Feature Article: Austin Travel

Heart of Texas
Photographer Matthew Johnson explores small town life in the geographic center of our state

 


 

The road trip has always been an important part of my work as a photographer. I find that the most exciting projects begin with a general concept and then simply getting in a car and driving until I find the story (or the story finds me). There is certainly a risk, or maybe even a likelihood, that you will do a lot of wandering without much discovery, but when you can pull it off you’re likely to be rewarded with more interesting work. I feel the same rules apply to traveling; the rewards are always sweeter when you wander down the side alleys and get off the beaten path. When Tribeza approached me about doing a photo essay for their first-ever travel issue I was grateful they were willing to give me the freedom to wander.

The Hill Country isn’t exactly off the beaten track, with great vineyards along Highway 290 and popular shops and B&Bs lining towns like Fredericksburg. But to me, a road trip through some of the smaller towns to meet people and capture the everyday things going on in their lives sounded most appealing. One of the things I’ve learned about travel is that seeking out a different angle than the same viewing platform that everybody else stands on is worth the effort. Even if the backside of a famous monument isn’t as spectacular as the postcard view out front, you might get lucky and make friends with the security guard and end up getting a private tour. It won’t happen every time, but it will never happen when buying your ticket at the front gate and taking the guided tour with everyone else.

A little research revealed that the town of Brady is widely regarded as the geographic center of Texas, so I figured it would be a good starting point for a photo essay on life in the heart of Texas. Driving west from Austin out Highway 71, I looped through Llano, Brady, Melvin, Eden, Menard, and Mason. Everywhere I stopped I found people with interesting stories. None of the towns had t-shirt or souvenir shops that draw the major tourist crowds, but all of the towns were as interesting—if not more interesting—than the places normally celebrated in travel brochures. I’d always prefer a chance to stumble upon a fiddle contest in a historic theater, a ranch rodeo in a place called Eden, or a conversation with a pitmaster who has been working at a classic Texas BBQ joint for over 20 years, than visit the places everyone else will be rushing to next weekend.

Matthew Johnson Texas tribeza travel
Sarah Brown, 18 from Weatherford, TX
“Ranching is part of life around here. The further east you go the more you lose that. A lot of places it’s a lost art, but not around here.”

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After the teams at the Spring Stampede were introduced and the national anthem was sung, the cowboys took a few minutes to warm their horses back up and get ready for the competition. The sight of 100 riders circling the arena, stirring up dust and getting their game faces on was beautiful. This was definitely a situation where even though I’m shooting with old and slow film cameras, I shot as fast as I could since I never know what I’ll get until the film is developed.

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Kenny Oestreich, 52
Pitmaster at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, TX
“I’ve been working here for 21 years and I still get new people coming in every day. Meeting folks from all over is always interesting. It’s a small town, but you just can’t beat it. Everybody knows everybody; I wouldn’t raise my kids anywhere else.”

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The Presidio de San Saba is right outside the town of Menard. Founded in 1757 and operated by the Colonial Spanish Army until it was abandoned in 1772, the old ruins are a nice stop for history buffs touring historic sites in the area like nearby Fort McKavett.

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Dani Carter, 10 from Queen Valley, AZ
“It’s great playing the fiddle. I get to travel around and see friends and work on getting better.”

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matthew johnson tribeza texas travel
Edward Velez, 59
Pitmaster at Texas Deadwood BBQ in Mason, TX
“I got to cooking for a lot of people, just for the fun of it. Every wedding, graduation or birthday party I was cooking and I finally got tired of doing it for free. I started the business and been going at it for about 12 years now. People around here know me as the BBQ guy which I don’t mind one bit.”

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This intersection in Brady caught my eye. It had a nostalgic look to it and I like that you can’t tell if the photo was taken last week or 40 years ago. I can’t imagine a better slogan than, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” for a general store like this.

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Eddy Cowen, 46 from Knickerbocker, TX
“I been ranching here my whole life. I love the people around here. It’s always been a good place to live.”

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As I was walking away after photographing the Brady sign I noticed a couple walking up with their dog. They had him hop up onto it for a picture so I ran back to get a shot. The little guy gave me a perfect look when I whistled.

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Susan Grote, 62 from Mason, TX
Co-owner of Mason County Collectibles along with her husband, Warren
“My dad started this place and eventually he was told he needed a new roof. He decided that if he needed a roof he might as well put four new walls up and add another floor. He started adding more and more stuff and before long the second story was full too. People would come in and see something they liked and ask him to call the vendor to see about dropping the price and he would tell them, ‘It’s not a mall, we own it all.’”

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The posture and look of this couple sitting in the bleachers at the Eden Spring Stampede rodeo instantly caught my eye. The scene just seemed to capture what I imagined life was like in a small town called Eden.

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Levi McVey, 3 from Wingate, TX
“The first time I did mutton busting I was a little nervous. This time I wasn’t, I was excited!”

Matthew Johnson tribeza texas travel
This old abandoned Bethel Chapel was next to a cemetery outside the little town of Katemcy. It was a beautiful spot with graves dating back to the 1800s.

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Leah Sawyer, 15 from Weatherford, TX
“I’m in my family band and we travel around and play fiddle contests all over. It feels great to play the fiddle. It givesme an outlet to share myself with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

matthew johnson tribeza texas travel
Brant Speed, 36
Cyclist from Austin on Regency Bridge in Mullin, TX
“Riding my bike through the Texas Hill Country and passing through these small towns has always been a highlight of my riding. Being able to ride on the small back roads I get to see things that most folks never get to see: old barns, small farm houses, and the odd rusted out classic truck. Those kinds of things always bring a smile to my face, no matter what is going on in my life.”

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Marvin Green
Concho County Constable for past 32 years
“Eden is a good place, I know everybody inthe county. Nothing much bad ever happens so it’s a nice place to be constable.”

Matthew Johnson
It’s a simple photo, but I found this horse saddled up and resting in the shade before the Eden Spring Stampede rodeo beautiful.

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I stumbled upon this seemingly random sand sculpture in a park along the river in Llano. I’m sure there is a story behind it, but with no sign and not another soul in sight to ask, its story remains a mystery to me.

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Wade Kaiser, 4, with his dog, Quincy from Sonora, TX
Got second place in the mutton bustin competition
Wade: “Mutton busting isn’t scary, it’s fun to ride!” His mom: “He’s kind of obsessed.”

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The stacks of old National Geographics in Mason County Collectibles were the first things to catch my eye when I entered the store. Dusty and falling over, they reminded me more of what you might find in an old farmhouse or garage than in a store.

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Billy Terry, 56
Hunter, pumping gas at Jacoby's Feed and Seed in Melvin, TX
“My grandparents lived out on the lake so we’d always come out here to hunt and fish and have good home cooking. I don’t have any family out here anymore, but I come back to hunt six to seven times a year now. It’s still a special place.”

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Heading out of Eden you see “Y’all Come Back” on the backside of the welcome sign. The people living there probably hardly even notice it anymore, but I’m sure a lot of thought went into deciding to put that sign up. Little details like that always catch my attention; it’s the type of thing that says a lot to me about a community.

 


Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017


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