Starting the Lonesome Dove Cattle Trail

“Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.” – Captain Augustus McCrae to July Johnson, from “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry.

“If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk—and feisty gentlemen.”  – Captain Augustus McCrae to Lorena, from “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry.

Our dog eared copy of Lonesome Dove
Our dog-eared copy of Lonesome Dove

One of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove, the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry. I am currently reading  it for the third time, and Henry has read it two or three times. We both also love the 1989 TV miniseries starring Robert Duvall as Captain Augustus McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Captain Woodrow Call.

In fact, the whole idea for our Lonesome Dove Cattle Trail, Gulf Coast, Cajun Country, Whooping Crane, Bluebonnet and Brisket Tour began over a year ago when we watched the  miniseries for about the third time. As we were watching, the idea of a trip to follow the cattle trail through Texas as far as Ogalalla, Nebraska began to form. Once we started talking about Texas we decided to time it so we could try to see the whooping cranes and bluebonnets. We couldn’t pass by Cajun Country or the Gulf Coast without spending some time there, either.

The story begins at the Hat Creek Cattle Company in the fictional south Texas border town of Lonesome Dove and revolves around the two former Texas Rangers Gus and Call as they lead a cattle drive to Montana.

Lonesome Dove Trail Map
Lonesome Dove Trail Map courtesy

Since Lonesome Dove is a fictional place, we had to do some research to figure out where to start.We studied maps of the cattle trail and the closest place we could find with a nice place to stay was Laredo.

Lake Casa Blanca didn’t exist back then and Laredo doesn’t resemble the dusty, dry town of Lonesome Dove at all. When we left Laredo and started driving north on I-35 towards San Antonio the landscape looked more like it must have looked like to the cowboys. On both sides of the interstate were fields of cactus, mesquite, yucca and dust with few trees in sight. The railroad, which was built following the cattle trail that was used by the real cattlemen, runs beside I-35 most of the way to San Antonio. There are few towns and for miles and miles there was no sign of civilization except the vehicles on the interstate.

We drove through the city of San Antonio (no fun pulling a fifth wheel) and set up camp beside Canyon Lake to explore the Texas Hill Country. When we crossed the Nueces River I could picture the cowboys on their horses herding the cattle across.

In the story of Lonesome Dove several events take place in San Antonio and in and around Austin. Of course, all the places in the story are different now. San Antonio and Austin are big cities and both are surrounded by suburbs, big box stores, strip malls, and outlet malls.

So our plans have changed. As Henry said, it would be disappointing to try to find where a fictional event might have taken place, because we might get there only to find a Home Depot sitting on the location.  Instead of driving through the plains of Kansas and Nebraska  (in the beginning of tornado season), we will spend more time in Texas. We will leave Lonesome Dove in our imagination.

Hey, it’s our trip! The beauty of not making reservations ahead of time is that we can change our plans if we want.