Biking the Texas Hill Country
I threw my leg over the narrow black seat, and settled against the backrest. While
it wasn't our Honda, it felt darn good. After taking a few short day trips, I
was still a little apprehensive about my first major trip on a motorcycle. David,
on the other hand, oozed enthusiasm for our ride through the Texas Hill country.
the helmet over my ears, I adjusted the communicator, breathed deeply and said,
the rental place in San Antonio, we hit for the open highways and our first stop:
Luckenbach, Texas. We'd heard if you want to travel the world and meet interesting
characters from around the galaxy, you didn't ever have to leave Luckenbach --
so we were about to investigate!
campgrounds in Luckenbach hummed with activity, despite the dampness we'd encountered
as we drove. Mind you, I can honestly say it has rained on me every time I ventured
near a tent, so there was no surprise! Participants in the Harvest Classic Motorcycle
Rally paid no attention to the weather as they made camp, set up dealer displays,
and assembled a great Bike Show. I was ready for the good times to roll.
meeting the Luckenbach "family" was where my adventure
truly began. Deputy Sheriff Marshall Spires tipped his cowboy
hat at me, and nodded, as I stepped into the old post office/
General store with a tiny back room that served as a cozy
bar. The scarf knotted at his neck, along with the cowboy
hat tipped back in a perpetual greeting, provided an interesting
contrast to the leather-chapped bikers congregating at the
do you suppose they need a sheriff and a deputy sheriff in a town with two permanent
residents?" I whispered to David. "This place is soooo cool." My
eyes kept getting drawn to the collections on the wall-medals, dollar bills, business
cards, pictures-there wasn't much more than an few inches here or there that wasn't
covered with something you could read. A hundred or more caps hung suspended from
the ceiling above our heads, hovering near a huge stuffed bird I guessed to be
Sherrif Marshall, as it turned out, was as much a storyteller as a peace keeper.
The town was established as a trading post in 1849, making it one of the oldest
in the area. The building I was in, however, didn't appear on the scene until
1886, when a German preacher, August Engel, went into business. His daughter Minna
chose the name Luckenbach for her fiancé, Albert Luckenbach, who also had
the nearby town of Albert named in his honor.
I'd already discovered what remained of the steam-powered cotton gin near the camping area, so wasn't surprised when Marshall told me it had operated from 1879 until 1929. During those years Luckenbach was a thriving community, with a blacksmith shop and a school. Local folklore even has it that Jacob Brodbeck flew a unique aircraft decades before the Wright Brothers-at least for a few seconds.
Being older than dirt myself, I remembered the story of how Luckenbach really came to fame. It was in 1970, long after its days of prosperity, when the Engel family who'd owned the place all those years decided to sell the town. And of course, the purchasers weren't just your regular, run-of-the-mill folks, but a collection of only-in-Texas characters.
Hondo Crouch and his side-kicks, Guich Koock and Kathy Morgan took over the place and created their own kind of Disney for grown-ups, a place as they say in Luckenbach, where the characters are real and made of a lot less plastic. Proclaiming himself Mayor, Hondo gave everyone else titles too, appointed ambassadors to foreign countries, and in general, started having a good time.
The 500-hundred-year old oak trees, with trunks about as thick as a compact car, reined over a new kind of industry on the banks of Grape Creek. The beer joint, I discovered, served just one kind of beer-Shiner or Shiner Light, brewed in, you guessed it, nearby Shiner, Texas. But the celebrations had a whole lot more variety: Hug-Ins, Luckenbach World's Fair, Ladies State Chili Bust, Mud Dauber Festival, and the best place in Texas for strummin' and pickin' on a guitar.
News traveled fast and in 1973 Texas country-rocker, Jerry Jeff Walker went to Luckenbach to record an album. The band settled into the dancehall, stacked with hay bales for sound baffles, and let the spirit of Luckenbach inspire them in the songs they wrote. The album "Viva Terlingua", to no one's surprise, went gold, and Luckenbach became a regular stop for everyone from tour buses to more musicians and singers.
1977 brought Luckenbach's country music fame to a peak as Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman, songwriters, created the lyrics for "Luckenbach Texas (Back to the Basics)," which shot off the charts for Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Hondo had died in 1976, before the song's spirit was carried on by a collection of descendents and cast of characters.
I'm a firm believer that uniqueness spreads, however, so I had to explore some of Luckenbach's nearby neighbors -- and discovered a lot more adventure in the Texas hill country.
We wheeled into the Grape Creek Country Market to find fine dining with a twist, along with a country store, gift shop, plant nursery, and beautiful gardens. Browsing through the log interior of the long building, I almost forgot my main intention for the stop was eating. With a bar-b-q, Texas style, the meat was smoked in the huge kitchen where it was served. I always try to line up behind locals, or somebody who seems to know the routine, so I followed a couple having fun joking with the cook (who wore a baseball cap with his ponytail pulled through the back, instead of the traditional white chef's hat).
My choice for lunch: venison sausage and baby back ribs, which were sliced from the cooked meats and laid on butcher paper that covered my tray. I blinked. An aproned worker took my meat, weighed it, and wrapped it in the butcher paper before returning it to me with the price marked on it. Following the line-up, I grabbed a container of potato salad, a garden salad, and a dessert I later discovered to be the most delicious peach cobbler I'd ever eaten. And of course, now that I was on a roll, I took another Shiner to complete one of the tastiest meals I ate in Texas!
After all that food I needed some exercise, so our explorations took us to Enchanted Rock. I figured a hike would be perfect, but was I surprised! What I was expecting was a rocky hill with spindly trees and a dirt trail where I could huff and puff my way to the top. What I found was pink granite, which looked like a giant child had been playing at the top of huge rocks and thrown big hunks down the sides, so they smashed into smaller chunks, but stayed strewn like children's blocks defying gravity.
Enchanted Rock has a measured age of one billion years and is among the oldest exposed rocks in North America. Walking on its solid granite is not like walking up a rocky path with vegetation clinging to it, creating a soft carpet. Granite is slippery. Especially when there's a bit of a fog to make everything damp. I imagined myself down on all fours, my fingers unable to find something to grip. I didn't get very far! And I certainly didn't get to the part of Enchanted Rock where rock climbers practice their skills.
Intent on finding exercise of some kind, I insisted we carry on to Fredericksburg, where I could walk the streets until I dropped --while shopping. Slightly older than Luckenbach, Fredericksburg (founded 1846) still prizes its German roots. The shops were an eclectic collection, ranging from souvenirs and knick-knacks, to beautiful western clothes and leather goods, to stunning art galleries. David lingered at the National Museum of the Pacific War, and pronounced it well worth a visit.
Once I'd had my fill of shopping, we hit the Texas side roads once again. Cruising through the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, I was intrigued by the Black Buck antelope, with their distinctive long horns and black marks along their backs. Mind you, nothing topped the horns of the Texas longhorn cattle I'd been dying to see for real. And while I'd certainly seen buffalo grazing at home on the Saskatchewan prairies, I was pleased to find a large herd in the Texas hill country too. Sometimes you really can bring back what's almost been lost.
About then I realized Luckenbach had endured the Civil War, The Great Depression, The Luckenbach World's Fair, Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic and the 500 year flood, and still looked much the same as it did a century and a half ago. And most important of all-Everybody's somebody in Luckenbach, Texas, just like they were in the days of cowboys and dance hall girls.