. . . Gueune Hall, Gruene, Texas — the oldest dance hall in The Lone Star State.

A lot of beer sloshed onto this table, a lot of moments memorialized with a knife blade over the years.

[Photo by Hilmar Blumberg]

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The first day of my drive home from Seguin, Texas found me in Van Horn, Texas at a Ramada Express. I had hoped to find a Whataburger in Van Horn but there wasn’t one. Instead, I got directed by the motel clerk to something even better — Chuy’s.


Chuy’s has an interesting history. It was visited one night by John Madden, the football coach and TV commentator, who had parked his mobile home in the little town for the night and wandered into Chuy’s hoping to watch a televised football game there, which he did, also sampling the food.

He liked the place and the food and wrote it up in Time magazine, making it instantly appealing to people traveling though Van Horn on I-10.  The incident is recounted in a little blurb on the restaurant’s menu and referred to as a miracle.

I had some good fish tacos there and a couple of bottles of ice-cold Corona beer, which tasted remarkably refreshing after the day on the road.


Two more  days of driving brought me back to Las Vegas, with souvenirs of my Texas adventure in hand, courtesy of my friend Hilmar — a bottle of rustic but tasty Texas Hill Country wine, a print of a drawing of Gruene Hall by a friend of Hilmar’s, and various mementos of SXSW.  It had been a remarkable journey.

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On my last day in Austin, Hilmar took me to Olivia’s for brunch. There I had the dish above — Oysters Benedict, Eggs Benedict on homemade bread with fried oysters. Why have I never seen this dish on any other menu before? It is the apotheosis of brunch fare.

We drove back to Seguin that afternoon and that evening went to nearby Gruene, Texas — a town that had died but been revived as a tourist destination. At its heart was Gruene Hall, built in 1878, the oldest continuously operating dance hall in The Lone Star State. It was deep Texas:

Hilmar’s family is of German descent, as are many families in the areas around Austin and San Antonio and points south. They immigrated for the most part in the middle of the 19th Century, bringing with them their music, the polka specifically.  It mixed with the Mexican music of the Latino population in the region to create what we now know as Tex-Mex music, which migrated in turn to Louisiana to become part of the basis of Cajun music.

A Texas dance hall is very similar to a classic German beer garden — because of the beer, of course, which flows in abundance, but also because of the long communal tables where people, including many whole families, sit enjoying the music, and the dance floor, where people of all ages two-step around.


I wore a cowboy hat my whole time in Texas.  I didn’t see many other people wearing them in Austin or San Antonio — I got plenty of compliments on mine, as though the headgear was both exotic and reassuring — but there were lots of cowboy hats at Gruene Hall.


After a few beers at the Hall, we went and had dinner at The Grist Mill, an old mill overlooking the Guadalupe River which had been converted into a fancy restaurant.

The view of the river far below us was mesmerizing:

The next day I headed off west, driving home.



At the Red Rock Casino here in Las Vegas we used to have a branch of The Salt Lick, a famous Texas rib joint, but it closed a couple of years ago, to my intense chagrin. To my intense delight, Hilmar took me to the original Salt Lick which, as it happens, is located out in the countryside not too far from Austin.

It’s a vast place, with indoor and outdoor seating on picnic tables, and was jammed with Texans, including many families, the Saturday afternoon we visited. There was a bit of a wait but we improved the time by sampling a couple of local beers which they had on tap. One was a dark beer flavored with jalapeños, the other was a lighter brew flavored with pecans. I could have sat out there all day alternating between the two, but there was meat to be eaten — we got combo plates of brisket, sausages and ribs. Mighty tasty. Hilmar gave me The Salt Lick Cookbook as a souvenir:


That night we wandered around Austin again, looking for fun — ran across a concert by Prince at the Zona Rosa which required some sort of pass more exclusive than our SXSW badges, so we moved on to Lambert’s to see what was happening at its upstairs bar, a music venue.

We lucked into a great line-up of country bands, the pearl of which was Rosie Flores, the legendary rockabilly spitfire, now 63 but still smoking:

Rosie is sort of like a Latina Wanda Jackson — she has in fact toured with Jackson — and she is something else in concert. We left soon after her set, feeling that nothing could top it. Walking over to The Halcyon, a cool café-bar, we ran into Rosie and a friend of hers at a street corner. We hurried over to her and shook her hand and told her she’d kicked ass at Lambert’s, which seemed to please her a great deal. Up close she was tiny and birdlike.

At The Halcyon we hired a pedicab to take us back to Lustre Pearl. Austin swarms with pedicabs, especially during SXSW, when entrepreneurs from other places in Texas arrive in town to pilot the things alongside the native drivers. Austin also swarms with cute girls during SXSW, and sometimes the cute girls are pedicab drivers, like the one we hired — Deanna Rae:

Deanna Rae is a local, who also makes and sells candy. Like most pedicab drivers she had an mp3 player hooked up to a small boombox strapped to her pedicab. She looked us over carefully and then selected a playlist she thought we might like — mostly alt-country numbers, in honor, I guess, of my cowboy hat.

At one point she slammed on her brakes, shouted, “Money!” and jumped off the pedicab to retrieve a five-dollar bill in the street. Two other pedicab drivers had also spotted it and jumped off their vehicles to race towards it, but Deanna Rae got there first.

“We’re always finding money in the street,” she said happily.

Deanna Rae

Above is a picture of Deanna Rae from her Facebook page, on which she describes herself as “awesome”. Word.

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Above is the elegant and comfortable garage apartment I was lucky enough to inhabit for SXSW, thanks to the kind hospitality of Hilmar and his wife Kaaren.


I didn’t get pictures or video of several nights at SXSW, so you’ll just have to imagine the wild adventures we got up to, the funky clubs we visited and the great music we heard. At any rate, on Thursday Hilmar and I had lunch at The Oasis on Lake Travis (above), another lake just outside Austin created by a dam on the Colorado River.  The grievous drought in Texas is responsible for the sand islands in the middle of the lake, which are normally covered by water:


That night Kaaren cooked us a lovely meal of spicy shrimp and roasted potatoes, then Hilmar and I headed off downtown with no fixed destination in mind.

We stopped in at Cedar Street Courtyard but the band playing there was lackluster, so we walked to Red 7, where good bands were supposed be booked that night. There was a line of badge-holders around the block so we skipped Red 7, then drifted over to Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, because Hilmar said it was a cool place.

We heard some good music coming from its outdoor music venue and went in. About ten minutes after we arrived, the leader of the band on stage, who turned out to be Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, said, “Now I’d like to bring on someone we consider to be a rock and roll legend.”

Hilmar and I rolled our eyes, sure it would be someone lame, but then a guy walked out who was anything but lame — John Fogerty. The Foo Fighters turned up their game about twelve notches backing Fogerty on six or seven of his greatest songs, including this one:

Fogerty is the one in the blue shirt.


Quite by chance (or some sort of mysterious providence) we had stumbled upon what was undoubtedly the greatest set played at SXSW that night — one of the greatest sets I’ve ever heard. Fogerty can still kick ass, and the Foo Fighters did him justice in spades. This is just the sort of thing that happens at SXSW.


We wandered over to the terrace at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel on Congress Street, where we had some coffee, trying to come down from the high.  It took a while.



The next day I spent some time at Lake Austin, above, created by a dam on the Colorado River which runs through the city.


That evening Hilmar took me to the tiniest bar in Texas. The window in the picture above is the extent of it. At one point while we were there, when I pulled out my wallet, a waitress said, “Oh, a rattlesnake-skin wallet — can I touch it?” I said, “Ma’am, you can rub it all over yourself if you want to.” She took it from me and rubbed it slowly over both her breasts. I found this charming.


We then headed to a joint called Lustre Pearl, where we’d heard some good bands would be playing. We’d heard right. I have no idea what bands they were, but they were excellent. Lustre Pearl is like an ancient Louisiana roadhouse, with an outdoor music area.  It’s motto is “Ici Tout Est Bon”, spelled out in neon above. Hilmar and I managed to score a couple of rocking chairs on the front porch, where the music was still loud, even though we couldn’t see the stage.

Hilmar’s daughter Jordan appeared at the place later on — that’s her below in one of the rocking chairs next to her dad:


And again with a friend of hers:


As the night progressed and the bands got better, we drifted out back to stand in front of the stage:

It was all very cool.

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We picked up our SXSW badges in Austin on Monday, then had dinner at Lambert’s, the legendary Austin barbecue joint. The baby back ribs I had were magical, perfect — crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.

I drove with Hilmar to San Antonio the next day, where he had some business, and we lunched at La Frite, a Belgian restaurant (above) which serves excellent moules frites. That night we wandered through downtown Austin to see what was going on as SXSW geared up. There was a lot going on.


We ended up in the bar at the fabled Driskill Hotel (above), which dates from 1886 and which, being near to the state house, has seen its share of Texas political wheeling and dealing. Lyndon Johnson awaited the election returns there in his first unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat. He had stolen a lot of votes in that election but his opponent had stolen more.  Johnson was in shock.

There was a good country swing band playing at the Driskill bar:

A splendid preview of the week to come . . .

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After a good night’s sleep in The Rock House — we slept right through a massive thunderstorm — Hilmar and I drove down to El Pescador to load up the caterer’s serving dishes and various other party equipment. While there, Hilmar and his daughter’s friend Lauren reenacted a scene from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Texas-style (above).


Heading back to Seguin, Hilmar left a note on the message board at the ranch gate about some keys left by a party guest.


In Seguin we lounged by the pool in the vast backyard of Hilmar’s house there. Then we drove the caterer’s equipment back to La Fogata in San Antonio.


We had planned to try another restaurant in San Antonio for dinner but the smells from La Fogata’s kitchen and the lure of its excellent Margaritas kept us where we were, and we had a fine dinner on one of the cheerfully lit patios of the rambling Mexican eatery.


The next day we’d be heading up to Hilmar’s house in Austin and picking up our badges for SXSW.

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On my second day in Texas, Hilmar hosted a party at his ranch. Above, the catered food arrives from La Fogata, a great Mexican restaurant in San Antonio.

We hauled it over to El Pescador, a fish camp on a ranch pond, where the feasting would occur, then headed up to a hillside overlooking the ranch, where the drinking would commence.

A friend of Hilmar’s had already delivered vast quantities of beer, wine and spirits to the spot.


Pretty soon people, lots of people, started to arrive — then the fiesta began in earnest as Hilmar’s daughter Jordan and ten of her friends descended on the scene like a dole of doves, an exaltation of Bluebonnet girls.

Hilmar’s son Blake arrived with a portable clay-launcher and a couple of guns, for sporting purposes — a 12-gauge shotgun to fire at the clays and a 22-caliber lever-action rifle for target practice.  I fired both of these weapons, the first guns larger than a BB rifle I had ever fired in my life.


I was shocked to discover how much fun it was.  I couldn’t hit a clay with the shotgun to save my life, but I managed to put a couple of rounds into a distant tree trunk with the rifle — which resembled a lighter version of a 19th-Century lever-action Winchester.  The thud of the bullets into the tree trunk was deeply satisfying and more than a little thrilling.


We drove down the hill for the dinner, then, after most people headed home, moved to The Rock House, the original ranch house, for more beers and conversation hearthside with Jordan and her friend Lauren.  They were both visiting from Brooklyn, where they currently live.

There was a huge mounted buffalo head above the fireplace.  It was taken from a bull which had wandered into a lake during a storm on the ranch of a friend of Hilmar’s, gotten stuck in the mud there and drowned.  Hilmar asked his friend if he could send someone down to the lake the next day with a chainsaw to retrieve the bull’s head.  This was done and Hilmar had it mounted.


His friend was slightly dismayed by the taxidermy job, which made the fearsome beast look almost kindly.  It looked pretty scary to me.  The eyes might seem doe-like to some — to me they looked merely bovine, which is to say stupid, and the horns looked purely lethal.  Stupid and lethal is a terrifying combination.


Hilmar’s family made a lot of money a couple of generations back from oil. Ironically it was from investments in oil fields north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Hilmar’s grandfather used some of his profits to buy a cattle ranch near his hometown of Seguin.

In a further irony, oil was recently discovered on the ranch, which the current price of oil and modern technology make it profitable to extract. What you see in the video is the first well drilled — it’s pumping up some high-grade crude in abundance, and there may be other accessible deposits connected to the same geological substructure on the ranch.

Every motion of the pump produces another ducat for Hilmar, which explains his cheerful demeanor here, and his satisfaction at the texture of the viscous black gold his land is yielding up. The crude oil has a pungent but faintly satisfying odor.



My first destination in Texas — Seguin, about an hour south of Austin, where my friend Hilmar grew up and still lives, in a house that was built by his grandfather. It’s a small town of about 25,000 souls and not too far from Hilmar’s cattle ranch, the Diamond-Half.

On my first night, Hilmar took me to have a beer at a local ski lodge — a water-ski lodge — on a lake made by a dam on the Guadalupe River, which runs by Seguin. It was a place Hilmar loved as a kid and still loves, though I don’t think he’s kept up with his water-skiing.

Then we drove over to New Braunfels and had a memorable dinner at Myron’s, an elegant restaurant with superb food and a first-class wine list.


If you think of Texas food as chiefly barbecue, steaks and tacos, you just haven’t spent much time in the area around San Antonio and Austin, where the restaurants serve all kinds of cuisine, from the fanciest to the plainest. I didn’t have a bad meal of either description in the ten days I spent rambling around with Hilmar.

At Myron’s I had sea scallops wrapped in bacon and found them outstanding.

Seguin is mentioned twice in passing in my book Fourteen Western Stories, in honor of Hilmar, who talked about it a lot when we were in college together in the 60s, though I’d never visited the town before.

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Passing through San Antonio I decided to stop at the Alamo, preserved in a park in the center of the city.  It’s a lovely, haunted monument.


Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis, commanding the garrison at the Alamo, wrote the letter below from the old mission complex not long before it was assaulted for the last time on March 6 by about 1,500 Mexican troops, who killed all its 200 or so defenders, including Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett.  Their gallant stand inspired others to rally in defense of the new Republic Of Texas, resulting in the final defeat of the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto the following month.

Commandancy of the Alamo
Bejar, Feby. 24, 1836

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World

Fellow citizens & compatriots

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country VICTORY OR DEATH.

William Barret Travis,

Lt. Col. comdt.

P.S. The Lord is on our side. When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn. We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves. Travis


Travis was 26 years-old at the time.



This is a rest area in Texas Canyon, Arizona — on the road to El Paso.

Below is a Whataburger purchased in El Paso:


The Whataburger is the best fast-food burger known to mankind but only available in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, as far as I’ve been able to determine. The one I’m eating in the picture is generously garnished with jalapeños. Whataburger — since 1950, like me.

One of the tales in my book Fourteen Western Stories is set in El Paso, in the days before Whataburgers.

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