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Upper Colorado River (without a paddle)

Small-town discoveries on a dam-good road trip.
Written by Kathleen Kaska. Photographs by Kevin Vandivier.

 Roadtrippers zip past the old Texas Theatre in Bronte.

It’s early morning in Dawson County and my husband, Lloyd, and I are on the roadside 10 miles north of Lamesa. Our quest is to visit every dam on the upper reaches, and what better place to start than at the beginning. We plan to follow its headwaters, a mere trickle here in the Panhandle’s flatland, to its debut as an honest-to-goodness river when it enters the Hill Country.

In our Honda Civic (rather than a canoe), we arrive in Borden County, where the river’s first dam forms the rusty red waters of Lake J.B. Thomas. In this thirsty part of the state, the 7,800-acre lake attracts bass fishermen and offers a variety of water sports. With no time to wet a line, we pick up Texas 208 East to Colorado City, county seat of Mitchell County and the first town within rock-throwing distance to the river.

We arrive road-weary and hungry. But we’re in luck: Railhead Trade Days weekend, an event that takes place every third weekend in March, July, and November, is in full swing. Arts, crafts, and food vendors spill onto the railyard from the old Railhead Building, which once housed the National Guard Armory. Instead of a sit-down meal, we sample culinary treats at several of the booths. Surfing Cowboy Café is frying Cajun chicken and Pastry Palace is selling sausage rolls and kolaches. While my husband chats with a leather craftsman, I stumble onto Tracy Molina’s booth, Heavenly Delights, and sample a few of her myriad varieties of fudge. I purchase a slab of pecan maple and stash it for later.

To walk off our excessive noshing, we explore Colorado City on foot. On 2nd and Chestnut streets, the Branding Wall mural displays the county’s 230 cattle brands. And looming over town like a dowager resting after years of entertaining bigwigs, the skeleton of the five-story Baker Hotel stands as a testament to a time when cattle transport and the oil business brought big money to Colorado City. The hotel’s amenities once included a swimming pool, ballroom, restaurant, and beauty salon. The Baker closed shortly after the 1950s oil boom declined. Since then several interested parties have considered renovating the hotel, but as of now, no one has taken up the task.

Hoping to learn more about local history, I call the Heart of West Texas Museum and schedule a tour with director Shirley Scott. The museum contains exhibits telling the stories of the area’s oil booms and cattle-ranching days. Other exhibits include a tribute to Chief Lone Wolf, a Kiowa chief who was a member of a peace delegation sent to Washington in 1863; a display of mammoth bones unearthed in nearby Lake Champion in 2001; and a model of an 1800s general store. Scott takes us a block away to the Heritage House, a restored home built in 1881 with red bricks made from Colorado River mud. Mayor Jim Baum, owner of radio station KAUM 107.1 FM/KVMC 1320 AM, joins us. He’s a wealth of information, having written several books on Colorado City. “I began interviewing locals on my radio program Community Close-up,” Baum says. “They had wonderful stories to tell, and I wanted to record them.” Baum’s radio interviews can be heard Monday through Saturday mornings at 7.

The next morning, we roll toward Robert Lee and the Wildcat Creek Recreation Area, one of four parks along the E.V. Spence Reservoir. Needing to stretch our legs, we hike the half-mile Sumac Nature Trail, where honey mesquite trees and cat-claw acacia bushes shade the pathways. The trail leads to a hilltop where the Robert Lee Dam comes into view, as do the spectacular cliffs on the opposite shore.

With lunch on our minds, we head to Bronte, named for novelist Charlotte Brontë, but pronounced Bront. At La Salsa Mexican and American Grill, owner Rosana Sergio Franco dishes up two humongous bowls of the best chicken-tortilla soup I’ve tasted, which satisfy us all the way to one of my favorite West Texas towns, Ballinger.

There’s no question as to our first stop. We drive up to the 100-foot Studer Cross off US 83 for a panoramic view of the countryside. The Studer family erected the cross in 1993 as a token of thanks for their blessings. In the evening, the illuminated structure beams like a landlocked lighthouse.

The cross isn’t the town’s only treasure. On 8th Street we find a Carnegie Library. The two-story, Classic Revival-style structure was constructed in 1910 from native limestone mined from a quarry south of town. Volunteer Linda Miller shows us around. “It’s one of the few Carnegie Libraries still operating as a public library,” Linda says. “A restoration was completed in 1988.” She takes us upstairs to the auditorium where plays and other shows were staged back in the 1920s. During World War II, the library was converted into an Army service club to entertain fighter pilots training at nearby Bruce Field, now the Ballinger Bruce Field Airport. The books were stored and a jukebox was installed in the auditorium for Saturday-night dances. These days, the auditorium is available for rent for private functions.

We pronounce the day successful and check into the Stonewall Inn, a 1940s-style motel. After settling in, we walk across the railroad tracks to the Runnels County Square. The wind kicks up and a few raindrops fall. A gazebo offers protection as we listen to the thunder and watch the lightning claim the sky. Wafting in on the breeze is the aroma of Alejandra’s Mexican and American Restaurante, where we head for dinner. Housed in the old Adolph Schawe Dry Goods and Grocery building, the restaurant has become a local landmark. Our waitress recommends the shrimp fajitas. Who says you can’t find good seafood far from the coast? Over our sizzling platter we watch the storm creep closer. Deciding it’s best not to linger over dessert (I still have Tracy’s fudge), we dash back to the motel. A rainy night in Ballinger lulls us into a great night’s sleep.

On our way out of town the next morning, we drive through City Park, where Elm Creek rushes from last night’s storm on its way to join the Colorado River. We find the convergence at the Kennedy Recreation Area on the O.H. Ivie Reservoir, formed by the Simon W. Freese Dam. Standing on the riverbank above, we notice the swirling of a gentle eddy where Elm Creek spills into the big river. At the site is the Elm Creek Village store, where you can camp, hook up an RV, or picnic by the water.

As the river runs east toward Goldthwaite, the Panhandle metamorphoses into the Hill Country. On Texas 574, 20 miles west of town, we take CR 433 to the historic Regency Suspension Bridge, the last suspension bridge in Texas still open to vehicular traffic. The four-mile drive on the muddy road is almost too much for our Civic, but we persevere and are glad we do. As we cross the 100-foot chasm, the view from the Regency is stunning, with the sun glistening off the serpentine river as it slices through the canyon. I try not to think about the unfortunate rancher, Raymond Jernigan, who (as one version of the story goes) in 1924 fell to his death along with his cattle when the original bridge collapsed under their weight. Rebuilt two more times, the latest in 1939, the Regency is rarely crossed nowadays except by curiosity-seekers like ourselves.

While Lloyd washes the mud off the car in Goldthwaite, I walk over to meet Joe and Gail Brooks at their store, Brooks Auto Parts. Joe and Gail, along with Joe’s brother Keith and his wife, Brenda, own the 100-year-old Fairman Hunting Lodge, now the Rafter B, where we’ll be staying. The four-bedroom, four-bath, 5,200-square-foot ranch house is decorated with Native American rugs and blankets, antler lamps, Western saddles and boots, and animal pelts. What furniture was not handmade by the Brooks family came from their ancestors’ homes. A giant picture window in the dining room brings in the sunrise, and the den’s fireplace adds a cozy touch. If you’re looking for a place to gather for a reunion, wedding, or just a get-together with close friends, the Rafter B is the perfect setting.

The next morning, while enjoying our coffee on a hillside on the Brooks’ ranch, we check the map for our final destination, Colorado Bend State Park. On our drive through the pecan groves of San Saba County, we discover Bad Bob’s Bend Store. With a sign boasting of “more than 10 dozen [burgers] sold,” Bob’s is worth a stop even if you’re not hungry. At this local gathering place, you’ll find folks swapping fishing stories, jawing about the weather, and solving the world’s conflicts. We have a snack outside on a picnic table before beginning our drive into a lush, primitive canyon to the park. If you enjoy camping, fishing, mountain-biking, bird watching, or canoeing, you’ll love the Bend. Arrange for a tour up to 65-foot Gorman Falls, or sign up for a cave crawl into a wild, active cave (the latter tour takes you 800 feet inside the earth).

Round the bend, the Colorado meanders toward the Highland Lakes. We wave the river goodbye and promise to meet it on our next trip to Matagorda, where it kisses the Gulf of Mexico and disappears.

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