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Heart of Texas

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

Heart of Texas

Feature Article: Austin Travel

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.

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Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017

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