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Tagtexas

on the sky island

Earlier this week I drove from my home in Waco to West Texas: first to the little town of Goldthwaite, then South through San Saba, Llano, Fredericksburg, Kerrville; then a long westward haul on I-10. On such a drive you start in mostly flat farm country — corn, soybeans — and move gradually into the Hill Country, with its limestone escarpments and ridges mostly covered in junipers. (People in Texas call those trees cedars but they aren’t.) Gradually the trees become smaller and sparser until, eventually, you find yourself in the Chihuahuan desert.

There’s a nice new rest area on I-10 between Fort Stockton and Balmorhea that looks like this: 

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The temperature when I took the photo was 106°. I got back in the car and resumed my journey. I took the Balmorhea exit and started headed up into the Davis Mountains. About half an hour later, here’s what I saw: 

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That’s the McDonald Observatory, on Mount Locke. But just look at that grass! — a veritable greensward. And all those trees! (Also, the temperature was 87°.) All this just half an hour from sheer desert. What’s the deal? 

The deal is that the Davis Mountains constitute a sky island. Far above the desert that surrounds them, the mountains, the tallest of which is Mount Livermore at 8200 feet, have their own distinct climate. They get far more rain than the desert does, and as a result support quite different species of flora and fauna. Sometimes those species can evolve in distinctive ways, just as they do on actual islands, because of their isolation from other communities of their kind. 

It’s a fascinating phenomenon — and the transition is really something to experience. 

The Waco Empire

The newest outpost of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s local empire is Magnolia Table, and Teri and I had breakfast there this morning. It was really good. The restaurant is located in the building that for many years housed the Elite Café, and it’s nice to see the predecessor acknowledged on one wall:

It’s a lovely space:

And the food was really good:

But I was fascinated by how thoroughly designed (and therefore, of course, branded) everything in the place is:

(That leather folder is what they bring your check in.) Imagine the money that went into all this! Such attention to detail is simply impossible for most new businesses, but the Gaineses have made so much money from Fixer Upper and the Magnolia Silos — which gets more visitors than the Alamo — that they can make the investment up front.

We moved here in 2013, before the first season of Fixer Upper, and it has been quite remarkable to see a city changed so much, in so short a time, by the energy and ambition of two people. Houses and hotels are being built, restaurants and bars opened, existing properties renovated — the city of Waco has even begun to realize that they can now fix some of the terrible roads around here. It’s wonderful … and yet it feels so, so fragile. Here’s hoping that the cult of Chip and Jo lasts long enough to bring permanent improvements to this shabby old town.

over the bluff and not-so-far away

I’ve been spending a few days of retreat and reflection at the amazing Laity Lodge, whose ministry of hospitality to writers, musicians, artists, and lovers of the arts is one of the best things in Texas — which is to say, one of the best things in the whole world.

On my way down here I decided to stop at a place I hadn’t visited before, Lost Maples State Natural Area — not for the autumn color, which has passed, but just to take a look around. And even post-bright-foliage, it’s a beautiful place:

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And a river (the Sabinal) runs through it:

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After hiking around a while, I headed down the road a bit and took State Road 337 over the hill towards Leakey — and it’s a pretty serious hill. Here’s the view from one of the higher places on the road:

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Then on to Leakey, and up Highway 83 to Laity Lodge, which you can only get to by driving through the Frio River:

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I never get tired of that. While there, I did some hiking around up above the lodge and the river:

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And here’s something I never realized until this visit. If I were to hike up that bluff you see a glimpse of on the other side of the river, probably bushwhacking some of the time, but still hiking for only 45 minutes or so, and got to the top and started descending the other side, you know where I would be? Lost Maples.

Lake Waco Wetlands

These wetlands aren’t on the lake as such, but are just off one inlet of it. They are remarkably beautiful and very little-known, even here in Waco. Click on the photos for larger versions.

Palo Duro Canyon

So you’re driving through the panhandle of Texas with the land flat as a bedsheet as far as the eye can see, and then all of sudden the ground drops a thousand feet. Congratulations, you have discovered Palo Duro Canyon.

all hat, no cattle

T. S. Eliot and his sister Marion, during Eliot’s 1958 visit to the U.S. with his new wife Valerie. At one point in the trip they visited Dallas, where Eliot was named an honorary sherriff and received both a badge and the Stetson he’s sporting here.

life in Texas

Just enjoying my usual tableside refresher here as Teri returns from H-E-B, where she bought another case of this life-giving substance. When she was grabbing the case an elderly man next to her said, “I had my first Topo Chico in Mexico. In 1972. Been drinking it ever since. Mama and me don’t drink sodas, but we have some Topo Chico every day.” Teri noticed that he was slim and trim and had beautiful skin. “Can I introduce you to Mama?” His wife, of course. She beamed at the mention of Topo Chico. “We met on that same trip,” he said.

I love living in Texas, I really do.

the great distillery tour!

My former student Gabriel RiCharde is now working for the pride of Waco, Balcones Distilling, and today he gave me a tour. It was really fascinating. I have read a bit over the years about the process of distilling spirits, and I knew that it is complicated — but when you actually get walked through each stage … wow. At every step of the process complex science is involved, but also decisions that require artful intuition.

Here’s a closeup of the door to the mash tun, which was bought from the Speyburn distillery in Scotland, and which has been used to make whisky for about 75 years:

And here’s one of the amazing new stills, just arrived a few weeks ago from Scotland:

And this steampunky thing is attached to the stills — I don’t know what it is, but it looks super cool:

Here’s the tasting and blending room, where I could have stayed for quite some time:

And here the aging process, in barrels made variously of American, French, and other European oak:

And finally, after all that hard work of listening and gaping, I had to take a couple of presents home for myself:

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