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LIFE IS A PIE-WAY: VOLUME 1.

The Empty Nesters start their modern day exploration of a highway the defines their state. Follow along to find Texas on 281.


Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

With the recent arrival of our FitBits, the Empty Nesters have been carefully watching their calories, steps and stairs. Ten days into a grueling regime, our steely discipline and modern technology has us down a combined 3.7 pounds. Provided we stand on the scale just so. And we won’t talk about what that loss means in percentage terms. Knowing that moderation is the key to a healthy lifestyle, we faced a sun-drenched afternoon last Friday with wanderlust in our hearts and a need to balance our monastic efforts over the past days. Seventy-two hours later we have set the world right, even if our belts are back to being a little snug.

This time around we took a deep dive into our absolute favorite stretch of Texas highway, US 281 from Hico to San Antonio. I have tried to explain the advantages of this journey to several metroplex residents, without much luck. Here are the logistics: leaving Dallas or Fort Worth, take I-35 south to SH 67, that highway west to County Road 220 south, at Hico a block on SH 6 West and then US 281 south all the way to the Alamo. The alternate and “preferred route” using I-35 the whole way runs just 13 miles shorter from Dallas and 3 miles longer from Fort Worth. The estimated length of the trip is 45 minutes shorter via the interstate, but that calculation imagines a 70-mph average speed on I-35 and a 60-mph speed on US 281. “Imagines” is the perfect verb for that last sentence because anyone who has traveled that particular stretch of I-35 can tell you it is more an obstacle course than a highway. So I have cold, hard logic on my side when I tell you to take the back road.


US 281 basically bisects Texas. Image credit: Texas Department of Transportation.
US 281 basically bisects Texas. Image credit: Texas Department of Transportation.

But US 281 is for weekends; logic takes a backseat to beauty. In that category, we have a knockout in the first round. There is something about cresting a hill to a miles-wide panorama of blue sky and green grass; crossing a suspension bridge that carries you over water you know to be cold and refreshing in the summertime or watching the sun disappear over a horizon that is far, far away from you. The trip down US 281 brings you those moments by the minute; I-35 gets you the great wall of candy at Bucee’s in New Braunfels. I am not one to knock the world’s cleanest bathrooms, but even those monuments to efficiency have a hard time competing with God’s country.


A suspension bridge over the Brazos River. Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons (Public Domain).
A suspension bridge over the Brazos River. Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons (Public Domain).

Given our original home base in San Antonio and our children’s summers at Camp Honey Creek in Hunt, Texas, we have made the trip many times. I know the road like the back of my hand. We were forever saying to each other that we should do a little more exploring along the way. So this weekend we set out to discover why people want to live and play on SH 281, as opposed to just driving on it. The answer is pretty simple. Pie. Golf, shopping, river-running, rodeo; all are available and enticing. But even that combination takes a backseat to the greatest stretch of pie-making known to man.


The pie safe at the Koffee Kup in Hico. It is heavily guarded, as it should be. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
The pie safe at the Koffee Kup in Hico. It is heavily guarded, as it should be. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

The journey starts in Hico. We walked the town before our first slice and found all sorts of novelties. As of late, Hico garners its fame as the town that housed Billy the Kid after he escaped New Mexico. Everybody in New Mexico disagrees with this version, claiming Sherriff Pat Garrett killed the Kid in the 1880’s. In the 1940’s, however, Hico resident Brushy Bill Roberts revealed that he was the Kid. To date, nobody has definitively proved him wrong. If you want a more informed opinion on the subject, you can visit the Billy the Kid museum right there in Hico. Or you can just take the word of a Texan over glory seekers from New Mexico and leave it at that.


Billy ther Kid welcomes travelers to Hico. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Billy ther Kid welcomes travelers to Hico. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

Maybe just as interesting is that the Kid would pick Hico as a landing spot. Given his wild youth, one might guess he would have been more comfortable in a big-city vibe. In its day, Hico more than fit that bill. Originally a major shipping point on the Katy railroad, lots of cattle and cotton moved through the streets of this town. Take your time and look at the buildings in downtown Hico and you can see it. The architecture is old west spectacular. Solid rock buildings with big windows and fancy murals. High ceilings and hardwood floors that creak. Wide streets that accommodated cattle, horses and buggies. If there were nothing in the buildings, Hico would still be worth the stop.


One of the many great buildings in downtown Hico. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
One of the many great buildings in downtown Hico. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

Even better, Hico is no ghost town. A vibrant shopping scene caters to the ranch house crowd. Judging by the offerings, there are some spectacular ranch houses nearby. We cannot tell you about every attraction but feel free to jump on the Facebook page for a detailed rundown of all the Hico and its environs has to offer. Even given the demands of conciseness, three establishments deserve special mention. A day trip from the big city for any one of these stores would be well worthwhile; all three along with their competitors make the trip a no-brainer.


Hill Country Dwellings offers the best of Texas in things large and small. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.
Hill Country Dwellings offers the best of Texas in things large and small. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.

First, stop was Hill Country Dwellings, the retail arm of an architecture and design firm focusing on ranches in north central Texas. Jackie Osmon pointed out the details and fine craftsmanship in each of the unique pieces filling the beautifully appointed store. Imaginative gifts from $20 to breath-taking furniture that cost many multiples  of that figure had me ready to buy a ranch house just so I could have a place for all of the goodies. Hill Country Dwellings could help me with that purchase and design of the homestead alas, but the Mills County Bank across the street failed to see the romance in it all. Thirty minutes in the store gave me plenty to dream about though.

Next up was Blue Star Trading. Blue Star is in an enormous space, restored to absolute perfection. M’Lissa’s pictures are beautiful, but hardly do the place justice. Again, the wares run the gamut from unique gifts to legacy furniture. One of my favorites were the coffee table books from Wyman Meinzer, the only official photographer the State of Texas has ever known. M’Lissa found tables, chairs and beds that say Texas without shouting it. On the upper floors, a photography exhibit recreated Hico’s history; restored vaults and post office equipment literally took you back in time.


An impressive hutch, typical of Blue Star's offerings. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
An impressive hutch, typical of Blue Star’s offerings. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.


The old Post Office is part of Blue Star. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
The old Post Office is part of Blue Star. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.


The beautiful interior at Blue Star. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
The beautiful interior at Blue Star. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

Suitably impressed, we made our way across the street to another impeccably restored building that houses three businesses. The Upstairs Inn, a three-room boutique hotel; the Pecan Street Drink Shoppe, featuring Texas wine and cheese; and EIS, an artisan sandwich and goodies shop, occupy the space. Owners Jennifer Jones and Wes Lunford were on the road hunting more great Texas food  stuffs to reward visitors. Jennifer’s mom made us welcome and her description of the rib eye sandwich served earlier in the day ensured a return visit.


Some of the great Texas wines offered at the Pecan Street Drink Shoppe. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Some of the great Texas wines offered at the Pecan Street Drink Shoppe. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

And now it was time for our reward.  Steps from the Upstairs Inn is the Koffee Kup, a justly famous, Texas-to-the-core diner. My favorite is the wildly tasty chopped steak, seasoned to perfection. But the payoff is in the desert. Strawberry pie brings them in by the droves and I am sure it is great. We went All-American with a slice of apple ala mode and the world suddenly made sense. I could have spent the rest of the weekend right at that table, but a story about US 281 with no travel on that highway did not make much of astory.


Satisfied diners at the Koffe Kup. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Satisfied diners at the Koffe Kup. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

So we made our way south to Hamilton, a small town with two oddly huge cemeteries. Oakwood Cemetery is on the north side of town and the east side of the road. Steps from the highway is the final resting place of Brushy Bill Roberts a/k/a Billy the Kid. M’Lissa spied the grave site from the road and we stopped to pay our respects. Nobody told us that “paying your respects to the Kid” involves leaving beer, sunglasses or both. We will know better next time.  Hamilton is less touristy and more work-a-day than Hico. The town square does not quite live up to the gorgeous courthouse, which is easily a top-ten legal structure in Texas. We wondered about the Ramsey Collection, an appointment-only gallery that looked to house some beautiful pieces. We drove around town and found several stately homes that bridge yesterday and today. In short Hamilton looks like a great place to live.


One of the stately homes in Hamilton. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
One of the stately homes in Hamilton. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.


Justice must be served in a building this beautiful. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Justice must be served in a building this beautiful. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.


Final resting place of the Kid? Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Final resting place of the Kid? Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

A bit south of Hamilton lies the tiny hamlet of Evant. By the time we got there, the one interesting shop in town-the Parrot-was closed.  The store’s colorful outside, suggests it might be worth a stop. But being a huge high-school sports fan, it was the rock gymnasium at the high school that caught my eye. I would love to see a Friday night tilt between Evant and Lometa. If Gene Hackman is patrolling the sidelines, I will not be too surprised.


If these walls could talk...Photo Credit: Steve Howen.
If these walls could talk…Photo Credit: Steve Howen.

If Evant is small, what does that make Adamsville? Truthfully, in the scores of trips I had made before, after making a mental note of the Hoosier-style gym in Evant, I put my mind on cruise control until Lampasas. Accept my apologies, small but noble Adamsville. This time, the “Down Unda” trading post on the west side of the highway drew our attention. Big time payoff.

First, we are suckers for a good story. Owners Emmalee and Gabe had that. A few years ago, Emmalee and her Australian gal pals were visiting the states and specifically, Austin. Gabe was searching for a used car to buy and fix. As he struck his deal, he looked across the street and made eye contact with the lovely Emmalee. Flutters in the stomach, but this is real life, not the movies.  Still, as Gabe drove off, a knock on the car window and a passed note confirmed that the eye contact meant something. Five years of bliss proves love at first sight can be the real thing and that Aussie gals live life boldly.


Kaylee (left) helps Emmalee and Gabe keep the Down Unda running.
Kaylee (left) helps Emmalee and Gabe keep the Down Unda running.

Second, Emmalee brought a unique talent to Adamsville. The Australian Meat pie is an entree and dessert all in one. Flaky crust and tender meat melt in your mouth. Emmalee makes them fresh every day; slightly bigger than bite-size, the pies are inexpensive enough so that one is a snack and two or three would be great meal. You can also buy them frozen. Gabe promises that pies heated on the grill over indirect heat are worth the effort; I tend to believe him. Gabe is still buying and fixing cars, old pick-up trucks are his specialty. He had three great options on the “lot” when we visited plus a decades-old Schwinn in great shape. But most of all he had Emmalee and a smile a mile wide.

Summary: the “Dallas stretch of US 281” brought us two spectacular pies, a renegade outlaw and some of the best stores in Texas. Not a bad start. Get out there Nesters!


Billy says get yourself to 281. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Billy says get yourself to 281. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

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