If you look closely at a map of Central Texas, you’ll see the grey wake of a thousand ghosts, their shadows long over the scrubby hills and green rush of the Colorado River.
Central Texas has a lot of towns that were settled by sweaty Germans in the early to mid-19th century.
Some have cool names, like Zodiac.
Most have German names, like Luckenbach.
Many were wiped out either by floods, or by boll weevils that weeviled so fast and so furious that before anyone could say “What the what?!” (in German) there tweren’t nothin’ left but a pile of bugged-up cotton puffs.
Because I have a complicated soul the idea of ghost towns appeals to me. (Liberal arts degree, moved to Austin, “freelance writer”, kale salad — you get the picture.) My hill country road trip took place at the beginning of the summer.
I stuffed my car with all the adventurous ladies I could find.
Katie thought it would be jolly to pick nicknames, and expressed a wish that I refer to her as “Young Lunch Money,” like the corner boys did in her homehood of Harlem. I’m only mentioning this to avoid recriminations for leaving it out. (You don’t know what she’s like).
Annie, aka Lil’ Chicken Sticks (I shan’t explain), would be our guide, as she grew up in in the quaint central Texas town of Dripping Springs, aka “The Dirty Drip,” according to Annie’s friends in middle school.
(Katie helpfully volunteered an alternate title for this post: “BORN TO BE WILD: YUNG LUNCH MONEY, LIL CHICKEN STIX, AND THE CAPTAIN HIT TO ROAD.” For future reference, audience participation is never welcome.)
It had rained heavily the night before our trip, and we discovered our chosen route had flooded. Every year Texans pray for rain to relieve the near-constant drought, and they are punished on an annual basis with biblical floods.
Should we turn around? Or was there another way?
What was it our parents did, once there were no more tears left?
And so we decided to stop at a gas station to look at a map. Surely a map would be more detailed than whatever Apple or Google had slapped together one boozy week night, doing their best to nail a deadline.
While Annie and I puzzled over directions, Katie found time to shop for souvenirs. (This is what she’s like.)
As it turns out, maps suck. No wonder all our parents are divorced. (Except mine. Usually I would leave this out, but as we’ve established I’m a coward.)
We set our sights on the ghost town of Luckenbach. Along the way, we kept seeing signs for wineries.
When I picture vineyards, I imagine rolling hills and soft summer rain.
“Mustang grapes,” Annie explained. They thrive on the edges of woods in east Texas’ subtropical climate. Too tart to eat raw, they end up in jams and the very sweet wines of Fat Ass Ranch.
We got just drunk enough to drive the rest of the way to Luckenbach. (I’m not backing down from this one.)
All that’s left of the historic town is a post office, a dance hall, and this fried pickle stand.
It’s not so much a “ghost town” as a concert venue and, like so many small towns in America, a place to display all the nostalgic license plates you could ever want.
I have a question, America.
WHY DO YOU WANT THESE???
A giant cow caught my eye near the entrance. There was a man standing next to the cow who appeared to be charging $8 to sit on it.
“Can I ride this cow?”
“Y’all not from here?” the cow guardian (is there a name for these????) asked, with classic Texan impertinence.
Out in the country, my Mid-Atlantic jibber-jabber makes the hair on the back of many a sunburned neck stand up. People look at me like I’m Fran Drescher.
I explained, apologetically, that I’m from Maryland, and that Katie has the nerve to hail from New York.
Annie mentioned that she’s from the Dirty Drip. The cow master eyed her fair skin.
“Musta’ not let you get outside much.”
“They did! But slathered in sunscreen,” she demurred.
He furrowed his brows, to the point that his caterpillar eyebrows grazed his walrus mustache.
“You know where all the sunscreen goes when you shower? Into the ocean.”
We chuckled nervously.
“You know what they call the ocean now? A Dead Zone.”
We let that sink in for a second.
Annie decided to take a firm tone. “Both of my parents have skin cancer, so…” She shrugged, half smiling, as if to to say, “I’d rather not die of skin cancer.”
The apparent CEO of Luckenbach Cow Corp was quick with his comeback: “Me too.”
The tension was building.
“Can I ride this cow?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.
“It’s not a cow. It’s a steer. You can’t milk it.” He paused. “But if you milk it, you can keep it.”
We were all happy for some light comic relief after finding out that the ocean is dead and everyone has cancer.
Nevertheless, I was getting pretty tired of his shit. I looked into that fat cow’s eyes and knew that I must be its master.
Finally the cow…man (???) gave me careful instructions.
In the process he found new and exciting ways to patronize me.
“Ow! My soft laptop hands!”
Eventually my fat ass was on that cow. The cow ambassador told me exactly what to do. He was really insistent on this hand-on-hip, right arm outstretched pose.
Now that I see the final product, I have to admit that it is fucking inspiring. Who wouldn’t follow this woman into battle?
But I still felt like my portrait needed something.
“Can I borrow your hat?” I asked.
He made some kind of snorfeling noise under his mustache, and said something in a language only black-belt cow folk understand.
At that point, a circle of paunchy good ol’ boys had formed around me, and one of the Lone Star-soaked brethren handed me his jaunty chapeau.
“Don’t give it to her, she’s from Maryland!” my number-one enemy in the world remarked.
“She’s going to flash me,” my hat buddy assured the crowd.
Not sure where he got that vibe.
Pictures taken, I felt we had milked this steer for all he was worth.
Before we left I made us stop at the Luchenback graveyard. They graves read “Muter” and “Vater.”
Katie didn’t want to get near the graves. She’s very mystical and Italian.
Then we went in search of Grapetown, another nearby ghost town. But this one promised to be ghostier.
Our route was once again blocked by floods.
Kids were splashing in the water.
I asked one of the women who was supervising how to get around the flood.
She gave me helpful directions and then explained what was happening before my very eyes.
“They’re splotchin’. That’s what we call it when they play in the water.”
Before we got to Grapetown we made a wrong turn and found this turtle.
We practiced our turtle herding and got him safely out of the road.
Bestowed with the blessing of the turtle spirit, after several more wrong turns we found Grapetown.
Below Grapetown the sign says “Eintracht Schuetzen Verein,” which means “Shooting Club.”
There’s also a tiny, boring school. I won’t show you a picture, because I want to you remain alert for the home stretch.
Ready to head home, we saw a sign for Old Tunnel State Park. I made a sudden left turn, and we all screamed.
This old tunnel used to be part of a train track that took people from one weird little German settlement to the next.
Now its a habitat for Mexican free-tailed bats, and it’s stinky.
On our way back, we had difficulty finding lunch. A lot of spots were closed, and we discovered that there are long stretches of Texas highway with not so much as a Denny’s to light the way.
Annie showed us to a restaurant that was hidden inside a bowling alley.
We ordered a platter of three different fried things.
It was beige like the arid landscape, and hearty like the ghosts of cow men and cow women that still roam free.
It was Texas.
It was fried pickles and some other stuff.