Although it begins just west of the state capital, the Hill Country is a world apart. A 31,000-square-mile swath of rolling green vistas, limestone bluffs, and spring-fed rivers in the heart of dusty brown Texas, the region has hosted an eclectic array of people: 19th-century German farmers who built stone fences and wooden dance halls, Seventies country-rock pioneers from Austin who refurbished those abandoned dance halls into makeshift recording studios, and 21st-century tour operators running tchotchke-filled B&Bs intent on selling a caricature of the region’s past. A laid-back land where old-school farmers and gray-haired hippies coexist over a shared love for two-stepping, the Hill Country is one cool melting pot – if you know where to look. Driving from Austin in a 300-mile counterclockwise loop during late fall, when temperatures drop to the mid-60s, is the best way to take it in. “You can always find a place to hear good music,” says Bobbi McDaniel, general manager of the Hill Country hamlet Luckenbach, “or just kick up your feet and watch the chickens.”
In the Hill Country, folks eat barbecue for breakfast – many popular joints open for business around midmorning. At 11 am, I fall in line with the cowboys, oil-field workers, and camo-vested hunters selecting choice slabs of meat straight off the outdoor pits adjoining Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano. While most central Texas barbecue outfits smoke their meat, Cooper’s cooks its beef ribs, brisket, and pork chops two feet over mesquite coals before transferring the cuts to a lower heat in 15-foot steel serving pits – a style that leaves the meat charred on the outside and moist on the inside. “It worked for the cowboys on the trail,” a mutton-chopped server says, placing my meat onto a sheaf of butcher paper atop a plastic tray, “and it works for us.” He directs me through a door into the tin-ceilinged dining room, where 20-foot communal picnic tables are lined up beneath mounted heads of eight-point deer, javelina, and bobcat. The Cooper’s locals are in a hurry to return to their feedlots and gas wells; a large group of Stetson-wearing men don’t even pause to grab complimentary bowls of pinto beans boiling in a cauldron in the back of the room.
Driving south past live oaks and prickly-pear cactus, I arrive at Luckenbach, an outpost comprising a bar, dance hall, and general store. In 1971, local rancher and newspaper columnist Hondo Crouch bought the abandoned town – a onetime trading post for Comanche and German farmers – proclaimed himself mayor, and began holding “Hug In” fests that attracted Austin-area troubadours, establishing a grit-and-groove template that still defines the Hill Country’s vibe. While the town has undoubtedly been commercialized – the general store hawks T-shirts, coolers, and beer koozies depicting the single-starred Luckenbach logo – some of the seventies vibe still exists. I buy a $3 cold Budweiser from the bar, a wooden cabin decorated with stuffed squirrels, and trucker caps. Beneath pecan trees, two white-haired guitar players cajole the midafternoon visitors into joining in with the “house acoustics” – municipal guitars available for any would-be crooners. A man with a bushy white mustache who goes by the name Cowboy R stands alongside a longhorn steer tethered to a hitching post. A former construction worker and actor, Cowboy R now charges tourists $7 to have their picture taken atop his steer. “We only have two rules in Luckenbach,” he says. “Keep your dogs on a leash, and don’t use the F-word. If we hear you say it, we’ll make you drink O’Douls.”
Eighteen miles north of the stop-and-go traffic in Fredericksburg – a tourist trap of potpourri dealers and bad sauerkraut menus – the Texas version of Australia’s Uluru rises abruptly from the hills. Enchanted Rock park’s 425-foot pink granite dome has rain-fed pools, deep crevasses for rock climbing, and 20-foot freestanding boulders teetering on its slope. While the summit offers horizon-reaching views, the park is best appreciated at night. Nestled in a pocket of mesquite and oak trees, my campsite feels totally isolated. After grilling steak over a small fire, I pop a cold one, climb a nearby outcrop, and lean against the cooling granite as stars emerge overhead.
Down a white-rock road off Country Road 4517 lies the Quihi Gun Club and Dance Hall – the true heart of the Hill Country. Built in 1890, the 10,000-square-foot dance hall is a member-run institution where several hundred farmers and local townspeople congregate every other Saturday to gossip, get tipsy, and two-step beneath dangling Christmas lights. After a sleepy small-town workweek, the people are happy to mingle – the men sip Shiner Bock and chew peanuts until 9, when a four-piece band from San Antonio takes the stage and their wives drag them onto the dance floor. As the band plays a Bob Wills western swing song, I spot a dark-haired girl in cutoff jeans and ask the bartender if he knows her. “She’s dating one of the guys in the band,” he says, a note of worry entering his voice, “and we don’t care for fighting here – in my 20 years, we’ve had only two, and I broke them both up.” Taking my chances, I ask her to dance. She smiles and leads me onto the floor, and we fall in with the rest of the couples moving clockwise beneath the lights.
During the summer, the Hill Country’s spring-fed rivers are swarmed with college students – but by fall, a paddler’s only companion is the occasional red-tailed hawk. In a kayak from Guadalupe Canoe Livery in Spring Branch, I glide along the 75-degree Guadalupe River beneath towering cypress trees, their gnarled root systems extending like tentacles beneath the emerald green water. Afterward, I stop by the Devil’s Backbone Tavern to give the trip a final toast. Although the 1930s stone bar appears rundown, a petite blonde calls out, “Come on, there aren’t no strangers here.” I buy a beer, bypass the old men watching the Houston Texans game, and line up a shot on the 25-foot shuffleboard table. Although Austin beckons, I’ve sunk into the Hill Country’s lazy pace. “You won’t find anything you want up there,” the bartender says of the state capital. “The fun is right here.”