A road trip through cowpoke towns near San Antonio means honky-tonks, the Alamo, lazy trail rides, and a politician named Kinky.
The long, tall Texan with the snowy handlebar mustache, crimson bandanna, and beat-up grey Stetson won’t let me photograph him with his new Kinky talking doll. But he will stand with me on the streets of Bandera, Texas, the self-proclaimed cowboy capital of the world, and explain just what the hell is behind all the Kinky signs, Kinky T-shirts, and Kinky bumper stickers I see all over town.
“No joke,” he explains as he opens the door to his Ford truck and places his foot-high, cigar-toting, black-leather-jacketed male doll, purchased moments ago at the Bandera General Store, in the passenger seat. “The Texas constitution says anyone who gets 45,000 signatures on a petition gets their name on the ballot for governor. Kinky Friedman aims to gather those signatures and run for office. Lots of folks are supporting him.”
And the story behind the doll? “Action figure,” he insists, glancing over at the talking mannequin that I’m told later is the spitting image of Richard “Kinky” Friedman, a 62-year-old author, musician, and politically incorrect character who counts the song “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” among his greatest hits. “I figure it’ll be a collector’s item someday.”
I figure the doll is a good omen that my road trip through the Texas Hill Country will be full of laughter—the cowboy and I share a good guffaw when he pushes the button on the doll’s back and Kinky utters one-liners like “I can’t screw things up any worse than they already have” and “How hard can it be?” It will also be full of surprises.
The first revelation is how much San Antonio, my jumping-off spot for the hill country, has to offer visitors. Remember the Alamo? Well, that former mission, now a shrine to the 189 defenders who held off 4,000 Mexican troops for 13 days in 1836, is just one of many sites to see in this surprisingly multicultural city. The influence of Spanish missionaries, German merchants, western ranchers and, above all, Mexican Americans is best seen at one of the city’s many festivals where Tejano singers and oompah bands, tamales and Texan barbecue, beer and bratwurst are equally likely parts of the mix.
I spend my time on and around the River Walk, a four-kilometre riverside path that sits just steps below downtown streets and offers access to restaurants, shopping, hotels, and theatres. I’m visiting on Saint Patrick’s Day and the city makes a big deal of turning this stretch of the San Antonio River green with dye. Throngs of tourists and locals pack the riverside bars, saluting their real or imagined Irish heritage.
Heading for the hills, San Antonio’s urban sprawl gives way to an undulating landscape dotted with lakes, caverns, old dance halls, and—surprise, surprise—a cluster of Teutonic towns settled by Germans in the mid 1800s. This is where President Lyndon B. Johnson was born (you can visit the LBJ Ranch) and where, as spring gives way to summer, wildflowers blanket the hills.
My destination is Bandera, a town of 957 that wears its cowboy heritage on its sleeve—when it’s not plastered with Kinky paraphernalia. Main Street is lined with hitching posts, weathered wooden buildings, and a genuine cowboy honky-tonk called Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar that boasts sawdust on the floor and a table where Hank Williams Sr. carved his name.
Rodeo is big here. A monument in the centre of town celebrates the many champions who hail from Bandera, and community rodeos are staged most Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in spring and summer. As local Patricia Moore explains, “Other towns do football or baseball. We do rodeo.”
Appropriately, I stay at one of a dozen dude ranches that surround Bandera. My pick, the Mayan Ranch, is a friendly place, owned and run for 50 years by the Hicks family. The ranch caters to families, and a visit by cowboy Craig Davies and his registered Texas longhorn steer, Oreo, causes quite a stir. Davies tells the assembled crowd about Oreo’s horn measurements (1.8 metres, tip to tip), favourite TV show (Barney), modelling career (presently appearing in the Texas travel guide), and life span (25 to 30 years). “He’ll outlive me,” says Davies, a 60-year-old cowboy who went to university on a rodeo scholarship. “Likely he’ll have my skull on the barn, my hide on the floor.”
On a morning trail ride along the banks of the Medina River, I have a 10-year-old girl from Houston in front of me. “My horse won’t listen,” she whines to her father. “Why won’t it listen?” I’m tempted to tell her that no self-respecting horse would obey someone decked out in cream capris, sandals, and a fluorescent-pink cowboy hat. But I keep quiet and enjoy a meandering journey through stands of oak, cypress, and pecan trees.
My cowgirl dreams satisfied, I drive northeast to Fredericksburg, a favourite weekend getaway for folks from San Antonio and Austin. Although the town boasts over 350 bed-and-breakfast accommodations, I opt for a motel room with a hot tub where I can soak away my saddle sores.
The town’s full-on German vibe is reflected in the historic buildings featuring Fachwerk (“half-wooden”) pitched roofs, the restaurants and bakeries selling German cuisine, and the residents. I’m told professors of the German language visit the town to hear old-timers speak an antiquated German seldom heard in the old country.
My “Say what?” moment comes when I learn that this little landlocked town is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War.How did a museum focused solely on the Pacific theatre during the Second World War end up here?
Seems that Second World War naval hero Admiral Chester Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg. The 3.6-hectare historical park includes a steamboat-shaped former hotel (originally owned by Nimitz’s grandfather) filled with artifacts as well as a modern building with walk-through dioramas depicting scenes such as the capturing of a Japanese midget submarine and a bombing raid on Guadalcanal. Outdoors, there is the Japanese Garden of Peace, a memorial wall, and, a short walk away, the Pacific Combat Zone. Here, large artifacts are displayed to great effect, including tanks, Jeeps, a PT boat, and the casing of a “fat boy” atomic bomb.
Heading back to San Antonio, I stop at Becker Wineries and the Sister Creek Vineyards to sip the local product and contemplate the fact that Texas actually has a wine industry. It’s late afternoon when I roll into Luckenbach, founded in 1849 and made famous in a song by Waylon and Willie and the boys. It’s a tiny town with a weathered dance hall, bar, and general store that displays a stuffed armadillo and possum and sells everything from country-music CDs to floor wax.
Three men sit on the bar’s sprawling porch, playing their guitars and singing. I ask bartender Candace who they are. “T. Roy Miller’s the younger guy. Then there’s Danny Terry.” And the third fellow? “I don’t know,” says Candace. “He just showed up a week ago.”
I nurse a Bud and listen to songs about old dogs, children, and watermelon wine. When the men take a break I’m tempted to go ask if they’ll be voting for Kinky. Their answers might surprise us all.
POSTSCRIPT: Kinky Friedman not only collected the 45,000 signatures he needed to get on the ballot, he tallied 137,154. He is in the race for the Texas governorship that will be decided on Tuesday (November 7). -
ACCESS: For Texas travel information, see www.TravelTex.com/, 1-800-888-8839. The San Antonio Visitors Bureau is at www.SanAntonioVisit.com/, 1-800-447-3372; Bandera County Chamber of Commerce at www.banderacowboycapital.com/, 1-800-364-3833; and Fredericksburg Visitors Bureau at www.fredericksburg-texas.com/, 1-888-997-3600.
I stayed as a guest of the Mayan Ranch, (830) 796-3312, www.mayanranch.com/. All-inclusive rates for adults are $142 per person per night for the lodge or $163 for a cabin.