I left at 4:00 AM and by 8:30 I was having breakfast at the Bluebonnet Cafe in downtown Marble Falls, still going strong after 81 years. From there, I charted my path for that day: a long, sweeping, counter-clockwise loop around the edges of the Hill Country, then back to Austin for the night.
My first stop was to check out a few ghost towns northwest of Llano--Valley Mills, Pontotoc and Katemcy, and do a little bit of genealogy along the way. This stretch of road--from Llano to Mason--had the most spectacular bluebonnets I saw. This area is less frequented by bluebonnet-peepers than the areas closer in to Austin and Fredericksburg. Unfortunately the standard practice is to pull you car off to the side of the road (onto the bluebonnets), tromp out (across the bluebonnets) and sit down cross-legged (amidst the bluebonnets) to have an informal family portrait made. I feel fortunate that I saw them when I did. In another week's time, all that will remain will be smushed bluebonnets.
Nothing much remains of Valley Mills, except a modest stone school house and the picture-perfect hilltop cemetery. Two siblings of my great-granddad's lived here in last quarter of the 19th-century. The families of both moved on to Junction about 1900, but the aunt and some infants were buried here. I found the grave of one of the infants and the probable spot of my aunt's now-unmarked grave. I added her name to my list of graves to mark "one of these days."
Nothing is left of old Katemcy except a boarded-up church. I stopped at the Bethel Chapel Cemetery nearby to visit the family plot of a distant relative. William Flemon Cowan (1808-1890) was a first cousin to my great-great-great-grandfather. They were about the same age, but chances are that they never saw each other past the time when they were very small children, for their parents' migration patterns went off in divergent directions. But, after the Civil War, my great-great-granddad settled in the same small Central Texas neighborhood as his dad's first cousin. This implies to me that these extended frontier families somehow kept in better contact than we perhaps imagine. Later, William Flemon moved out here to Katemcy, where his son had a mercantile business.
Junction is the kind of town where they lock the courthouse doors during lunch hour. Except for the fact that I needed to check some deed records, I kind of liked that pace. While waiting for it to reopen, I went over to the county library. There, I made a discovery that was worth the drive. For in Volume II of the Kimble County History, I discovered an article about this uncle and his family. This made me even more curious, as there were no surviving family members to write it, though the story obviously contained material of a personal and affectionate nature. But beyond that, it contained a detailed account of the Skirmish at Cates' Flat in 1869. This uncle only barely escaped with his life in this Indian battle. His older brother, my Uncle Marion, was not so fortunate. The tragedy is old family lore, but I had never heard about the particulars as outlined here. Apparently, Uncle Marion--anxious for a fight and with the precipitousness of youth--initiated the fight. They had not yet been seen by the Indians, until Marion whooped to get their attention. Only then did they discover the party to be much more numerous than thought. From all accounts, he was dead before they fled the scene, but his cry of "Boys, don't leave me here," haunted them for the rest of their lives. When the news reached my great-great grandmother, they say her wails of grief could be heard across Backbone Valley. Later, a neighborhood party returned to retrieve the body, and of course he had been scalped.
My first stop was the Holy Archangels Monastery in Kendalia, Texas. Over lunch today with a good friend of mine, I was reminded that the non-Orthodox do not really understand our penchant for visiting monasteries. The assumption is that if one visits a monastery, one is contemplating taking vows themselves. I assured him that this was definitely not the case. But I am not at all sure that my explanation clarified the issue any at all. I ended by simply saying it is what Orthodox people do. We go to monasteries.
Most people in the region have no idea that this incredible monastic complex even exists. Perhaps that is a good thing. But for those who seek it out, it is well worth the effort. I am pleased to see that the 40,000 sq. ft. dormitory (that can eventually house 50 monks) is nearing completion. Just as one usually doesn't expect to find an extensive Greek Orthodox monastery in the Texas Hill Country, one does not usually expect to find an Islamic cemetery on monastery grounds either. The property had once been a Sufi Muslim retreat center that ran into legal problems. The center closed, and the Orthodox acquired the property a number of years afterwards. Left behind was a 12-grave Muslim cemetery, now cared-for by this monastic community.
My primary reason for visiting the monastery was to visit the grave of my friend, little Jamie Wingerd (Memory Eternal.) I spent some time at his grave and left some flowers there. The two rows of wooden crosses, marking the resting places of about 26 of the faithful here on the monastery grounds, speaks as eloquently as any of the brick and mortar on the property that the Holy Orthodox Church is here to stay.
At different times, both Fr. Ephraim and Fr. Michael encountered me as I strolled around the grounds. Each insisted that I stay for luncheon with them. This fit my plans exactly, as this is one of those places where you linger and put off leaving as long as possible. I ate the simple, but filling meal in the back dining room with 4 or 5 of the monks and novices, and a couple of men staying there at the time. Afterwards, I helped clean up in the kitchen. Holy Archangels Monastery is one of the most peaceful spots one can imagine. I am anxious to return when I can stay longer.
From Kendalia, I headed north to Fredericksburg. This old German town is ground zero for Texas Hill Country tourism, and at no time more so than in the early Spring. No need to stop here, unless I wanted to fall in line with all the other gawkers trudging up each side on the main drag, glancing in all the shops and boutiques at all the stuff they do not need. Not interested. What I was aiming for, however, was Enchanted Rock, about 16 miles north. This is huge, rounded granite outcropping--a mountain, if you will (in the Texas sense of the word, not the Colorado sense of the word.) Enchanted Rock is something of a touchstone with me. I have been climbing it every few years or so since I was 20 years old. I tell myself that if I can still climb Enchanted Rock, then technically, at least, I am still young. Well, at least relatively so. I knew it would a tougher climb this year, as I was a bit winded by the time I reached the end of the parking lot. Thankfully, there was a concession stand just past, so I fortified myself with some Blue Bell Ice Cream before ascending the peak. I set my pace at a consistent mosey, and started my climb. I reached the summit in better time that I anticipated. I had to think, however, how something done to prove my (relative) youth had, in fact, made me feel so damn old.