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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | TEXAS

Head For The Hills And Dales, Y'all

In The Middle Of The Lone Star State Is A Rolling Land Of Farms, Flowers And German-flavored Villages

March 19, 2000|JOE HOLLEY | Texas native Joe Holley is a senior writer with the San Antonio Express-News

It's a cool and cloudy Sunday morning and I'm trailing behind daughter Kate and her buddy Sierra up the pink granite shoulder of Enchanted Rock, the most prominent natural landmark in the Texas Hill Country. As we toil upward, the girls spot a rock climber a hundred yards or so to our left. Arms and legs akimbo, he seems plastered to the side of one of the huge boulders scattered like primordial building blocks at the base of the outcropping.

"How'd you get up there?" Sierra shouts.

"I climbed," the young man shouts back, through what must be gritted teeth.

"Don't die," Kate shouts, and the laughter of irrepressible 11-year-olds bounces off the rocks around us.

The girls and I have come to Enchanted Rock--wife Tara has stayed behind at our cozy little B&B in nearby Fredericksburg--for the same reasons that so many people visit the site: We want to get out of the city, breathe the clean air, take in the soothing natural beauty of the place. As usual, we are not disappointed.

The Texas Hill Country is a swath of deeply wrinkled terrain that stretches westward from the edges of Austin and San Antonio for a hundred miles or so, to the semi-arid Edwards Plateau. North and south, it runs from about a hundred miles northwest of Austin to some 200 miles southwest of San Antonio, almost to the Mexican border near Del Rio. This vast arc of land is unlike any in Texas, distinguished by its rugged limestone hills and shrouded by oak, juniper (Texans call it cedar) and valleys watered by spring-fed streams.

The first Europeans in the Hill Country were 7,000 Germans who came to the area in the 1840s. Their small valley farmsteads and orderly little towns with handsome churches and sturdy limestone buildings also contribute to the Hill Country's uniqueness. The Anglo-Americans arrived a few years later.

Ask Texans about the Hill Country and chances are you'll get a smile and a story. They'll tell you about a wonderful summer-camp experience as a kid, or how great it is to float in an inner tube down one of those cool green streams under the dappled shade of towering bald cypress trees. Or they'll recall some little country dance hall tucked away in the hills where there's Lone Star beer and live music on Saturday night. They'll mention peaches and bluebonnets and how someday they just might retire there.

About the only thing negative you'll hear about the Hill Country is that it's been discovered. It wasn't that long ago that the towns and villages were isolated from the rest of the state, cut off not only by the hills and the lack of roads but also by an inclination on the part of Hill Country residents to keep to themselves. With no economic incentive to tear down and rebuild, an itch that has long characterized much of Texas, the towns and villages in the Hill Country retained their rustic appeal.

My friend Jack Maguire, an 80-year-old writer who lives in Fredericksburg, credits his old friend Lyndon B. Johnson with opening up the Hill Country. It was Johnson who, as a young congressman in the late 1930s, brought electricity to the region, making life easier for the hardscrabble farmers and their families and connecting them via radio to "Fibber McGee and Molly," Jack Benny and FDR's fireside chats. And later, as Maguire points out, it was President Johnson who proudly introduced his native haunt to heads of state and mobs of media people, and they shared its charms with the rest of the world. More recently, Hollywood has discovered the Hill Country, not only as a movie location but also as a place to live. Producer Linda Obst and actress Madeleine Stowe, among others, are Hill Country Texans now.

These days, the amoeba-like sprawl of San Antonio and Austin, two of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, is pushing inexorably into the Hill Country, and the little German towns are booming as well. In the countryside, where it gets more and more difficult to wrest a living from the land, old family-owned ranches are being carved into five-acre ranchettes and, as in so many other nature-blessed areas of the nation, the fragile environment is in danger of being loved to death.

*

You do have to drive farther these days to escape the subdivision sprawl. We head west out of Austin on Highway 290 and have to go 20 miles out, past the rapidly growing town of Dripping Springs, before we can take a deep breath, reconnect to our surroundings and realize that we're finally past the housing developments, convenience stores and strip malls gouged out of the limestone hills only last week, it seems.

Twenty miles beyond Dripping Springs, 290 intersects with Highway 281 and the Hill Country visitor has a decision to make. Turning south toward San Antonio, 50 miles away, takes you first to Blanco, a quiet little country town on the banks of the Blanco River. Blanco State Park, in the middle of town, is a pleasant camping and swimming spot. On this Saturday morning, though, we turn north on 281 and head toward Johnson City, 12 miles up the road.

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