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Ready to Rock

Destination: Paint Rock

Travel time from:
Austin – 2.75 hours
El Paso – 6 hours
Dallas – 3.5 hours
Houston – 5 hours
San Antonio – 2.5 hour
Lubbock – 3 hours
Brownsville – 6.5 hours

Native artists provide natural murals in this Concho County town.

By Melissa Gaskill

Sometimes I think every small Texas town now sports the same chain hotels, big box stores and restaurant franchises. Any town could be any other town, the unique character of each disappearing. Then I travel deep into the Texas Hill Country and realize, with relief, that this isn’t true.

One could argue that the town of Paint Rock takes things to the extreme, with no hotels or restaurants at all. But it does have some of the most astounding rock art in Texas and places to stay and eat nearby.

On my way from Austin, I took U.S. Highway 87 from Brady to Melvin for dinner at Jacoby’s Cafe. Jason and Kelli Jacoby opened the cafe at their feed operation in 1981, and it quickly became a hub of this small community — everyone in the dining room seemed to know everyone else. I ordered an 8-ounce dinner steak, since steaks are available only on Friday and Saturday. The cafe’s beef comes from the family cow-calf operation, and many of the better cuts end up in its ground beef, making for especially tasty half-pound burgers, chicken-fried steak and hamburger steak.

paint rock

Owner Jason Jacoby welcomes locals and hungry travelers to Jacoby's Cafe in Melvin. The popular cafe sits next to the family's busy feed-and-seed operation in a picturesque rural setting.

The setting sun gave the rolling hills a golden glow as I drove to my home for the night, Dry Hollow Hideaway, a 700-acre ranch about seven miles outside Paint Rock. On my last visit about five years ago, owners Charles and Nancy Becker told me that the large stone guest house served as an Army barrack and dates back to at least 1949. The house sports a wide, covered porch and two nearby fishing ponds, stocked with bass and catfish.

Saturday morning, I made breakfast in the fully equipped kitchen, then headed south to Fort McKavett State Historic Site to find some of the best-preserved military post structures from the Texas Indian Wars of the mid-1800s. I followed a self-guided walking tour of restored officers’ quarters, barracks and dead house (aka the morgue) and ruins around windswept parade grounds. The site also includes Government Springs, which serve as the headwaters of the San Saba River and provided water for the fort.

I traveled downriver — and further back in time — to Presidio de San Sabá in Menard. The Spanish built a timber fort here in 1757 to protect civilians prospecting (unsuccessfully) nearby for silver and gold. A stone presidio replaced it in 1761, but given the lack of mining success and continued hostility from Comanche and Wichita natives, soldiers abandoned the site in 1768. I learned all this on another self-guided tour, which began at a covered pavilion, continued through ruins of walls and a reconstructed corner tower and then crossed to the opposite tower overlooking the river.

My historic curiosity sated, I drove north for lunch at Eola School Restaurant and Brewery, at the intersection of County Road 1520 and FM 381. The school closed in 1982, and its 22,000-square-foot building sat empty until Mark Cannon purchased it in 2004, opening a restaurant in a former classroom. In 2006, Cannon started a brewery in what had been the auditorium (no doubt a few school officials rolled over in their graves). Today, he serves two beers on tap, Farm Ale and Windmill Pale Ale, and sells them by the half-gallon growler. For kids of all ages, Cannon makes Hoot Beer, an intensely flavored root beer he is happy to turn into an ice cream float. The menu includes hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chicken-fried steak and pizza with homemade dough. I can enthusiastically vouch for both the burgers and pizza.

My next stop, the Campbell Ranch just outside Paint Rock, contains what gave the town its name — some 1,500 pictographs in black, white, yellow and red scattered along a rock bluff. The majority of the images are red, an impressive feat given that the artists would have needed hematite, or iron ore rocks, from at least 100 miles away.

European settler D.E. Sims saw the painted rocks in 1870 and purchased the land around them. His granddaughter Kay Campbell and her husband, Fred, now own the ranch, and Kay (despite being in her 80s) provides guided tours. I had called ahead for an appointment, and we met in the small visitors center the Campbells created from an old ranch house. Campbell gave an engaging and informative talk (which taught me about the hematite, among other fun facts) and then drove me down a winding ranch road to the bluff. It runs east to west along the Concho River and has provided natural shelter for some 1,200 years to dozens of different cultures. Jumano, Apache, Tonkawa and other tribes likely made the earlier images and Comanches the later ones, which date from the mid-1700s to the late 1800s. Images include handprints, birds, human figures, suns and symbols. Some of the images are illuminated by the rays of the sun only during the summer and winter solstices.

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Pictographs adorn a rocky bluff outside of Paint Rock.

Campbell pointed out some of the more striking pictographs and offered possible interpretations of their meanings. Archeologists and others have come up with these interpretations, and, while they make sense to me, we’ll never know their accuracy for sure. Not even current Native American leaders can say with certainty (Campbell has asked). But not knowing just adds to the mystery and power of these special images. I was happy to discover that the Campbells have four grown grandchildren who will carry on the tours when Campbell decides to finally (and deservedly) retire.

Normally, steak dinners are a rare event, and I had already had one this weekend, but just a few miles down the road lies the famous, at least in these parts, Lowake Steak House. When the Concho, San Saba and Llano Valley railroad lines built track from Miles in Runnels County to Paint Rock in 1909, two farmers donated land for a town at the line’s midpoint. The town moniker comes from their names, Lowe and Schlake. Today, farm fields surround the unassuming structure, pickups fill the gravel parking lot, and inside, neon signs and longhorns line the walls. The steaks offered range from a 7-ounce “small dinner steak” to a 20-ounce ribeye. I ordered the 10-ounce filet mignon, which arrived quickly, tender and flavorful, seasoned with garlic. Current owner Kerry Goetz says the steakhouse ended up here because in the 1950s, “Concho County was the only place you could sit down and eat and have a beer at the same time.”

Back at Dry Hollow, I sat for a while beneath a sky dusted with stars and thought how the rock artists likely pondered a night sky much like this one. In addition to dark skies, this spot offers a kind of peace and quiet increasingly rare in much of Texas these days. I slept like a rock, no pun intended.

Sunday morning, I met guide Tony Plutino for a kayak outing. I’ve paddled the San Saba River above Menard several times and wanted to try the Llano River, which offers a number of possible routes. We paddled a five-mile stretch south of Mason, taking out at Dos Rios Resort.

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Guide Tony Plutino offers guided excursions.

Several times, we pulled our kayaks to the shore to gawk at world-class stromatolites, fossilized in layers of limestone that were a seabed some 500 million years ago. Stromatolites are slightly raised concentric circles resembling a flattened wedding cake. They mark where layers and layers of blue-green algae once grew in that sea. These fossils appear primarily in exposed Precambrian rock in scattered spots around the country, including only this part of Texas.

We spotted great blue herons, ospreys and kingfishers, just some of the birds that live along the river. Wild onion, agarita and Texas persimmon grow along the banks, and those who paddle here in spring can stop to gorge on the black, juicy persimmons.

Plutino offers guided excursions to the Paint Rock pictograph site and other area attractions; he had recommended my stop in Eola.He also offers a daylong outing with paddling or exploring in the morning followed by an afternoon of wine tasting. Now that’s something you can’t do in just any town.

 

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