The answer was waiting for me in the land where I was born.
It was once barren land. The angular hills were covered with scrub cedar and a few live oaks. Little would grow in the harsh caliche soil. And each spring the Pedernales River would flood the valley.
But men came and worked and endured and built.
Today that country is abundant with fruit, cattle, goats and sheep. There are pleasant homes, and lakes, and the floods are gone.
Why did men come to that once forbidding land?
Well, they were restless, of course, and had to be moving on. But there was more than that. There was a dream—a dream of a place where a free man could build for himself, and raise his children to a better life—a dream of a continent to be conquered, a world to be won, a nation to be made.
Remembering this, I knew the answer.
PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON
State of the Union address, 1965
The dust came up from the wheels of the car and settled like talcum powder on the leaves of the live oak trees. There was dust on the trunks of the trees, too, and on the cedar fence posts. But back in the meadow, where the sheep were, the winter rye was green. As the car approached on a farm road near the Pedernales River, Hondo Crouch saw the white of the New Jersey license plate. He squinted, pulled down the brim of his straw hat to shade his eyes, stuck a piece of grass between his lips and did not look up again until the car stopped and the driver leaned out the window.
"Hey, sport," the driver said, "where's the LBJ Ranch?"
"The whut?" said Hondo.
"The LBJ Ranch," the driver said.
Hondo chewed on the grass and looked dubious.
"Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States," the driver said.
"Oh, yeah, the Presydint," said Hondo.
"Well, where's his ranch?" the driver said.
"Don't know's I can say whur it's at," said Hondo. "I don't live around here mahself."
"Where do you live?" the driver said.
"Down the road about a mile," said Hondo.
The car disappeared in a furious fog of caliche dust. Hondo tossed away the piece of grass and pushed back his hat with a thumb. "A man cain't go telling these foreigners everthang he knows," Hondo said. "First thang, you'd wake up one morning and they'd of carried off ever stump and loop of bobwahr on the whole ranch for souvenirs."
Hondo Crouch, a former All-America swimmer at the University of Texas, whacked the dust from his Levi's and wandered off to look in at the Comfort Wool & Mohair Co., which he owns, and at The Comfort News, where he writes a column under the name of Peter Cedarstacker. A few miles to the west, Thayer Hobson walked out onto the porch of his house at Deer Ledge Ranch. From the porch Hobson could see his Appaloosa horses grazing in a pasture and could look out at the light shifting from peach to pink to purple across the granite mountains and limestone cliffs of the central Texas Hill Country. Until Lyndon B. Johnson became President and moved The Other White House to his ranch outside of Stonewall on the north bank of the Pedernales, few people other than Texans had ever heard of the Hill Country and most Texans had only the scantest idea of where and what it is.
Thayer Hobson discovered the Hill Country for himself three years ago. He was then, and is now, chairman of the board of William Morrow & Company, Inc., a New York publishing firm. Hobson has arranged it so that he can handle his affairs with William Morrow & Company from the Deer Ledge Ranch in Comfort, Texas through a constant flow of telephone calls, memoranda and stenographic tapes. He still edits the manuscripts of Erie Stanley Gardner and assorted other writers. But when he goes into the barbershop or the feed store or the old Faust Hotel in Comfort, or drives up to Fredericksburg for a dinner of sauerbraten, red cabbage and potato dumplings at a German restaurant, he is Thayer Hobson, rancher and Hill Country man, and all they know about him is that he raises fine Appaloosa horses.
"I served my penance by spending most of my life in New York City," Hobson said one evening in the paneled den at Deer Ledge Ranch. He lay back in a leather chair and regarded his moccasined feet with great satisfaction. "When the time came that I knew I had to get out of New York or suffocate, I started searching. I went to Mexico, and then my wife, Bettie, and I came to Texas. We stayed for a while in San Antonio and a while in Austin, and we drove into the Hill Country and found what we were looking for. We bought this place and got fascinated with horses. We work hard at it. We're not dilettantes. Within 10 years this will be recognized as a superb area for training Thoroughbreds. The Hill Country soil is wonderful for their hooves.
"One thing I object to is that they're calling this L.B.J. country," Hobson said. "I'm a Johnson man myself. But this was the Hill Country before Lyndon Johnson came along, and it will be the Hill Country after all of us are gone. It's a country with tradition, with an exciting history. The two things I like best about it are the excellent year-round climate and the people. These people have a solid sense of values. Out here nobody cares who you are. All they care is what you are. If you're a good man, honest and decent, it doesn't matter whether you're a cowboy or the chairman of the board of a major corporation, you're accepted on your own merit as a man."
A few months ago Thayer Hobson and Bettie, widow of the late Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist H. L. Davis, decided on a vacation in England, the only other place Hobson, after traveling the world, would care to live. They bought their tickets, made reservations, dug out their passports and packed their bags. Then they sat in the den at Deer Ledge Ranch with their books and horse-show trophies. They looked out at that changing light and at the vast silence and feeling of peace that hang over the hills. Out there, somewhere, among the Mexican juniper and Spanish oak and the clear cold springs that pour over white limestone, in the forests of elm and hack berry and cottonwood that form tunnels for the streams, out there in the hills were herds of sheep and goats tended by border collies and lone men on horseback. There were wild turkeys and white-tailed deer, bobcats and coyotes, fox-squirrels and skunks and jackrabbits, and corrals with snubbing posts for breaking wild horses and old stone houses with pressed tin roofs built by the German settlers more than 100 years ago. The Hobsons looked out as the hills darkened into ink black and the night came with its sparkling clarity and the bells of the lead sheep tinkled in the valleys.
"Thayer," said Bettie Hobson, "why are we going away?"
"I couldn't think of a reason," Thayer Hobson said later. "So we unpacked and stayed here. I don't know why anybody would ever want to leave this country. I guess after three years I'm the most blatant Texan you will ever meet."
Texas is a number of contradictory territories bound together roughly inside the Red River to the north, the Rio Grande River to the west, the Sabine River to the east, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. The territories are like, say, seven frequently quarrelsome brothers living in the same house. There are the pine forests and the cotton culture of cast Texas, the black farmlands of north Texas, the prairies and cattle country of the West, the lonely and stunning mountains of the Big Bend, the orchards and truck gardens of the Rio Grande Valley and the shipping, sugar, petrochemicals and sand dunes along the Gulf Coast. But the part of the state that Lyndon Johnson most often talks about, that inspires the allegiance of a transplant like Thayer Hobson and the protection of a native like Hondo Crouch, is a hunk of kneaded ground covering about 14,000 square miles.
The Hill Country begins around Killeen in the north, runs south to Austin, curves southwest to San Antonio and goes west to the far side of Kerrville. The Colorado River comes down from the northwest with its six Highland Lakes for fishing, boating, water skiing and flood control. The Colorado twists through Austin and heads southeast to empty into the Gulf, To the west and southwest of Austin are other rivers—the Guadalupe, the Pedernales, the Blanco, the Llano—that cut through the hills and can boil into flash floods that tear away bridges, houses and herds of livestock. The thin soil and the overgrazing that destroyed much of the grass and allowed scrubby cedar and mesquite to stubble miles of hills have not made it an easy country in which to live. There is no oil in the Hill Country, no simple path to wealth.
It is the sort of country where a man is on the earth under a big sky and there is no way to fake it. The false skills of the cities—the huckstering, the maneuvering at multi-martini lunches, the high-camp cultism, the slippery small talk of the cocktail parties, the frantic grabbing for status, all the fustian time-destroying word games and social ploys that give life in the cities a sense of temporariness and uselessness—these count for nothing in the Hill Country. What matters is that a man is honest in what he does and that he has a certain largeness of spirit. The late Stanley Walker, former city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote in a book called Home to Texas: "The kindliness of the citizens, their calm but friendly interest in the well-being of their neighbors, is apparent enough, but there are exceptions. The man who exhibits a small, mean side is not exactly ostracized, but his mangy little acts are remembered. He may not be censured, but he is avoided."
The Friendly Bar is in Johnson City, 44 miles west of Austin on the highway that goes through Dripping Springs—a town that looks like the place where the first High Noon hero ambled down that wide, dusty street, hands dangling at his gun belt (worn low, of course, with the scabbard tip strapped just above the knee), and then outdrew that first sinister stranger. The Friendly Bar is the refuge of James Ealy Johnson, cousin of the President. A cowboy and occasional dealer in real estate, James Ealy is a tall, brawny man with the famous nose, ears and chin of the Johnson family and a face that is creased and browned by the sun and wind of the Hill Country. At 55 James Ealy goes nearly every day to play dominoes with his pals at the Friendly. He wears a straw hat and the boots of a working cowboy, with walking heels, and a few buttons have popped off his green corduroy shirt. His long Johns show at the cuff and neck. He rolls his own cigarettes and can do it one-handed if the other hand happens to be occupied with holding a beer bottle. Like his cousin, James Ealy has a ranging mind. But, unlike his cousin, James Ealy never cared to be anything much but a cowboy in the Hill Country.
"What most folks go their whole lives without realizing is that everthang comes from the earth," James Ealy said one afternoon in the Friendly. "All money comes from the ground—this bar stool, this cigarette, these boots, the fancy cars the tourists drive through town, it all comes out of this earth. When you forget how you stand with the land you have forgot the most important thang about being a man. It used to be, back in 1929 or so, you could hardly get into Johnson City for all the people. I had 94 Mexicans working for me. Then the ground wore out and everbody moved off. If L.B.J. hadn't of got to be President, we might of all starved to death around here. But now we're building dams, building the country back up, replenishing the earth, remembering where we come from."
A few minutes earlier on Highway 290—the Austin-to-Fredericksburg road—a new purple Cadillac had been creeping along at 30 mph. Texans are restless and mobile people. They leap into their cars and drive 300 miles to see a football game or to whoop at a party with hardly more hesitation than a New Yorker would feel in venturing from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights. Ordinarily they push the 70-mph speed limit, roaring along with their radios playing loud and the air conditioners blowing and a can of beer open on the seat. But this purple Cadillac was barely making it at 30. At the wheel was a grim old woman, hunched forward, steering with both claws, fierce old eyes peering straight ahead as if to be sure the road was clear of Apaches. On the rear window was a sticker: He's Not MY Kind of Texan.
"I remember," James Ealy said, laughing about the old woman, "when Lyndon used to shine shoes here in town. Everbody was against us. Whenever we walked out the door we knew we might have to fight. Now most of 'em got these L.B.J. ALL THE WAY stickers on their cars. But you know that's a lot of bull. Plenty of people right here in town didn't vote for him."
James Ealy got up from the domino table. A visitor was playing Everything's O.K. on the LBJ on the jukebox, which gives six records for a quarter. Pushing open the screen door, James Ealy stepped onto the sidewalk. Haifa block away, on the square, was the Pedernales Hotel, which was being remodeled into a drive-in bank. Out at the southwest edge of town were several stone barns, farm buildings and a smokehouse that were built by the President's grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson, and an uncle.
"Lyndon and I used to have a bike," James Ealy said, looking off toward the highway. "We had only one bike. Couldn't afford two. If we rode it 100 yards a chain fell off or something. So we worked on that bike all the time. We left it in a building right here in town. One night the building burned down. 'Whut happened to our bike?" Lyndon asked me. I told him it was gone. An awful thang. An awful thang to happen to kids."
James Ealy rolled another cigarette, expertly furrowing the paper and then pulling the string on the tobacco pouch with his teeth. "The big problem today, here or anywhurs else, is education." he said. "We got to educate the people. They got to learn this is one world, and we all got to trade and deal and get along with one another or we're gonna have turmoil. People right here in this town don't realize that. They read about a longshoremen's strike, and they say, 'Whut is a longshoreman?" They never saw no water deeper than whut's in a cow track."
But the Hill Country is the nation's top producer of mohair and figures in a great amount of international trading. It is difficult to drive a few miles through the hills without coming across herds of goats or sheep in the green, slanting meadows. Down the road from the Friendly Bar that afternoon the Future Farmers of America—a young people's organization—were bringing their sheep, goats and pigs to the Blanco County Fair Grounds for a stock show. Around the pens, where boys wrestled fat complaining sheep in for shearing, the air was thick with the stinging smell of hay and manure and with the rackety cries of the sheep and the buzzing of electric shears. Girls in cowboy hats and long pigtails walked arm in arm. Pickup trucks hauled trailers of livestock. Boys in wide hats, jeans, boots and high school letter jackets glanced sideways at visitors from the outlands—including a Dallas model who wore high black boots, pink stretch pants, a pink-and-orange sweater and wraparound sunglasses. A few years ago such a costume at the Blanco County Fair would have meant instant gawking. But even the Future Farmers of America are jaded now with creatures from other worlds. The LBJ Ranch has been host to former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the late John F. Kennedy, Lopéz Mateos, Hubert Humphrey, Van Cliburn, Milton Berle, a varied lot of others. After a Johnson City citizen sees Dean Rusk and Pierre Salinger walk into a store and buy jeans and then sees members of the Washington press corps strolling the streets with barbecue sauce on their lapels and with Stetson hats set squarely on their heads, like reservation Indians, then there is very little left in this life for a Johnson City citizen to be startled at.
In an arena next to the FFA exhibit pens that afternoon the Hill Country cowboys were having a rodeo. They ride their own circuit—Marble Falls, Lampasas, Fredericksburg, Johnson City, other towns 100 miles around. The riders, ropers and bulldoggers pay entry fees. The winners collect the money and the losers the splints. The dirt floor of the Blanco County Fair Grounds arena that afternoon had been trampled into a moonscape by hooves and fallen cowboys. Cars and pickups were parked around the wire fence of the arena, and people sat on hoods or stood in truck beds to watch. The grandstand was in shade and the concrete was cold. People came down to stand next to the fence to be in the sun.
While the cowboys, riding six or eight abreast, chased the bawling, round-eyed calves back up to the west chutes for another go-round, the loudspeaker on top of the wooden judging stand crackled with country music: I'm Just an Amateur at Love and There'll Be Some Sad Sangin' and Some Slow Ridin' Next Time Yon Come Staggern' in.
The announcer told jokes and talked to people in the crowd and consoled the losing riders and called out the cowboys' names—names that sounded like Jim McCorkledale, Smokey Kuykendall, Johnny Bearsfoot, Bean Crosby, names that one does not hear outside of rodeo arenas or working ranches. Cowboys are perhaps the only people in this country so tough that a male child can be named June or Jane and survive. It is a handy thing to remember that if one meets a cowboy named June or Jane one should talk softly and smile quite a bit.
Leaning against the arena fence, their fingers clutching the wire and their eyes studying the horses, were two old men. One wore overalls and a baseball cap and the other gray work clothes and a cowboy hat.
"Look thur at Ole Gray," said the one in the cowboy hat.
"Does his job. Lookit him keep that rope tight for that cowboy," said the baseball cap.
"Yew cain't beat Ole Gray for a ropin' horse," said the cowboy hat.
Had they ever seen Lyndon Johnson on horseback?
"Used to see him ridin' a jackass to school," said the cowboy hat.
How is the President's horsemanship?
"Waal, Lyndon can ride a horse somewhat," said the cowboy hat. "But you got to remember he's been on a horse a whole lot more in the last two years than he ever was the rest of his life put together."
The location where the photographs are taken of the President on horseback is a handsome spread 12 miles west of Johnson City on the blue stream of the Pedernales River. The LBJ Ranch itself has about 450 acres, minuscule by Texas standards. "You can't call 400 acres a ranch," the late J. Frank Dobie, teacher and writer, once said. "That's just a place." But the President owns or leases more than 7,000 acres in all, and that does narrowly qualify him as a rancher. Mr. Johnson was baptized at the age of 14 in the Pedernales—which he and other Hill Country people call the "Per-de-nal-is"—during a summer revival meeting of the First Christian Church of Johnson City. Once there were 200 pecan trees in front of the Johnson home on the bank of the Pedernales. But the river came up violently in 1952, as Hill Country rivers and creeks do after one of the hammering rains Texans refer to as gully-washers, and thundered over the bridge and ripped away the pecan trees. ("I'll see you soon," Mrs. Johnson frequently says, "if the Lord be willing and the creeks don't rise.") Mr. Johnson arrived in a helicopter, in the style of the Nouveau West, to rescue his wife and mother from that 1952 flood.
The terraced front lawn, where the pecan trees were, is now a lovely patch of greenery—kept green by a sprinkler system—on which the President's blue-blooded Hereford cattle sometimes stand as if posing for a postcard. To the east of the ranch are two stone forts with thick walls and rifle slits, built a century ago for protection against Indian raids. The original stonework of the LBJ Ranch house was built about the same time. But the house has been modified and added to, and the old gingerbread wood sculpt has been removed from the edge of the roof. It is a plain white stone-and-frame farmhouse now, with a large, curving, heated swimming pool and a landing strip. The President bought the ranch, which is not far from the cabin in which he was born, from an aunt.
Ranch Road 1 cuts north from Highway 290 just west of Stonewall and runs beside the Pedernales before turning south to rejoin the highway at Hye. From the ranch road it is an easy golf shot across the river and the sloping lawn to the Johnson house. When the President is in residence, Ranch Road 1 is closed. The road is guarded at all times. If a car slows on Ranch Road 1 opposite the Johnson house, a security agent goes dashing across the lawn on some urgent mission, and two or three others peer at the car through binoculars. There is the feeling of machine-gun muzzles poking out of the brush and of unseen eyes staring from secret warrens. It is similar to the feeling one gets approaching the Brandenburg Gate on the border of East Berlin.
Geologically, the President's country is where the West truly begins. Coming in from the east across the Texas Gulf Coastal Plain the flatland suddenly breaks at Austin and rises into wooded hills. Along that hill line, known as the Balcones Escarpment, the earth's crust fractured millions of years ago and the Hill Country thrust up. The blacklands of cotton and grain sorghum end at Austin, where the Edwards Plateau emerges. Rocky ledges of Cretaceous limestones and clays rear up from what once was the floor of a warm, shallow sea. Fossil oysters, sea urchins, clams and snails lie among the rocks of the Hill Country with arrowheads and ax blades of the Comanches, Apaches and Tonkawas. Along the Pedernales Valley granite knobs jut out, but on the low slopes in the valley the soil is a sandy loam in which flourish the peach orchards of Stonewall and Fredericksburg. There is little use trying to farm the thin soil of the upper hills, although men have died in the attempt. Cedars, mesquite and cactus have taken over much of the high country. An almost mythical, gypsylike people called Cedar Choppers roam the great cedar brakes and cut fence posts when they arc inclined to work. But the ranchers have begun removing the cedars by knocking them down with a heavy chain dragged between two tractors and then burning them to give the grass a chance to grow again. Acorns from the live oaks and oily beans from the mesquite trees are fattening feed for goats and sheep, although the abrupt variety of the landscape can make goat catching much more difficult than goat raising.
The people out in that expanded country, where from a hilltop one can look for miles across progressions of hills and deep valleys, ridge after ridge, and see nothing moving but a vulture above a sun-splotched peak, have had to learn to laugh at themselves. On their radios they hear music like Cousin Fuzzy playing the Peppy Pepper Polka. And they listen to evangelists like Rev. J. C. Bishop of Dallas, who recently urged his audience: "They's lots of you folks out there got barns and farmlands standing idle, and you ain't doing nothing but paying taxes on them. What the Lord wants you to do is sell those barns and farmlands and send the money to me." Rev. Bishop fasts for 40 days and nights and, during that mystic period, offers to cure anything from eczema to heartache. For the proper donation.
"My own notion," wrote Stanley Walker after he had renounced his New York newspaper career and returned to his farm outside Lampasas, on the northern rim of the Hill Country, "is that many parts of the Southwest, particularly central Texas, are almost ideal for horses, not bad for dogs, excellent for men who are innocent of Napoleonic aspirations, and just about as good for a woman as the woman wants to make it." In a letter to J. Frank Dobie, Walker wrote: "I love Texas. I returned to the state 16 years ago and never regretted the move. I expect to die out in the hills and to be buried there. But I am not blind. There is much about Texas that is depressing, ugly, disgusting. Why lie about it? Why, indeed, lie about anything?"
The usual grave in the Hill Country is 54 inches deep. The pioneers chose their graveyard sites on loamy or gravelly land with a gentle slope. In the late summer, after farm harvests are done, communities still turn out to work in the cemetery. They clean out the weeds and brush and plant flowers. When someone dies the men from nearby areas grab shovels and volunteer as gravediggers. That manifestation of human interdependence carries over from the days when each man in the hills needed his neighbor for reasons more vital than borrowing a pound of coffee. It was less than 100 years ago—on July 21, 1869—that the last scalping occurred in Blanco County.
On Cypress Creek, a short ride north of Johnson City, a raiding party of Comanches rushed out of the trees and attacked the cabin of Thomas C. Felps. The Indians stripped Felps's 19-year-old wife, Eliza, beat her with a war club, speared her through the breast, cut a circle on the crown of her head, and yanked off her hair. Tom Felps was killed but not scalped, possibly because of his red hair. Neighbor Sam Ealy Johnson Sr., the President's grandfather, who had been raising cattle in the Hill Country with his brother, Tom, and driving herds up the trail to Kansas markets since the 1850s, organized the pursuit. He left his own wife, Eliza Bunton Johnson, alone with their baby at their log cabin. Returning from the spring with a bucket of water, she saw some of her cows gallop past with Comanche arrows sticking out of their hides. She realized the Indians had doubled back. Eliza Johnson took her baby down into a basement storage shelter. She inched a braided rug over the trap door and tied a diaper over the baby's mouth to hush its cries. She heard the Comanches stomping about in the cabin above. They destroyed the Johnsons' wedding gifts, stole the horses and rode away before Sam Ealy Johnson returned. The past is still very real in the Hill Country. It was 1871 before a railroad reached Austin. Cattle were driven north into the Chisholm Trail and on into Kansas as late as 1900.
Some of the Hill Country's early settlers were Germans. After the French revolution of July 1830, the German princes ruled their provinces with vigorous military discipline and forced out thousands of students, professors, craftsmen and farmers. Many of the exiles came to Texas through the influence of travel books that, unfortunately, were more romantic than true. A group of noblemen, the Mainzer Adelsverein, met various disasters as a result of the naiveté of their ideas of colonization before Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels bought 1,300 acres on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers and founded New Braunfels, 50 miles southwest of Austin. Baron Ottfried Hans von Meusebach led an exploring party into the hills 75 miles northwest of New Braunfels, bought 10,000 acres and distributed the land in 10-acre plots. There, in 1846, the town of Fredericksburg began. The first community dinner was a roasted bear.
One year later Mormon Leader Lyman Wight, who had got himself excommunicated by feuding with Brigham Young for control of the Mormons after Joseph Smith was killed by a mob, brought his followers down from Illinois into the Hill Country and founded the town of Zodiac, five miles east of Fredericksburg. Wight and his people supplied the Germans with meal and lumber and taught them to farm the Texas soil. A flash flood of the Pedernales washed away the mills of Zodiac in 1851. Wight and his faithful abandoned Zodiac and wandered Texas searching for the new Zion. He died near San Antonio, with Zion unlocated.
But by then the Hill Country was becoming sophisticated. In the valley town of Sisterdale weekly meetings of the German scientific and philosophical society were conducted in Latin. Joseph Brodbeck, a Wurttemberg scholar, taught school in Fredericksburg and built a flying machine that was powered up to the treetops by its coiled spring engine in 1865—less than 30 years after the Battle of the Alamo and more than 40 years before the Wright brothers exhibited their machine. Count Jean Peter Isidore Alphonse de Saligny, French chargé d'affaires to the Texas Republic, was living in Austin, giving fancy parties and cursing the hogs that rooted up his gardens. Square dances at the Bismarck Garten in Fredericksburg were called in French. Sir Svante Palm, a Swede, gave his book collection to the University of Texas in 1897 as a foundation for what became one of the world's finest libraries. Emir Hamvasy, exiled former Lord Mayor of Budapest, was professor of music at Swancoat's Academy in Austin in the 1860s. Long before that the Spanish had built El Camino Real, a highway with fords that could be used in all but the foulest weather. The highway passed through San Antonio en route to Natchitoches to connect Mexico with French Louisiana. Franciscan Fathers in the 18th century built three missions on the present site of Austin before the Indians drove them out and forced them to relocate in San Antonio. The Villa de San Marcos de Neve was built on a bluff above the Guadalupe River near the EI Camino Real crossing in 1807 by Don Felipe Roque de la Portilla. More than a century later, Lyndon B. Johnson was graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College in the town of San Marcos.
The settling of Austin by buffalo hunters—one of whom was Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, President-elect of the Republic of Texas—in the mid-1830s pushed the Indians into the hills of the south and west and up the river valleys to the north. The Indians retaliated by raiding the outlying communities until Baron von Meusebach made peace for the German villages. Baron von Meusebach, known as El Sol Colorado (The Red Sun) by the Indians because of his fiery beard, guided a party of Germans into Comanche country on the San Saba River to meet with Comanche chiefs in 1847. Indian scouts along the path of march lit signal fires on the hilltops to let the chiefs know where the Germans were and how many men they had. The children in an unprotected cabin near Fredericksburg saw the fires and asked their mother what they meant. To keep from frightening them, she explained that the rabbits in the hills had gathered wild flowers for the Easter rabbit, and the fires were flaming under great cauldrons in which Easter eggs were boiling and being colored by the wild flowers. When the men came back from Comanche territory the children told them the story. It was decided that as long as the treaty held, fires would be built on the hills around Fredericksburg at Easter. The ceremony, with the retelling of the story, has been an annual affair ever since.
But the German settlers did not get on so well with their fellow Texans. When the Civil War came, the Hill Country voted against secession and has remained traditionally Republican. Most of the Texans had come from southern states and were not only accustomed to slavery but were sentimentally bound to the Confederacy. The Germans had never owned slaves and had no use for them. A party of more than 70 German men tried to march from the Hill Country to Mexico and planned to sail from there to join the Union Army. They were ambushed and killed. Today there is a monument to them in Comfort—the only monument in the South dedicated to Union sympathizers. Groups of outlaws, the Haengerbande, rode the mountains hanging Germans and stealing their property in the name of the Confederacy. Bitterness lived for years in the hills and broke out again, though not so violently, during the two World Wars.
The Hill Country is one of seven distinct biotic areas of Texas. But it is the only one that is uniquely Texan, located completely within the boundaries of the state. The plants and animals on the Edwards Plateau are western in nature. Forests of stumpy evergreens—which the cowboys call shinnery because they scrape the legs of a man on horseback—grow in the scant upland soil. In places the shinnery gives way to heavy stands of cedar. Hill Country valleys are thick with post oak, pecans, bald cypress, cottonwood, hackberry, elm, sycamores, the live oaks that the President often mentions and plum and peach orchards. Sugar maples stand along the Sabinal River Valley and give the country in autumn the look of New England.
Wild flowers, one of which, the blue-bonnet, is the state flower, carpet the Hill Country. In the spring the roadsides are a crazy palette of buttercups, phlox, verbenas, daisies, black-eyed Susans, fire wheels, ground cherries, prickly poppies, tomatillos, nettles and sunflowers. The blue-green of the mountain laurel and the yellow flowers of the chaparral lure swarms of bees and butterflies. Through that busy garden step an overabundance of deer. Hunting is a major occupation of the Hill Country. With the larger predators—the gray wolf, the red wolf, the black bear and the ocelot—mostly eliminated by ranchers trying to protect their stock, deer are multiplying at an astonishing rate. More deer are killed in Llano County each year than in any other area of comparable size in the nation.
Deer eat mostly on "browse"—the nibblings from tree branches—and weeds, feed that cattle do not bother with. The ranchers have begun to put out salt for the deer and, sometimes, to feed deer with their cattle. In the Hill Country it takes 10 to 15 acres of grazing land to support one cow. Five deer can thrive on the same amount of land. A rancher can lease out a typical 1,000-acre section to perhaps 10 hunters at $100 per gun for the season, which runs from mid-November until the end of the year, and can earn $1,000 with little effort. After the lessees have shot their limit—two bucks, unless the rancher also has a doe permit—the rancher usually lets out his lease to day hunters at $10 per gun per day. Most of the Hill Country deer are rather small, because of overpopulation, but Dallas Morning News Outdoor Editor Ken Foree last season shot an 11-point buck that dressed out at 110 pounds and supplied a considerable amount of venison chili.
Wild turkeys are plentiful in the Hill Country. And from the deep caves of the plateau limestone at dusk flap black clouds of Mexican freetailed bats and Mexican cave bats. One cave, the Devil's Sink Hole in Edwards County—according to an excellent guidebook called A President's Country, published by the Ex-Students Association of the University of Texas—has more than eight million bats. The poisonous snakes lying in the brush and rocks of the Hill Country are the diamondback rattler, the black rattler, the copperhead, the water moccasin, the rock rattler and the coral snake. Fortunately, the incidence of snakebite is low. Two boys, groping recently with their hands for catfish in the ponds of a drying stream, located a fish under a rock but could not quite reach it. After each of the boys had felt under the rock to tickle the fish's belly, they climbed out and turned over the rock. What they had been tickling was the belly of a copperhead snake, which evidently was quite pleased.
Fish in the Hill Country are hardly that difficult to come by. Black bass of up to nine pounds are taken from the Highland Lakes, usually on spoons or plugs. The phenomenon of Highland Lakes fishing, though, is the white or sand bass. From a high bank one may see a thousand acres of sand bass feeding on shad in the early morning or just before sunset. The sandie, though seldom weighing as much as three pounds, is a vigorous fighter on light tackle. The most fearsome-looking creature in the Hill Country is the collared lizard or mountain boomer. Running on its hind legs the mountain boomer resembles a midget dinosaur, and it can break the skin with its bite. Above the mountain boomers and other lizards soar butcher birds, meadowlarks, swallows, sparrows, bluejays, redbirds, mockingbirds, scissortails, hawks and vultures. Mourning dove and bobwhite quail are there in great numbers. But the roadrunner, often seen hurtling through the mesquite in pursuit of a snake, is the celebrity of Hill Country birddom. J. Frank Dobie wanted the roadrunner rather than the mockingbird to be adopted as the state's official bird.
Until his recent death Professor Dobie was the leading nonpolitical citizen of the Hill Country. Dobie had a ranch just outside Austin and a house in town and he taught at the University of Texas. Although San Antonio, a charming old city with a Spanish mission heritage and many flower gardens and restaurants along its downtown river, is located at the south drop of the Edwards Plateau, Austin is the city that most Hill Country people think of as their own. Historian Walter Prescott Webb lived in Austin for many years, as did Naturalist Roy Bedichek. Poet and self-styled pataphysician Roger Shattuck and prize-winning Novelist William Brammer are in residence there now, along with classical scholars William Arrowsmith and John Sullivan. Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, who wrote the hit musicals The Fantasticks and 110 in the Shade, do much of their composing at Wimberley, a dude-ranch town south of Austin.
Austin has fairly well-defined social groups—politicians, university people, businessmen. But the classes get tumbled at the city's frequent parties. It is not at all out of the way to see a writer like Brammer dining with Texas Football Coach Darrell Royal at a Mexican restaurant like El Rancho, where the President often eats. Because of archaic state laws that forbid selling liquor by the drink except in private clubs and that force all bars to close at midnight on weekdays, most entertaining is done in the home.
Austin is built on seven hills at a place where the Colorado River Valley is six miles wide. It is a clean and comfortable city of twisting streets that lift and fall among shaded lawns. Many of Austin's old stone buildings and Victorian mansions are still in decent repair, which gives the city a grace that comes with the awareness of the past; however, there is a disturbing move toward the new high-rise glass-and-steel apartments that stand on blocks of terraced land like upturned fish tanks. The Colorado River flows through the city and catches its lights in dark water. To the west in the hills above Lake Austin, it is possible to live in splendid isolation in homes that cling to the cliffs like those of Sausalito or the French Riviera and yet be able to drive downtown in 15 minutes. The home of Artist Fletcher Boone and his wife, Jean, a local television personality, is within sight of the University Tower and the red granite state capitol building, but deer have trampled a path across their lawn and must be watched for when backing the car down the driveway at night.
Fittingly, the two structures that dominate the city are the University Tower, which lights up orange after a University of Texas victory in a major sport, and the capitol, next largest after the Capitol of the U.S. When the state legislature is in session every other spring, the politicians and the university people and some of the businessmen mix with descendants of the German settlers at the Scholz Garten, an old wooden building with tables out back under the oak trees. The outdoor beer garden is enclosed to the south by a meeting and singing hall (Willkommen Saenger, says the sign above the back door of Scholz's), to the east by a small bowling alley where the pins are set by hand and to the west by the Scholz building. It is at the outdoor tables on spring nights while loudspeakers bellow music from the branches of the oaks—One Life for Ten Is the Diesel Driver's Code, He's the Widowmaker of the Road and Why Do I Do the Bad Things That I Do?—that the liberals and conservatives of the legislature argue their tedious points and the students observe their professors in the act of being human.
Around a single table at the Scholz Garten one may find a bewildering assortment of people: an Englishman who runs a book store that specializes in 18th-century literature, the editor of Texas Observer (an independent liberal newspaper that is one of Texas' clearest, if not loudest, voices), a Dallas newspaper columnist, a physicist called Dirty Tom ("All I want to do is build them bombs," he says), a cowboy, a state senator, a painter, a writer, a fellow with a guitar and sandals and Buffalo Bill haircut, a football coach, a labor lawyer, a classicist, a millionaire. And innumerable girls. The prettiest girls on earth. One of them rides to work on her motorcycle wearing jeans, sweater and headband. "When I get to the office," she says, "off come the headband and the jeans. I'm wearing a skirt underneath. I take my high-heeled shoes out of my purse, and I'm a square's supersecretary. I don't know what my boss would do if he saw me on my motorcycle and found out I'm a beatnik." At the Scholz Garten are students playing chess, Germans shouting songs, politicians scuttling around in the power game, a professor scratching notes for a book on Ezra Pound, some young men putting together a scrapingly funny satiric magazine called THE Austin Iconoclast—an incredibly mingled group, somewhat like a displaced-persons camp, some of them hating the place and some of them loving it but all of them addicted to it. Owner Bob Bales has provided nourishment for numerous indigent writers. "I'm a businessman, but I'm also a citizen," he says. "What kind of citizen would I be if I helped to make the writers shut up?" His attitude is in contrast to that of an Austin banker who was asked to contribute money toward restoring O. Henry's old house on East Fifth Street in Austin. "I can't help," the banker replied. "In fact, I do not understand this sudden excitement. I knew the man called O. Henry—Will Porter, that is—very well indeed. Worked with him, in fact. He was a very indifferent bookkeeper."
Austin and the Hill Country still have room for the individual. People who are viewed with suspicion and fear in the conforming, image-coveting, salesmanship city of Dallas, 200 miles to the northeast, feel free in Austin. Home to Austin is where John Henry Faulk went when he was blacklisted by the networks. Since then he has won a $3.5 million libel suit over the blacklisting and is working again in radio, TV and motion pictures, but Faulk still maintains his Austin home in addition to his West Side apartment in Manhattan. Folk Musicologist Alan Lomax and Poet Randall Jarrell are Scholz Garten veterans, as is Congressman and Historian Maury Maverick Jr. Novelist Larry McMurtry, author of the novel that was made into the movie Hud, comes sliding into the Scholz Garten, grinning, wary, with his small son by the hand. Photographer Russell Lee lives in Austin and recently shared his Scholz Garten table with writers Aubrey Goodman and Jay Milner. Sam Houston Johnson, brother of the President, is an Austin resident. So is a man who breaks wild buffalo for saddle riding.
The Hill Country—from the tables at the Scholz Garten to the mountains of Kerrville, from the country store that sells jawbreakers in Ding Dong to the red-tile roofs of the Spanish haciendas in San Antonio—is a country where it is still a virtue for a man to own his own piece of land and to work it, where there is dancing room for the spirit. The puritans and the thought controllers, who rule much of the state and deny Texans such freedoms as the right to drink, bet on a horse or read an uncensored book, do not have much power in the Hill Country. The wide polished sky and the awesome land reduce their hysterias to absurdities.
But like most of the places in the U.S. that are wild and free, the Hill Country in its present form may be disappearing. Because of the popularity of Lyndon Johnson, tourists are entering the Hill Country, though as yet somewhat timidly. There are picnic-lunch sacks crumpled on the banks of the Blanco River where it rushes, clear over the limestone and blue in the channels, near the high blue ridges of The Devil's Backbone. More dude ranches are opening. Some of the working ranchers are selling out to syndicates from Dallas and Houston. There are grand plans for resorts—hunting and fishing and horseback-riding motels with neon signs and leatherette couches and mustard and catsup in little plastic boxes and, God knows, maybe even Scopitone, which may become known as the last defeat of civilized man. But the Hill Country has one weapon, perhaps an ultimate one, against encroachment, and that is the stubbornness and loneliness of the land itself. It is not the place for everybody.