Two for the Road in Texas!

Searching for the Weird and Wild in Texas Hill Country

People are attracted to the Texas Hill Country for many reasons: beautiful scenery, amazing wine, the chance to enjoy a backcountry road trip, and more. But Terri and I had a different goal in mind: we were looking for Texas roadside weirdness…and the Hill Country didn’t disappoint!

Some of the sights we found were beautiful, like the painted churches that dotted the landscape. Others were what we titled “Texas weird,” like the cowboy boots we found everywhere and the old Pioneer Town where we stayed in a former boarding house. And then there were the “Hold my beer” highlights, which included Stonehenge mixed with Easter Island, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Gas Station now turned barbecue joint, and giant animal statues that caused us to slam on brakes and back up to admire these icons of absurdity.

German and Czech settlers painted their churches to resemble the churches from their homelands. Photo by Vanessa Orr

So the trip starts like this:

Terri: For your birthday this year, I think we should do a road trip through Texas Hill Country. We could start in San Antonio, since you’ve never seen the Alamo, and end up in Galveston for the NATJA conference.

Vanessa: I’m in for the Alamo, but what else is there to see? Other than hills?

Terri: Mermaids, giant pigs, Pearl the Squirrel, the Cartoon Saloon, and the oldest dance hall in Texas. And that’s just a start.

Vanessa: Start the car. START THE DAMN CAR!

While the outsides of these painted churches look like any other building, the insides are absolutely breathtaking. Photo by Vanessa Orr

Since we couldn’t drive the whole way, we flew into Houston and rented a car to drive to San Antonio. Because staying on an interstate for a few hours doesn’t cut it for us, we detoured to visit a few of the approximately 20 painted churches that on the outside look like any other church. But inside it’s a completely different story! The German and Czech settlers in this region of Texas decorated the building interiors to resemble the churches in their homelands, and they are dazzling!

We checked out three of these beauties near Schulenburg, TX, though with some trepidation.

Vanessa: You know lightning will strike when I go through the door.

Terri: Nah, I’m an angel, so I can protect us.

Vanessa: So we’re toast.

Was it a coincidence that at the first church we visited, the sky turned from a beautiful robin’s-egg blue to a swirling, angry mass of clouds?

Terri: That is so weird how the sky changed so quickly. Do you think there’s a storm coming?

Vanessa: Probably more like divine retribution. Just get in the car. Quick.

The World’s Largest Virgin Mary Mosaic at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Photo by Vanessa Orr

Speaking of religious icons, West San Antonio is home to the World’s Largest Virgin Mary Mosaic, which is located at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. The four-story artwork, created by artist Jesse Trevino, is designed to look like a votive candle with an eternal flame on top. Even if you’re not a believer, this stunning artwork is a must-see.

And of course, we did get to see the Alamo, which, while another item off the bucket list, is simply not strange enough for this story.

A Taste of Texas

The original Buckhorn Saloon owner used to accept horns as payment for drinks, and now has one of the world’s largest collections. Photo by Vanessa Orr

While we love to look at Texas Longhorn steers, we prefer to see them live, so we didn’t originally think that the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum in San Antonio, which boasts hundreds of mounted animals on the walls, would be the place for us. But lo and behold, this saloon, which was started by 17-year-old Albert Friedrich in 1881, not only had a cool backstory but the weirdest museum of oddities—all under one roof.

When Friedrich first opened his saloon, he accepted horns and antlers in exchange for money from people who couldn’t pay for their drinks. Now the Buckhorn collection is one of the world’s largest collections of horns, displayed along with artwork made of rattlesnake rattles, which Albert’s wife, Emilie, collected from thirsty patrons.

Terri: Wow, this place looks interesting. Should we go in?

Vanessa: It’s a saloon and a weird museum. It’s obviously made for us.

So we paid the $23 admission and headed in, making fast work (with drinks in hand) of the dead animal displays. But then we entered the American Sideshow and Carnival of Curiosities; a museum featuring a possibly dead man in a diving suit, a definitely dead man in a coffin, and all sorts of other atrocities and attractions that made us stop in our tracks.

Just one of the stranger attractions at the American Sideshow and Carnival of Curiosities in the Buckhorn Saloon. Photo by Vanessa Orr

Terri: Dear God, is that a man in that diving suit?

Vanessa: I think it’s a projection. Or some kind of light-show thing.

Terri: How can you tell?

Vanessa: Cause it doesn’t look like the mummified dead man in the next room.

That dead man was Elmer McCurdy, a failed bandit who reportedly yelled, “You’ll never take me alive!” right before he was shot dead. There were also shrunken heads, a Wolf Boy skull, Sirena the Mermaid, and a horned conehead man, among other unique items. There was also a separate Texas Rangers Museum, which, while a loving tribute to a brave group of men, didn’t even rate on the strangeness scale.

We then took a trip to a mall, because we’d heard about another overly large item we just had to see. In Texas, they brag about everything being big, and they aren’t kidding when it comes to cowboy boots. Bob “Daddy-O” Wade, who once installed a giant Lone Star iguana on a rooftop in New York City, created a pair of 35-foot-tall, 33-foot-long fake ostrich and calfskin cowboy boots, made of mostly junk material. These boots now stand by the North Star Mall in San Antonio, where they were once inhabited by a homeless man, who almost set the boots on fire while cooking with Sterno. The boots survived and recently received an $80,000 makeover because…Texas.

World’s largest cowboy boots: Bob ‘Daddy-O’ Wade created this pair of 35-foot-high fake ostrich and calfskin cowboy boots, which now stand outside a mall. Photo by Terri Marshall

Speaking of boots, there is also a much smaller pair of patriotic cowboy boots found on private property in Sisterdale, which Terri decided she needed to photograph.

Terri: Aren’t you coming? Don’t you want pictures?

Vanessa: Nope. I’m going to stay in the car, in front of this possibly abandoned scary gas station, and wait to pick you up when the homeowner starts shooting at you.

Terri: Okay. Just make sure I’ve got the picture first.

We also did a quick stop at Gruene Dance Hall, the oldest dance hall in Texas, and Luckenbach, TX, which was once a town with a thriving population of three. Today it’s a general store, bar, outdoor music venue, and a dance hall—all because of Waylon Jennings’ song.

The Bigger the Better

Texas isn’t only known for its large cowboy boots. There are an awful lot of oversized roadside animals to be seen, including a giant pink pig that used to be located at Frank’s Hog Stand in San Antonio before mysteriously disappearing. In the early 1990s, it showed up outside of the city in an empty lot with someone living in it, and today it stands proudly as “possibly the last surviving porcine programmatic architecture” in the country. Whatever the hell that means.

Pearl the Squirrel, or what Vanessa believes is the Holy Grail of roadside animal art, stands in Cedar Creek, TX, where you can not only buy souvenirs but pecans—24 hours a day.

Pearl the Squirrel gets photographed 30-100 times a day. Here’s one more! Photo by Vanessa Orr

Terri: Look, a pecan vending machine. Outside a pecan store. Guarded by a massive squirrel. Do I deliver on the weird or what?

Vanessa: Like a champ. But who needs access to pecans 24 hours a day?

Terri: Who needs to drive miles out of the way to see a giant squirrel?

Vanessa: ‘Nuff said.

And here’s one more!

Pearl the Squirrel stands 14 feet tall and is reportedly photographed 30 to 100 times a day. She’s so popular that she even has her own photo gallery website.

The Hill Country is also home to Smitty, a 20-foot-tall sculpture that memorializes the world’s largest gingerbread man, created in Smithville, TX. The 1,308 pounds, 8 oz. cookie took 750 pounds of flour, 49 gallons of molasses, and 72 dozen eggs to make—and left behind a legacy, as well as, we assume, a lot of local stomachaches.

Hold My Beer

THEY ALMOST MISSED THIS ONE!

We must give the Texas Hill Country kudos because their residents know how to take weird to an extreme. The Cartoon Saloon, for example, literally made Vanessa slam on the brakes at 70 m.p.h. and back up to see what the hell was going on, almost sending us both through the windshield.

Terri: Dear God! What is wrong with you?

Vanessa: Just look! We almost missed this!

Terri: Is it worth me being decapitated by a window?

Vanessa: Am I going to be in trouble if I say yes?

Stonehenge and Easter Island in Ingram, TX. Because why not? Photo by Vanessa Orr

While the Cartoon Saloon wasn’t worth Terri’s untimely demise, it was a truly unique roadside stop. Located just outside of Comfort, TX, this collection of buildings, which includes a saloon, art studio and the Lone Star Beer Can Christmas tree that started it all, was created by cartoonist J.P. Rankin a.k.a. the Cartoon Cowboy.

Two other Texas icons (at least in our minds) are Al Shepperd and his neighbor, Doug Hill, who created Stonehenge and Easter Island, located on the grounds of the Hill Country Arts Foundation in Ingram, TX. Inspired by an upended limestone slab, Shepperd, funded by Hill, decided to create his own Stonehenge, made of plaster and graphite-covered metal mesh and steel frameworks. The display, which is 90 percent as wide and 60 percent the height of the original, stood in Shepherd’s pasture until it was relocated in the summer of 2010.

Texas’ Stonehenge is 90 percent as wide and 60 percent as high as the original Stonehenge in England. Photo by Terri Marshall

Vanessa: So I get Stonehenge. But I don’t get why there are also Easter Island figures here.

Terri: I don’t get why you get Stonehenge.

(This from a woman who started one of our mornings with the greeting, “Wake up! It’s time to go on a mermaid hunt!”)

Said mermaids were located throughout the town of San Marcos—the Mermaid Capital of Texas—and it was a lot of fun to wander around looking for these absolutely ethereal creations, which were made at the behest of the San Marcos Arts Commission for their Mermaid March in 2016. The town also features several “hidden” mini-murals, which we added to our list of strange things to find.

Perhaps best of all, or at least taking the title of the weirdest, was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Barbecue Joint, located in Bastrop, TX. The old service station, which was used in the famous slasher flick, not only features tons of horror memorabilia for purchase inside, but from what we understand, really delicious barbecue.

A barbecue place where part of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie was filmed. What could possibly go wrong? Photo by Vanessa Orr

Terri: That’s a long line of people just waiting for barbecue. We should try some.

Vanessa: You are seriously going to eat something they cook here? Their tagline is “We slaughter barbecue.” And I’m not thinking cows.

Terri: (looking at the chart on the wall that shows the best choice cuts—of humans) Maybe we can find something a little further down the road.

Discretion being the better part of valor, we left, which was one of the more sensible decisions we made along the route. (This included following a road that ended in a closed gate with the sign: Your GPS is wrong. Turn around and go back.) We continued our trek back to Galveston via Houston, secure in the fact that we’d survived yet another one of our road trips.

Human menu: Would you eat here? A barbecue joint, previously a service station, where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was filmed. Photo by Vanessa Orr
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