If You Like Stories, Head to Texas
By Judy Dean
Author in front of Town Mural in Bandera, Texas - official "Cowboy Capital of the USA".
I was driving through Texas Hill Country with my mom last month when we decided to stop at a general store near a crossroads named Camp Verde. Right outside the entrance to the store (where we discovered an amazing restaurant, by the way) we were greeted with a large metal sculpture of a camel. The obvious question: what’s with the camel?
It seems that back in 1855 a Mississippi senator named Jefferson Davis (yes, that Jefferson Davis) secured congressional funding to establish a camel transport experiment in the American Southwest. Davis had a vision that camels would fare much better than mules as pack animals in rough, arid countryside like Texas. He sent an envoy to the Middle East to procure 33 camels and four native handlers. The ship arrived in 1856 and the camels and handlers were trekked inland to their new home, Camp Verde.
For the next 14 years the camels (augmented with a second shipment of 40 more) were used primarily to haul military supplies for the U.S. Department of Army. They were also used to help survey the 35th Parallel Wagon Road – which later became known as Route 66. The fort (and its camels) survived capture by the Confederacy during the Civil War and recapture by the U.S. Government four years later.
The camel experiment was generally reported to be a success, at least for a while. By 1869 trains and roads were reducing the need for pack animals and the program was decommissioned. The camels were sold off to various buyers, including gold prospectors and commercial transporters who trekked them as far as Mexico City. A few of the camels even escaped – and yes, multiplied. I could find no record of what became of the four original handlers, but I would surely love to know what those guys thought of Texas.
Why this story? Lore. Aside from oil, if there’s one thing that Texas is rich in it would be this. Stories are everywhere – stories about all the heroic, notorious, endlessly resourceful, and complicated people who shaped this place. It’s worth remembering that half these people were women – a fact often neglected in the re-telling of western lore.
I need to back up for a minute and explain what I was doing there. The short answer is that I was escaping my home state of Michigan in March, which is never a pleasant month. I took a chance on Texas Hill Country – a five-county area west of San Antonio – and booked a rental house in the town of Kerrville.
My mom and sister joined me there and we set out to explore the decidedly atypical Texas landscape: rolling hills, high plateaus, river valleys and a diverse, ever-changing landscape that I became completely smitten with. We found a good local country music station for our rental car and never moved the dial.
We put more than 1,500 miles on that car traveling up and down those hills and over countless creeks and rivers. On one 15-mile section of road we crossed the Guadalupe River eleven times. State historical markers dot the roadsides and towns everywhere you go. Texas boasts more than 16,000 historical markers – more than any other state by a Texas mile. That’s a lot of stories.
One day we stumbled upon the country music mecca of Luckenbach, Texas, made famous by the Waylon Jennings’ hit song of the same name. To my surprise Luckenbach is not a town at all – it’s a music venue in pretty much the middle of nowhere. You enter via a narrow dirt road featuring a hand-painted sign that reads, “Park Yonder.” A large arrow points the way toward a giant dirt lot.
There’s a lot to love in Luckenbach: a rotation of non-stop country artists who play for tips on weekend afternoons, shaded picnic tables to park yourself at, cold beer at a reasonable price, a food truck with excellent burgers and fries, clean restrooms, and best of all: a friendly vibe with the best people-watching in Texas. I highly recommend it.
I found a lot to like in Texas. For one thing, there’s the food (special shout out to a new favorite: Schilo’s, a German-Texan deli and the oldest restaurant in San Antonio), and then there’s the friendly people. Whenever I asked a question their reply opened with, “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am” – followed by everything I needed to know. Honestly, that did make me smile, if only for the novelty of it. Also, I must add that the wildflowers in spring are worth the trip alone.
It was great to step out of my bubble but I fully accept that I could never live there – I’d never fit in. I felt like a walking billboard that declared “Not From Around Here!” Wrong hair, wrong clothes, wrong accent, and, alas, wrong politics.
One afternoon I was having a friendly conversation with a neighbor, an older gentleman, about the mule deer that wandered daily through the neighborhood. I told him I’d been keeping my eye out for an armadillo, an animal I’d never seen outside a zoo. His jaw dropped and he gaped at me like I’d just dropped in from Mars. “You ain’t missing nothin’ – they stink!” He then proceeded to tell me he killed armadillos when he could, and in the next breath he moved on to Donald Trump – whom he gloated would never be convicted of any crime. At that point I think I said, “I have to go now, I’m pretty sure I hear my mother calling.” Maybe I had just dropped in from Mars after all.