Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Last Days Of October - Oranges Or Pumpkins?

I always look forward to the last few days of October, because that is when the Satsuma mandarin oranges in our garden turn bright orange. While this time of year is usually associated with another orange fruit, the pumpkin, the mandarin is so much easier to grow and enjoy.

Unlike the pumpkin, which needs a lot of water and space during its growth cycle, the mandarin orange tree is smaller than a lot of other citrus trees and needs relatively little water. Following a pumpkin’s harvest, you need a sharp knife for cutting and carving. Then, there is a stringy, sticky, seed filled mess to deal with. Later, you have to fire up a hot oven to roast the seeds. With the mandarin, you simply pick the citrus off the tree, easily peel the skin, and eat the sweet fruit.

Mandarin orange trees, as noted earlier, are relatively small. Our small tree gives up a “bumper crop” of only about a half a dozen oranges each year. Since the tree is somewhat shaded by larger trees, both its height and the number of oranges it produces is probably reduced. But, the small crop is enough for us to enjoy for a day or two every fall, just about the same number of days most folks enjoy their pumpkins.

So enjoy carving up that pumpkin. I’ll be enjoying something much sweeter without all the effort and mess.

Friday, October 30, 2009

There Is A Story Behind Everything, Even If It Remains Nameless

I’ve driven past the intersection of FM 1431 and Nameless Road in the Texas Hill Country too many times to count. I used to chuckle when I drove past, figuring it was just one of those roads that never got an official name for one reason or another, and by default, the local officials just called it “Nameless.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Curiosity finally got the better of me; I did some research and then took a drive up the road. What I discovered, is that Nameless Road runs by a now-deserted little settlement. The interesting story behind this settlement, and the road that runs by it (or through it), is, of course, how it got its unusual name.

The area was settled along the banks of Big Sandy Creek just after the conclusion of the American Civil War. The small, but thriving community, eventually petitioned the United States Post Office Department for a post office in 1880. The settlement, then known as Fairview, had its original name rejected. Five other attempts to get a post office using other names were also rejected. It seems that government bureaucracy was alive and well in the 1880’s.

Eventually, the exasperated citizens of the settlement sent the officials in Washington, D.C., an extremely strong message. In their response to the latest rejection of a recommended name, the notice sent was very clear, “Let the post office be nameless and be damned.” How typical of Texas was the response. There are a great many people in Texas today, I would guess, who would send the federal government the same response.

Well, apparently, that was all it took. Our country’s 19th century postal service then agreed that the settlement’s post office should be called, “Nameless,” but dutifully left off the “damned” part.

Whatever the name, the settlement never became the success of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, or Houston. After the ruckus over the name of the post office, the post office itself lasted not more than ten years before it was closed. The town slowly dwindled away, and with the closing of “Fairview School,” in the 1940’s, there wasn’t much left.

Today, all that remains of Nameless is the former Fairview School (renamed Nameless School), the cemetery, and the historical marker erected by the State of Texas. To access the school, its grounds, and the cemetery just off Nameless Road, I had to cross a creek, unchain a large gate and walk up a dirt road. The only other alternative, and an easier way to get in it seemed, was to walk up what appeared to be someone’s private driveway. Not in Texas am I going to do that.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cheddar Pour Burger

I’ve been eating hamburgers all my life, and I’ve eaten them all over the world. Whether here in the United States, in Europe, or in Asia, I've enjoyed some excellent burgers.

The hamburger sandwich is unique, because you can eat it as plain or ostentatious as you want, and still call it a hamburger. I have a very good friend who wants nothing more than the meat inside a bun. No ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, onions, or anything else is required by him. When he orders it, he simply states, “I’d like a hamburger, plain.” He’s always questioned after he gives the order, and always has to repeat, in different words, that he wants the bun and the beef, and nothing more.

The traditional “American Diner” hamburger of the 1940’s was a patty of ground beef on a toasted or grilled buttered bun, topped with onions. Perhaps pickles or relish were added, and maybe, if ordered and available, tomato and lettuce. Condiments of mustard and ketchup in plastic squirt containers were on the counter to be added by the customer.

Other variations appeared during the 1900’s. Small and inexpensive hamburgers on buns the size of dinner rolls, steamed, in and around onions, became popular. In the 1960’s, the chain hamburger restaurants grew to unbelievable fame and fortune. Along the way, there were regional specialties like the Springfield, Illinois, “Horseshoe” and the Midwest “Loose Meat” sandwich.

“Garbage Burgers,” beef patties topped with literally everything you can imagine eventually came on the scene, and then later, those “Yuppie Burgers,” vegetable “hamburgers,” covered with guacamole, avocado, and who knows what other things that are supposed to be healthy for you.

I’ve seen it all with respect to hamburgers. But, I have to tell you, in all honesty, I’ve never seen anything like the “Cheddar Pour Burger” in my entire life. While the burger itself is hiding just beneath the bun, the fried cheese spreads out far and wide. This sandwich is, as far as I can tell, only available at J&J Barbeque and Burgers, in Cedar Park, Texas. If it's available elsewhere, I've never seen nor heard about it.

I don’t know how it is cooked, because it is prepared by grill cooks out of sight of the customers. But, speculating as I often do, it looks like they add a large amount of cheddar cheese over the hamburger, allowing it to spill way over onto the hot grill, where it fries into a crispy and chewy topping. When served, it looks like a derby hat, or a flying saucer with french fries on the side. You can order it in several sizes and get whatever toppings you want with it. I got the smallest size, and at least for me, it was almost too much to eat.

This is one distinctive and delicious burger, and if you find yourself in Cedar Park, it's worth giving it a try.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lady Bird Johnson And Her Legacy To The Hill Country Of Texas

There are many who say that Lady Bird Johnson was the “better half” of the marriage between the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his First Lady. And, a first lady, she truly was.

Until her death in 2007, Mrs. Johnson was an inspiration to those who knew her personally, but also to those many more who had never met her. During her life, her work to beautify America, through her various projects, left a lasting impact across the nation. Even after her life’s passing, the goal of sustaining and nurturing native plants and landscapes continues.

Things are just a bit more personal down here in the Texas Hill Country, because this is where the Johnson family had its historical roots, where President Johnson first acquired his political base, and where he and Lady Bird raised their family, except for the extensive time they spent in the nation's capital. It is also where, when his long political career came to an end, they both came “home.”

Unfortunately, while the former President did not have many years left after leaving the White House, Lady Bird lived to the age of 94. And, it was in those years following her husband’s death that she helped establish the National Wildflower Research Center. Donating both money and land, but more importantly, her time and influence, she helped set in place a permanent institution in Austin dedicated to preserving the indigenous plants and landscapes of the hill country.

Today, the renamed Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is located several miles south of downtown Austin, and is a part of the University of Texas. Its 279 acres is open to the public, and provides a peaceful and aesthetically attractive location highlighting the native plants and landscapes of the hill country. The architecture of the buildings reflects the history of the hill country, and over 600 native plants are found on the grounds. A beautiful courtyard, and several streams, highlights the gardens. Center volunteers swarm around the grounds and gardens, pruning, clearing, cleaning, and answering visitor questions.

Various non-strenuous walking trails wind through both forests and meadows, and there are conveniently placed benches to provide both rest and meditation along the way. There is a visitor’s center, a learning center building displaying changing special exhibits, a library, green houses, seed silos, and an auditorium. If you are hungry, there is a cafe for lunch. Overlooking everything is an observation tower from which you can look down upon the center’s gardens, grounds, and buildings.

While the flowers you will see in bloom will depend upon the season you visit the center, a visit in any season will provide great fun and satisfaction, even if you are only remotely interested in native hill country plants. My wife and I again visited the center a couple of days ago, and during this very late October visit, we enjoyed seeing many native plants including the Texas Poinsettia and the American beautyberry. Monarch butterflies were everywhere, and this only added to the enjoyment of our day.

There is always a bonus after spending several hours walking through the gardens, trails, and grounds of the wildflower center. A large gift shop, which offers hats, shirts, wildflower note cards, books, and other things, is a nice place to browse. The books about the hill country are my weakness. There are always more books I want than I have money in my pocket. But, I always manage to buy at least one.

Thank you Lady Bird for all you did to preserve the native wildflowers, plants, and landscape of the Texas Hill Country. You, and your many gifts to this area, are not forgotten by those of us who never had the pleasure of meeting you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pastel de Tres Leches (Three Milk Cake)

Three milk cake, or in Spanish, pastel de tres leches, is a delicious treat found in abundance in Texas. In fact, it is so good, that many countries are fighting about where it originated. Everyone, it seems, claims to be an expert on the matter. According to most so-called “experts,” the top two contenders for this honor are Mexico and Nicaragua. But others stridently disagree, asserting the cake’s origin is in Costa Rica, Cuba, or a lot of other Central and South American countries.

Since no one really knows, and anyone can be a self-professed “expert,” I would think that Fargo, North Dakota, or, Baraga, Michigan may want to chime in and claim credit. In fact, any village, town, city, county, or state hoping to increase tourism should claim credit. Think of the additional visitors the Upper Peninsula of Michigan would get for being famous for both this milk cake and the pasty. If you don’t know what a pasty is, you need to check out a blog site of someone extolling the virtues of great food in the Copper Country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I would give you an overview of the pasty myself, but I’m a little busy with this blog here in Texas.

All kidding aside, there is no doubt that the cake had its beginning south of the United States border. But beyond that, all bets are off. I prefer to favor Mexico, because it is close, and Texas is heavily populated with wonderful Mexican-Americans. But, just like all the other “experts” who weigh in on this important subject matter, I have no proof to support my opinion.

Whatever its origins, everyone can agree that this is one outstanding cake. I’m a great cook, in my “expert” opinion, but I’m not a baker by any means, so I’m going to simplify things just a bit, well okay, quite a bit. I’m talking about radical cake making directions here. Bake a sponge cake, punch holes in it gently with a fork or tooth-pick, and then pour three types of milk into it so it soaks through the cake. The types of milk must include a mixture of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream. Refrigerate it, then frost the cake with a mixture of whipped cream, sugar, and vanilla. Then, place some cherries or strawberries on top. I can see professional bakers rolling their eyes (repeatedly). Do yourself a favor and get a detailed recipe or find a store selling these cakes. In either case, it’s worth the effort and expense.

When all is said and done, once this cake is thoroughly chilled, it is wonderfully milky, creamy, moist, sweet, and satisfying. It is no wonder so many countries south of the border want to claim a piece of this “pie.” Well, maybe it's not a pie, but it is a cake, and an excellent one indeed!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Misunderstood And Underappreciated Mountain Cedar

If there is one thing that gets people in the Texas Hill Country huffing and puffing, it is the "Mountain Cedar." While the tree is found in a few other parts of the country, its heaviest concentration is in the hill country of Texas. To hear many allergy sufferers tell it, the tree is the worst thing on the face of the earth and totally devoid of anything positive whatsoever.

To begin with, the tree is really a juniper. Its scientific name is Juniperus ashei. Detractors of the tree no doubt, accuse this juniper of deceitfully masquerading as a cedar, further proof that the tree does not deserve any respect.

It is true, that the severe allergy symptoms caused by the tree’s pollination, have a detrimental impact on many Texans. Pollination usually begins as early as November, but hits its peak during the cooler months of December through February. And it is during these months that the real suffering takes place. People with an allergic reaction to the pollen call it “Cedar Fever.” And while there is no actual fever which develops, there are some very real symptoms.

Nasal congestion, repeated sneezing, shortness of breath, teary and itchy eyes, are just a few of the symptoms which plague a great many people. Unfortunately, those affected have to deal with the symptoms for many months. There are allergy medications, but which, depending on the person, bring mixed results. Additionally, sufferers are sometimes advised to stay indoors as much as possible. Not very practical advice I would say, and again, bringing mixed results.

If the tree’s bad reputation was just based on the problems it causes for the human medical condition, that would be one thing, but it doesn’t stop with just that. Some of the tree’s attackers consider it a weed, and treat it as such. Others say it is a fire hazard, takes more than its share of water from the soil, doesn’t look good, offers insufficient nutrition to animals, and produces wood which is next to worthless. Goodness, if I was this cedar, I would have a serious problem with my self-esteem with all that criticism.

But it gets worse. Even those who had traditionally made a living off the tree had to endure the barbs of others. A little history is in order.

From the late 1800’s until about the start of World War II, there was a group of somewhat nomadic people who moved around the hill country looking for work. Their main subsistence came from going into the numerous cedar brakes in the hills and chopping down the trees. As a result, they were referred to as “Cedar Choppers.” The wood they cut was sold and then used for a variety of purposes, including, everything from railroad ties and fence posts, to charcoal. Unfortunately, perhaps given their lack of a permanent home, and the hard living lifestyle, the term “Cedar Chopper,” took on a negative and hurtful connotation to the people who cut down the trees.

So it seems that if you were this cedar, or, were a person associated with this cedar, you were not favorably looked upon by many in the hill country over the years. But, I’m going to defend both the tree and the people.

This cedar of the hills, along with a few other trees, keeps the Texas Hill Country green all year long. The beauty of the hill country, with its outstanding views, is primarily due to the abundance of this much maligned tree. For those of you who are cedar detractors, but also, benefactors of tourism, imagine looking out over the many scenic hill country vistas without the presence of this tree. What would the scarcity of this tree in the hills have on your annual income? I'm just asking.

And what about those “Cedar Choppers” of the past, who cut down the trees to earn a living, provide for their families, make available the wood to fence property boundaries, expand rail lines, and bring forth the charcoal to cook meals? Well, today, you would call those people, “hard working Americans.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Breakfast Tacos

Tacos are found everywhere across the country. But, the breakfast taco is just one more thing that seems to be unique to Texas.

The popular and inexpensive breakfast taco is found everywhere in and around the hill country, and consists of a soft tortilla, either corn or flour, filled with a variety of fillings. At many places, if you don’t see the breakfast taco you want, you can custom order one with the fillings that will make you happy.

A breakfast taco’s fillings normally include egg, cheese, and some form of meat. The meat is often Mexican chorizo (a pork sausage seasoned with garlic, chilies, and other spices), but bacon is common as well. Beyond the basic ingredients, there are a whole host of things you can include as fillings, depending on what the vendor has on hand. Onion, potato, cilantro, beans, rice, ham, tomato, and jalapeno peppers can be added to the basic mix. There are even places that add mashed potatoes. Salsa is often served as a side.

While the rest of you around the country are grabbing a quick cup of coffee in the morning, a bowl of cold cereal, fruit, or an early "something" from one of those fast-food chains before running off to work, down here in Texas we’re enjoying a real hearty breakfast.

Good Morning, and sorry about your luck.

Texas State Cemetery

With the exception of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, you’d be hard pressed to find a more historical, better preserved cemetery than the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. But such wasn’t always the case.

Despite its rich history, by the early 1990’s, the cemetery had become deplorable. It was vandal-ridden and unkept. Bob Bullock, who was then the Texas Lt. Governor, stepped up to the task and began an extensive multi-year restoration of the cemetery. To see it today, you would think it has been lovingly taken care of since its inception.

The cemetery has been around since the early 1850’s. After the American Civil War, Confederate military veterans and their wives were buried in the cemetery in great numbers. Today, there are over 2,000 Confederate veterans and their widows buried in a special section of the cemetery.

The cemetery is a peaceful and tranquil place, with many trees, and an abundance of water. And unique to this cemetery, is the fact that a Texas state highway, State Highway 165, runs right through the middle of the cemetery, lined on both sides of the road with flags of the State of Texas. It is less than a mile long, the speed limit is very slow, and it is locked down at night, along with the cemetery.

The famous people buried in the cemetery are a very long and impressive list. From Stephen F. Austin, an early Texan and the first Secretary of State for the Republic of Texas, the historical roll call includes, Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston killed at the Battle of Shiloh; African-American Hall of Fame baseball player, Willie James Wells (“El Diablo”); Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman from a Southern state to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives; and, John Connally, Governor of Texas, and later, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, who was shot in November 1963 in the presidential limousine with John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Tom Landry, the successful Dallas Cowboys football coach, famous for his winning record and that special hat he wore, while interred in Dallas, is honored with a cenotaph.

The cemetery is also the final resting place for many Governors and Lt. Governors of Texas, U.S. Senators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Texas Rangers, and, several Texas Medal of Honor recipients.

Additionally, there is a monument to recognize World War II military veterans of the "Greatest Generation" and a monument for military veterans of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, recognizing the sacrifice of this country’s military members during that very long, unpopular, and difficult war, which ended in 1975.

The most important grave and monument in the cemetery, in my estimation, is that of Lt. Governor, Bob Bullock, who saved this historic cemetery from neglect and oblivion.

May God Bless Bob Bullock, and all the souls resting in the Texas State Cemetery.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Korean Grill

One of the great things about living in the Texas Country Hill is that you can be in complete Texas solitude one minute, and in a few additional minutes, you can be in the center of all that’s happening in Austin, including the diverse ethnic food offerings.

If you’re the least bit adventuresome, and not just into the “meat and potatoes” routine, you need to try Korean food. And, if you are in Austin, please find your way to the Chinatown Center, on North Lamar, and experience the Korean Grill. The Korean Grill is a comfortable spot serving up a nice selection of very good traditional Korean meals.

For me, the friendly service is as good as the food. The owner always comes out to the table to ensure everything is up to satisfaction, and the servers are not reluctant to bring extra helpings of rice and small side dishes. These side dishes, referred to in Korean as “Banchan,” are served with the hot plate selections. Kimchi (Napa cabbage pickled and fermented with red chili peppers) is the most well-known Banchan item, but many other seasoned and specially prepared side dishes include, bean sprouts, cucumbers, anchovies, radish, and more. The Banchan you may get with your meal varies from time to time, but it is all very good.

There is quite an adequate, but not overwhelming selection of appetizers. My favorite is an order of Kimchi pancakes. Other appetizer selections include egg rolls, shrimp, calamari, and salted soy beans.

The entrees provide a wide range of Korean cuisine. There are several stew selections with various combinations of different types of meat or seafood with vegetables. Galbi, grilled beef short ribs, and Bulgogi, marinated grilled beef, are both outstanding. The entrees are brought to the table quickly, and are always hot and delicious.

The Korean Grill provides a selection of soft drinks and beer, but my favorite liquid refreshment is the Korean roasted barley tea, called boricha. Served either hot or cold, it is a nice compliment to the meal.

The Korean Grill, along with countless other great ethnic restaurants in the Austin area, proves that Texas is more than Tex-Mex, beef brisket, and chicken fried steak, and adds a great dimension to the culture and cuisine of modern day Texas.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Angelina Eberly

There is a statue of a woman firing a cannon on downtown Austin’s main street, Congress Avenue, which probably confuses the thousands of visitors coming to Austin for conventions, to party, and in the local parlance, to help keep “Austin Weird.”

Austin is the capital of the state of Texas, and was once the capital of the Republic of Texas. But, it almost lost that distinction in 1842, had it not been for the courage of a lady who ran a boarding house in Austin.

As the story goes, there was a lot of contention about where the capital should be located. Sam Houston, the first president, felt it should be located in, you guessed it, Houston. Others thought it should be in a more central location in Texas. This was the view of the second president, Mirabeau B. Lamar, who had the capital established in Austin.

When Sam Houston was again elected president, he attempted to relocate the capital to Houston by ordering over 20 men to covertly remove the archives from Austin. They nearly pulled it off, but they had not figured on one woman added into the mix, Angelina Eberly.

Hearing the noises of men loading the archives into wagons, she ran out and fired the town cannon. The cannon ball slammed into the land office building across the street. The town awoke, and those attempting to flee with the documents were quickly apprehended.

Today, Austin is a city of over a quarter of a million people. In addition to being the state capital, it is also the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and home to the University of Texas.

When Mrs. Eberly fired the town cannon, Austin’s population was less than 700 people. I often wonder, had that vigilant woman on that December night in 1842 not fired that weapon, how Austin would have fared. My guess is that Austin would not have a population of 750,000 people today and not have all that music downtown on Sixth Street.

Anyone care to disagree?

I thought not, otherwise, you’ll have to take it up with Mrs. Eberly. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fredericksburg, Texas

A visitor to the Texas Hill Country needs to pay a visit to Fredericksburg to make the journey complete.

Fredericksburg’s history, like so many things in the hill country, is both based and intertwined with the strong German influence of the region. Today, it is without a doubt, the most visible and important town representing the German history of the area. Coming in from the east, if you stop at all the interesting places along U.S. Highway 290, you might never make it to Fredericksburg.

If you are a history buff, then once you drive into Johnson City, the highway almost literally becomes the history of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s life. His birthplace, the first school he attended, his grandfather's home, the LBJ Ranch and Texas White House, his grave and that of his wife, "Lady Bird," are located near Stonewall. The Johnson family ancestral settlement and his childhood home located in Johnson City, along with the prior mentioned Stonewall sites, are all on the way to Fredericksburg.

Vineyards, wineries, peach orchards, and pecan trees are found on both sides of the highway. Peaches can be purchased at fruit stands in season, along with locally grown berries, nuts, and vegetables. The various wineries have tasting rooms and wine sales. Several places sell homemade peach ice cream. I don’t need to describe how well that goes down on a hot day.

Closer to Fredericksburg is a place to visit called Wildseed Farms, which touts itself as “The Largest Working Wildflower Farm.” And speaking of wildflowers, traveling on Highway 290 during the spring when the wildflowers are blooming is magnificent, and once seen, will not be forgotten.

Just on the eastern edge of Fredericksburg is Fort Martin Scott. The fort was one of the early military posts on the Texas frontier, and now provides the visitor a view of U.S. Army life long ago. The fort is named after a soldier who was killed during the War with Mexico in the late 1840's.

If you are the type of person that likes to stop and look at everything (and we know who we are, don’t we?), don’t expect to stop at every interesting point, historical site, and market along the highway and still think you’re going to make it through everything Fredericksburg has to offer in one day. The speed limit is 70 miles per hour for most of the trip, but that won’t help you. But that’s okay, because Fredericksburg has plenty of lodging, including Bed and Breakfast accommodations.

The historic area of Fredericksburg lies along both sides of the highway, and it would be hard not to appreciate the old historic buildings and covered sidewalks, even if you’re not an architect or historian.

Fredericksburg is also the birthplace of Admiral Chester Nimitz, and you can visit his birth home, which is now home to Grace’s Art Gallery. The National Museum of the Pacific War is also located in Fredericksburg, given the obvious historical tie to Admiral Nimitz.

Most folks visit Fredericksburg to shop. Unlike a lot of so-called tourist towns, this is not a place to pick up cheap t-shirts. The shopping in Fredericksburg is diverse, and interesting, and includes any number of shops selling antiques, books and maps about Texas, artwork, and, clothing. Vegetables, fruits, and other foods, preserved in Mason jars, are also for sale. In my opinion, some stores are a bit pricey, but you are certainly free to browse. The shop owners, like most people in the hill country, are very friendly.

There are a lot of fine restaurants in Fredericksburg, with a lot of delicious German-oriented food. If you are not a fan of that, then anything you would normally order is readily available and quite good. You can also enjoy live music while savoring a drink at several places around town, and there are various festivals held throughout the year.

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough. But, this should be fair warning if you are planning to visit. Unless you are the kind of person that doesn’t stop at anything and just hurries past things to say you’ve been there (and you know who you are, don’t you?), slow down, take a couple of days, and experience the highway into and around Fredericksburg. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Simplicity of Texas Chili

Every part of the country, it seems, claims to have “the best chili.” I’m not going to take sides in the dispute, because it is, after all, a matter of personal taste. One thing that is rarely disputed, however, is the fact that chili originated in Texas in the 1800’s.

A lot of popular chili around the country is loaded up with beans, tomatoes, onions, and all kinds of other good things. In the Cincinnati area, it is served over noodles and covered with a mound of shredded cheese. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a bad chili, except maybe something that comes out of a can.

What I like about Texas chili, is the simplicity of it. The earliest Texas chili was composed of beef, cayenne or some kind of pepper, a few other spices including salt, and perhaps some masa flour. The Texas chili of today probably adds a few more items, but it is still fairly simple. Beef, spices, and water are the main ingredients. In no case does true Texas chili, then or now, have beans. This early chili recipe evolved from convenience for those preparing it and from what foods were available at the time. It is as simple as that.

Add a slice of warm cornbread with a little butter, and you’ve got something really special to enjoy. Add an orange twist garnish, and you have one fancy lunch!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Texas Road Courtesy

Two lane rural roads in Texas are very fast. Surprisingly, the speed limit of 70 miles per hour on two lane rural roads in Texas is common. This is faster than the Interstate speed limit in many states.

Drivers coming from other parts of the country, where rural two lane road speed limits are 50 or 55 miles per hour, may find it a bit shocking and uncomfortable when an unrecognizable distant image in the rear-view mirror suddenly becomes the grille of a truck or car just behind you.

Now, if this happens, in most cases, if you look to your right, you will notice an unusually large paved shoulder. I’m not sure of the legality of it all, and I’m not necessarily recommending it, but traditional Texas road courtesy would suggest that you pull over on to the wide shoulder and let the faster vehicle by without it having to cross the center line.

But, that’s not the end of it. Texas road courtesy is just a tad bit more complex than just pulling over and letting the other vehicle pass by.

Things being as they are, it would be rude and discourteous for the passing driver not to wave to acknowledge the driver pulling onto the shoulder, but, also equally rude and discourteous for the driver pulling onto the shoulder to not wave back acknowledging the passing driver.

It’s a Texas thing I guess. What can I say? If you participate in this Texas road "courtesy," including the passing, pulling over, and waving, it is at your own risk and liability. Texans would expect nothing less.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Admiral From The Hill Country

The German American influence in the Texas Hill Country is pervasive. Unique customs, food, and music, having their roots in the 19th century German settlements, are still readily apparent today. But the German heritage also produced great men and women.

One man of German descent, who was to play a major role in World War II, was born and raised in the hill country town of Fredericksburg. Despite being reared well away from any ocean in the hills of South Central Texas, he would go on to lead a great naval armada to victory, and become this country’s first five-star, fleet admiral.

Chester Nimitz was born fatherless in 1885. His father had passed away prior to his birth. Given that fact, an important influence in his life was his grandfather, a former merchant seaman. Despite his attachment to the seafaring grandfather, the young Nimitz actually sought an appointment to West Point. Such was not to be the case; however, he was successful in getting an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, where he graduated in the top ten-percent of his class.

Sent to the waters off the Philippines, he was given command of a destroyer at the age of twenty-two. Perhaps his young age and naval inexperience caused the ship to run aground resulting in his court-martial. He recovered from this early career set back, and never looked back. The “rest is history” as they say, and he went on to serve on submarines and later, to lead the U.S. Navy to many great victories during the War in the Pacific, culminating with him being on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, signing the document for the United States which ended the war.

Follwing the war, if he ever spent much time in the area which shaped his early life, the Texas Hill Country, I cannot say. After his many accomplishments during the tumultuous and dangerous times of the early to mid-1940’s, he lived on the West Coast of the United States.

He died in 1966 and is buried in California. His final resting place is near the Pacific Ocean, a body of water where he helped save the world from tyranny. But, the place where his character was molded, so important for this country later during troubled times, was the hill country town of Fredericksburg, Texas.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Oktoberfest And Football

This is the season of the Oktoberfest celebrations around the world, including quite a few here in the Texas Hill Country.

St. Mary Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Lago Vista held its annual Oktoberfest today on the parish grounds during a beautiful cool fall day with temperatures in the mid-70's. For well over twenty years, St. Mary’s has hosted the event, with all proceeds, as you would expect, going to local charities.

The “Kid’s Carnival” provided a host of fun rides and games for the younger ones, including a climbing wall and the Wiggle Worm Train. But there were plenty of things for adults as well. A garage sale, country store, silent auction, and raffle were all available for the older folks.

A food court provided hot dogs, hamburgers, and wraps during the day. Soft drinks, snow cones, and beer (for the adults) were also available. Around dinner time, a traditional German dinner was served.

In addition to being the season of Oktoberfest celebrations, it is also football season. And, the organizers of this Oktoberfest knew what they were doing. To make sure that local football fans were present during the day’s Oktoberfest festivities, a large screen TV was available so the faithful could watch Texas beat Oklahoma, 16-13.

Now, pass the beer and Hook ‘em Horns!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

That’s One Big Donut

I don’t know if everything is bigger in Texas, but I do know one thing that is, and that’s the Texas Donut.

The Texas Donut is only available at the Lone Star Bakery in its Round Rock Donuts store in Round Rock,Texas. The oval shaped donut is a whopping 12 inches long, and about 8 inches wide. It weighs two pounds, is the equivalent of a dozen normal donuts, and contains about 2,300 calories.

Despite its large size, the donut, covered in either regular or chocolate glaze, is light and fluffy and has a fresh and yeasty taste. Because the bakery uses fresh eggs instead of baking powder, the donut has a distinctly yellow, and perhaps, slightly orange color. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of either sweet foods or eggs, but, I do make an exception in this case. This donut literally melts in your mouth. This is a good donut; no, it’s a great donut. By the way, before you start assuming things, I did not eat the entire thing by myself, although, I certainly thought about it.

The store opens at 4:00 a.m., and they tell me there is a line to get in at that hour. I’m not often up at that time of the morning, but I can verify that we waited for 15 minutes at the drive-thru at two in the afternoon. The Texas Donut; however, was worth every minute of the wait.

Lone Star Bakery has been around since 1926, and has a wide selection of delicious treats. In addition to the Texas Donut, you can also purchase smaller donuts, kolaches, fritters, muffins, cinnamon rolls, breads, cookies, brownies, pies, cakes, and cupcakes.

The Texas Donut is truly one of a kind. Don’t mess with Texas, at least, not with the Texas Donut!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ubiquitous Prickly Pear Cactus

The Prickly Pear Cactus is the state plant of Texas, and it’s little wonder why. It is found nearly everywhere throughout the state. It is a relatively small cactus, covered with very sharp spines. We, in fact, have many growing on our property here in the hill country. While stumbling into the plant wearing sandals is not a pleasant experience, eating it certainly is.

The Prickly Pear Cactus is native to the American Southwest and Mexico, and has been part of the the diet of people living in the area throughout history. Before moving to Texas, I never imagined that people ate cactus, but I have to tell you, it’s surprisingly good.

The Prickly Pear Cactus is comprised of a couple of parts. The pad is the large flattened portion of the plant and is referred to as “Nopales.” The fruit is referred to as “Tuna.”

Even if you have this spiny plant growing in abundance on your land, it is advantageous to purchase the cactus you wish to consume. Removing the spines is a tedious and time consuming task, and certainly not worth the time or effort, especially when a single fruit of the cactus, completely cleaned of the spines can be purchased for twenty cents in a local hill country store.

The fruit, or Tuna, with the spines removed, is easily prepared for consumption. Simply cut off both ends of the fruit, split the fruit lengthwise, and peel the outer skin off. The remaining portion consists of a sweet and juicy, seed-filled interior with the flavor of a melon. The small seeds are swallowed or chewed by some folks, but probably should be spit out as you would do with watermelon seeds. Various products are derived from the fruit, including jelly, syrup, and candy.

The pad, with a flavor similar to green beans, can be prepared in a variety of ways, often, but not always cooked.

The common Prickly Pear Cactus is interesting to look at, always troublesome to handle, but surely provides an interesting addition to hill country foods.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking My Parents To The Blue Bonnet Cafe

No visit to the Texas Hill Country would be complete without a stop in Marble Falls. And, no stop in Marble Falls would be complete without enjoying a meal at the Blue Bonnet Cafe. Since 1929, the Blue Bonnet Cafe has been serving both locals and tourists with great food and service.

Since my parents are visiting this week, we decided to drive them over to Marble Falls and treat them to a Blue Bonnet lunch. As it turned out, we did drive them over today, but they ended up treating us to the lunch.

In my mind, there are several reasons why the Blue Bonnet has been around so long and why it has received all the well-deserved notoriety.

First, the wide variety of food means that there is always something for everyone, it’s all delicious, and the portions shall we say, are extremely generous. The Blue Bonnet has eggs, omelettes, plate size hot cakes, grits, hash browns, sausage, salads, hamburgers, sandwiches, steaks, chicken and chicken livers, catfish, Mexican food, pot roast, ribs, a whole bunch of excellent side dishes, and homemade hot rolls and cornbread. The cafe is also famous for its huge pies which you can purchase by the slice, the whole pie, or both. They even have a “Pie Happy Hour.” If you're a pie lover, you have to love a place like that.

Next, the owners and employees are extremely friendly, courteous, and provide quick service even when the place is crowded, and it nearly always is.

Finally, the atmosphere you find is what you would expect from a traditional cafe. It’s unpretentious, and the diners and employees alike are always enjoying themselves. Despite its success, it has not ruined the charm that made it what it is. It’s always fun to go there.

We arrived at the beginning of the noon hour, and despite the number of cars in the parking lot, we were immediately seated at a booth. Making a food choice with all the available selections is always a daunting task, even though I must admit, I only go through the motions of being interested in something other than my usual order; eight ounces of chicken fried steak. Each dinner comes with three sides, and I took pinto beans, green beans, and something new today, macaroni and cheese vegetable soup. My Dad also decided on the chicken fried steak, my Mom ordered a hamburger, and my wife got a sirloin steak.

Despite his usual comment that he ate too much, after we finished lunch, my Dad ordered a whole lemon meringue pie to go. My Mom had asked him if he wanted a slice of pie, and he said, “No, I want the whole pie.” Apparently, the pie cabinet near the entrance had not gone unnoticed by his keen eye as we walked in. I don’t know what he’ll be having for dinner tonight, but I am absolutely certain I know what his dessert will be.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

He Who Laughs First Is Not Necessarily The One Who Laughs Last

We’ve been trying to get my parents down to the hill country for the longest time. This summer, during our 68 days of 100 degree plus heat, my Dad resisted coming down, claiming it was too hot. And, while we had temperatures in the 90’s this past week, yesterday, on the day of their arrival, the weather was unseasonably cool. Today it’s cool and raining. It’s great to have them down here, but I wish they would have left the cooler weather back up north where it belongs. My Dad must have had this weather planned all along.

My Dad and I hopped into the golf cart this morning to take a drive around the neighborhood. By the time we got back, we were both soaked and cold. He was probably silently laughing during the entire ride. I’m sure that he was thinking that he had picked the perfect week to avoid the hot weather.

He who laughs first is not necessarily the one who laughs last. Temperatures are forecasted to be back into the 90's in a couple days. I’ll be the one laughing then.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Just What The Doctor Ordered

Is it possible to be in love with a soft drink? I think it is.

Most of the soft drinks I remember as a kid were sweetened with sugar. Then, as soft drink manufacturers sought a cheaper sweetener, sugar went by the wayside, and in came high-fructose corn syrup.

The word “fructose” does not even sound appealing to me. While it’s possible to look out over a sugar cane field and take a stalk of sugar cane and chew the natural sugar out of it, the same cannot be said with high-fructose corn syrup. And yes, I know what you’re thinking. You can look out over a field of corn. Okay, fine. But now take that ear of corn (let’s hope it is not feed corn) and chew whatever it is you want out of it. Do you want that taste in your soft drink? I thought not. Hey, I like sweet corn, but let’s enjoy it with butter and salt.

In my opinion, most soft drink flavors deteriorated when fructose replaced sugar. There is one drink; however, that did not cave to economic considerations, and has faithfully remained true to its original flavor, Dublin Dr Pepper.

Dr Pepper was born in Texas in the 1800s, and when the soft drink manufacturers began migrating to fructose in the latter half of the 20th Century, Dr Pepper followed suit. All except for a couple of bottling plants, including one located in Dublin, Texas. It refused to move away from cane sugar. Thus, Dublin Dr Pepper was born. It now proudly promotes its usage of “Imperial Pure Cane Sugar” on its bottle and cans.

The taste of this pure cane sugar in Dublin Dr Pepper is discernable. It seems, in my opinion, to really highlight the fruity flavors of the drink. And, unfortunately, for almost everyone around the planet, you can’t get Dublin Dr Pepper unless you order it directly from the bottling plant, given its geographical distribution restrictions. However, here in South Central Texas, there is no problem finding a cold one to enjoy. In some places, they even have it on tap.

There is a resurgence, as of late, for soft drinks with sugar as a sweetener instead of fructose. I’ve recently seen lesser known brands in the stores as well as a highly prominent brand, bottled in Mexico, which uses sugar. You can guess as well as I the reasons for this new interest in sugar-sweetened drinks.

Meanwhile, I think I’m in love with a certain soft drink bottled in Dublin, Texas. Discretion is always best, of course. Please don’t tell my wife of my sweet and sugary relationship as I enjoy a drink with this famous Texas Doctor, Dublin's very own, Dr Pepper.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Texas Frontage Roads

Love them (Texans) or hate them (Visitors), the frontage roads in Texas are a fact of life.

Depending on where you are in the state, these roads, almost exclusive to Texas, may be called “frontage roads,” “access roads,” or “service roads.” Whatever the local name, they are all the same.

The frontage road, in short, is a road that runs alongside, or parallel to, an interstate or limited access roadway, usually on both sides of the limited access road, and running one-way in the same direction as the side it’s on. While these types of roads may be found in a few cities around other parts of the United States as so-called feeder roads, the difference in Texas is that these roads run the length of the limited access road, not just in cities, but in rural areas as well.

For example, there is a frontage road that runs the length of Interstate 35 from Austin to San Antonio. For those of you in Ohio, this would be the same as having a frontage road, running both north and south on both sides of Interstate 75 from Dayton to Cincinnati. Or, in another Ohio example, this would be the same as having a frontage road, running both east and west on both sides of Interstate 70 from Dayton to Columbus.

The advantages are obvious. If you make a mistake, for example, and get off early at the wrong exit and the next entry point is miles away, you don’t have to turn around and go back, just continue on the frontage road until you get to your destination. Or, if you want to visit a destination that's on the other side of the limited access road you just exited, but further back up the other direction, that’s not a problem either. In most cases, there are special U-turn lanes at the next local intersection that allow you to quickly reverse directions without waiting at a traffic signal, and get back to that destination very quickly. And, if there is a serious accident on the limited access road and it is shut down, you can get off and keep going on the frontage road. What if you don't like driving on interstates at all? Again, no issue. Just take the frontage road.

So, what’s not to like? Why hate the frontage roads?

Probably nothing, but it takes some getting used to for people from out of state, or out of the area, especially in urban areas with lots of traffic. At frontage road intersections, it’s very easy to get into the wrong lane. This can be frustrating if you get it wrong and have to keep going if you want to turn, or have to turn, if you want to keep going.

I disliked frontage roads immensely when I first moved to Texas, as most newcomers do, because I always found myself in the wrong lane and confused about what was going on. But, once I learned how to navigate these roads, I became a true believer.

Texans are on to something here. Other states, take note.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


You can’t talk about the history, culture, food, and music of the Texas Hill Country without mentioning the waves of German and Czech settlers during the 19th century. Those early settlers left a legacy which still reverberates throughout the hill country today.

One of the legacies which I appreciate is the food. Before moving to Texas, I had never heard of Kolaches. Now, I can’t believe I haven’t been enjoying them my entire life.

The Kolache is a Czech food, and the traditional Kolache is cooked bread-dough filled with various sweet fruits, poppy seeds, or cheese. Americans, being who we are, have expanded beyond the "traditional" fillings to include all kinds of things. And that’s a good thing, because I’m not really wild about sweet foods, although, I do like cheese.

In Texas, Kolaches seem particularly popular for breakfast. I don’t know why that is. The Kolache choices are seemingly endless. I’m going to disregard writing about the “sweet” Kolaches. Sorry, but if you want to find out more about the sweet Kolaches, you’ll have to come to Texas. The same is true with respect to eggs. I’ve just never appreciated the egg in any way, shape, or form, including, inside a Kolache.

My kind of Kolache is filled with meats, cheeses, and potatoes. Bacon, sausage, Polish sausage, meatball, chicken, pepperoni, cheddar cheese, and cream cheese; these are the fillings which excite me. Being a non-traditionalist in more ways than one today, I decided to have two non-sweet Kolaches at a time other than breakfast. My lunch choice today was a warm Philly Cheese Steak Kolache and a hot Sausage Gravy Kolache.

At this point, after eating my two Kolaches, I don’t know what more to say, except maybe to thank the early Czech settlers for their delicious contribution to the hill country.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Don’t Confuse The Colorado River With That “Other” Colorado River

My Mom and Dad are heading down to visit us in the hill country soon, and when I spoke with my Dad on the phone the other day about the pending trip, I mentioned the Colorado River. He said something to me which I’ve heard before, in one variation or another. “I can’t believe that the Colorado River runs through Texas.”

His questioning the location of the river is understandable. When many non-Texans hear “Colorado River,” they immediately think of houseboats on Lake Powell in Utah, rafting through the Grand Canyon, visiting the Hoover Dam and, boating on Lake Mead.

But, there is another Colorado River, and it’s right here in Texas, and like most other things in this state, it’s all Texas. There is nothing Colorado about it.

Beginning with its headwaters in western Texas, just south of the Texas Panhandle, the river runs southeast through the state before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Various dams have been built along the river in the hill country creating the Highland Lakes. The lakes the river creates provide water reservoirs, flood control, the generation of electricity, and recreation. Eventually, as it heads toward the Gulf of Mexico, the river brings water to the rice farms near the coast.

Unlike the “other” Colorado River, which actually has its headwaters in the State of Colorado, but then runs through several other states and into Mexico, our Colorado River begins in Texas and it ends in Texas. Like I said, it’s all Texas. Well, except for the name.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

There is a Spanish word, “Balcones,” which means "balconies" in English. This is what the first Spanish explorers named the hill country just west of what is now Cedar Park, because the hills looked a like a series of balconies.

Today, the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge encompasses many thousands of acres of rugged hills and canyons. Located a little north of the Colorado River and Lake Travis, and just beyond the western edge of the city of Lago Vista, the refuge is an important habitat to many types of wildlife and native plants.

Balcones Canyonlands provides a sanctuary for several endangered species. Neotropical birds like the Black-capped Vireo and the Golden-cheeked Warbler are at the top of the list. Other birds too, over 250 species, have been spotted around the refuge.

In addition to birds, the Canyonlands is home to many other species, including but certainly not limited to butterflies, dragon flies, spiders, snakes, turtles, frogs, lizards, skinks, bats, armadillos, squirrels, rats, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, deer, feral pigs, and Tooth Cave Pseudoscorpions.

A few of the plants found in the refuge include Ashe junipers (referred to as “Cedars” here in the hill country), Live oaks, Shin oaks, Spanish oaks, Cactus, Mexican-buckeye, Texas persimmon, Texas mountain-laurel, and the Mountain grape, which is only native to Texas.

The refuge is open to the public and offers the visitor a number of entry points, hiking trails and observation decks. The entrance road into just one of the areas, the Warbler Vista area, on RM 1431, just west of Lago Vista, is an unpaved road with an uphill grade as you head in. Restrooms are available (along with a newly paved parking lot), but no water is provided. Please leave the dog at home, as pets are not allowed in the refuge.

There are three walking trails at Warbler Vista; Cactus Rocks Trail (0.6 miles), Ridgeline Trail (.75 miles), and Vista Knoll Trail (1.2 miles). The trailheads are well marked, and the hill country and lake views from the Sunset observation deck are outstanding. Interpretive literature is available in a box near the restrooms.

What you may see or hear during your visit to Canyonlands depends on the time of year you visit. Spring and summer are the peak seasons for Neotropical bird watching, while fall is the time of year when migrating Monarch butterflies, on their way to winter in Mexico, pass through the refuge. I was lucky enough to see one on my visit today.

One side benefit of the sanctuary's protection of endangered species and other wildlife, is the fact that the protected area is a huge tract of hill country land which will never be developed. This ensures future generations the ability to see this remarkable part of Texas, unfettered by residential and commercial development.

The refuge is open during daylight hours, and there is no admission fee.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Of Umbrellas, Plastic Grocery Bags, And Some Really Nice People

There’s an old saying in Texas, if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes, but what you get may be worse.

That was certainly the case today as my wife and I headed out to do a little shopping. My wife asked about taking an umbrella before we left. I took a quick look at the radar, looked up at the sky, and told her I didn’t think it would rain for a while. We left the house, and three minutes up the road, the rain started coming down in buckets. “I thought you said it wasn’t going to rain,” the wife said before quickly adding, “that’s what you always say and it always does.”

In my defense, who carries an umbrella in the hill country? As far as I’m concerned, umbrellas and windshield wipers are the most unnecessary things in this area, especially during this year’s drought. As we drove on toward the store, and the umbrella was collecting dust in some corner of the house, I assured her that the rain would stop by the time we got there. Not only did it not stop, it was raining even harder when we arrived.

We sat in the car for a few minutes hoping the rain’s intensity would let up. It never did. Since I had a hat on, and we were fairly close to the store’s entrance, I decided to go in. By the time I got inside, I was soaked. The hat didn’t help at all. A few minutes later, my wife came in looking much the same way.

We had just started to amble into the produce section, when a lady and her daughter approached us. The lady looked at us, smiled, and said, “Y’all must have forgotten your umbrella.” It wasn’t a question really, but more of a statement. To me it sounded like she wanted to say, “You have to be crazy coming out on a day like this without an umbrella.” She wasn’t being mean; it appeared she was very concerned. But, as she walked away, I imagined that she also wanted to say, “I bet you don’t use windshield wipers either.”

With the store’s air-conditioning going full blast, we shivered up and down the grocery aisles before finally reaching the check-out. The lady at the check-out station was very nice, and, again, a little concerned. She gave us large oversized plastic bags to put over our heads so we would not get wet getting the groceries out to the car. Before we even got to the store’s exit, we were approached by yet another concerned employee offering us even more plastic bags.

Nice people and they surely meant well. Bless the friendly, caring folks in the hill country. But let me tell you something. Walking through a parking lot with two or three oversized plastic grocery bags on your head is not a good look. I don't care how hard it's raining. And it’s not effective keeping the rain off either.

When we got home, I immediately grabbed the umbrella from the house and threw it into the car. After all, you’d have to be crazy to not carry an umbrella given this area's fast changing weather. Heck, even I know that.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hill Country Ice Hockey?

Both of my sons are darn good hockey players, and I spent a whole lot of years watching them play as they grew up. When I left the Midwest to come to Texas, I thought I'd really miss seeing ice hockey games. Not anymore.

When one thinks of hot south-central Texas, ice hockey is not the first thing that comes to mind; however, that all begins to change tonight.

The Texas Stars, an American Hockey League affiliate of the Dallas Stars, has its first official home game tonight in Cedar Park’s newly-built Cedar Park Center. The center, which cost $55 Million to build, opened last month. It seats nearly 7000, and will host the hockey team’s inaugural year as well as concerts and other events.

Despite tonight’s “official” season home opener, the Texas Stars played an exhibition game this past week in the center against its National Hockey League affiliate, the Dallas Stars, and, predictably, lost 5-1. If that game is representative of the turnout for future games, the team should have great fan support.

Last night the Stars played away, just down the road in San Antonio. The San Antonio Rampage came out on top, 3-2. Tonight’s game will rematch the two teams, but this time, in front of the Stars’ home crowd.

Despite the excitement in this hockey team's new home just on the eastern edge of the hill country, Detroit need not worry. It is doubtful that Cedar Park will be taking away Detroit’s nickname, “Hockeytown USA,” any time soon. And while the Texas Stars will not satisfy a Dad's pride in watching his sons score a goal, or get an assist, it is as good as it possibly can be in an area not known for it's ice hockey.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hippie Hollow

They don’t call them “nude beaches” anymore apparently, the new terminology is “clothing optional.”

Hippie Hollow is a park run by Travis County, and is located on the banks of Lake Travis just outside of Austin. Despite the huge size of Texas, the park can boast that it is the only public clothing optional park in the state. The park is available for swimming, hiking, bird watching, and, well, you know, that “clothing optional” stuff, which leads to other types of “watching” it seems. Lake Travis is nearly 65 miles long, but boats just happen to drop anchor in the water off the park. Visitors, clearly not dressed for hiking, swimming, or bird watching seem to really like to visit this county park, despite the fact there are also a half-dozen other county parks.

As the story goes, the area has always been a spot where swimming in the buff has taken place. But in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the area took on the name, “Hippie Hollow,” and the name stuck.

At one time, there were no age restrictions to get into the park. That has now changed. You must be at least 18 to enter. It is also interesting to note, that while most other Travis County parks charge a vehicle $8.00 a day for a permit, Hippie Hollow charges all of that, plus a $2.00 surcharge. I wonder what that’s all about?

There are two questions you probably want to ask. Where is the photograph which normally accompanies the blog, and did you go with or without clothing? There are no photographs for obvious reasons, and yes, since clothes are optional, I opted for clothes.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Too Many Choices For Yards In The Hill Country

In the Midwest, having a yard is straightforward enough. Everyone has grass, and everyone waters and mows it. Oh sure, there are choices. Do you want Kentucky Blue Grass, Fescue, or Perennial Ryegrass? Do you want a push mower, self-propelled, riding mower, gas mower, or electric? Do you want to bag the cut grass or not? Stuff like that.

As I was mowing my yard yesterday, for only the third time this year, it occurred to me how different things are in the hill country. There are a lot more choices to make about what to do with the yard.

Given the much hotter and drier climate than in the Midwest, the first choice to make is whether you want grass at all. In my area at least, I’d say it’s a fairly even split between grass and rocks, with the edge going to grass.

Then, of course, there are the hybrid homeowners who just can’t decide between the two. In order to cope with their indecision, they have part grass and part rocks. In other cases, people have just said, “to heck with it,” and have poured concrete over the entire “yard.” Others fill the yard with cactus or bushes. Others still, perhaps the most “eco-friendly” of all, leave things in a natural state.

With respect to grass in the hill country, you’ve got three basic choices. Bermuda, St. Augustine, or Buffalo grass. Everyone has their personal choice of lawn grass I suppose, and I’ll leave the decision about what grass is better to those who actually know what they’re talking about. All I know is that I have Bermuda. I didn’t pick it, it came with the house.

Bermuda grass is something like I’ve never experienced before moving to Texas. It doesn’t grow straight up from the ground like a normal blade of grass, but comes up from the ground and immediately begins slithering out sideways like a snake. It’s often called the “Devil’s Grass” because once it starts slithering, it does not stop. Into the garden it goes, into the neighbor’s lawn (grass or rocks), anywhere it damn well pleases it seems. Try to stop it by hacking at the end, and it’s like a Hydra which grows back more heads. That’s the bad part. The good part is that Bermuda is the cockroach of the grass world. It's a survivor. You can ignore it, deny it water, drive over it, walk over it, let the dogs do their business in it, abuse it in any way imaginable, and you’ve still got grass. Bermuda grass gives you unconditional love, just like the family dog.

I guess the choice with a rock yard is whether to have larger or smaller rocks. The advantage with rocks is that you don’t need a mower, gasoline, oil, or have to worry about watering or sharpening mower blades. Homeowners with large rocks don’t need anything I guess, maybe a shovel. Smaller rock homeowners need a rake to keep their “lawn” looking good for the neighbors.

In the end, I think I’ll stick with my Bermuda, despite the onerous three or four times a year mowing schedule, and the need to get a half gallon of gas for the mower every few years.

The real deciding factor for me, however, is that I don’t have to say to my wife while walking out the door, “I’m going out to rake the rocks.” That would sound to her like I didn't have enough to do.