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Where the Wild Things Are
Explore Ranches offers outdoor enthusiasts an in-depth new way to experience the wild lands of Texas
by Laurel Miller
Photographs by Jonathan Vail
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Several of us are gingerly plucking ripe berries from a spiny agarita shrub, while chef Jesse Griffiths — owner of the acclaimed Austin butcher shop and restaurant Dai Due — forages nearby. He’ll use the fruit in a glaze for grilled, bacon-wrapped dove this evening, but right now, lunch is his priority. He hands us tongs to harvest tender young nopales paddles, which he’ll char and slice before tossing them with chile pequin, lime, white onion and goat queso fresco.
Two hours later, we’re enjoying the nopales salad, which is accompanied by coffee-rubbed axis deer backstrap cooked in the coals; for dessert there’s a decadent mesquite flour pound cake (“More like a two-pound cake,” jokes Griffiths, referring to the ungodly amounts of butter it contains). It’s an earthy, rustic meal, perfectly suited to the alfresco setting: a 4,649-acre ranch outside Junction, on the western perimeter of the Hill Country.
There are nine of us attending Explore Ranches’ inaugural culinary retreat at Llano Springs Ranch; with us are landowners Tom and Sonja Vandivier, their daughter Jessica, and Tom’s sister, Ann Brodnax. The weekend is a laid-back affair that includes lodging and a cooking class, with all meals prepared by Griffiths and featuring ranch-sourced wild game; there’s also fishing, wildlife viewing, swimming, canoeing and a property tour. The retreat is part of a progressive new tourism concept, the brainchild of native Texans Jay Kleberg, Jesse Womack and Allison Ryan (see sidebar below, “A Home on the Range”).
The three founders grew up on ranches; among them, they have more than 40 years of experience as conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts. Explore Ranches was established in 2018 and is based on a simple premise: Guests can book private stays at historic, scenic ranches that offer exclusive access to “the nation’s least explored lands.” The overarching goal, says Womack, “is to enable landowners to keep properties in the family and provide income in the form of non-consumptive activities such as hiking, birding, stargazing, paddling, horseback riding, biking, fishing or wildlife photography.”
Adds Kleberg, who is also the director of conservation initiatives for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF), “Many of our partner ranches harvest wild game as part of their land and wildlife management practices. While Explore Ranches is primarily focused on non-consumptive recreation on private lands, we offer these culinary retreats to demonstrate the benefits of managing native habitat for wild and sustainable sources of protein.” Depending on the property, guests might cook for themselves or have the option of an onsite chef, but, says Womack, “Adding a culinary component like this was part of our big picture, since people are becoming more concerned about where their food comes from.”
For Griffiths, an avid hunter and fisherman and the 2019 ambassador for TPWF’s “We Will Not Be Tamed” campaign, which advocates exploration of the state’s wild places, the opportunity to work with Explore Ranches aligned perfectly with his ethos of sourcing local ingredients. All of Dai Due’s fresh product comes from Texas. If it’s not in season or grown here, you won’t see it on the menu: Roasted mesquite beans replace chocolate, and all of the wines are made with Texas-grown grapes.
Griffiths’ side venture, the New School of Traditional Cookery “promotes responsible use of our wild resources. The aim is to educate, train and empower people within our community to utilize local foods to their fullest,” via immersive hunting and fishing weekends and workshops devoted to whole animal butchery. Although conservation is the school’s core value, Griffiths says that for him, hunting is also meditative. “It’s about being quiet, spending time in nature. I hunt close to home, identify some trees, pick some mushrooms on the way. But it’s also about frugality and feeding families.”
The Explore Ranches founders felt Griffiths would be the right fit for their culinary component, which can also include pasta or cheese-making and food preservation. “Jesse is the ideal ambassador,” Kleberg says. “His generosity and awareness of all the great things Texas has to offer — and his doing them in combination with wild game, fishing and other outdoor pursuits — encourages people to enjoy recreation in a responsible way.”
Of the collaboration — the culinary component can be added to any host property — Griffiths says, “My hope is that students come away with more confidence, especially when it comes to foraging. Most wild foods fall on the ground and rot, but in Austin alone, we have loquats, dewberries, mulberries, nopales.”
For their part, the Vandiviers were the first family to sign on as an Explore Ranches host. Tom, a retired attorney from Dripping Springs (where he and Sonja still reside part time), purchased the property with Ann and their late father in 1994. At the time, it was a former cattle ranch overrun with cedar and other invasive plant species. “We wanted to come in and start from scratch and turn it into something,” he says. “It was about molding it, making wildlife and water conservation and ecotourism our primary focus, but we also wanted to share it with folks. We’ve hosted hunters, university biology classes, birding groups, school kids. Explore Ranches’ concept is unique and very much in line with our business model.”
Tom; Sonja, a former music teacher who grew up on a South Texas rice farm; their two daughters, Laura and Jessica; and Ann spent 16 years clearing the property of cedar; today, the high plateau landscape is dotted with live and shin oaks and carpeted with wildflowers. Plantings of Texas snowbell — a tree that’s nearly extinct — are emblematic of how even long-neglected soil can be restored to fertile habitat. Says Ann, “We’re so thankful for this slice of the Hill Country. There’s a deep joy that comes from being the stewards of the land, water and wildlife here.”
While the exact date the ranch was established is unknown, the main house was built in the 1940s. The Vandiviers have found numerous 19th-century military artifacts and wagon ruts on the property, as well as hundreds of surface arrowheads (the oldest dating back 8,000 years), which are now on display in one of the simple homes constructed for guests.
In recent years, Llano Springs Ranch has received accolades for its land and wildlife stewardship, including the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award. Since 1994, the Vandiviers have offered lodging and guided hunts, operating under a Managed Lands Deer Permit for the species found on the ranch: white-tail, axis and fallow deer, and blackbuck. There are also feral hogs, wild turkeys, doves and various duck species, as well as rare birds like the golden-cheeked warbler and the blackcapped vireo and the occasional bald eagle.
One of the most distinctive features of the property is its namesake springs, which flow into the nearby South Llano River. (“This ranch and its free-flowing waters are kind of a hidden jewel,” says Kleberg. “You need to know someone to access it.”) Those same springs feed a sizable emerald body of water called the Blue Hole, which provides a quiet place to cast a line (the Vandiviers practice catch and release; an exception was made for the retreat for culinary purposes), paddle a canoe or swim.
Our final afternoon, Griffiths leads a casual demonstration cooking class while he preps dinner (fish soup with aioli, wild turkey-stuffed ravioli made with Rouge de Bordeaux heritage grain flour from Barton Springs Mill in Dripping Springs, and pecan custard). As an instructor, he’s gregarious and easy to follow and his in-depth knowledge of ingredients fascinating, but the vibe is akin to watching a friend prepare dinner.
After the class, Tom takes us on a property tour in his Kawasaki Mule; at one point we startle a herd of axis deer, including two bucks with magnificent racks. We watch, awestruck, as the animals race up the hillside and over a ridge.
Upon our return at dusk, the other family members greet us with Palomas made with Desert Door Texas Sotol, and the 13 of us sit on the porch, watching the resident wildlife drink from the springs. Binoculars are passed, and the conversation is lively, despite most of us being relative strangers. Says guest Owen Temple, an Austin-based musician and songwriter interested in conservation, “It’s great to see all of these creative people co-create an experience like this, especially in this setting. It just brings out the best in everyone, but this has still exceeded expectations in every regard.” Adds Austinite Erin Buckingham (who’s visiting with her husband, Andy), “This offers all of the things we’re into: great food, ecology, land restoration. It shows you what 20 years’ worth of hard work looks like.”
After dinner, Owen borrows a guitar and sings, while Sonja entertains us with anecdotes about ranch life. We look for shooting stars and sip William Chris Vineyards, from Hye. Before they retire for the night, the Vandiviers thank us for being part of this new venture, which has made a profound impact on them. I glance around and see I’m not the only person whose eyes are welling up.
Later, as I crawl into bed, I think about something Erin said to me at dinner. “I love how much this family loves this piece of land. It’s infectious.”
It is, indeed.
A Home on the Range
Explore Ranches was born of a desire to “get more people to experience the wilds of Texas, to open gates to private land,” says Kleberg. He grew up on a ranch in South Texas where “nature tourism has been a part of our business model for decades.” Womack manages his family’s cattle ranch in Victoria County, while Ryan, a personal trainer based in Austin, grew up visiting her family’s ranch, the Withers, in the Davis Mountains (the property is now one of Explore Ranches’ listings).
Currently, Explore Ranches has nine ranches listed, from a remote and sprawling Big Bend property that sleeps 20 to a “canyon oasis” on the confluence of Independence Creek and the Pecos River. There’s also Middle Creek Ranch, just outside Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Tejon Ranch, the largest contiguous expanse of private land in California. Ultimately, the brand aims to offer exclusive experiences on the world’s most majestic — and exclusive — lands. Accommodations range from luxury retreats to rustic cabins with meals; hosts and custom itineraries are available on all properties.