Megan Abbott

Heart Land: A Journey Across the Lone Star State

Megan Abbott
Heart Land: A Journey Across the Lone Star State

Originally published in SUITCASE Magazine, September 2016

It is Friday night, and our flight home is tomorrow. We have to get up early to load the car and make the long journey to the airport. We definitely need to sleep. Why then, you may ask, am I being spun around the Silver Dollar Saloon by a vegetable farmer in leather chaps named Duck, downing the last dregs of Bud as we two-step across the sawdust-covered dance floor? I’ve just got the hang of this surprisingly complicated move when a huge cowboy sidles over and asks to take the reigns. His name is GD, he tells me. “Or God Damn! Depending on the day!” He has a white bandana tied around his neck, a leatherbound knife in his back pocket, a wide brimmed cowboy hat and the loudest voice I have ever heard. Around us, couples in matching denim shirts and diamanté-studded jeans twirl around, their hands fused together as they sing every word of the songs piping from the live band, songs with lyrics like “How d’you like them cowgirls?” and “It started with a sip o’ beer.” The tune ends and GD tips his hat to me. I attempt a curtsy, but my legs aren’t what they once were after a week of brisket and macaroni, and they give way slightly. A woman with a washboard wrapped around her neck pulls me into the middle of a line dance, teaching me all of the kicks and turns. A ranch hand called Roy turns me to face him, his crested moon grin beaming down at me. “Well m’am,” He laughs, “Yer late but at least ya made iyt!” I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I laugh anyway. In the corner of my eye, I see a horde of leather-clad bikers pour in, while four cowboys tip back bottles of beer at the bar. There are rumours that one of them just rode his horse home from Calgary, Canada to here, Bandera, Texas.

Let me start from the beginning.

Issy and I had come to explore the spirit of Texas, the sprawling American state known for its rich musical past and its even richer food. We wanted to know if there were cowboys, brisket and bluegrass. We wanted to discover a place that we had observed from a distance for so long, but still remained a mystery.

We left Austin on Monday morning, the city’s outskirts thinning into just a few food trucks and coffee bars. Many locals told us that Austin is “a bubble”, the liberal, hippified little brother of Texas. As we rolled onto the highway, all hints of the city disappeared from sight. The roads widened and giant, mean-faced trucks slid by, ship-like, either side of us. Flat grasslands turned into tall cornfields, their gold tips swaying in the wind. A Texan flag flapped above an RV dealership called ‘American Dreams’, and we hurtled past a group of hitchhikers holding cardboard signs beside a small truck selling ‘Mexican Coke’. At around 3pm, the June heat cranked up to around 35 degrees. Shallow pools of water on the road turned out to be burning hot air rising from the ground. We clutched our water bottles close, as if they might disintegrate.

We were making our way towards Sage Hill Inn Above Onion Creek, a hotel buried in 88 acres of Texan Hill Country. The highways turned into residential streets lined with American flags, and then empty stretches of road watched over by farmhouses with rusting tractors parked outside. 2 hours after our estimated arrival time, we gave in and pulled in to a lonely gas station to ask for help. As if “slightly intimidated British tourist” had been branded to our foreheads, a man marched over to ask if we were lost. He had a ‘Stars and Stripes’ baseball cap on, and a twelve-pack of beer resting on his protruding stomach. He sent us away with a map pencilled on a napkin.

The shaky directions brought us to the gates of Sage Hill, an opulent wooden mansion approach by a winding gravelly path. A hammock rocked gently in the breeze, and the dipping sun turned the endless miles of oak tree forests around it into spun gold. A manager greeted us, shaking our hands and cackling as we told him how lost we had been. He proudly showed us the pool; a silky, still body of water shaded by an oak tree. He walked us over to the ‘communal fire pit’, which gazed out over rolling forests thick with cedar trees. He took us up a path lined with heather and mounds of cactuses towards the house’s main deck, and introduced us to the head chef of the hotel’s restaurant, who was picking edible flowers to accompany the evening’s menu of local food and Texan wine. “Oh my gosh!” He suddenly exclaimed. “Look!” We turned to see two downy rabbits rubbing noses on the grass. “They’re kissing! I can’t wait to tell everyone about this!”

We spent the evening swimming in the pool and padding around the grounds barefoot, before throwing on some clothes and heading for dinner. After lamb with potatoes and lemon pie we lay on the wide hammock reading, the sky a huge, velvety lake of navy. In the morning, we sat outside on two wooden armchairs as the crickets chirped and the temperature rose. We ate muffins with homemade plum jam before reluctantly packing up our things. We had to wait awhile for the air conditioning to cool down the car, which had all but cooked over night. We were overcome with the feeling that we would always be welcomed there. As it turned out, this was a feeling that would trail behind us when we left each and every place.

The topic of Texas’ best barbecue is a contentious one. “Hell, we can’t even decide what to call it!” A local food writer tells us. “Barbecue, BBQ, Bar-be-cue, ‘cue! Everyone thinks they know best.” Driving through the webbed phone lines and soaring fast food signs of San Marcos, we found Black’s BBQ, a steel building approached via a line of auto part stores. This legendary spot often comes top of the list when the question of the best arises. Inside, country music booms and locals queue up to pile red plastic trays with brisket, ribs and slices of pecan pie. A floor-to-ceiling family portrait looks out over the dining room. “That’s me!” A giant man stands behind us, beaming. This is Kent Black, the third-generation pitmaster of Black’s. He ushers us towards the counter, ordering us a slice of glistening brisket, some smoked turkey and a pot of pickles. He tells us to meet him in Lockhart that afternoon, and leaves us to devour the tray.

Lockhart is the barbecue capital of the world. In this sleepy town, which looks like the set of a spaghetti western, lives the holy trinity of barbecue restaurants. Smitty’s Market smokes meat in a dark, infernal room with a blazing fire and woodchips on the ground, while the main dining room is plastered with antique soda plaques. I order some pickles from the counter, my tray piled with soft, piping hot ribs. To my surprise, the clerk throws her head back and laughs. “Well, what kind of pickles you want?” After filling a cup with dill, sweet and tangy onion varieties, she asks where I’m from. “London?!” She exclaims. “Girl, you’re a long way from home.”

Next on the list is the barn-like Kreuz Market, where we eat smoky, succulent sausages and follow the restaurant’s rules – “No barbecue sauce (nothing to hide), No forks (they are at the end of your arm), No kidding (see owner’s face)”

It was time to meet Kent at Black’s’ original location in downtown Lockhart. We waddled to the restaurant, where the same family portrait presides over wood panelled walls, mounted taxidermy and newspaper clippings of football teams and presidents. All of this is veiled in a thin layer of pit smoke. Kent greets us right on time (“Hi y’all!”). He strides proudly into the brick pit that his father built in the ‘40s, where huge blocks of meat gently smoke above dried logs. It is 39 degrees outside, and about 10 degrees more in here. Our eyes sting in the thick smoke. “We’re keeping a family tradition alive here.” He says, slicing up a hunk of brisket and handing us each piece with the pride of a new father. We eat, despite an apocalyptic fullness creeping up on us. The meat is salty, warm and yielding. It is infused with a soft smokiness, which Kent puts down to the local wood they lovingly dry in the back room. He watches us eat, pride eclipsing his face. It is the same expression that passes the faces of locals as they tell us about their town, their family, or their special recipe sauce. Barbecue represents an unyielding respect for all things Texan. Which explains why the oldest places with the oldest recipes are still the most cherished. “This new obsession with barbecue means people aren’t doing it right anymore. We treat every piece of meat with the same respect we always have.” Kent brings his son out to meet us and puts his hand on his shoulder. “He’s a pitmaster too, now. You gotta be tough to be a pitmaster.”

Our next stop was San Antonio. It is a military town, with a fairly stern personality to match. It is not the kind of city you fall in love with instantly. But locals told us it is picking up its pace, turning into a city to “rival Austin”. After a couple of days of digging, we start to understand what they mean. Beneath the gimmicky restaurants and colonial churches there is a youthful energy at play, coloured by a rich mix of American, Spanish and Mexican cultures. We stayed at Hotel Havana, a Mediterranean Revival-style building embraced by magnolia and tall palm trees. The rooms are filled with bright tiles and mahogany four-poster beds, with deliciously creaky floorboards. It leads directly on to the River Walk, a long, emerald stretch of water lined with bars and restaurants. With a little searching, warm evenings in San Antonio can be spent eating some of the country’s best Mexican food (El Regio is particularly delicious – a tiny taco truck parked in front of a male strip club) and listening to raucous live music (Sam’s Burger Joint is a temple of blues and roots music). We performed karaoke to a crowd at Viva Tacoland, where the city’s cool kids clapped/cringed along beneath an oak tree laced with fairy lights. At Pearl Brewery, boutique restaurants and craft coffee bars exist among the disused rail tracks and hulking warehouses of San Antonio’s oldest brewery. Our last evening in the city was spent in Burgers Brews & Blues, a diner at the end of a long residential street where a bluegrass band played until 2am to a roomful of dancing locals. “Y’all aren’t from ‘round here are you?” A smiling woman with a streak of neon orange lipstick said to us as we swigged cheap red wine and tapped along to the music.

On the way out of San Antonio, we stopped off at ‘Mr and Mrs G’s Homestyle Cooking’. There was nothing but a dilapidated liquor store and a long stretch of highway either side of it. The door swung open and revealed a room crawling with people, licking their fingers and leaning back in their plastic chairs to cackle at jokes. A man paced towards us. “What are you two tall drinks of water doin’ in here?” He said, grinning. It was Ken, Mrs G’s son. He cleared a space for us in the queue and asked us what food we like. “Fried chicken??” He laughed at our answer, “You’ve been hanging out with some soul brothers!” He pulled up a chair as we ate chicken dripping in sharp, spicy sauce, sweet potato pie, turkey with stuffing and sweet banana pudding. He threw a couple of dollars at his friend and asked him to “grab these English ladies some root beer!” His mother and grandmother came to join us. As we left, his grandmother, who wore red lipstick and a hairnet, asked us to introduce her to the Queen when she came to London. We said we would make sure of it.

After driving for an hour from San Antonio we approached Fredericksburg, where giant signs for ‘Fresh Peaches’ swing in the wind. Pickup trucks piled with velvety, orange fruits are parked at the front of farms selling peach cobbler, peach ice cream and jars of peaches stewed with vanilla. Das Peach Haus is a rickety farmhouse with miles of peach orchards behind it, overlooked by pine forests and a sapphire-coloured lake. With a pot of creamy ice cream in hand, we ordered a taxi and delved in to the surrounding Texan Wine Country. Visiting 3 prestigious vineyards - Becker, Pedernales and Grape Creek – we tasted a colour chart of delicate, meticulously crafted wines. 20 small glasses, to be exact. The terrain resembled the deepest parts of rural Tuscany, thick with greenery and overlooked by endless blue skies. “Wine is Texas’ best kept secret!” Says India, a plucky sommelier at Becker. Woozy with heat and wine, we headed back to Fredericksburg. We were spending the night at Baron’s Creek, a surreal collection of Swiss log cabins scattered along a bubbling creek. We fell asleep on the rocking chairs, with bees and humming birds buzzing past our noses. We woke up to the last light of day, and drove a few miles up the road to Hilltop Café, a 1930s gas station-turned Cajun restaurant owned by blues singer Johnny Nicolas. The waiter urged me to try the “Swamp Platter”, made up of catfish and frog’s legs. I was sure to keep nodding and smiling as he asked me for the third time if I was enjoying it.

The next morning, we climbed to the peak of Enchanted Rock, a Mars-like pink granite dome rising up above the dramatic Hill Country. After exerting ourselves for the first time in a week, the only option was to stop for a few plates of pie at Fredericksburg Pie Company. We took a tray of lemon meringue, warm peach and key lime slices out on to the porch, where wind chimes sang in the breeze. It had just turned 11am when the owner, her white-blonde hair piled high on her head, flipped over a sign on the front door reading “Pies sold out.” We drove away from the town past signposts for Crabapple Creek, Cherry Mountain and Pecan Street, sinking deeper still into the countryside. Buzzards swooped above lonely lemonade stalls, wheat fields, pickup trucks buried in tall grass, gun shops and signs for evangelical churches. Cows escapes the scorching heat in the patchy shade of a hickory tree. We stopped for coffee in a little café on the way, and a woman walked over to us. “How are you doing? Are you having a nice day?” She said in a thick Texan accent. We blinked, frozen with embarrassment. She had obviously made a mistake. “Are you from nearby?” She continued, unfazed. We talked about families, dogs and our favourite barbecue so far, and after a few minutes of conversation she patted us on the shoulder. “Ya’ll have a good day now.” On the way back to the car, we vowed to take that kind of unabashed openness home with us.

Entering Bandera was like piercing a bubble. As we drove in, a horse drawn wagon clopped by, driven by a man in a denim suit. The tallest thing in town is a water tower on stilts. Cowboys tie their horses up on hitching posts outside saloons with swinging wooden doors. Cowboys in chaps and waistcoats stroll past wooden general stores, and locals eat chicken fried steak at the ‘Old Spanish Trail’ diner. I half expected to see John Wayne rounding the corner holding a smoking pistol.

We were staying at Silver Spur Ranch, a guest house a few miles out of town. We threw our bags into our cabin and tentatively approached the stables, where a wrangler called Tom held a horse on a rope and merrily greeted us. While the nearest either of us have got to riding a horse is straddling the luggage racks on the number 55 bus, Tom handed us each a cowboy hat and eased us onto two muscular horses. A small crowd of staff had gathered to watch us attempt to mount the animals, clapping and cheering us on. In moments, we were trotting along behind him through miles of brambly woods and shaded hills. Afterwards, we lay on top of the hay bails at the back of a trailer, accompanying the head rancher Jay on his afternoon cattle feed. Eight giant Longhorns bustled towards us, encircling the truck and clacking their glinting horns together as they gobbled up their grain. “They’re gentle, really.” Jay laughed as we edged away. “Except for that one.” He pointed to the only bull of the group. It ran its front hoof along the ground, its nostrils flaring as it fixed its dark eyes on us. “He can be pretty aggressive.”

The pride of Bandera is its annual Riverfest. Locals compete in a ‘best barbecue’ contest, and were putting the finishing touches on their creations as we arrived. Hundreds of tents were pitched along the cool, spring-fed Medina River. Children splashed about while families sat in circles drinking beer in the afternoon sun. Moments later, we found ourselves sitting at a wooden bench in a gazebo. “Ya’ll are goin’ to be judgin’ today!” Pat, a veteran of the Riverfest, told us. We were instructed to remain silent and cover our scoring cards as we marked 16 pots of ragingly spicy salsa, 14 fajitas and 18 varieties of margarita as the competitors nervously watched on. “Betcha don’t have salsa like this back home!” One of them shouted from across the grass.

That night, we went to the rodeo. We heard it before we saw it; the chants of the crowd, blaring bluegrass music, the booming commentator. Cowboys were straddling the steel gates of the stadium, some limbering up on the grass. All of them were wearing Stetsons, blue jeans and pointed leather boots with spurs. They were waiting for the bull riding to commence. It is sport revered and feared across the world, Texas’ modern Roman gladiatorial games. Rows of Texan flags beat against the warm wind, and floodlights shone down on the dusty stadium ground. A woman with thick blonde hair and a necktie leaned against the gates. She turned and beamed at us. “Welcome!” She cried as the show began. We watched 6 thrashing bulls ping out of their pens, slamming their riders onto the ground in seconds. Each cowboy wore bright leather chaps, some with reams of red, white and blue fringing. A ‘rodeo clown’ stepped in front of one bull just as it bucked high in the air, its hoof slamming in to his face. The air was hot, dusty and charged with electricity. The blonde woman put a hand on my back as I held my breath. “Don’t worry.” She said. “Those boys love the bulls like their own children.”

All this brought us here, to the Silver Dollar Saloon where those very cowboys come to spend their pay cheques on beer and dancing. The evening begins to wind down and Jay offers us a lift home. Leaving the swinging doors of the bar, we start lifting ourselves into the back of his pickup truck. “No, you can’t sit there!” He says, helping us down again. “The deer will jump in the back with ya.” We squeeze into the front with all of the windows open, the air still relentlessly hot. The moon looks like a peel of orange. I think back over the week, which has felt more like a year, packed with adventures. It is easy to get lost in the breadth of Texas. The land is endless. The food is comforting and rich. The people are loud, direct and astonishingly warm. It is a spirited place, beating away like horses’ hooves on the ground. I think of the manager at Sage Hill, who stood at the door waving us goodbye as we drove away. I think of the group of friends in that busy San Antonio diner, who cleared a gap in their table so that we could sit close to the live band. I think of the wrangler who turned his horse around every few minutes to check we weren’t hanging from a cactus by our trouser leg, or of three generations of the ‘G’ family filling our plates and sending us home with pieces of pie wrapped in cling film. Everything in Texas is carried along by a feverish pride, from family recipes that span generations to a map scribbled on a napkin. Texans want you to love their state like they do. To many of them, it feels like the centre of the universe. And in that one evening in our little cabin buried in the deep, silent ‘heartland’ of Texas, we feel it too.