Sunday, March 30, 2003

Of America's presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, who died 30 years ago last January, was one of the most admired and reviled (often by the same people). The Rev. Billy Graham said no one could understand LBJ "unless they understood the land and the people from which he came." To do so, take a driving tour through the blue bonnet-carpeted hills of Texas Hill Country.

THE TOUR: Fly into Austin and rent a car (mass transit is not an option). You could base yourself in Austin and explore Hill Country via day trips. It might be more fun, though, to split your time between Austin and the charming old German town of Fredericksburg, 15 miles west of the LBJ Ranch. Unless noted, all the attractions listed below are free.

• First Home/Burial Place. He was born in 1908 in little Stonewall, 63 miles west of Austin. The original Johnson farmhouse was demolished, but LBJ had it re-created after he became president. National Park Service rangers point out family artifacts, one of which is, technically, out of place: Lady Bird's high chair.

A short walk away is the one-room schoolhouse that young Lyndon attended. He returned to it as president to sign the 1965 Education Act, with his first teacher looking on.

Johnson is buried in Stonewall in the family cemetery, a few yards from where he was born and the ranch where he died. The ashes of his famous pet beagles, Him and Her (remember the ear-pulling incident?), are scattered there as well.

• Texas White House. From the State Park Visitors Center in Stonewall, a Park Service bus ($3) travels up the road to the LBJ Ranch (bought in 1951 when he was Sen. Johnson), stopping by the birthplace, the cemetery, and driving past the Texas White House on a 1 1/2 hour tour.

The 2,800-acre spread remains a working ranch. The large house and surrounding trappings of power stand in contrast to his humble birthplace. A garage holds the white Lincoln Continentals in which LBJ gave impromptu ranch tours to visiting dignitaries. Here also is a plain blue car, appearing typical of the compacts of the '60s, in which the president would drive unsuspecting guests toward the Pedernales River. He'd shout, "The brakes won't hold!" as it plunged into the water, and laugh as they scrambled. It is an Amphicar, designed to be amphibious.

• Boyhood Home and Family Settlement. In 1913, LBJ's family moved 15 miles east from Stonewall to Johnson City, founded in the 1850s by his family. His grandfather was an early cattleman who drove herds of longhorns up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. As the gaunt buildings of the Johnson Settlement reveal, life in Hill Country meant backbreaking work and little luxury.

Close by the settlement is the house where LBJ spent much of his youth and where his father, a state legislator, maintained a modest office.

• LBJ Library. The eight-floor travertine library on the University of Texas campus in Austin anchors the eastern end of the LBJ trail. Although the collection (45 million pages) is not open for casual browsing, staff archivists can quickly retrieve documents. The first floor exhibit hall traces the stages of Johnson's career in the context of what else was happening in the world at those times.

On the top floor is a replica of the Oval Office of the LBJ era, including the three TV sets that the nation's news-junkie-in-chief simultaneously viewed. Less formal but fascinating are the home movies Lady Bird shot with her own little camera.

WHERE TO STAY: Fredericksburg is blessed with numerous B&Bs, many of which operate through referral services such as Gastehaus Schmidt (866-427-8374, Rates start at about $80 a night.

Austin has no shortage of chain hotels, particularly on I-35, near the LBJ Library. For something classy, try the Driskill Hotel (604 Brazos St., 800-252-9367, www.driskillhotel .com), where LBJ spent election night in 1964. Doubles from $195.

WHERE TO EAT: Satisfy your sauerbraten and schnitzel cravings for the next three years at Der Lindenbaum German Restaurant (312 E. Main St., Fredericksburg). Dinner for two is about $55. The Pearl Tea Room (201 N. Nugent Avenue, across from the courthouse in Johnson City) is housed in the town's third-oldest building and features wonderful scones and salads. LBJ celebrated his senatorial victory here. Lunch for two runs around $20. Go to the Ironworks Barbecue (100 Red River St., Austin) for the peppery pulled pig, tender brisket and Texas beer. Lunch for two is about $20.

INFORMATION: Park Service facilities at Johnson City/Stonewall, 830-868-7128, LBJ Library, 512-721-0200, Austin Visitors Bureau, 866-GO- AUSTIN,

-- Jerry Haines

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