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Lost in the Pines

By Jennifer Nalewicki

Destination: Bastrop

Travel time from:

AMARILLO - 11 hours / AUSTIN - .5 hour / BROWNSVILLE - 7 hours / DALLAS - 4 hours / EL PASO - 11 hours / HOUSTON - 2.5 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 2 hours

Whenever we drive into a pine forest, my mom and I have a tradition: we roll down the windows and let the fresh pine scent waft in, fulfilling our craving for a pine scent that can’t be satisfied by Pine Sol.

This is exactly what we do as we navigate the twists and turns of the 12-mile-long scenic drive that connects Bastrop and Buescher state parks.

Olfactory pleasures aside, what draws visitors to this dense forest of tall loblolly pines and hardwoods is its isolation from others of its kind. The nearest pine forest is more than 100 miles away in East Texas, yet the Bastrop loblollies have thrived for centuries, giving them their name, the Lost Pines.

Although the reason for this isolation is unknown, theories have developed. Some say that a devastating forest fire seared the landscape, burning everything in its path and separating the Lost Pines from East Texas forests. Others say that American Indian tribes performed controlled burns in the area; and still others say that birds may have transplanted seeds from East Texas to Bastrop. The generally held theory is that the Lost Pines are a relict forest left from the last ice age when the climate dried and warmed, leaving this westernmost stand of loblollies intact. However it originated, this 4,500-acre plot is a forest oasis amid the lakes and prairies of the Texas Prairies and Lakes region.

After making our way through Bastrop State Park, past its 18-hole golf course, freshwater swimming pool and dozens of campsites, we arrive at the cabin where we will be staying, the “Sam Houston.” Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the sturdy stone-and-log structure is one of 13 similar cabins nestled among the quiet woodlands. (Reservations are necessary, since the cabins get booked fast.) Our cabin stands out from the rest for its proximity to the lake, just a few steps from its back door. Several ducks take advantage of the quiet morning as they preen their black-and-white feathers on the shore.

After spending a few moments taking in the scenery, I wander back into the cabin and find that my mom has already staked her claim on the master bedroom, leaving me the cozy side bedroom with a window facing the lake.

By the time we unpack and settle in, it’s time for lunch, so we hop in the car and see what downtown Bastrop has to offer. It takes only a few minutes to drive from our cabin to Main Street, which is wonderful, considering our hunger pangs.

We eat lunch at Baxters on Main, a restaurant housed in a 112-year-old building, according to the marker for the National Register of Historic Places fastened to its brick façade. Named the Kesselus Building for the German immigrant whose tailoring business was once housed there, its aged wood floors and cracked brickwork give it all the charm of yesteryear. The Kesselus Building is just one of 125 registered historic structures in Bastrop, making it the most historic town in Texas, according to ePodunk, a Web site firm that specializes in information about small towns.

Next we visit the Bastrop County Historical Society Museum, where we learn that Bastrop has been continuously settled for more than 300 years. It was even considered for the state capital, but lost to Austin. The museum is housed in the 150-year-old former home of the operator of a Colorado River ferry.

Interesting artifacts and oddities fill the museum, such as a piece of artwork made completely of human hair, rifles of Confederate soldiers, the skull of a Mastodon, a doctor’s wooden operating table and side saddles dating to the 1800s. My mom and I spend several hours peering into the museum’s display cases and flipping through old photo albums.

Once we’ve finished with our history lesson, we head back to the cabin for a barbecue dinner and s’mores. We spend the evening enjoying the peace and quiet of the forest. The only sound we hear is the rustling of a breeze through the trees.

We spot a group of white-tailed deer across the lake in search of dinner. Luckily my mom brought along her binoculars, so we are able to see the adult and four fawns up close. Also inhabiting the park are foxes, bobcats, opossums, armadillos, coral snakes, snapping turtles and the endangered Houston toad. The toads, which are 3 inches long and have brown and speckled skin, are unable to escape predators by leaping, because of their stubby legs, so they protect themselves by secreting a distasteful and sometimes poisonous chemical to ward off predators.

The next morning, we awaken with the sun and head out for a hike before it gets too hot. The hiking trails in the park are color-coded with metal trail markers. As we hike the green, red and blue trails, we see bush after bush of American beautyberries, a shrub with vibrant lilac and magenta berries. My mom comments that the shades of purple are especially vibrant against the backdrop of forest greens that surround us.

As we make our way along the dirt trail, the dried loblolly pine needles crunching under our feet, we see cardinals, pileated woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The American beautyberry is a favorite snack for many birds, including cardinals.

After breakfast, we head to Lake Bastrop, known as one of the best spots for freshwater fishing in the state. With more than 900 surface acres of water, Lake Bastrop was originally built as a power-plant cooling pond in 1965. Today, it’s an angler’s paradise, stocked with blue catfish, perch, striped and white bass, Florida largemouth bass and crappie. Although bass can be caught year-round, the best time is between December and March. According to locals, the largest bass caught there weighed more than 12 pounds.

The lakes at Bastrop and Buescher state parks, although smaller in size, have catfish, bass and perch. Although neither park permits gasoline-powered boats, electric motor boats are permitted.

Another spot to fish is the Colorado River, which has an abundance of Guadalupe bass, largemouth bass, spotted bass, channel and flathead catfish and perch. There are four public access points and fishing piers along the river in Bastrop County, including a boat ramp in Fisherman’s Park in downtown Bastrop. Picnic and restroom facilities also are available in the park. The one-mile-long Bastrop Riverwalk trail connects the park to Ferry Park, a great place to take an evening stroll, which is what we do on our second night there.

Afterward, we head to the Yacht Club Restaurant and enjoy a magnificent hillside view of the Colorado River. By the time we get back to the cabin, it’s too dark out to see much of the wildlife, so we lie down on the picnic table outside our cabin and gaze at the stars in the pitch-black night sky.

Our last morning in Bastrop, we take advantage of the forested trails in the park. Perhaps next time we’ll head south to visit Kreische Brewery and Monument Hill state historic sites in nearby La Grange.

Sixteen of the 17 victims of the notorious “Black Bean Incident” are buried at Monument Hill. In 1843, Mexican General Santa Anna ordered the execution of 176 Texas prisoners who had tried to escape Mexican custody. The order was modified and one-tenth of the men were executed. To determine who would die, 17 black beans were put in a pot with 159 white beans. Those who drew the black beans were shot and the others were jailed until 1844. In 1848, the remains of these and other combatants of that era were returned from Mexico and buried in La Grange on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River. The 17th man, John L. Shepard, survived the firing squad, escaped and was later shot at Saltillo, but his body was never found.

The historic site is also where Heinrich Kreische, a German immigrant, built one of Texas’ first commercial breweries. By 1879, the brewery ranked third in production in the state. It went out of business in 1884, two years after Kreische was killed in an accident. Today visitors can see the remains of the brewery, once a three-story structure constructed of locally quarried sandstone.

As we head home, we decide to take one last drive through the Lost Pines. Without saying a word, my mom and I both roll down the car’s windows and breathe in the fresh scent of pine. I wish I could bottle the scent and take it home with me as a reminder of this trip. As we head back onto the highway toward home, I look over at my mom, and I am sure she is making the same wish.

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