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If you’re like us, you don’t need much of an excuse to go riding in the Hill Country of Texas, especially when the invitation comes from Steve Johnson, President of Tucker Rocky. Steve was putting together a group of friends and business associates to go for a ride with him in search of Lupinus Texensis - the Texas Bluebonnet.
Although we had spent some time a few years back touring the northern part of the state, we were eager to get out of town and explore what many refer to as the “best country-in-the country.” After all, we simply needed to show up in Fort Worth and our host would take care of the rest. Bluebonnets, here we come.
In Search Of Lupinus Texensis
Oregon was still a bit chilly so “Texas should be warmer than here,” became our mantra as we made plans to spend a couple nights prior to the ride at the Gaylord Texan Resort, which is now, without question, our favorite resort. You really don’t need a reason to stay at the Gaylord Texan... just do it. This fully enclosed glass atrium is home to some of the best restaurants, unique shops and recreation opportunities. The hotel rooms are splendid as is the service and the people. That’s a trifecta right there!
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano claims to have the best barbecue in Texas. We won't argue.
Steve’s ride started out with a meet-and-greet at the Tucker Rocky headquarters followed by a down-home Texas-style dinner his wife, Linda, prepared at their ranch in Decatur, about 45 minutes outside of Fort Worth. How did she know we were foodaholics? It was a fantastic meal and afterwards, around the campfire, Steve shared the history of Decatur, detailing stories about some of the local outlaws like Sam Bass, Billy the Kidd and Machine Gun Kelly. It was already becoming a great ride and we hadn’t even been on the bikes yet.
Steve recruited famous Lupinus Texensis hunter, Jim Kauffman, as our trailboss for the ride. One look at Jim and you instantly knew he had forgotten more about the backroads of Texas than most will ever know. All-in-all we were about 15 riders as we headed south from Decatur toward Goldthwaite where we stopped in for lunch at the Wagonwheel Cafe. “We’re not really sure why it’s spelled Gold-TH... when it’s just pronounced GOLD-waite,” explained the waitress when quizzed about the correction pronunciation. No matter... the pie was great. We learned a long time ago that an order of pie always makes riding motorcycles a little better.
Don’t even ask us what roads we took to get to GOLDwaite, all we know is Jim must have used a corkscrew as his GPS to get there. We are still studying the map trying to figure out what route we took! We do know that after lunch, we started out on Highway 16 headed south towards Fredericksburg, our destination for the evening.
Now the group was ready to ride as you could easily deduce by the massive increase in speed. Pie has a tendency to slow one down a few MPHs, but when I looked down at the speedo, somewhere between McMillan and San Saba, we were still registering above 90 when Butch and Kyle crawled by us.... at about 94. Damn Harleys! Wait... they were on Harleys, also!
Texas may look flat on the map but it's anything but! There are plenty of curvy backroads in the Lone Star state.
We blew through Llano so fast, we’re still not sure if it has two Ls or three. Then the fun started... Jim was obviously so possessed to track down the elusive Lupinus that he started taking roads that aren’t even on the map. Okay... that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we were taking backroads off of backroads off of backroads. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Texas is nothing but straight, boring roads... Jim knows better.
Somehow or another we snuck-up on Fredericksburg coming in from the east. Early Google searches told us that Fredericksburg was a quaint, little German village that tourists flock to... especially during the Lupinus season. Kind of reminded us of Solvang without the windmill. The few ladies who were on the ride instantly thought we struck gold with all the numerous antique stores. The guys were still sorting out the number of riders as one of them had picked up a flat.
The good news is we had showered, put on clean clothes and were headed toward the Auslander restaurant where we were all scheduled to meet for dinner. The bad news... still no bluebonnets. Although we might have arrived a week before the “big bloom,” we’re pretty sure some of those blue blurs along Highway 16 might have been some early bloomers. Nonetheless, we were all back together inside the Auslander reminiscing about the day’s ride. Word to the wise, if you are on a diet, don’t go to a German restaurant. In fact, don’t even bother going to Texas! Everywhere we stopped the food was great. There are signs promoting barbecue restaurants everywhere, almost all of them claiming to be “the best Bar-B-Que in Texas!” No argument here.
The Lone Star Motorcycle Museum on Highway 187 has an eclectic group of old antiques on display and a small cafe inside.
Day 2 was scheduled as a “loop” ride. That means after breakfast at our hotel, the Inn On Baron’s Creek, we were off to explore the Hill Country, eventually working our way to the town of Leaky where we would gather for lunch. Along the way we stopped at Lone Star Motorcycle Museum on Highway 187. A great place for a cup of coffee, a hot dog and a look at some of our sport’s dinosaurs. No pie though.
The Leakey area is famous for the Three Sisters. These are basically three different ranch roads, 335, 336 and 337 that are considered the best riding roads in Texas. With nicknames like the “Roller Coaster” and “Twisted Sister” you can bet they get a lot of action on the weekends. We didn’t have a chance to sample them all, but if 337 was any indication, the other two sisters have to be pretty good looking. After climbing our way out of Leakey we pointed west towards Medina. This stretch consisted of wide open country, some winding roads that even runs parallel to a river for a bit... but, still no bluebonnets.
Heaven IS In Texas
Who's got the best apple pie in Texas? The Apple Store is the place.
We may not know where those dang blue flowers are, but we do know that when we die and go to heaven, we hope to hell it looks like the Apple Store. And we’re not talking iPads here. It’s easy to find the Apple Store - you simply turn north on Highway 16 and look for all the other motorcycles. Think of anything you can sew an apple emblem onto and they have it. Not to mention the most delicious pies and out-of-this-world cinnamon ice cream you could hope to find. Get this - you walk in the door, grab a plate, fill it with pie, a waffle cone you can fill with ice cream.... sit down, eat it... and do it again. You don’t even pay until you are walking out the door. No one takes your order, no one keeps track. Just like heaven. We don’t just throw URLs around, but when you get a chance, check out lovecreekorchards.com. The Medina apple pie recipe is to die for.
It’s a short ride back to Fredericksburg - maybe 50 miles by the time we were back at the Inn on the Baron’s parking lot. We met as a group for dinner at the August E’s restaurant. Despite the lack of bluebonnets, Steve had pulled out all the stops and made sure we were staying in great hotels and dining at first-class facilities. It was Butch’s turn for a flat earlier that day so he and Karen, (Steve’s secretary, or “boss,” as he refers to her), had to do some scrambling to find a new tire so they showed up a bit late. They were quickly excused when Butch ordered up several bottles of Napa Valley cabernet and got the party underway.
Whether or not you are searching for bluebonnets it's still a great ride through some scenic rural landscapes.
The final day had us splitting from Steve and his group so we could take in the city of Austin before heading back home. We rode together up Ranch Road 965 and through Enchanted Rock State Park and hung with the group until Llano. That’s where we took off on our own towards the capital city. In retrospect, the Hill Country, even pre-bluebonnets, makes for a great ride.
Austin-bound, we left Llano on Highway 29 heading east towards Buchanan Dam... and I’ll be damned if we didn’t start running into some bluebonnets. It was still a little early for the full fields of color to explode, but there they were nonetheless. Jim would have been proud. As it turns out, our timing would have been better if we had arrived a week later. The riding around Buchanan Lake may not be as challenging as the Three Sisters, but it’s just as pretty. There are numerous ranch roads you can take that wind along the river and through Inks Lake State Park and further down to Longhorn Cavern State Park.
Trust us, Texas is not short on roads or parks for that matter. Towns like Horseshoe Bay and Cottonwood Shores are as nice as can be found in America. There are plenty of places to stay... and get this... gas is cheap and easily found.
Knowing this was our last day of riding, we pointed the Harley south on Highway 281 towards Johnson City, hometown of our 36th President, Lyndon B. Johnson. It was one of those places we wanted to say we had been, but wondered why once we got there. It wasn’t quite as impressive as we thought it would be. Supposedly they have a Wine and Wildflowers Festival the third week of April that might be worth attending if you like wine… and bluebonnets.
Just a short ride heading back west on Highway 290 will take you to Luckenbach (see sidebar). This little town was made famous in the popular Waylon Jennings song. As they say, everybody’s somebody in Luckenbach. When you check this place out, tip back a Lone Star brew for all of us, too.
From there we headed back to Johnson City. Once past that monumental place we pointed the Harley east and jumped on route 2766. We knew that in a straight line, the ride to Austin was only 60 miles away so we searched for more backroads in an effort to extend the ride. Ranch Road 2766 took us into Pedernales Falls State Park where the Pedernales River winds it way through the 5200 acres of wilderness. Admission was $10 per person, which we thought was a bit steep, but proved to be a beautiful stop that serves as an opportunity to stretch your legs, grab some snacks and snap off some photos of the famous Perdenales Falls.
Backtracking to Route 3232 dropped us onto Highway 290. We rode north on Ranch Road 12 towards the Lake Travis area, an upscale suburb of Austin. Judging by the explosion of residential communities, shopping malls and golf courses, you would never know the remainder of the country is experiencing difficult times. The city of Lakeway sits on the edge of Lake Travis and is a recreational paradise, especially if you like boating and golf. The Oasis is a great place to grab lunch as you sit out on the deck overlooking the lake. Sailboats gliding along on the water below made us wish we could trade our H-D and riding gear for some shorts a cold beer and a catamaran, along with few extra days to enjoy them... but it was time to move on.
The end of a trip is always a bit of a downer as your mind shifts from enjoying the countryside to preparing to wrap things up. We had heard great things about Austin and looked forward to spending some time there. From Lakeway we cut down the 71 through the city of Bee Cave and made a beeline across 290 towards Austin. Prior to departing Lakeway, we broke out the laptop and tapped into Travelocity.com to help select a hotel located downtown and close to the action. The Gnome didn’t let us down and set us up with a $98 room at the Omni International.
Geographically speaking, Austin takes up a lot of area, but the heart of the city is located around 6th Street. Perhaps the most popular street in Texas, 6th Street and its surrounding district plays host to numerous restaurants, night clubs, art galleries and tattoo parlors. The Omni was perfectly located - walking distance to a vast variety of eating options. Neon signs flashed with Tex-Mex, tacos, seafood, Japanese, and yes, barbecue opportunities. As we walked down the sidewalks, sounds of jazz, rock, hip-hop and country music mixed with the aroma of smoked ribs and cajun-cooking, throwing two of our five senses into overdrive. Austin is definitely a town we could spend several days in and
The True Blue Tattoo shop sports a giant Don Julio mural painted
on the side of its building and some pretty flashy neon out front.
never quite eat our way through.
We eventually decided on sushi since we already hit the rev-limiter on barbecue while riding in the Hill Country. Afterwards we were back on the Harley for some late night photo opportunities. Nightlife along 6th Street is made up of an eclectic group of street folk including Texas University students, tourists, panhandlers and a few hard-working girls. When you circle the same four-block area a couple dozen times waiting for the photographer to give you the thumbs up, you see a lot of things you usually won’t see with a single pass by.
Overall the streets appeared to be very safe. Some of the shady goings-on, which you spot in every major city, blended in as part of the nightlife ambience. One of our photo-ops had us riding up and down a dark alley where a mural of a
Riding through the capital of Texas we knew our ride was almost over but we just barely scratched the surface of what Austin has to offer. Reason enough to plan a return visit someday.
Don Julio tequila bottle covered the corner of the True Blue Tattoo shop. Justin, our photographer, thought it would make for a great location until about the fifth pass through the alley rousted a street bum who jumped out of a dumpster and scared the wee out of us.
Austin is one of those cities we look forward to visiting again as we barely scratched the surface. Yearly events like the Austin Mardi Gras, Republic of Texas Rally and their famous Halloween celebration all sound like great excuses for a return trip. If we were a couple decades younger, who knows, we might even consider hanging our cowboy hat there for an extended period of time. We liked it that much. The energy you draw from the people, the combination of big-city feel and small-town atmosphere all makes Austin an unmistakably contagious tour destination. In fact, this place was a lot like our ride. We knew it would be great, but it was better than expected. The people, starting with Steve Johnson, his friends and family all the way down to the personalities on 6th street – we were left wishing we could spend more time taking it all in. Maybe next time we’ll visit a little later in the spring so we can hit the bluebonnets when they are in season. What do you think, Jim? Are you up for another round?