Deep in the Heart of Texas: Aiming for Authenticity in the Hill Country
Above all things I value authenticity in travel. Cruise ships, all-inclusive resorts, and gated communities hold little appeal for me because they strive to keep the traveler comfortably separated from the people and culture he is in. I like to feel I am in among the people, experiencing how they live. This is always most rewarding when the people seem genuinely to enjoy their lives.
So I was headed to the hill country of Texas, west of San Antonio. I was looking for a taste of the real Texas, the kind you see in Westerns: big-hearted, down-to-earth, square dealing, but steely-eyed and quick on the draw if necessary. I was looking for authenticity.
Lassoos and Campfires
I had decided to hole up at the Running-R Ranch near the little town of Bandera. I arrived late, after dark, to the strains of Gene Autry on my I-pod. When I pulled up to the little ranch house, it was quiet. I looked up. The stars that night were big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.
I took my key from an envelope tacked to the door and made my way to my cabin.
The accommodations were spartan, a bedstead made of rugged cottonwood, a bench, a table and four chairs. On the bed was a handwoven quilt. On the wall above it was a picture of a quarter horse. I went to sleep.
In the morning I was awoken by the sound of clanging. Someone was banging on a triangle bell, like a chuckwagon call. Bleary-eyed, I pulled on my jeans and stepped out onto the porch. My cabin was located in a cul-da-sac at the end of a dirt road. Somewhere up the road, not far, the clanging had stopped and I could hear the steady chuff-chuff of someone digging. I went to investigate.
I passed through an open area behind one of the outbuildings where the ashy remains of a campfire lay. Low wooden benches surrounded it. Near the head of the burnt out fire beside a yucca bush was a replica of a steer’s head with coils of rope looped around it. Obviously this was used by the folks here to practice lassoing. I smiled. I liked being in a place where people still felt that mastering the skill of throwing a rope around the head of a bovine was a worthwhile enterprise.
I saw a man digging a post hole and he looked up as I approached. “Mornin’”, he said, and then he nodded to a nearby building and said, “breakfast is up.”
Hands and Fixins
I climbed a short flight of steps to the building, which a sign identified as “The Roundup”, and I went in. It was a long wooden mess hall with a flagstone fireplace. A number of tables were set out. Arranged along one wall was a buffet: scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy. I was the only one there.
But then a woman appeared from the kitchen and seemed to startled to see me. She said, “I didn’t hear you come in.” It sounded like, “Ah, didn’t hare you come in.”
“Here I am,” I said, spreading my hands.
“Well, sit down,” she said. “The hens’ll be along directly.”
This puzzled me. “The hens?” I said, nodding toward the eggs. “Looks like the hens have already come and gone.”
She laughed. “No, the hands. The hands’ll be along directly. They always have to be prodded ‘for they come round for the fixins.”
Hands, I thought. This was good. I was in a place where the staff were referred to as hands, and the meal was referred to as fixins.
Sure enough, just then, three people came ambling through the door, two men and a woman. The “hands”, I inferred. The men were wearing Stetsons, which they removed. They introduced themselves and sat down.
The big man with the boyish face was Doug; he was the ranch foreman. The shorter, older man with the round, cherubic face was Jerry. He was a longtime resident of Running-R Ranch who hosted a call-in radio show on the topic of horses in Austin. The woman was Sherry. It was she who had taken my reservation and tacked my key to the door.
We had breakfast and talked. Or I should say, they talked. And the conversation was fascinating.
Armadillos and Cottonmouths
Doug, big and hulking, but as harmless looking as a boy scout, got on the subject of armadillos. Seems he had eaten armadillo once and found it difficult to stomach. Jerry wanted to know what had possessed him to do that. Doug explained that he had worked on a ranch and the ranch owner had told him he could hunt anything he wanted but he must eat what he killed. One night he shot an armadillo, thinking it was a fox or something, and true to his word, he cooked and ate it. But there was something unusual about it, Doug meant to tell us.
“Funny thing is,” he said. “Armadillos are a-sexual. That’s right. Every armadillo can reproduce. When I was cleaning the armadillo, I found this little pouch with four little tiny armadillos in it. I thought I had killed a pregnant mother, but the foreman told me all armadillos have those little pouches, regardless of sex. Ain’t that something?”
We all admitted it was. Later, I found out Doug was not entirely accurate on this score, but I didn’t care. I liked the fact that we were talking about armadillos.
But then the conversation turned to snakes and the precautions necessary in those regions to keep from getting bit.
Jerry told a story about a young couple who went camping and set up their camp after dark. Unbeknownst to them, their tent was pitched on a rattlesnake pit. Days later the authorities found them dead in their sleeping bags. “They had bites all over them.”
Doug volleyed back with a story about a friend who had moved north and then come back to Texas. He had forgotten some basic precautions, like the fact that you never go swimming in a river in the hill country without first tossing in a rock. If there are cottonmouths in the river, the rock will fetch them out. His friend, having forgotten, jumped in and landed in a nest of cottonmouths. They swarmed up and killed him.
Jerry remarked that cottonmouths sometimes drop out of the trees. Doug stepped up and struck that lob with force.
He had been on a fishing trip, he said, that nearly ended in disaster when he startled a cottonmouth lurking in the bottom of his boat.
“Must’ve fallen out of a tree,” Jerry said.
“Most likely,” agreed Doug.
Anyway, it was a moment of high tension as he was out in the middle of the river and the snake was between him and the outboard. Because jumping into the river seemed like an unpalatable alternative under the circumstances, Doug whipped out a pair of pistols and unloaded on it. He killed the snake but shot the boat full of holes. Now he was sinking.
“But isn’t that the boat with floating seats?” asked Jerry.
“Yes, it is,” confirmed Doug, not at all put out by the way Jerry had taken the wind out of his story. “So I was able to motor ashore, as you might expect.”
Now Sherry weighed in. “Didn’t hit that snake with your first shot, though, did you?”
“I was just glad I hit it,” said Doug, “The boat was rocking with the current and I was standing there trying to draw a bead on it. The snake was moving, the boat was moving, nothing was standing still. If it’d got me first, I’d be dead.”
“You don’t survive a cottonmouth bite, as a general thing,” Jerry observed.
“The only way is to cut yourself open with a knife and suck the venom out,” Doug explained. And then after a moment’s pause: “Takes grit.”
Jerry avowed he knew a guy who had done it and survived, but it was a rare thing. Then he thought about it, smiled a little and offered to tell the well-known joke about the two cowboys, one of whom is bitten in the penis by a snake, and the other one says, “What can I do to help you?”, and the first guy says…
Jerry hesitated. “Do you know the joke?”
We all did. We all laughed. It’s a good joke.
Marshals and Wranglers
I had come to Running-R specifically to ride, so after breakfast it was time to head out on the trails. February is off-season at the ranch, so I was the only one there, which is the way I like it.
Doug led me out to the barn where the wrangler was waiting. I was expecting a lean and rangy looking character chewing on a straw, but instead my wrangler was an attractive 30-something woman with a vague resemblance to Sheryl Crow. Her name was Mary.
As we rode off into the hill country, one of the first topics we discussed was the appropriateness of names. I told Mary that her name suited her, because of her dark hair, which made me think of Catholic girls, although she wasn’t.
She generously allowed that I was the first Malcolm she had ever met and was not put in mind of young TV stars or angry civil rights leaders. We both agreed, however, that Doug was not appropriately named. “I call him Dougie Doo-Right,” she told me. “He’s a big sweet guy like that.”
We talked about Doug a little longer and it came to light that Doug had formerly been the deputy marshal of Bandera before he became foreman at the ranch. I loved it. I had just breakfasted with a real Texas marshal, and then he’d helped me saddle up. “You should respect him,” I suggested to Mary. “You should call him Marshal Do-Right.” We laughed.
Mary had a dark bruise under her eye. Doug had kidded her about it when she’d brought out the horses, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate to ask. So I didn’t.
Cowboys and Indians
We rode up a winding dirt trail lined by Texas live oak and cedar brush. In the distance low hills lined the horizon. A falcon soared overhead. A jackrabbit spooked and bounded away.
The name of my mount was Colton and he was a good horse. He would pick it up at a shake of the reins, change directions with a mild pull, and spin around and go back on command, which is saying something about a trail horse, which generally only go in one direction.
But then these horses had been trained by Texas horsepeople, which are some of the best, Mary among them. She had come to the ranch from a horseshow where she had done trick riding in front of an audience, wearing fringe and rhinestones, hanging off the side of the saddle, shooting blanks, standing up, riding backwards. She had ideas about how to spice up the trail ride with a fake Indian attack.
“I think we should get halfway into it and then these Indians come screaming down out of the hills and then we fight off the Indians with a bunch of fancy riding and gunplay.”
I told her I thought it was a great idea. I’m all for spicing things up.
“We’ll have to break the horses to it,” she said, explaining that horses have to be broken to gunfire with cap pistols to start, otherwise they’ll bolt. “You keep going louder and louder until they’re used to it. Once they can take gunfire, they’ll take anything, even bombs.”
“It’s a good thing you don’t have to break them to bombs,” I said.
Trotting and Loping
We rode far out into the hills. I put the heels to Colton and we loped along past yucca, sage and prickly pear cactus, enjoying the unique hill country terrain the way generations of Texans have, astride a well-trained steed, side-by-side with an accomplished horseperson, the thump of hoofbeats in our ears. Authentic.
Back at the barn, I learned how Mary had come by her black eye. “You probably think I’m a victim of domestic abuse,” she said. “Actually it’s even dumber than that. I was currying a horse and dropped the brush behind it. I stepped around to pick it up and pow!”
“He kicked you?”
“He just grazed me,” she said, a little embarrassed.
“Otherwise you wouldn’t be standing here talking to me.”
“Uh, that’s right.”
Damn, I thought. It’s dangerous in these parts. If the snakes don’t get you, your horse might deal you a blow that’ll dash your brains in. Nevertheless, these Texans take it all in stride, approaching things with grace and good humor.
Taken altogether, my brief visit to the Texas Hill Country provided everything I look for in travel. Unique surroundings, friendly people, and authenticity. I believe I’d like to come back again, bring the wife, and try my hand at throwing that lasso around that steer’s head.
I like it when things stand still and give me a chance to draw a bead on them.
Check it out…
9059 Bandera Creek Road
Bandera, TX 78003-3866
My American Odyssey Route Map
Previous stop on the odyssey: Mobile, AL //
Next stop on the odyssey: Kitt Peak, AZ
Click map to enlarge
All images by Malcolm Logan except, Two pistol cowboy, Chromaco; Triangle bell, VTArmynavy.com; Round up room, Running-RRanch; Cottonmouth, Chinmay; Texas hill country, Zereshk; Trick rider, Public domain; Front porch, Running-RRanch; Cowboy at Sunset, Tyler Olsen