Warning: This post should be almost entirely non-political. It's a mini-travelogue, fer cryin' out loud! Unfortunately, nothing in my world is 100% without political content or implications. We'll save that stuff for the end.
For Winter Break this year, Kayleen and I traveled to some parts of Texas she had never visited, and even some that I had never seen. Our stops were in Castroville, Alpine, and Kerrville, with side trips to Langtry, Big Bend National Park, Marfa, the Prada Marfa installation in Valentine, Leakey, Fredericksburg, and Luckenbach.
This is also an unusual post for me, in that it links to multiple businesses' sites. Most of these sites are for privately owned food or lodging establishments, which I prefer to patronize rather than those owned by mega-conglomerates. Kayleen prefers that as well, although she must have comfortable, accessible accommodations and her occasional Starbucks fix.
I'll try to put up some photos from the trip in a later post.
Where the Hell Is Leakey?
Glad you asked. Leakey is the seat of Real County, 40 miles north of Uvalde on US-83. It's population is less than 500; the whole county has just over 3,000 human inhabitants. The name is pronounced more like "Lakey" than "Leaky." The pronunciation of "Real" is like the Spanish for royal, although the local gringo population says it more like "ree-AL."
Why the side-trip to Leakey? For starters, most of The Earthworm That Blows No Trumpet takes place in Real County, in the fictitious university town of Santa Cecilia. I plopped a city of 60,000 into this Hill Country hideaway, carving up old ranch land into suburban-style subdivisions, because fiction is magic like that. Admittedly, I did so without having even driven through the place, but I have seen other parts of the Hill Country go through similar processes. If Santa Cecilia were an actual place on the Frio River, it would most likely be the current town of Rio Frio at the southern end of the county.
It's worth reporting that we found some damn good pizza in Leakey. Vinny's doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside you'll find hand-made crusts and sauces, freshly cut toppings, real mozzarella, and free wi-fi. There are whole sections of Houston that lack pizzerias anywhere near this quality: I lived for five years in Sharpstown, where the only options were Domino's, Papa John's, and Pizza Patrón.
After pizza, we drove back up US-83 and turned on State Highway 39 to get to Kerrville. In the dark. And I do mean dark, as in, if you accidentally cut off the headlights, you see nothing, not even the little yellow reflectors on the center stripe (as we learned from direct experience—oopsie!). That stretch of SH-39 crosses the Guadalupe River about nine times, all just a few feet above it, or just under it during the all-too-frequent flash floods.
This charming town on the Medina River, less than an hour west of San Antonio, is proud of its Alsatian heritage. It is also justifiably proud of Haby's Alsatian Bakery on US-90. In 1842, when Texas was a young republic, land baron Henri Castro sent letters to some folks in Alsace-Lorraine, seeking settlers; a few hundred Germano-French (or Franco-German) families made the trip and started sod-busting. We splurged on a stay at the Hillside Boutique Hotel, formerly known as Hotel Alsace.
Big Bend Country
We stayed in Alpine, seat of Brewster County and home of Sul Ross State University, because Marfa has become too danged expensive. Over the course of two days, we caught a really cool Marfa Light show, made the expedition to Big Bend (the first for both of us), grabbed dinner at a hip & happenin' bistro in Marfa called Stellina, and made an art pilgrimage to Prada Marfa. The Prada thing is a half-hour's drive west of Marfa, just outside Valentine. As we drove out, the temperature dropped drastically; on the way back to Alpine, we ran into freezing fog, one of the scariest weather phenomena either of us has seen.
In case you haven't heard, Big Bend is awesome in the purest sense of that adjective. And, thanks to the current federal government shutdown, admission was free (saving us $30), but the park was without services: e.g., no rangers to rescue your ass when you fall off a big rock or get attacked by a mountain lion. The Chisos Mountains Lodge, however, is not a government-run enterprise, so it was open and serving lunch. The lunch was pretty decent for being in such a remote location; despite the disastrous cream of spinach soup, the score that day was Capitalism 1, Gubmint 0.
Oh yeah, Terlingua. We saw Terlingua. Both of us being current or former teachers,out of curiosity we detoured to the Terlingua school complex. They have fields for baseball, softball, and track...with no grass on them, natural or artificial, just rock-hard sun-baked dirt. It was like those films or advertisements in which you see kids in Latin America or Africa playing soccer on a big grassless patch of earth (not that anyone was playing baseball in Terlingua last Friday).
Kerrville, Fredericksburg, and Luckenbach
On this leg, our objective was the wine country around Fredericksburg, but lodging in the capital of German Texas has also priced itself out of our range. A decent room in Kerrville is much more affordable, and ours served as a launching pad for the journey to 1851 Vineyards, Fredericksburg Winery, the Altdeutsche Bäkerei (Old German Bakery—are you sensing a theme yet? We're exceedingly fond of baked goods) and the Marktplatz that was still decked out for Christmas.
We avoided the temptation of at least a dozen wineries on US-290, each with special blue TxDOT signs pointing the way, to get to Luckenbach. We also passed a large field of lavender and a herd of smallish addax-like antelope, stopping abruptly to take photos of each and making Kayleen's day (hell, her whole trip), even though she knew that the antelope are for canned hunts like the herd of Arabian oryx we saw on US-83. Luckenbach also has a canned look about it, more of an outlaw country entertainment mall than an actual town, but its old-school charm still glows through all its corny signs with unorthodox spellingz.
We drove home via the multi-dimensional spaghetti bowl that South Austin has become. We stopped there only for dinner at the Kerbey Lane Café on Ben White Boulevard, and I still managed to get lost, heading northward on South Lamar instead of southward to get back on the highway. For me, no trip to Austin is complete without getting "all turned around" at least once.
The Political Stuff
Apart from being in Texas, these areas have something in common: The voters have gone fairly solidly Republican since the Nixon years. Texas being a legendarily friendly state, we did not see many examples of Republican intolerance, and we even got a peek at some ways that the political landscape is changing. Women get elected to more positions of authority and bust up the Good Ol' Boy networks that have traditionally run things. We saw campaign signs for Beto O'Rourke along TX-118 en route to Big Bend.
Marfa, for example, has become an art mecca; where there is art, you will find artists, students, liberals, and openly gay & lesbian couples—not folks we associate with the rugged High Plains of West Texas.
During and after his independent run for governor in 2010, Kinky Friedman decried the "wussification of Texas." His explanation of how his beloved state has been wussified is complicated, and not a little bit problematic: Some might interpret it as a homophobic assessment, but I don't see it that way, and neither does Friedman. It's more like this: Our increasingly suburban and middle-class state is losing the notion of real, meaningful work. The callused hands of people who mend actual fences and milk actual cows are becoming increasingly scarce. Ranch land is converted into upper-middle-class housing—or, as in the Fredericksburg area, wineries. Working-class and poor people who a century ago would be out in the streets shouting for better living conditions are absorbed in their TV's and smartphones, afraid to rock the boat lest they lose what little they have.
The most chilling sights for me, as a civil-libertarian eco-socialist, were the Kerrville and Fredericksburg branches of Security State Bank & Trust—not to be confused with several other companies that operate as Security State Bank, including one in South Texas. The name too strongly reminds me of the phrase national security state, which I first heard in a speech that Gore Vidal gave a few decades ago. Not to judge a bank by its cover, but I wouldn't do business with any bank whose name has such fascistic overtones. I certainly wouldn't provide it with any personal information.