Back Roads and Bluebonnets
Deep in the heart of Texas is a place that local boy President Lyndon B. Johnson called “a special comer of God’s real estate,” an area of grassy pastures, limestone bluffs, and oak-studded landscape rich in meandering streams, rivers, and lakes. With a rustic beauty that swells and dips but never reaches peaks of more than 1,900 feet, Texas’s Hill Country, roughly the size of Connecticut and an anomaly in generally flat Texas, was settled in the mid-1800s by mostly German immigrants, whose ethnic influence can still be felt in and around the area’s prettiest town, Fredericksburg, named after Prince Frederick IV of Prussia.
More cosmopolitan than cowpoke these days, its wide Main Street is lined with chic shops, antique stores, art galleries, scores of old-world inns and bed-and-breakfasts (one reason for the town’s popularity), and small German eateries that make it as easy to get Wiener schnitzel as chicken-fried steak.
Outside of Fredericksburg, the 13-mile Willow City Loop rambles through some of the area’s most beautiful scenery, unmatched during wildflower season, when Texas’s rolling hills are blanketed with a sea of purplish bluebonnets (the state flower), swaths of fiery orange-red Indian paintbrushes, and more colors than you find in an Impressionist’s palette. No state boasts more wildflowers than Texas – some 5,000 species, a full quarter of those existing in North America.
The state’s huge success with its wildflower propagation and highway beautification projects is in large part due to Lady Bird Johnson, so any wildflower lover’s first stop should be Austin’s unique 180-acre Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center, founded by its namesake in 1982, on her seventieth birthday. The center gives a fascinating insight on the preservation and restoration of the native flora of Lady Bird’s birth state and of all North America.
The town of Bandera bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World, as much for the number of plain-to-luxurious dude ranches as for the world-champion ropers (eight at last count) who call it home. Kerville, a town high above the Guadalupe River, boasts the Cowboy Artists of America Museum.
Those looking to go tubing down the tumbling Guadalupe usually stop by Gruene first, whose bare-bones 1878 Gruene Hall (the oldest continuously operating dancehall in Texas) and its weekly two-step sessions make every drop-in visitor a dancin’ fool.