Plains

Enchanted Rocks, outside Austin, Texas

Enchanted Rocks State Natural Area in Texas Hill Country

Texas Hill Country

Exploring Austin, Texas and the surrounding Hill Country.

Austin comes well recommended by many, with varying degrees of fervor, excitement and mention of a popular tourist destination called Sixth Street. I took all of this to heart, cached it for future reference, and left town 18 minutes after the plane landed. Cities are by definition the most interesting places in the world; what is more convincing than a collection of a million people? But sometimes, you have to leave a place to understand it.

I drove west because I wanted a vantage point - I wanted to see Texas hill country with my own eyes. It is a place so riddled by history and image that I had trouble visualizing it. I checked into a hotel on the outskirts of a German-American heritage town called Fredricksburg, in the heart of hill country. The streets were quiet and wet - nobody walking about. So I hopped into a Mexican restaurant, the only packed place in town. "All the tables are filled. Twenty minutes?"

"I just need a drink."
"The bar's packed," she said, analyzing me.
"We have a stool back there," she said, pointing to the kitchen.
"Perfect," I said, greeting the kitchen-help.
"Where you coming from?" the manager asked. "Los Angeles." "Business?" "I want to see Fredricksburg."
"Fredricksburg?" she said laughing as she left the kitchen, "Go to Austin. Sixth Street!"

The bartender asked if he could get me anything.

I said, "your best tequila." He poured a Patron for me, and one for himself. "What should I check out in Fredricksburg?" I asked. I already knew about the museums, the history, the German food.

"Go to Austin, man," he said in a heavy Mexican accent, serving me chips and Patron. The manager came back in and hit the bartender atop the head. "I don't want you touching me like that anymore," she said. He swung at her casually. "You're in America now. You can't act like that. You'll get fired."

The chef walked up and said, "You ever had any of our shrimps?" I said, "No, this is my first time here." "Make him some shrimps." He pronounced this 'shreemps.' "This is the good stuff from the Texas gulf." "Thank you," I said, "Gulf shrimp are usually Chinese 'Gulf' shrimp. How do you know these are from the Gulf of Mexico?" I said, referring to a seafood industry marketing scam.

Cactus in Texas

Details from the Enchanted Rocks area

He brought me a plate. "It's on the house. These are too big to be Chinese shrimps." 'Shineese shreemps.' The alarm rang the next morning at four-thirty, and shortly thereafter, I was driving north. This vast Plateau, the far border between the Great Plains and the Desert Southwest, is dotted with ranches, dry-weather trees, quartzite quarries, and the Texas prickly-pear cactus.

Because it is early morning, and I am surely the first on this particular one-lane road, there are a fair number of white-tailed deer, steer, sheep, raccoons, and other assorted mammals out and about. The smaller of these, I had heard in Fredricksburg, are referred to as 'varmints.' This includes most small mammals, except the Brazilian Free-Tailed Bat, which consumes the worst of varmints in Austin. Worst means smallest in Hill Country. 'A glorious creature', according to two giggling ladies I met on the plane. They were off to a convention - The Council of Bishops and Elders of the Evangelical Orthodox Baptist Persuasion. The bats invaded Austin after a bridge was built that was to the particular liking of flying rodents.

I had brought along some literarature on this subject, the largest collection of urban bats in North America. I highlighted the following paragraph:

Samples of their droppings collected at San Antonio contained remains of the following insects: moths (nearly 90% of the total number of insects eaten), ground beetles, leaf chafers, weevils, leaf beetles, flying ants, water boatmen, green blowflies, and leafhoppers. A separate food habits study showed these bats take small prey from 2-10 mm in length and listed the following food items and proportions: moths (34%), flying ants (26.2%), June beetles and leaf beetles (16.8%), leafhoppers (15%), and true bugs (6.4%). T. brasiliensis often feeds on swarms of insects. The huge summer colonies of these bats clearly would have a great impact on nearby insect populations; they are estimated to destroy from 6,000 to 18,000 metric tons of insects annually in Texas.

I am listening to the 'Lone Star Revival' radio station. "God's gonna make you successful if you try. And God's gonna make you successful if you try your darndest for him. He's our good lord and he'll make you successful if you try."

The song is harmonized by four or more, and brighter in tone than a John Denver ditty, and when I pull into the Ranger Station, the attendants nod, and wave me by. From here I walk into the hill country wilderness, specifically over a series of well-tread pink granitic mounds known as Enchanted Rocks. When I approached the wilderness, a gray bearded man with yellow eyes approached me and began to speak about his travels in the Pacific Northwest. This, I had been warned, is called 'visitin'- the Texan propensity to chat.

'They won't let you go, they just keep visiting with you and making it hard for you to leave,' said the wise ladies of the Baptist persuasion, in a side-note to our discussion on bats in Texas. I wanted to test this on the first Texan who visited with me, to see if I could outvisit him. I asked what he did. Web consulting, he said.

"But that's not my real callin', you see. In 1981, The lord Jesus called me."

"On the telephone?" I said, thinking I can't believe I said that. "No, the lord came to me when my wife and I were livin' out here in Hill Country, he spoke to me."

"How did he do that?"

"It was a voice, he called on me to preach the gospel. Jesus Christ, the Lord spoke to me. He told me that I need to give away everything I own and do God's good work. So in the next couple weeks, I explained to my family that we would give away everything and sell the house."

"So, are you a pastor?"

"Well, I've been evangelizing since 1981, but I was recently ordained on the web. When the Lord spoke to me again, he said that I was a good man, and that I obeyed him, and you know what he told me? He said that I am fit to evangelize in his name, the Lord our Father. And with this," he said, after pausing for effect,"I leave you to your thoughts."

"So, is this your family?," I asked. "Some of them. Those are my granddaughters, good girls, and the others are our Indian guides."

This didn't make sense, since I didn't see any Indian guides, so I asked him some more questions about Methodists and his family, to which he responded, "Well, I bet you're in a hurry to get off now."

I left the man to sort out his breakfast and followed winding tributaries of the Sandy River a few miles out, to the far base of the Enchanted Rocks. Because of the pink texture of the rocks, the sand wash I am following is also pink. The woody base is dark at this time of morning; mossy and wet with ferns and the brown of a Central Texas winter. I decided to cross the Enchanted Rocks, along the polished bald faces interrupted only by vernal pools. These are pool pockets of erosion in the rock. Colorful infestations of moss, algae, tiny ferns, freshwater shrimp and small trees.

It began to rain, then pour. So I walked slowly on the slippery granite the three miles to the far end of the rocks - Buzzards Peak, from where I have the most distinct view of the west; the distant browning of the land, until Texas becomes desert. From Buzzard's Peak, I walked, then drove, to Kerrville, which I found to be a pleasant place.

I stopped in the local Quicky-Mart for a coffee and brought up the subject of the camels to the server. "I guess I've never heard of the camels," she said. But she was interested (which is maybe why I found Kerrville so pleasant), so I proceeded on the subject of Kerrville's great place in history. So the story goes, in the 1850's, when the importance of the West was rapidly growing, US Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, with his eyes on the Presidency, brought thirty-three dromedaries on a converted naval ship from Tunis to the Gulf Coast. At extreme inconvenience, the military transported the corps north and ultimately to Kerrville, which would serve as the base for reconnaissance and loaded transport missions to California. A Syrian named Hadji Ali (pronounced Hi Jolly by the US Servicemen) was hired as Chief Jockey.

Palmettos in Texas

Palmetto and flooding in Texas Hill Country

When on a mission, the party became lost and the horses and mules became unridable. The Servicemen were parched. The camels led the party to water, and upon arrival, needed nothing of the sort themselves. When Hadji Ali succeeded in his first mission, Jefferson Davis requested a thousand more camels to be purchased for cross-country military expeditions. But by now, with the outbreak of the Civil War, interest, and the success of the Camel Corps, was waning. The dromedary foot is intended for the soft sands of the Empty Quarter, and would bruise easily in the rocky west.

I drove to San Antonio, San Antone to the folks in Austin, and San Tone to the folks in San Antonio. I wasn't sure what to do in San Antonio, so I pulled in to the local Quicky-Mart, to fill up on gas. This quicky-mart was much larger than the ones in Fredricksburg and Kerrville. Its stock was indistinguishable from anywhere in the United States. I was in California, I was in Ohio, I was in Boston. I was in San Antonio, and I wouldn't even know it. The pleasure of modern travel is the spectacle of the loss of place. I'd rather walk through a swamp.

I took to the road to Houston - flatlands of farms, narrow stands of trees hugging rivers. Imperial-sized Quicky-Marts. Antique Shops. Adult video stores.

I pulled off the road and walked along a flooded river, which had enveloped the surrounding woods with stale water, flies, and the stink of bog. I decided to walk the mile or so south where the river widened and the small flood-plain provided ample mud for the rare dwarf palmetto - a tropical origin peculiarity in Texas, and a reminder among the farmlands that the Gulf of Mexico is not so far away.

The next day, I met a pair of Teamsters lounging at a cafeteria.

I asked them what they thought of Austin.
"Good place to get drunk."
And San Antonio?
"'San Antone? Too many Macabas"
"What's that?"
"You know, wetbacks."

"So what's up with the nazi symbol?" I asked, referring to his tattoo.
"It's throwing away discrimination," showing me that the symbol was being thrown through a basketball hoop. I asked him about the other tattoo, a gruesome skull-like creature with large ears, like its host.

"That's chupacabra," he said, referring to the Mexican myth about a varmint-sized demon that sucks the blood of goats. "This represents my heritage." In the taxi to a barbecue restaurant in Austin, I passed a neighborhood of large homes. "I prefer space," said the taxi driver.

"Why?"
"Lot of good hunting and fishing out there." "What do people hunt for?"
"Oh, lots of pheasant in this area."
"You get any yet this year?"
"It ain't season yet, but I just shoot targets anyway. Cans, bottles, ground squirrels, chipmunks, you know."
"Varmints?"
"Yeah, varmints."

My last night in Austin, having learned to appreciate this Texan propensity to chat, I sat over a display of brisket, ribs, queso, chicken-fried steak and pork with strangers. Some of these people were from New York City, some from Seattle, and more still from San Jose and Plano. They all seemed a bit bewildered by all this food, all this animal. Texan's love animal. Where else would you employ a Corps of Camels, hunt varmints, and treasure bats?

Had the U.S. Army ever employed a Bat Corps? In the library, I was surprised to find that in 1942, the U.S. Navy rented the use of four bat-caves in Texas Hill Country. They were to construct a squadron of trained bats, to which were attached small devices capable of emitting large flames. The idea was that the Navy would drop-ship thousands of burning bats on foreign soils from airplanes flying at a thousand feet. The burning bats would (naturally) fly all over the place, and seek cover. Namely, in rooftops and the like, causing massive fires and destruction.

The literature describes that in 1943, the Bat Corps project was terminated.

"That's chupacabra," he said, referring to the Mexican myth about a varmint-sized demon that sucks the blood of goats. "This represents my heritage." In the taxi to a barbecue restaurant in Austin, I passed a neighborhood of large homes. "I prefer space," said the taxi driver.

"Why?"
"Lot of good hunting and fishing out there." "What do people hunt for?"
"Oh, lots of pheasant in this area."
"You get any yet this year?"
"It ain't season yet, but I just shoot targets anyway. Cans, bottles, ground squirrels, chipmunks, you know."
"Varmints?"
"Yeah, varmints."

My last night in Austin, having learned to appreciate this Texan propensity to chat, I sat over a display of brisket, ribs, queso, chicken-fried steak and pork with strangers. Some of these people were from New York City, some from Seattle, and more still from San Jose and Plano. They all seemed a bit bewildered by all this food, all this animal. Texan's love animal. Where else would you employ a Corps of Camels, hunt varmints, and treasure bats?

Had the U.S. Army ever employed a Bat Corps? In the library, I was surprised to find that in 1942, the U.S. Navy rented the use of four bat-caves in Texas Hill Country. They were to construct a squadron of trained bats, to which were attached small devices capable of emitting large flames. The idea was that the Navy would drop-ship thousands of burning bats on foreign soils from airplanes flying at a thousand feet. The burning bats would (naturally) fly all over the place, and seek cover. Namely, in rooftops and the like, causing massive fires and destruction.

The literature describes that in 1943, the Bat Corps project was terminated.