What’s a Mason? A type of brick layer, certainly. A trendy boy’s name, yes. And, most importantly, it’s a tiny town halfway between Austin and San Angelo whose total population could easily fit into my high school. So how is it that I wound up neck deep in Puncher (Mason’s awesome high school mascot) territory?
I was commissioned by a local magazine to write a travel piece on the little gem I had previously only seen on the corner of the weather man’s forecast map. I knew little about the county seat of Mason County, but I did know it was the birthplace of my friend Mixon who generously offered to be tour guide during my Westward excursion.
Here’s what you need to know about Mason:
•Its main exports are Topaz (the state gem of Texas, which is particularly ironic because Mason County is the only place my birthstone has ever been discovered within Texas borders) and sand.
•Besides being the hometown of my award-winning writer friend Mixon, Mason is also home to another popular writer: Fred Gipson, author of the heart wrenching story of Old Yeller.
• Until recently, prisoners of the Mason County Jail were forced to wear bright pink jumpsuits in an effort to encourage delinquents to reform their law-breaking ways.
• The recreational activity of choice for the locals is driving “the loop,” a dirt road which loops around the town and across the hill country landscape. Poor conditions of the road limit drivers to a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, which is probably best since drinking and driving on the excursion is par for the course.
But Mason is more than Jeopardian tidbits and factoids. After driving two hours west on Highway 29, Mason is the first town along the highway that actually compels travelers to stop and stay awhile. Old stone houses, chock-full or character, welcome visitors from either side of the road, and unlike most of the drive to that point, Mason is hilly and lush with mature trees. But what really makes Mason noteworthy are the people. As is typical with small towns, everyone knows everyone. Grab lunch with a local in one of Mason’s cafes and they can tell you a story about any other Mason native that passes by the storefront; that guy drove his truck into a telephone pole last week, those folks own the movie theatre. But it’s not the trivial, gossip-ridden stories that might circulate in a high school of the same size. When you live and work with the same folks for 10, 20 and 50 years, the stories become part of the town’s history and are told with a sense of ownership and pride, like an author writing down a chapter of a novel. Mason’s 2,000 residents know how to live next to each other, but also how to appreciate one another at the same time. The waitress in the cafe always knows who at the table is going to take care of the check, and the storekeeper on the square knows all about the back up quarterback’s knee injury. It’s smal town living at its finest.
A pilgrimage to the Texas Hill Country can take on many forms. For some, the visit to one of the most beautiful regions in Texas means miles of tubing, beer in hand, down cold, rapid-filled rivers. Others ponder hikes through thickets swarmed with wildlife and wildflowers, but on this particular Saturday a trip to the Texas Hill Country meant lots of peach ice cream, local wine, and a farm-developed seed vacuum cleaner.
The first stop on our hill country hangout was in Blanco to visit the popular lavender fields which have made Blanco the self-proclaimed Lavender Capital of the World and host of the area’s Lavender festival. Unfortunately the summer’s drought made hills of purple pollen scarce, but droves of arts and crafts vendors and sellers of lavender-themed knick knacks still came to profit from the Lavender craze in Blanco’s historic square. While the flowers were scarce, the local charm wasn’t and Blanco made a great stop for a light lunch. Check out Zocalo Electric Cafe for a menu that’s small but is customized daily to reflect the freshest ingredients available at the cafe. The food is light and wholesome and the atmosphere of the converted bungalow adequately reflects the small-town charm that brings visitors to Blanco in the first place.
From Blanco it’s about a 20-minute drive to Fredericksburg, a city I’ve grown up knowing for its German heritage, wineries, and most-importantly…its peaches.
We arrived at a long-time family favorite pit stop for peaches, Burg’s Corner. The roadside stop for all things peaches hasn’t changed since the 1970s and offers hungry Hill Country visitors loads of peach paraphernalia, produce, picturesque picnic areas and peach ice cream. Licking up scoops of the Blue Bell peach ice cream at Burg’s Corner is a memory from my youth I’ve carried into adulthood and will hopefully one day emerge itself in the memories of my future offspring. The stop is humble but it’s one of those places that for some reason nests itself in your subconscious and begs to be revisited over and over again.
This view from a picnic area around the corner overlooks the Pedernales River. This beautiful and serene piece of scenery is not only the setting of dozens of family picnics, it’s where we go to remember my Oma who considered this picnic stop a Texas treasure. Her ashes are scattered here.
Down the road from Burg’s is Becker Vineyards. A road surrounded by orchards and vineyards on either side leads guests up to the limestone headquarters of this local winery. Ten dollars gets you in for tastings of sublimely delicious Texas wines, but part of what you pay for is not only the rich and delightfully cared-for beverage but also recommendations from the vineyard’s staff of the best wines and nearby sight-seeing opportunities and the spectacular view of the Fredericksburg countryside.
Further on down the same road that hosts both Burg’s and Becker is Wildseed Farms. The massive wildflower mecca is the proverbial candy store to many a Texas Gardener. Their covet-worthy seed selection fills an entire room and acres and acres of innovative irrigation systems water not rows of corn or tomatoes but instead fields of flowers. The grounds are certainly a site to behold.
There’s no limit to the combinations of experiences the Texas Hill Country can afford, but on this Saturday the combinations of flowers and ice cream and peaches and wine couldn’t be rivaled.
Mint juleps, fried chicken and horse races; that was about the extent of my knowledge on Kentucky before our Thanksgiving adventure.
Turns out, Kentucky is pretty. Really pretty. That was a delightful surprise. Southern Kentucky is teaming with rolling green hills capped by hundred year-old farmhouses and rustic barns that reminded me of a Grant Wood painting. A few hours into our drive the landscape switched from provincial towns in a sea of farmland to the Daniel Boone National Forest. White fences and old churches were traded for Beech Trees and Kudzu vines as we drove further and further east toward Appalachia. About six hour after crossing the Kentucky border, we were approaching Hyden.
Five Fun Facts about Hyden:
∙ Hyden is part of Leslie County and sits along the middle fork of the Kentucky River.
∙ It was originally settled in 1817 and the population has since grown to a whopping 350.
∙ It’s primarily a coal mining town, but also produces a healthy amount of timber.
∙ Hyden is the birthplace of the Tim Couch, the overall first round draft pick in the NFL in 1999. (There is a road named after him, appropriately called Tim Couch Pass, yuck it up.)
∙ In 1978 Richard Nixon made his first post-resignation public appearance in Hyden, a place he knew he would still have support—he did.
It may seem odd that the former Austin dwellers, live music patrons, rock climbing enthusiasts, and Mrs. Pac Man aficionados would end up in a tiny coal mining town east of the Mississippi, but Laura and Casey seemed in their element in their cabin in the woods. Their home is the stuff of children’s dreams: a tree house on the mountain side, complete with moat and filled with knick knacks they’ve either acquired in their travels or been gifted to them by the locals. Old carousel horses, a massive assortment of VHS classics and deer antlers all had their place in the Gregory/Papendieck domain.
Our hosts were gracious and gave us a brief glimpse into their Kentucky lifestyle. Laura, as captain of the kitchen, treated us to meals fit for kings, making everything from macaroni and cheese to breakfast tacos from scratch. Casey would entertain with his the uplifting twang of his mandolin and both acted as tour guides through the mountains where he spent several hours climbing rock playgrounds, trekking along the ridgeline and falling clumsily into massive piles of leaves.
[Laura is a talented crafter. Check out some of her art here.]
Kentucky was a delightful departure from the holiday hustle and fast-paced flow to which we are accustomed. We cooked without a microwave, soaked up the warmth of a wood-burning stove and drank moonshine brewed in a bathtub. Backwoods behavior? Maybe. Refreshing retreat? Probably. Triumphant trip? No question.
While most of our peers traveled north Texas way for the holiday that celebrates all things food, Heath and I took on a separate adventure; namely, traveling to Kentucky to visit blue grass music phenoms Laura Gregory & Casey Papendieck of The Bloodroots Barter. Laura is a high school friend, turned college roommate and Casey is her partner in crime who also presided over our wedding ceremony. They’ve made a nice burrow for themselves in Eastern Kentucky and now seemed as good a time as ever to pay the handsome pair a visit.
The drive to Hyden, Kentucky is a hefty 20 hours. Clearly, this road trip called for a scenic stop or two to a) relieve the puppies who joined us on the Appalachian adventure and b) stave off insanity.
The drive is actually remarkably pleasant. The majority of the trip afforded us with traffic-free roads winding through transforming deciduous trees.
Our first stop: Texarkana. We had a pleasant lunch with Nannie (complete with bread pudding and roast beef sandwiches) and then took a little pit stop down the road for a visit with Heath’s Aunt Lisa and Uncle Roger, where the puppies had a grand time swimming with catfish, meeting their first horses and making a mess.
[Sparky wonders what’s wrong with those swimming dogs. It’s cold. They are crazy.]
From Texarkana it’s roughly a 4-hour drive to Memphis, which is where we set up the proverbial camp for the night. This stretch of road, while pleasant, caused a fair amount of head scratching as it was laden with imposing bible-oriented billboards that preached biblical versus I was unaware of from my rearing in the church. Towering billboards held messages like “save the child, use the rod.” But that’s neither here or there—yet certainly worth mentioning as we were made aware that Northern Arkansas is indeed far from home where child beating is generally frowned upon.
This was my first time to return to Memphis as an adult and Heath’s first trip period (it should be noted the trip afforded Heath his first glimpse at the Mississippi River; Mark Twain would be so proud).
We stayed in a hotel walking distance from the famous Beale Street where we spent most of our evening. Since my tenure at Community Impact Newspaper taught me that people love bullets, I will summate the highlights of the experience in short hand.
- We explored the city, camera in hand, and came across some preteen acrobats tumbling down Beale street in exchange for dollar donations. Needless to say, we obliged them for their bravery.
- Dinner at Silky O’Sullivan’s included what the server told us was a traditional Memphis meal of locally brewed beer, dry rub ribs, sausage and sharp cheddar and oysters on a half shell. (This was also a first for both Heath and me. To quote my favorite warthog, they were “slimy yet satisfying.”)
- From Silky’s we crossed the street to the Rum Boogie Cafe which drew us in with the soulful Joe Cockeresque band whose reverberations could be heard from the street. Autographed guitars of some of the bar/music venue’s more famous patrons were suspended from the ceiling, which was cool at first until I spotted a James Blunt autograph above a doorway. Womp.
Memphis was indeed a success with it’s bitter beers, mellow night life and toe tapping tunes, but the trip was still young. Details of the second half will be revealed in time. Until then, enjoy these titillating images.
And by grandmother, I mean Nannie. Nannie is Heath’s maternal great grandmother. I’ve never known my great anything, so I am happy to have gotten to spend the weekend getting to know Heath’s. Nannie was a sweet, talkative and accommodating hostess. She gives great advice and makes a mean cup of coffee. She also has a great little house in the beautiful Texarkana country side.
Nannie’s house is everything you want a grandmother’s house to be. It’s quaint but full of wonderful pieces that could hold your attention for hours, including a sleeping porch dog. The old family pictures, vintage kitchen chairs and wrought iron beds exuded charm and history. Heath was giddy when we arrived, fading in and out of old memories and swelling with nostalgia. After spending the weekend there, I can understand why. The people and the views were equally beautiful.