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A Bastropian Night in Texas

History: September, 2011:

More than 1,400 homes in Bastrop County and Bastrop State Park were destroyed by one of the worst Texas wildfires to attack a town and its surroundings. It was one of a series of more than 100 wildfires blazing at that time in Texas.

Most of the people affected have rebuilt their homes, but the long-term effects on the landscape will last a long time. The following story was written before the fire, and the subsequent events were so sad and ironic, considering the rain that descended on our trip to Bastrop.

Somewhere near Austin, Texas

Sometimes, camping trips need a little serious planning.

You would think a travel writer for more years than he can remember would know when to come out of the rain, but an evening near Bastrop, Texas proved that even experienced travelers get caught in events that could have been avoided. And it all happened because of a hurried (partial) night's stay in a great state park, when the prime purpose for being in the area was a visit to the our favorite restaurant in Texas (maybe the world?) an hour away.

The comic opera evening began early in the day, during a trip to research scenic drives in Texas and to look at the famous "Lost" Pines in Bastrop State Park. It was a busy fall weekend, with an important college football game in Austin, and when most state parks were filled, but we (Joyce was along on the trip) were intent on camping -- and were sampling as many state parks as possible on this trip. After checking other parks, finding them full, and desperately wanting to visit this famed restaurant for dinner, we found vacant campsites in Bastrop State Park, a fine park in the pine woods about an hour from the state capital and Threadgills.

The small hiking tent was set up—I had lost my tent pegs earlier—and I left the tent and other gear at the campsite. While there were thunderstorms in south/central Texas, the clouds seemed to be moving away from Bastrop, and we set off for Austin and our eating adventure without a care.

Now, you have to know that we were heading for Threadgill's, a seminal home of comfort food and great music in America. Founded in the 1930s by Kenneth Threadgill, as a gas station and bootleg joint, and later converted into a café, the place has a long history as an eating place and an incubator of young Texas musical talent. Janis Joplin sang there before she moved to LA. Singers and musicians, many of them very well known, have long sat-in on the restaurant's Wednesday night jam sessions, playing for their food.

After the owner of the day, Eddie Wilson, took over Threadgills in the 1960s, he turned it into a respected and eventually lionized restaurant, serving what he calls "Everyday Food." But Eddy Wilson's cuisine is much more than that. Growing over the years, with added dining rooms, Threadgills has become an icon of good Texas eating, with a wide-ranging menu that includes the finest chicken fried steak on earth (my rating), along with a host of other "down home" dishes — smoked, fried, spiced with cajun herb mixes, and served with an amazing roster of side dishes. The side dishes are so famous that Wilson sells frozen chubs of his vegetable concoctions in supermarkets far and wide.

The meal was simply great. We had reached Nirvana, sampled two entrees and half a dozen side dishes, including garlic cheese grits, and beans floating in bacon drippings. This is not the place for anyone on a diet.

Back to Bastrop:

Full to the gills and very pleased with ourselves for finally being able to eat in Threadgills, we drove back to Bastrop, heading toward some very angry clouds that seemed to be skirting the park but looked a little too close for comfort.

The minute we entered the park, the sprinkles began. Then the winds rose, and by the time we reached the campsite, the rains poured. Of course, with no tent pegs to hold it down, the tent had collapsed; had been blown to another campsite, and with the rain now a torrential downpour quickly gathered two gallons of water inside before we could rescue the drenched, tormented piece of nylon—all in the heaviest downpour I had ever experienced (two inches in about ten minutes).

Drenched to the skin, and gathering the tent and gear in this impossible storm, heavy thunder crashing and lightening hitting nearby trees, we departed the park (it was 11 p.m.) and headed for the nearest motel with a vacancy—on the freeway, 80 miles away. No fleabag economy motel was ever so comforting.

Was it worth it, this adventure in gormandizing?

Of course! A visit to Threadgills (there are two now) is worth any inconvenience, storm, pestilence, or plague. I'm going back soon, and I have to drive more than 1,500 miles to get there. The secret is to reserve a hotel room in advance, in Austin.

Eddy Wilson published the Threadgill's Cookbook, containing many of the restaurant's recipes.

An afterword:

One thing to remember on a South Texas tour, is that Fall is the rainy season, when huge rainstorms very often pummel the coastal plains, and tornadoes are not uncommon. Driving back to California, a tornado touched down less than five miles from our route.

Bastrop State Park is open to the public and the "Lost Pines" are wonderful to put your tent or RC under. These are Loblolly pine trees, separated from the famous Piney Woods of East Texas by nearly 100 miles, supposedly shoved to this open prairie area by a long-ago glacier.

Ob, and an important travel tip: Don't forget your tent pegs.

Fraser Bridges


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