BOERNE, Texas — On my second day in the Texas Hill Country, a rolling patch of scrubby green land in the central part of the state, I met Gary Kirkham.
Kirkham, 62, is a lifelong Texan with a soft accent and a quick, warm smile. Until last year he had lived most of his adult life in gated Dallas and Houston subdivisions. Then, looking to escape the hubbub, he and his wife moved to New Braunfels, a town of 53,000 at the southeast edge of the Hill Country that is home to legendary Gruene Hall, a barnlike venue that has drawn crooners ranging from Little Richard to Lyle Lovett.
Soon after he moved, Kirkham was shooting pool in a bar when a baby-faced, honey-voiced country singer took the stage and started strumming above the pool balls' clack and the drinkers' twangy chatter. Kirkham realized that he was finally in Texas. All those years in Dallas and Houston could have been in New Jersey and Minnesota.
"I've always been proud to be a Texan," Kirkham said. "But where I live now feels like the real Texas."
The thing about the Hill Country is this (and it is the Hill Country — leave off the article, and you'll out yourself as a tourist or, worse, a Yankee): Hang around long enough, and you'll find Texas.
Being the nation's most mythologized state comes with high expectations, which is why Dallas and Houston have always seemed so uninspiring. But in the Hill Country, you will find the heart of Texas — boutiques and wineries, ranchers and barbecue, hiking and swimming — and you will find it in the least likely places.
The Hill Country also is one of the state's most diverse patches: cowboys, yuppies, tourists and people like Niki Bertrand, a 29-year-old Austin resident whose arm tattoos, blond dreadlocks half-dyed blue and face piercings make her quite a spectacle in the rest of the state.
"In the Hill Country, I can go to a good ol' boy bar and be right at home," Bertrand said. "I go to East Texas to visit my brother, and no, no, no, I won't do it there. That's not safe."
Nothing against East Texas — or even West — but the Hill Country offers a Texas you won't find elsewhere. During a week of 1,200 crisscrossed Hill Country miles — an area loosely defined as west of Austin and north of San Antonio — these are the moments of eating, strolling, dancing and chatting up strangers where I could have been nowhere but Texas.
Austin isn't exactly the Hill Country, but it is at its edge, and if you get away from the boozy college kids, the lawyers and the politicians, this capital possesses much of what makes the Hill Country sing. Like the Broken Spoke, a low-ceilinged country music and dancing bar on the south side of town that feels as though it could topple over any minute (don't worry, it only adds to the charm).
On the Saturday night I was there, regulars said they had never seen it so busy. And the people were serious about being out that night. Cowboy hats, jeans and boots in every direction. I was the only person wearing a baseball cap. Such a dumb Yankee. But it didn't matter.
A tap on the shoulder.
"Do you dance?"
She wore jeans and a button-down shirt with a checkered pattern. Not, "Do you want to dance?" But, "Do you dance?"
"Not very well," I said.
And off we went, into the twirling masses, pinballs bouncing off our fellow revelers, guided by a full band and a stomping fiddle. I'm pretty sure she led. When we finished, she said, "You're not so bad." A nod, a smile and off to the next cowboy.
In the North, asking someone to dance could be code for trying to find a partner to last until morning. Not here. At the Broken Spoke, a stranger dances with a stranger and then another stranger. When those strangers see each other the next week, they do it again. And they keep doing it until they're not strangers anymore; they're dancing partners at the Broken Spoke. Newcomers always welcome.
Robert Patten, 62, an insurance adjuster, goes at least twice a week to dance with his roster of 20-plus women.
"I like dancing with the same old girls," Patten said. "They know my moves. I was dancing with Kim the other night, and I said, 'You could be on the other side of the room, and you'd know what I'm going to do.' "
Best of all: "There's no line dancing," Patten said. "We don't do that here."
Every Texan knows the best barbecue in the Hill Country. Only problem is, they all have different answers. I took their advice as often as possible, and I'm glad to say that the one who insisted I go to Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Cue was right. Cooper's is in Llano, a town of 3,200 indistinguishable from every other town of its size in the Hill Country — except for Cooper's, where my rental car was the only non-pickup in the parking lot.
The experience is very utilitarian. Before walking into the restaurant, you peruse a brick pit of smoking meat: beef, pork, sausage, chicken and goat (chewy, but hey, now I've eaten goat, Texas barbecue style). With a sharp knife in one hand and a long, two-pronged fork in the other, the man in the blue apron stabs whatever former animal you point to, dips it in a bucket of sauce and drops it directly onto an orange cafeteria tray.
You bring the tray into the restaurant to have the meat cut, pay (a lot) and eat at one of the wooden picnic tables stocked with rolls of paper towel and plastic jugs of jalapenos. The walls, adorned with mounted deer heads, are cinder block, and the floors cement. The operation is gloriously simple and the meat gloriously glorious: succulent, fresh, peppery and tender.
"It's far, but Texas people like to come here," said Ray Ellis, 60, who stopped during his six-hour drive home to Colorado City, Texas, from Austin. "It's just classic. More Texas-y."
As it turned out, the second best barbecue I had was also in Llano County, 20 miles west, in Castell, a town of "five or six" full-time residents, according to one of those five or six people. Castell basically amounts to the Castell General Store and the mailbox beside it, but every Saturday a few locals and people in the know get together to cook up some barbecue.
Much like Cooper's, you order by pointing at the meat. And much like Cooper's, the meat is delicious. But unlike Cooper's, you pay not by weight but by eyeball: "Oh, that looks like about $8 worth," a worker will tell you. You're also pretty much required to sit down and chat with the Wrangler- and Carhartt-wearing locals. The afternoon I was there, that crew included the local game warden and the sheriff's deputy whose responsibility is the entire big-sky expanse of western Llano County.
"The Hill Country is as good as it gets," said store owner Randy Leifeste, whose family has lived — and been buried — in Castell for six generations.
There's no telling where or when you'll find a memorable slice of the Hill Country. It can seem as though you're miles from everything but the beauty of the road, and then you find something like the Devil's Backbone Tavern, a beer joint on the quiet, twisting road that is one of the most revered drives in the area, nicknamed the Devil's Backbone.
The bar has wood floors, a wood ceiling, a wood bar and stone walls, a few motorcycles parked out front on a weekday afternoon and a pack of gray-haired men sitting in a swirl of their own cigarette smoke just inside the front door. A Confederate flag is tacked to the ceiling, the fancy beer costs $2.50 and the dilapidated barbecue shack out back actually does serve brisket and ribs Thursdays through Saturdays. The blond, denim-skirted bartender is the only woman in the place, and it's unclear whether the sign on the front door — "No loaded guns are allowed" — is a joke.
In short, it's priceless.
"This is a classic old, old Hill Country bar," said Jamie Stirling, 59, a regular who lives up the road. "There aren't too many places like this anymore. This is a look back at what used to be."
The next day, almost 50 miles due west, I happened through Waring, population 73. Like any self-respecting Hill Country town, Waring might not have much, but it has a general store, and I happened to drive by it on a Wednesday night. My luck, because that's the only night the Waring General Store is open to the public. Even more my luck because Wednesday night is "Steaknite."
For $20 you eat all you can — grilled steak, salad, homemade quesadillas and gorditas and banana pudding made by the owner's 91-year-old grandmother. And, of course, there is music: that night, a swinging country band with a 12-year-old boy on harmonica. I showed up with nothing to indicate that I was a reporter. Notebook and camera both in the car. But owner Jason Strange, 38, took such pity on a solo-traveling Yankee, he threw his arm around my shoulder and insisted I eat for free.
"I'm buying this guy dinner!" he hollered to his staff.
I declined and told him why I was there. He lit up, raised his hand and insisted, "This right here, this is the Hill Country. This is how we do it."
During the next few hours, dozens of people filtered in, including several young families. They ate, they danced. Then they ate a little more. On a Wednesday.
One of the most popular destinations in the Hill Country is Fredericksburg, a handsome little town of quaint shops, quality restaurants and surprisingly fine wineries. But most memorable was the tiny town of Luckenbach, 10 miles southeast made famous by Willie and Waylon and the boys.
The first thing to know about Luckenbach is that it isn't actually a town. It was a town with a dance hall, a general store, a school and a post office, but the school closed in 1964 and the post office in 1970. The general store and the dance hall remain open, but they're privately owned. Which makes Luckenbach one large music venue despite retaining the flavor of a very small town.
There are plenty of large shows at the dance hall, but even in off hours, music usually is being played down at the general store. Sometimes it's just one guy with a gray beard and an acoustic guitar, playing his own brand of heartbroken country. It's a wood-floored, wood-walled shack with photos and bumper stickers everywhere ("Bob Wills Is Still the King"). The locals wear baseball caps and belt buckles the size of your fist. Only the tourists wear cowboy hats.
Whoever is singing is known to trade barbs with the regulars between songs. Jimmy Lee Jones, playing that day, tells a member of the audience, who also is a musician, "I missed your singing Monday night, but I sure didn't miss seeing you do it."
"Tell you what," the man replies. "When you come see me play, turn your back. You'll be doing us both a favor. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Get it?"
Jimmy Lee got it. Then he sang "Shut Up and Drink Your Beer."
Which is exactly what Luckenbach is perfect for. Shutting up, listening to the music and drinking your beer. The place is so leisurely, it feels as though you've stumbled into some glorious pre-cell-phone world.
Though it sits just outside the Hill Country, I would be remiss not to mention the nation's seventh largest city. Like Austin, I went to San Antonio looking for traces of the Hill Country, figuring it couldn't help but absorb some flavor.
I was immediately convinced I had been wrong. It's far more Tejano (that's Mexican Texan) than Hill Country, which you can see on the menus and on the streets. After stops at the Blue Star brew pub and neighboring La Tuna restaurant — both worth your time for good, affordable beer and good, affordable food — I found myself in B and D Ice House. It's a dim bar the size of a shoe box that has been around since 1960 and has a regular cast of devotees. It's open Friday and Saturday nights only.
As I arrived, the evening's entertainment, a singer named Eddie, was taking a break. He handed me his guitar and asked if I played.
"Sort of," I said.
He encouraged me to play a few songs, and the nine people there, several in red B and D T-shirts, clapped encouragement. I took a seat on a stool against the far wall and did the best I could through that immortal '70s hit "Afternoon Delight" and a Buddy Holly song called "Crying, Waiting, Hoping." They're both very easy to play.
It was my first time playing for a crowd, and I was awful. But those nine people didn't care. They drank their Lone Star beer from bottles, clapped and made sure I got one of those T-shirts when I left.
If that isn't Texas, I don't know what is.
IF YOU GO:
Gruene Hall, 1281 Gruene Road, New Braunfels; 830-606-1281; gruenehall.com
Broken Spoke, 3201 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin; 512-442-6189; brokenspokeaustintx.com
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Cue, 604 W. Young St., Llano; 325-247-5713; coopersbbq.com
Castell General Store, Castell; castelltexas.com
Devil's Backbone Tavern, 4041 FM 32; Fischer; 830-964-2544
Waring General Store, Waring; 800-749-2332; steaknite.com
Luckenbach, 412 Luckenbach Town Loop; 888-311-8990; luckenbachtexas.com
B and D Ice House, 1004 S. Alamo St., San Antonio; 210-225-9801
Josh Noel: jbnoeltribune.com