It’s hard to go anywhere on an empty tank.
This year has drained us in many ways. The time I used to spend commuting is now spent making sure my kids and I are all on the right Zoom calls at the right hour. The effort that went into planning coffee dates and happy hours with friends is now spent trying to come up with new things to cook for dinner. Keeping up with the news cycle now requires new quantities of emotional labor that I didn’t think I had.
Traveling has always been a way for me to escape those day-to-day stressors, to recharge with my family in a new place and experience new sights, smells and sounds. Even coffee tastes different when I’m enjoying it with a new view.
But traveling during the coronavirus has its own challenges. My kids and I took one out-of-state trip this year, driving 10 hours to Missouri to spend a couple of weeks with my mom, but other than that, we’ve been sticking close to home. A camping trip here. A night in Fredericksburg there. An impromptu Sunday afternoon in San Antonio.
These day trips and quick overnights have been the key to my sanity, and my Instagram feed tells me I’m not alone. Airbnb says that more than half of all rentals are within 200 miles of a guest’s origin, up from a third from February.
To celebrate these smaller but no less important adventures, we’re starting a series called Fill Your Tank about short trips around Central Texas that require less than a tank of gas and can provide a much-needed boost to your mental health.
I took one of these overnights in September. My friend Dani, who has become part of my family’s quarantine pod this year, had found the Flophouze Shipping Container Hotel outside Round Top that was our destination for the night.
She picked me up with her dog Makeda in the backseat, and we headed east on Texas 71, checking in on a Thursday afternoon.
The hotel features six standalone cabins built within a large shipping container. Each one has sleeping quarters in the back, a bathroom in the middle and a kitchen and living room facing a large field to the west.
Neighboring cows sometimes graze through the property, but the rentals are well-designed and more upscale than I thought they were going to be, clad with sustainably harvested wood from upstate New York and reclaimed lumber from a distillery in Kentucky.
Owner Matt White also runs an architectural salvage company called Recycling the Past next door that is full of vintage building materials and weird treasures you didn’t know you (or your house or your yard) needed.
Each unit has its own hammock and a firepit, as well as a front porch with Adirondack chairs, perfect for enjoying that away-from-home coffee that might be my favorite quiet moment of any trip.
For dinner that night, we called in takeout from Mandito’s, a popular Mexican restaurant 5 miles away in Round Top. Dani picked up our order — queso, carnitas tacos and tamales — while I strolled around the grounds, soaking up a sunset while walking her dog. We’d just had to put down our own elderly dog earlier in the week, and Makeda sensed that I needed some healing time with another kindhearted animal.
By the time Dani got back with the food, I was feeling calmer than I’d felt in weeks. Spending this time with a friend in a new place was already boosting my endorphins.
We stayed only one night at Flophouze, but by checkout time, I was wishing we had another night. We didn’t stop by the nearby Fayette Lake, which is apparently good for both fishing and swimming, but I did dip in the shipping container pool at the heart of Flophouze before checking out.
Dani was surprised when I suggested a jaunt to the Texas Quilt Museum about 10 miles away in La Grange. This little fabric arts museum has been one of my favorite road trip stops for nearly a decade since it opened. Like many friends around my age, she hadn’t yet had her "Wow, this is a quilt?" experience, which usually happens while standing in front of an intricately pieced work of art that transforms one’s idea of what a quilt can be, but the two exhibits on display this fall — an incredibly lifelike collection from Houston quilter Cynthia England and a bird-themed show called "Flying High" — did the trick.
By the time I was ready to head out to Round Top for lunch, Dani had made fast friends with Linda, one of the volunteer docents, who was explaining every detail to this quilt convert who was ready to linger.
My stomach was starting to grumble, though, so we hit the highway back toward Round Top, a town most known for its twice-a-year antiques shows.
We were a few weeks early for the fall show, which draws thousands of people to the pop-up tents all along the beautiful Texas 237 that cuts through town, but I was happy to visit when the town wasn’t so overcrowded.
Royers Round Top Cafe is usually at the top of foodies’ dining lists in Round Top, but we opted for the Garden Co., a cafe with a huge patio shaded by an epic oak tree. The masked staff took our orders — fried chicken salad and a shrimp po’boy, both delicious — while we soaked up the cool breeze and early fall sunshine.
The Garden Co., whose original location is in Schulenburg, is in the middle of Rummel Square, a collection of shops where we strolled, checking out vintage jackets at Dirty Bohemian and jewelry and candles at Townsend Provisions.
We spent some time strolling around the shops in Henkel Square Market on the east side of the town square, which since the 1960s has featured a collection of historic cabins and homes from the area, as well as an old church that’s worth stepping inside.
Three of the buildings are original to the property, including the house where Royers Pie Haven is located. (We didn’t stop there for dessert, but we should have.)
Our afternoon destination was Kooper Family Whiskey Co. in Ledbetter, and we decided to take the backroads to get there, stopping first by Round Top Festival Institute, also known as Festival Hill. Pianist James Dick opened the acclaimed music venue in 1971, and it continues to host aspiring young musicians from around the world.
The 210-acre campus, including beautiful gardens and historic homes, is worth checking out even if you aren’t there to catch a show, but there are a number of outdoor concerts planned this fall.
On Friday and Saturday afternoons, Michelle and Troy Kooper welcome visitors to their whiskey blending facility and tasting room in Ledbetter, an unincorporated town on U.S. 290 that is often overlooked by passersby.
The Koopers started blending whiskeys as a hobby while living in California, and they decided to turn that passion into a business after they moved to Dripping Springs about a decade ago. In 2012, they opened a blending house in an old general store in Ledbetter, where guests can now sample the Koopers’ half a dozen whiskeys, bourbons and ryes, most of which are also available for sale at liquor stores throughout the state, as well as California and New York. (The tasting room is the only place to buy their sour mash bourbon called the Prodigal Son.)
Rather than distill their own whiskey, Michelle Kooper explained during a tasting that Friday afternoon, they buy unaged whiskey from several distilleries in the Midwest and then blend and age them in several different types of barrels housed in the tasting room.
The Koopers are full of stories about their ancestors who paved the way for them to start their own business while raising two small kids, including Troy Kooper’s grandfather, Howard, a boxer who is on the label of the Kooper Family Rye. Howard won the U.S. Armed Forces Heavyweight Boxing Championship in 1944 when he was just 22 years old.
That was a difficult era in America, when we weren’t dealing with a pandemic, but we were living in a prolonged crisis nonetheless. Staying socially distanced from other people while my friend and I sought out good food and laid-back mornings and even a little masked retail therapy felt like a real treat.
As our 24-hour break from reality came to a close, we sipped on one of Michelle Kooper’s handcrafted cocktails — an old fashioned, of course — and decided to take the long way home so we could drive through the country roads, windows down, soaking up the fresh air and the golden fields.
We still had a quarter tank of gas left, but we headed back to Austin with a new love of shipping containers (and quilts), a new appreciation for the craft of blending whiskey and fresh legs for whatever stage we’re in, in this marathon.