Gluttony is one of the seven deadlies and by the time the Empty Nesters hit Johnson City on our trek down US 281, I was beginning to worry about my mortal soul as well as my expanding waistline. Is too much pie possible? A little research calmed my soul. We were on a road trip and there is no greater road trip authority than Jack Kerouac, who had this to say:
Kerouac’s nutrition reference might be dated, but more recently David Mamet sensibly noted that “stress cannot exist in the presence of pie” so I felt our quest should continue. Thus, we pulled off into the hometown of America’s 36th president. Of course, I had driven through Johnson City a million times. And I have obsessively read all four volumes of Robert Caro’s astounding LBJ biography, which paints a vivid picture of Johnson City during the early part of the 20th century. (Side note: If you want to understand Texas history after the Civil War, do yourself a favor and read the Caro books.) So I felt like I knew the place.
It turns out I knew what Johnson City had been, but I had no idea of what Johnson City had become. Or more accurately, what Johnson City is becoming. What had been an agricultural hamlet scraped out of hardscrabble earth and existing only through the fierce determination of its residents is transforming into a hip artist colony with a western bent; Kerouac himself would be comfortable there. Because there is more than enough room in the world for Austin without the Austinites, I am a big fan.
The town center is a couple of blocks west of US 281. Take US 290 West and turn north on Avenue G; park at the beautiful Blanco County courthouse and you are on the square. The square hosts a terrific market on the fourth weekend of every month. Even on other weekends, there is plenty to explore. Start and end at Texcetera, a gallery housing the most interesting and accessible collection of Texas art we have seen. I was particularly taken by Lucy Jennings‘ photography and Mrs. Nester fell in love with delicate pottery of Jeni Hoeksema. If you want your home to tastefully say something about how great it is to be from Texas, Texcetera is the place. Next door to Texcetera you can find Taste Wine & Art, offering wine tastings in combination with larger hanging art. Once again, the art was terrific; we temporarily shifted from gluttony to envy in regard to Joseph Hammer‘s beautiful and inventive work.
Accepting our price constraints, we reluctantly moved on. North of the square we found the Hill Country Science Mill, the town’s newest attraction and a perfect example of the interesting things happening in Johnson City. The brainchild of two Minnesotans who fell in love with the area, bio-med entrepreneur Bonnie Baskin and husband (former University of Minnesota Dean of the College of Biological Sciences Robert Elde), the Science Mill is an architectural show stopper. Housed in a painstakingly restored 18th-century mill that has captivated a generation of Hill Country photographers, the Science Mill is big on interactive exhibits. By happy coincidence, the Science Mill is designed to enchant the adolescent science brain; given that my science brain never advanced beyond adolescence, it was a good fit.
Not far from the Science Mill is the LBJ homestead, run by the national parks. Although not grand, the structure was impressive in its time. If you know LBJ’s story, you also know how hard the family fought to keep up appearances. The Johnsons may have invented the term “house poor” and the embarrassment LBJ felt around town from his father’s business failings fueled his near psychotic drive for power. You can feel the history and the consequence of the place.
Walking back to the square we stopped into several stores worth your time. Two, however are particularly noteworthy. Rustik by Choice offers high-end, custom-designed ranch furniture and accessories, much of it from the talented hands of LBJ High School’s recently retired shop teacher. Made me feel bad about my lamp project. Finally, we found Stidham Outfitters in a restored gas station. The building, displays and inventory were all beautifully presented, not surprising given that Seth Stidham is a third-generation dry goods specialist; some of you may recognize the name from the store his grandfather operated in Georgetown. Seth offers meticulous and inventive leather goods of all types. His lovely wife, Jasmin Arpin, compliments those offerings with chic western wear and tremendous hospitality. They top it all off with whiskey tastings, so it was a win-win-win.
Last but not least is the square’s main attraction. Pecan Street Brewing was the perfect place to spend an hour sampling the tasting menu. My recommendation was for the “Out of Order Porter” and Mrs. Nester voted for the “Summer Wheat Ale.” Pair either with the portabella fries and some lively bar conversation and you have yourself an afternoon worthy of the weekend. Trying hard to avoid being redundant, but Pecan Street was yet another great space, recently restored. Pecan Street offers live music on the weekend so we decided to catch the show that night; to kill time we drove south to Blanco and then to Pedernales Falls State Park, about 10 miles east of town. That is not how an efficiency expert would draw it up, but the Empty Nesters abhor linear thinking.
Not surprisingly, Blanco was once the county seat of Blanco county and it too has a fine example of courthouse architecture, with a square surrounding it. We did not have time to do Blanco justice and a return visit is in order; still Brieger Pottery deserves your attention. The pottery is great and they have an amazing assortment of oil cloths that make for a perfect picnic table setting. The Redbud Cafe next door puts the oil cloths to good use, offering an inviting, authentic-like your-momma -would -do-it setting. Or perhaps we will try the Old 300 Barbecue. Most of all, however, we would like to get ourselves invited to the Blanco Bowling Cafe, a club operated establishment that offers German-style 9-Pin bowling, complete with manual pin setting. I guess we will start saving for the $12.00 club initiation fee.
As for Pedernales, LBJ’s story starts with his grandparents emigrating to this neck of the woods, believing it to be a fertile area for farming and ranching. Later dry spells would place their judgment in doubt, but even the little time we spent at Pedernales makes you understand their decision. The rolling, unspoiled terrain is again lush, with this year’s rain giving the mesquite, cedar and oak trees abundant life. Pick your hilltop, the views are breathtaking.
After nibbling most of the day, even a little bit of hiking at Pedernales left us hungry. On the way back to the brewery we stopped at Hill Country Cupboard on the east side of US 281. The Cupboard does not look like much from the outside; I was surprised to find it on the Texas Monthly List of best small-town cafes. The criteria for that list centered on chicken-fried streak, so we split one. Splitting an entree sounds noble until one considers it was chicken-fried steak with the fixings, and one portion is the approximate size of a Volkswagen’s hood. Whatever they do in the kitchen at the Cupboard is magic because this steak was among the best we have ever tasted. Having gone traditional for the entree we stepped ever so slightly out of the box for the pie, foregoing the peach cobbler in favor of the blackberry variety. Jackpot. I mean that literally. I have a friend who won a progressive slots jackpot in Vegas (not the super big one, just a really big one) and she has described for me all the disorienting and pleasurable sensations that went along with it. Lights flashing, confetti falling, bells ringing and all other sorts of hoopla. I took a bite of the Cupboard’s warm blackberry cobbler ala mode and all of that happened in my mouth. As the Stones so famously pointed out, total satisfaction in life is hard to come by. But I now know a place.
We meandered back to Pecan Street to hear Bobby Mack, who turns out to be the epitome of a Texas Roadhouse artist. The venue was not crowded and a huge fan kept the quasi-outdoor space surprisingly comfortable. We ran into some friends we had never met before and spent a couple of hours just enjoying the hell out of life. If you want to, you can eat in the restaurant and listen to the artist as the best kind of background music; the Empty Nesters highly recommend the concert experience on the back porch. Making our way to the car we looked up at a Hill Country sky dotted with stars, but not quite yet pitch black. Instead, there was still a hint of the deepest dark blue anyone can imagine. Bobby still playing in the background and the lingering memory of blackberry ala mode. What is there not to love?
The summary: Texcetera for decorations, Pecan Street and Bobby Mack for entertainment and Hill Country Cupboard for a blackberry jackpot. Get out there, Nesters!