Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “May, 2023”

Freeway Free in Texas: The Good Life in San Saba


You wake up in the spacious master suite of the home you designed yourself on 140 acres of open land. You make your coffee and stroll out to the spacious veranda which runs across the front of the house, looking out over a pasture with cows and pecan trees, and an occasional herd of deer or feral hogs around the pond. It’s bluebonnet season, and the blossoms are carpeting patches of the pasture.

Next to the white ranch house, but not too close, is the barn/workshop which stores equipment for maintaining the fence that keeps the cows, deer, and feral hogs away from the nearby vegetable garden, green with lettuce beginning to bolt, sugar peas just ready to harvest, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant well along. It’s a bit too early for the strawberries and blackberries. You check the chicken coop for eggs and find enough for breakfast for you, your spouse, and guests who are bedded down in the wing on the other side of the kitchen.

Breakfast includes the eggs, bread you made yourself, and blackberry jam from last year’s berries. After breakfast you see your daughter, son-in-law, and three granddaughters walking over from their house just kitty-corner across the pasture. (You designed their home also, when you and your spouse and your daughter’s family agreed that buying the property together would be a good move.) You leave the guests to entertain themselves while the two families jump into your SUV and off you go for a morning of soccer.

Back in time for lunch, you serve everyone goulash made of home-grown broccoli, ground venison shot and butchered by yourself on your property, and wild rice.

After lunch you take the guests for a tour of the new San Saba County Musuem, assembled and curated by volunteers, very creatively arranged by types of activity (law, business, church, school, home , children , agriculture , ranching, etc). You are a board member of the Museum, and can regale your guests with a fountain of info and anecdotes. including why Queen Victoria named San Saba “the World’s Capital of Pecans”.

Then you take the guests on a tour of the town of San Saba starting with the “Longest continuously used jail in Texas”, the refurbished courthouse (painted in authentic avocado green and harvest gold), lovely old homes in various states of repair, and the Methodist Church, “the only church in Texas built entirely of local marble” with lumpy white pillars like stacks of slightly bubbly marshmallow on a skewer.

Back at the ranch, your spouse prepares the charcoal grill while you take the guests on a tour of the property on your electric golf cart, checking out the wildlife feeders and adjacent hunting blinds, but no feral hogs or deer to be seen, only placid cows.  At 5 pm the family across the pasture arrives preparatory to dinner. You sit on the veranda, the men talking hunting, fishing, trapping, the girls playing hobby horse or doing gymnastics on the lawn, the women exchanging information about cooking, planting, and coping with energy blackouts, (Your houses have solar panels and backup generators, so no worries) while the girls are playing hobby horse or doing cartwheels on the lawn.

Dinner is home-grown broccoli, oven-baked new potatoes, and the grilled chicken. After dinner you all sit on the veranda and watch the stars – the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and a glowing cloud that may be the Milky Way.  It’s not quite a Dark Sky, as the moon is rising over the roof and the horizon is lit by the surrounding towns, but pretty close. “Orion just leaps out of the sky at you,” says one of the guests.

You tell the guests of a visitor from Boston who looked up awestruck and said “I can’t believe this!  how come you have so many more stars in Texas than we have in Boston?”  He couldn’t believe that the stars were there in Boston, but obscured by urban glare.

A fantasy? There are some downsides to being some distance from a grocery store or a doctor or a local school or a library, but overall, the Good Life outside of San Saba looks pretty fine to me. I was one of the guests.

Freeway Free in Texas: Odds and Ends on the Other Side of Somewhere

W and I agreed on the first day to shift off driving every two hours, although she grew a bit impatient at my refusing to drive faster than 65 on a two-lane road where the posted speed is 75. Texas drivers seem to have no fear of oncoming traffic or soft shoulders. As we move along and I figure out the cruise control I am more daring, but still not able to pass anyone unless there is a passing lane.

The first day my two hours ends in Hamilton at lunch time. Yelp reviews speak well of Garlands, but this turns out to be a little blue trailer kitchen in an RV park, with nary so much as a picnic table to eat at. The fallback is Central Perk, a funky converted home with a wide veranda which would have been charming to sit on if the weather had not been in the 50’s and windy.  They were out of soup, and the Veggie Panini was… interesting. Whole wheat bread grilled on one side, with eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, and onion with a slice of Romano cheese.  The cheese was melted, but the vegetables were raw.  I’ve never had raw eggplant before, and hope not to ever again. but the rest was surprisingly good, with a copious salad of greens, a tomato, and honey mustard dressing.  The wall held several certificates lauding CP as “best sandwiches in four counties” which considering where we were may very well have been true.

I’m always on the alert for reasons to stop along the way beyond simply natural necessities. Seymour, Texas, strategically located on the way between Archer City and Turkey, boasts the excellent Whiteside Museum of Natural History, with a Sound Garden across the street, in addition to the requisite gas stations.  Two busloads of I’d judge third graders were also exploring the museum and the sound garden at the time we dropped in, but their chaperones kept them well in hand, and we dodged around the Pleistocene and Jurassic and other exhibits in avoidance.  I’ve not seen a better T Rex simulacrum, the Triceratops skull was awesome, lots of other excellent taxidermy of currently thriving wildlife all around. The only complaint I have is regarding the sole, ridiculously expensive ($2.50) and very ugly post card available in the rudimentary gift shop.

From Turkey we headed east off across the boundless open high plains to Abilene. It seemed odd to see banners in this North Central Texas cattle capital, proclaiming it to be the “Storybook Capital of the World”, but in the downtown area a former commercial building across from the historic railroad station houses the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature Illustration, and a number of statues depicting storybook characters can be found on rooftops, on corners, and in parks around the downtown area. We lunched in the Storybook Garden down the street from the museum. next to a statue of the Lorax. The museum itself is fascinating, full of memories of stories I read to my kids as well as stories read to me.

Abilene also boasts of Frontier Texas! a history museum with modern interactive exhibits which also serves as the official Visitors Center for Abilene and the Texas Forts Trail Region. We did not stop here, nor did we take in The Grace Museum, an art museum featuring rotating exhibits of contemporary art and local history, located in a handsome re-purposed circa 1909 hotel in the historic downtown center of Abilene.

Abilene is doing its best to be Somewhere. It’s certainly worth a second stop, the next time we go west from Dallas.


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Freeway Free in Texas: The Home of Texas Swing

Turkey, Texas, has a population of 374 people, per the City Limits sign. However, it is conveniently located for access to both Cap Rock and Palo Duro Canyon State Parks , so we have reservations at the Hotel Turkey. In Turkey we find no reception whatsoever for internet, and W has no address for the Hotel. There is a boarded-up brick building that says “Hotel Turkey” on the front, and only after a circuit up and down the main (and only) street do we realize that the arrow intends us to go left behind the Main Street.  There is the Hotel Turkey, which despite its antique furnishings, eccentric lighting and plumbing, and dearth of welcoming committee, seems to have carved a niche in the area as custodian of the legacy of “Bob Wills, King of Texas Swing”.

If you are not familiar with the name, as I was not, check out the link above.

Perhaps there is something about the wide open spaces in North Central Texas that is conducive to ambitious dreaming. How could this run-down circa 1920’s hotel on a side street in a town of less than 400 people possibly make sense?

But it’s working.

Behind the building itself are the three magic ingredients: an open air bar, a broad sheltered patio, plenty of open dirt space, and a simple wooden stage.

There are maybe 20 people gathered around the open air bar and patio in the back, and we are served a couple of Texas beers and some hot wings (sweet chili sauce and garlic-Parmesan sauce) with carrots and celery sticks and a caprese salad made with fresh mozzarella, variegated cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and LOTS of fresh basil as if it were lettuce.  Yum.  We could not finish more than half the wings and veggies. A friendly man comes over to talk to us about the local sights, the Hotel (that converted silo is the restrooms) and to welcome us to the area. Not sure if he was related to the owner, or just friendly, but it was pleasant.

The hotel has just one other room being used on a Monday night, and we are upgraded to a room with its own bath. (Fortunate, as when I checked out the hallway bathroom which our bargain room would have had us use, a sign on the toilet lid ordered DO NOT FLUSH ANYTHING DOWN THIS TOILET – PUT PAPER IN BASKET! .)

The rooms are furnished eclectically with furniture appropriate to the 1920’s and probably scavenged from prairie estate sales. Bare walls are decorated with a collection of Stetson hats, or, in the dining room, a collection of rainbow-painted old violins and vinyl LPs. The old-fashioned iron beds are so high that W has to call and ask for a step stool so she can get into hers.  But the fan, lamp (once the defective one is replaced) and heat/cooling work well, and W luxuriates in the deep old-fashioned iron bathtub.

In the morning, we have the standard Texas “Hotel Breakfast” with eggs, bacon, sausage, buttered toast, and hash browns – all deliciously greasy.  The cook doubles as host and entertainment. He tells us that the hotel is usually fully booked for the weekend, with live music on the outdoor stage which brings in 200 attendees on average. The previous weekend they had 400 people here for a concert with a well-regarded local Texas Swing band. It must have been a hoppin’ time for the bartender! He tells us that the owner/lady in charge has been working on the hotel for 7 years. I wish I had been able to talk with her to find out what dream drove her.

Returning from Palo Duro Canyoun, we had the Hotel Special dinner: a Chile Relleno Platter, with chips and salsa. This turned out to be a meat-stuffed chili, served with a beef enchilada, beans, and rice – all excellent and distinctively Tex-Mex. 

After dinner the sky seemed to be clearing so I went out to see if the Milky Way was evident.  It was not, though there was a lovely crescent moon, a glowing circle like a jeweled ring just below Venus. The town was quiet Quiet QUIET, as if there was nothing in the world to hear, until my footsteps set off a lone guardian dog.


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Freeway Free in Texas: Cap Rock and Palo Duro Canyon

If you are going to visit these two Texas State Parks, it’s best to do Cap Rock first. It’s a thumbnail introduction to the geology underlying both parks, with a Visitor’s Center that explains everything clearly. (It’s called “Cap Rock” because the topmost layer of rock is more weather resistant than lower layers, so you have formations where the top layer sits like a cap on top of flimsier-looking lower remnants. If you’ve been to Bryce Canyon in Utah, you’ve seen this before.) The main road in Cap Rock State Park is an out-and-back drive, about one and a half hours with some stops for wildlife photos and other breaks. There are informative placards to alert you to the geology, so when you visit Palo Duro, you’ll be all set to appreciate it.

Here’s a winning trivia question for you: what is the SECOND deepest canyon in the United States? No, it’s not the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (though that Colorado park has the coolest name). It’s little-known Palo Duro Canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon has the same geology as Cap Rock but more spectacular. There are some great-looking back-country trails, but W was not able to hike, and I had neither sunscreen, broad-brimmed hat, walking stick, or inclination to hike by myself, so we drove the curvy loop road from the rim of the canyon to the bottom, stopping at viewpoints and picnicking on kippers and saltines and mandarins.  There are two visitor’s centers, at convenient intervals for potty breaks, and the loop road gives some wonderful vistas.

We were told that there is a herd of Aoudad sheep which was originally imported from Africa to hybridize with US breeds in the hope of creating a hardy sheep which was adapted to the arid terrain. The hybridization scheme did not work, but the Aoudads have proliferated and in some parts of Texas are hunted, although they are protected in the state parks. None of the Aoudads were visible from the road, but here’s what they look like, if you are planning on taking advantage of the back-country trails on your visit.

But where does one stay on the Other Side of Nowhere? The answer may surprise you – it certainly did surprise me!


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Freeway Free in Texas: Hidden Gems in Archer City

We arrive at Archer City.  Our aim, to visit Larry McMurtry’s famous Booked Up bookstore, is thwarted. But all of McMurtry’s bookstores are closed. What to do?

First, the Spur Hotel is charming, quaintly furnished in a mixture of Victorian and Texan. The cozy den off the lobby boasts deep armchairs, a massive fireplace, and an interesting selection of Texas-focused books and magazines, plus a shelf of board games and picture puzzles.  The lobby also has an entire wall of borrowable books, a great many written by Larry McMurtry of course. 

Where can we have dinner? The friendly hostess offers us two choices: Lucky’s Cafe next to the [Gas Station minimarket a few blocks down in one direction, or Larry McMurtry’s favorite, the Dairy Queen at the edge of town in the other direction.

We opt for Lucky’s Cafe, accessible through the mini mart by the gas station. A counter freezer cabinet offers a variety of ice cream treats, a chalkboard offers the special of the day (beef tamales) , soup of the day (chicken vegetable) , and vegetable side of the day (green beans). Drinks and utensils available from the self-service counter. Seat yourself at whatever formica-topped table you wish.

The special of the day gave us each chips, salsa, a non-alcoholic beverage, three small beef tamales in an excellent sauce, spicy rice and retried beans for $12 apiece plus tip.  We may not find adventure here, but we won’t go broke either.   

The next morning, after a very quiet night’s sleep, we mosey across the street to Murn’s Cafe, another McMurtry favorite. Another bare-bones spot with formica tables, flourescent lights, plastic chairs, and friendly service. And another cholesterol-laden meal. A basic breakfast at Murn’s Cafe includes a bottomless cup of coffee, 2 fried eggs, bacon, hash browns, and grilled biscuit.  Fortunately we had each eaten a mandarin orange with our morning tea so we could claim a little acid to cut the fat. Of course it was delicious.

Well fortified, we set off to explore. First stop, the Walsh Park welcome to Archer City, a brief history of the town carved into wrought iron plaques next to the former Mobil gas station, now a Visitors Center open only on weekends. Next, the Library with its own plaque outside honoring Larry McMurtry, and a very interesting collection of books inside. A very helpful librarian showed W to the “Trails of Archer City’ referred to in the Walsh Park wrought iron info sheet. I found two Georgette Heyer mysteries (my secret vice) which I had never read before on the free giveaway shelf.


 After the quality time in the library, we strolled down to the Miller Marketplace, a hangover from the tourist days, full of craft items, old curios and knickknacks, vintage and not-so-vintage hats and clothing.  W and I each bought an Archer City commemorative T shirt, available only in odd sizes now. Fortunately, the two of us fit in odd sizes.

I had read an article about Larry McMurtry’s Big House in the Architectural Digest. Naturally, we were eager to see it, and the article obligingly gave us the location next to the Archer County Country Club. We cruise past, wondering what happened to the 140,000 books which McMurtry kept for himself in the Big House rather than consigning them to the stores. /\

    It being a lovely day, we took a “nature trail” from Burkett Park to Archer City Lake Park, then went for a drive along the dam which created the lake.

    Lunch was sardines and saltines at a picnic table in the park; dinner was hamburgers and soft ice cream at the Dairy Queen (a favorite hangout of LMcM), which included a spectacular sunset/cloud display, horizon to horizon. The next morning as we left Archer City we passed the old courthouse, with its team of convicts doing yardwork. No, not much has changed after all in Archer City.

My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

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