This story appeared in Fairfax Traveller 18 Nov 2017.
Everything’s bigger in Texas they say. And that’s a fact if you’re talking hats, cattle ranches, steaks, open-pit barbecues and the midriffs of oil tycoons. Puffed up with state pride and dreams of secession, the largest state in the Lower 48 borders Mexico for hundreds of miles along the Rio Grande then spreads, broad and bottom-heavy, partway around the Gulf. But beneath all the bigger-is-better bragging and bravado lies something undersized and understated the Lone Star State holds dear: small town Texas.
“You do realise this is as far from normality for me as it is for you,” says Ari, born in Boston and living in San Francisco, as we drink whiskey from plastic cups in a honky tonk where locals in Western wear dance two-step to live country music. Longhorn Saloon’s owner – Calamity Jane reincarnated – has just run her fingers through his hair again. I can only suggest he put a hat on it like everyone else here. During band breaks people line-dance to hip-hop.
This is Bandera, where our road trip in Ari’s jalapeno-green Saturn SL1 begins and ends. The self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World, located within Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio, has a population of 857. “It’s so dog-plum small you can walk it back and forth in a few minutes,” says local Patricia Moore who loves to mess around with Texas slang. “What in the Sam Heck are you talkin’ about?” is another of her favourites.
I ask Moore why she traded city living for Bandera 25 years ago. “Every time I drove through here it took my fancy. People walk to a different drum”. She also feels safe enough to never lock her doors.
Tonight is our last night of the journey but when we first rolled into Bandera it was a Monday, overcast and tumbleweed quiet. The only night there’s no live music anywhere in town and the day after locals ride in and tie their horses to hitching posts outside Longhorn Saloon. A genuine “y’all should’a been here yesterday” experience.
I’d consoled myself with my first and last chicken-fried steak, a 14-dollar haircut with multi-divorce history thrown in for free and a drink at 11th St Cowboy Saloon where signs read “two tooth requirement for service” and “for a small town this one sure has a lot of assholes” and the ceiling is stalactited with bras. I’d bought an antique rodeo belt buckle at the old-time general store, counted the vultures on the water tower and ordered barbecue standing beneath a set of mounted longhorns at one of the town’s 13 food joints. After sunset I purchased a cigar at a speciality tobacco shop with a walk-in humidor from a man I’m still convinced is a Hollywood actor in hiding and puffed the warm evening away on a main street bench.
And that’s a dull day in Bandera.
Texas has more than 2000 towns of less than 10,000 residents and about a quarter of those have a population of under 1000 with names like Earth, Utopia, Alpine, Turkey, Spur, Possum, Canadian and Rainbow. Each has a distinct personality that grew from cultural roots, historic events, natural phenomena, primary industry and is now, with Texas-style determination, vigorously maintained.
“A lot of what you see here really and truly has not changed,” Moore says at breakfast in OST – Old Spanish Trail – restaurant opened in 1921. Overhead, electric-lit hurricane lamps hang from wagon wheels. Around us, locals in Western shirts and bandanas scoff cowboy breakfasts before work at guest, dude and family ranches.
Retiree Roy Dugosh joins us; his ancestors emigrated from Poland in the 1850s and the family has occupied the same farmhouse since 1873. Bandera is the second oldest Polish settlement in the US and his “forefathers” built what is now the country’s oldest standing Polish church. Back then, Dugosh explains, people hunted year round to survive and “my sister and I were delivered at home by our father, who was not a doctor”. Roy is part of a group that re-enacts Wild West gunfights in Bandera on weekends. He also now travels regularly to Poland, sometimes with other locals.
Like Texans themselves no two towns are alike. West of Bandera, and only an hour from Austin, the former milling town of Wimberley is like a Wind in the Willows set. Built around Blanco River and Cypress Creek, its big old oaks, natural swimming holes, karstic spring, outdoor concerts and organic farms draw a lot of Houstonites in need of a tree change and is reputedly the most LGBT-friendly town in Hill Country. “Everyone feels blessed to be here,” says a blissed-out local who now calls this 2700-person town home-sweet-home.
Maggie of Sugar Shack Bakery was born in France, the Leaning Pear’s owners are a Texan couple who temporarily lived in the Italian city of Perugia to learn about food. Jobell Café & Bistro was conceived in New York city where David Bober fanaticised about serving “rustic French-inspired bistro fare” somewhere you could see the stars. I only meet one person born in Wimberley, who only recently moved back with her children. “We call it Wimberhole,” she tells me. “Because it sucks you back in”.
Two-hundred kilometres northeast of Wimberley, where the cultivated landscapes after Austin could be the farmed plains of Eastern Europe, we arrive in Calvert. When this was a major cotton plantation area the town was the sixth biggest in Texas but now has a waning population of 1100. Former plantation owners built the village of Victorian-style mansions on the east side of the tracks.
Calvert’s main street smacks of ghost town but inside every shop still open for business I realise its heart is tachycardic. Candy of Candy’s Candles in Common Scents invites me to whiff a bottle of colourful wicked wax she tells elderly women has a naked Tom Selleck in the bottom of every jar then offers me a tour of her home, recently downsized to the back of the shop. Sixties kitchenware, antique furniture and mounted animal heads – with and without hide – adorn her Boho-Retro-Texo pad.
For decades Calvert has claimed to be the state’s antique capital. Sandy Hulse, co-owner of colossal Cowboy Up, says people come from all over Texas for her antiques and customised furniture made by “one guy that does nothing but antler stuff, I have two people that do leather, and these chairs are made from real croc” then segues to hog hunting.
At Family Dollar, one of the few chain stores in town, Carmelita flashes a gold-tooth smile from behind the register when she finds out where I’m from and what I’m doing. “Calvert has a lot of history in terms of antiques,” she says, “and these small towns sure are big on Southern hospitality”.
We continue to rocket around in the Saturn to more small towns where, again and again, optimism and positivity seem intrinsically linked to not only where people live but what their town is famous-in-Texas for. And that can be something as simple as spring wildflowers, hat making, a deceased swing musician, a historic dance hall or a great pie shop or old book store. Even the small things in Texas, I realise, are punctuated with a massive exclamation mark.
Later when I’m back home Patricia Moore contacts me to say Longhorn Saloon has closed with no new owner on the horizon. But everyone else, she assures me, “is still goin’ strong”.