Central Texas: Admirals, Bratwurst and One Seriously Long Interstate
I got up before sunrise at this wonderful middle-of-nowhere campsite called Chilicotal in Big Bend National Park and watched the sun peek up over the horizon. After dealing with all the crowds yesterday at Chisos Basin, I was amazed, still, at the solitude here only 10 miles away. I dragged my folding chair over for a prime viewing spot of the Rio Grande Valley as the sun crept higher in the sky and, as I ate my muffin and banana, thoroughly enjoyed the quiet and aloneness.
Above: From Big Bend, I headed north to Fort Stockton where I picked up Interstate 10. Then I turned east, drove through Fredericksburg, spent about an hour in Luckenbach, and ended my day in Austin.
But alas, I had to make tracks today, my destination being Austin, which was a full-day’s drive east. After taking a panorama picture of my wonderful campsite, I loaded up the truck and departed, driving back down the Glenn Spring dirt road that I’d driven in on during the previous evening – and still didn’t see another car. After reaching the highway, I headed through Panther Junction, the headquarters of Big Bend National Park, where I bought a few gallons of expensive gas, just enough to get me to Fort Stockton. From there I headed north on U.S. 385, passing the park entrance. This area of west Texas is really beautiful, with empty, rolling plains dotted with occasional cows and gorgeous desert mountains in the distance. It was a pleasant, sunny morning, and a nice reprieve from all the thunderstorms I’d been dealing with the past few days at Big Bend, and I had an enjoyable drive with my windows rolled down.
Fort Stockton (pop. 8,384) is a historic town and yes, there once was an U.S. Army fort here back in the late 1800's called just that. After filling up in town, I drove by the fort, took a few pictures, and then got back onto Interstate 10 after not seeing it for a few days.
Interstate 10 here qualifies for my "Extreme Geography" list because it's the longest stretch of an Interstate freeway in any state in the U.S. From El Paso in the west to the Louisiana border in the east, Interstate 10 stretches 878 miles, a tad longer than the runner-up, Interstate 5 in California which, from San Diego to the Oregon border, runs 796 miles. On either one, of course, it’s a long day’s drive.
Around 4 p.m., I got off I-10 and took U.S. 290 through Fredericksburg. I’d been to Fredericksburg once before, back in 1985, and I remember it as being a quaint town (and the home of noted World War II Admiral Chester Nimitz) and it still is – quaint, that is. It’s one of the oldest cities in central Texas, founded in 1846, which was only 10 years after the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio and a year after Texas was admitted to the Union. For the intervening nine years, from 1836 when Texas won its independence from Mexico to 1845, Texas had been an independent country, not part of Mexico and not part of the U.S. It was the fabled “Lone Star Republic,” hence the big star on today’s state flag.
That nine-year period, over 150 years ago, explains a lot about Texas and Texans today. They are truly a unique breed, generally friendly but sometimes a bit arrogant, often feeling sorry for anyone not lucky enough to be born in the great state of Texas. I learned this after working for six years as a ranger in Colorado back in the 1980s, where I dealt with literally thousands of Texans every summer. Generally speaking they’re nice folks, but as the signs say, don’t mess with ‘em, OK?
During the mid-1800s, droves of German immigrants settled this area of central Texas, including Fredericksburg, which was named after Prince Frederick of Prussia, and there’s still a strong German influence in central Texas today. As I drove down the highway, I saw lots of signs for grilled sausages and bratwurst. This was definitely my kind of place!
Speaking of German names: If you like country music like I do and if you’re older than a millennial, you just might remember a Willie Nelson song back in the 1970s called “Luckenbach, Texas.” I’d always been intrigued by the song, and I was even more intrigued back in 1985, the first time I'd driven through central Texas, when I saw a town on my AAA map called Luckenbach (pronounced "LOO-ken-bock"). This place really existed! Alas, I didn’t have time to make the detour to Luckenbach back in ‘85 and check it out, but this time I was determined to see it, so I took a side road off U.S. 290 and drove south for a few miles. I had to see this place called Luckenbach.
From listening to the song, I figured Luckenbach was a small town probably with a few motels, some stores and at least a few bars, maybe with a population of a thousand folks or so. I was surprised, therefore, when I approached and didn’t see any semblance of a town, just a large, grassy field and, off in the distance, a few small buildings set among a grove of towering oak trees. I followed a sign that said “Park Yonder” and did just that, parking my truck on a dirt lot along with a few dozen other cars, then I walked towards the music. I could hear some folks singing off in the distance, so I just followed my ears.
The first building I approached, a rather ramshackle affair with a lot of character, had a big white sign outside that read “Luckenbach Post Office 1850 - 1971.” As I stepped inside, I beheld one of the most amazingly eclectic gift shops I’ve ever seen, with a cornucopia of items ranging from Texas cowboy hats to CDs to jewelry, as well as the requisite t-shirts and mugs.
I’m still kicking myself for not buying anything there, but I was drawn to the music, which was around the back of the building outside on the patio. It was a duet, actually, a man and a woman each playing a guitar, drinking beer, and singing in front of a few dozen cowboy-hatted folks most of whom, appropriately, were also drinking beer and sitting at creaking, weathered picnic tables under a few huge old oaks. I moved to the back of the gathering, next to a stage that was currently being occupied by a rooster and a chicken and every few moments, the rooster would let out a raucous “cock-o-doodle doo!” I loved it!
I stood there in the back for about 20 minutes listening to the duet rattle off one country song after another for the appreciative audience. There were a few buildings in Luckenbach, but it was definitely not a town or even a hamlet. With a population of only 3 (according to the signs), it was just a “place.” But it was a memorable place and, I decided, one of my favorite places in Texas.
After strolling around Luckenbach for about 40 minutes, I meandered back to my truck. Along the way, I passed what appeared to be a quintessential Texas cowboy, a burly mustachioed fellow wearing boots, jeans, suspenders and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. “You don’t walk like a Texan,” he said. I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that remark or whether I should treat it as a compliment or criticism. I figured it was the latter but in a friendly-yet-condescending way that Texans are so good at. I walked over to the Big Texan and we started chatting. “No, I’m from Oregon. That’s how folks in Oregon walk,” I said with a smirk. Cowboy Bob (that’s what I decided to call him, at least in my mind) had a huge Texas longhorn steer tied up behind him, and he was taking pictures of folks who were brave enough to get up on the longhorn, a thousand-pound animal equipped with what appeared to be extremely sharp horns.
I declined his kind invitation to mount his steer (well, you know what I mean) and instead we talked for a few minutes. “There’s gonna be a street dance tonight at 8 here, so stick around if you wanna have some fun,” he said with a drawl, but I told him I had to mosey on to Austin. Well OK, I didn’t actually say “mosey,” but I really wanted to. Then I bid Cowboy Bob goodbye. As I got in my truck and headed out, I knew that someday I’d mosey back here to this wonderful little place called Luckenbach.
A half-hour later, I drove into Johnson City, Texas, which was named, not surprisingly, for the ancestors of Lyndon B. Johnson who, as I learned, settled this community back in the 1800s. LBJ, as he came to be known, grew up here dirt-poor in the early 1900s. After becoming rich-and-famous and then the President of the United States in the 1960s, he and his wife Lady Bird (yes you youngsters, that's what she was called) moved to the nearby LBJ Ranch, also known as the Texas Whitehouse back when he was president. But his boyhood home remains and is maintained today by the National Park Service. The Visitor Center was closed for the day but I walked around his boyhood home for a few minutes and took some pictures. LBJ was certainly an outspoken and controversial figure who did some amazingly good things, like signing the Civil Rights Act, but he got mired in the Vietnam War, which unfortunately is what most people my age remember him for.
By now it was about 7 p.m., so I got in the truck and headed back on the highway. An hour later, I drove into Austin where my good friend, Joan, was waiting for me with a smile. It had been another long day and another long drive, at 475 miles, but I was glad to be in Austin again.