A few weeks back we took a weekend trip to celebrate our anniversary in the western Hill Country, a place where unspoiled valleys fold into ridges that roll to the sky. Cruising through that beauty makes the tension drain from your shoulders, particularly if you take FM 337 west from Medina, hang a left on RR 187 at Vanderpool (population 20, more or less), and pull up at Hick's Bakery and Restaurant in Utopia.
Most days are good in Utopia. The Sabinal River runs alongside town, the land is greening after recent rains and the town's 400 residents have a church, two feed stores, a high school, a general store, two cafes, a French antiques store, a local history museum, a library, a bank, and a gas station (the only one for over 30 miles).
The library is built of Hill Country limestone and landscaped with native plants. Looks like the town loves its books.
Not too much, not too little. Simply Utopia.
When we pulled up the second time, a big white pickup truck, high off the ground for passing over rocks and ruts, pulled up next to us. Two men got out. The driver was tall and lanky with a mane of gold-brown hair and an unmistakable voice. His jeans were tucked into fine working-ranch knee boots. He looked like he belonged in the place, not just Hicks, but Utopia and the hills. His friend looked like he might have been from a big city.
I dug my elbow into Denny's ribs. "He looks just like that guy in the movie 'Sideways', the character that got into all the trouble. Sounds like him too." We followed them in and sat at a table in the back room, just them and us. When we got out our bird books and the list of what we might see the next day at Lost Maples State Park and started talking about Bushtits and Yellow-throated Vireos, the two men relaxed into conversation.
Your average cowboy doesn't talk about his agent or Robert Deniro or the movie industry job market. Turns out Tom Church has a ranch above Vanderpool. Someone said he comes in occasionally, is nice, like a normal person. Mr. Church gets respect from the locals. He raises cattle, a profession akin to a calling in Texas.
Denny was taken with the experience. He loved the movie, it was fun to see someone who played a big part in it. And the food was good too.
You never know what you'll find when go off the beaten path in the Texas Hill Country. Particularly in a place called Utopia.