As I drove south through the Hill Country, it was prettier than anything else I'd seen so far in the Lone Star State, but we're talking Texas here, so the bar wasn't all that high to begin with. I still didn't get why it was that every Texan I'd ever met loved this state with a love so big and braggartly it seemed like it would take all the rest of us in the other 49 sneering at it just to even things up.
I drove through a small town. The main street was as wide as Pennsylvania Avenue, with old-fashioned storefronts lined up along either side of it for two blocks. The storefronts looked a little too practical to qualify as quaint. My rental car bumped over the railroad tracks, and then I was back out in the countryside.
Okay, so it was pretty. The Hill Country is where the dry, flat plateaus of West Texas break up, the limestone crumbling and tumbling down into the wetter piney woods and coastal prairies of East Texas. Along the bony spine between east and west, the Hill Country rolls in silky waves of grass that by autumn have been tanned like a rippling, tawny hide. The grass breaks up around pale outcroppings of rock, and bristling green paddles of prickly pear cactus. It rolls on through parklike stands of gnarled oak and juniper, and silvery cottonwoods that hug the streams. Oncoming winter was turning the oaks yellow and orange. But still, to me, it couldn't hold a candle to autumn in New England, or even in Maryland or Virginia.
Dry leaves blew across the road. Tejano music bounced out of the car radio -- a spiced-up German oompah polka playing in triple time; a singer rapping in Spanish over a spastic accordion and a hip-hop scratch track. Windmills on their long, spindly metal legs turned slowly behind clapboard houses and in the fields where cattle and horses grazed. I rounded a bend, and that's when I hit the brakes.
They hung from the barbed wire by their hind legs, head down into the dun-colored grass. Even going slow I couldn't tell what they were, so I pulled onto the shoulder and walked over. The wind rustled the grass, ruffled their fur, three of them, evenly spaced every six feet along the wire fence. Coyotes.
I'd never been this close to a coyote before, dead or alive. They hung there on the edge of an empty field, wild animals reduced to furry no-trespassing signs. I was thinking it should seem sad, but it didn't; it was too alien. A pickup came down the two-lane blacktop and blew past. I caught the sweetly dreadful whiff of decay.
Someone else scheduled this trip for me; business, you know. It hadn't been my decision, once the business was done, to strand myself in Texas for three extra days with nothing to do. Back in D.C., my neighbor Arthur Townsend had commiserated. He's married to a Texan. Over the course of an otherwise orderly life, he's been stranded in Texas a few times himself. "But you're going to be in the Hill Country," he'd said. "Becky and I drove down through there last summer on Highway 16, and it's really lovely."
At the time, I gave him a skeptical frown. I'd driven across the Lone Star State before, more than once, but only because I had to in order to get someplace else. Everything's bigger in Texas, especially the flat, dusty emptiness. As my trusty travel guide Road Trip USA puts it, "As far as things to see, the state doesn't offer a very high quotient per gallon." Texas is a long way to go to see a whole lot of nothing.
But to a city gal, a trio of dead coyotes was certainly something. With my business wrapped up and three days to kill, I had put myself on State Highway 16 west of Dallas, started driving south, and there they were -- varmints! The sight of them conjured up a more rugged way of life, a time in America when warnings were blunt and backed by a gun.
As I got back on the road and continued south, I started daydreaming about the romance of cowboys and Indians, homesteads and cattle drives. It was like I'd stepped through the screen into "How the West Was Won." Here in the Hill Country I suddenly felt so all-fired American, buddy, I was fixin' to go buy me a ten-gallon hat in good-guy white.
At the end of the trail, a couple of days and a couple hundred miles farther down Highway 16, I would find quaint with a capital Q in Fredericksburg, a perfectly restored frontier town where big-haired girlfriends down from Dallas shopped in false-front stores with second-floor galleries and covered sidewalks. I felt like I'd walked onto a Hollywood back lot.
TO DRIVE DOWN HIGHWAY 16 IS TO DRIVE INTO THE PAST. On my way down to Fredericksburg, it seemed like every few miles I would pass another historical marker. The history is recent. In dry words embossed on metal plaques, the markers list dates and names and building materials and occasionally massacres. What I didn't know when I set out on this trip is that Highway 16 runs over the same ground as America's last and bloodiest frontier. Starting a little more than a century and a half ago, this was where some of America's toughest, most warlike tribes ran up against one another -- the Scotch-Irish and the Apaches and Comanches.
The names Apache and Comanche both come from words that mean something like "enemy" in the languages of kinder, gentler tribes. I should stop right here and say, I only know this because I read it in a Texas-size doorstop of a book called Lone Star by one of the state's most widely read historians, T.R. Fehrenbach. Anyone thinking about visiting Texas, or even anyone just thinking about Texas, should read this book. It makes for some very diverting reading, though I don't know if the credit belongs to T.R. or to Texas, seeing as how history tends to say as much about the person writing it as about what actually happened. So, here's my take on his take on Texas.
The Apaches were nomads who lived by hunting bison and raiding their agrarian neighbors. They fought their way down from the American Northwest and sometime in the early 1600s arrived in the Southwest. There they added Spanish mustangs and firearms to the list of things they shopped for on raids.
Behind them came a tribe that was barely eking out an existence in the wan summers and harsh winters of the Rockies. They were poor, and powerless, and short-statured, thanks to a starvation diet of berries and small game. They were the dogs everybody else kicked; they had nothing to lose. Once they got hold of their first Spanish mustangs, every last man, woman and child of them rode out onto the Plains and never looked back. All of a sudden, they could hunt down buffalo and eat like they'd never eaten before. All of a sudden, they who'd had nothing could whoop down on their softer, richer neighbors, take whatever they wanted and vanish back out on the trackless Plains. They created a whole new culture for themselves, based on bison and raiding. They could raid a thousand miles at a time; they transformed mounted warfare into a fine art. They took orders from no man.
They were the Comanches, and by the mid-1700s they'd forced even many of the Apaches down off the Plains and into the Hill Country of Texas, where more peaceable tribes already lived. The Comanches wouldn't meet their match for another hundred years.
Their match hailed from the borderlands of the British Isles. They were Scottish tribes, hardened by a few centuries of blood feuds with their English neighbors. When things quieted down, the fittest among them moved on to the bloodletting in Ireland. After that, being hopelessly unsuited for peasant life, the fittest among them left for America. Being hopelessly unsuited for employed life, too, most bypassed the cities and plantations on the coast and headed straight for Appalachia and the edgy borderland life they knew. There they fought the native tribes of Kentucky and Tennessee. They won. And then, early in the 19th century, as that border filled up with their slower, weaker Anglo brethren, the ever-restless Scotch-Irish moved on again, this time to the borderlands of Texas.
By then, armed with their long rifles (which they would soon trade in for six-guns), they had turned marksmanship into a fine art. They took orders from no man.
You could see it coming. The Comanches and Apaches lived by raiding, the Scotch-Irish settlers were determined not to be raided, and both were in the habit of using violence to get their way. The Comanches would strike, and the settlers would strike back. But nomadic Comanches being hard to find, some settlersinstead struck the local, settled Indians, who were mostly refugees. Soon, the settlers found themselves battling both the locals and the raiders.
Until Texas, Appalachia had been America's most violent frontier. There, the carnage lasted about 10 years. The violence in the Texas Hill Country would drag on for more than 40, shaping two whole generations. For decades, an average of 200 settlers were killed or carried off each year, men, women and children. Uncounted Indians died. Every Hill Country family, white, black or brown, had a gruesome story to tell. Only the very strongest survived.
What does 40 years of that do to a people?
THE DAY BEFORE I ARRIVED IN FREDERICKSBURG I was 40 miles back up Highway 16, rolling past the windmills and horses and cattle that dotted the waving grass, past the nearly invisible fences of barbed wire. Official state road signs remind Texans to Drive Friendly. In the Hill Country at least, they hardly seemed to need the reminder. Whenever I came up on slower drivers on the two-lane highway, they'd ease halfway onto the shoulder to make it easier for me to pass. It happened so consistently I got to where I was doing it, too, just to fit in.
Driving friendly, I rolled into the town of Llano, population 3,325, which greeted me with a banner slung over the road -- "WelCOME HUNTers" -- both greeting and command, all in one. Not being in possession of a weapon, I hunted up lunch at Laird's, home of Ken's Real Pit Bar-B-Q. The place looked like it used to be a house, white stucco with a Southwest-style porch.
Inside was quiet, a deer head gazing out over the tables from one wall, a fat rattlesnake hide sporting a bullet hole on another. Texas flag handkerchiefs had been knotted into valances at the windows. In the open kitchen, a compact man with a sun-creased face served up lunch. This was Ken.
"When was this house built?" I asked, just making conversation.
"Eighteen nineties," Ken Laird said. "Folks want me to put it on the National Historic Register, but I don't want to give the government the right to tell me what to do with my property." He loaded four thick slabs of barbecued beef into a bag for me, along with potato salad, beans and two slices of Wonder Bread. "Way I figure it, the government don't owe me nothing, and I don't owe the government nothing. 'Cept my taxes."
I pointed at his window treatments. "Who did your decorating?"
"That would be my wife, Esther. She's good at that sort of thing. She's the head honcho. All I know is barbecue."
"She shoot the snake, too?"
"Naw, that would be me." And he proceeded to tell the story of how he was driving out the pasture road one day to cut wood for his barbecue and he saw this snake, which he shot five times with his 5mm Magnum and once with his .270 before it finally gave up and died. I looked up at the snakeskin in awe. "How long is it?"
"Only five feet," said Ken. "But it's a solid five feet. Got 14 rattles on its butt." And after getting blasted six times, only one visible hole in its hide. That was a damn fine taxidermist. When I asked Ken if he grew up here in Llano, he said, Lord no, he was a Yankee -- he was born and raised 33 miles north of Llano in San Saba. "My grandfather came to Texas in the early 1900s, left Mississippi on a fast horse." He paused for dramatic effect. "And there was a question about the ownership of the horse." My leg had the feeling it was being pulled. Historians who study Texas face the same problem. As Fehrenbach wrote in Lone Star, "There are several versions (as with almost every event in Texas history . . .) . . . because the veterans of these gaudy times widely embellished or told different tales."
I took my leave of the man who may or may not have been the grandson of a horse thief, and headed out, clutching my barbecue-to-go. Texans have been barbecuing whole steers since before the Civil War. After the war, Hill Country ranchers such as Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving started driving their beeves to the new markets in the North.
Rounding up cattle and driving them called for can-do men who could be depended on to work alone, who didn't have a great need for conversation and could shoot straight to fight off Comanches. I think of those men and I can't help it, I think of that iconic Hollywood American a lot of us carry around in the back of our heads -- tall, lean and white, the man of few words, the loner with the apple pie moral code, the good guy who doesn't go looking for trouble but stands his ground when trouble finds him. History's real-life cowboys fit the icon in some ways, but, in others, the fit was none too comfortable. Once the average cowboy finished the drive up North and got paid, he was looking for trouble, blowing his money in saloons and refighting the Civil War. He often wound up in jail or dead.
In the end, the Comanches weren't beaten by either cowboys or Scotch-Irish settlers. It was the buffalo hunters who did them in. In the 1870s, the slaughter sparked the last of the great Indian wars -- the Comanche way of life depended on both raiding and buffalo, and they knew good and well that if half the equation was doomed, so were they. By 1875, it was all over.
I ate my barbecued steer by the side of the road south of town, in the long grass beneath an oak. A tin-roofed Baptist church, closed up, for sale, bleached in the sun behind me, its congregation moved on. A herd of Harleys roared by. The wind shushed the grass; it hummed in the branches of the oak. The barbecue was vinegary-sweet and smoky.
The day before, I had stopped in at a cafe where the ladies' room was hung with publicity shots of Hollywood cowboys. As I looked up from washing my hands, there they were in the mirror, watching me from the opposite wall with their level gazes. They were men of few words, those silver screen straight-shooters, those can-do loners, not looking for trouble but willing to stand their ground in that ladies' room if trouble found them.
The real-life, open-range, cattle-driving cowboys rode off into the sunset not long after the Comanches. All those windmills and barbed-wire fences I'd been passing mile after mile had made it possible to water livestock and keep them in one place. As I drove along Highway 16 daydreaming about the open-range cowboys of the Great American West, I was actually daydreaming about a small slice of time, no more than 30 years, in a small slice of one state, along the 98th meridian in the Hill Country of Texas.
THE WHOLE TRIP STARTED WEST OF DALLAS AND JUST EAST OF HIGHWAY 16 in the town of Mineral Wells. Some of the locals up here call this part of Texas the Northern Hill Country. Others call it the Forgotten Hill Country, in part because most visitors don't make it up this far. But maybe also because it's not part of the myth, it's not the Wild West we choose to remember. I almost forgot about it myself once I got a few miles south of here and saw those coyotes. After all, harmless little Mineral Wells, Tex., wasn't built by driving people out; it boomed by drawing people in with the promise that they'd feel better. Its streets never ran with blood. Just water. Crazy water.
"It helps acid reflux," said George, his voice echoing off the damp, encircling wall. "I drink it after meals." Below us the water in the old cistern winked darkly. "Also works as a laxative."
"Good to know," I said.
George wasn't talking about the mineral water in the antique cistern specifically. I followed him back up the steps to the clean, bright bottling room in the back of the drinking pavilion. He was talking about the mineral water that comes up out of the properly sanitized wells on either side of the building and flows through pipes into these big translucent plastic holding tanks that looked like giant bottles.
George Pirtle, like most white Texans born a hundred years before him, came here from elsewhere in the South, Kentucky in his case. He spent 30 years working for a big chemical company over on the Texas coast. Now, in his mid-sixties, tall and lean in his bluejeans, he was living here in Mineral Wells and managing the bottling operation of the Famous Mineral Water Co., which meant he was the one who bottled the water, though in the summers when things really got hopping, he got an assistant.
A century ago, there were more than a hundred wells like this one all over town. They started calling the water crazy back in 1881 when a woman suffering from a mental illness drank the water and, hallelujah, she was healed. So were the sufferers of rheumatism, kidney problems and liver disease, or that was the claim anyway. "Very efficacious in the treatment of all female complaints," according to a bottle label, circa 1889. Crutches and wheelchairs piled up next to the wells.
I sampled the water at the Famous. It came in three strengths with increasing amounts of dissolved minerals -- delicious, virtuous and good-golly-this-better-be-doing-me-some-good. That last was the full-strength Crazy Water itself, chock-a-block full of more than two dozen dissolved minerals, from calcium to lithium. No wonder it promoted sanity.
George pointed to the half-strength Deep Well. "I drink a gallon a day in the summer." On the basis of such an endorsement, I selected a few bottles of each strength for the trip ahead. I checked out the old photographs on the drinking pavilion's walls, from back in Mineral Wells' halcyon days.
According to George, this town was the Fredericksburg of its time, a time when a hundred thousand people a year flocked to little old Mineral Wells to take the waters. Two grand hotels went up to accommodate them all, the Baker and the Crazy Water, with more than 650 rooms between them, the Baker debuting the first swimming pool in Texas and the Crazy boasting a glass-enclosed ballroom that opened onto a rooftop garden. They hosted such luminaries as Judy Garland, Lyndon Johnson, all three of the Stooges, cowboy matinee idol Tom Mix, and Bonnie and Clyde, who were savvy enough to check in under aliases.
Today, the Baker looms empty over the main drag. The Crazy is a retirement hotel. The Famous is the only mineral water company left in town.
"Lots of history here," said George as he rang up my water. "The chamber's working hard to bring back the tourists. Like Fredericksburg. The idea is, people from Dallas don't have to go all the way down there to Fredericksburg when we're practically right next door here in Mineral Wells. I heard they're giving tours now at the Crazy, too. The lobby's beautiful. You should go see it. They've worked hard to restore it."
Two blocks away outside the Crazy Water Retirement Hotel, the main street was under construction. There was a lonely cafe down the way, an empty storefront and, around the corner, an antiques store. Inside, the Crazy's back lobby was vast and dim, rising up floor after floor past galleries of doors, extravagantly grand and half-abandoned, like the setting for a post-apocalyptic dream.
High overhead, a door closed along one of the galleries, an echoing thunk, and then receding footsteps. In the distance, clinks and clanks, and the institutional scent of canned green beans. My Nikes squeaked as I crossed the lobby. By and by, another lobby opened up before me, this one restored so it looked like any other vast and fancy hotel lobby, except it was almost empty. I tried to picture big-haired girlfriends from Dallas clattering through here, past the few randomly scattered formal chairs that furnished the place these days and the three old men, who sat in three of the chairs, bent over, silent, far apart from each other. I gave up. In place of the girlfriends, I pictured Tom Mix, stomping through with a spur-jingling entourage. Much better.
BACK HOME IN D.C., I clanked out through the iron garden gate in front of my Capitol Hill rowhouse to go knock on Arthur's door. He opened it promptly, dressed in his usual white button-down shirt and khaki slacks. In the summer he switches to khaki shorts. When he's feeling really wild he wears something in green. He ordered me to join him on his way to the post office and tell him all about it.
"Not only do I now get Texas," I told him as we reached the end of the block, "I have a better understanding of myself, as an American." We turned the corner and the idyllic white dome of the Capitol came into view. "I had no idea that deep down inside, we're all really just a bunch of Texans."
Arthur nodded. Though we both live in this most American of cities, this city filled with national icons, he was older and wiser and already knew what I had only just realized. That heroic American icon, the good guy who rode across the movie screen's open range, the kind of guy that deep down I wish America could be in the world -- that icon comes from Texas. Until I drove down Highway 16, I had never realized how much of America's perception of itself comes from Texas.
Kristin Henderson is the author of Driving by Moonlight, a memoir.