The area North and West of San Antonio, and West of Austin, is referred to as The Texas Hill Country. In stark contrast to the broad coastal plain to the east and south, the rugged and dry limestone hills cover an area roughly half the size of Wisconsin and are part of the transition between the wetter areas to the east and the arid west. There's little soil to absorb rainfall when it does occur and flashfloods are not unusual. In some ways it looks desolate and forbidding; in other ways, strangely attractive. I found the area comfortable, even homey, and very scenic.
This past Sunday, the 13th, we trekked north through the Hill Country about 60 miles to the town of Johnson City. This is the hometown of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the USA. Johnson City got it's name from an ancestor of Lyndon's back in the middle 1800's. The Johnson Family has been in these parts since those days.
The visitor center for the LBJ National Historical Park is in Johnson City, and includes his boyhood home and the Johnson Settlement which includes the log cabin, barn, cooler house, and windmill belonging to Lyndon's Grandfather and Great Uncle back in the 1860's. Click here to learn more about Johnson's ancestors and his childhood.
After the Johnson City portion of this tour, we headed west on State Hwy 290 toward Stillwell. The LBJ Ranch and Texas Whitehouse is along the banks of the Pedernales River on the North side off the road about 14 miles out of Johnson City. There's no public access to the Ranch -- but there is a 1-1/2 hour tour that starts at the LBJ State Park just across the highway from the Ranch. We took the tour.
The tour guide was a local retired history teacher whose family has been on the same land for 5 generations. He was of German heritage (a real, live German-Texan) and was full of information, little background stories, the how's and why's of the ranching business, and personal accounts of his experiences with Lady Bird Johnson, who he met a number of times. He was delightful and we could have listened for hours more; it just makes the experience so much more real. Thoroughly enjoyable.
The LBJ ranch house, known during his term as the Texas White House, is a modest 8,000 square foot house that had been added onto a number of times since Johnson purchased the place from his aunt in 1951. We weren't able to go inside yet, but it's supposed to be very comfortable and not pretentious at all. There is still evidence around the property, although abandoned, of Secret Service security who were on-duty and protecting Lady Bird until her death this past July. The house is a very comfortable-looking place in a relaxed country setting. There are two 300 year old Live Oak Trees that grace the front lawn. You can almost picture old LBJ sitting there under those trees surrounded by heads-of-state, legislators, cabinet officers, or his family.
The ranch was once well over 2000 acres but chunks have been sold off and the National Park Service now has about 700 acres. Johnson's request is that it be preserved as a working ranch so the children of the USA can experience that lifestyle. There are a number of National Park Volunteers, people who live fulltime in their RV, who are living and working on the property for a few months at a time. Who knows, maybe at some point in the future we'll do something like this too.
The next stop on the days tour was Luckenbach, Texas, the tiny town memorialized by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in 1977 in the song "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)". Word of mouth and a little research told us that Sunday afternoon was the best day to visit. And what a visit it was.
The town has a purported population of 3 and it's tag-line is "Everybody's Somebody in Luckenbach". According to Wikipedia:
Its oldest building is a combination general store and saloon opened in 1849 by Minna Engel, whose father was an itinerant preacher from Germany. The community, first named Grape Creek, was later named after Minna's husband, Carl Albert Luckenbach, who was then her fiance; they would later move to another town which became Albert, Texas. Luckenbach was first established as a community trading post and was one of the few that never broke a peace treaty with the Comanche Indians, with whom they bartered and traded.
Citizens of the town claimed one of them had launched the first airplane years before the Wright Brothers.
Its population increased to a high of 492 in 1904, but by the 1960s, Luckenbach was almost a ghost town.
An ad in the paper offering "town — pop. 3 — for sale" led Hondo Crouch, rancher and Texas folklorist, to buy Luckenbach for $30,000 in 1970, in partnership with Kathy Morgan and actor Guich Koock. While modern-day Luckenbach is part of Fredericksburg, Hondo used the town's rights as a municipality to govern the dance hall as he saw fit.
Today, a favorite destination of motorcyclists from all over Texas and a few motorists like us, it's a great place to relax, buy a T-shirt in the General Store, mail a letter at the Post Office in the General Store, drink beer in the bar in the General Store, and listen to local musicians "jam" while drinking beer in the bar in the General Store. We did all of these and more. It's not an easy place to find as it's tucked away off the main road on a small side-road, and then off the side-road on a 'sider-road". Due to it's popularity with a certain sub-culture, signs leading travelers to Luckenbach are stolen with such regularity that they've simply given up trying to replace them. You just have to feel your way here with gut-level instincts.
In addition to the General Store, the only other structures of note are the Dance Hall and the outhouse/toilet facility that's so important when there's a lot of beer-drinking going on. In Texas, we're learning that people pretty much do what they want to do, and if the outhouse isn't close by, convenient, and large enough, well, let's just say it wouldn't be good for Luckenbach.
This particular Sunday there were a couple local bands on stage in the Dance Hall. We didn't see much dancing going on, but the music was very good. You can buy food -- hot dogs, hamburgers, curly fries, and brats -- yes, brats. This part of Texas around Fredericksburg is proud of it's German heritage.
Originally, we wanted to spend a little time driving around Fredericksburg, TX which is supposed to be a quaint small town of about 12,000 people. But we relaxed too much in Luckenbach so that'll have to wait for another day.
Here's a though for the day (from a sign on the wall of the Luckenbach General Store): "I didn't claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables"