06.01.2013 - 07.01.2013 5 °C
Utopia is a tiny town in the Texas Hills area, with a population of 227. It could probably fit all its businesses in one or two blocks, but it cheats a bit by having its bank, its Post Office and its library in separate blocks all by themselves. Several years ago, Karen Valby, a writer for Entertainment Weekly spent a few days there, drawn by the thought that it was a town somewhat removed from popular culture. Her article made her rather unpopular with the locals, as they thought she had just picked out a few people and features and not given a balanced view of the town. Instead of just going "meh" and leaving things be, she moved there for a year, got right under the skin of the town, and wrote a fantastic book as a result: Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town. When I decided to come to America for my holidays (inspired by a cheap fare to Honolulu and a bit of a booking cockup which led me to carry on to the mainland), I decided to go all the way, connect with my previous road-trip here and check out Utopia.
My first visit was on a Sunday evening: I drove up through the tree-lined roads from Sabinal
This is its approach
Utopia was quite welcoming
and has a very modest main street.
I just HAD to visit the Lost Maples Cafe,
which is central to the community and, of course, to the book. A handful of tables were occupied, with lots of cross-talk between tables: as any new people came in, they would greet everyone in the room (including me): clearly coming here for Sunday dinner is a long-standing habit for these people. I'm pretty sure that if they were all wearing labels saying "Hi, I'm..." I would have known most of them, which was an odd feeling. As for the two waitresses on duty, not so much: they were both too young to have been waitressing in the book. Dinner was mainly fried stuff, so I settled for a burger and fries. There is nowhere cheap to stay in Utopia, so I had to go back down the road to Sabinal for my motel.
I was back the next morning to poke about. Of course, another compulsory visit was to the Utopia General Store, which did not look as I imagined it
Karen spent a lot of time in this store, which is a little surprising: a group of old men sit in the back of a morning and discuss the world. It sounds like a very closed and very male group, and yet she managed to spend many a morning with them, sitting in these seats
The store itself was much better stocked than I expected
Another surprise was the new business the owner of the store had started: reading the book, I had thought he was opening a somewhat fancy place for townies to buy country related outfits, but Utopia Ranch Outpost was much more focussed on the needs of its community, selling to ranchers
I don't know where I got the idea that the school was a wee bit removed from town, but it was right in the centre, closer than the Post Office and library, a pretty raw looking place
and right next to the church
I spent some time in the library, using its internet and poking about the collection but they closed at noon so the librarian could have lunch
I wasn't real hungry, but thought I should go back to the Lost Maples. This time I was served by a real star of the book, Kathy Weikamp, a surprisingly youthful looking grandmother who really worked the room and obviously knew her customers well. The cafe is bigger than I expected, with two wings
I just had some apple pie and carried on looking about the side streets of Utopia, which were not particularly flash.
About two blocks back from the main street, there's an entrance to a ranch
Right on the main street, opposite the General Store, there is a wee park, which I don't recall being mentioned at all
There is also competition to the Lost Maples, the Fiddlestix Gathering Place (I believe it is quite new) but it doesn't open Mondays, so I couldn't check it out
Java Joes, where I had hoped to get some proper coffee, is no more. One of the biggest surprises for me was how new and large the Post Office is (but it closes for lunch as well)
I went north out of town
and drove about the Texas Hills for a bit
Towns up here have a reputation for being foodie destinations, but I didn't get the right towns as I saw little to make me stop. I did get out and walk around a town called Bandera which fancies itself as the cowboy capital. My favourite buildings were its city hall and library
Somewhere along the way, I found myself behind a car transporter: as I got closer, I was intrigued to see it was carrying two Chevrolet utes which looked to be from the 1950's
My last adventure for the day was to go look at Lake Medina, a big blue shape on my map. The reality was completely different: it is a dam which the local newspaper says may well have to shut down completely if there is no significant rain shortly. No wonder I had heard so much talk of whether the possibility of rain would turn into actual rain.