The Lone Star State shows its spring splendor in Hill Country DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS

April 03, 1994|By Jayne Clark | Jayne Clark,Los Angeles Daily News

The Texas Hill Country is 25,000 square miles of low rolling hills textured with small towns where good ol' boys with a fondness for chat hang out at the local general store, where the Knights of Columbus raise money with wild game dinners, where women in tight jeans and overpermed hair drink from long-neck bottles at the local dance hall and where crusty old cowboys are anxious to tell you about the way it was.

The Hill Country lies deep in the heart of Texas and it is some of the prettiest land you'll see anywhere in a state that isn't shy about describing itself with superlatives.

April through May is an ideal time to visit. In April, wild azaleas, Texas thistle, mountain pink, bluebells and other wildflowers cover the hills like a rich floral cloak. After the early blooms are gone, bluebonnets pop up for an encore performance that usually continues through May.

You can approach Hill Country from Austin or San Antonio. My two-day trip took me from San Antonio west on Route 16 to Bandera, then north to Fredericksburg, east through Johnson City and back south through New Braunfels.

Heading west out of San Antonio, you negotiate a forest of Mexican food joints, radiator repair shops, coin laundries and hardware stores.

It isn't a pretty sight.

And then suddenly, you're in the hills. Not hills in the Western sense, mind you. But nice, low, rolling hills set in wide-open spaces.

First stop is Bandera, 50 miles west of San Antonio. It's a tiny town of wooden storefronts and a Texas-size boast: Cowboy Capital of the World. The town has produced more championship cowboys than any other community in the world -- or at least no one has come forward to challenge that claim. The champions' names are engraved on a stone monument outside the Bandera County Courthouse: Toots. Scooter. Clay.

On weekends, Arkey Blue's Silver Dollar Night Club is jammed with locals and out-of-towners alike, who come to hear Arkey Blue's band play country-western tunes. Mr. Blue, a former dude rancher, is best known (in some circles, anyway) for writing a couple of songs featured in the drive-in classic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

On the jukebox, someone is whining about "pickin' up the pieces the wreck you made-a me." At the bar, two bikers, resplendent in head-to-toe black leather, are knocking back Shiner Bock.

They're complaining about tourists who litter. The one named "Animal" is saying, "Sometimes I like to hand the litter back to them -- take advantage of these leathers." Turns out he's a systems analyst for the Army; being a biker is strictly a weekend avocation.

Outside, Ronnie Simon, a wiry old rodeo cowboy, sits in front of an abandoned gas station in a beat-up rocker on the corner of Cypress and Main streets.

He's a man of few words who likes to talk.

"I'm 50. I've had three heart attacks and four wives and I've survived 'em all," he says by way of introduction.

His present pursuit involves fashioning objects from deer antlers and cow bones. He displays a cow's leg painted and decorated with beads and feathers -- a nifty tool or, in a pinch, a handy weapon.

A 25-mile detour west on Route 337 leads to Vanderpool and Lost Maples State Natural Area. More than 10 miles of trails make this a prime hiking spot.

An hour or so north on Route 16 is Kerrville, a sprawling community along the Guadalupe River, where developers have carved retirement plots out of ranches.

At the Inn of the Hills River Resort, I meet up with Dwight Harkey, who writes the "Up the Creek" column for the local newspaper.

"Texas looks at Kerrville as the beauty spot," he says over fuzzy strains of piped-in accordion music at the Alpine-themed restaurant.

Mr. Harkey and I follow the Guadalupe River 17 miles west out of town to a dot in the road called Hunt, whose only major commercial establishment draws people from miles around. The Store, as it's known locally, is a nondescript wooden building with a grand stone fireplace and decor featuring lots of stuffed animal heads. It sells a few groceries along with beer, ice and pit-smoked barbecue. "What more do you need?" asks the guy behind the counter.

Thursdays are "pickin' and grinnin' nights," Mr. Harkey says. On Wednesdays, they line up for Owen Crenshaw's barbecue. His secret:

"No. 1, good meat. No. 2, slow fire. And time. Don't rush it," he says.

Fredericksburg, at the junction of Route 16 and U.S. 290, was settled by Germans in the mid-1800s, and half of its residents claim German heritage. The main street is lined with solid old limestone buildings now given over to gift shops, German-style restaurants and "biergartens." If you like shopping for country knickknacks, you'll love Fredericksburg.

East on U.S. 290, a stop at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City is worth the time for the flowers alone. After all, it was at Lady Bird Johnson's behest that thousands of wildflowers were sown out here.

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