Summer Solstice and Solace
By Susan L. Ebert
Travel time from:
AMARILLO - 8 hours / AUSTIN - 2.5 hours / BROWNSVILLE - 7 hours / DALLAS - 5.5 hours / EL PASO - 8 hours / HOUSTON - 5 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 2 hours
Countless roadside stands belonging to farms, orchards and vineyards dot the landscape from Dripping Springs through Fredericksburg, and I stop at each one that beckons. Soon, my empty cooler is larded with organic goat cheese, jerky, smoked fish and turkey, cantaloupe, peach cider, Stonewall peaches and blackberries the size of shooter marbles.
My destination is Mason, a quiet town with a lively history at the western edge of the Hill Country. Mason was settled in 1846 simultaneously by Americans pushing west and German immigrants who trekked up from the Port of Galveston to settle in the lush valleys along the Llano River. Mason’s vibrant beginnings include frontier Fort Mason; Civil War divisiveness to rival that of border states such as Kentucky; the Wire Fence War and the infamous Mason County Hoodoo War (for who do it?), which broke out in 1875. Cattle rustling brought the Hoodoo War to a head, when lingering tensions from the Civil War and the Wire Fence War busted open with such virulence that descendants hotly debate what happened to this day. Mason is also the home of Fred Gipson, who set his book Old Yeller along this stretch of the Llano in the 1860s.
Willow Creek Ranch cradles the southern bank of the Llano, east of town on Lower Willow Creek Road. Cristoph Leifeste, one of Mason’s original settlers, built the original farmhouse in 1876. Present owners Dennis and Kay Evans have lovingly restored and enhanced the main house and built guest cabins of various sizes in the meadows that undulate toward the river.
The guest cabin where I stay is the original smokehouse with root cellar below, now a cozy stone, stucco and wood bedroom above a wine cellar. Behind the main house, a giant bronze and copper shaman rising from a boulder stands vigil over a pool and hot tub, his arms raised skyward — the unmistakable handiwork of Mason sculptor Bill Worrell. Worrell’s shamans, influenced by ancient pictographs, seem to dance and vibrate wherever they are, as does his “Maker of Peace” at Seminole Canyon State Park.
Along with my fly rod, I have a copy of Bud Priddy’s Fly Fishing the Texas Hill Country. Revised and enlarged in 2000, this must-have guide contains fly recommendations, target fish for certain stretches of river, put-in and take-out points, and notes on accommodations and restaurants.
I walk down to the river, planning to spend the late afternoon fly fishing, but find myself tying a new nailhead knot instead after last year’s frayed leader breaks. Oh well, that’s fly fishing; at least for me. Still, the intense detail work calms me as I sit amidst a meadow of wildflowers with the Llano rushing over pink granite boulders before me. Bobwhite quail and jackrabbits slip along the game trails, while red-winged blackbirds and flycatchers flit among the tall meadow grasses.
With new leader cleanly applied, at dawn I am back at the river. The ruins of a waterwheel, which pumped water to the original farmhouse, sits below a deep pool rumored to hold big bass. Below the wheel, the Llano becomes a roaring series of small rapids as it descends toward Castell. A plump Guadalupe bass finds my wooly bugger irresistible and I release him back into the deep pool.
For those looking for more definitive instruction on the art of fly fishing than my clumsy trial-and-error methods, Raye Carrington on the Llano offers clinics at her quaint riverside bed and breakfast, also on Lower Willow Creek Road. I stop to say hello to Carrington Saturday morning and her lessons are at full throttle, with nearly a dozen anglers plying their fly lines at water’s edge.
In the late morning, I tour the single-structure Fort Mason, which was active from 1851 to 1869. Perched east of town on a great hill, the vista to the west shows the fort’s strategic location. Robert E. Lee served here, before traveling to Washington in 1861 to resign his commission with President Lincoln to lead the Confederacy. “I cannot bear arms against Virginia,” Lee told Lincoln. I respectfully tread the dogtrot where Lee himself once walked, peering into rooms depicting the frontier soldiers’ lives.
Fifty miles to the west is Fort McKavett, established in 1852, which pushed the frontier ever westward. McKavett, which I toured on a previous visit, sits atop a stony plateau overlooking the headwaters of the San Saba. Although McKavett, along with other Texas forts, was held by the Confederacy during the Civil War, it was reclaimed by federal troops in 1868. During the 1870s, under Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, one of four regiments comprised of black troops and white officers developed here as the 24th U.S. Infantry. Indians named these black troops “Buffalo Soldiers” and the Buffalo Soldiers developed into one of the Army’s most legendary outfits.
My next stop is Mason County Library, where a bronze by Mason sculptor Garland Weeks memorializes Gipson’s Old Yeller and his boy, Travis. I touch them both, for how deeply they have touched me.
The abundance and variety of wildflowers pulls me back to the Llano’s edge in the afternoon and I collect dozens of wildflowers. With my favorite wildflower guide, Geyata Ajilvsgi’s Wildflowers of Texas, I learn their names: butterfly weed, Indian blanket, red gaillardia, plains coreopsis, Engelmann daisy, golden-aster, rose vervain, basket flower, meadow aster, erect dayflower and prairie spiderwort. I cobble together a makeshift flower press with scraps of wood, cardboard and newspaper, tied with fishing line and weighted with rocks, to open later.
Then, it’s on to the bat cave!
The 17-mile drive from Mason to the Eckert James River Bat Cave is nearly as rewarding as the bat flight. The Llano and James rivers converge near FM 2389 south of Mason, and upstream from the low-water crossing is a popular area for fly fishers, with a gravel island between the two rivers for parking and put-ins. Sunfish and Guadalupe bass are caught most commonly, but fly fishers might surprise themselves occasionally by hooking a feisty carp or gar. Fat, sleek deer bound across the unpaved road as shadows lengthen. Armadillos, turtles, lizards and roadrunners scurry along the roadbed. My foot is off the gas; I simply idle along, not wishing to miss seeing a single creature.
Not as large a maternal colony as Bracken or Frio River caves, the Eckert James River Bat Cave is home to 2 million female Mexican free-tailed bats. Since it is the evening of summer solstice, I wonder if the bats are flying later, but Nature Conservancy interpreter Melissa Ritter says they flew at 6:15 the evening before. “There are just so many variables,” says Ritter. “Fluctuations of daylight, temperature, wind and humidity all play a role. The bats have just given birth and are lactating, so they are quite thirsty and hungry. They will drink before they feed, by flying low over the James River and scooping up water.”
The bat flight is an ever-new spectacle to me, whether 2 million or 20 million. They swirl in a counter-clockwise vortex inside the cave, gradually building in numbers and momentum. A few dart out and retreat; then, the emergence gains momentum. Soon, the cave’s mouth is darkened with bats and the tender beatings of thousands of wings fill my ears. Tonight is a new thrill, as I spot two albino bats — the first I’ve ever seen!
As night falls, the dark sky and myriad stars beckon me out for a moonlight swim, a summer solstice delight. The dark sky around Mason makes for superb stargazing.
Rising early the next morning, I drive 50 scenic miles to South Llano River State Park and Walter Buck Wildlife Management Area. Tubers and anglers share the riffles in the azure pool below the low-water crossing into the park. Six Rio Grande turkeys promenade regally into a glade, unperturbed by my presence. White-tailed deer recline in the dappled sunlight in groves of giant pecan, sycamore and chinkapin oak. Flashes of brilliant color dart through the trees — this is what I’ve come to see!
Nestled in the old-growth forest along the wide Llano corridor above Junction are hundreds of species of birds. Park ranger Wayne Haley shows me his birding blinds and feeding stations. “This blind began its life when I moved out a wooden fort I’d built for my children, which they have since long outgrown,” he says. “When we were able to actually construct this present blind, which can seat up to 20 people, and build the waterfall, the fort served as a second blind in another location, where we just have a water trough. Now that we’ve built a second viewing blind and our friends group has raised money for a solar panel, we can put in a waterfall at the second location as well.”
Scrub jays, cardinals, cedar waxwings, bluebirds, indigo buntings, summer tanagers and vermilion flycatchers dart amidst wrens, squirrels and seven more Rio Grande turkeys. The bottomlands along the river hold an old-growth pecan forest that serves as a turkey roost. When this land was owned by Walter Buck, he collected as much as 75,000 pounds of pecans a season here.
Haley takes me to a bluff-top lookout point in the Walter Buck WMA, and a panorama of verdant valley sweeps below us.
Buck Lake, a small oxbow in the bend of the river, is a short hike from the campground parking lot. With fly rod and sack lunch, I settle into the shade of an ancient pecan and cast a small, sinking Clouser’s crayfish to the edge of a cluster of lily pads. Bingo! A half dozen palm-sized sunfish come to investigate and one gets greedy. He’s soon back in the water, and I move on to explore more of the park’s two-mile riverfront. By late afternoon, I reluctantly say farewell to South Llano River SP and Walter Buck WMA.
Tonight, I take my small supper to the riverside where the rush of water purls through the ancient waterwheel and down through the rapids. As I sit peacefully, a stealthy rustle behind me catches my ear and I slowly turn, thrilled to see a large male bobcat within 20 yards of me. I am between him and where he comes to drink at dusk. He stares intently at me, confounded, and I look back, mesmerized. The big tawny spotted cat bolts into a run along the fence line, his powerful hind legs overtaking his front ones with each stride. Pulse hammering with joy, I ease along to where he’s vanished into the mesquite and prickly pear, hoping for another glimpse of this glorious creature.
He has vanished, but the memory of his grace abides.
After a final river swim, the Willow Creek Ranch hot tub soothes my happily weary body as Worrell’s shaman stands watch over me. The stars prick holes in the deepening blue above. I’ll fall asleep tonight rereading Old Yeller, with Gipson’s words and the burbling rush of the Llano in my ears.
For More Information
- Mason Chamber of Commerce, (325) 347-5758, www.masontxcoc.com
- Willow Creek Ranch, (325) 347-6781, www.bbonline.com/tx/willowcreek/
- Bill Worrell, billworrell.com
- Raye Carrington’s on the Llano, (325) 347-3474, llanoriver.com
- South Llano River State Park, (325) 446-3994, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/ findadest/parks/south_llano_river/
- Fort McKavett State Historic Site, (325) 396-2358, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/ findadest/parks/fort_mckavett/
- Eckert James River Bat Cave, (325) 347-5970, nature.org/wherewework/ northamerica/states/texas/preserves/art6022.html
For Further Reading
- Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi (Shearer, revised edition 2003)
- Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (HarperCollins, 1956)
- Fly Fishing the Texas Hill Country by Bud Priddy (W. Thomas Taylor, 1996)