The Cadillac Ranch at 50

The history of the Cadillac Ranch for  TexasHighways.com

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/fifty-years-of-cadillac-ranch/

How the Amarillo art installation became an iconic American roadside attraction

The vintage Cadillacs at their original location in the 1970s

Fifty years ago on the summer solstice, three experimental architects and artists completed Amarillo’s iconic Cadillac Ranch. Facilitated by a larger-than-life eccentric millionaire, the permanent installation of 10 Cadillac sedans buried nose first at a 60-degree angle into the dirt of a flat field within eyeshot of Interstate 40 has become the Panhandle city’s No. 1 tourist destination and biggest roadside attraction. It’s a must-see for road trippers touring Route 66, America’s Mother Road, seen by more than 1.4 million visitors a year.

Cadillac Ranch at 50, an exhibit documenting the strange and quirky history of the site at the Amarillo Museum of Art, opens June 1 and runs through Aug. 15, with a special celebration on June 21. One hundred enlarged photographs by Wyatt McSpadden, who has documented Cadillac Ranch since its inception, share space with videos, drawings, and ephemera from Chip Lord from the Ant Farm art and architecture collective that dreamed up the project.

Lord and fellow outsider architect Doug Michels formed Ant Farm in San Francisco in 1968 for underground design projects. “We were doing concepts, sketches, and photo collages of imaginary landscapes and environments,” Lord says. “It was a way to realize some ideas that would expand on conventional architecture.”

When Hudson Marquez joined the group, the three bonded over their shared obsession with automobiles. “At Ant Farm, we were car crazy,” Marquez recalls. “It was always drawing cars, collaging cars, making art with cars. I had an idea to make seed packs where you could plant seeds that would grow cars. You could have a field of ’49 Fords or ’59 Cadillacs that would grow out of the ground.” But to realize any concept, they needed a physical site. And money.

Installing the vintage Cadillacs was no easy feat

The Ant Farm sent out letters with their idea to a number of eccentric millionaires around the country. Prominent Amarilloan Stanley Marsh 3 answered back with an oversized letter written in 36-point type. “I’d love to do something with you, but I only do things here in Amarillo,” Marquez recalls him saying.

Lord and Michels stopped in Amarillo after finishing the House of the Century, a tubular ferro cement lake house near Angleton built with Houston architect Richard Jost. By the end of their visit two days later, Marsh asked Lord and Michels to draft a proposal. “We went back to California and drew up this idea of making a monument to the rise and fall of the Cadillac tailfin,” Lord says. The drawing had a text box in the corner—the budget. They would need $250 to hire a backhoe, and $300 for each of the 10 cars. Marsh gave the Ant Farm the green light.

The Ant Farmers descended on Amarillo. They placed ads in the Amarillo Globe-News seeking used Cadillacs and checked out Marsh’s land holdings. They picked a site near Interstate 40 and the old Route 66. “They were mysterious, these three hippies,” says Wyatt McSpadden, the young photographer who worked for Marsh at the time. He remembers Lord, Michels, and Marquez lived on the property while putting the site together. “They were gone a lot because they were out shopping for cars, trying to make deals, get cars as cheap as they could.”

Finding the first car, the 1949 Cadillac, proved to be a struggle. They found one on the east side of Amarillo, though it cost them a whopping $700—far over budget. “As soon as Doug had the title, somebody pulled the canvas off the bed of the truck,” McSpadden remembers, “and it was full of sledgehammers and axes. Doug took an axe out and started beating on the front of the car. They didn’t care what the front of the car looked like. That was my first involvement with the Ant Farm and the Cadillacs.”

The Cadillacs were moved from their original spot to its current location in 1997

The first hole was dug, and they got the car into the ground. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Marquez says. “We hadn’t dug holes to put cars in before, and we didn’t know anyone who did, so we were just flying by the seat of our pants. We just dug some holes and drove the cars in at 60 degrees, same angle. We didn’t talk about that. It just happened to be. It looked good.” The whole endeavor took less than a week.

The day after the Cadillac Ranch was finished, Marquez rose before dawn and drove out to the site to watch the sunrise. “I was blown away,” he says. Marquez remembered a talk the radical French artist and sculptor Marcel Duchamp gave in Houston. His idea was that when someone sets out to create, they start from what they think is zero and in their mind is 100% of what they want to create. “It’s in your mind, but you never get to 100. That doesn’t happen,” Marquez says. “But that morning was as close to 100% as I ever got.”

On June 21, 1974, a huge party was held in celebration of the ranch, a big tent, open bar, and Amarillo notables included. Shortly after, the Ant Farmers returned to San Francisco to work on other ideas. “When it was first built, it wasn’t hyped yet,” says David Turner, who was the assistant director at the Amarillo Art Center at the time. “People didn’t know what it was. It was just this oddball group of cars some crazy rancher planted in his field.”

There was no signage identifying the site, making it hard to convey the installation was an artist-made sculptural piece. Seeing the installation up close required some want-to. “You used to have to stop on the road, take your life in your own hands, go through a barbed wire fence, and hope for the best,” says Tom Livesay, director of the Amarillo Art Center in 1974.

Though grafitti wasn’t part of the original plan, it’s become tradition for visitors to leave their mark

A year later, journalist Charles Kuralt, host of the folksy On the Road program on the CBS television network, passed by in his bus, pulled over, and put Cadillac Ranch on the map. He was charmed. “At first, we thought someone might be trying to raise little baby Cadillacs,” Kuralt says. “Then we thought maybe the farmer just parked them this way each year after he bought a new model.”

Marsh talked up the Ant Farm and compared the Cadillac Ranch to Stonehenge, declaring, “It’s the most important roadside attraction of our generation.” Kuralt ended the segment waxing poetic over “a cowboy herding steers out there where the tall tailfins grow and the traffic heads west on Route 66 and the Texas sun goes down on the chromium bumpers of the American dream.”

Next came the bullet holes, an instinctive reaction around the Panhandle. If there’s something out there and you don’t know what it is, shoot it! “People would take their keys and scratch their initials into the paint,” Lord says. “Eventually, we went out there and signed it, to copyright.”

Then came the spray paint. First as simple graffiti tags—names, expressions of love, expressions of hate. Then wholesale paint jobs. “I was kind of outraged when people started spray-painting it,” Livesay says. “I asked Stanley what he thought of that, and he said, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ It showed ownership. People had to care enough about it, or hated it enough, to come see it. And they did.”

In 1997, Cadillac Ranch moved 2 miles west to its current location. The city of Amarillo was growing, and parking lot lights were visible at the installation. “That property was getting more valuable,” McSpadden says. “It was harder digging them up and replanting them than it was putting them in the ground the first time. From the road, it didn’t change at all. It was still the same flatland background.”

The relocation coincided with the dawn of the internet. Cadillac Ranch had become a featured attraction on RoadsideAmerica.com. Social media further broadened its reach. Cadillac Ranch remains a metaphor for the Golden Age of the American automobile, but over 50 years, it’s taken on many meanings and interpretations. A search for “Cadillac Ranch” on Instagram retrieves images of the Cadillac Ranch at sunrise, sunset, during dust storms and blizzards, and as a backdrop for selfies.

The scent of Krylon is fairly constant. On Cinco De Mayo, red, green, and white paint have dominated. The Cadillacs have been painted pink for child cancer awareness. After Michels died in 2004, the Cadillacs were painted black, his favorite color.

McSpadden spent two days at the site in October 2022, making portraits featured in the Cadillac Ranch at 50 exhibit. “I got people from England, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland,” he says. “People paint, they leave, and 20 minutes later somebody comes up and paints over what they painted.  They don’t just paint the cars, they paint the dirt, they paint the access road, the barriers are painted, the trash cans are painted.”

Four years ago, Marsh’s son, Stan Marsh 4, added a merch truck that sells spray paint, beverages, and tchotchkes on the site. “The Cadillacs are one of the last things in the nation that are truly wild,” he says. “There are no bathrooms. There is no running water. There’s no shade. There’s a different energy out there. It’s an adventure every time.”

Marquez says he’s only had two good ideas in his life. “One was the Cadillac Ranch. The other was copyrighting Cadillac Ranch,” he says. “Ant Farm owns the copyright to Cadillac Ranch. For many years we’ve made money, it’s like an annuity. Commercials, clothing lines, billboards, print ads, everything.”

Marsh’s heirs still own the Cadillac Ranch. Following a series of debilitating strokes, ownership of the land was transferred from Marsh to a family trust. He died in 2014, shortly after facing allegations of sexual abuse by multiple minors. Though perception of Marsh’s reputation may have changed following the allegations, Cadillac Ranch’s legacy continues to stand the test of time.

Today, people come from all over the world to see Cadillac Ranch

Stanley Marsh 4 regards the Cadillac Ranch as a participatory work of art that everybody is welcome to collaborate on. “Every mark is permanent, but it’s also temporary,” he says. “You can say anything you’d like to say with absolute freedom—but it’s going to be covered up in 30 seconds.”

The next 50 years are less certain. “We’re looking at options to preserve and protect the Cadillacs for future generations,” Stanley Marsh 4 says.

Lord is not so sure. “I favor not doing a restoration. With farmers, when a truck stops running, they put it out in a field and it rusts away.  Just let it rust down to nothing, which eventually it will,” Lord says. “That’s the most logical end of Cadillac Ranch.”

Whatever Cadillac Ranch’s future holds, Livesay appreciates what it means to the Panhandle city. “It’s wonderful it’s lasted so long and generated so much excitement for the town,” he says. “It’s grown with the times. You can’t argue with the facts.”

 

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The Old Man finally rides a wave at Waco Surf

My story in Texas Highways about learning to surf at age 72

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/riding-waves-as-a-septuagenerian/

A man in swimwear rides a surfboard on a large blue wave

Photo by Wyatt McSpadden

Surfing has been a lifelong obsession for me. Back when the Beach Boys ruled the airwaves and the California surfer lifestyle became something to emulate, two junior high friends and I pooled our money and bought a surfboard by mail order—but never put it to the test. I rented longboards on South Padre Island family vacations, but try as I might to paddle out past the third sandbar to catch a wave, the few times I did manage to stand up, the wave disappeared. Unless a hurricane or tropical storm was in the Gulf, I would later learn, those choppy waves were as good as it got.

But today is the day. I’m going to surf. All it takes is a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the woods east of Waco, a couple hundred dollars, and the desire to finally stand up on a surfboard at age 72.

I’m at Waco Surf, the new epicenter of Texas surfing, to experience how technology is impacting surfing in much the same way ski lifts, snow-making machines, and manicured trails transformed snow skiing. In 2021, new owners bought Waco Surf’s lagoon and upgraded it into a surf and water park with slides, a lazy river, cabanas, and a hotel.

After checking in at the Surf Center, the spacious headquarters with a floor-to-ceiling view of the 2.5-acre lagoon, I head for the open-air palapa for the park’s Beginner Academy. I’m joined by three fellow novices from across the state, as well as a broad-shouldered California native named Stephen Shipman who is a lifelong bodysurfer. “They won’t let me bodysurf here, so I guess I’m going to have to learn to stand up,” the 68-year-old says. His confidence suggests that won’t be a problem.

We’re given generic 6-foot longboards with soft padding while instructor Reef Ellison, a surfer from Houston, gives us the 101. This includes pointing out the features of the board, how to paddle, and, ultimately, how to stand up.

After running us through a series of yoga stretches, we enter the shallows of the chlorinated lagoon. Across from us, surfers work intermediate swells in front of the wall lining the entire bank of the lagoon. Somewhere near the No. 7 marker, a machine engine cranks with a soft rumble akin to a washing machine. Seemingly out of nowhere, waves start to appear.

Manufactured in various sizes, our waves are set to the most forgiving level: The Coaster. These progress all the way to The Wedge, a wave that reaches up to 5 feet. In this controlled environment, there’s no need to worry about paddling out to the swells, as there are Surf Team members waiting to launch and catch you at the end.

Our assigned team member, treading water, urges me forward, and in a flash, I begin to slide down the wave. The sensation of pushing the board down the slope feels like I’m trying to steady myself on an icy pond. Standing on the board with knees bent, arms extended for balance, I aim toward the wall and ride the wave until it peters out five seconds later.

One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to surf in the Gulf or the Pacific is getting knocked back by waves while paddling out. Waco Surf has eliminated that early obstacle in its design. After that first attempt, a waiting surfer was quick to congratulate me: “You popped right up! There are some people who’ve been going for a while who can’t do that.”

Following the first half of the session, the swells grow slightly larger. With each attempt, my energy begins to flag, and on the final wave, I have my first honest wipeout. Shipman, the seasoned bodysurfer, overcomes a frustrating start to master standing up. He quickly signs up for an second session later that afternoon.

Since that weekend, I’ve looked at myself cresting waves—captured for posterity in photos on wacosurf.com. Even all these months later, I can feel and relive the adrenaline-filled thrill of every ride. Although cautious at first, I gave myself over to the moment and risked it all in a culminating wipeout—not bad for an old guy. No matter that it took place far from any sandy shore. Surfing lesson: $139.

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Texas Music Hour of Power Sat nites 7-9 pm central KRTS Marfa KWVH Wimberley and anytime here

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Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

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Mack McCormack, song hunter

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/on-the-hunt-for-mack-mccormick-a-houstonian-and-folklorist-who-loved-texas-blues/

Mack McCormick (right) photographed with drummer Spider Kilpatrick. Photo courtesy National Museum of History Archives Center, Robert Mack McCormick Collection, 1485, Box 10, Folder Photographs of Mack McCormick, modern, 1960-1998, undated

The first time I saw Mack McCormick’s name, it was attached to the liner notes on the back of the first albums issued by Arhoolie Records, the storied American folk music label founded by Chris Strachwitz. At the time, I didn’t know McCormick had led the Polish-born music enthusiast, who passed away earlier this year, to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Clifton Chenier—Arhoolie’s core artists—before falling out with him. The break was a familiar pattern for Mack McCormick, as I came to learn.

Eight years after his death in 2015 at the age of 85, the self-taught music folklorist and field researcher from Houston is finally having his moment. The Smithsonian Institution has recognized Robert “Mack” McCormick with a book, an exhibit, and, coming Aug. 4, a box set of 66 field recordings he made that are nothing less than the most comprehensive collection of Texas blues music ever assembled.

McCormick was a high school dropout who held a series of odd jobs to underwrite his passion—collecting, recording, and writing about music from what he called “Greater Texas,” East Texas and surrounding states extending back to Mississippi. He was particularly fond of African American blues. From the 1950s through the 1970s, he traveled throughout Texas and the South searching the places where early recording artists and their music originated and seeking out the music makers and people who knew them. For McCormick, it was all about the hunt for music and information, which he rarely shared, even while he dealt with personal issues including anger and isolation and clinically diagnosed manic depression.

As a field researcher chasing music, McCormick was directly influenced by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, the trailblazing song hunters and music folklorists who were also from Texas. Lomax’s eldest son, John Avery Lomax Jr., and McCormick were both involved with the Houston Folklore & Music Society, founded in 1951, which nurtured the careers of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, and Guy Clark.

Unlike the Lomaxes, who were tied to academia and the Library of Congress, McCormick was an amateur obsessive. To support his habit, he drove taxis and worked for the U.S. Census Bureau in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1960, just so he could learn more about barrelhouse pianists in the neighborhood. In addition, he did contract work for the Smithsonian in the late 1960s and early ’70s, scouting the South for talented musicians to perform at the institution’s summer music festival.

Mance Lipscomb with his family, photographed by Mack McCormick. National Museum of History Archives Center, Robert Mack McCormick Collection, 1485, Box 20, Folder 17, Outsize photos, Texas Blues, undated

Of all the musicians McCormick studied, none captured his attention more than Robert Johnson. In May, the Smithsonian published McCormick’s much-anticipated Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey about the influential Mississippi Delta blues guitarist and singer who once recorded 42 songs at sessions at the Gunther Hotel in San Antonio in 1936 and the Warner Brothers/Vitagraph building in Dallas in 1937 before dying in 1938, allegedly under shady circumstances. He would become a major influence on Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and other British rock guitarists of the 1960s, and one of most mysterious figures in blues music.

Twenty years after Johnson’s death, McCormick started chasing Johnson’s ghost. Studying phone books and maps and making cold calls, he drove all over Mississippi following leads, visiting neighborhoods, asking around. McCormick’s manuscript about his quest was first finished in the early 1970s, but he continued making revisions without ever publishing it. After McCormick’s death, John W. Troutman, curator of music and musical instruments at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, edited the manuscript and wrote the book’s detailed preface and afterword.

Here’s my suggestion to truly appreciate Biography of a Phantom: Skip Troutman’s commentary until later, forget you’ve ever heard anything about McCormick, and dive in.

It’s a fun ride, part detective mystery, part anthropological travelogue. McCormick’s research methodology may seem quaint and dated, but it led to opportunities for direct contact: He speaks with relatives and friends who knew Johnson very well—and under another name. As the hunt progresses, McCormick’s appreciation of the secondary characters as real people changes, and he understands the artist more in the context of the community he lived in, culminating in a vivid scene in 1970 in a Mississippi Delta shotgun shack, where the music so familiar to his friends and family is played back to them on recordings.

John A. Lomax’s Adventure of a Ballad Hunter is the template for all books about collecting music. Other books, such as Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches and Do Not Sell at Any Price by Amanda Petrusch, do deeper dives into that obsessive world, but Biography of a Phantom hits the sweetest spot. It shines the light on the music chase at a time when scores of collectors were fanning out to the countryside trying to find out about a blues song’s origins or a recording artist’s roots.

McCormick’s friend Roger Wood, author of the books Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues and Texas Zydeco, says the published manuscript reminded him of John Graves’s Goodbye To A River. “[I]t takes the reader on a very personal trip with the narrator, who intertwines history and immediate experience, prior knowledge, and discovery, to communicate how a place, a culture, has changed over time (and will change more in the future),” he tells me in an email exchange. “I see/appreciate this book as great writing, the most fully articulated presentation of Mack’s narrative voice and capacity for engaging his audience.”

Wood adds, however, that McCormick would have hated it. “Mack would likely be furious about myriad details and developments with this [or any] publication beyond his control and the process that led to it,” Wood says. “He would likely threaten lawsuits, claim victimhood, add several new names to his enemies list, etc. Even if he had consented to whatever transpired, he would likely be furious, if not immediately, eventually—after he had taken time to sprout and nurture grievances. That was Mack.”

With fury and resentment no longer impediments, the story that finally has come out stands on its own merits. It’s a quest that anyone who has loved a particular song or artist can relate to. For blues researchers and scholars, this is as deep as the hunt for music ever gets.

When doing his field research a half century ago, McCormick knew he would draw scrutiny of white law enforcement and Black community leaders, but he jumped the color line nonetheless, a brazen act at the time. A Black researcher chasing white music could not have done the same. This reality is addressed in Treasures and Trouble: Looking Inside a Legendary Blues Archive, the exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of History opened in June in Washington D.C.

For Texans unable to travel to the nation’s capital, the exhibition showcases artifacts from “The Monster,” McCormick’s nickname for his massive collection of work, along with a reexamination of the process of gathering and preserving music. There is a focus on the patriarchal dynamic of a white man documenting a Black man’s history in the Jim Crow segregated South, and a frank assessment of McCormick’s myriad issues, which included grifting and hoarding.

McCormick persuaded Johnson’s siblings and heirs to share photographs and stories and sign agreements to share in profits from his estate, but he did not return materials to the relatives, as letters in the exhibit document. A Memphis producer named Steve LaVere subsequently secured an agreement from Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson that effectively undercut McCormick. He wasn’t the only music hound chasing Johnson’s ghost, and the realization that he might not be able to capitalize on his quest might have contributed to McCormick’s fragile mental state.

McCormick preserved critically important music and information about African American musicians in the early and midcentury, and how he went about it is rightfully called into question. Certainly, what he did then is not what someone could do today. Then again, what they were chasing no longer exists.

Finally, there’s the music. On Aug. 4, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings releases Playing For the Man At Door, a 66-song box set of field recordings made by McCormick between the 1950s and ’70s, along with 128-page liner notes that include essays from producers Jeff Place and John W. Troutman on McCormick’s life, the musician’s daughter Susannah Nix on growing up with the massive collection, and musicians and scholars Mark Puryear and Dom Flemons on the marginalized communities to which McCormick devoted his life’s work.

Any controversy about McCormick vanishes when listening to these songs. The field recordings are McCormick at his obsessive best—on the street, being so bold as to request someone perform for his recorder (a request usually fulfilled), taking notes, occasionally interjecting a question, trying to capture the moment, in living rooms, porches, backyards, bars, and even prisons.

There are some familiar names. The storytelling preceding songs like Mance Lipscomb’s version of “Tall Angel at the Bar,” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ duet with Long Gone Miles, “Natural Born Lover,” is priceless. But most of the performers of these recordings were neither famous nor notorious outside their communities. I got to know some of the lesser-known characters, including barrelhouse pianist Robert Shaw, the ethereal Gray Ghost, and drummer-rapper Bongo Joe Coleman (what may be his first recordings). Performing live in person, each comes off as an original.

Revelations abound. “Quills” by Joe Patterson features one of the last players in Texas skilled in blowing handmade quills, or pan pipes made of cane, a talent famously articulated by Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas from Big Sandy in the 1920s, who McCormick also extensively studied. “St. James Infirmary” by Dudley Alexander and Washboard Band, sung in English and French, is a stellar example of Creole music that predates zydeco.

Mack McCormick leaves behind a dilemma. He was a terribly flawed individual. He obsessively guarded what he knew. He became paranoid his research would be stolen. In other words, McCormick consigned himself to death before the rest of the world could learn what he knew.

The world that McCormick dove into so zealously is gone.

What is left is all that McCormick learned about Texas blues and roots musicians, particularly African Americans. That work was both critical and monumental. Now that that knowledge is accessible, recognition of what he did is something to celebrate, nevermind the baggage of the tortured life that came with it.

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Texas’ Swimming Holes Are Drying Up

My story about swimming holes in Texas, drought, and climate change in the 50th Anniversary issue of Texas Monthly magazine.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/travel/ode-to-texas-disappearing-swimming-holes/

swimming holes Blanco State Park
The Blanco River in Blanco State Park in September 2018. Photograph by Nick Simonite
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An Ode to Texas’s Disappearing Swimming Holes

I’ve spent the past half century immersing myself in Texas’s clear, cool waters. But if development and drought have their way, I may be the last of my kind.

This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

I lived through the golden age of Texas swimming holes. Having spent my youth submerged in chlorinated pools in and around Fort Worth, I moved to Austin in 1973 and discovered Hippie Hollow before it was a county park and Barton Creek before a mining executive threatened to build a giant development along its banks.

Swimming in clear artesian spring water was a revelation to me. As a child, I’d seen San Marcos Springs when it was the Aquarena Springs theme park, but I didn’t associate the crystalline waters that Ralph the Swimming Pig frolicked in with something that was accessible to me. And yet, to my delight, I came to learn that they were.

The water in a Texas swimming hole is a pale blue or green or a hue somewhere in between that you can see through, often right to the bottom. Your eyes don’t sting when you open them underwater. There are creatures to observe—minnows, perch, crawfish, carp, catfish, bass, turtles, ducks, and maybe even, God help me, a water moccasin. A spring-fed swimming hole means cool-to-cold temperatures. The bottom is limestone, not squishy mud. Spoiled by such wonders, I quickly developed an aversion to cement ponds, as The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jethro Bodine called conventional swimming pools, and flinched at the scent of chlorine.

My then-girlfriend got me hooked on doing widths at Austin’s famous Barton Springs, and pretty soon I had worked up to swimming a round trip along the pool’s roughly one-eighth-mile length. Then it was a half mile and then a full mile. I was addicted. If I missed a day, I got cranky.

My search for clear, clean water turned into a treasure hunt. Hill Country rivers were prime targets: the Guadalupe, the Comal, the west fork of the Nueces, the Blanco, the San Marcos, the Llano, the Frio, the Medina. Creeks that fed the rivers sheltered hidden delights such as Jacob’s Well, Krause Springs, and several Blue Holes.

But I also found swimmable springs near Houston (swimmable but murky—it’s Houston!), near the Panhandle (Roaring Springs), and in the desert (Independence Creek). I became a regular at Balmorhea State Park, in far West Texas, swimming in the pool every month of the year. There are secret spots that I’ve been sworn never to reveal, at the risk of physical harm, and secret spots I can’t share because I trespassed. Having a gun pulled on you when you’re sopping wet is no fun.

Swimming-hole denizens are my tribe. We quietly exchange information about places worth checking out and share where the crowds aren’t. I’m fortunate to have friends who own ranches with secret holes to swim in and to have been invited to the Narrows, a typically off-limits miniature canyon in the Hill Country smack-dab between Blanco and Wimberley.

My obsession grew so fevered that thirty years ago my family and I left Austin for Wimberley to gain regular access to the Blanco River. I found an ideal swimming hole, and for years it has been part of my daily routine during the warm months.

Along the way, I’ve learned about karst topography and other unique features that make Texas swimming holes so abundant. I’ve also learned about the rule of capture, a Texas law that allows property owners to draw as much underground water as they wish, even at the risk of drying up a neighbor’s wells and springs. In the fifties, it effectively killed Fort Stockton’s Comanche Springs, once the largest in West Texas.

It wasn’t the first swimming hole to disappear, and it’s far from the last. In 2021, for the first time in my many summers in Wimberley, the Blanco ran so low that there wasn’t enough river to swim in. Extended drought, exploding population growth in the watershed, and aggressive groundwater pumping had reduced it to a trickling stream.

My bible, Gunnar Brune’s Springs of Texas, Volume 1, had warned me that this would happen. A technical volume published in 1981, it’s an expanded version of a 1975 report that Brune, a Fort Worth geologist, prepared for the Texas Water Development Board. He noted that the decline of Texas springs, in number and in volume, began with the first Spanish colonists and continued to the time of the book’s publication, largely as a result of agricultural, industrial, and municipal use of water, as well as the reduction in groundwater recharge.

That decline continues, primarily fueled by population growth. By 2005 only 17 of the 31 large springs once known in Texas remained. During the drought of 2022, Blue Hole, in Wimberley, and nearby Jacob’s Well were closed to swimming because of low or no flow. The Frio River at Concan went dry. Las Moras Springs, near Brackettville, stopped running. And this sad trend will likely only accelerate: we’re expecting a hotter, drier Hill Country in the future.

Some years back, I toured the Coal Mine Ranch in the isolated Trans-Pecos borderlands northwest of Candelaria. My host paused at a field of sun-bleached rubble. This was an ancient river delta, he said, leaning down and picking up a large rock to hand to me. Up close, I could make out the fossilized remnant of a very large turtle shell.

Will this be the fate of so many of the springs, creeks, rivers, and swimming holes that I love? Will the iconic image of our times be a minnow trapped in a shrinking puddle as the waters retreat? Or will the springs flow again and my beloved Blanco return when the rains come? So far in my lifetime, the water has always come back. But what about the next time?

Though the signs right now are dire, my faith remains strong enough that I recently ordered a new swimsuit, goggles, and earplugs. Perhaps I’m fooling myself. Perhaps hope is the only thing that springs eternal.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “C’mon in, the Water’s Finite.” Subscribe today.

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Triumphs @ East Bernard Riverside Hall and Swiss Alp: one last time

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/im-so-lonesome-i-could-cry-hitmakers-the-triumphs-call-it-quits-one-more-time/

by Joe Nick Patoski

After 63 years, The Triumphs are finally hanging it up. This time they mean it. Sure, there have been “last shows” before, but this time, after a few more live dates between New Year’s Eve and February, that’s going to be it.

“We’re retiring. For real,” says Don Drachenberg, one of the band’s vocalists who also plays saxophone. At 82, he is one of two members, along with Gary Koeppen, remaining from the band’s glory days in the early to mid-1960s. (A third original member, Tim Griffith, sadly passed away earlier this month.)

During its heyday, the band packed dance halls between Houston and San Antonio, engaged in storied battle of the bands with Roy Head’s band The Traits, and scored a hit record with a cover of the mournful Hank Williams ballad “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” sung by the group’s then lead vocalist, B.J. Thomas.

Formed in Rosenberg by Lamar Consolidated High School students, the band, named after the motorcycle, expanded over the years to include as many as seven to nine members. They first hung it up in 1980, but unable to quit the music, the group reformed in 1992. They called it quits a second time in 2020, with COVID-19 to blame.

“Our last performances were at East Bernard and Swiss Alp in January through February 2020, right before the pandemic hit,” Drachenberg says. “By the time May rolled around, all of our performing dates had been cancelled. By the middle of summer, we started yakking among ourselves. Live music and live dance halls may not be coming back for a few years. It looks like we’re done.”

That retirement lasted a year. A different tune was sung by the summer of 2021, when pandemic restrictions began to be lifted. “Three guys in the band started talking: we had a little gas left in the tank,” Drachenberg says. “A couple guys didn’t want to do it, seven of us did. We got back together in July to rehearse. In September, we started performing again.”

A year of gigs later and The Triumphs have reconsidered once again.

“We came to the conclusion we’re too old to be doing this. It’s too tiring, it’s too rough,” Drachenberg says, laughing. “You remember the good times, but you forget all the hours, lifting heavy equipment, all that. It was too much work and not enough fun.”

If ever there was a group who knew fun, it was The Triumphs. They built a following playing Top 40 and rock music in Texas dance halls between Houston and San Antonio. “East Bernard, Tate, Hilje, Hallettsville, Schulenberg, Moulton, LaGrange, El Campo KC Hall, Angleton Fairgrounds—we worked a circuit,” Drachenberg recalls. “We played those halls once a month, and worked in a party or a festival or reunion.”

Their repertoire included the popular songs of the day, from Motown and Jimmy Reed tunes to party songs like “Louie, Louie” and “(I’m A) Soul Man.” Very few original tunes were part of the setlist.

“My Girl,” made popular by the Temptations, remains one of the most requested songs at a Triumphs’ show. “Color My World” by Chicago became a band standard during the 1970s, as did “Midnight Hour,” “Red, Red Wine,” and “Cotton Eye Joe.” And, acknowledging the musical heritages of the dance halls where they played, the band performed polkas, including a medley of “Julida,” “Beer Barrel” (aka “Roll Out the Barrel”), “A Ja Sam,” and “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

Two of their songs remain part of every Triumphs show today: their biggest hit, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Garner State Park,” which still is the last song played at Saturday night dances on the patio of the pavilion at Garner State Park north of Uvalde.

During the early 1960s, the Triumphs tried their hand at recording and realized some success, thanks to Houston Top 40 radio stations. Their first two 45 rpm singles, “I Know It’s Wrong” and “Lazy Man,” received airplay in 1962 on both KILT and KNUZ, with “Lazy Man” reaching No. 7 on KILT’s chart. Other hits included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Billy and Sue” (reached No. 1 on KILT in 1964), and “Garner State Park.”

Then in December 1965, the band’s remake of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” broke out of Houston and went No. 1 nationally. Acknowledging the lead singer’s distinctive tenor voice, the band was promoted as B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs.

Things took a turn in March 1966 when the group was offered a slot on a national tour. Thomas eagerly signed on, but the rest of The Triumphs stayed behind. “Most of us were in college,” Drachenberg says. “We didn’t want to go. B.J. did. None of us had the aspirations he had.”

It’s a familiar showbiz story, only in this version the band that stayed behind never quit. “We’ve always been a local band,” Drachenberg explains. “We just wanted to enjoy what we do, and have our friends around us…We have so many fans that come out to see us. If we put something out on Facebook that we’re going to do something, we know several hundred people are going to turn out at that event. We recognize the faces, recognize the couples, even as they’ve gotten older. We have a hellacious fan base.”

Over the years, the band’s popularity could be seen at venues like Riverside Hall in East Bernard, which drew fans from Columbus, Eagle Lake, Bay City, Houston. The group was so popular there, Drachenberg says, “[w]hen it burned down in the late 1980s, they immediately built another hall.”

Playing Swiss Alp, a storied Texas dance hall between Schulenberg and LaGrange, is like going to a family reunion. “My wife’s family comes from Hallettsville,” he says. “Her grandparents danced at Swiss Alp, her parents danced at Swiss Alp, my wife and I danced there, my daughter in Schulenberg dances there. And now my granddaughter who lives in Houston dances at Swiss Alp.”

In 2010, 44 years after he left for biggest stages, Thomas performed with the Triumphs again. “Both of us were kicking ourselves for not having got back together earlier,” Drachenberg says. They continued doing special performances together until Thomas’ death in 2021.

Drachenberg admits he’s going to miss doing what he’s done his entire adult life. “Performing on the stage, you get a great feeling,” he says. “Having somebody applaud or go ‘Whoop!’ after you’ve done a song, that gives me chill bumps.”

And after the band gave so many people a good time with music, the fans are returning the favor. “People have been calling me, thanking me for giving their family so much fun and pleasure over the years,” Drachenberg says. “That feels really good.”

The Triumphs’ final public shows take place New Year’s Eve at the Silos in Giddings, Jan. 28 at the band’s historic home base Riverside Hall in East Bernard, and Feb. 18 at Swiss Alp Hall. For more information, check the calendar on The Triumphs’ website

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Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – the Wild Rio Grande Valley

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/explore-rio-grande-valley-wilderness-wildlife-at-laguna-atascosa-national-wildlife-refuge/

Explore the wilderness and wildlife of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Creature Comforts

By Joe Nick Patoski

A sunrise view of Laguna Madre from the Plover Point observation deck. Photo by Erich Schlegel; Illustration by Lin Jesse

An illustration of a swimming duck with a bright red head moving through tall grassy reeds

A redhead duck. Illustration by Lin Jesse

Beyond Laguna Madre,

on the ocean side of South Padre Island, a bank of cumulus clouds looms over the Gulf of Mexico. Morning light casts a palette of radiant oranges, yellows, pinks, and blues, minutes before the sun makes its debut above the clouds.

Sunrise in January is prime time at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. The tropical humidity and heat, the norm from late March until November, abates, and the winter residents move in. From the Plover Point observation deck, the Laguna Madre —one of only four shallow, hypersaline bays in the world—shimmers with sublime views.

Living creatures are everywhere—in the water, on the land, in the sky. Songbirds flit out of the impenetrable thornscrub brush called the monte, while a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers pirouette around a Spanish dagger yucca. A clutch of shockingly pink roseate spoonbills stands out among hundreds of white egrets, herons, and ducks congregating in a shallow pond. On the shore of the laguna, shorebirds gingerly step in the shallows in search of breakfast. Redfish, too, their tails extending above the water surface as they feed on shrimp. A brown pelican spies a tailing redfish and quickly scoops it up. On the road through the thornscrub, rabbits and roadrunners crisscross the path where a brilliantly dark indigo snake has just slithered. Coyotes, whitetail deer, and nilgai antelope roam undisturbed across the open savannah. Butterflies and dragonflies flutter around by the dozens.

A collection of palm trees and grasses with water and cloudy sky in the background

Redhead Ridge on the shore of Laguna Madre. Photo by Larry Ditto

Welcome to the wildest part of the wild Rio Grande Valley, which offers a glimpse into the natural world that flourished across deep South Texas before it was settled, farmed, and developed. Coastal, tropical, jungle, and desert all at once, the Valley is where the two major North American migratory bird flyways converge, and it’s a crucial wintering grounds for waterfowl. Laguna Atascosa is at the center of the action.

The rapidly developing region is also attractive to humans. From 2000 to 2020, the Rio Grande Valley population—including Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties—grew 41% to 1.37 million people. According to the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the number is projected to grow another 15% to 1.58 million by 2050, depending on migration rates. But while habitat loss is the usual story in the booming RGV, Laguna Atascosa is all about rewilding.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the refuge in 1946, carving about 11,000 acres from a World War II gunnery range to protect wintering bird habitat, primarily the redhead duck on Laguna Atascosa. Over the past two decades, assistance from groups including The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, along with settlement funds from the 2010 BP Oil Spill, have allowed the refuge to add over 50,000 acres to expand to more than 120,000 acres across multiple units. The South Padre Island Unit protects land on the northern end of the island, and the Bahia Grande Unit protects wetlands between Laguna Vista and Brownsville. Ongoing purchases are creating a new coastal corridor for wildlife to travel between patches of their fragmented habitat, including via special highway underpasses.

“There’s not a more significant place for wildlife diversity in Texas, and maybe the country, than the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from songbirds to ocelots to waterfowl,” says Jeff Francell, director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. “Most of the native brush in the Valley was converted to farmland decades ago, and so to enhance the native wildlife populations, it’s important to take some of that land and restore it for wildlife. For example, one of the pieces of property we were able to acquire was an old shrimp farm, and we were able to buy part of it to provide a corridor for ocelots between Laguna Atascosa and Bahia Grande.”

Laguna Atascosa astounds in its diversity: 417 bird species, 130 butterfly species, 45 mammal species, 44 reptile species, and 450 plant species. And the refuge is far enough from the border to avoid lighting, walls, and other disruptive issues that have negatively impacted some refuges along the Rio Grande. Outside of a visitor center, a couple of roads, and a handful of overlooks, the refuge has very little infrastructure. Wildlife conservation is the priority. This is by far the biggest chunk of wild in the Rio Grande Valley

Two people, one with binoculars and another with a camera, look for birds along a watery shore

Birding on the tidal flats at South Bay by the Brownsville Ship Channel. Photo by Larry Ditto

About 15 minutes before daybreak, I meet the refuge’s visitor services manager, Georgie Garcia, in the visitor center parking lot and jump into his high-clearance pickup. Garcia, a Brownsville native and Iraq War vet, drives the truck across Buena Vista Road and opens the gate at the trailhead to Granjeno Trail, the access to Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. We continue to Plover Point to take in the sunrise before touring the heart of the refuge via roads, trails, and barely visible dirt tracks.

Garcia, one of seven employees, also maintains the trails with a brush cutter to keep the monte from encroaching, stocks the feeders and water features, conducts educational outreach, and coordinates the seasonal volunteers. The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group runs the bookshop in the visitor center, and volunteers help cover for Garcia whenever he is away from the service counter, which is the source of permits and information. Luckily, the service counter has a picture window that looks over a bird feeding station.

“Every day I bet my paycheck I’ll see a green jay,” Garcia says of the Neotropical bird rarely seen elsewhere in the United States. “There will be 20 on a feeder sometimes.”

The visitor center reopened in May after being closed for two years due to the pandemic. In 2019, the refuge restored its main thoroughfare, Buena Vista Road, from a potholed country road to a two-lane boulevard with bicycle lanes on both sides, along with eight large speed bumps to keep traffic under the 25-mph speed limit. The “Ocelot Crossing” signs are for real.

The park’s other road—Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive—closed to private motor vehicles in 2013 when a car hit and killed a lactating female ocelot. A 60-person tram operated on the loop seasonally in the 2010s until it broke down in 2018 and was declared beyond repair.

These days, hiking and cycling are the only ways to explore Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive and the 55 miles of other trails.

As we drive through two fallow fields lined with tree tubes containing seedlings and saplings of natives such as mesquite and hawthorn, Garcia says the refuge’s revegetation efforts have stepped up as more land has been added. “All that acquired property was ag fields,” he grins confidently. “Give it 10 years; it’ll be South Texas thornscrub.”

An illustration of a bird with dark brown wings, a white tuft, and small head with a beak sitting on a wooden branch

An Aplomado falcon. Illustration by Lin Jesse
A map of coastal Texas showing the Laguna Madre and Laguna Atacosa areas

Map illustration by Lin Jesse
A boat makes a wide white wake as it traverses a green channel

Boating the Stover Cove area on Laguna Madre. Photo by Erich Schlegel

The ocelot—a small, secretive spotted feline, about twice the size of a house cat—has become a symbol of the refuge. Laguna Atascosa is home to 30-35 ocelots, one of two breeding populations in the U.S.

In cooperation with the refuge, the Friends of LANWR group holds an annual Ocelot Conservation Day in March at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville—March 5 this year—with booths and presentations.

“We know the biggest problem is habitat loss,” Garcia says. “This past trapping season, they were able to trap six ocelots and put collars on them. The ocelot is an umbrella species; it’s at the top. If you restore their habitat, it’s going to help a lot of other South Texas species, some of them endangered or threatened.”

While making the rounds, Garcia chases off several cows that wandered in from a neighboring ranch, watches a gator snag an unsuspecting bird, and fetches the remnants of a mylar balloon snagged on a prickly pear.

We drive south to the 26,000-acre Bahia Grande Unit, an addition to the refuge that is west of State Highway 48 and the Brownsville Ship Channel.

An illustration of a large tortoise walking through green grasses and flowers

A Texas tortoise. Illustration by Lin Jesse

“This was a complete dust bowl,” Garcia says, gazing across rough vegetated lowlands spiked with yucca. “Now we’ve restored it to beautiful coastal prairie wetlands, with lomas, how it used to be.” Lomas are low vegetated hills that exist in only three places in the world. “We’re going to bring in some fresh water, which should balance out the salinity.” The Bahia Grande is hunting grounds for Aplomado falcons, which eat insects, lizards, birds, and small mammals.

We inspect a channel between two small inlets in the estuaries and watch a school of redfish forming a V as they move through. We stop near another small shallow lake, almost dry, and Garcia walks toward a sandy shelf, maybe 5 feet high. Beneath the shelf, dozens of perfectly circular beads no more than an eighth of an inch in diameter, each with a hole in the middle, are scattered in the sand around our feet.

“The thinking is this was on a trade route between the coast and the interior,” Garcia says. Once revegetation has taken hold and archeological work is complete in two to four years, Bahia Grande will have public access. For now, it is open to hunters on designated weekends in the winter.

A silhouette of a person riding a bicycle in front of a sunset

Cycling on Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. Photo by Eric Schlegel

Visiting Laguna Atascosa

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge offers a look at why the Rio Grande Valley was slow to be civilized for large-scale human population. What’s great for the creatures and critters translates to rough country for people—it’s hot, humid, windy, and buggy.

Park staff members recommend bringing a wide-brimmed hat, bug repellent, sunblock, long pants, high socks, and sturdy footwear to ward off ticks, chiggers, and snakes—regardless of the time of year.

The refuge doesn’t have food or drink for sale, and fuel is 15 miles away at the intersection of SH 100 and FM 510 west of Port Isabel. The nearest hospital is in Harlingen, 28 miles from the visitor center.

Admission costs $3 per vehicle. An annual pass is $10. The refuge trails are open daily, dawn to dusk. The visitor center opens Wed-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m. 22817 Buena Vista Boulevard, Los Fresnos. 956-748-3607; fws.gov/refuge/laguna-atascosa

The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group maintains a calendar of events and activities on its website, flanwr.org.

We don’t see a soul on our five-hour tour, except for a lone cyclist cruising along the back side of Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. He is clearly in the zone, steadily pedaling, lost in the rhythm and unaware of our truck inching up behind him. Garcia patiently keeps his distance for a few minutes, then gently taps his horn. The cyclist startles. He pulls over and grins as we pass.

The cyclist is Irv Downing, a 68-year-old former endurance racer who moved from South Padre to be closer to the refuge, which he cycles about “every other day.” Downing calls Laguna Atascosa his Serengeti. “The scenery, the setting, the laguna, it’s just spectacular,” he says. “My son was visiting from Seattle last week, and on our ride photographed 20 nilgai antelope.”

After talking to Downing, I figure I could bicycle this route too—if it wasn’t too windy, too hot, or too cold. “This is a difficult trail because of the distance and wind factor,” Garcia acknowledges. “The way to do this is on an electric bike.”

My ears perk up.

I couldn’t locate any e-bike rentals near the refuge, so I find one to borrow near my home in Wimberley and load it into my SUV. Back at the refuge, I meet photographer Erich Schlegel at the visitor center parking lot just before sunrise.

The narrow, paved route along Steve Thompson Scenic Drive is downright bucolic, especially with the rising sun casting a soft golden glow over the whole scene, straight out of a Van Gogh landscape. I pedal conventionally most of the way, twisting the accelerator handgrip whenever I lag behind Schlegel and whenever headwinds slow
my pace.

We cycle through the monte, up and down a loma, past prairies and estuaries, and along the shores of shallow lakes, bogs, mudholes, and wetlands. Wildlife stirs all along the way. Because we’re on bikes, the wildlife is more active, less oblivious to our presence, than when we were driving the route in a truck. We see several white-tailed deer scamper up from a creek bottom, followed by a herd of nilgai antelope cows who stroll across a grass prairie to meet up with a herd of nilgai bulls.

We cycle 13 miles in two hours including stops at Plover Point and Renee’s Overlook along the shore of the Laguna Madre. It’s a good workout, even with electric assistance. But it is nothing like the exhilaration I feel being there, passing the morning in that part of the Rio Grande Valley where the wild things are.

There is one caveat. No ocelot sighting. I reach out to Hilary Swarts, one of the refuge’s two wildlife biologists. Swarts is an ocelot specialist who has trapped and collared the cats on the refuge; she also documented the first ocelot kitten discovered on the refuge in about two decades.

Swarts, who has worked at the refuge for nine years, has spotted ocelots in the wild twice, one in July 2020 and one this past June, both near the visitor center. “Whenever I feel pessimistic, I remind myself they’re all over this refuge,” she says. “They’ve seen me more often than I’ve seen them. They could be staring at us right now.”

That’s the spirit of Laguna Atascosa.

“It’s that wild, that alive,” Swarts says. “And you don’t have to hike or bike to appreciatethat. Just plant yourself somewhere and watch.”

Laguna
Atascosa Wildlife

Birders are as hip to Laguna Atascosa as the birds are. The late Roger Tory Peterson, a pioneer of modern American bird-watching from New York, made six trips to the refuge in the 20th century in search of uncommon sightings. More than 400 bird species have been spotted at the refuge, including South Texas specialties such as green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas.

Popular bird-watching sites include the visitor center, which is home to blinds, feeders, and water features; Kiskadee Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path; and the Mesquite Trail loop and the Prairie Island viewing area.

Osprey Overlook, a covered platform with a sweeping vista of the 3,500-acre Laguna Atascosa, is a magnet for pelicans, herons, egrets, and, during winter, 85% of the redhead ducks in North America.

Endangered Aplomado falcons were introduced on the refuge in 1993 after being eradicated in most of the Southwest. Twenty-six pairs presently reside on the refuge, most around the Bahia Grande Unit.

Near Osprey Overlook is the trailhead to Alligator Pond, where alligators wallow in their element. And while you won’t likely see them, wild cats are out there too—bobcats, cougars, and ocelots.

Hunts, which take place on designated days between November and February, are managed to cull invasive hogs and nilgai antelope.

From the January 2023 issue
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The President’s Ranch Trail Drive – cruisin’ with LBJ

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/for-a-quick-road-trip-the-presidents-ranch-trail-takes-you-all-the-way-with-lbj/

from TexasHighways.com

The exterior of a white house with a green lawn and mature trees

Way back in 1967, local boosters in Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays counties got together and devised the President’s Ranch Trail, a 100-mile drive from Stonewall to San Marcos, tracing the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was in the last years of his term as president of the United States.

There were ceremonies and a map, but the trail never gained traction until after Johnson left office, when most of the significant sites went under the oversight of the National Park Service and Texas State Parks. Significant infrastructure to accommodate tourists has since been added. And it’s all free.

I was intrigued by Johnson, the 36th president of the United States and the first president from Texas. That lofty position assured a legacy, much of which is enshrined at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin.

But to fully appreciate the person, you need to visit the place where he came from, where the land and water and structures vividly tell the story of Johnson’s life. More than any single person, LBJ transformed his beloved Hill Country, bringing electricity and dependable water to people who had neither, then putting the region on the map as president, spending so much time at his Stonewall ranch, it became known as the Texas White House.

Studying the original map and factoring in modern road conditions and population growth, I devise an amended President’s Ranch Trail, focusing on Stonewall and Johnson City, and leaving out the 38-mile leg from Blanco to San Marcos through Wimberley. The trail can be covered in a single day or broken up into a two-day adventure.

I start in Johnson City, just west of the junction of US 281 and US 290. At the corner of East Ladybird Lane and South Avenue G is the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site Visitor Center, within eyesight of the family home Johnson lived in while growing up, and, nearby, the Johnson settlement, the root source of the LBJ saga.

At the visitor center, I watch the 15-minute introductory film LBJ The President, learn more about his legacy reading the exhibit panels, check out the Model T given to LBJ by the Henry Ford Museum, and visit with Joe Owens, the friendly host behind the counter.

“I was a social studies teacher and love history,” Owens tells me. “I get to meet people from all over the country, all over the world.”

The annual visitor count coming off pandemic closures is about 140,000, and would be higher, Owens says, if the Texas White House wasn’t closed for repairs. (After Ladybird Johnson died in 2007, the family home was given to the National Park Service and opened to visitors. Since 2018, however, structural and foundational issues plus needed improvements have forced its closure.)

When other folks drift into the visitor center, Owens pulls out three matching maps of the ranch district and the Johnson City district and goes into detail about what there is to see and do. I choose to begin at LBJ’s boyhood home—a white clapboard structure with green trim and high ceilings—the next block over.

A map of all the spots to visit on the President’s Ranch Trail.

The family moved into this house in 1913 and lived there until Lyndon left for college in San Marcos in 1927. The simple frame house on Elm Street is deceiving: The Johnsons were already well-connected, with cousin James Polk Johnson founding the town of Johnson City, and Lyndon’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, serving five terms as a state legislator. Ten years after he left for college, Johnson stood on the home’s front porch to announce his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Across the street from the visitor center, at Elm and Avenue F, is the headquarters of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which puts up Christmas lights that are as spectacular as those around the Blanco County courthouse four blocks north. The co-op, created through Johnson’s persistent lobbying as a congressman, brought electricity to the Hill Country.

Following Owens’ directions, I head to the Johnson settlement, two blocks by foot, or easily accessed from the Johnson Settlement Event Center parking lot, four blocks west on US 290, just across from a gas station.

A half-mile gravel loop leads to the settlement’s event center, and a collection of 19th-century cabins, a barn, and corrals with longhorns over the fence line. Lyndon’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson Sr., and his great-uncle Tom Johnson based their cattle operation here from 1867 to 1872. Sending cattle to market up the Chisholm Trail, theirs was the biggest trail-driving outfit in Blanco and six adjoining counties.

From the settlement on the western edge of Johnson City, I continue west 10 miles on US 290 to the settlement in Hye, passing manicured estates of wineries, distilleries, meaderies, and cideries—the new ranches of the Hill Country. On the left, at the turnoff to Hye-Albert Road, is the storied Hye General Store and Post Office, where 4-year-old Lyndon mailed his first letter, according to the historical marker at the entrance. The storefront, built in 1904, was gussied up in a red, white, and blue motif for LBJ’s 1965 swearing-in of new U.S. postmaster general Lawrence O’Brien on the front steps. Today, the post office shares space with Farm Ale Brewing, which is opening a new tasting room soon.

Continue west 3 miles on US 290 to the visitor center for the LBJ State Park and Historical Site. Pick up a pass to drive the LBJ Ranch (no charge). The visitor center also features tchotchkes at the gift shop, a life-size Lyndon to pose next to for photos, and a theater showing films about LBJ.

Next stop is a few hundred feet east of the visitor center on Park Road 52: the living history homestead of Sauer-Beckmann Farm.

“We do everything as if it’s 1918,” says Mark Itz, a fifth-generation Fredericksburger dressed in buckskin who works at the farm as a state park ranger. He and volunteers guide visitors through the vegetable garden, canning room, blacksmith shop, and sewing room where Kathy Catlin shows off her seamstress skills. You can also watch demonstrations of how to feed the domestic stock, gather eggs, chop wood by hand, and keep the wagon wheels turning,

“We just cooked our lunch on the wood stove,” Itz says. “Ground meat, rice, onions, squash, sweet potato. We make our own blood sausage, liver sausage, and head cheese.”

Itz then answers a question about what he misses the most living in 1918. “Electricity would be the biggest thing,” he says. “We didn’t get that here until 1945.” He then explains how Congressman Johnson secured the largest loan for rural electrification ever to establish the Pedernales Electric Coop in 1942.

“And vehicles,” Itz adds to his answer, “although folks around here continued using wagons to haul stuff because the beds of early pickup trucks were so small.”

From the living history farm, it’s across the Pedernales River, the lifeline that nourishes this part of the Hill Country, to the LBJ Ranch, a 2,000-acre spread that Johnson purchased from his aunt in 1951 when he was a United States senator. LBJ’s message “All the world is welcome here” greets visitors beginning the loop around the ranch.

I glimpse inside the Junction School, the classic one-room school where little Lyndon first attended class, and where President Johnson initiated the Head Start education program for underprivileged children. This is followed by the small house marking LBJ’s birthplace (reconstructed in 1964), his grandparents’ house nearby, and the family cemetery.

Heading north, west, and south on the paved one-lane ranch loop (also popular with cyclists), you pass fallow fields, manicured grazing pastures, herds of whitetail deer, a massive irrigation pivot, the show barn with its pens and corrals where LBJ’s prized rust-colored Hereford cattle are housed (ranch hands will answer your questions), the airstrip, and other points of interest.

The drive leads to “Air Force One-Half,” as the small Lockheed jet was called by LBJ. Situated in the adjacent hangar is the National Historical Park Visitor Center for the Texas While House, the Johnson’s home away from Washington, D.C. An exhibit panel highlights the movie nights hosted at the Texas White House in this hangar, a Resistol hat and pair of Lucchese boots—signature presidential wear—a view of the storage room filled with gifts that LBJ bestowed on guests, and a Ladybird-centric room.

A brown old-timey car parked inside of a building next to a white vintage car

Historic Model T at the LBJ Ranch. Photo by Will van Overbeek.

A brown National Parks Service sign reading "Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park"

LBJ Ranch and Texas White House. Photo by Randall Maxwell

The star attraction, though, is the family home, which is currently off-limits. Lack of funds stalled repairs, but it is now on track to reopen within the next five years.

While that may have kept the visitor count down, according to Joe Owens, it’s still fun to check out the grounds where LBJ staged barbecues and walk past the small cottage identified as the United States Secret Service Command Post.

 

Trinity Lutheran Church across the Pedernales River from LBJ Ranch Trinity Lutheran Church, Stonewall. Photo by Will van Overbeek.

Side Trip: LBJ Museum of San Marcos

While the big LBJ Presidential Library in Austin is a destination unto itself, the little LBJ museum on the square in downtown San Marcos complements Johnson’s Hill Country. According to director Debby Butler, the small three-room museum is dedicated to Johnson’s time as a student seeking a history teacher’s certificate at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University, and the two years he spent teaching at the Welhausen School for Mexican children in the South Texas community of Cotulla.

The museum also functions as a small-scale version of the national and state park visitor centers’ exhibits, with the addition of text in Spanish as well as English. Listen to audio of LBJ speaking (and telling some pretty good jokes) while viewing panels that chronicle his initiatives including the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Wilderness Act, and the Space Race. You can also see Lyndon at leisure, including a photograph of the president dancing with his favorite actress, Carol Channing. Among the displays is an exhibit case featuring a colorful array of Johnson campaign buttons and a yellowed original front page of the San Marcos Record announcing Johnson’s death.

The San Marcos Museum informs visitors that Johnson wasn’t just class president, but he was also on the debate team and president of the college’s press club. A black-and-white photo series from 1957 shows him physically cajoling another senator, speaking volumes of LBJ’s persuasive powers. Upstairs is a re-creation of Ladybird’s whistle-stop campaigns by train, along with exhibit panels about her life. Three panels feature her powerful conservation speeches at the Padre Island National Seashore, Big Bend National Park, and Fort Davis National Historical Site. I appreciated reading the reprint of a homesick letter he wrote to his mother, also a school teacher, when he was teaching in Cotulla, in which he writes “Babtist” for Baptist—written like a true Texan.

After a pause by Trinity Lutheran Church (where Lyndon and Ladybird attended Sunday services when they were on the ranch), I turn onto Lower Albert Road, crossing US 290 and continuing south 3 miles down a road past real farms that once dominated the area. Albert, a quick left on FM 1623, consists of a historic dance hall and adjacent icehouse/bar, surrounded by a spacious open picnic area with the Cowboy Cantina food truck.

Just beyond the dance hall is the turnoff to a gate and a sign identifying the building on the other side as the Williams Creek School House. This is where LBJ attended school for a year when he was 4 (clearly, a watershed year for the young fellow). The school is now the Albert Community Club and open for club events only.

Less than a half-mile farther east on Farm-to-Market Road 1623, take County Road 206 (Hye-Albert Road) 5 miles back to Hye, then go 5 miles back to 290. Johnson City, your starting point, is 10 miles east. Altogether the route is about 50 miles and can be done in a full day, or two-days if you prefer a more leisurely visit. There are plenty of quaint places in the area for an overnight stay.

The land, you will discover, shaped the man. And this particular man had enough prominence and clout to preserve and honor the places and people who made it that way. Everything’s OK on the LBJ.

LBJ served by BBQ caterer Walter Jetton
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Joe Ely Looks Back on His 50-Year Career before ACL Induction

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/joe-ely-looks-back-on-his-50-year-career-ahead-of-austin-city-limits-hall-of-fame-induction/

A man in a denim jacket and sunglasses sits on conrete steps with a guitar on his lap and book open over the guitar

Still cool at age 75, Joe Ely continues to perform and make music. Photo by BarbaraFG, courtesy LC Media.

It has been quite a month for Joe Ely. The Flatlanders, the Lubbock trio he first played and recorded with in 1972, headlined the Back to the Basics Music Festival at Luckenbach in late September. It was their first performance in three and a half years, and many thought it would be their final gig. Flatland Lullaby, a musical Christmas gift back in 1985 to his then 3-year-old daughter, Maria Elena, was released on CD for the first time in early October. And on Oct. 27, he will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, along with singer Sheryl Crow.

Is all this part of a long goodbye? I wondered. So I rang him up to ask.

Nah, it’s more like the grand reawakening, explained the 75-year-old Ely, who still keeps musician’s hours, rising “about 10, 10:30.”

“I’ve been taking a breather, healing from an operation I had a couple years ago, getting my strength back,” he said. “Luckenbach was the first one of a new run, if we do anything else. I’m just going to leave it open.”

As for juggling three things at once, that’s been his life, he said matter-of-factly. “This wasn’t planned out. They just happened to collide. So we just grabbed it by the horns.”

It’s a life worthy of hall of famer status in a number of institutions. The discography is impressive, 21 albums and counting. And when it comes to live performance, Joe Ely is without peer, as I discovered when I first saw him back in 1977 at a club in Lubbock called Fat Dawg’s.

MCA Records had just released his debut album, Joe Ely. At that time, the music scene in Austin had blown up to the point where anything coming out of the city was stirring up interest nationally, thanks to folks like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey. But the country-rock hybrid being played around Austin had become tired and stereotypical.

Ely’s album was rock and country, too, but it came out of the city famous for producing ’50s rock ‘n’ roll icon Buddy Holly, and it sounded like it. His ensemble featured guitar, pedal steel, and accordion—instruments then not known for their compatibility—and packed a sonic wallop behind Ely’s singing that was simultaneously rockin’ and boot-scootin’ and so fresh and original, you couldn’t stick a label on it. The interplay between guitarist Jesse Taylor and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines was as powerful and unique to my ears as Duane Allman’s and Dickie Betts’ dueling guitar leads in the original Allman Brothers.

On that same visit to the Hub City, Joe took me to Buddy Holly’s grave at the city of Lubbock Cemetery to pay our respects, and we careened around the wide streets late into the night, ostensibly searching for a Black dwarf blues singer named Little Pete. We finally found Little Pete about 2 a.m., playing pool in TV’s, an after-hours joint located at the end of a cotton field east of town.

“TV was king of East Lubbock,” Ely said when I brought up the vivid memory. “He knew all the cool cats and ran a respectable bar that didn’t open ’til 1 or 2 in the morning. He got along well with the law because they knew the bad guys would be at TV’s; they’d all be in one spot. TV kept the herd on the dangerous side of Lubbock.”

Before that trip to Lubbock, I didn’t know much about Ely’s previous music adventure, The Flatlanders folk trio with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They had recorded an album and made a run at Nashville as country troubadours, without success. They fell apart in 1973. Hancock moved to Austin to open Lubbock Or Leave It, a downtown store that featured his photography. Gilmore followed his spiritual advisor to Colorado. Ely joined the Ringling Brothers circus for a short spell taking care of llamas and the World’s Smallest Horse (really), then settled in Lubbock where he put together a band and built up a local following, making original music that prompted MCA Records to offer a deal.

I thought I’d made a discovery. My instincts were validated a year after I saw Ely in Lubbock by The Clash, the punk rockers from Great Britain. That band caught Ely and company at the Venue Club in London, and a mutual admiration society was immediately established.

“[After that first gig, we] hit the clubs in the East End, staying up all night and having a good time,” Ely told Margaret Moser of the Austin Chronicle back in 2000. “It was like the West Texas hellraisers meet the London hellraisers. We were from different worlds, but it was like, ‘All right! Let’s hang out some more!’ We were playing three nights in a row at the Venue and hung out the whole time.

“They told me they were coming to America and I asked where they wanted to play. ‘Laredo, El Paso’—they were naming off all these gunfighter ballad towns from Marty Robbins’ songs. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ I said, ‘but we could play Lubbock together.’ And they were like, ‘Lubbock! All right!’ We played Houston, San Antonio, Laredo, Lubbock, and Juarez. It was a great Europe-meets-Texas meeting.”

Ely told me The Clash’s fantasy vision of the American West didn’t quite square with reality. “The first thing they said when they got to Lubbock was ‘Where are all the cars? Where are all the people?’ It was a normal day in Lubbock, maybe four cars on the street. But to the Clash it was ‘Where is everybody?’ ’Why did Buddy Holly come from here?’ ‘Why did Elvis play the Fair Park Coliseum eight times?’

“We saw a lot in each other. Imaginations were on fire and bands were extreme. Breaking the rules was the rule.”

A year after bonding with The Clash, Ely became stage sweethearts with Linda Ronstadt, the Queen of L.A. Rock. The Joe Ely Band opened a string of tour dates for Ronstadt, and she returned the favor playing the Tornado Jam in Lubbock in 1982.

Ely and the band split after five years of hardcore touring domestically and internationally. One by one, band members relocated to Austin. Guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone started fronting their own bands, and pedal steel player Lloyd Maines established himself as the most prolific producer in Texas music history after developing his skills in Lubbock.

It was around this time that Ely began embracing technology, meeting and becoming friends with Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer. He experimented with recording using an Apple II computer and the original recordings for B484, which Wozniak did the liner notes for, may be the first album ever recorded on an Apple. He followed that album up with Hi-Res, also recorded on an Apple II.

A few years later, Ely hired guitar-slinger David Grissom and welcomed fellow West Texan Bobby Keys, the saxophone player for the Rolling Stones, to join his new backing band whenever he could. Out of this came Lord of the Highway.

In 1993, Ely struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen, who saw him play in Dublin, Ireland, and became a fan, recording “All Just To Get To You” with Ely and performing together 17 times. Ely never shied away from taking risks. For a stretch, Ely added Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye who played on the 1995 album Letter to Laredo.

By the turn of the century, he had steered into solo and acoustic work, doing several songwriter tours with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark sitting in a semi-circle doing a guitar pull. He won a Grammy as part of the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven. The Flatlanders reunited when Robert Redford asked them to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the film The Horse Whisperer in 1998. Butch, Jimmie, and Joe proved far more popular this time around, recording a full album, Now Again, in 2002. The trio released Treasure of Love, their first new recording in 12 years, last year.

No matter what Joe Ely was doing, he always made time to put together a band for epic live shows at Gruene Hall, where he last performed on Feb. 19, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

As a writer, there have been plays (Chippy), books (Reverb: An Odyssey, Bonfire of Roadmaps), and induction into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2017. There’s also art (including sketches of beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; prints and box sets are available on Ely’s website), and lifetime achievement awards and recognitions out the wazoo.

So between the pandemic pause and post-op rehab, it would be easy to conclude Ely has run his race. Rocking out isn’t effortless when you’re 75. But he begs to differ.

There’s the release of his “labor of love” to his daughter, Flatland Lullaby. “I was glad I didn’t let it slip away like so many other recordings that I’ve done over the years,” he said. “I hadn’t finished them and they just kinda go away if you don’t put them out. There are so many partial stories that lead to other stories, now it’s like a puzzle, piecing it all together. That’s the feeling I had with this Lullaby album.”

And that Flatlanders gig at Luckenbach? “That was the one and only Flatlanders gig in three and a half years. We’re talking about doing the New Orleans Jazz Festival [in April 2023] and talking about doing northern California at Rancho Nicasio [a storied club in rural Marin County, run by former fellow Lubbock native Angela Strehli]. I’ve played there many times. We just don’t have dates inked in.”

But no more three-week runs for the self-declared “Lord of the Highway.” “We not talking about making this a touring band,” he said, laughing. “We just want to have fun, and not get caught up in what it takes to keep a road band going with 10 people on the payroll.”

In other words, the road doesn’t go on forever, like Robert Earl Keen wrote, and Joe Ely doesn’t live on the road anymore. “No, I don’t,” he said, again laughing. “Thank goodness. I’ve done my time.”

He admitted feeling apprehensive about getting back onstage again with the Flatlanders. “It was scary thinking about it,” he said. “But once we got onstage and started playing together, it was like somebody had opened the door and we were back home.”

The next gig, his ACL induction, should feel more like comfortable shoes. Maines is leading the band, which includes David Grissom on guitar and Ely’s longtime rhythm section, drummer Davis McLarty and bassist Jimmy Pettit. Butch and Jimmie Dale will be on hand, along with Marcia Ball and Rodney Crowell.

As for the formal induction, Ely claimed he’ll be winging it. “I don’t know exactly what to do,” he said blithely. “I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know what drawer to look in to find the missing parts of my life.” By showtime, I’m betting he’ll have figured it out.

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