Best Texas books: Remember Oveta Culp Hobby?

In this latest installment of our “Texas Titles” series, we look at a pioneer, a cause, a sport, a feud and a batch of the state’s artists.

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‘Oveta Culp Hobby.’

“Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist.” Debra L. Winegarten. University of Texas Press. It’s hard to believe that this is among first biographical treatments of a Texan who ran the Women’s Army Corps — becoming the first women colonel — then served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, only the second woman to be appointed to a president’s cabinet. Not only that, she teamed with her husband, former Texas Gov. William P. Hobby, to run a media powerhouse that included the Houston Post as well as radio and TV stations (an analog for LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson?). Not the least, her son Bill Hobby served as Texas Lieutenant Governor from 1973 to 1991. Winegarten, a practiced freelance writer, penned this slim, readable volume for the Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series, which includes a handy time line. It originally came out in 2014, but the author continues to speak around town on the subject, including a recent presentation to the Capitol of Texas Rotary Club.

RELATED: LBJ, FOOTBALL, DEVIL’S SINKHOLE AND MORE HOT TEXAS TITLES

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‘Saving San Antonio.’

“Saving San Antonio: The Preservation of a Heritage.” Lewis F. Fisher. Trinity University Press. Now out in a second edition — in paperback — this essential book on historic preservation chronicles one of the oldest such movements in this part of the country. As soon as the railroads arrived in the late 1870s — ending this major city’s long geographic isolation — lovers of its Spanish, Mexican, Anglo and German heritage spoke out against the destruction of its ancient sites. Fisher, who has written several books about San Antonio and its history, is something of a myth buster, though perhaps not as disruptive as Chris Wilson, whose “The Myth of Santa Fe” stripped away the Anglo-American image-making of that tourist town. This book is thoroughly and painstakingly researched and it includes rarely seen images of San Antonio before, during and after the battles to keep its built environment safe.

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‘The Republic of Football.’

“The Republic of Football: Legends of the Texas High School Game.” Chad. S. Conine. University of Texas Press. It sometimes seems that one in every five books about Texas is about football. Waco-based Conine is a journalist and, more to the point, an enthusiast. Here he interviews coaches, players and others to resurrect outstanding high school programs around the state, from Snyder’s 1952 season to Aledo’s record string of wins from 2008 to 2011. Austinites will recognize some greats witnessed locally in high school or college play, such as Drew Brees and Colt McCoy. When historians look back on this time in Texas, they will find no shortage of records about a particular communal activity engaged every fall.

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‘The Red River Bridge War.’

RELATED: SEVEN TEXAS TITLES TO SAMPLE AT SUMMER’S END

“The Red River Bridge War: A Texas-Oklahoma Border Battle.” Rusty Williams. Texas A&M University Press. Who doesn’t love a feud? I knew next to nothing about this short but consequential fight between Oklahoma and Texas over a Red River toll bridge. In the summer of 1931, National Guard units from the two states faced off, backed by Texas Rangers and masses of angry civilians. The two-week skirmish included the presence of field artillery and a Native American peace delegation. Williams is a former reporter with a sweet tooth for history and every indication suggests he’s also a diligent researcher. The wider question settled for a time after this confrontation involved the place of private highways and bridges in a free market, a subject that has returned to the forefront in recent years.

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‘The Art of Found Objects.’

“The Art of Found Objects: Interviews with Texas Artists.” Robert Craig Bunch. Texas A&M University Press. The found object as art has a long and distinguished history in this state. Bunch, a librarian at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, has interviewed more than 50 Texas artists — including a few expats — about the gritty insides of their creative processes. Despite the size of the volume and its color execution, it’s not a picture book. The sampled images are relatively small. But the details are sometimes priceless. Neither is this a regionalist survey. The artists Bunch contacted — the conversations are rendered in a Q&A format — represent all sorts of styles, materials and genres. It doesn’t appear this edition in the Joe and Betty Moore Texas Art Series is in any way attached to an exhibit. But some curator might get some ideas.

 

 

Best Texas books: You can’t miss with Bill Wittliff

This week, we’ve got a novel, a true crime tale, an investigative report, a sports chronicle and a family history among the latest Texas titles to cipher.

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“The Devil’s Sinkhole”

“The Devil’s Sinkhole.” Bill Wittliff. University of Texas Press. Wittliff appears at BookPeople on Oct. 10. We can’t wait to bury ourselves deeper into this sequel to Witliff’s highly praised first novel, “The Devil’s Backbone.” Set in a rugged slash of Central Texas, both books follow the adventures of a frontier boy, Papa, told in irresistible dialect. Although it takes the loose form of a series of folktales — illustrated with bone-dry wit by Joe Ciardiello — one can also imagine the “Devil’s” duo as a movie or a mini-series, which shouldn’t surprise us, coming as they do from the Austin screenwriter who gave us the magnificent “Lonesome Dove” mini-series. We promise more reporting on Wittliff and his spiky stories, rightly compared to Mark Twain’s and J. Frank Dobie’s.

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“Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Cartel”

“Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Cartel.” Dan Slater. Simon & Schuster. Dan Slater appears at BookPeople on Oct. 7. This is “Beyond Breaking Bad” for real. Two otherwise promising Laredo boys, along with their friends, join the Zetas drug-smuggling cartel and go deep into its hyper-violent culture on both sides of the border. The boys are tracked by a veteran detective with cultural insights into their background. A magazine reporter, Slater knows how to tell a thrilling story in long form. This book, excerpted in Texas Monthly and banned in the Texas prison system, also illuminates the inner lives of the Laredo and Nuevo Laredo hoods far from the tourist traps and NAFTA highways. Another book that screams out for dramatization.

RELATED: MORE RECENT TEXAS TITLES.

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“Faustian Bargains: Lyndon Johnson and Mac Wallace in the Robber Baron Culture of Texas”

“Faustian Bargains: Lyndon Johnson an Mac Wallace in the Robber Baron Culture of Texas.” Joan Mellen. Bloomsbury. LBJ attracts a certain prosecutorial style of reporting, even decades after he left positions of power. Think of the Robert Caro magnum opus. From all available indications, the late president deserved that kind of attention. If one sets aside his monumental political achievements and their subsequent shortcomings, it’s also clear he was also involved with shady characters such as Malcolm “Mac” Wallace, who shot the lover of LBJ’s unpredictable sister, Josefa, herself doubling as Wallace’s paramour. He was not only defended by LBJ’s lawyer, he went on to bypass vetting and do work for a major defense contractor. Mellen turns up a lot of previously unrevealed evidence and makes a potent case. Documentary film in the making?

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“Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas: A Year in the Life of Lone Star Football from High School to College to the Cowboys”

“Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas: A Year in the Life of Lone Star Football, from High School to College to the Cowboys.” Nick Eatman. Dey St. The “year in the life” format is time-tested in sports, movies, law-making and the arts. Eatman, who manages and writes for DallasCowboys.com, starts with the premise that football is a year-round activity central to the lives of Texans throughout the state. So he follows the Plano Wildcats, Baylor Bears and Dallas Cowboys through the 2015 season, packed with ups and downs, and, if you were paying any attention at the time, you’d can predict some of the spectacular scandals. Eatman has been given extraordinary access to the high school, college and pro teams, in part because he has been following all three levels of the sport for a long time. (His previous two books were “Art Briles: Looking Up” and “If These Walls Could Talk: Dallas Cowboys.”) There’s no attempt to get under the skin of the culture in the way of H.G. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream,” but there’s a lot of football here and Texans can’t get enough of that.

RELATED: EVEN MORE RECENT TEXAS TITLES.

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“The Long Shadow: The Lutcher-Stark Lumber Dynasty

“The Long Shadow: The Lutcher-Stark Lumber Dynasty.” Ellen Walker Rienstra and Jo Ann Stiles. Tower Books. I have long wanted this story told. After cotton and before oil, for the most part, there was Texas timber and the family fortunes associated with it. One formidable tribe dominated the field for a long time. The dynastic enterprise was founded by Henry Jacob “H.J.” Lutcher, then was vastly expanded by his son-in-law, William Henry “H.W.” Stark. Profits from Lutcher-Stark investments were devoted to philanthropy by Henry Jacob Lutcher “Lutcher” Stark, creator of the Stark Foundation of Orange, which was followed much later by the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas. The Foundation commissioned Ellen Walker Rienstra, a contract historian, and Jo Ann Stiles, who taught history at Lamar University, to write this richly researched this in-house family biography, published as an imprint of UT Press.

Best Texas books: What the German Texans left us

Face facts, it’s still summer, weather-wise in Austin. So let’s look back at some recent Texas titles before rummaging through the fall books.

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“The Material Culture of German Texans.” Kenneth Hafertepe. Texas A&M Press. This is a big, beautiful book on a subject that will delight antiquarians and collectors as well as the just plain curious. Heftertepe, who chairs the department of museum studies at Baylor University, has already provided two volumes essential to understanding our region, “Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier” and “A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County.” Here, he delves into a rich variety of vernacular architecture, as well as covering cabinetmakers, interiors, public buildings, houses of worship and — smart to include — graveyards and grave markers. Hafertepe speaks on his book’s subject at the Neill-Cochran House, designed by Abner Cook, on Sept. 25.

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“Haiku Austin: Vol 1.” Carlotta Eike Stankiewicz. Haiku Empire Press. Small gift books are all the rage. And we approve. Not every opus should double as a weapon. Stankiewicz’s slender volume brandishes its bright, quirky images and light, quirky words quite effectively. Don’t seek profundities here. Instead enjoy page after page of knowing smiles inspired by our town’s beloved singularities. Sample “Lucy in Disguise,” based on the costume shop on South Congress: “sequins and Spandex/drag queens flirt with evil clowns/grown-ups play dress-up.”

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“We Come to Our Senses.” Odie Lindsey. Norton. I look forward to reading this book more carefully and interviewing the Nashville-based author, who has lived in Austin and sets some of his stories here. Lindsey will appear at the Texas Book Festival Nov. 5-6. I can tell you from what I’ve read so far: His dialogue and scene-setting ring absolutely true. His prose reminds me, to some extent, of the plays and the novel, “Rules for Werewolves,” by Austinite Kirk Lynn, which I understand is being considered for movie or TV treatment. Lindsey’s vets are characters of natural interest, given the generational involvement in what seem like endless wars fought for an American public that doesn’t much care.

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“Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot.” Sarah Byrn Rickman. Texas Tech University Press. The author is one of the key keepers of the flame regarding the nearly lost history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who trained in West Texas and ferried planes from base to base during World War II. (We recently wrote about one of the WASP flier, Susie Winston Bain, pegged to an excellent exhibit at the Bullock Texas History Museum.) Here, Rickman presents the letters of Scott, preserved by her twin brother, which reveal the flier’s inner life, but also the day-to-day routines of the WASP forces. Incredibly ambitious, Scott died in a mid-air crash at age 23.

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“The Mammals of Texas.” (Seventh Edition). David J. Schimdly and Robert D. Bradley. University of Texas Press. I love this book. And I’ve used it in the field for years. I can’t tell you what has been improved in this, the Seventh Edition, but what will likely open the eyes of first-timers are the number of whales, porpoises and dolphins that live just off our coast, as well as the numerous introduced species, such as eastern Thompson’s gazelles, Barbary sheep and Sika deer. There are even Japanese macaques loose in Central Texas. The authors have not left out domesticated mammals, which fewer Texans could identify these days as the state urbanizes and suburbanizes. One thing: The range maps, organized by county reports, seem pretty primitive for such a image-conscious publisher like UT Press.91pymvgiw7l

“A Kineñero’s Journey: On Family, Learning and Public Service.” Lauro F. Cavazos and Gene B. Preuss. Texas Tech University Press. A Kineñero is a descendant of Mexicans who worked on the King Ranch in the 1800s. Former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos — appointed by President Ronald Reagan — counts himself as one. His father served as ranch foreman. A longtime educator, Cavazos also was president of Texas Tech University. He is assisted here in recalling his journey by Preuss, a professor of history at University of Houston-Downtown. The father of 10 children with Peggy Ann Murdoch, Cavazos was blessed with a wide-ranging interest in learning and, especially in interactions among cultures.

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“Texas Land Grants, 1750-1900: A Documentary History.” John Martin Davis, Jr. McFarland. Despite the cover art, this is a serious book about serious history. What could be more important to a country than the claim to the land and its resources? Especially in Texas, where, until the modern era, much of what happened here happened because of land grants. Davis, a retired tax attorney who lives in Fort Davis, is an authority on maps. He patiently takes the reader through the history of Spanish and Mexican grants, military and emigrant headrights, Republic of Texas practices, grants among disputed territories in the Trans-Nueces and Trans-Pecos regions, as well as homestead, education and internal improvement grants. He also provides lots of images of sample grants.

UPDATES: References to Lauro Cavazos, Kenneth Hafertepe and Sarah Byrn Rickman have been corrected.

 

 

Best Texas books: Who is Homer Thornberry?

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“Homer Thornberry: Congressman, Judge and Advocate for Equal Rights.” Homer Ross Tomlin. TCU Press. Sandwiched between Lyndon Baines Johnson and J.J. “Jake” Pickle, Austin’s U.S. Congressman was Homer Thornberry, whose full story begged to be told. That duty was taken up by his grandson, Homer Ross Tomlin, an elegant writer who covers his grandfather’s early years in Austin — the son of deaf parents who taught at the Texas School for the Deaf — his service on the Austin City Council, in the Texas Legislature, as Travis County District Attorney, in the U.S. Navy, as Congressman before becoming a federal judge, whom Johnson nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Thornberry was deeply involved in the big stories of the day, including civil rights. There’s also a lot of Austin history here. Expect an interview with the author in the coming months. Tomlin appears at BookPeople on Aug. 27

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“Rounded Up in Glory: Frank Reaugh: Texas Renaissance Man.” Michael R. Grauer. University of North Texas Press. We wanted to learn more about Frank Reaugh (pronounced ‘Ray’), the “Dean of Texas Painters.” Best known for his pastel depictions of the West, he straddled the artistic trends of two centuries and two continents, since he trained in Europe and his landscapes owe a good deal to Impressionism and post-Impressionism. In 1890, he settled in the Oak Cliff part of Dallas and he became one of the prime movers of that city’s art scene, mentoring the next generations of painters. He also was an inventor and photographer. The author is a curator at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon and he wrote the companion book to the recent Ransom Center exhibit of Reaugh’s work. This volume fills out the personal canvas.

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“Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Jayme Lynn Blaschke. History Press.” Is there a Texan over a certain age that doesn’t know the outline of this story, retold in magazines, musicals and movies? Sheriff protects longtime country bawdyhouse outside La Grange, run by classy, sassy Madam Edna Milton. It then is closed after a big-city media campaign coupled with some political maneuvering. Enterprising journalist and author Jayme Lynn Blaschke has done some more digging, however, and added some twists to the tale, including an intriguing conspiracy angle. He also thoroughly covers the afterlife of the story, and the ways that it has been misrepresented. Look at this: Former Lt. Gov. William P. “Bill” Hobby Jr. endorses this telling.

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“Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo.” Mitchel P. Roth. University of North Texas Press. Running from 1931 to 1986, the Texas Prison Rodeo was like no other show in town. Professor and author Mitchel P. Roth, who teaches criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University, devoted years to research in Austin and Huntsville in order to profile this, the first of the country’s prison rodeos. Some of the events staged in what would become a 30,000-seat stadium were mind-bogglingly dangerous and reflected an extreme prison state of mind. But Roth also looks at the Texas Prison Rodeo as pop culture. It attracted movie stars and pop musicians; it also took on meanings far beyond the Western ranch practices that spawned the first rodeos. By the way, the tradition continues at the Angola Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, as recently recorded by American-Statesman writer Pam LeBlanc.

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“West Texas Middleweight: The Story of LaVern Roach.” Frank Sikes. Texas Tech University Press. The death of LaVern Roach, a middleweight boxer from Plainview, on Feb. 22, 1950, from injuries incurred — right in front of television audiences — changed what was then one of the two most popular sports in America. But there’s much more to the story. Telling it in his first book is Frank Sikes, whose family has hailed from Plainview — located between Lubbock and Amarillo — for three generations. Roach boxed in the military and rose through the sport’s ranks to be named Rookie of the Year in 1947. He was a top contender for the world championship. Sikes was lucky to land legendary boxing authority Angelo Dundee for one of his key sources. Takes the reader back to a time when boxing was part of everyday life.

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“Shooting for the Record: Adolph Toepperwein, Tom Frey and Sharpshooting’s Forgotten Controversy.” Tim Price. Texas Tech University Press. Did Tom Frey play fast and loose when he broke Adolph Toepperwein’s aerial sharpshooting record? The elder marksman (1869-1962), who grew up in the Boerne area and entertained the country with his markswoman wife, Elizabeth, had shot more than 72,000 little wood blocks thrown up in the air, missing only nine. In 1959, Frey missed six out of  100,010, but the conditions were different. Price, a freelance journalist who co-wrote “Texas Sports Trivia,” opens up a world of exhibition shooting that few probably knew existed with his careful exposition of the controversy.

Update: In the item about the middleweight boxer, the last name was wrong in an earlier post.

Best Texas rivers: Nueces River

On a lonely stretch of FM 624 southeast of Cotulla, the Nueces River doesn’t merit a sign. It doesn’t even merit a dry bed. One of the state’s major rivers – once the disputed border between Texas and Mexico – is completely invisible here.

It takes a lot of imagination to visualize this low stretch of thorn brush country filling up with any amount of water. It, however, must. GPS markings and satellite imagery don’t lie. The Nueces passes through here – at some time or another.

As did we on our 26th official Texas river tracing.

Nueces_River_between_La_Pryor_and_Uvalde,_TX_IMG_4256During this drive-and-hike trip in late 2012, my buddy Joe Starr and I first followed the pristine Sabinal River from its source in Los Maples Natural Preserve to the place where it sinks underground at a “Black Hole” on a ranch near the town named after the river.

After the Nueces, we traced the gushing San Antonio River backward from its mouth not far from Victoria, past missions in Goliad and San Antonio, past the River Walk, until we reached a limestone channel behind the Witte Museum near where the stream begins.

Despite their beauties, the Sabinal and San Antonio didn’t produce the surprises of the Nueces, long associated in my mind with an unlovely, underpopulated stretch of South Texas brushland. At its source and near its mouth, however, the Nueces turns quite lovely.

We started our Nueces day early in Uvalde, heading up Texas 55 through flat fields toward Camp Wood. We stopped by the sites of two Spanish missions, abandoned despite the promise of the valley lush with pecan trees that give the river its name (“nuts” in Spanish).

Camp Wood is a former U.S. fort, now a droopy, isolated town of 822 souls, the type that young people leave as soon as they are able.

Higher and higher we climbed up a crease in the lower Edwards Plateau. At one point, I spotted a flat, white upright expanse on a canyon wall. Turned out to be a wall protecting a rather large white stuccoed house on a ledge. In the otherwise vacant valley below, we encountered an even more impressive wall – topped with broken glass and guarded by thick wooden gates – that looked like something out of the wilds of Colombia or at least Mexico.

No signs indicated who owned such a high-security compound, but we didn’t linger to find out.

We were almost to Kerrville when we came to the source of the eastern prong of the Upper Nueces. As often is the case when a clear stream spills through rugged, semi-arid land, the air was full of birdsong and butterflies.

The day was clear and crisp as we headed back down the river, intending, as we did, to follow it to the mouth. One particularly pleasant discovery along the way: Lake Nueces, a small reservoir that provides year-round recreation just below Camp Wood. Fisherman dotted the dam as we explored the low-water crossing below it.

“Stay out of the pipes” read the signs. It was not until I watched the clear water rushing through plastic tubes beneath the road that I realized the improbable danger.

Below Uvalde, the river dries up. We knew this would happen.

First, because all our maps showed the thin blue line disappearing as it curled to the south and east, then a little north before joining the Frio River near Three Rivers. We had already watched the Sabinal and, on an earlier trip, the Frio disappear into the same arcing recharge zone.

As its riverbed crosses dry under U.S. 83 above La Pryor, there’s evidence of regular flooding among the spectacular piles of whitened stone.

On the other side of Crystal City – a tattered agricultural town somewhat uplifted by the nearby oil and gas fracking boom – we found the wet version of the Nueces briefly and with great difficulty. A short channel waited dark and oily behind a low dam at Presidio Park. Rarely has a Texas river looked more abused.

Then we set out across the great thorny brush of South Texas.

Nothing. No sign of the Nueces. Lots of crested caracaras, the national bird of Mexico, but very few people.

Every few miles, we passed another fracking camp. Oil workers clear a square of land and bank it with red earth. Tanks hold fracking water and the resultant oil or gas. Flares burn off excess gas. Always, a decorated camper stands guard at the entrance to the site, checking in giant trucks, but also smoking barbecue or otherwise entertaining visitors out back.

The roads here are in terrible condition. Potholes easily could wreck a normal sedan. Ours seems to be the only one, though, on the road. It’s all trucks otherwise.

Due to the boom, tiny villages are packed with RVs, trailers and portable cottages. City and county buildings, including schools, look freshly tended, but boom economies come with winners and losers, and the infrastructure won’t support all this activity.

The Nueces magically becomes a river again after the Frio spills down from Choke Canyon Reservoir and into the bigger course. We cross it irregularly before encountering the informal lake communities along Lake Corpus Christi, just a few miles from the city itself.

Like the bigger Highland Lakes, this one has shrunken to a ghost of its glories in the drought. Truth be told, this water source for Corpus Christi often ends this way. South Texas is drier than the rest of the Gulf Coast.

As we navigate the port city’s western suburbs, we find that the river is nicely lined with recreational options. We follow it alongside the newer channels that form the port of Corpus Christi. Wading birds flock here, as do fishing humans of all ages.

The Nueces flows into Nueces Bay, a fat arm of Corpus Christi Bay. We can easily see the juncture and rejoice at the luck. It’s one of the few spots where a Texas river reaches its destination within sight of accessible land.

We soak that in, then head to our inevitable “fauxtel” – one of those ubiquitous three-or-four-story hotel-motel hybrids – before scouting some local foodstuff. We end up at the Texas A-1 Steaks and Seafood in Calallan. Not bad. Pert staff. Odd decor. Could have done much worse.

We really didn’t expect to trace three significant rivers – of our intended Texas 50 – in just four days. But we have gotten more efficient at this odd game and it helps for our purposes when the rivers just disappear for miles and miles, as does the Nueces.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: San Saba River

SAN SABA — This is Tommy Lee Jones country. It’s also, in a sense, “No Country for Old Men” country.

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Courtesy of LandofTexas.com.

Not that the desolation of Cormac McCarthy‘s West Texas border novel echoes the soft, well-watered hills and vales of San Saba County. But Llewellyn Moss, played with unnerving reserve by Josh Brolin in the award-winning movie by the Coen Brothers, is from San Saba. And Jones, who grew up in this comparatively isolated country 90 miles northwest of Austin, constantly reminded Brolin that he is from San Saba, almost as a challenge to the younger actor’s authenticity.

Jones’ ranch is just five miles east of town. Strangers are not welcome, and he’s one actor I’d not want to irritate. A sign on the ranch gate barks “Go Away,” but one can spot Jones’ famed polo grounds across a gentle, red-grassy rise. Funny thing, all his biographies say the ranch is “outside San Antonio.” In fact, it’s two hours from Austin; three from San Antonio.

People in San Saba respect Jones’ fierce sense of privacy, and say so. The whole town — plus folks from Lameta, Brady, Goldthwaite and other nearby spots — turned out for Christmas in the Square on Saturday. In fact, the bleachers were full two hoursbefore the 15-minute parade through the courthouse square commenced.

While Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted hordes of children, performers in a living nativity scene sang carols. (There appeared to be no creche crisis on this county property.) Across the street, solo singers braved karaoke carols, including a Spanish-language version of “Jingle Bell Rock” (21 percent of the county’s 6,000 residents are Hispanic.)

San Saba is the “Pecan Capital of the World,” as almost everyone, including Harold Yates from the Chamber of Commerce, reminded me. “Not because we grow the most pecans, but because the mother tree for commercial orchards is here.” Nolan Ryanowns an orchard in the county.

“Sure it’s the pecan capital,” said a visitor from Lometa who declined to be identified. “It’s also the meth capital of the world.”

Yates, who is thinking of running for sheriff, agreed there was a meth problem, but that most of it was imported, not labbed in the county, the last in Texas to pave its roads (a situation that led to the the rise of the San Saba Mob, which ran the county until Texas Rangers were able to oust them). Yates took my request to fix a speeding ticket with good cheer.

We resisted the temptation to buy Jacalyn Morley-Webb‘s tassled purses from her business, “Itz a Girlz ThAng,” but couldn’t turn down Mary Huron‘s Hot Sauce, which sat alongside jars of Huron’s Mild Sauce. (Sad mild world.)

We also scored some samples of Bill’s Season All, a marinade that Edward Ragsdale said would “make your steak so tender you can cut it with a fork.” The late Bill Eden used to cook up in a small pan the seasoning in the back of the G&R Grocery store on the courthouse square “until he needed a really big pan,” the stuff got so popular. Ragsdale smiled devilishly when he said: “Bill’d be turning over in his grave if he knew how much we sold these days.”

Every other business in San Saba has to do with pecans. Tourism has not risen to the Fredericksburg level, but there’s a capacious, terraced Mill Pond Park, a preserved swivel bridge and “the oldest working jail in Texas.” Down the way is Colorado Bend State Park and, up the San Saba River, Fort McKavett State Park, a miraculously preserved compound from the late 19th-century Indian Wars, and the purported ruins of the San Saba Presidio, which look to be mostly 20th-century rather than 18th-century construction (including — ick — Portland cement, see photo).

The San Saba valley is pretty, clement and blessed with fluent springs. The river, which rises at Fort McKavett, quickly takes on a good surge, and one can see why the Spanish missionaries chose it for a mission, since the land quickly turns less hospitable to the west and south. (Did you ever wonder why San Antonio is where it is?) Unfortunately for the Franciscans and the Spanish soldiers, it was too deep into Lipan Apache and Comanche country, and the place was abandoned well before 1800.

A note about the trip up: We tarried at the Hill Country Wildlife Museum in Llano, a display of more than 700 trophies from Houston hunter Charles K. Campbell. It’s a shocking place, full of walrus, bear, Cape buffalo, etc.

The kind but weary docent said the nonprofit that runs the place, so situated on Llano’s square to attract the annual migration of deer hunters, is hanging on by thread. If you are at all interested in novelty tourist destinations, plunk down the $3.

For more photos from the San Saba River Tracing, shared with college bud Joe Starr, look for the Monday morning blog.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.