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A Sunday Drive in the Texas Hill Country by Aaron Reed

After a late night with friends and a lazy morning recovering, Aaron Reed had an urge to get out of the house and go for a country drive. The relief he sought was vertical: the lush, shadowed valleys and craggy ridges of the Texas Hill Country. It was a Sunday drive, and by the end of the day his spirits were restored by the fresh air, a collection of Burma Shave signs and a champion maple tree decked out in its first fall finery.

Texas Hill Country Vista
Aaron Reed
Road cuts like this one are common in the region; so are views like this one.

Native Texas grasses
Aaron Reed
Though the landscape has been changed since the early 1800s by settlers' land use practices, especially fire suppression, native grasses still hint at the vast savannah that once covered the area.

Texas wildflowers
Aaron Reed
Even in late summer and early fall, wildflowers like this natural bouquet of Mountain Pink delight Hill Country travelers.

I was not surprised that the break in the hills had a name: Bandera Pass. Neither was it much of a stretch to imagine that the highway followed an old Indian trail known since the earliest days of Spanish settlement, or that Texas Rangers -- and later, U.S. Army cavalrymen -- had used the route. After all, many of the roads that crisscross Texas follow wagon trails and even older paths, some stretching back centuries.

I was taken aback, though, to read on the old granite marker that in 1936 the state historical commission considered the surrounding peaks "mountains."

Texas has mountains, to be sure. More than 90 of them rise over a mile into the sky, but they are all far to the west. Here in the Texas Hill Country, in central Texas, elevations range from around 600 feet to just over 3,000 feet above sea level -- not mountains, perhaps, but noteworthy uplifts none the less, especially when you consider how far these hills roll. Depending on whom you believe, or maybe how it's measured, the Hill Country covers an area of 37,000 square miles (about the size of Virginia), or maybe 59,000 square miles (Georgia) -- room enough to roam for a week or more.

But Tamara and I had set out to revive an old tradition: the Sunday drive. We were seeking relief. After a late night with friends in our new home and a lazy morning recovering, we had an urge to get out of the house and go for a country drive. The relief we sought was vertical: the lush, shadowed valleys and craggy ridges of those Texas hills.

It's ranching country, mostly. The stony highlands are too stingy to give up the sorts of crops worth breaking a plow for, though along the river bottoms and in the valleys, seasonal floods have deposited enough rich topsoil to grow pecans and apples and a few other useful things.

We had only a vague plan on that late-September Sunday: to take in the views along Ranch Road 337 between the town of Medina and the crossroads hamlet of Vanderpool. The "Ranch Road" designation, like "Farm-to-Market" and "Farm Road," signifies a rural state highway, often only two lanes wide but sometimes four. Often the same numbered road is designated as both a "farm" and "ranch" road on alternate signs.

We charted our route as we drove. West on U.S. Highway 290 through Dripping Springs ("Gateway to the Hill Country," and just 20 minutes from our front door in south Austin), then south on Ranch Road 165 at Henley. This road, which leads to the old town of Blanco (Spanish for "white," but locals pronounce it "blane-ko"), offered the first spectacular Hill Country view as it topped the divide between the Blanco and Colorado River valleys.

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