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Whenever you find yourself wondering why the world just had to go and change so much, you're clearly in need of a drive back in time. Your faith in what makes good, basic sense will be restored by a leisurely trek on roadsides that skirt the northwestern edge of the Hill Country. Follow Texas Highway 29 west from Llano 35 miles to Mason, then U.S. 377 southwest about 45 miles to Junction. The journey is only 80 miles, but you're smart if you stretch it out over a couple of days.
A bucolic ranching town on the Llano River, Llano has long been a destination for hunters, nature lovers hoping for eagle sightings and folks in search of a great scenic drive. You'll do well to stop for a barbecue feast at the venerable Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, where you handpick your pork chop, steak, brisket, ribs, cabrito and sausage from the giant smokers just outside the restaurant entrance.
But if you're hoping for something with a tad more sophistication, check out the reopened Badu House. Opened as a bank in 1891, the handsome brick building became popular as a bed and breakfast. A recent and lavish renovation by a local rancher has turned it into a lovely place to dig into grilled quail or spinach and mushroom chile rellenos, with margaritas on the side. Check out the shops around the courthouse square, as well as the local history museum, near the old bridge over the pretty Llano River.
City of Llano, (325) 247-4158, www.llanotx.com
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, (325) 247-5713, www.coopersbbq.com
Badu House, (325) 247-4174, www.baduhouse.com
If you are drawn to dramatic architecture with magnificent stone construction, you'll fall in love with Mason. Park on the courthouse square and just stroll around-you'll see one house, building and church after another crafted from the beautiful rock quarried right in the area. At the new Museum on the Square, learn about the ranching heritage and see the nation's largest blue topaz, the state gemstone. You can even hunt for your own gems at local ranches.
Book ahead for a stay at Mason Square Bed and Breakfast, a three-room inn with private baths, a kitchenette, a sunroom and a balcony overlooking the town square, all above a law office. A few doors down, you'll find yourself wanting to while away a morning or afternoon at Coffee Mug n' More, a great little bookstore with cool music on the satellite radio station, excellent cappuccinos, pastries and paninis.
Mason County Chamber of Commerce, (325) 347-5758, www.masontxcoc.com
Mason Square Bed and Breakfast, (325) 347-6398 or 1-888-694-0111
Coffee Mug n' More, (325) 347-1600, www.thecoffeemugnmore.com
Hold your breath for good weather because you will want a nice day for enjoying the beautiful South Llano River State Park, sitting to one side of U.S. 377 after you drive through the town of Junction. Out here on the western edge of the Hill Country region, the 524-acre park exemplifies everything one would desire in a nature refuge: a quiet place to drop a line for catfish or fly-fishing practice; clear, flowing water that's perfect for canoeing, tubing and swimming; great trails for hiking and mountain biking; plenty of pecan-tree shade for picnicking; rocky vistas that reach forever; and wonderful places to watch wild turkey roosting from October through March.
After your frolic in the park, head on into the peaceful town, and be sure to snap a souvenir photo downtown at the Deerhorn Tree-a sculpture crafted from hundreds of deer antler pairs. Then settle in for a BLT lunch or steak supper at Isaack's Restaurant, a genuine throwback that seems unchanged over 40 years or more.
Kimble County Chamber of Commerce, (325) 446-3190, www.junctiontexas.net
South Llano River State Park, (325) 446-3994, www.tpwd.state.tx.us
Isaack's Restaurant, (325) 446-2629, www.isaacksrestaurant.com
June Naylor wrote Texas: Off the Beaten Path.