Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Driving the Devil’s Backbone

Ranch Road 32 — also known as “the Devil’s Backbone,” a name it shares with the rugged ridgeline along which its runs — is a strange little stretch of road that somehow feels more isolated than it should and which is almost Gothic in its features. Ancient farmsteads lay in the woods and fields along its length, some clearly occupied, some obviously abandoned, and others apparently somewhere in between. Old model trucks, some perfectly restored and others rusting away, sit in yards and meadows. Twisting lanes, a few with appropriately eerie names, such as Purgatory Road, lead off to the north and south, their mysteries concealed almost immediately behind bends.

The Devil’s Backbone runs about 23 miles from where it begins at the intersection with Highway 281 just west of the Comal County line near Blanco, to where it ends at the junction with RR 12, a little bit south of Wimberley. Having a name at all in a state where a disproportionate number of roads are known only by numbers is distinction enough, to be sure, and having a name straight out of a Western is at least twice as good.

That Western ambience is not just a coincidence, of course, and cowboys once ran cattle along the Devil’s Backbone and enjoyed the same striking views that reward travelers to this day. Sections of this drive are, indeed, very beautiful, and at several places drivers can see the land descend dramatically from the edge of the escarpment and into rolling planes to the north. A picnic area in the eastern half of the drive is a good place to pull over for a break and enjoy this view.

Other scenic highpoints include haunting views of the Little Blanco River, straight as an arrow at some points, flanked by immense cypresses, and — being completely dry — appearing more like some long abandoned road than any sort of waterway.

This drive will also be very enlightening for anyone who has ever wondered why Comal County is shaped the way it is, and they will have a much better sense for this after driving this route. The diagonal, northeastern boundary of Comal County runs parallel to the Devil’s Backbone and, following the topography of the region, essentially has one of its edges formed by it.

Another recommended stop along RR 32, located about halfway along its length and just a little to the north of it on Fischer Store Road, is the original family Fischer store itself, which has operated off-and-on at the site for more than a century-and-a-half. Today, the long, corrugated metal building is run as both a museum and an antique shop by Charlene Fischer, whose great-grandfather opened the original general store on the site in 1853 (the current structure was built in 1902).

“There were cattle drives through here,” Charlene said of her ancestors’ decision to establish a store on the Devil’s Backbone. “It took so much land to run cattle that everyone was very spread out and it was a fairly large trade area at the time.” Because of this, she said, the store had two large warehouses for storing inventory, one of which can still stands today.

Back in the old days, Charlene says, driving the Devil’s Backbone was very tough, and Model Ts had to run up the steepest slopes backwards because they were not powerful enough to go up them forwards without overheating. It’s a somewhat easier drive today, of course, and a bit of an excursion into times past in Comal County.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when exploring the Devil’s Backbone:

* At several points, such as near the little Blanco River, there are good places to pull over, park, and walk around. Watch out, however, for anyone who might be driving too fast down RR 32 if you do get out of your car or slow down to enjoy the scenery!

* There are few amenities available along RR 32, so be sure to take any snacks or drinks you might want to have with you. And, as it is a relatively isolated area, be sure to have a cell phone with you as well if you own one (reception does not appear to be a problem along most of the road).

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