Best rivers in Texas: San Saba River

SAN SABA — This is Tommy Lee Jones country. It’s also, in a sense, “No Country for Old Men” country.

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Courtesy of LandofTexas.com.

Not that the desolation of Cormac McCarthy‘s West Texas border novel echoes the soft, well-watered hills and vales of San Saba County. But Llewellyn Moss, played with unnerving reserve by Josh Brolin in the award-winning movie by the Coen Brothers, is from San Saba. And Jones, who grew up in this comparatively isolated country 90 miles northwest of Austin, constantly reminded Brolin that he is from San Saba, almost as a challenge to the younger actor’s authenticity.

Jones’ ranch is just five miles east of town. Strangers are not welcome, and he’s one actor I’d not want to irritate. A sign on the ranch gate barks “Go Away,” but one can spot Jones’ famed polo grounds across a gentle, red-grassy rise. Funny thing, all his biographies say the ranch is “outside San Antonio.” In fact, it’s two hours from Austin; three from San Antonio.

People in San Saba respect Jones’ fierce sense of privacy, and say so. The whole town — plus folks from Lameta, Brady, Goldthwaite and other nearby spots — turned out for Christmas in the Square on Saturday. In fact, the bleachers were full two hoursbefore the 15-minute parade through the courthouse square commenced.

While Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted hordes of children, performers in a living nativity scene sang carols. (There appeared to be no creche crisis on this county property.) Across the street, solo singers braved karaoke carols, including a Spanish-language version of “Jingle Bell Rock” (21 percent of the county’s 6,000 residents are Hispanic.)

San Saba is the “Pecan Capital of the World,” as almost everyone, including Harold Yates from the Chamber of Commerce, reminded me. “Not because we grow the most pecans, but because the mother tree for commercial orchards is here.” Nolan Ryanowns an orchard in the county.

“Sure it’s the pecan capital,” said a visitor from Lometa who declined to be identified. “It’s also the meth capital of the world.”

Yates, who is thinking of running for sheriff, agreed there was a meth problem, but that most of it was imported, not labbed in the county, the last in Texas to pave its roads (a situation that led to the the rise of the San Saba Mob, which ran the county until Texas Rangers were able to oust them). Yates took my request to fix a speeding ticket with good cheer.

We resisted the temptation to buy Jacalyn Morley-Webb‘s tassled purses from her business, “Itz a Girlz ThAng,” but couldn’t turn down Mary Huron‘s Hot Sauce, which sat alongside jars of Huron’s Mild Sauce. (Sad mild world.)

We also scored some samples of Bill’s Season All, a marinade that Edward Ragsdale said would “make your steak so tender you can cut it with a fork.” The late Bill Eden used to cook up in a small pan the seasoning in the back of the G&R Grocery store on the courthouse square “until he needed a really big pan,” the stuff got so popular. Ragsdale smiled devilishly when he said: “Bill’d be turning over in his grave if he knew how much we sold these days.”

Every other business in San Saba has to do with pecans. Tourism has not risen to the Fredericksburg level, but there’s a capacious, terraced Mill Pond Park, a preserved swivel bridge and “the oldest working jail in Texas.” Down the way is Colorado Bend State Park and, up the San Saba River, Fort McKavett State Park, a miraculously preserved compound from the late 19th-century Indian Wars, and the purported ruins of the San Saba Presidio, which look to be mostly 20th-century rather than 18th-century construction (including — ick — Portland cement, see photo).

The San Saba valley is pretty, clement and blessed with fluent springs. The river, which rises at Fort McKavett, quickly takes on a good surge, and one can see why the Spanish missionaries chose it for a mission, since the land quickly turns less hospitable to the west and south. (Did you ever wonder why San Antonio is where it is?) Unfortunately for the Franciscans and the Spanish soldiers, it was too deep into Lipan Apache and Comanche country, and the place was abandoned well before 1800.

A note about the trip up: We tarried at the Hill Country Wildlife Museum in Llano, a display of more than 700 trophies from Houston hunter Charles K. Campbell. It’s a shocking place, full of walrus, bear, Cape buffalo, etc.

The kind but weary docent said the nonprofit that runs the place, so situated on Llano’s square to attract the annual migration of deer hunters, is hanging on by thread. If you are at all interested in novelty tourist destinations, plunk down the $3.

For more photos from the San Saba River Tracing, shared with college bud Joe Starr, look for the Monday morning blog.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.