I recently returned from Utopia. It wasn’t an imagined place of perfect governance and social well-being, but it was pretty darn close. Located in the Texas Hill Country next to the lazy Sabinal River, Utopia nestles among sprawling live oaks and gnarled and twisted cypress. It is a Camelot of golden buildings, caliche roads, and welcoming people weathered by the sun, time, or both. Utopia is small. But it is booming. There were 99 people in 2012; now there are 211. And it’s no wonder.
Everything anyone needs can be found on Main Street. There is a garage, pub, post office, general store, museum, lodge, a “Huntin’ Stuff” store, and the Lost Maples Café, the community's breathing heart.
The café opens at 7:00 A.M. for the local folks who order plates of biscuits and gravy and turn in unison when someone new walks in. Walls full of memories and the occasional trophy head surround spotless 1950s linoleum tables and mismatched chairs. The café is a place where a teenager wearing dusty cowboy boots, blue jeans with no holes, and a ball cap can order breakfast to go by speaking to a person instead of a box with a voice. He’ll also get a friendly “Howdy” from the old-timers. A breakfast taco, consisting of freshly cooked eggs, hash browns, bacon or sausage, cheese, and jalapenos, if you dare, is the café’s fast food. Wrapped in foil, it stays hot, and a small cup of coffee is served in a big cup so you won’t spill on the two-track roads.
The town folk preserved its oldest structure, built in 1873.
They take pride in sharing their history with the Sabinal County Museum, well worth a stop after biscuits and gravy at the Lost Maples Cafe. Their artifacts, donated by original settlers’ families, celebrate their past instead of canceling it. A telegraph key connected them to their neighboring towns.
While I was there, three different people pointed to a mannequin wearing a long black dress and said, “That was my great-great (The number of “greats” varied) grandma’s.” The waist was narrower than my thigh.
ucked in one corner was a veteran’s display that cinched my heart. The WWII wool uniform jacket would probably fit a ten-year-old in today’s world. A list of Utopia’s heroes, printed on red, white, and blue star-spangled paper, hung on the wall. This tiny town sent their sons, husbands, and fathers to fight for their country. I read each name with a silent thank you.
I spent three hours in the three-room museum surrounded by the history of this heartland town. It was one of the best days. My friend, Linda Weber, was launching her book, Finding Utopia, there to celebrate thirty years of work on her fictionalized family story that rocked this town in the 1920s. Linda’s grandmother had been murdered at the age of 23 while her five children, including Linda’s father, witnessed their mother’s shotgun death. The town caught the bad guy, but only after he’d burned down the school. Linda’s launch stirred the locals into action because she, I, and bestselling author Amanda Skenandore were donating our book sale profits to their Veteran’s Memorial, slatted for installation on the 4th of July.
Linda prepared well. The local pub catered sandwiches and trays of pickin’s. Linda hauled wine from the Utopia winery in Oregon. She had t-shirts, book bags, candles, and Utopia pancake syrup for sale, so no one would go home empty-handed if they didn’t want books. She also held a raffle for a gift basket of all things Utopian. In true small-town fashion, Reta won and heard the news before Linda did.
The town turned out in their Sunday best—indigo blue jeans, tooled leather suspenders, floral print blouses, and hats. Some younger folks joined us too. A reporter from the Hondo Anvil Herald came. She was 76 and told me, “I see all the shootings, accidents, and events in these here parts.” She was also on the Hondo library board, with a special section for veterans. I gave her a book for the library, and she invited me to her town.
Linda, Amanda, and I thought we were prepared. We had our Squares, cell phones, computers, books, and swag. But there was no Wi-Fi, and the cell service was iffy. The locals knew better. They came with cash and checkbooks. They opened their wallets and shared stories about their ancestors, country, and just living. Their pride and warmth were as big as the great state of Texas. One charming, well-dressed lady gladly took our empty cardboard boxes to layer in her caliche soil to amend it Utopia style.
I sold out. Amanda almost did. Linda sold cases. The Veteran’s Memorial Committee triumphed. They needed a grand to finish the memorial. We brought in more, thanks to the generosity of many. Nobody expected that…nobody. The amount we raised was cause for another celebration—with the leftovers.
The few hours I spent in a room full of generous and gracious people will stay with me forever. I had a taste of utopia in Utopia.
And fell in love with the Texas hill country, a place where the roads hug the contours of the land instead of scarring it, and sandstone road cuts tell their stories in chapters of strata. It’s where you can drive the straight and narrow for miles while your tires sing to keep you company. And you can stop in the middle of the road because the only moving thing is a scissor-tail flycatcher swooping up a meal. The air is heavy with moisture, and the mesquite is so dense and uniform that it looks trimmed. The clouds, the sounds, and the landscape are
primal and paramount. And the gates of ranches resemble the Alamo on the way to Utopia.
Like the lone Crested Caracara whose golden face blazed among a flock of Black vultures, Utopia shines behind its resolute exterior, blinking with fireflies along the crystal clear Sabinal waters where the turtles and minnows dwell.