Orsak’s Cafe in Fayetteville

I love venturing to places I have not yet visited in the Lone Star State. On a recent road trip from Katy to La Grange, my wife and I decided to take a lunch detour to Fayetteville — and I am so glad we did. This small town is about the closest thing to a time capsule you will find in Texas. Fayetteville has somehow managed to retain quite a bit of yesteryear charm in our ever-changing world.
Our purpose for taking this detour was to find a place to enjoy a bacon cheeseburger. And, according to the information we read online, Orsak’s Cafe was the place to go. This small town diner is located on the town’s historic square and offers a menu-full of enticing home-style dishes, including burgers.
As soon as we drove into Fayetteville we knew we liked it. No cookie-cutter homes here. Just charming little homes, each with their own unique architectural features — homes that have been around so long that they are shaded by mature trees and crepe-myrtles in full bloom. We enjoyed driving around and looking at the homes and the old business on the town square, including Fayetteville’s historic court house.
When we arrived at Orsak’s it was obvious this is a popular place. The locals were already seated at their favorite tables when we walked in. Folks were friendly and offered their greetings as we made our way to an empty table. We felt right at home among folks enjoying good conversation and delicious meals.
Cheryl and I decided to split a bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings. Since the burgers at Orsak’s are pretty big, this was a good call. Our burger arrived already cut and plated on two plates with a healthy portion of homemade onion rings on each plate. Very nice service.
The first bite was absolutely delicious. The portion of meat was generous, the ingredients were fresh, the bacon was crisp, the bun was nice and moist, and the onion rings were cooked to perfection. Everything about this meal was enjoyable and had us hooked. As we ate we talked about when we might be free to come back to Orsak’s.
After lunch we walked around the town square and enjoyed perusing the town bulletin boards that were chock-full of posters, flyers, bulletins, and notes announcing upcoming community events. Very blast-from-the-past kind of stuff in this day of social media advertising. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants and even a museum on the town square along with numerous historical markers.
Cheryl and I agreed that Fayetteville is one of our new favorite places. We can’t wait to go back and introduce friends to this small Texas treasure and to enjoy lunch again at Orsak’s Cafe. If you find yourself anywhere near Fayetteville on your next toad trip, take the time to visit. And remember, wherever your road trips take you, get off the beaten path and explore a place you have never visited.

The Jefferson General Store

East Texas is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in the Lone Star State. If you love forests and lakes then this is the place for you. This is definitely road trip heaven. On a recent road trip through East Texas, we headed over to Jefferson near Big Cypress Creek and Caddo Lake at the junction of U.S. Highway 59 and State Highway 49.

Jefferson was named for Thomas Jefferson when it was founded in the early 1840s by Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley. In those early years it became the state’s leading inland river port as well as the leading commercial and distribution center of Northeast Texas. By 1870, Jefferson was the sixth largest city in Texas. But, with the advent of the railroad and less reliance on river boat transport of products, Jefferson gradually declined in population.
Today, Jefferson is one of the coolest road trip destinations in Texas. The town is home to more than fifty historic structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the old historic buildings in the downtown area now house all kinds of specialty and antique shops. One must-see stop in Jefferson is the Jefferson General Store.

The Jefferson General Store occupies a building first used as a hardware store in the 1860’s and has remained an important part of the community through the years. There are not many places left in Texas where you can step through the door of an old building and go back in time. But that is exactly the feeling you’ll get when you step across the threshold of the front door and into the Jefferson General Store.
The sign above the door boasts “we have everything” — and that is not far from the truth as far as general store merchandise goes. The moment my wife Cheryl and I stepped through the door we looked at each other and smiled. This place was crammed with more interesting things than we could have imagined — including some of the hard-to-find candy we enjoyed as kids like Chick-O-Stick.

You can browse the stuff at the store, sit at the soda fountain and sip on five-cent coffee or any of their nostalgic soda fountain offerings, play a game of checkers on an oversided checker board, or fill a bag at the old-time candy counter. In addition to enjoying some of our favorite candy, we discovered fried peanuts in the shell. Delicious, indeed!

I enjoyed browsing through their eclectic selection of books on everything from Texas history, flora and fauna, recipe books, collections of humorous sayings, and more. If you like signs with funny messages, you’ll find plenty of those. They also have a great selection of Texas jams, jellies, and salsas.
If your travels take you to East Texas, I hope you’ll make time to go by Jefferson and to stop by the Jefferson General Store. Walk slowly. Look at everything. Have a soda. Eat candy. Peruse a book and laugh. Take a selfie. Have fun.

A Place Called Uncertain

I sometimes resort to an unconventional method when planning a road trip — unfold a Texas map, adjust my bifocals, and then look for the most interesting place names. That’s the way my East Texas road trip came about. Actually, my wife Cheryl found the spot on the map and suggested we head in the direction of Uncertain.
I was so happy to learn that there is actually a place in Texas named Uncertain. How cool is that. It was settled, then. The only thing we were certain of was heading to Uncertain. Any other stops along the way would be at our whim. When Cheryl and I do this kind of road trip we don’t make lodging reservations ahead of time so that we can be free to head in any direction we want.
There are a couple of stories about how Uncertain got its name. One story suggests that the place was once known as Uncertain Landing and got its name because steamboat captains often had a hard time mooring their vessels there. Another story suggests that the town got its name before the border between the United States and the Republic of Texas was finally established. Before that time residents were uncertain about their citizenship.
Uncertain is an incorporated community located deep in the heart of East Texas. Situated along the shores of Caddo Lake, the largest natural lake in Texas, Uncertain is a little place with a whole lot of stuff going on. Locals offer boat tours that take guests through the largest bald cypress forest in the world. These big old trees give Caddo Lake a unique and mysterious personality.
You’ll find several small businesses in Uncertain and a non-denominational place of worship understandably called The Church of Uncertain. But don’t let the name fool you. This little house of worship is certain about the doctrinal essentials that make it vital to the spiritual health of the community.
There are a few places to eat in Uncertain but we chose to stop at a place called Shady Glade Cafe. This little joint has a cool local vibe and offers a great selection of home-style meals, including burgers. The big guy seated next to us ordered a chicken fried steak that was bigger than the plate. I ordered the Baconator with cheese, seasoned fries, and iced tea.
As he was leaving the big guy turned, took a deep breath, and said to me, “I can put away a lot of groceries, but I could not finish that chicken fried steak.” I can understand why. It was huge! As for my burger, it was really good, especially the generous meat patty that had a great flavor. There was a steady stream of customers the whole time we were there. That in itself is a good endorsement.
Bottom line — we enjoyed our drive through this small community where folks make their livelihood from catering to tourists and fishermen to Caddo Lake. The folks we met while there were all very friendly and helpful. So, one thing is certain — we enjoyed our brief time in Uncertain and glad that this was our first stop on our East Texas road trip.

Llano Earth Art Festival

The charming little town of Llano is located seventy-five miles northwest of Austin. Situated along the banks of the Llano River, this historic town is the county seat of Llano County. This region of the Lone Star State is known as the Llano Uplift, a rock formation created when underlying granite pushed its way to the surface and gave us the Texas Treasure known as Enchanted Rock.

Llano is also home to one of the newest festivals in Texas. Held in March, the Llano Earth Art Festival, also known as LEAF, attracts folks from far and wide — especially those who love to stack rocks or who have a close connection with nature. LEAF features all sorts of cool activities, including earth and land art installations, a variety of workshops, a fashion circus, live entertainment, food vendors, and piles of rocks for novice and more accomplished rock-stackers.

The festival is held at Grenwelge Park on the south bank of the Llano River. Car camping and tent camping sites are available by reservation. I haven’t seen so many VW vans in one place since I was growing up in the sixties. This iconic vehicle continues to be a favorite of those who travel light and free and call the open road home. Very cool, indeed. My son and I pitched our tents among some of the friendliest and nicest people we have ever met.

At the heart of the Llano Earth Art Fest is something that is near and dear to my son’s heart — rock stacking! Jonathan started stacking rocks for fun about ten years ago and has left his temporary cairns along the banks of many a Texas river. I can barely stack one sheet of paper atop another so I am quite impressed by anyone who can stack rocks. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jonathan and folks from all over the country and a few nations do the same.

LEAF prides itself as the host of the Rock Stacking World Championship, offering various categories of competition from balancing, arches, tallest stack, and artistic creations. The completion is fun to watch but what I found even better was strolling along the banks of the Llano River and watching the various rock stacking artists at work. A — maz —ing!

As much as I enjoyed the rock stacking and the food vendors, what I enjoyed most was the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. And I do mean interesting and super friendly and nice. And that’s really the coolest thing about a festival like LEAF. It is an event that brings people together and encourages everyone to slow down, walk slowly, have conversations, and make new friends.
Please don’t wait until next year’s festival to visit Llano. If the road takes you anywhere near central Texas, swing by and check out this lovely little town. After all, the infamous Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed Llano. You’ll likely enjoy it, too — especially if you are not running from the law!

Discover the Gem of the Hill Country

Small towns are a big deal for those of us who love exploring the Lone Star State. There is usually more history tucked away in small towns than most folks realize. The town of Mason is a case in point. Located on the western side of the beautiful Texas Hill Country, Mason is steeped in some interesting Texas history.
Mason City SignMason is known as the “Gem of the Hill Country”  — in part because Mason County is the only place in Texas where you can find Topaz, the Texas State Gem. But also because it is a gem in other senses of the word. Mason sparkles with culture, history, friendly folks, and a town square regarded as one of the five most beautiful squares in Texas by Texas Monthly Magazine.
Mason Courthouse
Willow Creek Cafe OutsideMason Square is really cool. The beautiful county courthouse, built in 1910, is surrounded by early twentieth-century buildings that have been repurposed as restaurants, art and antique shops, museums, and more. My wife and I enjoyed a delicious meal at the Willow Creek Cafe located in one of the old buildings across the street from the courthouse. Eating at this cafe is a definite must if you visit Mason.
Mason Collectibles

Mason Collectibles BooksIf you enjoy shopping for cool stuff, then be sure to stop by Mason Country Collectibles. This is one amazing place crammed full of all kinds of old stuff, antique items, books, gems, art work, and a zillion other things. While there, be sure to ask for a peek at the 587-caret Grand Azure — the most beautiful piece of Topaz ever found in Mason County. Whether you like picking or not, you owe it to yourself to stop and look around this fascinating place.
Old Yeller
Old Yeller StatueIf you love old heart-warming stories, you’ll be happy to know that Fred Gipson, one of the finest novelists in America, was born on a farm near Mason. Gipson wrote Old Yeller in 1956. A year later, Disney released a film version of the book, introducing Gipson’s story about a dingy yellow dog to a wider audience. A statue of Old Yeller and Travis, his human companion, greet visitors to the Mason Library.
Fort Mason

Fort Mason CannonThe site of Fort Mason sits atop a hill overlooking the town. This fort was established in 1851 to protect settlers from Indians and to encourage the development of this vast and sparsely settled region of the state. Settlers often sought refuge at the fort during frequent Indian raids. Fort Mason was also Robert E. Lee’s last command post in the U.S. Army before the Civil War. Today, the only thing that remains at the site is a reproduction of the officers’ quarters. Worth a visit!
Mason FenceThere is a whole lot more to discover in Mason and the surrounding area. So, if you find yourself traveling through Central Texas or are looking for an interesting destination for a day trip or vacation, add Mason to your travel plans. Be sure to schedule your trip from Thursday through the weekend when more of the local shops are open to weekend visitors. It won’t take you long to discover why Mason is indeed the Gem of the Hill Country.

Lajitas Cemetery

Situated on a bluff in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the tiny community of Lajitas silently overlooks the lumbering Rio Grande River. Lajitas is Spanish for “little flat rocks” — a reference to the Boquillas flagstone of the area. Long before Anglo-Americans arrived on the scene, this arid territory was inhabited first by Mexican Indians and later by the Apache and Comanche.

The discovery of mercury in nearby Terlingua changed everything. Starting in the late 1800s, the populations of Lajitas and Terlingua surged as a steady stream of miners moved in to the area to work the mercury mines. Conditions in the mine were dangerous. Life in Lajitas was not for the fainthearted. Only the rugged survived.

During the days of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing established a large cavalry post at Lajitas in 1916. Pershing spent several years unsuccessfully pursuing Poncho Villa, the famous Mexican Revolutionary general, around northern Mexico. Pursuing anyone in the vast and unforgiving Chihuahuan Desert was a huge undertaking.
Lajitas CemeteryToday, the small Lajitas Cemetery is one of the must-see points of interest in the area. Like the nearby Terlingua Cemetery, this burial ground is filled with many fascinating old graves. Sadly, most of the names carved into handcrafted wooden crosses are no longer readable. Only the remaining descendants of the deceased know for certain who is buried beneath the rocky cairns.
Lajitas Cemetery GraveIn 1991, a woman named Elie Webb initiated a restoration project at the cemetery. Under her supervision, a fence was built around the cemetery and a gate and arch added. Webb also added iron crosses to many of the graves. Today, however, even these improvements are losing the battle against the harsh desert environment.
Lajitas Cemetery GravesOld cemeteries like the one in Lajitas are worth visiting. These old burial grounds are like dusty history books that can give us a little insight into what life was like in the days of cowboys, indians, and mercury miners. As you travel down Texas highways and byways, make it a point to stop at old cemeteries. These old burial grounds have their own interesting stories to tell.

Terlingua Cemetery

Terlingua is one of the most fascinating places to visit in the Lone Star State. If you want to see this old mining town, then you have to adjust your compass settings to off-the-beaten-path. What remains of Terlingua is nestled between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park in far southwest Texas.
Terlingua RuinsThe name Terlingua is derived from the Spanish words “tres” and “lenguas,” meaning “three tongues.” Some folks say three tongues refers to Native American, Spanish, and English — the three languages spoken in the early days of the region. Others insist that the name refers to the three forks of Terlingua Creek. Either way, Terlingua is a cool name that somehow fits this rugged and hard place.
Terlingua CarAt the turn of the twentieth century, Terlingua became a flourishing mining town that yielded copious amounts of mercury, called quicksilver at the time. Today, Terlingua is a ghost town — the most visited ghost town in Texas. The town still has a few residents who live among abandoned ruins slowly being reclaimed by wind and weather. Visitors will find unique lodging options, a few places to eat, art galleries, a trading company, and a whole lot of vast open spaces and endless skies.
Terlingua Cemetery SignOne of the most interesting places in Terlingua is the old cemetery that dates back to the 1900s. Workers who lost their lives in the mines, victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918, gunfighters who were seconds too slow on the draw, and early residents are all buried there. Every year in November, folks gather at the cemetery to celebrate Day of the Dead and to offer their respect to the departed.
Terlingua CrossesWalking slowly among the old graves is a sobering experience — the kind that makes you reflect on just how hard life is in this remote and rugged land. Names of the departed etched on weathered wooden crosses are no longer legible. Creosote, ocotillo, and cactus cling to life among the rocks that cover the graves. Plastic flowers and miscellaneous mementos placed on graves are the only indications that some of the dead are not yet forgotten.
Terlingua GraveThe Terlingua Cemetery is a time-capsule. Every grave holds secrets and stories that will never be told. Visitors can only speculate about the deceased and what their daily lives must have been like in days when quicksilver turned this region from a sleepy little village into a community of a couple of thousand — and eventually into a ghost town.
Terlingua Cemetery Mask Even though Terlingua is out of the way and far from just about any place in the Lone Star State, it’s definitely worth visiting. And, when in Terlingua, take a quiet and meditative stroll through the historic Terlingua Cemetery. You’ll be reminded that we are only here for a season and then we too will be laid to rest somewhere, maybe even in an old cemetery like the one in Terlingua. As for me, it doesn’t matter where you bury me as long as it’s in Texas.

Encino, Texas

Every now and then when I find myself somewhere between where I’m coming from and where I am headed I just can’t help myself — I have to turn off the main road to explore a back road. Even if I drive only a few miles down that road, I make new discoveries and always find interesting things to photograph.
Mesquite and BuildingThat’s what happened while recently traveling to South Texas. My wanderlust kicked in and beckoned me off the beaten path. So, I slowed down and turned on to a caliche backroad near the rural community of Encino. Located eighteen miles south of Falfurrias on Highway 281, Encino is regarded as a “census designated place” and not a town because it does not have a municipal government. You don’t even have to blink to miss it.
Encino TruckIn 1832, a man named Luciano Chapa acquired a Mexican land grant called La Encantada y Encina del Pozo, translated “Enchanted Place and Live Oak in a Hole.” The name of the grant reportedly was derived from a large live oak around which animals seeking shade wore down the land under the tree. In the early 1900s, the Encino community was established at the site as a roundup point for cattle raised by Mexican cattlemen.
Encino, TexasA historical marker erected near Encino by the Texas Historical Commission reads as follows:

El Encino del Poso

In this vicinity once stood a magnificent live oak tree that was an early landmark on the South Texas Plains for many years, noted for its size and its wide canopy. It was located in a large hollow created by livestock that gathered beneath its branches and by winds that eroded the exposed soil. El Encino del Poso was a landmark for early trails and land grants. It also served as the location of a stagecoach station and as the basis for naming Encino. The tree died in the 1890’s, before the formation of Brooks County, the victim of an extended drought.
Encino Windmill
Today, the backroads near Encino are accented by evidence of the passage of time — reminders that this is still hard country to tame. The proof is there in the form of weathered windmills, old shelters that look like they are melting into the brush, and assorted rusting remnants left behind by a previous generation. These old time-tarnished sights are starkly juxtaposed against a few newer homes and vehicles and farming and ranching implements.

In 1996, families in the area fought to keep the local elementary school open when the Brooks County Independent School District was looking for ways to cut costs from their overburdened budget. Even families without kids got involved in the fight to save the elementary school established in 1949.

The Dallas Morning News quoted the school principal as saying, “We don’t have problems with gangs. We don’t have problems with profanity. We don’t have problems they have everywhere else. The parents are trying to keep these kids in this type of environment as long as possible.” The involvement of families in the fight to keep their school reminds us that parents in small and large communities share a common concern about the welfare of their kids.

The next time you find yourself traveling south on Highway 281, take a moment to slow down and look to the left and to the right as you drive past Encino. While Encino and other tiny Texas towns may not look like much from the road, there is more there than meets the eye! Encino is home to families that have lived there for generations and who care very much about the next generation.

The Small Town Post Office

One of the fondest of my childhood memories is of the post office in my small hometown of Mission, Texas. Every morning, my grandfather would stop by the post office on his way to work. From the time I could walk he started taking me on his daily visit to get the mail. He and I would ascend the seven steps hand in hand, enter through the glass door, turn right, and go to Box 507.
Mission Post Office StepsJust thinking about my visits to the post office with my grandfather reminds me of the peculiar but not unpleasant smell of the place. Those were the days before e-mail and junk mail, so every item in Box 507 was important. Sometimes my grandfather would open and read a letter while standing in the post office. I knew that it had to be something important.

Over the years my grandfather also encouraged me to write letters and helped me to mail them. He taught me how to approach the man at the window to buy a stamp, where to place the stamp on a letter, and explained the journey my letter would take.

As I got a little older, my grandfather encouraged me to write letters to those in public office. I still have a copy of a reply I received from United States Senator John Tower when I was twelve years-old. I mailed my letter to Senator Tower from the post office in Mission.

When my grandfather told me that my cousins in Michigan wanted to see a real, live Texas horny toad (a horned lizard), he asked me to go out and catch one so that we could mail it to them. So, I did. We put the horny toad in a shoe box, punched holes in the side, included some bugs for a snack, and then headed for the post office.

I still remember the sound of the horny toad scratching the inside of the box as we walked up the steps to the post office. We took the box to the window, the fellow there calculated the postage, and off went the Texas horny toad on his great adventure to Michigan. I am happy to report that the little critter arrived there safely, to the delight of my cousins.
Family LettersGoing to the post office daily with my grandfather gave me an appreciation for writing and receiving letters. It was just as fun for me to mail a letter as it was to receive one. Over the years I managed to hold on to several letters that are, today, worth more to me than gold. They are irreplaceable because they keep me connected to the people and the places that shaped me.
Mission Post Office SignAs much as I enjoy the convenience and speed of email, there will always be a part of me that misses going to the post office and the excitement of receiving a handwritten letter with an interesting stamp affixed to the upper right corner. Today, Mission has a new and modern post office. The old post office building was converted to a Museum Store a few years ago.

I know the day is coming when post offices and handwritten letters will be a thing of the past, but I’m going to continue to do my part to postpone that day by writing letters. I miss standing in front of P.O. Box 507 with my grandfather, but I am grateful for the things I learned from him at the post office in our small town.

Law West of the Pecos

There is no question that Texas is big and vast. In Texas you measure distance by hours rather than miles — a lesson I learned when I traveled on a hot school bus from the Rio Grande Valley to the Buffalo Trails Scout Ranch in the Davis Mountains in 1972. One of the most memorable parts of that long journey was stopping at Langtry to visit the Jersey Lilly, the place where the legendary Kentucky-born Judge Roy Bean dispensed justice in the late 1800’s.

Roy Bean called himself the “Law West of the Pecos.” I first learned about Judge Roy Bean from my grandfather when I was a kid growing up in Mission, Texas. My grandfather was a real estate broker and served on the Mission City Council. One year he was recognized as the oldest city commissioner actively serving in the state of Texas. He also provided notary and translation services to folks in town. And, he loved Texas history.

Law West of the PecosMy grandfather leased a part of his office to a man named Leo Gonzalez, the local Justice of the Peace. Judge Gonzalez had an old painting of the Jersey Lilly hanging on the wall in his office above a sofa. The building in the painting had a sign prominently displayed above its entrance: Judge Roy Bean | Notary Public | Law West of the Pecos. That was my introduction to Judge Roy Bean.

Judge Roy Bean PicMy grandfather shared amusing stories with me about the colorful Judge Roy Bean. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Judge Bean. But there is no question that he was a fascinating character in Texas history. He owned a single law-book but rarely referred to it. Instead, he dispensed his own brand of justice. Once, Judge Bean fined a corpse, ironically for the exact amount that the deceased man had in his pocket when he had died! But, in the lawless and desolate Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, Judge Bean was the man for the job.
Boy Scouts at Jersey LillySo, when my Boy Scout Troop leader announced that we would be traveling to the Davis Mountains and would visit the Jersey Lilly along the way, I was excited to have the opportunity to see a place I had heard so much about. Since that first visit to Langtry with Boy Scout Troop 68, I have stopped by the Jersey Lilly on a couple of other occasions.

Langtry and the Jersey Lilly reek of the gritty old west. I love walking around the place, perhaps because it makes me nostalgic and reminds me of my grandfather, Judge Gonzalez, and the old painting hanging on the wall in his office.

I am fortunate that my grandfather stirred my imagination and nurtured my curiosity by telling me stories about colorful Texas characters like Judge Roy Bean. Texas has no shortage of interesting people and places that can connect us to the rich history of the Lone Star State.

If you have never visited Langtry, I encourage you to add it to your list of out-of-the-way places worthy of a visit. You’ll enjoy walking back in time to the days when Judge Roy Bean dispensed his sometimes quirky brand of justice in the vast Chihuahuan Desert west of the Pecos.