Monday, November 30, 2009

Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan And Austin, Texas Are Inseparable

Mention Austin, Texas, and people think of live music. Mention Austin and live music, and people think of Stevie Ray Vaughan. They are inseparable, and always will be.

Born in Dallas in the fall of 1954, Vaughan took to music at a very early age, and by his late teens, he had already quit school and was playing in Austin’s lively music scene. Playing in many different bands over the years, Vaughan gained a reputation as a very good blues guitarist in the Austin area. In the early 1980’s, he played on David Bowie’s, Let’s Dance, album. From then on, he became very famous, very fast, along with his band, Double Trouble.

Along with the rise to stardom, however, came an addiction to alcohol. In the late 1980’s, he checked himself into a rehab, and came out sober. And while his musical talents on the guitar continued to bring him great success, it all came to an abrupt end in 1990. Following a concert in Wisconsin, he boarded a helicopter which crashed soon after it took off. Vaughan perished in the crash, at the young age of thirty-five.

Following his death, it was not lost on anyone in Austin that Stevie Ray Vaughan and the city were connected to such an extent, that they could never be separated. In 1994, the City of Austin erected a memorial statue, in his honor, near the site of many of his Austin concerts, on Auditorium Shores.

It’s been nearly twenty years since his death, but in Austin and around the world, he is still remembered as one of the great guitar players of all time. And, locals and visitors alike visit the statue in great numbers every year, and many, leave small tokens and offerings to his memory.

And like Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), two other Texas musicians who, similarly died in an aircraft crash shortly after takeoff over thirty years earlier, the music that Vaughan, Holly, and Richardson made did not die, but lives on, even though they’re long gone.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Green Mesquite Has A Lot More Than Great Food Going For It

In my opinion, when a restaurant serves up really good food, it does not need to have a lot of other things going for it. Nevertheless, besides having an outstanding menu of great food, there are some things about Austin’s Green Mesquite restaurant which, in addition to the food, make it special.

Cooking with the local mesquite wood is no big deal in Texas, but smoking with “green” mesquite wood, which is used less than a year after being cut, is rather unique. Since it still contains quite a bit of moisture, it produces a lot of smoke and burns very slowly. As the Green Mesquite restaurant demonstrates every day for its customers, a slow cooking process and a lot of smoke make for some mighty fine barbecued meat.

The Green Mesquite is also special because it is so typical of many restaurants in Austin and the surrounding hill country, in that it is anything but modern, and that gives it a particular charm. Like something out of the past, the interior reminds me of the diners from the 1960’s, or before. Humor abounds with signs on the walls which proclaim, “Horrifying Vegetarians Since 1988,” and “Hippies Use Back Door.” An additional significant thing, is that Green Mesquite is well known for its pork ribs, uncommon in Texas, a state which is more recognized for its beef.

There are more interesting things as well. For viewers who enjoy television shows from the 1960’s and the 1970’s, there is a connection with television of that time period. Tom Davis, the owner of Green Mesquite, is the brother of Larry Hovis, an actor best known for his role of Sgt. Andrew Carter on the popular “Hogan’s Heroes” television series. Hovis also acted for many other shows, including, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.” Before he passed away in 2003, Hovis was teaching at Southwest Texas State University (now, Texas State University), in the hill country town of San Marcos.

For viewers of more recent television, Green Mesquite has been featured on the Food Network’s, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” with Guy Fieri. Guy liked place, and for what it’s worth, so did my wife and I.

Despite it being just several days after Thanksgiving, and just a few days since I finished wrangling through turkey leftovers, I opted for the PO-BOY Sandwich with two meats; turkey and beef brisket. My wife ordered a plain baked potato (I can’t take her anywhere it seems), which she said it was very good. How good can a plain baked potato be? Despite our food preferences today, her order as compared with mine, probably explains the difference in our waist lines, but I’m sure I enjoyed lunch more than she did.

I can’t say much about that baked potato, but my PO-BOY was outstanding. The beef brisket was so moist and juicy, it melted in my mouth. The turkey was moist, and flavorful, and the homemade barbecue sauce was just right.

While I may not be a television star, or, an expert on cooking with mesquite, I do know a good meal when I eat it, and I ate it today at the Green Mesquite in Austin, Texas.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Point Venture Lights Its Holiday Tree

A little after dark fell this evening, a fire truck, with its siren wailing and red lights flashing, delivered Santa Claus to a parking lot in the Village of Point Venture, Texas. Waiting for him, were lots of kids, their parents, and a few grandparents. As the firemen helped Santa down off the truck, the children ran out to greet him, and were rewarded with candy canes from his decorated green bag.

Santa arrived just in time to help support the annual lighting of Point Venture’s Christmas tree, and the Point Venture Lions Club’s drive to collect non-perishable food for the Hill Country Community Ministries. Providing food for the needy, primarily for those living on the North Shore of Lake Travis, is supported by all of us as we stock the food banks with our canned donations.

Despite the balmy weather tonight, with temperatures in the mid-60s, "hot" cider was served along with cookies after the official lighting of the Christmas tree. After the excitement of Santa’s visit, I took the opportunity to drive around the village to see all the holiday lights which have suddenly appeared over the last few days.

For those of you who missed Santa tonight, the lighting of the tree, and the hot cider and cookies, you can still participate in a much more important way. There is a collection box just inside the Point Venture entrance. If you live here or live near here, please contribute to those who are feeling the pain of unemployment or other troubled times by dropping a few items into the box. The box will be collecting items through December 22nd.

For those not living in the hill country of Texas, there are needs in your area as well. Please contribute whatever you can, during this holiday season, to those who could really use your help. Santa and holiday lights are nice, but remember, this is a season of giving. We need to take care of each other.

Friday, November 27, 2009

There Is Always A Line, And There Will Always Be Someone Ahead Of You

I have never really understood, nor, have I truly appreciated all the excitement around the so-called “Black Friday.” It seems to me that it really messes up what should otherwise be a very nice day following Thanksgiving. Since the extended family is still in town, and all the hard work putting the big meal together is over, I would think people who are not working would want to enjoy the day relaxing and visiting with relatives they might not see again for another year. For a great many people, however, such is not the case.

Apparently, it is “fun” for a lot of folks to get up at 2:00 in the morning. They want to be in line by 3:00, so they can be disappointed when the store opens at 4:00, when they discover that the “special” price on the merchandise they wanted is no longer valid, or the item they wanted was sold a few minutes earlier to one of the 600 people in line ahead of them (who had the good sense to get up at 1:00 a.m.). And, despite last year’s disappointment, and this year’s disappointment, next year they will get up at the same time and do it all over again. I live by a few simple rules. One of my shopping rules is: “There is always a line, and there will always be someone ahead of you.”

People here in the hill country are no different from anywhere else when it comes to Black Friday. They got up in force this morning to hit the major shopping centers around Austin. Places like Barton Creek Mall, The Domain, Lakeline Mall, The Arboretum, and the Hill Country Galleria endured crowds from before sunrise until way after sunset. I’m sure that the outlet malls in San Marcos and Round Rock were also very crowded.

Some Black Friday shoppers plan their day with the precision of a military operation. They implement detailed plans to outwit and out maneuver other shoppers, in order to seize the best price on the most sought after merchandise. Some Black Friday shoppers are so organized, that they often form teams and split up in the search of the desired products. They communicate stealthily using text messages on their cell phones, so as not to alert other shoppers as to locations where lines are shorter and deals are more plentiful.

It all seems like a lot of wasted energy to me, but, if they enjoy it, it’s really no business of mine. As for me, I slept in, and then spent the day with visiting family members, who will soon be departing. Here is another rule I live by on Black Friday: “I can always shop, but I can’t visit with family members once they’ve gone home.”

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day In The Hill Country

Thanksgiving Day 2009 is coming to a close in the Texas Hill Country. After a huge holiday meal, and the late afternoon nap, people are beginning to stir now, getting ready to watch the University of Texas play Texas A&M on TV.

It was a beautiful and very mild day in the hill country, and like everywhere else around the nation, families were together preparing and eating delicious Thanksgiving meals. While plenty of folks around here enjoyed the traditional turkey and ham dinner, the diversity of cultures found in the hill country meant other great food was prepared today as well.

Walking out the door early this morning, the wonderful smell of mesquite smoke had already filled the air. Despite the early hour, the chimney vents of the pit barbecues in the area were pouring out a great aroma, heralding the start of the day. The various pits were smoking turkey and beef brisket, and it made me wish that I had been invited to one of their Thanksgiving dinners.

The German influence in the hill country also meant that some homes were preparing German sausage, sauerbraten, and red cabbage. Given the Mexican influence in the region, other families were enjoying chorizo, and given the abundance of wildlife present in the state, some were enjoying wild game. I’m quite sure that more than a few homes were enjoying Texas chili and jalapeno cornbread. Vegetarians and vegans, too, celebrated with their own holiday creations of locally grown crops.

Whatever food people were enjoying today, the most important thing was that they were enjoying it along with their family and friends, and that is why Thanksgiving is so special every year.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hill Country Residents Live In A Destination Site

Everyone says that that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. While the actual “destination” where family and friends are gathered is the part everyone looks forward to, getting there and then returning home is the part everyone dreads.

There are two types of people during the Thanksgiving holiday, those who travel and those who don’t. Those who travel have to endure the unpleasantness of heavy highway traffic, airport delays, long layovers, and stuffing luggage into the overhead bins of jam-packed airplanes. Those who don’t travel, well, they enjoy the benefits of living in a destination site. The Texas Hill Country is not only a destination site; it is an inviting one at that.

Of course, any place someone travels to is a destination site. But some destinations are just a lot more agreeable than others. Let’s face it, if I’m going to go through the packing of bags, long hours on the road, and numerous travel hassles, I’d like to think that at the end of my journey there is something a little more to be enjoyed than huddling around a space heater on some chilly windswept prairie or frozen tundra talking with Grandma and eating a turkey sandwich. If that describes your situation, you should tell Grandma to move to a destination site that people wish to visit. You might incent her to do so by telling her that you would visit more often if she did.

There are many attractive destination sites around the country, but, of course I’m partial to the Texas Hill Country. We’ve got lots of Grandmas down here, and I can tell you, the ones I know weren’t standing in a long line today waiting to pass through the security checkpoint at some airport. They were waiting for their family members to arrive in the hill country to visit them. And many, while they were waiting, played golf or were out on a boat on one of the Highland Lakes.

There were no travels for me today, other than to run into town to grab a coffee and a bacon and cheese croissant. I was not fumbling around trying to find my electronic ticket number, or, waiting for my boarding zone to be called. After my croissant, I rode around on my golf cart, and took the dog for a walk. Boats were plentiful today on Lake Travis, people were walking out on the sand, others were playing tennis, and golfers were improving their game on the local course. But then, I live in the Texas Hill Country, a darn good destination site at that.

Tomorrow’s high (Thanksgiving Day) according to the National Weather Service, will be 38 degrees in a major Midwest City up north. Friday’s high in that same city will be 45 degrees and then 43 degrees on Saturday. Here in the hill country, the respective high temperatures are 68 degrees on Thanksgiving Day, 70 degrees on Friday, and 72 degrees on Saturday. What’s not to like? If your Grandmother lives up in that cold anonymous Midwest City, tell her to get that “For Sale” sign up in her yard and move south to the hill country of Texas. She’ll probably see you a lot more often. Why? Because you will take the time to visit her more as she lives in a pleasant, and most agreeable, destination site, and you’ll be golfing and boating once you get here (with Grandma tagging along, of course).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dee Dee’s

Getting Mexican food in the Texas Hill Country is not, as you can imagine, a problem. It is sold in small trailers by the side of the road, expensive and fancy places, and anything in between. You can get it at the various local chains too of course. All in all, depending upon your appetite, and the type of ambience you want, the choices are overwhelming.

One place that I like a lot is Dee Dee’s Tacos & More in Lago Vista. The place sits way back off the road behind a boat sales and repair business, and if it weren’t for the small sign hanging on a fence by the road, you would never see the place. But, all the locals know where the Dee Dee’s is located, and I suppose, that is all that really matters.

The place is popular for its breakfast tacos, and very early in the morning with all that breakfast traffic coming in and going out, you would think you were in a busy airport terminal. Everything is managed very well, however, because we all keep going back for more.

Dee Dee’s is located in a very small white building, with four permanently placed covered picnic tables outside. Despite its small size, there is still room for eight tables and several seats at a dining counter (even though nearly one-third of the restaurant is taken up by the cooking area). The white walls are covered with large photographs of the various menu items for sale, and the room is lit with florescent lighting.

The quaint and no-frills atmosphere aside, the good food, fast service, and reasonable prices are why locals make Dee Dee’s a regular stop. The entire menu of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items can be purchased all day long. If you feel like a dinner selection at 5:00 in the morning, that’s your business and Dee Dee’s will gladly make it for you. I should mention that there is not only traditional Mexican food on the menu. You can also get eggs, omelets (loaded with all your favorite goodies), pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and beef brisket. They also have a catering service.

My favorite menu item is "Oscarito’s Taco Plate," which consists of two soft Picadillo tacos along with rice and beans. This plate will tell you in a “nutshell” why I am a fan of Dee Dee’s. The soft tacos are not paper thin like a lot of places. They have substance to them, having the thickness of a pancake. Like most authentic Mexican food, the food is not overly spiced, but cooked and flavored with simple ingredients. The beef’s natural flavor is brought out by the onions and potatoes. Lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese top it all off. In my opinion, Spanish rice is often a disappointment at most Mexican eateries, because it is so very dry. I always end up pouring salsa over it to give it much needed moisture and make it more palatable. Such is definitely not the case at Dee Dee’s. The rice served there is very moist, and is flavored nicely with onions. I would not dare spoil it with salsa. Although I don’t get too excited about refried beans anywhere, the beans here are hot and have a gentle smoky flavor.

Authentic foods cooked simply, along with fast and friendly service, make Dee Dee’s Tacos & More, a special place to visit, even if it is a little difficult to find.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The State Park Within A City

When you think of a state park, you think of a place where people go to escape the city and the pressures of daily life. But, in Texas, there is actually a state park where you can escape the city and stress, but still be in the city itself. I’m not talking about a state historical site, but a real state park with woods, water, fishing, scenic views, hiking and biking trails. As you might expect, that park would be found in Austin, a city which prides itself on keeping it “weird.”

McKinney Falls State Park is located on Austin’s southeast side. The park is named for Thomas McKinney, who came to Texas in the 1820’s, and years later, established a homestead, bred race horses, and built a flour mill along Onion Creek. Historical remnants of his life are still present in the park, in the form of his home and his horse trainer’s cabin.

There is an interpretive center, and the park also provides activities you would normally expect in a state park. There is camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, sightseeing, and many nice places for a picnic. In addition, however, you’ll find biking trails (so important for Austin’s active biking community), a dining hall which may be rented, an amphitheater, and wireless internet access.

In this, the beginning day of Thanksgiving Week 2009, under clear blue skies and temperatures in the mid-70’s, I was delighted that the park was crowded with school children, who, it appeared to me, were learning to fish for the first time. It was obvious, as lines, hooks, and fishing bobbers, were strewn among the limbs of the bald oak cypress trees lining the banks of Onion Creek. While I saw no fish being brought to shore, it looked like everyone was having a great time, me included.

For those living in Austin, Texas, there are advantages, not the least of which, is being able to “get away” without having to leave the city itself.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Stand Up Paddle Boarding In Austin, Texas

Living most of my life in various parts of the landlocked Midwest, I’ve somehow missed a growing trend in water recreation which has been getting increasingly popular around many areas around the globe. It’s called, Stand Up Paddle Boarding, or "SUPing," for short.

Although I’ve been to Hawaii many times (although it is true that it has been quite a few years since the last visit), I never saw it there. The same is true for California. While I’m told these are major areas for the sport, and perhaps, where it all began, I never saw it. Perhaps, my eyes were focused on other things at the beach. Whatever the case, the sport is here to stay, and I saw it on Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas for the first time.

As I just recently discovered this water sport, I’m not an expert by any means, but it consists of a person standing on a board, with a paddle to maneuver, in whatever water body the person happens to be on at the time. Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, of course, is no Pacific Ocean by any means. In Austin, Lady Bird Lake does not experience the 20 foot waves common during the winter months on Hawaii’s North Shore or, the 10 foot waves in California, but, it still looks very challenging and a lot of fun.

Like traditional surfing, I presume that balance is important, especially if the water is rough. Having not seen someone "SUPing" in large ocean waves, I’m not sure if, at times, they use the paddle like a balancing pole on a high wire act. In any event, it looks like a certain amount of skill is required.

After a little homework, I discovered a couple of interesting things. First, the boards are not inexpensive. They range from around $700 to $1,500, with the paddles being an additional cost. I also learned that a supplier of Stand Up Paddle Boards is headquartered in Austin, Texas. SUP ATX, of Austin, focuses on providing boards for lakes, where it believes there is a large market potential. I don’t disagree with the company’s assessment on this point. As there are far more lakes in the world than oceans (as evidenced by just the Highland Lakes found here in the hill country), it makes sense that the market promise on lakes is substantial. Additionally, from the perspective of someone on one of these boards, it has to be easier to navigate on a lake, of whatever size, than any ocean.

The first time I saw someone paddling a board on Lady Bird Lake, he was outrunning the tourist boat I was on (which was powered with an electric motor), not exactly a speed boat, but with a motor nonetheless. Since I wanted to get a photograph, I was hoping our boat would catch up with him, but he just kept pulling farther and farther away. As you might imagine, I was more than a little annoyed. I finally got the photographs I wanted only after he turned around and started heading back in our direction. Either our boat was very slow, or, he was very fast. My vote goes to him. While a bunch of us sat in the boat passively listening to someone ramble on about the sights of Austin, he was getting exercise, balancing himself on a floating board, paddling away, and putting great distance between us and him. And, although I don’t wear a cowboy hat, if I had been wearing one, I would have taken it off and waved to him in respect.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Zilker Botanical Gardens

There is no lack of things to do in Austin, Texas to be sure. But, whether you are an Austin native or a visitor to the city, one place that has to be visited is Zilker Botanical Gardens.

The recent history begins in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when several local garden clubs began raising money and supporting the idea to create the gardens. Finally, in 1964, the gardens were first opened, in cooperation with the City of Austin, which dedicated the land for the site.

This is a relaxing place to spend a couple of hours. The parking lot is relatively small, so it is best to go during the week rather than on a weekend. If you have no choice but to visit on a weekend, you’ll spend a couple of times circling the scenic tropical and sub-tropical flora which line the parking lot, waiting for someone to leave before finding a place to park. If that is stressful in any way, you need not worry. Once you start walking through the gardens that tension will melt away.

The 31 acres of gardens are segmented, by theme, and are connected by walkways. There are gardens dedicated to native plants, cacti, herbs, and roses. In addition, there is the gorgeous Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden, replete with bamboo and koi ponds.

And, if you like a little more adventure, the Hartman Prehistoric Garden will provide that. Recently discovered dinosaur tracks have shown that these creatures once walked the land where the gardens now reside. The Hartman Garden replicates the Cretaceous period, with plants originating in the Jurassic period mixed in. The dinosaur which left its tracks in Zilker Park over 65 million years ago was the Ornithomimus. In its honor, a sculpture of the dinosaur is found within this "prehistoric" garden.

And what, you may ask, does the “Zilker” of Zilker Botanical Gardens have to do with any of this? Well, a lot it seems, but not going back millions of years. Andrew Zilker came to the area as a teenager in the mid-1800’s from the Midwest. Working as a dishwasher initially, he eventually became the owner of a business which manufactured ice. This proved to be quite a lucrative specialty in Austin’s hot climate. As a result, Zilker became quite a wealthy and influential person in the area, and bought up land along the Colorado River, some of which he eventually donated to the City of Austin and which includes what is now the botanical park.

It is remarkable how ancient dinosaurs, a teenager seeking to make his way in life, and several garden clubs can make the world more enjoyable for all of us. But they all did. Just visit Zilker Botanical Gardens, and you’ll understand what I mean.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The “Five And Dime” Is Still Around In The Texas Hill Country

The list reads like a roll call of old friends. At one time, stores like Woolworth’s, S.S. Kresge, McCrory’s, W.T. Grant, J.J. Newberry, and S.H Kress were an important part of the shopping experience in America. From the late 1800’s to well into the second half of the 1900’s, nearly every town had a dime store. Before they finally succumbed to changing times, the stores provided inexpensive merchandise to families across the country. They’re all gone now. And while the so-called dollar stores serve the same purpose in this day and age, they just aren’t the same.

Like many other things in the hill country, which continue to thrive despite ever changing times, there is at least one “dime store” still left. It is Dooley’s 5-10-25¢ Store in Fredericksburg. For those of us who still remember and appreciate the heyday of the dime store, Dooley’s provides a place for us to walk “back into time,” if only for a few moments.

For me, the nostalgic experience began as I stepped onto the wood floors I remember so well. This was a good sign, and was a harbinger of things to come. From the layout of the store, to the merchandise very rarely seen anywhere else, it is a wonderful place to visit, and by far, my favorite store in Fredericksburg.

And, while the prices are very reasonable, they are not what they used to be for a dime store, but, given the intervening years between my fond memories and today, I am forgiving. There is always a price to be paid, I think, for preserving the past. I am one, for sure, who will gladly pay it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Stuffed Burger - One Unique And Very Delicious Hill Country Hamburger

Hamburgers, in whatever way they are prepared, are hard not to like. And sometimes, like the Cheddar Pour Burger I found in Cedar Park and wrote about in an earlier blog, you come across something really special. Such is the case with “The Stuffed Burger,” at Bam’s Roadhouse Grill in Lago Vista, Texas.

Bam’s Roadhouse Grill is located in Lago Vista, a town on the north shore of Lake Travis. It’s a very casual place (the ceiling is non-existent, with only wood rafters), and the upper portions of the building are exposed to the outside weather, necessitating the use of a water misting system to cool the place during the hotter months of the year. The first time I saw the building driving down the road, I thought it was barbecue smoke pouring out. That would have been good too, but the mister is better and feels really nice.

There is no table service, as such; you place your order at the walk up window. And, usually, the man taking your order is Bam himself, easily recognizable because of his bearded profile which adorns the signs outside. But the extra effort is worth it. The stuffed burgers have won local awards, and you can tell the place is popular just by driving by at lunch time. The dirt parking lot is packed with pickup trucks and other vehicles.

This self-professed “Home of the Stuffed Burger,” has some outstanding ones, indeed. There are four half-pound hickory smoked burgers offered, and all are filled with their own particular stuffing. “Britt’s Bleu Burger” is packed with bleu cheese and red onions. “Popeye’s Burger” is filled with spinach, artichokes, parmesan, Romano, and mozzarella cheese. The “El Paso Burger” is loaded with jalapeno peppers and cheese, and then topped with sautéed mushrooms. But, I save the best (and most popular) stuffed burger for last.

In my humble opinion, and in the opinion of many others, the best of the best of Bam’s stuffed burgers is the “Hatch Chile Burger.” Hatch chili peppers are from New Mexico, a state which is just to the west of Texas, and which grows, arguably, the best chili peppers this country, or perhaps the world, has to offer. Bam uses these peppers in this burger, and the result is an unbelievably great hamburger.

The “Hatch Chile Burger” is composed of one-half pound of hickory smoked beef; packed with Hatch, New Mexico green chili peppers, cheddar cheese and bacon. This is then served up between both sides of a semi-sweet hamburger bun, along with homemade chips and salsa.

When you bite into the Hatch Chile Burger, you get a burst of different flavors all at once. This surge of flavors is perhaps common in Mexican and Asian cuisine, but not so much in the United States, at least with respect to the traditional European-based foods of this country. The burger is a mixture of appetizing flavors. It is moist, smoky, salty, with a mild presence of chili peppers, and the soft impact of a somewhat sweet hamburger bun. The burger temperature is hot, and the flavors blend together perfectly into one great sandwich. Trust me, this is one excellent hamburger. It works on all levels. I don't know how they stuff the ingredients into these burgers like they do, and I guess I really don't care, because the end result is incredible.

Bam’s Roadhouse Grill also has a wonderful selection of other items on its menu, including daily specials like catfish and chicken fried chicken. Live music is occasionally available, and takeout orders are popular for those wishing to enjoy the good food as they play out on Lake Travis.

These Lago Vista stuffed burgers are unique and are wonderful hamburgers, and I can’t recommend them enough. When I left the place after lunch, having devoured the Hatch Chile Burger, I was "stuffed" myself.

Pedernales Falls State Park

The Pedernales River begins from springs in Kimble County and crosses several hill country counties before it empties into Lake Travis. Running through a wild landscape filled with Live oak, Ashe juniper, cypress, and mesquite, the level of the river water rises and falls dramatically depending upon the seasonal cycles of rain.

Historically, the river was essential to the life of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and European settlers. It was also very important in the life of President Lyndon Johnson, who was born and died, just steps away from the bank of the river. Today, the Pedernales is an important tributary for Lake Travis, and is a provider of hill country recreation. One pleasant spot along the river is Pedernales Falls State Park.

As parks go, this one is quite recent. Established as a park in 1971, the land had originally been a part of the Circle Bar Ranch. The park takes up over 5,000 acres of Blanco County, and is one of the fine natural resources in the hill country.

The major attraction is, of course, the falls. The falls are created by Pedernales River cascading down and over limestone rocks, and while it is in no way comparable to Niagara Falls, it is a quiet and scenic spot. There is a nice observation deck where it is possible to look out over the falls and the entire area; however, most people walk down the steps from the observation area down to the water, where they climb on the rocks in and around the falls. Since the Pedernales, like most rivers in the hill country, are prone to flash flooding, visitors are warned to be vigilant to changing weather conditions. Being out on the river during a sudden flash flood has taken lives in the past. Since the park considers the area around the falls particularly dangerous, it does not allow swimming, wading, or tubing. The large park does, however, have ample areas for people wishing to take part in those activities further downstream. The river also provides great opportunities for anglers, especially those wanting to hook catfish.

The river is not the only attraction in the park. Hiking, sightseeing, photography, and birdwatching are other popular activities which lure visitors to the area. Both modern and primitive camp sites are available for those who wish to spend one or more nights in the park.

Despite the fact that the park is relatively close to both Austin and Johnson City, once inside the solitude of the park, you feel like you are a million miles away from everything. That is a common feeling at so many places throughout the hill country.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Highland Lakes Air Museum

The Highland Lakes Air Museum is located in the hill country town of Burnet at Kate Craddock Field. The museum is managed by the Highland Lakes Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), formerly, the Confederate Air Force. Most particularly focused on the World War II era, the museum also displays artifacts from other military conflicts since that time. The museum is proud of the fact that it focuses on the contributions of the average combatant, leaving to others who want to tell the tale of the military’s “sure enough big shots.”

Because it is run by volunteers, the museum hours are mercurial, so it is probably best to make sure the museum is actually open before making the trip. But, even if you find it closed, there is an impressive display outside in the Viet Nam Memorial Garden. The garden displays aircraft of the Viet Nam era, along with an M60 battle tank, a couple of M114 howitzers, and a Nike missile.

The most exciting part of the museum is that the local members of the CAF maintain working World War II era aircraft which they offer for public flights. For those willing to pay the very reasonable fee, they can enjoy an adventure in the sky in a Douglas C-47, the open cockpit Fairchild PT-19, or, a North American AT-6/SNJ Texan. The CAF also holds the annual Bluebonnet Air Show every April right there on, and over, Kate Craddock Field.

One of these days soon, I’m going to take a ride in one of the squadron’s aircraft, and experience what my Dad did, when he was just a young man during World War II, training as a naval aviator over the skies of Texas before he shipped out to combat in the Pacific Theatre. That day will be a reliving of history which is both personal and full of meaning to me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ball Moss Doesn’t Get The Respect It Deserves Among Epiphytes

It’s a very curious thing indeed. While people love the sight of Spanish moss hanging off trees as an idyllic image of the South, the same does not hold true, however, for Ball moss.

Spanish moss and Ball moss are both epiphytes, not true moss, and are often commonly referred to as “air plants.” Both are members of the same plant family (Bromliacea), and grow in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas, often on Live oaks and Bald cypresses, and have similar looking green and silver tendrils. Neither is a parasite to its host tree, but lives harmlessly off the water and nutrients in the air. Spanish moss hangs from the tree like a long beard, while Ball moss looks like, well, a ball. But, while the Spanish moss is revered, the Ball moss is reviled, and there is no justifiable reason why.

Despite the fact that they are very nearly the same except for their shape, how certain people view these two remarkable plants could not be more different. While some people use the words “romantic,” “beautiful,” “charming,” and “picturesque” to describe Spanish moss, they have no such words to describe Ball moss. Additionally, while some people pay to purchase Spanish moss for decorative purposes, other people pay to have Ball moss removed from their trees. There is neither rhyme nor reason for the different reaction to these plants, but a different reaction there certainly is.

Here in the hill country of Texas, Ball moss hanging off Live oak trees is more common than beef brisket at a Texas barbeque. And while some hill country folk, for whatever reason, get their dander up, and go to extreme measures to get these harmless plants out of their trees, the great majority of us recognize Ball moss is a natural part of nature out here.

I like the Ball moss which hangs in abundance on my Live oak trees. In my mind, Ball moss should get the same respect among epiphytes as Spanish moss. And, while I have never had any problem with the Ball moss itself, I’ve had to repeatedly explain to visitors from up north that the “balls” in my trees were not bird nests.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Down In Luckenbach, Texas Without Waylon, Willie, And The Boys

All hill country travel eventually leads to Luckenbach, Texas, where, as they say there, “Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach.” The town, such as it is, first become famous during the 1970’s, but its history goes back well before that.

Located just a few miles southeast of Fredericksburg, Luckenbach was established in the mid 1800’s, and by the late 1800’s, had a post office, general store, and a drinking establishment. The goods and services provided, catered to both the local farmers as well as the native Comanche, who were still prevalent in the area.

The Engel family, which had initially opened the small trading post, was still in control in 1970, when, they put the “community” and its establishments up for sale. Luckenbach was purchased by several local “characters,” including one Hondo Crouch, who promptly appointed himself, Mayor. He eventually made Marge, a decendant of the original Engel family, and the drinking establishment’s bartender, the Sheriff. Other appointments included, a Minister of Agriculture, who received the honor because he was the one who took the eggs to market. Other appointments included ambassadors to other countries. It was all in good fun, of course. Crouch, himself, played guitar, sang, told stories, and was easily recognizable by his white beard and hair.

In 1973, country music singer Jerry Jeff Walker recorded an album in the dance hall which brought the first real fame to Luckenbach. Several years later, in 1977, county music legends Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, recorded, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” which became a huge hit, and put this little speck of a place in the Texas Hill Country on the lips of people around the world. Unfortunately, Hondo never experienced the fame the song brought to Luckenbach, having passed away in 1976.

Despite the fact that this small place is extremely difficult to find (a lady in Blanco, Texas, warned me, “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.”), it provides a place of pilgrimage of sorts for country music fans, historians, curiosity seekers, vacationers, and visitors, from all over the world. A lot of the people hanging around Luckenbach, look just like Hondo Crouch did, with white beards and white hair, and there are always a line of motorcycles in a special parking area just outside the dance hall. During my visit, I did not see Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, or any of the “boys,” of course, but I enjoyed the experience just the same.

Despite the historic charm of the place, with the old post office, general store, dance hall, outdoor stage, cold beer, and live music seven days a week, some visitors, it seems, are disappointed. I’m not sure what they expected, but this is a remote part of the hill country of Texas. People who come here from distant places because of the song’s popularity but are then disappointed, perhaps need to listen to the song once again. It’s obvious, that they have missed the message the lyrics are conveying.

Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love) **

There's only two things in life that make it worth livin

'That's guitars that tune good and firm feelin' women

I don't need my name in the marquee lights

I got my song and I got you with me tonight

Maybe it's time we got back to the basics of love

Let's go to Luckenbach Texas with Waylon and Willie and the boys

This successful life we're livin' got us feuding like the Hatfield and

Between Hank Williams pain songs, Newberry's train songs and blue eyes
cryin' in the rain, out in Luckenbach Texas ain't nobody feelin' no pain

So baby let's sell your diamond ring

Buy some boots and faded jeans and go away

This coat and tie is choking me

In your high socitey you cry all day

We've been so busy keepin' up with the Jones

Four car garage and we're still building on

Maybe it's time we got back to the basics of love

Let's go to Luckenbach Texas with Waylon and Willie and the boys

This successful life we're livin' got us feuding like the Hatfield and McCoy's

Between Hank Williams pain songs, Newberry's train songs and blue eyes cryin' in the rain, out in Luckenbach Texas ain't nobody feelin' no pain

Let's go to Luckenbach Texas with Willie and Waylon and the boys

This successful life we're livin' got us feuding like the Hatfield and McCoy's

Between Hank Williams pain songs and Jerry Jeff's train songs and blue eyes cryin' in the rain out in Luckenbach Texas ain't nobody feelin' no pain

** Lyrics of this song or any variation thereof, are the property and copyright of their respective authors, artists and labels, and are provided here for educational purposes only. Please respect the various proprietary rights of the owners.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Migrating Monarchs And Winter Texans

They’re probably all in Mexico by now. I saw my first monarch butterfly of the fall here in the hill country during the first few days in October, and my last about a week ago.

The migration of monarch butterflies begins in the upper regions of North America in early September, as the weather starts to cool. Monarch butterflies can’t live in the cold weather and head south before winter sets in. Like migrating birds, the monarchs come down certain flyways on their long journey. Their primary destination is the mountainous area just west of Mexico City, Mexico, although some monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains do migrate to certain areas of southern California.

It is estimated that nearly 100 million monarchs take part in the fall migration. East of the Rockies, the various flyways eventually converge into a narrower configuration, which funnel into one or two flyways over Texas. The major flyway is over central Texas and the Texas Hill Country. As a result, hill country residents, primarily during the month of October, are blessed with seeing more than their fair share of monarchs.

Once the butterflies reach Mexico, they all head to a relatively small area in the volcanic mountains just west of Mexico’s capital of Mexico City, where at the elevation of 10,000 feet, they spend the winter in oyamel fir trees. They are welcomed every year by local residents, and by tourists, who climb mountain trails to see the millions upon millions of monarchs hanging on the trees.

The monarch migration through the hill country this year, as always, was spectacular. They were everywhere, and the photo opportunities were endless. But now, they’re gone.

Migrating monarch butterflies, are just like the human “snowbirds,” or as we call them in Texas, “Winter Texans,” who come south to escape the cold weather up north every year. But, while the monarch butterflies come into Texas with numbers over 100 million, but then keep passing through, we really don’t want that many human winter visitors to stay down here. It’s not that we don’t appreciate them, because we surely do, but 100 million? That’s just a bit much.

The Texas Hill Country is a wonderful place to stay or visit during the winter, but, you folks from the north, please keep at least a couple thousand people or so back up there. Somebody has to run "your" country up north during the winter months, don't they?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Old Roadside Parks

Many of the old roadside parks which, at one time, dotted the highways across America are now gone. As the interstate highway system rerouted drivers away from the smaller roads that were once used for long distance travel, the antiquated roadside parks, in many cases, became unnecessary.

Now, modern rest stops line the nation’s interstates providing all the latest comforts. In Texas, we call our interstate rest areas, “safety rest areas,” and these are currently being equipped with free wireless internet access, which is being provided along with the other existing modern conveniences.

Out with the old, in with the new? Well, at least in Texas, not quite yet. During the Great Depression, roadside parks were built along the Texas roads by the hundreds. The parks, built in most cases by teenagers and men in their early 20’s as part of a jobs program, provided shelter from the elements and a place to rest for weary travelers. Using whatever construction material was available at the various locations, the parks and the distinct amenities which were part of the specific park were built by hand.

Today, like the roadside parks in other states which were built along smaller roads in an earlier time, many of them are gone. There are, however, quite a few which still remain in Texas. After 70 years since they were first built, they remain a pleasant and often scenic haven, for motorists who drive roads other than the busy interstates. These remaining roadside parks are the legacy from an earlier time when the country was also in the midst of economic trouble and devastating unemployment. Sometimes, small things make a big difference. The building of these parks helped feed families in difficult financial straits, and left the state with something which can be enjoyed a three quarters of a century later.

I wonder, looking 70 years into the future, what the lasting legacy of this generation will be as it copes with the economic problems and high unemployment of today? I do hope your crystal ball is clearer than mine.

Nine-Pin Bowling And Homemade Food

Prior to moving to the Texas Hill Country, I had no idea there were private bowling clubs, or bowling alleys using nine pins instead of ten, and people, rather than machines, who reset the pins. Apparently nine-pin bowling, or, “nine-pins” as it’s commonly called where played, is popular in Europe, particularly in Germany, but also here in the hill country of Texas.

Although I’m not a bowler by any means, and my name is not embroidered on a bowling shirt, I’ve rolled quite a few bowling balls down bowling lanes in my life. But, I knew nothing of the game of nine-pins until recently. For you real bowlers out there, I’m sure you already know this, but for the rest of us, nine-pins is much different than the game we are familiar with here in the United States. The ball is smaller, the lane is shorter, and there are some other differences involving the rules. Also, there is manual work involved in initially setting and then resetting the pins. I have no interest in anything manual with regard to bowling, not in this age of technology.

My wife and I did not come to the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe to play nine-pins, or ten-pins, or bowl in any way, shape, or form. We just wanted to eat a good lunch as we were passing through town. A resident of Blanco recommended the place as the spot to go where “the locals eat.”

The resident did not steer us wrong. During the day, the bowling lanes are hidden from the front of the restaurant, to such an extent, that if the name on the sign did not mention “Bowling,” you would never know there was a bowling alley there. We weren’t interested in that, in any event, but found the food to be very good.

As I’ve written about the abundance of gravy in the hill country before, I was bound and determined to order something much different during the visit to the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe. I actually felt like something different too, a sandwich, so, I ordered the “Hot Steak Sandwich (with Salad & Fries).” I envisioned some type of steak, on a bun, with the usual toppings. When my order arrived, it looked strangely similar to the chicken fried steak my wife had ordered. While both selections were covered with gravy, my meat was sitting upon pieces of toast, while hers was not. I guess the toast was the “sandwich” part. The word “Hot” in front of the words “Steak Sandwich” on the menu should have tipped me off that this was an open faced sandwich, but I missed it completely. Nevertheless, my “sandwich” was delicious, and it just goes to show you that you get gravy down here, it seems, even when you don’t really want it.

The thing I really like about the hill country is that places like this still exist. Hill country towns, like Blanco, are quaint little places, with historic town squares, where you can still get authentic homemade food in traditional settings. The people, like the ones who served us at the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe, are always friendly and helpful. These are the kinds of places I remember from my youth, but they are quickly disappearing around the rest of the country as the chain restaurants become dominant, even in the smallest of towns. As a result, I’m going to continue patronizing these type of places before they are gone for good.

Hopefully, though, just like the nine-pin bowling which has persisted in the hill country long after automated bowling alleys and ten-pin bowling became the standard everywhere else, maybe the small cafes and restaurants will remain as well.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Veterans Day In the Texas Hill Country – November 11

The recent tragic events at Fort Hood here in Texas, should remind us once again of the sacrifices veterans have made, and continue to make, in both the defense of our nation and in the support of the freedoms we enjoy.

Soon after the end of World War I, the so-called “War to End All Wars,” nations who had participated in the bloody conflict, began observing the specific day and time the armistice was signed, November 11, 1918, at 11:00 in the morning. In the United States, “Armistice Day,” was officially recognized as a national holiday, and was initially only a remembrance of the end of World War I and the veterans of that war.

In 1954, the national holiday was officially changed to “Veterans Day,” a change no doubt made to recognize the large numbers of new veterans who had served during World War II and the Korean War. Later, for a relatively brief period of time, the holiday was moved to the fourth Monday in October, in order to give those who get the day off a three day weekend. Common sense finally prevailed, and the day of national recognition was moved back to November 11th of every year.

Since the very first “Armistice Day” was recognized, the numbers of veterans have increased in every generation. After World War II, came the veterans of the “Cold War,” Korea, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And these are just the “major” conflicts since World War II. This list does not take into account all the smaller conflicts or the many other peacetime veterans serving faithfully in assignments in the United States or more distant places around the world. Nor, does the list take into account the veterans of the numerous conflicts prior to World War I.

Wherever veterans served, whatever time period they served, or whatever job they performed in the service of our country, they all deserve our respect and gratitude for their service. Many Texas Hill Country towns have statues honoring veterans in the town square, and veteran celebrations will be held throughout the hill country, as they always are, on November 11th.

There are thousands of monuments and statues recognizing our veterans in large cities, small towns, and cemeteries across the nation. Many of these monuments show heroic veterans depicted in battle. As a citizen, veteran, and historian of this great country, I’ve greatly appreciated every veteran monument I’ve ever seen, and I'm inspired by every one of them.

The monument most moving to me, however, is located in the small hill country town of Jonestown, Texas. At Veterans Memorial Park, the monument does not highlight heroic battle scenes or dramatic flag raisings over a battle-scarred landscape, but rather the statue of a single serviceman, sitting alone with his duffle bag, waiting to go home upon the completion of military service to our nation. And, except for those brave veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, this is a monument which best reflects the average veteran who has served this country in either war or peace. The veteran left home, served our country, and then returned home. That’s something every living veteran can relate to.

The important veterans in my life are numerous. From my Dad, and his World War II generation, through the veterans of my generation, and now the veterans of more recent times, please remember them all on this Veterans Day. They are a relatively small group compared with the large population of our country, and they all deserve our respect for the many sacrifices they have made on our behalf.

On at least this one day of the year, please thank a veteran for his or her service. They will appreciate it, and you'll feel great after having done it.

Intimidating Horns and Antlers In The Hill Country

The Texas Hill Country is a beautiful place, and there are a lot of animals running around it with some rather intimidating looking horns and antlers on their heads. Given to self preservation, I always keep my distance.

The Texas Longhorn is probably the best known of these creatures. Brought over to North America from the Andalusia region of Spain five centuries ago, the Texas Longhorn is a very smart, and adaptable animal, which is capable of surviving on very little water, cactus, and brush. It was the animal that became part of the legend and lore of the "Old West" in the late 1800's, during the cattle drives up the famous Chisholm Trail. And, these magnificent animals are found on hill country ranches in abundance.

Texas white-tailed deer are smaller than deer in many other parts of the country, but the bucks still sport an impressive rack of antlers. These deer, like the Texas Longhorn, are a common sight across the breadth and depth of the Texas Hill Country all year long. They typically feed on grass, shrubs, leaves and fruit. And, the bucks festooned with their antlers, look a little menacing, especially during the rut.

And while white-tailed deer walk around my house like they own it, the day I see Texas Longhorns walking up my driveway, is the day the “For Sale” sign goes up.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Live Music Isn’t Only Happening On Austin’s Sixth Street

Austin, Texas is called the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and rightfully so. With its hundreds of live music venues, you have more choices for music than you can possibly take advantage of on any given night of the year. And, while a great many places are on Sixth Street and various other streets and areas downtown, there is plenty of live music going on at other places all over the hill country.

A good example is the Deli Werks, located on the north shore of Lake Travis in Lago Vista. Deli Werks is a popular spot for both lunch and dinner, and offers patrons the choice of either sitting outside, or in the open but covered bar area. It’s a casual and friendly place with a lot of old pictures and other items hanging on the walls. And, for some reason, country music legend Willie Nelson’s old houseboat sits on dry land in the lot out back. The food is good, the drinks are cold, and it provides a nice intimate atmosphere to watch live music with the locals.

This past Saturday night, Austin’s very popular blues band, Mike Milligan and the Altar Boyz, provided the live music. The band’s lead is Mike Milligan, who supplies both vocals and harmonica. The other very talented musicians include Scott Unzicker on guitar, Leland Parks on bass, and Dave Novak on the drums.

This is one impressive band. Mike Milligan’s vocal ability is really very good, and his vocal talent was consistently good on every song. Scott Unzicker loves playing guitar, and that was quite apparent as he showed his wide range of talent as the night progressed. And, while Leland Parks, the bass player, and Dave Novak playing drums, were a bit more in the background of the performance, their musical talent surely wasn’t. You could tell that this band is composed of true professionals, who enjoy performing.

This prominent Austin band describes its music as “Texas Blues with Louisiana Attitude,” and plays a great many gigs in Austin itself, or at venues on the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s nice to have a band of this caliber come out to perform in the more relaxed atmosphere at Deli Werks. For folks living on the north shore of the lake, Deli Werks provides opportunities to see excellent bands, like Mike Milligan and the Altar Boyz, without having to make the long drive into downtown Austin. What could be better than that?

The Pecan Tree Proves Everything Is Bigger In Texas

For the past month, as they typically do this time of year, pecan trees all over the hill country have been dropping their nuts. The commercial growers have large stands of the trees, of course, which supply a vast human marketplace wanting the pecans. But, wild pecan trees are also found in the millions throughout rural areas of the state, and in and around the cities and towns of Texas, where the nuts fall indiscriminately on the sidewalks and yards for the birds and squirrels to consume. Most Texans know that the pecan tree is the state tree of Texas, but few may realize just how far back the relationship between this tree and the land go.

The tree, native only to North America, is believed to have had its origins in what is now Texas and parts of northern Mexico. Fossils of the tree, pre-dating human activity, have been found in the area. And while, over time, the native trees eventually spread north up the Mississippi River Valley and east along the Gulf of Mexico, the migration all started in Texas.

The first native people to the area recognized the value of the pecan as a food source, and made their way through the region during the latter part of every year to collect the nuts which would help sustain them during the winter. Later, as the first Europeans began exploring and settling the region, they also recognized the value of the pecan tree for both food and the utilization of the tree’s wood for other purposes, including furniture, tools, and fuel for fires. Later, the stands of these trees were cleared for other agricultural uses. In time, it all took its toll, and by 1900 or so, the large stands of native pecan trees, which had flourished since before the advent of humans in the area, were in real danger in Texas.

Recognition was finally given to the tree for its importance to Texas in 1919, when it was officially proclaimed the official state tree of Texas. Today, Texas is one of the leading producers of pecans in the United States.

Pecan trees have been known to live for a thousand years, produce nuts for hundreds of years, and grow to well over one hundred feet. As already noted, they initially provided food for native populations, and later, a source for both food and wood helping America establish its presence on the frontier.

Today, the pecan trees provide both employment and enjoyment for people who consume the sweet nuts in candy, pies, fresh out of the shell, roasted or salted. The wood is still used today, both for making furniture, and for the smoking of beef, sausage, chicken, pork, and fish. And, for all those trees in yards across Texas, they provide great shade from the scorching Texas sun.

People in Texas like to brag about how “everything is bigger in Texas.” But, if truth be told, the biggest things in Texas have always been the pecan trees, not just because of their physical size, but in all that they have provided over thousands of years to sustain life, and more recently, to furnish great pleasure to people through the gift of their nuts and wood.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday: Shaved Ice Day

Today marked the end of the first full work week in November. The sky was a brilliant blue, and with the temperature at a pleasant 80 degrees, I decided to have a little fun. I’ve been hearing so many good things about a place selling shaved ice in Round Rock, Texas, that my curiosity got the better of me. On a spur of the moment, I got into the car and drove the relatively short distance to the icy destination in Round Rock.

I’ve enjoyed my share of snow cones and shaved ice over the years, including the shaved ice in Hawaii. It’s always nice to get one I guess, but they all seem to be about the same to me. Snow cones are crunchier than the shaved ice, but other than that, the biggest single factor between a good and a somewhat less than good icy treat is just how much flavored syrup is added. In my estimation, more syrup means a better product. Snow cones and shaved ice are, well, just that. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way or make a special trip for either one of them. It is just ice and syrup after all, isn’t it?

The place everyone is talking about is called Kawaii’s, which advertises having “Hawaii’s Finest Shaved Ice.” That’s quite a claim, given the fact that its location is in Texas, not Hawaii. Despite hearing about long lines, I had no wait today, most likely given the fact that it was in the middle of the afternoon on a work day. And, while there was no line in front of me, a steady stream of people did come and go as I was eating my ice.

The list of flavors posted on the sign by the walk up window was unbelievably long, which explains another sign on the window telling people to “open the window” when they are ready to order. I can imagine that the sign was put there out of necessity, wanting to prevent the needless waste of cool air conditioning as someone, racked by indecision, reads and then reads again the available flavors and sizes.

I’m not one to be indecisive, and I think that was quite noticeable to the very nice and friendly employee inside, because before I even had a chance to slide the window open, she slid it open for me. The cool breeze blowing from the air conditioner had barely begun rolling out of the building when I quickly said, “small bubblegum flavor, please.” I couldn’t believe how big the “smallest” size was. And unlike those tourist destinations which charge ridiculous prices for what is essentially, ice and little flavor, the price here was very reasonable. But, the best was yet to come.

After watching my cold snack being carefully shaped, and a large amount of blue syrup being poured in, I sat on the outside patio to eat, what I thought, was just going to be one more shaved ice at one more venue. The minute I put the first spoonful in my mouth, however, I immediately realized why this place was so popular. Expecting to taste merely a mouthful of flavored ice, what I tasted instead was something more akin to ice cream. It was smooth and almost had a creamy quality to it. There was no doubt at that point, that I knew my curiosity had been rewarded. This shaved ice was delicious, and definitely different from any other one I’ve ever had. Using the same basic ingredients of ice and syrup that every vendor does, there is an incomparable result.

As I drove away with my tongue stained blue, I was already thinking about coming back. This is one shaved ice location, I thought, which justifies a special trip. It is now hours later, and I still can’t believe how good it was. Tomorrow is Saturday. Maybe I’ll find the time for another road trip.

Castle In The Hill Country

The first time you see it, you do a double take. I am almost certain that thousands of other people, upon first seeing it, had the same verbal reaction I did. “That looks like a castle…is that a castle?”

Castles are common in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, but not in the United States, and certainly not in Texas. That’s why it is so startling to see it for the very first time.

But, there is, in fact, a castle of sorts in the Texas Hill Country. And, once you get over the amazement of the first view, it looks right at home. If you were dropped into the area with a blindfold over your eyes, and you did not know better, you might just believe you were somewhere other than Texas, or the United States. Perhaps, you might just believe you were across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Falkenstein Castle is located in the hill country southwest of Burnet and northwest of Marble Falls. The owners, Terry and Kim Young, live in a portion of the castle, and host weddings throughout parts of the rest of the massive structure. How this castle came to be, squarely in the hill country is quite a story.

To make a long and a much more interesting story very short, Terry and Kim Young, were residents of Burnet, Texas, when they went on a vacation to Germany. They brought back a copy of plans for a historic castle, and more or less, built it on a very large hill. Sitting on over 100 acres of scenic land, the castle itself, along with its inner grounds, is over 174,000 square feet.

I certainly understand why couples choose the location for their weddings. It’s much cheaper than flying a wedding party to a castle in the British Isles or Europe for a wedding, and is just as scenic.

And, how appropriate that the Texas Hill Country, with its heritage of German immigration, would be the site of Falkenstein Castle, first imagined by Germany’s King Ludwig II, in the 1800’s.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fall Colors In The Texas Hill Country

Each and every fall it seems, there are quite a few people up in the northern states who get unbelievably giddy when the foliage on trees begins turning different colors. There are news broadcasts, and hundreds of published reports and maps detailing when and where the fall color is “peak” or “past peak.” Some bus companies charge in excess of a thousand dollars for fall foliage tours lasting more than a week.

I grew up in the American Midwest, and, I agree that the fall colors can be spectacular. But I cannot quite fathom why someone would spend a thousand bucks to ride around in a bus to see dying, albeit, colorful leaves, when, in most cases, they can see the same thing, year after year, by looking out their own kitchen window.

Having said that, my real problem with the colorful fall foliage in the northern states is what it portends. It means that just after you put the leaf rake back in the garage, you’ll be picking up a snow shovel. Colorful leaves means cold weather is on the way. Cold weather brings snow and ice, and to me, none of that is pleasant. So, in a reaction similar to one of “Pavlov‘s Dogs,” when I see leaves that are not green, I start “salivating” for a warmer climate.

To be fair, the Texas Hill Country has a similar hype in the spring when the wildflowers are blooming, and the hills are alive with color. Just like up north, there are bus tours. And, I’m quite sure, that there are hill country citizens with Texas Blue Bonnets blooming just outside their front door who scramble up the steps of a tour bus every year to see even more Blue Bonnets a few miles down the road.

Fall in the Texas Hill Country has colors of its own. While the foliage doesn’t change color to the same extent up north, because of fewer deciduous trees, there are colorful flowers and berries which brighten the season. The Mexican Bush Sage provides a wonderful display of purple and white flowers. The Texas Lantana, with its bright orange and yellow flowers, is ever-present on these nice warm November days. The American Beautyberry, with its bright purple fruit, is found in abundance along with brightly colored berries of the holly species. Maximillian sunflowers, and so many more colorful blooms, add to the hill country's “fall colors.”

While the observance of these magnificent colors is an annual rite of fall in the hill country, and may be comparable in some way to what is going on up north this time of year, there is one big and very important difference. These fall colors are not followed by leaf raking, a lot of sub-freezing temperatures, and snow shoveling. And that, at least to me, makes all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Gravy Crazy Texans

Here in Texas, gravy is a way of life.

A lot of people around the country have gravy not more than a couple times of year I bet, and, in most cases, over mashed potatoes. There is, of course, the obligatory mashed potatoes and turkey gravy during the Thanksgiving meal. Beyond that, it might be something you occasionally get with a couple pieces of chicken as you grab something at a fast food chicken outlet, and again, always with mashed potatoes.

Talk about being in a rut.

Texans, however, are “out of the box” thinkers, who do not believe gravy should be relegated to holidays, fast food, or mashed potatoes.

Texas white cream gravy requires few ingredients and is quickly prepared. With flour, whole milk, pepper, salt and some bacon (or other meat) drippings, you’ve got all you need to make this Texas staple. Now, what shall we pour the gravy over? If you live anywhere but Texas, the answer is quite simple; pour it over mashed potatoes. How many times has that been done?

Down here, with respect to gravy, the huge Texas sky is the limit. Of course, chicken-fried chicken, chicken-fried steaks, and sausage are favorites to receive a gravy dousing. But, in truth, any and all meats will do, wild game and snakes included. If its meat of any kind, just pour gravy over it, and it will taste better. And, it is a well-known fact here in the hill country that both biscuits and Texas toast need a gravy bath to be fully appreciated. The egg is another favorite target which is enjoyed with gravy.

Any type of vegetable is agreeable to getting the gravy soak, and this is especially true for those vegetables which you may find personally disagreeable. It’s all very simple really, gravy makes everything taste good.

A chicken gizzard is the chicken’s organ that grinds up the food it eats. That does not sound too appetizing on its face, but add a little Texas white cream gravy, and all is right with the world. Now, where are my fried chicken gizzards and the gravy ladle?

My Favorite Texas Hill Country State Park – Inks Lake

I must admit, I have a favorite park among the state parks in the Texas Hill Country. It’s Inks Lake State Park. While there are many other wonderful state parks in the hill country, this one is special, at least to me.

State parks have been so very important to me all of my life. As a child, my parents would take “us boys,” all five siblings in the family, camping every summer. While we camped all over the United States, most of our camping was done in Michigan state parks. Except for the climate, the fauna, flora, and the scenery, Inks Lake State Park reminds me of the state parks in Michigan. Y’all must be scratching your heads by now wondering what I mean, or, if I’m crazy.

Based on my boyhood experiences, I judge a state park by many things. First and foremost, the attractiveness of its camping spots. A great state park has somewhat private camping spots that have trees, are near water, have nice views, a grill, and a fire ring. Next in importance, are the presence of hiking trails, and the availability of boating, swimming, and fishing. And last, but not least, there must be a park store. Inks Lake State Park has all of these, and more. Additionally, the park has quite a few small cabins available if you find yourself without a tent, travel trailer, or an RV, and need a place to stay. For golfers, there is a scenic golf course right next to the lake.

Like the other Highland Lakes of the hill country, Inks Lake is formed by a dam on the Colorado River. The area in and around Inks Lake State Park is prominently highlighted by large rock outcroppings of the pink colored Valley Spring gneiss. The area was the scene of cattle ranching during the 1800’s, and, this park, like many others during the 1930’s, was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

One of the attractions of Inks Lake is the “Devils Waterhole.” It’s a spot where swimmers can jump off a cliff into a pool of deep water. Even if you don’t want to participate in this activity yourself, it is fun to watch.

Yesterday, during our repeat visit, we saw only a relatively few campers. How nice for them. The temperature was in the mid-70’s, with clear blue skies, and a beautiful park all to themselves. We saw many picnic tables at occupied campsites decorated with flowers and plants. These campers were succeeding in making a really nice location even nicer!

Inks Lake lives up to every one of my boyhood expectations of what constitutes a great state park.