A Time to Drill?
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Last year the feds went toe-to-toe with environmentalists over allowing natural-gas drilling on Padre Island, but neither side has scored a knockout. Here’s what to expect in the next few rounds.
So who threw the first punch in this fight? The Bush administration. A year ago, citing the growing demand for natural gas and the need for the U. S. to become less dependent on foreign energy supplies, the Department of the Interior approved a permit allowing BNP Petroleum, of Corpus Christi, to drill an exploratory natural-gas well inside the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). In November, after BNP struck a reserve fifteen miles from park headquarters, the Interior Department agreed to let it drill two additional wells.
Since when is drilling legal on Padre Island? Since forever. In fact, oil and gas exploration is legal throughout the national park system (nearly seven hundred oil and gas wells exist in thirteen other parks). In the case of PINS, when the federal government began acquiring its 160,000 acres in 1962, it limited the purchase to surface lands, leaving oil and gas rights in the hands of the state and private owners. Any company can apply for a drilling permit, but approval must also be granted by the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department. Nineteen wells have been drilled on Padre since 1979, but only two in the nineties, and both were dry holes.
Okay. But if drilling has always been legal, how can environmentalists fight this? By playing every green group’s favorite trump card: suing under the Endangered Species Act. Few roads exist inside PINS, and to access its drilling sites, BNP must send eighteen wheelers down the beach, which, from April through July, is prime nesting habitat for endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles. Roughly five thousand female turtles exist, and critics of drilling argue that the giant oil company trucks will crush both turtles and their nests. Using this argument, the Sierra Club filed suit against the Interior Department in April.
How is BNP addressing the Sierra Club’s concerns? BNP spokespeople argue that their trucks are no more harmful to the turtles than the thousands of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who roam the beach already each summer. Besides, they say the existing regulations governing their beach access, which include requiring drilling trucks to maintain a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and to travel in caravans led by trained turtle spotters, will adequately protect wildlife.
So how does all of this affect Texans? First, the bad news: Increased drilling will unquestionably have a negative impact on tourism. Nearly 800,000 visitors flock to PINS each year, and no matter how environmentally and visually friendly BNP’s operation is (it will use quieter, diesel- and electric-powered rigs painted the color of their surroundings), nothing spoils a beach picnic quite like a rumbling caravan of industrial truck traffic. On the other hand, there’s a significant financial carrot being dangled by the pro-drilling camp. Because BNP’s proposed new wells will be on state-owned reserves, state law stipulates that between 20 and 25 percent of the revenue the wells generate must go to Texas’ Permanent School Fund. And considering the state’s $9 billion budget shortfall, the estimated 80 billion cubic feet of gas sitting untouched beneath the island could represent an irresistible revenue source.
What happens next? Don’t expect the feds to purchase Padre Island’s oil and natural-gas rights like they did last summer for Big Cypress National Preserve, in Florida. The move to protect the preserve was largely viewed as a political maneuver (read: a chance for President Bush to boost brother Jeb’s 2002 reelection efforts), and the administration has been otherwise adamant about the need to tap our existing energy supplies. A compromise that involves limiting drilling trucks during turtle nesting season or cutting a road down the island away from the beach might appease some critics, but remember, there’s an endangered species involved, and the Sierra Club doesn’t typically go down without a fight. Expect this issue to drag on in the courts, where a judge will issue a final TKO.
Texas Water Safari: 260 miles of rowing your boat
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 27, 2003
SAN MARCOS – To finish the Texas Water Safari, you have to paddle nonstop in a canoe or kayak for 260 miles from Aquarena Center in San Marcos (where Ralph the Diving Pig once performed) down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the flagpole at Bayfront Park in Seadrift, Texas.The safari, which was run earlier this month for the 41st year, is called "The World’s Toughest Boat Race." That’s justified by the distance; the rules (you must finish in 100 hours, and team captains supplying crews can provide only water and ice); the stamina (visualize sleep deprivation); and physical demands (millions of paddle strokes).
With more than 300 people racing solo or in teams of up to six people, the safari is also the Texas equivalent of climbing Mount Everest en masse.
Those who complete the race talk in glowing terms about the murky hell, riddled with snakes, fire ants and alligators awaiting them. They speak of the "Gnarly 40" – 40 miles of tree-clogged river channel between Staples and Palmetto State Park – as if it were a ride at Schlitterbahn. They wax nostalgic recounting trips down Hallucination Alley, which is wherever you get so tired you start seeing things.
They sure aren’t in it for the money. Complete the race in 100 hours or less, and you get a patch and a plaque. Be the first across the finish line, and a crowd of maybe 60 will be cheering.
Outside the norm
The Parkers of Tyler don’t appear too outside the norm – other than Marvin Parker, 53, and his brother Charles, 50, having matching gray beards long enough to give ZZ Top a run for the razor.
Then Luke, Marvin’s 16-year-old son, breaks into a goofy grin and says it: "We’re crazy."
Luke and Marvin won the parent-child division in 2001, the first year Luke raced. Last year, they were blown out when the legendary Mynars fielded a father-son team.
"It’s mostly mental," Marvin says. "Keep your mind right, and you’ll make it."
"That’s all I heard about it when I was a kid," Luke says. "How people start hallucinating after a while. That got me worried."
Are the stories true? "Well, I saw myself one time on the banks looking at me," Luke says. "That was scary."
"I saw a solid cement wall the first year," volunteers Marvin. "I was thinking if it didn’t go away, we were going over the dam. But it went away."
A few feet from the registration table, two novices, Julie Basham of Coppell and Ann Best of Houston, sort protein powder, coffee crystals, and some strange stuff called Gu. They declare they’re up for the challenge.
"We’re both 40," says Ms. Best, a marketer for Hewlett-Packard. "I’ve always wanted to do the safari. I just needed a victim to do it with me." She found one in Ms. Basham, her kayak class teacher. In the span of a few months, Ms. Basham had divorced, lost her job and lost her father.
"He’s riding with us," says Ms. Basham, reaching into their canoe and fetching a green pill bottle from a Styrofoam holder. "This is Dad – his ashes, actually. I’m going to spread them at Seadrift. Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish."
The two women have paddled 87 miles straight, practicing for the event – long enough for Ms. Best to have seen E.T. going through Hallucination Alley. Two hundred sixty miles is another matter.
Ms. Basham calculates 78 hours to finish.
"Maybe 80," Ms. Best hedges.
"Seventy-eight hours," Ms. Basham says emphatically, splashing bottled water on Ms. Best and soaking her SpongeBob T-shirt.
Adventure in life
Since 1992, save for one year, a Mynar or three have been in the winning boat. The patriarch, Joe Mynar, 55, a stout, steely-eyed truck driver from Kopperl, owns the Texas Water Safari, having racked up 14 wins.
"There’s not much adventure in life these days," he says. "Everything’s pretty much programmed. But for a few days, it’s you, your team, your boat and the river."
This year, Joe’s son, Brian, who lives in Abbott, and Joe’s brother, Fred, who lives in San Marcos, are racing in another boat.
Joe’s crew includes John Dunn, 36, a fire ant researcher and ex-paramedic from Austin who has racked up nine wins paddling with Mr. Mynar, along with Tom Goynes, 52, of San Marcos, a seven-time safari winner, and Bucky Chatham, 60, of Seadrift, a retired shrimper with cancer.
"He had surgery in November and wants to run the safari one more time," Joe Mynar says in a low voice, out of earshot of Mr. Chatham. "We just want to make sure we get him to the finish line."
The last two times a Mynar didn’t win, John Bugge, 52, did. The plumbing contractor from Bryan holds the record for finishing the safari – 25 times. This year, he’s paddling tandem with his granddaughter, Jessica, 9, the youngest entrant in the 2003 race.
Asked to explain why she’s going, the freckle-faced brunette giggles and shrieks, "For fun!" then grabs the hand of her sister, Cecili, 3, and runs off.
"We’ve done the San Marcos River maybe four times and almost all of the Guadalupe," Mr. Bugge says. "She’s practiced running logjams, riding currents, going through stuff in the middle of the night, sleeping, eating and relieving herself. She’s already decided she wants to go solo next year." Before she goes solo, though, they’ll have to finish together this year, he says.
Mr. Bugge’s goal is 55 hours in their 21-foot hybrid boat, if all goes according to plan.
"She doesn’t believe me when I tell her how hard it’s going to be," he says. "But if she finishes, she’ll know more than most adults know."
Donna Bugge, John’s wife, admits some friends think they’re crazy for letting Jessica race. "Then again, they think we’re crazy anyhow," she says.
This year’s celebrity, Ian Adamson, 38, is a professional adventure racer from Sydney, Australia, who’s won the Eco-Challenge four times.
Paddling with his friend West Hansen, 41, a broad-shouldered barn builder from Austin, Mr. Adamson compares the safari to a single leg of an Eco-Challenge. "But this is more intense. To me, this is the best boat race I’ve ever run, starting in a clear freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast. The barbecue at the end of the race certainly is unique."
Mr. Hansen estimates 40 hours. "If we get rain, maybe 38. At least in these conditions, we shouldn’t break the boat in half again."
Nearby, Elmer Haby, 48, inspects his 10-foot Minnow kayak. The Devine resident completed the safari with a partner 18 years ago. Now he’s ready to try it alone. "I’d like to finish under 100 hours," he allows as he lights up a cigarette.
He knows his boat is not made for long distances, and his friends have been second-guessing him, saying things such as, "Are you out of your mind?"
"Probably," he says. "But I won’t know until I try."
John Mark Harras’ blue button-down Oxford shirt, rattlesnake pantyhose and straw cowboy hat stand out in the crowd. He’s a "Cowboy," one of a six-man crew known for its over-the-top behavior. Mr. Harras, 44, of Houston, bubbles enthusiasm as he recounts throwing up during races ("You just keep paddling"), getting a fishhook stuck in his ear, and seeing things in Hallucination Alley.
"I used to race with a woman," Mr. Harras says. "One year, she pointed to the riverbank and said, ‘See that giant priest up there, praying for our sins?’ I looked. It wasn’t a priest. It was a great big Quaker Oats box."
Fred and Brian Mynar and their crew, dressed in matching white hats and white shirts and paddling with military precision, were the first to Seadrift, arriving in the Sunday evening twilight, 36 hours and 15 minutes after departure.
John Mark Harras and his Cowboys were second in 40 hours, 4 minutes. Bucky Chatham came home to Seadrift with Joe Mynar’s crew in 42 hours, 35 minutes.
Jessica and John Bugge made it in 51 hours and 23 minutes. Luke and Marvin Parker clocked in at 61 hours, 43 minutes. Ann Best, Julie Basham and Julie’s father’s ashes finished in 79 hours, 29 minutes. Elmer Haby dropped out before the first checkpoint at Staples Dam, 16 miles from the start.
One racer suffered a snakebite, though he didn’t realize it until 80 miles later. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and hypothermia sent several to hospitals. A thunderstorm over San Antonio Bay swamped four boats. Sane or insane, most will be back in the safari race for more next year.
Because it’s there.
Songwriter helps lead the fight against development
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 12, 2003
EL PASO – Tom Russell can lay claim as the “last” singer-songwriter in Texas. That’s because he lives in a historic 70-year-old adobe home on 3 acres within spitting distance of the New Mexico state line.
The Los Angeles native, whose folk songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang, has lived in many corners of the world – Nigeria in wartime, Austin as it was emerging as a music scene, San Francisco and Brooklyn. But he now lives in the far end of far West Texas by choice.
The rural area is known as the Upper Valley, a swath of green bordering both sides of the Rio Grande for a mile or two as it meanders through the Chihuahuan Desert. The rugged western flank of the Franklin Mountains, the southern end of the Rockies that end in the heart of the city, provides a scenic backdrop.
“This is the last oasis in West Texas,” says Mr. Russell, 55. “It’s a refuge for heron, desert tortoises, egrets, raccoons, skunks, badgers, you name it. I have foxes walking through my yard every day.”
But the days of Mr. Russell’s idyllic retreat may be numbered. Progress in the form of two-story stucco houses built to their lot lines – crammed into subdivisions, five to eight homes per acre – are marching his way at a fast pace, with requests by developers for city zoning variances leading the way.
The first skirmish came last year when Mr. Russell and five of his neighbors managed to reroute massive overhead power lines that were proposed to run directly over their homes.
A controlled access highway completed two years ago to link Interstate 10 with Santa Teresa, N.M., has been a magnet attracting subdivisions, which in turn are attracting commercial developments.
Farming on plots of land less than 100 acres was already in decline in the Upper Valley, as it is everywhere in the United States. The sandy river-bottom soil is certainly productive enough. But the cost of planting, growing and harvesting crops, and increased competition from other countries add up to food and fibers being grown somewhere else.
Factor in what Mr. Russell sees as a city leadership overly supportive of growth and development at the expense of residents, and the Upper Valley becomes vulnerable. It is one of the few green spaces remaining in the metro area.
Yet those who support growth and development say that El Pasoans need housing and that it is being provided under the rules and guidelines set forth.
“Ownership of property is one of our basic rights in America, and it cannot be vulnerable to opposition without good cause,” says Rex Smith, a landowner who purchased Upper Valley property a year ago and immediately sought a zoning variance from the City Planning Commission. “Progress happens, and it cannot be stopped.”
Susan Austin, the City Council member who represents the Upper Valley, pushed for lower-density housing rules after initial protests. But she – along with the majority of the council – also voted to approve Mr. Smith’s application for higher-density housing. That has prompted one of Mr. Russell’s neighbors to mount a recall campaign of Ms. Austin.
Even if she has been the object of much wrath, Ms. Austin calls the activism of Mr. Russell and his neighbors “as passionate as any neighborhood group in my district.”
But she pointedly adds that they should put their money where their mouths are. “A lot of people want to preserve the idea of having a ranch-size homestead without having bought a ranch-size homestead, including Tom Russell, ” Ms. Austin says.
“Some of the people all over me don’t even live in the city. They live in the county” – outside the city limits. “The city can regulate. There are no zoning restrictions at all in the county.”
Mr. Russell came to El Paso seeking the same sort of inspiration that artists such as Tom Lea and Luis Jimenez and writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Benjamin Saenz have mined so well. “He always loved places like this,” says his sister Nan Lazzaretto, a schoolteacher.
Mr. Russell’s home is a hideout of sorts, in the outlaw tradition, tucked behind a wall of trees, high brush and cane that suddenly materializes among the fields of cotton, chili peppers, pecan plantations and pastoral horse farms that define the Upper Valley way of life.
“I love that there is no scene here,” he says as he doffs his cowboy hat to reveal a head of graying, wavy hair. “I don’t have to worry about being seen.”
Unlike Brooklyn, where he lived for almost 20 years before moving here six years ago, “people here are pleasant and neighborly,” he says.
“Downtown El Paso is like a movie set. It’s like things have never changed. I love being close to Mexico. I love the history. The Old Spanish Road up to Santa Fe is right down here. I grew up on Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ and the tales of gunfighters.” As it happens, Rosa’s Cantina is not too far down the road.
Sometimes friends stop in. Dave Alvin drops by whenever he’s on his way from his home in Los Angeles to gigs in the southern United States. So does Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
A few years back, Mr. Russell hosted a border-town birthday bash for songwriter and visual artist Terry Allen that drew a gaggle of like-minded professional dreamers. Not everyone gets it. The late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, whose last recording was backing up Mr. Russell, likened El Paso’s dry summer heat to being “in a pizza oven.”
Mr. Russell started writing, singing and playing originals more than 30 years ago, inspired by hearing his older brother sing cowboy songs and seeing Bob Dylan perform “Desolation Row” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964.
He taught criminology in Nigeria from 1969-70 during the Biafran war , then followed friends he made in Africa to Vancouver, British Columbia. A band performing Hank Williams songs on Skid Row moved him to think: “That’s the job for me.” He landed in Austin in 1974 during that city’s nascent era as a music scene. Later, he drifted to San Francisco before landing in Brooklyn in the early ’80s.
He shifted his focus to writing (“I’m a frustrated novelist,” he says) and drove cabs to pay the bills. When he sang a song he’d written called “Gallo del Cielo” to one fare – the composer Robert Hunter, who collaborates with the Grateful Dead – he was encouraged to get back on stage.
Life in El Paso has suited him just fine. His adobe hacienda is filled with Mexican pickled-pine furniture and folk art. He just finished an open, Mexican-style patio. He has incorporated the landscape and local history into his work.
The critic John Swenson called Mr. Russell’s ambitious 1999 song cycle The Man From God Knows Where as “close to a Homeric treatment of American history as we’re ever likely to see.” Two years ago, he released Borderland, which includes “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” a song inspired by his ex-girlfriend’s uncle.
The uncle, who found the house Mr. Russell lives in, used to play piano across the border when Juarez was a hotbed for quickie Mexican divorces. The location also satisfies Mr. Russell’s jones for bullfighting and his love of the border, although twice he’s found himself caught in the crossfire of warring drug gangs in Juarez.
Mostly, though, Mr. Russell’s place offers refuge from a steady touring schedule that over the past half-year has taken him to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Calgary and Edmonton in western Canada, and across the United States from Oregon to Maine – including an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, backed by Nanci Griffith in support of his latest album, Modern Art.
Mr. Russell and five neighbors have won some small victories in their effort to ward off more developments. Last summer, they successfully lobbied the City Planning Commission to reduce zoning density from R3A zoning, which allows up to eight homes per acre, to R2A, meaning lots can accommodate no more than five homes per acre.
That may be the best outcome possible, says Elma Carreto, the chairwoman of the Planning Commission. She says she sympathizes with Mr. Russell and insists the commission’s goal is to make sure planned developments conform to the existing area.
She says existing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, police, firefighters and schools, are not prepared to handle the traffic that 2,500 new homes bearing families will bring. But she can go only so far, she says.
While Mr. Russell’s songs classify him as a folkie, he is not known for political broadsides. His body of work tends to speak to larger philosophical issues, such as aging and loneliness. That makes his anti-development activism all the more unusual. “I don’t have any political bent,” he explains. “I don’t write protest songs.”
Instead, he has written letters, called the local chapter of the Sierra Club (the voice on the other end of the line urged him to play at a weekly meeting), attended planning commission and council meetings, and spoken out. “This is not a left-wing or right-wing argument – it’s right or wrong,” he says.
“There’s no real plan for this area. They just want to develop here while the interior of the city begs to be redeveloped. The leaders don’t see the big picture. They just want to develop, develop and develop until there isn’t anywhere left. We don’t need another 7-Eleven. There’s a Circle K a quarter-mile down the road. Lowe’s and McDonald’s will be next. The prognosis is pretty sad.
“You don’t do this to farmland. You don’t do this to your children. It’s corrupt thinking.”
His heels are dug in deep. “I’ll take my stand here,” he says. “Maybe import some donkeys and ducks and pigs, and no one will want to live next to me. I’m talking with some folks about buying up some land to keep it in farming. Other than that, I’m planting a lot of trees.”
The dilemma has moved him to also do what he does best. “I’m thinking about writing a song about all this,” he says. “Only it’s going to be from the point of view of a fox.”
See the Forest of Cooperation for the Trees
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
May 19, 2003
The first shot marking a new phase in the great American environmental war was fired last week — in Fort Worth, of all places. But hardly anyone heard it.
A two-day writers workshop titled “Beyond Command and Control” — sponsored by Environmental Defense and the Sand County Foundation of Madison, Wis., and hosted by Ramona Bass — was largely ignored by the Texas media, other than the five outdoors writers who attended the conference and me.
It’s understandable. On the surface of it, there isn’t much newsworthy about 40 people getting together to hash over land use, endangered species, law and human interaction with nature, topped off by a tour of the Texas Wild! exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo led by Bass.
But the mere fact that landowners and greens were engaging in dialogue to develop consensus about land, water, wildlife and the environment rather than yelling at one another other was not just news — it was downright earthshaking.
Ten years ago, the Endangered Species Act, which originally was intended to identify, protect and save rare birds, fish, animals and insects, was having precisely the opposite effect.
Landowners who had endangered species on their property were being punished with onerous rules, regulations and restrictions rather than being recognized for harboring unique plants and animals.
Many Texas landowners felt so threatened by the heavy-handed enforcement of the act that they summarily denied federal and state biologists access to their property out of fear that endangered species would be found and some bureaucrat would step in to tell them how they could or couldn’t manage their own land. Some went so far as to kill rare birds and destroy their habitat.
Similarly, whenever a green organization such as Environmental Defense saw a problem, the first reaction was to “Sue the bastards,” as Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense’s president, explained at the workshop.
Those attitudes defined the old rules of engagement. Today, it’s a far different story.
Environmental Defense, having recognized the pitfalls of wielding a heavy hammer to instigate change, has taken the lead in developing “Safe Harbor” agreements that reward landowners for having endangered species rather than penalizing them.
Several landowners, including Dr. Rickey Fain from Glen Rose and Bob Long of Bastrop, testified how such agreements and cooperative efforts among landowners, environmentalists and regulators have worked to protect endangered species including the black-capped vireo and the Houston toad.
That mirrors the philosophy articulated by Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin conservationist who inspired the creation of the Sand County Foundation by championing personal responsibility and individual stewardship as the most effective means of preserving and protecting the environment.
A news conference was held during the workshop to announce Environmental Defense’s $1 million investment in a partnership with the Sand County Foundation to create the Leopold Stewardship Fund.
The money is already being spread among 14 landowner groups dealing with endangered species across the country.
Landowner incentives ring especially loud and clear in Texas, which is home to more animal species than any other state in the nation, and which happens to be 97 percent privately owned.
The sometimes not-so-subtle message tucked into the $40 million Texas Wild! recreation of the state’s regions and its wildlife is that private property owners are conservationists, too, and despite the doom-and-gloom message that humans are destroying the environment, there’s plenty of reason to have hope.
The message reflects the beliefs of Bass and her husband, a former commissioner of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
The Basses own tens of thousands of acres. My family owns less than 10.
Ramona Bass and her husband are avid hunters. I prefer observing wildlife to shooting at it.
But when it comes to describing the flight of a caracara, knowing why side oats grama is good and guinea grass is bad, and appreciating the subtle beauty of the South Texas brush country, we are equals in our passion.
We both recognize that it is in the best interest of Texas and Texans to care about land, water and wildlife — especially in the current climate of budget cuts and an administration that has been less than enthusiastic when it comes to environmental matters.
In the long run, Congress and the Legislature are not the places to seek answers. If you own it, it’s yours to take care of, no matter how big or how small the parcel of land.
The responsibility of stewardship goes hand in glove with property rights. Cooperation trumps confrontation — especially when the natural world we all live in is at stake.
To pull it all off also will take a leader much like Lady Bird Johnson, who helped beautify America with wildflowers.
Are you listening, Mrs. Bass?
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 24, 2003
"Leaving on a Jet Plane,” the pop hit by Peter, Paul and Mary, may have put the romance in flying. But despite all the nonstops from D/FW Airport to just about anywhere in the world, and as appealing as Machu Picchu on the Same Day sounds, truth is I have neither the money nor the time, much less the patience, to play that fantasy out.
My song is “Sixty Minute Man,” the doo-wop classic recorded by Billy Ward & His Dominoes 52 years ago. I’m not that kind of 60-minute dude (I wish!) but a 60-minute man when it comes to getting away. Give me the road trip that’s brief and close to home.
Unfortunately, sticking to the Dominoes’ theory by getting away in an hour or less around these parts is a real challenge. You can blow an hour in traffic alone and still be stuck inside the city limits.
Avoid rush-hour traffic, leave from the right part of the sprawl, and most important, head in the right direction, and you’ll find the ideal version of Texas, exotic nooks and crannies that are way, way out there, all reachable in LensCrafters time.
Disclaimer: Our 60-minute man assumes no responsibility for speeding tickets caused by trying to get to where you’re going within the officially designated time limit. Don’t rush it.
Twenty-eight miles south of Dealey Plaza is about the most perfect small town in Texas, an opinion shared by dozens of film crews that have used Waxahachie, its gingerbread homes and the surrounding countryside as stage sets. Bob Phillips even stages his annual Texas Country Reporter festival here.
DMN FILE 2002
The Ellis County Courthouse is the centerpiece of downtown Waxahachie.
The 15-block downtown clustered around the majestic Ellis County Courthouse is a mega-flashback, including the meticulously restored, 91-year-old historic Rogers Hotel, a working soda fountain (Weezer’s Classic Cup) and fancy dining choices (LaPrelle, Emory’s Bistro).
Check the Webb Gallery for Venzil Zatoupil’s toothpick sculpture of a Ferris wheel (constructed with 9,900 toothpicks and 140 chopsticks) and an excellent array of other folk art.
Stop in at the Ellis County Museum on the corner of the square for driving-tour directions to places that appeared in such films as Tender Mercies, The Trip to Bountiful, Places in the Heart and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” music video.
From Waxahachie, it’s a 15-minute drive west on FM66 – which, for romantic purposes, will be referred to as Texas Route 66 – to Maypearl, through a rolling countryside where tract homes are beginning to pop up, the kind of setting that so intrigued David Byrne when he filmed True Stories, the quirky paean to specialness, around Dallas.
Casting director Carla James says Maypearl “may be the most beautiful place on earth in the spring.” The wide open spaces hold up pretty well, too. The reward at the end of the road is a real, honest comfort meal at the Busy Bee Cafe, a classic chat ‘n’ chew where CFS on Mondays for lunch is $5.75 with tea and dessert. The Busy Bee is now open on some evenings, and on weekends there’s music by touring Texas singer-songwriters at the Back of the Bee.
Head home by taking FM157 north from Maypearl to Venus, 10 miles away. The old bank on the corner of the humble rectangle that passes for the town square and part of the covered sidewalk on the main street were used as a backdrop when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were playing Texas’ most notorious bank-robbing couple in the film Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.
Rogers Hotel: 100 N. College St., Waxahachie. 972-938-3688 or 1-800-556-4192. www.rogershotel.com
Webb Gallery: Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. and by appointment. 209-211 W. Franklin, Waxahachie. 972-938-8085. www.webbartgallery.com
Ellis County Museum: Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. 201 S. College St., Waxahachie. 972-937-0681.
Busy Bee Cafe: Mondays through Saturdays from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., also Thursdays from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Fridays from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. 301 N. Main St., Maypearl. 972-435-8222.
OFF-ROADING A CONVERSATION AWAY
Sure, that Hummer may look like a tank and act like a rugged off-road vehicle on a four-lane superslab. But has it really ever been deep in the mud or crawled up a pile of rocks? Put that big-wheeler hog or jimmied Jeep to the test at Tim McGill’s AGR Wheelin’ Ranch. The street-legal off-road ranch is 69 miles northwest of Denton and the Interstate 35 split. Overnight at the Nocona Hills Motel and Campground or the Nocona Inn.
AGR Wheelin’ Ranch: Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays by appointment. Take I-35 north to Gainesville, go west on U.S. Highway 82 for about 30 miles, go right on FM1815 until it dead ends, go left on FM1956, right on FM3301, then enter the Nocona Hills gate on the left. $20 a day for vehicle and driver, $5 for each additional passenger. 214-435-7196. www.agrwheelinranch.com.
Nocona Hills Campground and Motel: FM3301, then left on Nocona Drive, left on Country Club Drive, Nocona. 940-825-3445 (campground) and 940-825-3161 (motel).
Nocona Inn: 219 Clay St., Nocona. 940-825-8800.
HIGH ROLLING ON THE LONE STAR SAVANNA
Glen Rose, about an hour southwest of downtown Fort Worth, used to be known for its outstanding examples of petrified wood architecture and the dinosaur tracks in the bed of the Paluxy River. These days, it’s a nature hub, beginning with Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, part drive-through zoo and part breeding and research facility for native, exotic, threatened and endangered wildlife including giraffes, rhinos, zebras and wolves. Self-guided tours ($16.95) and behind-the-scenes guided tours ($35, $25 for kids) are fun, but overnights in the Lodge or the Foothills Safari Camp, inspired by lodges in Kenya, are dreamy.
Hunters and nonhunters gravitate up the road to Rough Creek Lodge, an even higher-end rustic luxury lodge that features upland bird, deer, and hog hunting, fly fishing, bird watching and fine dining.
On the same road is Dr. Rickey Fain’s Quail Ridge Ranch, a more intimate five-room version of Rough Creek, with a main lodge, upland bird hunting, fishing, wildlife watching and gourmet meals. The ranch is a showcase of sound stewardship, with the land restored to its native condition of more than 100 years ago.
Hico, 20 more miles down State Highway 220, is about as Western as a Western town can get in these parts, with saddle shops, a Billy the Kid Museum (the outlaw William H. Bonney allegedly hid out here and died an old man) and Dublin Dr Pepper served at better establishments.
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center: Daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Three miles southwest of Glen Rose just off U.S. Highway 67. $16.95, $12.95 seniors 62 and up, $10.95 children 4-11. All ages half-price on Wednesdays. 254-897-2960. www.fossilrim.com.
The Lodge at Fossil Rim and the Foothills Safari Camp: Inside the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose. 254-897-2960.
Rough Creek Lodge Executive Conference Center Retreat & Resort: Take Highway 67 west through Glen Rose. Take a left on County Road 2013, about 12 miles outside of Glen Rose, then go about four more miles and look for the signs. 254-965-3700. www.roughcreek.com.
Quail Ridge Ranch: 1755 County Road 2013, 13 miles outside of Glen Rose. 1-866-897-3618. www.quailridgeranch.com.
RUN FOR THE BORDER
IRWIN THOMPSON / DMN
Check out Oklahoma’s recently upgraded WinStar Casino.
OK, the WinStar Casino in Oklahoma isn’t Vegas, much less Ciudad Acuña. Then again, Acuña isn’t Acuña anymore. And it isn’t Bossier City, La., either. What the Chickasaw Nation’s former Touso Ishto bingo is, is a long hour’s drive from downtown Dallas, half the distance to the Louisiana line, which translates into more quality time when you get there to fritter away whatever coinage you’ve brought with you.
The recently expanded and upgraded 110,000-square-foot layout has two spacious casinos with more than 1,000 slotlike video lottery terminals operating bingo, poker and eight-liner-type games, as well as off-track betting, a mega-buffet, an upscale restaurant specializing in Southwestern cuisine and a theater bringing in “name” talent (Jimmy “JJ” Walker!).
What WinStar doesn’t have is booze. No alcohol is served. To compensate, save enough running change to motor north up Interstate 35 to Exit 24 for a suite, cottage or floating cabin at Lake Murray State Park and Resort and throw yourself a party.
WinStar Casino: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6 a.m. the next morning. I-35 north to Exit 1, near Thackerville, Okla. 580-276-4229. www.winstarcasinos.com.
Lake Murray State Park and Resort: I-35 north to Exit 24, go east two miles to the park, which is just north of Thackerville. 1-800-257-0322 or 580-223-6600.
Stop obsessing over the St. Augustine, Bermuda and bent grass and get out in real nature. Just east of Greenville, 60 miles northeast of downtown Dallas, is the Paul Mathews Prairie Nature Preserve, a pristine meadow of grasses that were here before people were. The prairie’s good earth has never been broken by a plow and is one of the last remnants of the once vast, 12 million-acre Texas Blackland Prairie, a surviving chunk of wild America in a region that’s been otherwise tamed or paved over.
See what Spanish explorers and early pioneers were talking about when they described grass as high as a horse’s belly. The sweep of the sea of big bluestem, switchgrass and Indiangrass waving in the wind is downright exhilarating. In springtime, the prairie is about as close to heaven as you can get in Hunt County.
Paul Mathews Prairie Nature Preserve: From the U.S. Highway 69 junction in Greenville, go west on U.S. Highway 380 for 4 1/2 miles, then north on FM903 for two miles, west on County Road 1116, then west two miles to County Road 1119. Look for the wood sign marking the prairie. (There’s no parking lot or building, just the meadow.) For more information or directions, call the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau, 903-455-1510.
This Athens may not be in another country, but to scuba divers, it’s close enough. Until recently, they had to settle for Possum Kingdom northwest of Mineral Wells or Lake Travis near Austin for some semblance of diving clarity, if they couldn’t make it to Cozumel for the gin-clear stuff.
That was before Calvin and Shannon Wilcher and their son Alex took a 7.5-acre spring-fed quarry six blocks from the town square and 70 miles southeast of downtown Dallas and salted it with underwater wrecks including singer Ray Price’s first touring bus and a Lockheed C-140 Jet Star. They constructed entry docks and a full-service dive shop and let the 35-foot visibility (sometimes ranging up to 70 feet) do the rest. The result is Athens Scuba Park, an unexpected haven for divers and swimmers, with scuba instruction, RV hookups and overnight camping.
Next up to take the underwater plunge: A Dallas DART bus will become the newest attraction when it’s pulled into the water on Nov. 1.
East of the scuba park is another water attraction tailored for the rod-and-reel crowd, the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. The Texas Parks & Wildlife’s tribute to fishing includes a Fishing Hall of Fame museum; replicas of streams, lakes, and wetlands; catch-and-release fishing in stocked ponds (tackle supplied); aquariums; dive shows; and a hatchery and lab.
Athens Scuba Park: Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Camping available. $15 per diver per day, extra for camping. 500 Murchison St., Athens. 903-675-5762. www.athensscubapark.com.
Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center: Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. 5550 Flat Creek Road (FM2495), Athens. $5.50, $4.50 seniors, $3.50 ages 4-12. 903-676-2277. www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/infish.
German towns have a rep for being well-built and neat as a pin. Muenster, a small, close-knit community of 1,500, is 73 miles from Dallas and Fort Worth on U.S. Highway 82, just south of the Oklahoma line, and it plays to the stereotype.
Surrounded by a wide-open landscape of rolling hills that sprawl west all the way to the foothills of the Rockies, the town was settled by German immigrants in 1889. Over the years it has managed to retain much of its Old Country charm in the forms of the Catholic church (the town’s most prominent structure), restaurants serving Westphalia-inspired cuisine, three meat markets that grind their own sausage, a bakery with all the requisite sweets, a town museum and a main street of shops and stores. You can also buy your natural dog food direct from Muenster Milling, endorsed by Nolan Ryan and Howard Garrett, the Dirt Doctor.
There’s one motel in town, the A-OK, and Miss Olivia’s bed and breakfast, and plenty of other overnight options are available in Gainesville, 13 miles east.
The town rolls out the barrel for Germanfest every April. The Muenster Chamber of Commerce (940-759-2227) and the North Texas Info Web site (www.nortexinfo.net/gfest) have the details.
Muenster Milling: Open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 202 S. Main, Muenster. 1-800-772-7178. www.muenstermilling.com.
A-OK Motel: 700 E. Division, Muenster. 940-759-2268.
Miss Olivia’s Bed & Breakfast: 319 S. Denton, Gainesville. 940-665-5558. www.missolivias.com
Caprock Canyons Trailway Ranger, Clyde Dudley, keeps careful watch over the 64-mile trail and its spectacular scenery. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The Real Texas: Caprock Canyons Trailway
Rails to Trails
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Forrest MacCormack
History pulses along the Caprock Canyons Trailway as it courses by ancient flatlands, wild canyons and authentic, old Texas towns.
On October 20, 1541, Franciso Vasquez de Coronado wrote to the King of Spain, describing the remarkable landscape he had encountered during his exploration of the American Southwest. The Spanish adventurer had come upon the Llano Estacado, a huge mesa spanning northern Texas and eastern New Mexico. “I reached some plains so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” he wrote. “With no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea…there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
As I stand at the western end of the 64-mile Caprock Canyons Trailway nearly half a millennium later, I can see pretty much what Coronado saw on his fruitless search for the Seven Cities of Gold: perfectly flat grasslands sprawling to the western horizon with little interruption, save for the neatly ordered rows of corn, sorghum, wheat, peanuts and cotton. But once I head east a couple of miles on the trail’s wide gravel bed, following the path blazed by thousands of modern explorers on bicycle, horseback and foot, I encounter a different view altogether. The plateau drops off dramatically to another kind of rough country-rolling hills and valleys. Those contrasting vistas are the calling cards of this Texas rail-trail, colored by the direct connection to deep history and richly ornamented by such picturesque railroad artifacts as the 46 bridges and one tunnel. But for some of us, it’s the privilege of savoring sweet isolation and absolute solitude that puts the Caprock Canyons Trailway in a class of its own.
To navigate this spacious open country, travelers of yore needed something, anything, to help them figure out exactly where they were. Coronado began a history of references to the tabletop plain’s few landmarks as “stakes,” thus the name Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains. A jagged 300-mile-long palisade, known as the Caprock Escarpment, that runs southwest to northeast divides the higher Llano from the rolling plains below, and there’s no better place than the trailway to witness this geological transition of the famous Red River Valley The “breaks” are particularly vivid two miles east of South Plains, a vaguely defined settlement at the rail-trail’s western end, where the high plateau drops-up to 300 feet in some places-forming red dirt canyons pocked with arroyos, washes, pour-offs, and even hidden creek bottoms bristling with cottonwoods, willows, oaks, pecans and mesquite. During rare wet periods, there’s even a waterfall or two. It’s the stuff of a Western movie. Only this is the real thing.
Since ancient times, the Caprock canyons and the Llano above them have been nomadic country. The land is too tough, too harsh ever to be really settled. Prehistoric peoples moved through with the seasons. Modern Plains Indians, notably the Apache and Comanche, traded with comancheros, people of Mexican descent in New Mexico. Briefly, ciboleros, New Mexican hunters, moved into the area, following in the footsteps of the Native Americans to hunt the plains buffalo, and doing it so efficiently that they killed them off. Third and fourth generation descendents of Anglo pioneer ranchers and farmers still work the land, trying to hang on.
Tomas Hinojosa, Quitaque Riding Stables owner, leads a pack of trail riders in Caprock Canyons State Park. Photograph by Forrest MacCormack
The ideal way to get a feel for this wild country is to cycle, hike or ride horseback along the Caprock Canyons Trailway at a pace similar to that of the people who moved through here centuries ago. Buzz through the still-wild frontier by car at 70 mph and you miss the nuances. The distant honk of a sandhill crane on a clear, mild winter’s day. The crackle of branches signaling a family of white-tailed deer or pronghorn antelope moving through the brush. The sight of a young rattlesnake sunning on the trail a few feet from a horned lizard that skitters into the grass. The sudden flap of quail flushed out of the tall grass by the sound of a bike tire rolling on a cinder path. Paw prints and scat on the trail, vivid evidence of mountain lion or bobcat nearby.
A little knowledge of the past, whether measured in geological time or on the more fleeting human scale, will summon ghosts-of cataclysmic floods and creeping erosion; of buffalo herds rumbling across barren valleys; of migrating flocks on the Central Flyway above; of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief; of Charles Goodnight, the first mythic rancher of the Texas Panhandle; and of the spring cattle drives from Matador Ranch, a few miles south, all the way up to the South Saskatchewan River in Canada, one of the longest, most storied livestock migrations in the cowboy kingdom.
The railroad arrived in 1928, late by Western standards. Denver Road general manager Frank Clarity promoted the idea of a South Plains spur of the Fort Worth-Denver railway to connect the cotton and farming hub of Lubbock, Texas, with the town of Estelline on the railroad’s main route. He was honored by having the tunnel on the new line named in his honor. But the Fort Worth-Denver South Plains Railroad didn’t last long. The growth of the trucking industry and a declining agricultural base made the line a luxury for its parent company, Burlington Northern, to operate. The line was abandoned in 1989.
When the railroad pulled out, local citizens already were ruminating about the idea of converting the corridor to a one-of-a-kind trail. The late OR. Stark, Jr., a banker and local booster in the little town of Quitaque (pronounced “Kitty-Kway,” and named by Charles Goodnight after the Indian word for “end of the trail”), along with two area pastors, since departed, organized grassroots support for the rail-trail, while the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department took the initiative on the state level. They figured the trailway would complement the newly opened, 14,000-acre Caprock Canyons State Park and could be maintained and operated by the park’s staff. Residents of the three farming and ranching towns along the trailway-Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline-were behind the concept, since each was losing population (a plight common to small towns throughout the Great Plains). With no industry or natural resources to promise salvation, tourism via the trailway was a last, best hope.
“O.R. Stark saw the natural beauty of the Caprock and knew it would be an asset, not just for the community but the whole area,” his son, Randy, says. “The hardest part about making it happen was all the waiting. It took two years to get it going, mostly because he had to deal with the state”; navigating through a government bureaucracy takes time.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) eventually stepped in to help the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department acquire the rail corridor for recreational use, funneling federal funds for infrastructure improvements to the state through federal transportation ISTEA grants. For its part, Burlington Northern was happy to donate the land, structures and trestles once the rails had been sold for salvage.
In 1993 the Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park was officially dedicated. The rail-trail is composed of six segments, five to 17 miles long, and has eight access points along the way. The first two segments, Quitaque Canyon Trail and Los Lingos Trail, extend 22 miles from South Plains to the town of Quitaque. The most scenic stretch, Quitaque Canyon, traverses the escarpment and passes through one of the few railroad tunnels in Texas. South of Quitaque, the Los Lingos Trail crosses the Valley of Tears, so named for the sobs of captured Anglo pioneer women and children being held by the Comanches before being sold off to the comanchero traders of Mexican descent and taken west into New Mexico.
Interpretive markers on the trailway lay out all the details.
The 10-mile Kent Creek segment that runs along the trickling creek bed links the towns of Quitaque and Turkey, each sporting populations of about 500. The trail’s 32-mile eastern half, running from Turkey to Estelline, population 150, cuts through soft hills and valleys-prime Texas ranch and farmland. On the 12-mile Grundy Canyon Trail segment, between Tampico Siding and Parnell Station, wide-angle views encompass the Cap rock Escarpment all the way to the banks of the Red River. And on the easternmost Plains Junction Trail segment, just outside Estelline, wild turkey and pronghorn antelope are frequently spotted.
While the entire trail can be done in a day, my wife, Kris, and I opted to start at South Plains and ride the Cap downhill into Quitaque. Roland Hamilton, Quitaque mayor and owner of the Caprock Home Center hardware store, shuttled us up to our starting point. As we cruised up the road to South Plains, Hamilton shared a little lore, mostly about the Valley of Tears and the Ozark Trail. (Founded in 1911 by a man from Arkansas, the Ozark Trail ultimately spawned Route 66, the storied Mother Road that linked the Midwest to the West Coast. There’s still an Ozark Trail marker to be seen in Tampico, if you know where to look, Hamilton told us, and another buried under the highway in the middle of Quitaque that folks talk about digging up someday and putting on display.)
Once on the trail, Kris and I saw not another soul for four hours, save for a man and a boy crouched above the entrance to Clarity Tunnel. They told us they’d arrived early for the evening bat emergence. Every night from March to October, they explained, up to 50,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats exit the tunnel en masse, spiraling into the sky for their evening meal of insects. While the phenomenon also attracts the interest of coyotes, raccoons, snakes and raptors, we didn’t stick around to witness the amazing emergence, but walked our bicycles through the 582-foot-long tunnel, half expecting a band of outlaws on horseback to meet us midway.
Throughout our ride, we kept a slow, purposeful pace, pausing on the bridges to examine the gullies and creek beds below, and stopping more than once to savor total silence, a sensation known to precious few city folk. That alone was worth the price of admission.
We made it to Quitaque as darkness fell, in time to chow down at the Sportsman’s Cafe and relive our afternoon on the trail. After dinner, we packed it in for the night at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse, too tired to do much but go outside to look at stars, then crawl into bed.
Next morning we headed over to Caprock Canyons State Park, in the heart of canyon country, three miles north of Quitaque. We could have spent the day riding there, since there are more than 30 miles of paved roadways and off-road bike trails to negotiate among the spectacular red rock formations. Instead, we drove around, hoping to spot the official state buffalo herd, which lives behind a high fence in one corner of the park. The rarely seen bison are descended from the herd Charlie Goodnight put together from remnants of the southern herd that once roamed the Great Plains.
Quitaque, Turkey and Estelline offered eerie evidence of the steady depopulation of the Great Plains over the past half-century. Each town’s main street summoned visions of Larry McMurtry’s “Last Picture Show”-blocks of sturdy, red brick storefronts, most of which have been boarded up and deserted. The buildings have outlasted the people they were built to shelter. Now they stand as mute monuments to another time. With no resources to pluck, the water table of the Ogallala Aquifer steadily being lowered, and the vast expanse subjected to some of the most extreme weather on earth (the trailway is in the heart of Tornado Alley), it’s safe to say Caprock Canyons is in no danger of being overrun by seekers of the Next Best Place, nor is Quitaque destined to become the next Moab. For me, that was beguiling, as much a draw to biking the trailway as the scenic plenty.
Sure, it would have been nice to dial up a bike shop on the cell phone when Kris blew her tire near Clarity Tunnel. A place to eat that serves fresh greens would be okay, too. The upside to the absence of those amenities was an up-close and personal encounter with an authentic, rural Texas that is getting harder and harder to find.
Along the trailway, that authentic Texas was everywhere. Staying at Roland Hamilton’s farmhouse was like visiting the rural Texas grandparents we never had. The Hotel Turkey is that rare railroad hotel that hasn’t been gussied up too much; it still functions like a railroad hotel, just without the railroad. The breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros at Galvan’s Mexican Food in Turkey were as filling and autentico a breakfast as I can find in Falfurrias, 600 miles south. The Midway Drive-In halfway between Turkey and Quitaque, one of the last four drive-in movie theaters in Texas that still show first-run movies in the summer, was straight out of “American Graffitti.” The western horizon at sunset, which lit up the sky with streaks of flaming reds, oranges and pinks, was just like the one buffalo hunters and seekers of gold must have seen: glorious, radiant and unsullied.
The few people who do live along the trailway are some of the friendliest folks I’ve met traveling across Texas. Take Wilburn Leeper, the 67-year-old former mayor of Quitaque and president of the Caprock Bike Club, who’s racked up probably more miles riding the trailway than anyone else. Leeper appreciates the big views and isolation of the trailway. That’s why he is involved with Caprock Partners, the organization that helps support the state park and trailway, and helps run the group’s moonlight ride on the trailway every fall. “It’s the expanse of it all,” he says dreamily, explaining why he’s become hooked on cycling the route whenever he can. “It seems like you can ride forever.”
Or Randy Stark, a banker like his daddy, who considers the trailway the region’s calling card. “1 saw last year where Caprock Canyons State Park had 115,272 visitors. That’s quite a bit to be passing through a town of this size. That shows what a tourism economy can do, especially with the farm economy the way it is. We like having visitors, but we still want the slow, country way of life too. We get a little of both here in Quitaque,” says Stark. “I’m a photographer,” he adds. “What I enjoy most is all the scenic spots, all the canyons, and how the light is always changing how they look.” Since he tries to capture scenes at the end of the day, when the lighting contrast is sharpest, he’s been exposed to the calls of the wild. “1 hear coyotes howling all the time. If you’re on the trail at sunset, I guarantee you’ll hear the coyotes. I’ve heard as many as six at once, howling and barking away. One night on a full-moon ride with a club from Dallas, someone recognized the cry of a mountain lion. And wild turkey-you can find them mostly in the creek beds towards the latter part of the day.”
Or Raymond Roy, an Amarillo accountant who has spent so much of his free time around Quitaque, fishing, hunting and just kicking back, that he finally bought the Sportsman Cafe, Quitaque’s social hub and culinary heart and soul. When Kris and I ate dinner there, Roy took it upon himself to come over to our table and introduce himself. “1 knew you weren’t from around here,
when I saw her taking her purse with her to the salad bar,” he said, nodding to Kris. Locals don’t need to fear for their valuables, because everyone knows everyone else. “1 just wanted to make you feel at home,” Roy said. It’s hard to be a stranger on this rail-trail.
By the time we headed south toward home, we were making plans for a return trip in the fall. That’s the sweetest season of them all, according to Randy Stark, with warm days, cool nights and none of the wind or violent weather that defines springtime on the plains. Kris was ready to buy up half the downtowns of Quitaque and Turkey, drawing up plans for each building in her mind. Me, I was still buzzing, happy to have savored the real Texas few Texans get to know or see.
BEFORE YOU GO: Bring your own water, food and tire repair kit. In summer, pay heed to the extreme heat advisory included in your trail map. Although there are pay telephones at six stations along the trail, a cell phone comes in mighty handy. Fall is prime time, weather-wise.
GETTING THERE: Lubbock, the closest gateway with regularly scheduled air service, is 69 miles southwest of South Plains, the western terminal of the trailway, via State Highway 207 South and U.S. Highway 62 South and West. The Caprock Canyons Trailway is easily accessible from U.S. Highway 287 at Estelline, 101 miles southeast of Amarillo, and 238 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Quitaque, at the junction of State Highway 86 and Farm to Market Road 1065, is 98 miles southeast of Amarillo, via U.S. 287 to Claude, State Highway 207 to Silverton (a scenic route that cuts across Palo Duro Canyon, the second biggest gaping maw in the United States), and State Highway 86 East.
TRAIL ACCESS AND EQUIPMENT: The trailway is maintained and managed by Caprock Canyons State Park. You can buy trailway entrance permits ($3 per person) at park headquarters. There are eight trailhead access points with parking areas, spaced about 10 miles apart along the 64-mile trailway. The most popular trailheads are in Estelline, at the eastern terminal of the trail on U.S. Highway 287; at Quitaque; at Monk’s Crossing, 4.5 miles east of the Clarity Tunnel; and in South Plains, at the western end of the trailway.
If you want to do the trail the old-fashioned way, on horseback, contact Quitaque Riding Stables (806-455-1208). Queen of the Valley Tours (806-983-3639) offers guided tours of the Quitaque Canyons and Los Lingos trail segments on an old school bus.
For bicycle rentals, shuttles and repair kits, contact Roland Hamilton at the Caprock Center hardware store in Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260).
WHERE TO STAY: Roland Hamilton’s spacious family farmhouse about two miles east of Quitaque (806-455-1193 or 806-455-1260) is comfortable, and a real bargain at $50 for two. The house has nine guest beds, and porches from which to watch both sunrise and sunset.
More upscale accommodations are at the Quitaque Quail Lodge B&B (806-455-1261), a country-style, ranch house and hunting lodge featuring a swimming pool, tennis court and hiking trails.
The Hotel Turkey (806-423-1151, www.turkeybb.com) in Turkey is a 1927 railroad hotel that was converted to a bed-and-breakfast, though the rocking chairs on the front porch remain.
There are seven designated backcountry campsites on the trailway, plus campgrounds with RV hookups and additional backcountry campsites at Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque.
WHERE TO EAT: The Hotel Turkey cooks dinners on weekends. The Saturday night special is mesquite-grilled steak with all the trimmings; two-day advance reservation only.
Groups of 20 or more can enjoy Comanchero breakfasts and Chuckwagon suppers at Joe and Virginia Taylor’s Circle Dot Ranch (www.circledotranch.com), a working cattle ranch five miles from South Plains (March through October, by advance reservation only).
OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Caprock Canyons State Park schedules wildflower walks, history and nature tours, star parties and other events throughout the year.
The Bob Wills Museum in Turkey features memorabilia of the King of Western Swing, the Texas original fusion of jazz, swing and country. The Turkey Heritage Association stages a free talent showcase jamboree at the Bob Wills Center the first Saturday of every month. Celebrating its native son, Turkey goes full-tilt boogie on Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday of April.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park c/o Caprock Canyons State Park (P.O. Box 204, Quitaque, TX 79255-0204, 806-455-1492, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/caprock/caprock.htm), Quitaque Chamber of Commerce (www.fnbquitaque.com), Turkey Chamber of Commerce (www.turkeytexas.com). For more cycling information, visit the West Texas Cycling Web site (wtcycling.com).
Judith Zaffirini Pom-pom and Circumstance
BY JUDITH ZAFFIRINI
AS TOLD TO JOE NICK PATOSKI
Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. What did I learn from cheerleading? How to lead and how to foller.
I FIRST REALIZED HOW BEING a cheerleader could help you in politics when I became a candidate for the state Senate in 1986. I remember going to a high school out of town, not in Laredo, during the campaign. They invited me to go to a pep rally right before the football game. I had already checked out the football schedule. Every time I went to a high school, I knew the mascot, I knew the colors, I knew their scores, I knew the record for their football team. I knew the details, just like I know about the rainfall when I visit another county, because farmers and other people in agriculture will ask questions such as “How much has it rained in Laredo?” I always have the answer.
During the pep rally, someone turned and asked if I wanted to say a few words. I walked the entire length of the gym to get to the microphone, and Dennis Longoria, a family friend and volunteer who was traveling with me, wanted to die. He said, “Oh, no!” All he could think of was that the cheerleaders had just had the pep contest between the classes to see who could yell the loudest, then had formed a human pyramid with layers of people standing on each other’s shoulders, and now I was going to talk about economic development and tort reform and all those issues I’d been talking about, and they were going to boo me. Dennis said that was the longest walk he ever saw me take. And I walked up to the microphone and said, “Are we going to beat the Bulldogs?”
I really helped rev up the audience. They were stunned. They didn’t expect that from me. To this day, when I visit high schools, if I’m invited to a pep rally, I know what to do: ask questions, involve the audience. And don’t get up and talk about yourself and get serious. Be able to go with the flow. Create an appropriate atmosphere. Focus not so much on myself and what I want to say and do but on them and what they need to hear. That’s what cheerleading teaches you.
George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchisonthey were all cheerleaders, and they are all very effective with an audience. As cheerleaders, they learned how to work with a crowd. It’s important to bond with an audience and to help the audience come together as a unit. At this point in their careers, they don’t need to rev up a crowd too often. Cheerleading is particularly an asset for first-time candidates. It gives you the ability to understand audience psychology and know how to respond to an audience yet help unite them. I wish Tony Sanchez had been a cheerleader in high school. He would have known how to rev up the troops from the beginning. Instead, he had to master that art along the way.
Part of leadership is knowing when to lead and knowing when to follow, and cheerleading teaches you that. The best leaders have that skill. I saw it in George Bush. After Bush’s election in 1994, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock asked me to talk to the governor about welfare reform. I said to Bush, “I’m the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. I have passed welfare legislation and have a bill for this session, but Bullock asked me to meet with you and to ask you what your bill does and who will carry it for you.”
Bush looked at me and said, “Senator, your bill is my bill.”
I smiled. “Governor, we’re going to get along just fine.”
The image of cheerleaders as shallow couldn’t be further from the truth. So many leadership skills are involved: not only bringing the audience together but also sharing enthusiasm with them and motivating them to be enthusiastic too. I really believe cheerleading develops leadership and develops understanding of other people. It builds character in so many ways. One of the opportunities cheerleading offers is learning to handle victory and defeat with grace and dignity. That’s important in politics too. I vividly remember using that lesson the night of the runoff in my first race for the Senate. I was at my headquarters telling everyone, before the election results came in, that whether we won or we lost, we would act the same way. That if we won, we would not gloat, and if we lost, we would not cry, and we would handle itusing those words”with the same grace and dignity.” And then someone said that my opponent was on the phone to concede, and everybody went, “Yaaaay!” and started just being very ugly. I tried to calm everyone down and said, “I’m not going to pick up the receiver until everybody is totally quiet. Let’s thank him, and let’s be very dignified about it.”
In 1959 I went to Ursuline Academy, an all-girls school, and tried out to be a freshman cheerleader for St. Joseph’s Academy, the all-boys school. The cheerleaders were selected after tryouts and elections. Whoever went to the tryouts got to vote. Since we were freshmen, it wasn’t exactly a popularity contest, because no one was known. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors certainly didn’t know the incoming freshmen. The election was held during the summer before the academic year, so we hadn’t met anybody. I can tell you the exact cheer:
Chickalacka chickalacka, chow chow chow
Boomalacka boomalacka, bow wow wow
Chickalacka boomalacka, who are we?
St. Joe’s Antlers, yessiree!
My sister Celita was already a sophomore cheerleader at Ursuline. After my election, one girl who was a sophomore yelled, “Ya llegaron Las Papitas“”The Little Potatoes have arrived.” Our maiden name was Pappas. It’s a Greek name. In Laredo many people think it’s PapasSpanish for “potatoes.” So we were called Las Papitas in high school, “the Little Potatoes.” My sister was and is very popular. Certainly that helped me. I wanted to be very much like her. She was a role model. I learned to read at the age of three because she knew how to read. She was five. That’s my first memory of childhood: learning to read.
We had friends who were cheerleaders at other high schools. They were our role models too. A dear friend of mine who died recently, Nora Montemayor, was a cheerleader at Martin High School, the only public high school in town. (Now we have seven.) She was a friend of my oldest sister. Nora and her twin, Dora, were just darling, very energetic and popular. Certainly they impacted us.
We didn’t have women role models. I never thought of going to college until I was a senior in high school. I don’t recall anyone urging me to go to college. My mother encouraged all four of her daughters to be prepared to fight our own battles. She encouraged us to be well mannered, to be bilingual, to speak English with an American accent and Spanish with a Mexican accent, and not to be pochoyou know, Tex-Mexand she encouraged all of us to learn how to type. So I type very, very well, very quickly. She wanted us to be prepared. If we married and our husbands got sick or died, we would be prepared to work. She wanted us to be prepared to be secretaries, as she was a secretary. She wanted us to be prepared to cope.
When I was in high school, from 1959 to 1963, cheerleading was the closest thing to sports for a girl. At Ursuline Academy, we didn’t even have intramural activities, only P.E. classes. Many years later, I was the director of communications and Title IX coordinator at Laredo Junior College, and I wondered how many cheerleaders from my era would have been athletes if we had had the opportunities girls have today.
Today, cheerleading is a sport that requires athletic prowess. They’re gymnasts. When I was a cheerleader, it was different. We practicedwe had so many practices. We had to learn cheers, timing, and how to synchronize our moves. We learned self-sufficiency, discipline, teamwork, and leadership. We didn’t have advisers. We didn’t go to cheerleader school. We did it ourselves.
Judith Zaffirini, 57, has served in the Texas Senate since 1987. She lives in Laredo.
by Paul Burka, Jane Dure, Michael Hall, Christopher Keyes, John Morthland, Joe Nick Patoski, Eileen Schwartz, Patricia Sharpe and John Spong
(alphabetical, by city)
Unless otherwise noted, all places take credit cards.
ABILENE: Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q We didn’t catch pitmaster Harold Christian singing gospel songs to his customers, but we’re told that isn’t an unusual occurrence. This cozy little room, packed with nine picnic tables, seven booths, and a congregation of athletic trophies, is where Abilene gets its primo meat, smoked for twelve to fourteen hours over oak in a fifty-year-old box pit: brisket, pork ribs, chicken (on Fridays), turkey breast, German pork-and-beef sausage, and ham. A thin, spicy sauce is poured over the meat, which we usually don’t like, but it just lightly seasons the brisket, which was all fall-apart tender. Specialties include hot-water jalapeño cornbread and blackberry cobbler that made us weak in the knees. Brisket plate $5.95. Rating: 4.5. 1305 Walnut, 915-672-4451. Open Mon, Tue, Thur & Fri 11-6:30, Wed till 2, Sat till 5. by Katy Vine
AMARILLO: Beans N Things The plastic cow still stands guard on the roof of Shirley and Lawrence Bagley’s order-at-the-counter restaurant, with its knotty pine walls and lunchroom tables. At three-thirty in the afternoon, the hickory-smoked brisket and mesquite-smoked ribs had gotten a little dry and “shreddy” but were redeemed by honest flavor. The sausage was commercial, but the same was not true of the puckery-sweet coleslaw with a hint of tarragon vinegar or the eight-hour-cooked pinto beans. Take your pick of mild or spicy sauce, both opaque and on the thick side. Besides barbecue, the kitchen turns out a range of homey dishes, including breakfast burritos, fajitas, and Frito pie. Brisket plate $5.99. Beer. Rating: 3.5. 1700 Amarillo Boulevard East, 806-373-7383. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 8:30-6:30. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: BBQ World Headquarters Why this place hasn’t developed a huge following is a mystery, because in its six years of existence, it has quickly worked its way up the barbecue ladder in Austin. One reason is the quality of the brisket: Certified Angus beef. It’s slightly fattier than some but marvelously tasty and tender. The pork roast is not just picnic-quality but good enough for Sunday dinner. Pork ribs, baby back ribs, chicken, and (unfortunately salty) pork sausage from Mike’s Barnyard in Liberty Hill round out the meat menu, and everything is smoked over oak. The borracho beans bristle with bits of pork and sausage; the creamy coleslaw has character and crunch. You can eat inside the little corrugated-metal-and-cinder-block building, with its cheery red and blue vinyl tablecloths, or sit at a picnic table outside on the asphalt. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.6701 Burnet Road, 512-323-9112. Open Mon-Sat 11-4. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: John Mueller’s BBQ In 2001 John Mueller left the family business in Taylorthe famed Louie Mueller Barbecue, which was started by his grandfatherto open up his own place in East Austin, where he has quickly risen to the top of the local ‘cue heap. The bare-bones cinder-block building with a frame-house annex out back radiates blue-collar, duct-tape funk despite the parade of athletes (Ben Crenshaw, Major Applewhite), legislators (Mueller did a catering gig for Speaker Tom Craddick this spring), and other celebs coming through the screen door. And the oak-smoked meat tastes right. Mueller is usually at the counter, ready to slice it to order and serve it on a butcher-paper-lined tray. Just be sure to stipulate lean or fatty on the brisket (we’re fools for the latter). The pork ribs, pork chops, smoked T-bones, and prime rib rock too. The all-beef sausage, made according to John’s own recipe, comes from the Taylor Meat Company. Choose from two sauces at the condiment tablethe runny, peppery kind that Louie Mueller’s is famous for or a thick, sweet one that will appeal to the Salt Lick and County Line crowd. Brisket plate $7.95. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 1917 Manor Road, 512-236-0283. Open Mon-Fri 10-8, Sat till 6. by Joe Nick Patoski
BELTON: Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que There’s something about a pit. At Schoepf’s, the cooking pits (where they smoke the brisket over mesquite coals for half a day) are out back and the serving pit is on the patio; you go there first and pick out your ribs, chicken, brisket, oryumpork chops, then take them inside to get your sides. The meat is sold by the pound and is so moist and smoky you don’t need sauce, though it’s dished out on the sidevinegar based and pepperyif you want it for occasional dipping. Afterward, Schoepf’s is a fine place to linger, sitting at your picnic table and watching the locals doing the same thing. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 702 E. Central Avenue, 254-939-1151. Open Mon- Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 9, Sun 11-3. by Michael Hall
BRADY: Lone Star Bar-B-Q Spare but spacious, with basic Hill Country hunters’ decor, Lone Star offers exemplary brisket and thick, flavorful pork chops with a light salt-and-pepper rub, cooked Llano-style over mesquite. The pork ribs are fatty but tasty; the sausage is so-so. The tart, pale-red vinegar sauce far surpasses its sticky-sweet companion. Good sides. Brisket plate $6. BYOB. Rating: 4. 2010 S. Bridge, 915-597-1936. Open daily 11-9. by John Morthland
BURNET: Burnet County Barbeque The counter sits at one end of this stone roadhouse and the smallish dining area at the other, with a wood-burning stove for wintertime warmth. Mesquite-cooked brisket (up to eighteen hours in a pig-iron pit) and substantial pork ribs exude smokiness and powerful flavor, as does beef sausage from Elgin; the thick tomatoey sauce does the meat justice. The fruity, almost nutty slaw has a hint of celery seed, the beans are fortified with jalapeños, and the potato salad is mustardy and quite chunky. Several kinds of scrumptious pies (dense pecan, puddinglike chocolate, and more) are baked by a local woman. Brisket plate $6.75. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 616 Buchanan Drive (Texas Highway 29), 512-756-6468. Open Sun & Wed-Thur 11-6, Fri & Sat till 7. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by John Morthland
CANADIAN: Cattle Exchange Patrons who come for ‘cue benefit from this Panhandle restaurant’s dual status as a steakhouse. The 1910 building has been beautifully restored, and the amenities include, believe it or not, cloth napkins. Smoked over mesquite, the brisket is tender and reasonably moist, the sausage full of flavor, the ham better than most. Two saucesthe spicy, snappy “original” and a milder “sweet”allow for custom seasoning. Although the potato salad is a tad timid and mayonnaisey, the beans, cooked with tomato, green chile, onion, and bacon, would be hard to improve upon. The whiskey-sauce-drenched sourdough-bread pudding may make you woozy. Brisket plate $8.99. Rating: 4. Second and Main, 806-323-6755. Open Sun-Thur 11-9, Fri & Sat till 10. by Patricia Sharpe
CONROE: McKenzie’s Barbeque The strip-mall location didn’t bode well, but once we got a whiff of the oak burning in the pit, we knew this place was serious about its barbecue. The brisket is well executed, and the meaty pork ribs kept us gnawing and licking our chops long after we should have stopped. The only thing we weren’t crazy about was the thick, A-1-ish saucethe excellent meat can stand on its own. The McKenzies are yet another Texas family with barbecue in their DNA: Darin McKenzie runs things in Conroe; his brother, Kevin, runs the original McKenzie’s, in Huntsville; and their sister, Shannon, owns a Bodacious outpost in Longview. Brisket plate $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 4. 1501 N. Frazier, 936-539-4300. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-8. by Eileen Schwartz
CORPUS CHRISTI: Bar-B-Q Man Restaurant What is success? Not having to work on the weekend. So don’t expect to find Malcolm DeShields here on Saturday or Sunday (the original Bar-B-Q Man, DeShields’ father, M.O., kept the same sweet hours). The place does plenty of business during the week with refinery workers and white-collar types. They come for DeShields’ huge portions of mesquite-smoked Certified Angus brisket and spare ribs and a bronze-hued house sauce that bites back. An off-putting chain-link fence surrounds the property, but inside it you’ll find the Bar-B-Q Man’s spacious dining rooms and a patio with pool tables, a dance floor, and a bar. Service is cafeteria-style. Brisket plate $8.95. Beer and wine. Rating: 4. 4931 I-37 South, 361-888-4248 or 888-4296. Open Mon-Fri 11-8. by Joe Nick Patoski
DALLAS: Baker’s Ribs A sweet, spicy, gooey glaze puts the finishing touch on melt-in-your-mouth hickory-smoked pork ribs, and the lean, thick-cut brisket (cooked for twelve to fifteen hours) and zingy beef sausage are almost addictive. The pork loin is more flavorful than most, and the chicken breast has a smoky surface and a juicy white interior, but the ham, turkey, and sauces are humdrum. Standout sides include potato salad heavy on the dill, creamy slaw with celery seeds, brisk marinated-tomato salad, and jalapeño-spiked black-bean-and-corn relish. Though larger than Baker’s Commerce Street flagship, this outlet is just as good. Brisket plate $7.25. Beer. Rating: 4. 4844 Greenville Avenue, 214-373-0082. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-9, Sun 11-8. by John Morthland
DALLAS: Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse Now the flagship of a chain that gets justifiably mixed reviews, the original Sonny B’s can itself be erratic. But when the ancient, custom-built pit (stoked with hickory) is producing up to snuff, the burnt-crust brisket is almost, but not quite, falling-apart tender, and the pork ribs are almost, but not quite, falling-off-the-bone tender; the former dazzles on sandwiches. Ignore the other meats and the sides, except for the whopping golden-brown onion rings. The thick, sweet sauce is marginal. Customers still eat at one of about twenty cramped school desks or outside in (and on) their cars. Brisket plate $6.99. Beer. Rating: 4. 2202 Inwood Road, 214-357-7120 (other Metroplex locations). Open Sun-Fri 10-4, Sat till 3. by John Morthland
EAGLE LAKE: Austin’s BBQ and Catering You have to fight for one of the two picnic tables out front or sit on your car hood if you want to eat at Ron and Denice Janow’s converted gas station, where the old garage bays are filled with smoke from two portable cast-iron pits. Meat is serious business here in hunting country, and this is some of the most serious barbecued meat in Texasoutstanding brisket meant to be eaten with your fingers, five-star boneless pork, and pork ribs with a tantalizing pecan flavor and a peppery kick. Save room for the buttered potatoes and the usual sides, as well as banana pudding, coconut pie, and 7-UP cake. This place is definitely worth the thirteen-mile detour off Interstate 10. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 507 E. Main, 979-234-5250 or 800-256-0166. Open Thur-Sat 8-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
EAST BERNARD: Vincek’s Smokehouse The tan brick exterior is plain and institutional, but inside, Vincek’s exudes a sense of place, from the “Jak Se Más ” (“How Are You?”) Czech welcome on the menu board at the end of the long meat counter and the homemade bread, kolaches, and tea rings in the bakery case to the local polka CDs for sale and the posters advertising the Triumphs playing Riverside Hall. Even the sweet abuela who cut our order spoke with a slight Czech accent. The pecan-smoked brisket was first-rate, with a salty bite and the obligatory red ring, and the ribs were exceptionally meaty, but it was the spicy, coarsely ground sausage that hit the spot. Choose between the too-sweet house sauce and a runny, vinegar-based type. Sides include Spanish rice and coleslaw with a pucker-inducing tang. Brisket plate $5.75. Beer. Rating: 4. Texas Highway 60 and U.S. 90A, 979-335-7921 or 800-844-MEAT. Open Tue-Sat 7-6, Sun 8-3. by Joe Nick Patoski
ELGIN: Crosstown B-B-Q This unassuming little operation, with its bare plywood walls and minimal decor, was packed with folks when we visited, including what must have been the entire Elgin High School baseball team. We liked its lean, subtly spiced sausage more than any other local links we sampled. The oak-smoked brisket and chicken were moist, and the peppery ribs meaty and tender. Standard sides. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 3.5. 202 S. Avenue C, 512-281-5594. Open Sun-Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 10. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Eileen Schwartz
EL PASO: Chris’s the Brisket BBQ The beef rib is still king in El Paso, but unlike other ‘cue joints way out west, where the ribs come like snow cones (they taste like whatever syrup is poured on top), these ribs have no marinade. Instead, a simple salt-cayenne-and-black-pepper rub allows the ribs to taste like ribs: tender, rich, never stringy. Pit boss Chris Ivey treats the rest of his meat with the same care, producing a shiny black crust over a thin red ribbon on the brisket and a crunchy black skin on the sausage, all smoked over pecan. Ivey says his secret is never to leave the meat and the fire unattended, and he gets to his pits each morning at three o’clock. The early start allows him to make potato salad, chili beans, and coleslaw fresh each day and also whip up several cakes for dessert. His sauce is intentionally bland, and so is the restaurant’s interior. The only decoration was a tableful of slow-pitch-softball trophies and a Christmas tree, which was still up in April, festooned with yellow ribbons in support of the troops. Brisket plate $6.50. Rating: 4. 11420 Rojas, 915-595-0114. Open Mon-Fri 11-3. by John Spong
[please visit Texas Monthly for the remaining fifty]
The Best of the Best
by Paul Burka, Michael Hall and Joe Nick Patoski
(in no particular order)
Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q
The name “Cooper’s” has long been synonymous with Llano, but now the Mason operation of the same name has overtaken its distant cousin. Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q was opened in Mason in 1953 by the late George Cooper, whose son Tommy (also deceased) cloned it a decade later in Llano. Today the two are entirely separate, though both continue to follow the founding father’s formula: Let customers select their own meat straight from the outdoor pit and then take it inside to be weighed, sliced, and priced. And quite a selection it is too, covering the whole barnyard: beef, pork, chicken, goat, andoh, happy moment of discoverylamb ribs, the very thought of which sets the mouth to watering all these weeks later. On weekends, the mesquite-smoked fare expands to include T-bone and sirloin steaks and pork loin. The brisket is without flaw in taste or texture, sweet and juicy; it may be the best in Texas. The beef sausage is prepared in Austin following an old Cooper’s recipe, according to owner Duard Dockal, who took over from George Cooper twenty years ago. The flavor is on the mild side, a condition that can quickly be rectified by an application of Dockal’s homemade sauce, a piquant concoction whose distinctive orange color announces the ample presence of mustard. You can’t go wrong here; even the sides are homemade. The only drawback is that the cinder-block dining room has just four rectangular bench-style tables, with one more outdoors. For a nice alternative, order your food to go and dine at Fort Mason Park, about three quarters of a mile south of the pit on U.S. 87. Brisket plate about $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 5. S. U.S. 87, 915-347-6897 or 800-513-6963. Open daily 10:30-5:30. by Paul Burka
It’s been three years since Kreuz Market was forced to vacate its storied, century-old premises and relocate down the road, a move that remains a topic of conversation among conspiracy theorists. Owner Rick Schmidt’s sister and landlord, Nina Sells, wanted to double his rent and make him pay for improvements. Rick refused to pony up. But despite any lingering bad blood, Texas Barbecue Nation is better for the family feud. Kreuz’s huge new location accommodates three times as many diners, in two giant dining rooms and a long, breezy porch. Shiny and crisp at first, the interior of the metal-roofed building is slowly getting a satisfying smoke patina. The woodpile around back covers almost an entire city block and may be the largest in the free world. Traditions from the old site remain: The only utensils provided for the meat are plastic knives, a symbolic nod to the days when diners sitting at Kreuz’s counters had to use knives chained to the wall. And the optional sides avocados, yellow cheese, and onion slicesare as quirky as ever. As before, potato salad and coleslaw are not sold, though in a bow to popular demand, pinto beans have been added to the menu (to tell the truth, they were pretty boring the last time we tried them). Though the first year was shaky, the post oak-fired pits are now turning out some of the best, if not the best, meat anywhere on earth, notably the amazing brisket (a caveatit can be too salty), the spicy, garlicky coarse-ground sausage, a smoked pork chop that trumps any rib, and boneless prime rib for the discerning barbecue fan. No sauce. No need. Brisket plate (with beans only) about $5.45. Beer. Rating: 5. U.S. 183, just north of town; 512-398-2361. Open Mon-Fri 9-6, Sat till 6:30. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Going to Louie Mueller Barbecue is like going to barbecue church: You open the screen door and walk into an expansive room with a high ceiling and ancient walls. To your right are images of Texas music icons, people like Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And then there’s the air, rarefied andsmoky. It’s the smoke that sanctifies Louie Mueller’s, from the food to the people who eat there religiously. Mueller’s has been open since 1949, and it’s been in its current location, a former basketball court, since 1959. Founder Louie’s son, Bobby, took over in 1976 and has kept up the quality for more than a quarter of a century. And that means doing things the way they always have: simply, using a basic salt-and-pepper rub on the meat and cooking it using post-oak coals for about six hours. The brisket issurprisesmoky, the smoke somehow penetrating every molecule of the meat. Mueller’s beef sausage has the consistency of meat that was put into the casing manually, not by machine (check out the understated jalapeño links; you can taste the pepper as well as its heat), and the pork ribs are juicy. The sauce is dispensed, as it should be, in a little cup for dipping. No need to cover anything up. The sides are homemade; try the spicy pinto beans. In 1974 the Muellers put up a bulletin board that customers could attach their business cards to, and in a matter of months, the white cards were beige. You can peek under the top layer for a glimpse of past customers or add your own card. Soon, it too will be covered in smoke, the badge of honor. Brisket plate about $6.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 206 W. Second, 512-352-6206. Open Mon-Sat 10-6. by Michael Hall
While vast amounts of ink have been lavished on the changes in the Central Texas barbecue mecca of Lockhart, fifteen miles to the north, nothing much at all has changed at City Marketwhich is a real good thing. With roots going back 45 years, City Market has all but perfected the arcane art of smoking meat. You become a patron of this art when you walk into the main dining room and proceed to the primitive-looking pit room at the back. You can’t miss it; just look for the line of fellow museumgoers and the posted warning “Please don’t hold door open.” Breathe deep when you walk inside: barbecue heaven. Now squint through the air, dense with smoke. The pit crew, led by manager Joe Capello, Sr., himself, is most likely the same bunch that was stoking the pits, taking your order, and slicing the meat the last time you visited, no matter how long ago that was. After you gather up your butcher paper full of post oak-smoked meat, head back through the main room to the center counter for beans, potato salad, thick slices of yellow cheese, beer, Big Red, and IBC Root Beer. On weekdays, locals outnumber tourists jamming the long tables in the two wood- paneled dining rooms, where almost equal numbers of Anglos, Hispanics, and African Americans gnaw in harmony on out-of-this-world beef brisket, celestial pork ribs coated with a mysterious bronze glaze, and juicy, coarse-ground homemade beef sausage. If you must, you can slather on some sauce; it’s thin, mustardy, and loaded with pepperlike everything else, Central Texas style at its best. Brisket plate about $5.25. Beer. Rating: 5. 633 Davis, 830-875-9019. Open Mon- Sat 7-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
Out-of-towners who crunch their way across the gravel parking lot, past the post oak-stoked fire at the back of the redbrick building, and into the big old bare-bones dining room might not realize that anything has changed here if they failed to notice that the name on the building is now Smitty’s Market and not Kreuz Market. That’s because the brisket at this Lockhart destination is still primo, the coarsely ground handmade sausage is sublime, and the pork chops are thick, sweet, and delicately smoky. Those in the know spring for the succulent, juicy boneless prime rib; since it’s cooked to be perfectly medium-rare right when lunch begins, it’s more subtly flavored than Smitty’s longer-smoked brisket. Just as in the old days, all the meats are sold by the pound and slapped onto butcher paper. Now three years old, Smitty’s is named for Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, the father of owner Nina Sells. Although the restaurant’s first few months were up and down, it seems to have hit its stride under manager and pitmaster John A. Fullilove, Sells’ son. Yes, sometimes the brisket can be a tad dry and the rub too salty or not salty enough, but there are times when Smitty’s is even better than its predecessorand that’s saying a lot. In a concession to modernity, the dining room now offers potato salad, beans, and coleslaw. Likewise, diners are grudgingly provided with plastic spoons and knives but not forks, a reminder that in the old days, folks weren’t too proud to eat with their hands. And as always, there’s no sauce anywhere on the premises. Brisket plate about $5.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 208 S. Commerce (though most everyone uses the rear entrance fronting U.S. 183), 512-398-9344. Open Mon-Fri 7-6, Sat 7-6:30, Sun 9-3. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Barbecue is nothing less than the national food of Texas, and from a mom-and-pop joint in Eagle Lake to a temple of brisket in Taylorwe’ve searched out the best. On your mark, get set, dig in!
THIS SMOKIN’ THING IS GETTING out of hand. The custom of cooking meats over wood fires has been going on since before there was a place called Texas, but in recent years the concept has gotten so refined and peculiar thataside from the basic truth that Texas barbecue is superior to every other regional stylenobody here can agree with anybody else about anything.
We learned this the hard way six years ago, when Texas Monthly first weighed in with our picks of the state’s top fifty barbecue joints. We thought we’d covered the territory and then some, but we should have known better. The insults started coming fast and furious, via letters, telephone calls, and e-mails, the general drift being, “How on earth could you have missed [fill in the blank]?” Frankly, we’re still stinging from the critic who called us a bunch of “city boys.”
This time around, we doubled the size of our barbecue SWAT team to ten intrepid souls, who risked indigestion and clogged arteries chasing chimney smoke around the corner and into the next county, drove more than 21,000 miles to visit 360 places, got three speeding tickets, and gained more than thirty collective pounds in search of today’s best barbecue. Our new, revised top fifty includes 18 places from the old honor roll. Leading the pack are the five that we’ve anointed the new best of the best: Kreuz Market, in Lockhart, and Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor (which were in our top three six years ago), City Market in Luling, Smitty’s Market, in Lockhart, and Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Mason.
Clearly, Texas Barbecue Nation is in a state of flux. Witness what has happened in the intervening years to our holy trinity of 1997: Kreuz Market, Louie Mueller’s, and Cooper’s in Llano. In Lockhart, the small farming community that many consider the capital of Texas barbecue, a business disagreement between Rick Schmidt and his sister, Nina Sells, led to Schmidt’s relocating Kreuz Market down the road. Sells moved into the old location and dubbed it Smitty’s. Over in Taylor, Louie Mueller’s head honcho, Bobby Mueller, and his son John had words, leading John to leave the hallowed, soot-encrusted family business started by his grandfather to open his own place in Austin. Meanwhile, devotees seeking out Cooper’s in Llano, the personal favorite of the president of the United States, have been complaining about inconsistent quality, escalating prices, and crowds that never seem to thin out. Cooper’s didn’t make it into our top five this time, and after a particularly unhappy visit, we almost kicked it out of the top fifty. But at the last minute, we relentedbecause when Cooper’s is on, it’s on.
The changes that have affected the biggies are mirrored across the barbecue spectrum: The Gonzales Food Market dropped its prized beef ribs from the menu recently when the wholesale price got too expensive. Billy Pfeffer, the longtime pit boss at Dozier’s, in Fulshear, died a couple of years ago. Tough brisket ruined a SWAT team member’s otherwise perfect atmospheric experience at Novosad’s, in Hallettsville, this winter. The independent culinary entrepreneurs, who still dominate the ‘cue realm, are getting squeezed by chains that are beating the old-timers at their own game.
But perhaps it’s only natural for the barbecue world to be in constant turmoil, since the very origins of the craft are in dispute. Did barbecue start with the Czech-German meat markets of Central Texas that cooked up their unsold meat every Saturday in the days before refrigeration? Should African Americans get the credit, for having brought the tradition over from the Deep South? Or should we tip our hats to the early Anglo cowboys and Mexican vaqueros who dug deep pits, covered the meat with wet cloth or leaves, and slow-cooked it over coals for hours, following in the foodways of nomadic peoples in the Big Bend who cooked edible plants in pits 10,000 years ago?
Then there is the great dry-wet divide. Dry refers to two related methods of barbecuing meat: the modern-day cowboy-vaquero style (directly over burning coals, popular in South Texas) and the Czech-German technique (more slowly and over indirect heat, typical of Central Texas). These methods produce a nice crust on the outside and meat that is tender but firm. Dry barbecue is eaten with the sauce on the side, if at all, and said sauce tends to be runny and spicy. Wet is all about African American and Southern styles that emphasize even slower cooking (up to 24 hours) and yield moist and tender brisket and ribs that fall off the bone. Wet also refers to the fact that, as often as not, the meat is automatically drenched in sauce, which is typically sweet and thick.
Beyond cooking styles, what meats qualify as “real” barbecue? In Texas, brisket, ribs, and sausage are the bedrock. Big-tenters also embrace chicken, pork loin, pork chops, fajitas, ribeyes, prime rib, and sirloins as long as they’re slow-cooked with smoke. (Here, I have to weigh in with my own opinion: Prefab turkey breasts and ham don’t count. They’re usually just one step up from deli loaves and thus doomed from the start. And don’t get me started on barbecued crab, barbacoa, or anything grilled over flames or cooked in an oven. They may be delicious, but they’re not the real deal.) It goes without saying that within this carne-copia, folks have strong individual preferences. For some, brisket is the standard. Others are true to ribsno bones, go homebut they divide into two camps, beef and pork. Sausage purists split over beef, pork, or beef-and-pork and can argue the merits of the hot links common in East Texas but appreciated statewide (fat, stubby, and finely ground, in a tight red casing) versus the coarsely ground Central or South Texas blends (more loosely packed in crinkly casings).
Wood too is a burning question. Name your smoke and you define your ‘cue: oak and pecan, found mostly in the central and north-central parts of the state, give a strong, aromatic flavor; mesquite, abundant in South and West Texas, imparts a distinctive sharp taste that turns bitter if the meat is cooked too long. Hickory, native to East Texas, lends a classic, mellow smoked flavor and is common throughout the South, although it is often shipped as far away as the Panhandle and El Paso (where any kind of wood is hard to come by). A footnote: Although I know some places use gas in addition to wood to speed the process, to purists, gas equals sissy ‘cue.
The appropriate sides set off a whole other firestorm. Are beans, potato salad, and coleslaw the perfect complement for meat, or does more exotic faresay, green beans, baked potatoes, rice and its variations (Mexican, Cajun, rice salad), or macaroni and cheesestrike the right balance? Are sides even necessary when just a piece of white bread, a slice of onion, and a pickle or a jalapeño will do? Finally, what is the best drink to wash it all down: iced tea (sweet or unsweetened?), beer, or Big Red?
But all this controversy is just part of the fun. So in that spirit, let’s stir the pot with our choices for the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas today. In a state that’s got around a couple thousandfrom shacks where you eat the meat off of butcher paper with your fingers to places with waiters, silverware, and cloth napkinswe had to make some hard choices. We know you may not agree with all of them, but, heyeverybody’s entitled to his or her opinion. We’re ready for your outraged cards and e-mails asking how we could have missed (fill in the blank). Just don’t go calling us city boys.