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Chef Laurel Waters of the Laurel Tree in Utopia plans menus around offerings from her garden.
By Gene Fowler

It’s said that at when Robert Frost lived in San Antonio in the mid-1930s, the poet enjoyed trekking the Texas Hill Country because the terrain reminded him of a Western version of rural Vermont and New Hampshire in his native New England. As naturalist Richard C. Bartlett notes in his 1995 book Saving the Best Of Texas, the Hill Country—and the larger Edwards Plateau that contains it—“still looks much as it did millions of years ago.” The question of which backroads in this area to explore likely presented Robert Frost with dilemmas as intri-guing as those encountered in his famous poem. For wherever one may wander in the Hill Country, adventure, discovery, and earthly splendor lie in wait.

Selecting a sampler of unbeaten pathways to chronicle here proved just as challenging. I chose an area southwest of Kerrville that ranges across portions of Kerr, Real, Bandera, and Uvalde counties. It’s a land of expansive valleys and soaring canyon walls, where roads skirt clear, spring-fed rivers and snake along roller coaster-like routes with breathtaking views. Inviting hideaways, resorts, and lodges seem to hug the road ’round every bend. As reflected in the name of one of the towns here, the region strikes many as a veritable utopia.


The dark, stormy sky of a weather front can make the Panhandle Plains seem like a real life meteorological laboratory.
By Katheryn Jones

The Panhandle Plains region surely deserves the title “King of the Back Roads.” Farm-to-market and ranch roads crisscross counties where cattle often outnumber people. Taking the path less traveled isn’t just a choice, it’s a necessity to appreciate just how big the “Big Country” is. You’re entering real-deal ranch country, home of storied ranches and sprawling spreads such as the JA, the Guitar, the Matador, and the XIT. Get ready to chow down on some of the best beef in Texas and stay in places steeped in history.

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite Panhandle Plains finds you might miss barreling down the interstate at 70 mph. Take the next exit, follow a two-lane road that disappears over the horizon, and discover them for yourself.


Texas
By Randy Mallory

A hiker strides a path beneath tall pines, magnolias, and beeches. A sightseer drives a backroad past rolling hay meadows. An angler trolls a brushy shore. A waitress serves blue-plate specials with a Southern drawl. A dominoes player lays down double-five in a cuss-and-spit game on the courthouse lawn.

If your wanderlust aches for backwoods wandering and Southern small-town charm, grab your official state map and follow my 100-mile ramble. Look to the Piney Woods of East Texas—home of Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn reservoirs, plus the Sabine and Angelina National Forests.

Outdoor enthusiasts know this land of water and woods as a recreational haven of public trails, campgrounds, and prolific fishing holes. History buffs know the place for tales of early exploration and international conflict. On a recent visit, I also found the area chock-full of quaint churches and pretty farmhouses. All in all, it’s a getaway where “fast-paced” is out of place and “old-fashioned” is in fashion.

Texas’ easternmost national forest, Sabine National Forest sidles up to Toledo Bend Reservoir and forms part of the boundary between Texas and Louisiana. In the fall, when the tree canopy changes from green to copper and gold, hiking and biking the forest’s serpentine trails proves especially rewarding.


Take in the view of the Chisos Mountains from a room at La Posada Milagro, a new guesthouse in Terlingua Ghostown.
By June Naylor

By virtue of its remoteness, the Big Bend region serves as the ultimate definition of off the beaten path. Every square inch of this wide, lonely reach of the Trans-Pecos might as well be the other side of the moon for its utter isolation. It’s hard to resist the call of far-flung ribbons of small roads, where you can drive for seemingly endless stretches without seeing another soul. Think of it as extreme escapism, which we all need now and again. Hang on, and I’ll take you on a tour of my recent offbeat discoveries and reacquaintances in a meandering tour of Big Bend.

If you like winding country roads, distinctive small towns, historic buildings, really good regional food, and a certain measure of adventure, do I have a plan for you! Some 90 miles southeast of Austin, there’s an entire county that’s devoid of shopping malls and freeways, and largely undiscovered by tourists. I’m talking about Lavaca County, where ethnic traditions still flourish and residents remain close to their rural roots. I defy you to find another spot in Texas with a stronger sense of place.

Elizabet Ney by Al Braden

By Jay Burns

 

As a girl growing up in the 1830s in Münster, Westphalia, Elisabet Ney loved to watch her father carve stone in his workshop. She dreamed of becoming a great sculptor herself. Her parents told her that women were not allowed to take sculpting classes, but Elisabet was strong-willed and would not give up.

 

Still undaunted at the age of 19, Elisabet applied for admission to the Munich Academy of Art. When director Wilhelm von Kaulbach refused to enroll her (a woman would cause too much of a stir in a class of young men), she began training with a private teacher. Von Kaulbach eventually relented, and he admitted her to the academy on a trial basis in 1852.

 

Elisabet worked hard and in a few years earned a scholarship to study in Berlin under master sculptor Christian Rauch. He was so impressed with her skill and discipline that he introduced her to potential clients who were important political and intellectual leaders. She soon began a busy career, sculpting philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, philologist Jacob Grimm, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, naturalist Baron Alexander von Humboldt, Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, and King George V of Hanover, among many others.

 

While visiting a friend in Heidelberg in 1853, Elisabet met a Scottish medical student named Edmund Duncan Montgomery. Ten years later, they were married on the island of Madeira, where Dr. Montgomery had a medical practice. (He had a studio built for Elisabet there, as well.) The couple (along with their lifelong Austrian housekeeper, Cencie Simath) later immigrated to the United States, possibly to escape the Franco-Prussian War. After locating first in Georgia, Elisabet and Edmund moved to Texas, where they purchased the once legendary Liendo Plantation near Hempstead in 1873. While Edmund conducted scientific research, Elisabet oversaw their crops and helped care for their two young children, Arthur and Lorne. Tragically, Arthur contracted diphtheria when he was not yet two, and he died shortly after their arrival.

 
One of three ranch roads in the Hill Country known as “the Three Sisters,” RR 337 rambles 58 miles between Camp Wood and Medina. It’s a favorite among motorcyclists for its exhilarating swoops and turns and spectacular scenery.

I’m having my favorite flying dream again, zooming low and fast over green, rolling hills. I lean into the gentle turns and accelerate to the next sweeping bend. Only it’s no dream.


Side-road surprises abound along historic (and new) stretches of US 80, including road signs in downtown Mineola.
By Randy Mallory

On October 20, 1926, Colonel Ed Fletcher steered his automobile eastward from San Diego, California, resolute to reach Savannah, Georgia, in record time. The land developer's stunt was geared to drum up support for a transcontinental driving route to San Diego, even though road trips were considered "something of a sporting proposition." Indeed, most roads were narrow dirt lanes, slippery when wet.

Fletcher's race with destiny ran along part of the Dixie Overland Highway, one of 250-plus "named trails" of the 1920s. With more families buying cars (Model T Fords sold for $300), business associations, such as the Dixie Overland Highway Association, laid out routes of interconnecting local roads through member towns. Signs painted on poles, barns, and even rocks offered meager driving directions.

After a breakneck (though relatively uneventful) coast-to-coast escapade–including an all-day drive across Texas–Fletcher made his 2,535-mile trip in record time, reaching Savannah on October 23 in a little over 71 hours.

That same year, federal and state officials rolled out a national plan, long in the making, for a numbered U.S. highway system. Much of the Dixie Overland Highway became part of the new US Highway 80.

The Apelt Armadillo Farm in Comfort sold armadillo-shell baskets as curios.

By Randy Mallory

 

Long rows of tables line the spacious meeting hall, each covered edge to edge with boxes of precious paper. Thirty-somethings sit beside octogenarians at the tables—like old-fashioned librarians at card-catalog cases—perusing box after box. Frequently, someone pulls a plastic-wrapped piece from a box, holds it up to better light, and checks the other side for a telltale postmark or message.

 

Dedicated deltiologists—postcard collectors—join the merely curious in Austin at the Capital of Texas Postcard Club’s annual show to search, find, dicker, and plunk down a few dollars for a colorful 3-by-5-inch piece of history—a vintage postcard.

Several local collectors are on specific missions. Bob Gray watches for picture postcards of Texas lighthouses to brighten up his collection of 150 such cards. Scottish-terrier devotee Linda Bassett laps up illustrated cards of Scotties. Photo buff David Stark snaps up RPCs (Real Photo Cards), one-of-a-kind family shots processed into postcards a century ago.

 

Robert Brown of Arlington is on his own family quest, searching for a rare photo card of the 1930s ferry boat his grandfather operated in Galveston Bay.

Across the hall, Austin artist Stephanie Lindsey digs for 1940s pictures on textured linen cards. She mounts iconic postcard images—such as the Alamo, the Golden Gate Bridge, and ’57 Chevys—under see-through resin in stylish sterling silver rings, necklaces, and bracelets (see http://babyjane.us). Another local artist, Debbie Little-Wilson, gravitates to cards depicting “strong women”—cowgirls, aviators, suffragettes—who end up in her hand-colored etchings and drawings (www.dlittlewilson.com).

“What keeps us going,” says Debbie’s husband, Ken Wilson, who is a postcard dealer (www.ken-wilson.com), “is looking for a needle in the haystack—that wonderful, even rare postcard that others missed.”

 

The ultimate haystack sprawls across the front of the hall at Norman Porter’s display of 70,000 postcards, some 10,000 of which are real-photo cards of Texas scenes. Norman helped his hometown of Pleasanton (near San Antonio) restore its railroad depot using early postcards as reference guides. The project hooked the retired principal, so he started attending, then selling and trading at, postcard shows. As chairman of the Atascosa County Historical Commission, Norman used postcards to illustrate the county history book he just completed. “Postcard pictures are all that’s left of many places,” he notes.

Several tables over, another dealer-author, Wallace O. Chariton of Plano, also uses cards to illustrate his Texas-themed books. “My idea of excitement is finding a real-photo card of a Texas ghost town,” he says.

 

Picture postcards are such valuable research tools that the Texas Historical Commission has a database of several thousand cards to help with architectural restoration. “Postcards offer a visual timeline,” explains Mark Cowan of the THC’s Architecture Division, “to document the historical development of a building.”

Vintage postcards and their messages also offer compelling views of how towns and lifestyles changed, especially during the Golden Age of postcards, roughly 1900 to World War I.


The distinctive Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary is a 527-acre preserve in southeastern Brownsville.
By Eileen Mattei

"If you want to see Brownsville as it was 150 years ago, look up at the second and third floors of its old buildings. Owners used to renovate only the bottom floors," explains Tony Knopp. A history professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, Tony leads walking tours from the Brownsville Heritage Complex through the old downtown and former Fort Brown, now part of the UTB campus.

Tony guides us past crowds of Mexican day-trippers who have walked across Gateway International Bridge from Matamoros to shop, past casas de cambio where Americans heading south are exchanging dollars for pesos, and on to these old mercantile houses. The weathered, tan brick buildings boast tall windows, verandas, and ironwork balconies that recall New Orleans. Just a few yards from a curve of the Rio Grande, a light blue building from 1849 houses a customs broker, and across the street, contemporary art at Galeria 409 fills the 1852 Webb-Miller building. Nearby and still in use, the petite Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception dates to the 1850s. A few blocks west, inside a reincarnated stable, luxurious pampering awaits patrons at today's Carriage House Day Spa, and, a few blocks east, vestiges of the earthen walls of the original Fort Brown remain as part of the driving range at the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course. In some parts of the city's historic heart, mesquite blocks, used as pavers on the earliest streets of Texas' southernmost city, still peek through the modern asphalt.


Amarillo’s innovative, $30 million Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts is one of the Panhandle Plains high-end attractions.
By June Naylor

By nature, the low-key Panhandle Plains region distinguishes itself as a place that goes easy on your wallet. You’re hard-pressed to find big-budget options here; in fact, you’ll find yourself enjoying diversions that would be pricey indulgences in a big city. In other words, you’re guaranteed a wealth of affordable amusements. All you need is a good list of must-do, must-see distractions to reap the best this northwestern sprawl of Texas can offer. Here’s a sampling of options—both posh and plain affordable—when it comes to unwinding, dining, and overnighting.

Unwinding

Posh. Heading west from Fort Worth on US 180, one of the great routes for crossing the Caprock Escarpment, you’ll want to slow down for a spell in the town of Albany, which is rich in ways to kill time. The Shackelford County seat offers its lovely cream-colored courthouse as a visual feast for the eyes, but you’ll want to pull your attention away for a bit if you love good literature. Look on the northeast corner of the square for Lynch Line, a bookstore known for its sensational stock of Texana works in print, including folklore, history, art, the military, and other topics, not to mention maps and collectibles. Some of the volumes are first editions signed by the authors and can be expensive.

Around the corner, on the main drag, you can spend yourself silly on the spurs and boots, trendy clothing, sterling silver jewelry, Western home decor, gourmet kitchen items, and hunting gear at Blanton-Caldwell Trading Company, a longtime favorite shopping destination for week-end-trippers from Fort Worth.

Some 270 miles northwest, in Amarillo, you’re guaranteed an elegant evening at the dramatic new Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. The $30 million facility, which opened early this year in the reviving downtown, serves as home to the city’s opera company and symphony orchestra, the Lone Star Ballet, and the Texas Country Music Series productions. The intimate setting and topnotch acoustics, combined with the building’s soaring architectural lines, have instantly made the performance hall the showpiece of the Panhandle.

Plain affordable. The Panhandle will easily slake your thirst for art-viewing-on-a-budget—all it takes is a visit to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, just a horseshoe’s throw south of Amarillo in the town of Canyon. The state’s largest and oldest historical museum—itself an Art Deco masterpiece—charges only $7 admission for adults, a steal when you consider the wealth of Texas art within its walls.

Among the holdings is the major portion of the immense art estate of former Dallas resident Frank Reaugh (1860-1945), long known as the “Dean of Texas Artists.’’ Reaugh, who became famous for his panoramas of West Texas cattle drives, created perhaps his most remarkable painting, The O Roundup Texas, 1888, in 1894 from sketches he had made six years earlier of 15,000 cattle grazing northwest of Fort Belknap. You’ll be awed by the detail in this work, one of 600 pastels and oils in the museum’s Reaugh collection. In all, the PPHM has about 6,000 pieces of fine and decorative art, including works from other Texas and New Mexico artists, which rotate among the museum’s nine galleries.

Getting a taste of Texas’ rough-and-tumble history is a snap at Frontier Texas!, a state-of-the-art facility that spreads over several acres in downtown Abilene. High-tech capabilities allow you to feel connected to the people who carved a life out of the wilds across the state by putting you in the midst of a herd of stampeding buffalo, a gunfight over a card game, Indian battles, and scary prairie weather. The museum, the perfect jumping-off point for wandering the 700-mile-long Texas Forts Trail, also has a gift store with Texana items, including books, toys, clothes, and home accessories.


The Franklin Mountains offer splendid views of downtown El Paso.
By Jack Lowry

The Trans-Pecos country of Texas isn’t exactly known for its posh side, although it does exist. Still, the essence of the region is earthy, more in touch with the soil than with putting on airs. You can find high-end lodging and dining, of course, but you’re more likely to find affordable quarters and inexpensive food. Best of all, the limitless landscapes and spacious skies here are always free.

EL PASO, EXPENSIVE AND AFFORDABLE

Texas boasts not one, but two royal roads, or caminos reales. One took Spanish explorers, traders, and missionaries between Mexico City and Natchitoches, Louisiana. The other, older camino joined Mexico City with Santa Fe, New Mexico. This western road ran through the heart of El Paso and gave a landmark hotel its mellifluous name. Since it was built in 1912, the Hotel Camino Real has provided El Pasoans and visitors to the city with plush lodgings and elegant dining. El Paso’s most famous architect, Henry C. Trost, designed the original brick structure, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Over the course of his career in El Paso (1903-1933), Trost designed hundreds of buildings, including what is now the International Museum of Art at 1205 Montana, and the Bhutanese-inspired original buildings at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), including Old Main. (The new Hilton Garden Inn, in the university area, fits right in with UTEP’s Bhutanese architecture—see Up Front in the print issue for more information.)

Besides its architectural pedigree, the Camino Real boasts the Dome Bar, set under a glowing, 25-foot-diameter Tiffany stained-glass dome. Next door, the Dome Restaurant promises an elegant dining experience, topped off with desserts like a creamy cheesecake infused with liqueur and a delicious crème brûlée. Nearby, the hotel’s Azulejos Restaurant offers breakfast buffets with omelets, Belgian waffles, sausage, and fresh pastries. Azulejos also serves one of the city’s best Sunday brunches, with offerings of shrimp, oysters, smoked salmon, carved beef, and freshly baked desserts.

Last October, Hispanic Magazine named Café Central one of the top 50 Hispanic restaurants in the United States. Harking back to a restaurant of the same name that opened in 1918 in Juárez, the bistro moved to El Paso after Prohibition ended. Today, the restaurant blends Continental, Southwestern, and Asian flavors in swanky digs accented with modern art and a gated courtyard that would fit right in in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Café Central offers appetizers like baked escargots in herbed citrus-Parmesan butter, a signature cream-of-green-chile soup, seafood like seared sesame-crusted ahi tuna on a crab risotto cake, and meat entrées that include puntas de filete with jalapeño and green chile, and grilled Newport pork chop with applewood-smoked bacon and sautéed spinach with roasted brandied apples.

Some other restaurants should be included in El Paso’s highs and lows. At the upper end, and just east of town, you’ll find Indian Cliffs Ranch—part mini-zoo, part movie set, and part desert outpost—which cooks up savory steaks, seafood, and barbecue. At the ranch’s Cattleman’s Steakhouse, you can get everything from a six-ouncer called a Lady’s Filet to a thick, two-pound T-bone sure to satisfy the heartiest appetite. The desserts—apple pie, pecan pie, cheesecake, and chocolate mousse—are rewarding as well.

On the cheaper side is Chico’s Tacos. Go for the famous flauta-style tacos made with corn tortillas tightly wrapped around ground beef and fried to a crisp golden color. These tasty taquitos swim in a tomato-chile broth and are covered with melted yellow cheese.

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