In September 2010, the author explored I-35 from Austin to Dallas. Here, he heads south.
By Anthony Head
Despite the growing number of large retail stores filling in the gaps between bigger Texas cities, countless curious diversions still draw sightseers along the state’s main highways and interstates. In fact, no matter where I’m driving—even when I’m in a hurry—it’s hard to resist the urge to slow down, pull off the road, and check out another one-of-a-kind attraction.
For example, take the 60-mile stretch of Interstate 35 between San Marcos and San Antonio: Traveling south, and taking exit 205, I follow the frontage road to the Clawfoot Bathtub Warehouse, tucked between a Knights Inn and a Red Roof Inn. Inside a 1950s mission-style church building, owner Scott Walker refurbishes antique tubs; he also designs and handcrafts new luxurious tubs from copper, cast iron, wood, and stainless steel. Each piece becomes a work of art, especially with Walker’s custom-made claw feet and fixtures like faucets, standpipes, and shower rings from throughout the world. The Warehouse is not a thing of beauty: It’s an artist’s studio with spare parts, tools, and yet-to-be-finished bathtubs sharing space with gleaming, one-of-a-kind tubs (not to mention dog beds for Walker’s five resident companions).
Why bathtubs? “In the mid-1980s, I refinished bathtubs for hotels, and the job took me all over the world,” says Walker, who is a font of arcane bathtub and plumbing knowledge. “I started to love bathtubs, especially the antiques. There’s so much history and craftsmanship in a classic tub. It became like gold fever. I had to have every one I could find.”
Because Walker is running out of room inside the warehouse, he often displays his tubs outside, which makes his business easy to find. I resist (for now) the urge to redo my bathroom and soldier on.
Continuing south on I-35, crossing the Comal County line, I take Exit 196 and follow winding FM 1102 about a mile until I roll into downtown Hunter, home of Riley’s Tavern. There’s no missing Riley’s, as downtown consists of a handful of buildings—and one of them is the bar’s own Creek Side Cottage, a 1930s B&B that sleeps six. With its pool tables, shuffleboard set-up, neon beer signs, band posters, and long wooden bar decoupaged with local ads, photos, and newspaper clippings, Riley’s looks like it has been here darn-near forever. As it turns out, Riley’s just about has: The building dates to the mid-1800s. Though it may not be the oldest bar in Texas, its former, longtime owner James Riley took possession of the first state-issued beer license after Prohibition collapsed in 1933.
For current owner and guitarist Joel Hofmann, who took the reins in 2004, the bar’s history is even more personal. “It’s a place I started going to when I turned 21, and my folks used to go in there, too,” he tells me. “In the end, it was a music decision. If I owned a music venue, I could play whenever I wanted. And I could help other musicians, too. So I bought the bar.”
There’s live music (blues, country, rockabilly, Americana) here almost every night, the staff treats just about everyone like they’re regulars, and the drinks are cheap and cold. The 16-foot cement guitar sculpture out in front was donated by Louisiana Hayride veteran Leon Carter, and it’s Hofmann’s current favorite furnishing. Me? I like sitting at the far end of the bar beneath an autographed photo of Chuck Norris, who watches over this landmark and keeps the peace until it’s time to go.
Back on the road again, it’s nearly impossible to miss the billboards adver-tising some of the better-known attractions in the area, like Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Natural Bridge Caverns. Right off Exit 182 in New Braunfels, though, signs herald Animal World & Snake Farm Zoo. Opened in 1967 (as simply “Snake Farm”), this was formerly a true “roadside attraction” (with all the connotations such a designation suggests). New owners took over about three years ago, however, and continue expanding and upgrading the facilities.
Manager Robin McKeown accompanies me out back to see the 16 American alligators lounging in the afternoon sun. There are several acres of animal habitats and more than 600 individual animals. “There are misapprehensions from some first-time visitors about what’s on the other side of our doors, but we’re no longer classified as a ‘roadside attraction.’ We’re a zoological park accredited by the Zoological Association of America,” she says.
Every day there are bats, large cats, tarantulas, and wolves to see up close, plus lizards and other reptiles living inside the herpetarium. “I’m a mammal and bird person myself,” McKeown admits, “so I’m excited about our six species of lemurs. We also have a lot of the crazy venomous snakes, like king cobras, black mambas, and taipans. But obviously we’re not exclusively about snakes anymore.”
Finally, road trips (even the short ones) are always better with something good to eat. After arriving in Schertz via Exit 175, I discover the Texas Pecan Candy shop, which is nearly overshadowed by a gas station, diner, and a Walmart store. In-side, owner Bonnie Palmer and manager Julianna Lavulo greet customers while managing the various stoves and ovens that fill the shelves with cookies, cakes, fudge, nut candies, and other confections.
“The store has been here more than 20 years, but I bought it about 12 years ago,” Palmer says. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had. My dream was always to have a bakery with antiques, and now I’m living my dream.”
The shop sells sturdy Polish pottery, cookie cutters, vintage Mexican serving bowls, Texas-themed home decorations, and knickknacks ranging from bells and vases to salt and pepper shakers and photo frames. Behind the glass cases are drums of Fredericksburg ice creams; platters of apple strudel, pecan-lemon squares, chocolates; flavored pecans; and Texas-shaped pralines. Palmer says the kitchen usually gets going early every morning, churning out delicious snacks for everyday occasions and special, made-to-order treats for whatever holiday comes next on the calendar.
Palmer wouldn’t let me out the door without tasting a delicious sugar cookie. Even though I’m just a few stops from San Antonio, the just-baked flavor inspires me to turn around, point the car north, and start looking for more great attractions on the other side of the road.
From the January 2012 issue.
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