A Little Bit Country

19 04 2013

It was Easter and I needed little travel-size bottles of Shampoo and toothpaste. The only store open on this particular Sunday was Walmart, a place I like to avoid most of the time due to crowded parking lots and the wild abundance of spandex. With my basket full of useless but adorable toiletries, I unloaded the loot to checkout.

“You must be going on a trip somewhere,” said Jodi, the pleasant Walmart associate. “Where are you going?” she asked politely.

Just as soon as Texas escaped from my lips, the gal behind me pipes up with, “I’m sorry!”

Confused, I look around to make sure she hasn’t offended anyone before I reply. I didn’t feel like starting any Walmart turf wars over something so stupid.

“You don’t like Texas?” I queried.

“Never been there. But who the heck would want to go anyways?” she asked rhetorically.

“Where are you vacationing in Texas?” asked Jodi.

“Fredericksburg. And it’s not a vacation. I’m working.”

I had never been to Texas, or anywhere particularly close to the South—though Texas is arguably large enough to occupy both northern and southern proclivities while still holding the same gun. I’ll also admit that growing up in California there does exist an unexamined prejudice towards Texas. It’s probably the same prejudice the woman in Walmart was expressing—the kind of chitchat that people use to relate to each other based on lack of experience and not any particular evidence. People do this all the time, but in my travels I’ve learned to curb my pubic opinions on culture, especially when that culture could beat the s*** out of me.

blue-bonnet-flower-whitney-butler-blog-Texas-wild-flowers

In the spring, these Blue Bonnet wild flowers cover the hill country.

Fredericksburg has a population of just fewer than 13,000 people. “The Hill Country” is what the locals call it, because it rises significantly in elevation about an hour north of San Antonio and 70 miles west of Austin. To me it looked flat, but one woman’s rolling hillside is another woman’s steep mountain terrain and I had come to Fredericksburg to figure it out.

Germany and Texas are an unlikely pair, but in Fredericksburg a heritage of German immigration is proudly displayed on windows, street signs and a determined effort to protect this history from being swallowed-up by American homogeneity.

In the early 1900’s German was the most common language spoken in Fredericksburg. Originally a Spanish territory, Mexico controlled the territory until a majority sought emancipation for slaves circa 1824. This pissed off a bunch of crazy slave owners but to no avail. The result was a new republic and Sam Houston became the first president of the Republic of Texas. He favored the idea of annexation to the United States, which didn’t actually happen until 1845, when Texas became the 28th state incorporated into the Union. While all of this crazy s*** was going on, there was a mass movement of Germans to the south and central regions of Texas. Many of these Germans came thinking they would take root in the Republic of Texas, but leave it to a bunch of crazy white people to mess that up.

 “Sorry German farmers. You’re all Americans now!”

Moreover, safe passage, farm land and the dream of a better life were all promises that some German quasi-company sold to these down-trodden German families in the late 1920’s—families that paid about $300 to board a boat for 2 months, get smallpox, and head for the new world.

Luckenbach-Texas

Bad-ass Texans in Luckenbach Texas, a famous dance hall and debauchery destination.

Bottom line, these German immigrants were total bada** motherf******. They were fighting off crazy Comanche indian attacks, disease, unpredictable weather and several unfulfilled promises—the amount of land they had been promised was dramatically exaggerated, and what land they did receive, they had no idea how to use. Thanks to some Mormon folks living around the corner, they learned enough to get through some really bad storms and survive through enough seasons to start developing a little town that would later become home to just under 13,000 people. Incredible.

History is so boring when it’s laid out like this. I hate linear paths and I think most people do too, which is exactly why people have to go to Fredericksburg to understand why—especially if you’re from California—you should learn to hold your tongue inside a Walmart.

Here are some things I would recommend in the “The Hill Country”:

Wine Tasting

wine

Prepare to make a day of the 290 Wine Road, and prepare to have someone else drive your ass home.

If you’re a lover of the grapes, Texas is boasting one of the fastest growing wine industries in the county. Today there are over 300 wineries producing Texas wine, which reflect many of the same complex flavors found in the Mediterranean or other vines that grow at this longitude. Fredericksburg is home to dozens of unique tasting rooms and several very large wineries off the famous 290 Wine Road, including Becker, Grape Creek, Rancho Ponte and too many others to list.

Napa Valley draws all kinds of attention for its prestige and sophisticated pallet, but Texas Tuscany is a more relaxed and comfortable experience. The growers, owners and families within these vineyards can be seen walking about the facilities, talking with customers—sharing stories about last year’s harvest. And while each winery offers a unique tasting experience you can bet that you’ll leave having learned something new from knowledgeable and the most hospitable wine pourers you’ve ever met.

My personal favorite was the Becker Vineyard, which had an amazing farmhouses and special event venues that would be perfect for weddings, corporate meetings or my 27th birthday party. Try a bottle of the Raven, for about $40 this concentration with essences of chocolate, toffee, dates, and espresso is a blend of malbec and petit verdot. I have no idea what that means but I’m planning an entire meal around the bottle I brought home with me—grilled pork chops with a raspberry and chipotle compote I scored from Fischer & Wieser, a famous canner of all things worth pickling, saucing or jamming. Sown and reaped in Fredericksburg, the Fischer & Wieser brand is so successful that you can find some of their products at CostCo—not so small town, is it?

I met the owner of the jelly company, who was a crackled old German man who told me nobody in town liked him. I liked him instantly for being so honest and wanted to know more. We talked mostly politics and infrastructure and how annoying it is when society doesn’t listen to you even when you have ideas that will change the course of the world. He had just returned from Germany and said he was jet-lagged and apologized for his political speech. I told him I would vote for him if her ever went out for County Judge again—a position he held many years ago.

 Museums and History 

Johnson

Command central during the Vietnam War.

The National Museum of the Pacific War is incredible. The only Japanese midget submarine still intact from Pearl Harbor lives under this roof. There are audio histories that can only be heard at the museum as well and letters from troops to their mothers that can be read clearly from beautiful and well-lit cases. The tickets are good for 48 hours and that’s a huge benefit to guests—one could easily spend days looking at all of the information, artifacts and priceless treasures from WWII. The Nimitz Museum is also one-of- a-kind in Fredericksburg. The late Navy Admiral was born and raised in “The Hill Country” and the town is damn proud of it.

Another major attraction is Lyndon B. Johnson’s Ranch in the LBJ National Historic Park and the Texas White House. When Ladybird Johnson died a few years ago in 2007, the Ranch home and its hundreds of acres were donated to the National Park Services. Only recently has the public been allowed to tour the former home of President Johnson and experience the incredible life story that is woven into the earth there. The president’s entire life cycle can be traced in this single experience. The foundation of his birth home is still present along with the original schoolhouse he walked to as a young boy. The home he raised his family in and commanded the American Armed forces is completely persevered as it was in the 1970’s. The original beds, chairs, televisions, phones, family photos—everything eerily stands still in time and guests are now allowed to tour this home and experience the still country mist of this presidential history. My personal favorite was the Johnson’s dual closet, which had not been moved or touched by anyone, including the first lady, after Johnson’s death in 1973.

whitney-butler-pasific-war

Original artifacts from the war make way for silence and strange reflections of a past that I never lived.

When I’m in San Diego, around my people, my places, my things, nothing surprises me. Everything is predictable, comfortable, and easier to generalize than people who shop at Walmart. It’s so predictable that perhaps sometimes—myself included—we pretend to understand things outside of this common sphere, and it’s the things we think we know—the people or places we like to pretend to understand from afar, that often are the most surprising, the most beautiful, the most unexpectedly fun.

So please, the next time you’re in Walmart, buy your useless toiletries and shut the hell up. Because we’re all a little bit country whether we know it or not. Texas is enormous, and at some point all of our histories cross. You don’t have to believe in the right to bear arms to appreciate the great things happening in the Lone Star State, but you do have to leave California.

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