Total Pageviews

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Central Texas

I live in Central for now. But in a month I will be moving back to Arizona. That gives me a month to plan my last major get-away in this state, which will be a two-week trek to southern Texas along the Gulf Shore and then back up along the Rio Grande. I want to learn about the history, see exotic birds, wade in the Gulf, read Texas Historical Markers and get a feel for the Borderland that has been making so many headlines lately. It's a part of Texas I most likely will never see again. I have no time limit since I won't have a job to get back to. I only hope Mother Nature is on my side.

I will not have a strict itenerary, either. That way if something strikes my fancy I can go where the action is. The trip will start in San Antonio, then continue on in a southeasterly direction toward the Gulf and San Pedro Island. I'm no saltwater-loving beach wader but I do get a thrill out of watching water fowl, and southern Texas has more unique birds there than any other part of our country.

So, that gives me Texas Hill County to enjoy for now. I live in a small town that borders near four counties: Bell, Coryell, Lampasas and Burnet. It's rolling hill country, patched with ranches and cows and very friendly people. Twice an hour I can hear the Santa Fe rail road roar through town, a railroad that during its cotton hay days must have brought in much profit for its residents.

I do like Texans very much. I enjoy their heart-filled stories, their sometimes embellished fables of how their great-great-granddaddy got the homestead and opened up a general store, post office or justice of the peace office in town. Texans are damn proud of their heritage and no one better insult the sacrifices their great-great-grandparents made. Today the rural areas around my town contain remnants of abandoned homes, dilapidated farm buildings, stone ruins and foundations along the roads. Stop if you can and visit a rural cemetery to get a feel of how it was in the 1850s, when this land was settled by Scots, Czechs, Germans, Poles, Alsatians. A little bit of Olde Europe still remains, and it gives the Texans that proud give-a-damn attitude I find so refreshing.

And Texans make the friendliest drivers. If you get on a Farm-to-Market (FM) road anywhere in the state and come up to a slower-moving vehicle, that driver will quickly pull over to the side of the road and wave you past. It's an old habit drivers here have developed when FM roads were mostly used by slow-moving tractors and other farm vehicles.


Today I had to visit Temple in the morning for a quick hospital visit. By 10am I was on the road to explore a few backroads I hadn't explored before, namely TX95 south from Temple into the historic towns of Bartlett, Granger and back up north via Solado (So-LAY-do) to Temple. Weather was beautiful, with patchy blue skies and wind gusts that picked up in the afternoon. I timed myself to the sun: an hour before sunset I'd stop exploring and start getting back on the road home.

Temple was a major railroad hub during the Reign of King Cotton. The town's historic Santa Fe Depot reflects that past. Trains still roar through town like they roar through so many other towns of the Southwest, click-clacking across the Plains and stopping traffic along the way. Cotten fields in these parts of Texas grow nearly year-round, as freshly-harvested fields of cotton revealed along the roadways. At night the stray cotton blows across the roads like drifting snow in the Midwest.

TX95 travels in a north-south direction, aiming for Austin and points further south. Over 150 years ago this land, taken from the Mexicans, was heavily settled by Czechs and Germans, as a quick trip to the Granger Cemetery revealed. The land is gently rolling, and the houses along the roads stand firmly today as they did so long ago. Old buildings advertising "Czech workshop" are still dotting the landscape.
Bartlett was the first town south of Temple, a town of about 1700 that stradles two counties: Bell and Williamson. Cross the railroad tracks to the west and you are in Williamson County. Go east and you are in the town's center in Bell County. What were the surveyors thinking when they drew up the county lines?
I wanted to check out the Granger Wildlife Management Area as today's destination, hoping to catch some birds along the shore, but once again I was sidetracked by the pretty buidlings of the town itself.

The mainstreets of most of America are wide and sparsely populated, and it wasn't any more evident as it was in the towns of Bartlett and Granger. Both towns had brick buildings from the late 1880s on in its historic downtowns, with end buildings depicting old painted signs for Coca-Cola and other old lores of the turn of the centuries. Those old signs bring back some life to the quiet downtowns.

Granger stole my attention today. I parked across from the City Hall building and noted the many lion sculptures painted in various shades and colors in town. The lion is the mascot of the town's high school north of town. A few locals meandered about, but mostly they stayed in their yards and looked on. A few of the elder men waved at me with a smile. Tx95 brings people to and from Austin; locals aren't used to curious eyes venturing past the main street.

I stopped at one two-story brick building near the City Hall that caught my eye. Its front windows were nearly covered with cut logs. A lion stature stood up front and a worn-out sign announcing the "Alamo Hotel" stood out. On the side was a faded Wrigley's Gum sign still visible in the brick, I fixed my camera on the building just as an old pick-up came toward me and a 50-ish driver stopped the truck, rolled down the window and and asked "What are you doing?"

"I am photographing the building!" I replied, immediately aware that I was perhaps infringing on someone's privacy. I certainly wasn't photographing anything clandestinely, nor was I trespassing. I do not take photographs for profit, I photograph strictly as a hobby and to document my travels.. I've downloaded them for my private collection that never makes it passed the files of my laptop. (Even fewer make it in my blogs)

"You're not going to print that out and make money off of it, are you? That's my house!" the driver explained.

"Oh no, these photos stay on my laptop for my private collection." I showed the hesitant man my photos.

"I've seen my house in calendars before and never got any money for it" he went on. "If you publish that photo just make sure you mention my name, Mike Anderson" and with that he shook my hand. "Well, I just got a call for a fire west of town, so I gotta go" and with that he drove off. A brushfire outside of town burned 122 acres but caused no structural damage. An electric fence was the culprit.

Mike's house is rather unique, standing at the edge of the historic downtown. A deep crack through the facade is quite visible through the light bricks. He lives in the back of the house. It's not in a historically-zoned area, but because of its location I am sure he gets a lot of drive-bys.
His house is two buildings down from the famous Cotton Club and Steakhouse, a better-preserved historical building off Main Street were upscale Austinites travel for the Texas Two-Step. This establishment advertises weddings and other catered events. At one time I'm sure that entire district of Granger was the wild part of town, back when Cotton was King.
I promised Mike I wouldn't publish the photo of his house, so instead I chose a scene of the Granger City Hall. (I did see another link of his Alamo Hotel, Granger TX on-line, though)
By now firetruck sirens were blaring through town. It was shortly past noon. A grass fire northwest of Granger was spreading from the windgusts. I drove on eastward through town toward the wildlife area, only to get distracted by the various cemeteries on the eastern edge of town. Tombstones of the past best reveal a town's history, and my guess that Granger was settled by Czechs and Poles was accurate. Family members of the Cervenkas, Spacek, Simcik, Janak, Wentrcek, Novosad, Kotrla and many other Slavik familes who died here over 120 years ago adorn the flat marble tombstones of the deceased in Granger's Brethen Cemetery, lying in rest next to cotton fields and rich fertile lands of central Texas.
Cemeteries fascinate me. They contain the buried remains of the past, silent proof that unknown people once toiled the lands, working hard to settle the wild terrain around them. Several small plots of cemeteries lined up next to each other in Granger, and each plot revealed a different era of immigrants. First came the Czech and Poles (from a Texan's perspective) and in the Catholic part of town more Hispanic-sounding names are listed: Gonzales, Luna, Cortez.
The sky was wide open, its puffy white cumulus clouds interrupted by the smoke of the grassfire in town. I could smell the grass burning.
Granger held me. There's something about that little parcel of land that kept me transfixed to both the land and the heavens. What was life like for the pioneers? The dead were now partioned not so much by ethnic group, but by chronological group. Bright plastic flowers added color to each tombstone.
I drove south from the cemeteries toward Willis Creek Access. I wanted to see birds, only to scare a magestic Great Blue Heron away as I tumbled over some cow shit. I turned around and headed back into town, continuing on toward Salado.
I had heard so much about Salado but once I was there, was deeply disappointed. It's an upscale town, for Austinites out shopping for artsy stuff. I'm more into historical, natural stuff so I bypassed all the "antique" shops and headed for the ruins of the Salado College, built in 1859. Not much remains of the stone foundation built on a hill other than two corner towers, but from the hill you can look northward and see the artsy part of town.
Salado Creek runs through the village and I-35 is just west of town, with its cars and trucks blaring loudly outside the town's limits. Solado is a bit too upscale for me, so after reading the historical markers in town I headed back to Temple for a good hearty meal at the Duck Tavern, a friendly pub with seven flat-screen TVs and happy-hour prices even on Saturdays from 3-8pm. I had a few Dos Equis and a tasty Caesar's Chicken Salad. The crew was very friendly. My only complaint? Too many smokers! Texas, like Indiana, hasn't yet entered the 21st century yet. Smoke overwhelmed me when I walked past the bar to the bathroom. (I chose a seat away from the crowd and wrote this near the front window, behind the hostess' stand.
The website describes the place as an "upscale" one, but I felt comfortable there wearing my green fleece jacket and jeans. I paid $15.46 for my meal, and that was during the Saturday Happy Hour special running from 3-8pm.

No comments: