the Longhorns have done had Lam Jones been from Hamilton.
* Burnet: population 6,000. A nice, well-kept town. Getting into Burnet, you start to feel the influx of money in the Hill Country.
* Marble Falls: population 5,000. Marble Falls is the gateway to Horseshoe Bay, the tourist and retirement village about 15 miles northwest. But Marble Falls has plenty going for it, too. We came through late, probably 8:30 p.m., but made sure we came back the next day in the daylight. An old town, like most old towns, except in 1951, a huge lake was constructed by damming the Colorado River. A natural waterfall, for which the town is named, was covered up and now can be seen only every few years, when the lake is lowered. But the lake was built right on the edge of town. Which gives it a rare feeling. In most places in Oklahoma, the Army corps of engineers controls the lakeshores. Thus you don’t see development right up to the water. Maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t know enough about it to comment. But I can tell you that it’s cool when you can eat lunch on the edge of a lake.
Coming home Saturday, we stopped for lunch at the River City Grille in Marble Falls (had some good catfish) and ate right next to the window overlooking the lake. The lake sits between two bluffs, so we were high above the water, almost straight above it. It’s what I’ve long thought needed to happen in Oklahoma on Lake Hudson in Salina, my dad’s hometown. Lake Hudson is one of the few lakes in Oklahoma where development could happen along the lake, and it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Some hills, beautiful water, just a great setting. But nothing’s ever really taken off in Salina.
Marble Falls was where you saw the tourism industry really blossoming.
* Johnson City: population 1,300. Johnson City is where you turn off 281 and start jaunting over to Kerrville. Johnson City also was the hometown of Lyndon Johnson. The town was named for LBJ’s uncle or cousin, the sources I found are in conflict, but it’s not a huge place. Maybe the size of Lexington.
* Fredericksburg: population 10,000. Whoa. Driving through Fredericksburg at night, we could tell this was a different place. At 9:45 p.m., people out walking the streets, block after block of boutiques and art galleries and restaurants. I could understand if this was SoHo. But in the middle of Nowhere, Texas?
The next day, the dozens of people out had turned into hundreds or more. People everywhere. Fredericksburg was founded by German descendants and maintains a German flair. Apparently, all kinds of festivals are staged throughout the year, and it appears to be an eclectic shopping mecca. The Dish wanted to stop but thought better of it. Might never leave.
* Kerrville: population 22,000. The hometown of Johnny Manziel. And signs of Johnny Football were … sparse. I saw one mention of Manziel. On some innocuous business, a tire shop or something, that had a small sign that said Welcome Home, Johnny Manziel. That was it. For good reason. Kerrville stands on its own.
A beautiful town on the Guadalupe River, a retirement hotbed, with lots of monied and cultured people. The weather is part of the allure. When we arrived about 10:30 p.m. Friday, the temperature was in the 50s. The next morning, in the 60s. When we got out of the funeral about 12:30 p.m., the first bank sign we saw said 86 degrees.
Do you know what 86 degrees feels like after the winter we’ve had? It’s sublime. It’s a warmth like no other. This is a literal statement: after a winter like we’ve had, you forget what good weather feels like. These days, a 42-degree day is awesome. Fifty is more than we could ask for. Now try 86.
Remember the scene in “Field of Dreams,” where Joe Jackson or somebody walks out of the cornfield and onto the beautiful baseball diamond and asks, “Is this heaven?” That’s what I was doing Saturday afternoon. I was asking, “Is this San Diego?”
So I was impressed with the Hill Country. I’m not saying I’d take it over New York City or Miami Beach or San Francisco or even the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. I’m saying it was a cool place. Totally unexpected. A place I wouldn’t mind going back.
I listen to basketball on the radio almost never. Any game that interests me is televised, and if I’m not home, I will be, so I tape the games and watch them deep into the night. But the trip to Kerrville was different. The Thunder played Memphis on Friday night, so there would be no taping that one (I don’t like to watch if I know what has happened). Then Saturday, OU-Texas was at 3 p.m., OU women vs. TCU at 7 p.m. and OSU-Kansas at 8 p.m. I knew I would be dead-dog tired when I got home, with a full day Sunday. So I taped the OSU-KU game and decided to listen to the Sooner games.
Which meant three full basketball games on the radio over a 26-hour period. It was interesting.
The Thunder game started about the time I was going through Hico, Texas. WWLS’ signal is strong, but not that strong. The iPhone app doesn’t work out of the area, because the NBA wants to protect its internet radio interests. So I called the Sports Animal hotline, one of our guys put me on hold and turned on the programming. My phone was plugged in to a car adapter, so I had plenty of power. And I listened to Thunder-Grizzlies in its entirety, plus the post-game show.
Matt Pinto does an excellent job calling the game. In fact, too good. The NBA is not a good radio product. The game moves too fast. It’s hard to process the information. Pinto amazingly gets it in. Who has the ball, now who has it, what the defense is doing, etc. But even though Pinto is talented enough to describe what he’s seeing, our brains aren’t accustomed to process it. We’re accustomed to seeing basketball, not visualizing basketball. I found myself trying to keep up with the ball and ended up getting lost until something happened — shot or turnover. Maybe if you listen more, your brain adjusts. But it was tough to follow, and it wasn’t Pinto’s fault. It was mine.
Saturday, we left our lunch in Marble Falls about 3 p.m., so we picked up the Texas network for OU-UT. KVET out of Austin. For some reason, it didn’t come in all that smoothly, and I never found another affiliate. So it was a little scratchy. Texas’ Craig Way does a fabulous job on the radio, and college basketball is much easier to visualize than the NBA. But the Texas production had a major problem — it had a crowd/court mic, and that mic was turned up WAY too loud. Seriously, I could the OU band playing Boomer Sooner as easily as I could hear Way talk. It was a pain. I guess those crowd microphones are good, but only in extreme moderation. I finally lost the broadcast somewhere south of Fort Worth, but by then only a couple of minutes remained and the Sooners had the game safely in hand.
And finally, I picked up one of Oklahoma’s all-time great radio signals, KOKC (1520 AM), the old KOMA, for the OU women’s game. Got it around Gainesville, just a few minutes into the Sooner women’s game, and listened all the way home. Pulled into my driveway with literally 30 seconds left in the game. It was a dud game, TCU dominated, but Brian Brinkley, the long-time voice of the Sooner women, was superb as always. I like Brinkley’s call because while he’s never overly critical, he’s also not trying to snow us on how bad things go when they go bad. Sherri Coale’s son, Colton, does the analysis as Brinkley’s sidekick. I think he’s in an impossible situation. Just try to get me to say something bad about my mother. Not going to happen.
We were in Kerrville for the memorial service of Dick O’Shields, an OU grad who had a great career in the oil business. He died last month at the age of 87.
O’Shields and his wife donated more than $1 million to OU over the course of their lives. The Dish is a fundraiser for OU’s college of engineering and attended the funeral as a show of respect for all that O’Shields had done for the college.
Anyone whose lifetime donations to OU reaches $1 million is awarded the Seed Sower statue. It’s a trophy-sized replica of the big statue that sits at the entrance to the South Oval of campus. When we entered the First United Methodist Church in Kerrville, O’Shields’ statue sat on a table by the guest book, with a photo of the O’Shieldses with OU engineering dean Tom Landers awarding them the Seed Sower.
Later, the Rev. Bob Allen, who officiated the service, delivered an excellent 11-minute sermon in which he took the Seed Sower statue and used it as the center of his message. He used the parable of the sower from Matthew chapter 13. The Reverend talked about how O’Shields was more proud of that statue than any other memorabilia in his home office, including several photographs in which O’Shields posed with presidents. It was a sweet reminder of how we all can pass along whatever bounty comes our way.