Everything’s bigger in Texas, they say. And that’s a fact if you’re talking hats, cattle ranches, steaks, open-pit barbecues and the midriffs of oil tycoons. Puffed up with state pride and dreams of secession, the largest state in the Lower 48 borders Mexico for hundreds of miles along the Rio Grande then spreads, broad and bottom-heavy, partway around the Gulf. But beneath all the bigger-is-better bragging and bravado lies something undersized and understated the Lone Star State holds dear: small town Texas.
“You do realise this is as far from normality for me as it is for you,” says Ari, born in Boston and living in San Francisco, as we drink whiskey from plastic cups in a honky tonk where locals in Western wear dance two-step to live country music. Longhorn Saloon’s owner – Calamity Jane reincarnated – has just run her fingers through Ari’s hair again. I can only suggest he put a hat on it like everyone else here. During band breaks, people line-dance to hip-hop.
This is Bandera, where our road trip in Ari’s jalapeno-green Saturn SL1 begins and ends. The self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World, in Texas Hill Country between Austin and San Antonio, has a population of 857. It’s “so dog-plum small you can walk it back and forth in a few minutes”, says local Patricia Moore who loves to mess around with Texas slang. “What in the Sam Heck are you talkin’ about?” is another of her favourites.
I ask Moore why she traded city living for Bandera 25 years ago. “Every time I drove through here it took my fancy. People walk to a different drum.” She also feels safe enough to never lock her doors.
Tonight is our last night of the journey but when we first rolled into Bandera it was a Monday, overcast and tumbleweed quiet. The only night there’s no live music anywhere in town and the day after locals ride in and tie their horses to hitching posts outside Longhorn Saloon. A genuine “y’all should’a been here yesterday” experience.
I’d consoled myself with my first and last chicken-fried steak, a $US14 haircut with multi-divorce history thrown in for free and a drink at 11th St Cowboy Saloon where signs say things like “two tooth requirement for service” and “for a small town this one sure has a lot of assholes” and the ceiling is stalactited with bras. I’d bought an antique rodeo belt buckle at the old-time general store, counted the vultures on the water tower and ordered barbecue next to a set of mounted longhorns and “In God We Trust, all the others pay cash” at one of the town’s 13 food joints. After sunset, I purchased a cigar for the first time – at a speciality tobacco shop with a walk-in humidor from a man I’m still convinced is a Hollywood actor in hiding – and puffed the evening away on a main street bench.
And that’s a dull day in Bandera.
Texas has more than 2000 towns with fewer than 10,000 residents and about a quarter of those have a population of under 1000. Small towns with names like Earth, Utopia, Turkey, Spur, Possum, Canadian and Rainbow are scattered throughout the state. Each has a distinct personality that originally grew from cultural roots, historic events, natural phenomena, primary industry and is now, with Texas-style determination, vigorously maintained.
“A lot of what you see here really and truly has not changed,” Moore says at breakfast in OST restaurant, which opened in 1921. Overhead, electric-lit hurricane lamps hang from wagon wheels. Around us, locals in Western shirts and bandannas scoff cowboy breakfasts before work at guest, dude and family ranches.
Retiree Roy Dugosh joins us; his ancestors emigrated from Poland in the 1850s and the family has occupied the same farmhouse since 1873. Bandera is the second oldest Polish settlement in the US and his “forefathers” built what is now the country’s oldest standing Polish church. Back then, Dugosh explains, people hunted year round to survive and “my sister and I were delivered at home by our father, who was not a doctor”. Dugosh is part of a group that re-enacts Wild West gunfights in Bandera on weekends. He also now travels regularly to Poland, sometimes with other locals.
Like Texans themselves, no two towns are alike. West of Bandera, and only an hour from Austin, the former milling town of Wimberley resembles a set for Wind in the Willows. Built around Blanco River and Cypress Creek, its big old oaks, natural swimming holes and organic farms draw a lot of Houstonites in need of a tree-change and is reputedly the most gay-friendly town in Hill Country. “Everyone feels blessed to be here,” says a blissed-out local who now calls this 2700-person town home-sweet-home.
Maggie of Sugar Shack Bakery was born in France, the Leaning Pear’s owners are a Texan couple who chose the Italian city of Perugia to learn about food, and Jobell Cafe & Bistro was conceived in New York city where David Bober fantasised about serving “rustic French-inspired bistro fare” somewhere you could see the stars. I only meet one person born in Wimberley, who recently moved back with her children. “We call it Wimberhole,” she tells me. “Because it sucks you back in”.
Two-hundred kilometres north-east of Wimberley, where the cultivated landscapes after Austin could be the farming plains of Eastern Europe, we arrive in Calvert. When this was a major cotton plantation area, the town was the sixth biggest in Texas but now has a waning population of 1100. Former plantation owners built the village of Victorian-style mansions on the east side of the tracks.
Calvert’s main street has elements of ghost town but when I step into any shop still open for business I realise the town’s heart is tachycardic. Candy, of Candy’s Candles in Common Scents, invites me to whiff a colourful bottle of wicked wax and says she tells elderly women “there’s a naked Tom Selleck in the bottom of every jar” then offers me a tour of her home, recently downsized to the back of the shop. Retro kitchenware, antique furniture and mounted animal heads – with and without hide – adorn this Texas-Boho pad.
For decades Calvert has claimed to be the state’s antique capital. Sandy Hulse, co-owner of colossal Cowboy Up, tells me people come from across Texas for her antiques and customised furniture made by “one guy that does nothing but antler stuff, I have two people that do leather, and these chairs are made from real croc” then segues to hog hunting.
At Family Dollar, one of the few chain stores in this town and the last two, Carmelita from nearby Hearne flashes a gold-tooth smile from behind the register when she finds out where I’m from and what I’m doing. “Calvert has a lot of history in terms of antiques,” she says. “And these small towns sure are big on Southern hospitality”.
There are two food options in Calvert: Mr Roy’s Burgers, a popular hole-in-the-wall of a corrugated iron shed, and Cocoamoda high-end truffle shop and restaurant. Chef Ken Wilkinson, a sixty-something ex-Englishman, is a heavily caffeinated Monty Python character with a disarming boyishness. “I heard you have chocolate just to die for,” says a woman as she approaches the truffle counter. “Is this your first time?” asks Ken.
We continue to rocket around in the Saturn to more small towns where people’s optimism and positivity also seem intrinsically linked to not just where they live but what their place is famous-in-Texas for. And, in this part of the world, that can obviously be something as simple as a bookshop, spring wildflowers, a deceased swing musician, a historic dance hall or a really great pie shop. Even the small things in Texas, I realise, are punctuated with the biggest exclamation mark. TRIP NOTESMORE
Best time to visit Texas is October through May otherwise it’s just too dang hot. United Airlines flies daily to San Antonio (via San Francisco or LA) from Sydney and Melbourne. See united老域名购买STAY
Flying L Guest Ranch is about 1km from town at 566 Flying L Drive, Bandera. Cabins and villas from $US99 a night; see flyingl老域名购买
Hotel Flora and Fauna is an environmentally-friendly option at 400 River Road, Wimberley. Rooms from $US129 a night; see hotelfloraandfauna老域名购买
The Pin Oak B&B is a gracious two-storey home with New Orleans-style breakfast at 503 Pin Oak Street, Calvert. Rooms from $US125 a night; see pinoakbb老域名购买EAT
Busbee’s BBQ & Catering, 319 Main Street, Bandera; see banderacowboycapital老域名购买. Jobelle Cafe & Bistro, 16920 Ranch Road 12, Wimberley; see jobellcafe老域名购买. Cocoamoda, 518 S Main Street, Calvert; see cocoamoda老域名购买
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Texas Tourism and Discover America.FIVE MORE SMALL TEXAS TOWNS TO VISITFREDERICKSBURG
German pioneers settled this town, west of Austin, in 1846. Oktoberfest celebrations on MarktPlatz include an OkTubaFest event, Hauptstrasse chicken dance and 42 tournament. See fredericksburgtexas-online老域名购买MARFA
This west Texas town has long been known for its inexplicable nightly light displays and has more recently morphed into an arts destination with vegan restaurants, hay bale houses and yoga classes. See visitmarfa老域名购买PECOS
In 1883 the west Texas town of Pecos became home to the world’s first rodeo, and that can’t be taken away. It’s also known for its “cantaloupe”, as they say in these parts. See visitpecos老域名购买ROUND TOP
Between Austin and Houston, this settlement of fewer than 100 residents is the state’s smallest incorporated town. Shakespeare is performed on its outskirts in Winedale theatre barn. See roundtop苏州模特佳丽招聘WEST
The music, carnival and polka of annual Westfest embraces the Czech heritage of this small town to the south of Dallas. Czech Stop Bakery sells freshly baked kolache year round. See cityofwest老域名购买