The Rivers of Texas Hill Country
The Texas Hill Country, just west of San Antonio and Austin, is ribboned with cool, soothing rivers that have lured devoted swimmer Alice Gordon all her life.
When I think of the Texas Hill Country, here's the picture in my head: I'm sitting on the veranda of a rock cabin about 50 yards from a narrow green river, which is just visible through the cypress trees lining the bank. It's August, about seven in the evening. The light is soft but still substantial, strong enough for a New England summer noon although a Texan can never quite get used to it before evening. Fresh from a shower, with body lotion in one hand, a cold beer in the other, I relish how the Hill Country breeze feels on my wet head, my clean skin; the beer going down could be liquid gratitude. Some days more than others, this confluence of simple pleasures goes a long distance toward making the world an inhabitable place. Every day I spend in the Hill Country seems to lead up to and falls away from this long moment.
I first saw the Hill Country at the age of 12, in 1962, when my school friend Martha Grundy invited me to join her family for two weeks in the little resort outpost of Hunt, on the Guadalupe River. We lived in Houston, these days about a five-hour drive away, and, a child of my time, I hadn't traveled much. The only familiar terrain was the flat, humid, hot coastal prairie over which my hometown sprawled willy-nilly. I had no idea we had hills in Texas, much less white cliffs and green valleys. Or that instead of the bath-temperature, chocolate-milk muddy waters of Houston's bayous and bays, there were rivers like the cool bottle-green Guadalupe, into which you could dive and see your way to the bottom and land on a velvety layer of silt. Instead of sweaty clouds of mosquitoes outside or roaring air-conditioning inside, there was sweet, dry night air that might even require a sweater—in Texas summer.
Hill Country was created by the Balcones Escarpment, the miles-wide crumbling edge of the vast Edwards Plateau, roughly a 31,000-square-mile limestone blob west of a diagonal line formed by the route between Austin and San Antonio. Beneath its surface is an astonishing system of aquifers, streams, rivers, and caves. In a landscape that is rocky, rough, and dry, springs burst forth all over the place. The loveliest Hill Country rivers—the Frio, the Medina, the Guadalupe, the Blanco, the Nueces—are fed by water that is filtered through a fretwork of pure limestone and comes out clear and cool, sometimes cold.
Once the farthest of getaways, the Hill Country has been encroached upon about as much as it can stand, from the point of view of one who still wants to get away to it rather than from it. In the past 20 years or so, struggling Hill Country ranchers have sold out to developers who have retirement enclaves in mind. For every two or three beautiful old river-rock cottages in Hunt, one of the most populous river-recreation areas, there's an out-of-scale mansion that belongs with its peers in a Houston subdivision. RV campgrounds and mobile-home parks on pretty stretches of countryside appear rather quaint by comparison.
Yet somehow, nature still overwhelms most of the Hill Country, and, civilization's mistakes aside, it is still possible to experience in relative solitude the beauty of the hills and canyons, and a swim in the beautiful rivers.
Swimming holes are not good enough for me; I want stretches of river where you don't have to look up or turn around until you need a break from a long crawl, breaststroke, or backstroke, and I've never searched beyond the Hill Country to find them. On the Blanco River, in the sweet town of Wimberley, I have stayed in rental houses where the effect is something like being in a city neighborhood where everyone has a little more property than usual and a river for a backyard. On the Medina River outside Bandera (the self-styled Cowboy Capital of the World), I like a rock house that has steep stone stairs leading down to the water, the river there narrow, shallow, clear, and swift, still swimmable but requiring a tougher than usual workout on the way back upstream; high overhead, tree branches meet, forming what the owners, while swimming on their backs, have named the Cypress Cathedral. On a private ranch on the Frio, I have swum in 68-degree spring-fed river water beneath 90-degree air, and climbed up an improbable bank of watercress.
But the place I return to most, year after year, is Hunt. At the various cabins I've rented for a few days over the years, as often as not with my friend John from Austin, the day starts late with a lazy breakfast on a porch. Then we read and doze until lunch—one in a hammock, the other wherever is second best. We'll have a sandwich thrown together in the cabin or some barbecue down the road or tacos at the taquería a little bit farther down the same road. All the lounging and dining is justified by the major activity of the afternoon: swimming. Not just splashing or paddling but really swimming. We divide our days between the South Fork and the North Fork of the Guadalupe. At a favorite cabin on the South Fork, the river is deep, and stays deep for at least a mile upstream. Although the water is pretty clear, in the swimmer's vision there is only green because of the silty bottom; imagine moving through liquid outer space.
Cypress trees shade most of the river here: tall, gray-brown, stately presences, with stringy bark, intricately gnarled roots. Between them you can see the summerhouses, most of which were built in the thirties, forties, and fifties (one of them by the romantically inclined residential Houston architect John Staub)—one- and two-story rock houses with sloping lawns of St. Augustine grass, a subtropical Houston touch in the semiarid Hill Country. Spending several hours in the river is the only good way to see these houses, which put their best faces to the water.
To get to the North Fork, you turn north from Hunt onto Highway 1340, one of the prettiest two-lane roads in the Hill Country. It has its oddities. Not far from the turnoff comes Stonehenge II, a scale model about half the size and an iota of the weight of the original. After Stonehenge, the scenery is mostly pastures and horses, hillsides; then comes the river for miles, bordered by golden-white cliffs, old stone houses, and vernacular summer camps. Both forks of the Upper Guadalupe around Hunt and Ingram together have 13 camps. The exclusive ones are Camp Stewart for boys and Camps Mystic and Waldemar for girls. In Houston, people say one has to register a child at birth in order to insure her admission to Waldemar.
About 10 miles from Hunt on 1340 you come to Mo-Ranch, through which runs one of the finer pieces of the Guadalupe River. Since 1949, this former showplace of Conoco Oil Co. chairman Daniel J. Moran has been a Presbyterian enclave that rents houses, apartments, rooms, and swimming privileges to non-Presbyterians when there is room for them, which is pretty often. The river here has a large, deep, roped-off swimming area and a slide into the water. But I like to head downriver from the official swimming hole, where a little dam makes a waterfall, where the water is four to seven feet deep rather than bottomless, and where you can end up on the big round rocks that sit on the riverbed, some above water, some submerged.
If you swim upriver from Mo, under the bridge, you eventually reach good flats, with plenty of water-carved holes in the solid limestone riverbed filled with turquoise water: bath-sized tubs and long chutes that carry bodies swiftly to the deeper water. There are lots of creative recreational uses for such river flats. One day before sunset I drove by the flats above where Martha Grundy and I played, and to my astonishment saw a truck party in the middle of the river. Fourteen trucks, no cars. Coolers full of beer, lawn chairs full of men, women sitting in the tubs.
At around 5:30 of an evening, I'll drive over to the Hunt Store for provisions, and sometimes find my friend Roy, whom I met on that first trip to Hunt with the Grundys. The store and a post office, a couple of churches, a real estate office, and a little restaurant pretty much make up the "downtown" of Hunt. The store's current owner's business card claims, WE CARRY MOST THINGS A PERSON MIGHT WANT. That is not true, but it could be said that the store has all you might want if you shop well in Kerrville or Austin or San Antonio before you come. What it does provide is an indispensable meeting place, for locals and visitors alike. It sells convenience-store food and supplies at convenience-store prices, as well as wine; souvenirs; Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio newspapers; and, for the past several years anyway, the New York Times. But most of the store is taken up by indoor and outdoor tables and benches for sitting down with a hamburger or some pretty good barbecue. Sometimes I used to run into Roy and a couple of his friends playing horseshoes on the patio, where a giant painted-cement cowboy boot leered over the fence. In the past couple of years I've stumbled on a sublime pick-up country-music combo that plays Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers on the patio every other Sunday afternoon.
Nightfall on the river is time to cook and talk and eat dinner on the porch under a yellow bug light. Deer go by in the dark; every eruption of buck-snort sounds like the last puff of a steam train as it settles into a station. If the final night on the river is Saturday, the quiet evening routine must be broken for a trip to Crider's on the South Fork, where there's a rodeo followed by a dance under the stars, right next door. Since 1925 (except for a year or two in the nineties, when a family feud closed the place down), Crider's has held a rodeo and a dance every Saturday night of the summer. I remember my first such dance, when I was 12. A tame deer hung out at the gate to Crider's—a fat deer, which actually flipped any proffered beer can upside down and drained it.
The audience sits on a rickety set of bleachers. The riders are announced over a tinny P.A. system. Chutes crash open, and cowboys on broncs and bulls make the clowns scatter, but they reappear to distract the animals when riders are thrown. Women riders run the barrels, kids chase tiny calves, and when the last event concludes, at about 9:30, the crowd shuffles next door to the dance floor to join those who have been nursing their Buds or Lone Stars since the afternoon.
People of all ages from miles around two-step to a country-and-western band. Oak trees strung with twinkle lights border the cement-slab dance floor, which is separated from the river by a chain-link fence and a precipitous drop. Big picnic tables flank the two long sides of the floor. Whole families turn out, and the couple configurations on the dance floor include the regular man-woman as well as child-child, child-parent, child-grandparent, child–unrelated older person, woman-woman, and probably others. Tables of Houstonians and Dallasites sit next to tables of local cowboys who have that lean, lanky look, and their girlfriends, some of whom wear a lot of makeup and have big dyed hair. I've known some of these women in my life, and I have admired them for living their lives with a certain country dignity that might not serve them as well anywhere else. I'm pretty sure one of them took out an ad that ran a few years ago in the Cowboy Capital weekly of Bandera, some 30 miles away: "Single White Female, early thirties. Looking for someone special to help me balance my life. I don't hunt but love deer meat, so hunt all you like. I ride but don't own a horse, so I hope you have an extra. I am a little picky: I would prefer you have a full set of teeth and a job. I love to dance, take walks, cook, tube down the river, and just enjoy all the Texas Hill Country has to offer."
There's no way to know if she got what she was looking for. Still, I always imagine someone like her might be there, under the stars, by the river.
And I think, Best of luck to you, darlin'.
ALICE GORDON is the editor of Elements of Living magazine and a freelance writer on many subjects.
WHERE TO STAY
A quiet guesthouse with river access a two-minute drive away and a grand view of the Hill Country. Book through Gastehaus Schmidt (866/427-8374 or 830/895-5515; www.fbglodging.com). South Fork, Hunt; doubles from $100.
River Oaks Lodge
Was owned by Karl Rove until a couple of years ago, so if you are unhappy with the present administration, you might not want to swim in this stretch of river. Clean, contemporary rooms. 1120 Hwy. 39, Ingram; 800/608-2596 or 830/367-4214; www.riveroakslodge.com; doubles from $100.
Lovely river. For a crowd, rent the Nicklos Place on top of a hill. For a smaller group, try the River Dorm Apartment. 2229 FM 1340, Hunt; 800/460-4401 or 830/238-4455; www.moranch.com; doubles from $77, group accommodations from $120 per night for up to six people.
Spencer's Guest Cottages
Fine riverfront properties; bookings available from All Wimberley Lodging. Blanco River; 800/460-3909 or 512/847-3909; www.texashillcountrylodging.com; from $140 per night for up to four people.
A small, nicely appointed private rock residence above a narrow, cypress-lined section of the Medina River. Bandera; 888/396-3739 or 512/396-3739; from $700 per week for up to 10 people.
WHERE TO EAT
It's best to rent a cottage or house with a kitchen and shop at the HEB in Kerrville. But if you want to go out, try:
The heart of Hunt, where everyone who lives there meets, and where everyone who visits eats lunch and buys groceries and beer. 1634 Hwy. 39, Hunt; 830/238-4410; lunch for two $10.
The local retirees dress up and eat out here. 1621 Hwy. 39, Hunt; 830/238-4484; dinner for two $50.
WHAT TO DO
Rodeo followed by a dance every Saturday night from the week before Memorial Day through Labor Day. 2320 Hwy. 39, Hunt; 830/238-4441.
Spencer Guest Cottages
A favorite for Hill Country vacationers, Spencer Guest Cottages are located in Wimberley on the Blanco River, less than 40 miles from Austin. With two stories and about 1,500 square feet, the stucco cottage can house six to eight people, and the interior has a bright color palette (think pink walls, red ceilings, and blue beams). Amenities include a screened porch overlooking the river, woodburning fireplace (wood furnished), and full kitchen. When not tubing down the Blanco, visitors can explore nearby galleries like the Wimberley Valley Art League or take a swim at the Blue Hole Regional Park.
River Oaks Lodge
Built in the Texas Hill Country-style with a stone façade, the River Oaks Lodge is surrounded by huge, old oak trees and located across the road from the scenic Guadalupe River. This bed and breakfast has a solarium, porches, and patios for easily enjoying the views, while each room features unique decor and simple furnishings. Able to accommodate 26 guests, the entire property can be rented at a discount, making River Oaks Lodge perfect for family reunions and business meetings. Enjoy art and theatre at the nearby Hill Country Arts Foundation, as well as canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and tubing on the Guadalupe River.