Taking a few friends with me to enjoy one of my favorite parts of the state, I drive about an hour northwest of Houston, deep into the undulating countryside, to the Lonesome Pine Ranch in Austin County. One of three area ranches owned by Bellville attorneys John and Taunia Elick, the Lonesome Pine is a guest ranch with a reputation for generous hospitality. Folks from all over Texas and from places as faraway as Japan and The Netherlands come here to lose themselves in an experience the Elicks call Texas Ranch Life. I’m eager to investigate the offerings for myself.
I arrive expecting we’ll ride horses and explore the lush landscape that has become so popular with visitors to nearby Chappell Hill and Round Top. I figure we’ll relax the rest of the time, perhaps go fishing in one of the ranch’s numerous lakes and ponds, or maybe even wander down the road to Bellville to eat brisket and ribs at the Silver Saddle Smokehouse, a barbecue joint the Elicks opened earlier this year. Little do I realize that the couple keeps an unlikely combination of diversions at the ready.
First on the agenda is horseback riding, but John Elick doesn’t allow folks to jump on his horses and ride off toward the sunset, no matter how much experience they claim. He spends up to an hour beforehand instructing guests in horsemanship inside a large arena at Lonesome Pine headquarters. Early in my adventure, I learn that I’m hardly the skilled horsewoman I’ve fancied myself. When I climb atop a gorgeous palomino named Goldchina, the horseback training I had as a child seems to have faded over time; however, after John’s humbling and constructive critique, I soon feel trail-worthy.
John leads us out for a two-hour ride, during which we explore verdant, rolling pastures. Swells crowned with clusters of live oaks provide views that take my breath away. As we ride, John shows us the magnificent Longhorns he raises as beef cattle and the small herd of buffalo he maintains at the ranch. Depending on the time of day and year, John says, you can see deer and turkey, too.
Back at headquarters, some of the guests join John and ranch cowboys in rounding up cattle. Using all-terrain vehicles known as “mules,” other ranch hands carry the rest of us out to the cattle pens, where we can watch the action. Later that afternoon, my friends and I sit atop iron fence rails surrounding a special arena and observe John atop one of his grand cutting horses. We watch in awe as he guides his mount mechanical bull—all activities the Elicks are happy to schedule upon request.
Then, Taunia shares an unexpected ranch diversion: She offers to show us her collection of eight historic houses on the Lonesome Pine. The structures provide accommodations for Texas Ranch Life guests—my friends and I have claimed the Creekside House—and also showcase Taunia’s extraordinary passion for restoration and renovation. Since 1997, Taunia has found and purchased about a dozen dilapidated 1800s houses in various parts of Austin County, rescued them from demolition, and relocated most to the Lonesome Pine. Her impressive achievements in saving and overhauling the homes, most of which feature a large center hall and painting and stenciling by German-Texan craftsmen, were the focus of a story in The New York Times last fall.
The two-bedroom Lakehouse, her first house project, overlooks a 13-acre lake about two-and-a-half miles from the ranch headquarters. Reasonably priced and extremely private, it remains the most popular lodging for couples or small families. The Creekside House at the ranch headquarters (Taunia’s personal favorite) offers three bedrooms elegantly decorated with fine fabrics and heavy, wooden, antique furniture in pristine condition. Each room has a private bath, and the house has an ample, colorful kitchen in which guests can make breakfast and visit over coffee if they decide to opt out of the communal breakfast at headquarters.
“Each house is like a treasure hunt. When the houses are lifted for moving, it’s fun to see what’s underneath,” says Taunia. “Many have beautiful, hand-hewn cedar or cypress beams. And it’s always exciting to find original paint and stenciling beneath layers of cloth and wallpaper!”
One of her current projects is an 1830s house she hopes to move from nearby Industry to a private spot on a seven-acre lake on the Lonesome Pine. She hasn’t decided what she will do with two other old houses and a barn that beg restoration on the Elicks’ Eagle Roost Ranch along the San Bernard River in south Austin County, some 20 miles from the Lonesome Pine. After the tour, we leave Taunia at the barn to sort out tomorrow’s breakfast menu, and my gang retires to the Creekside House porch, where we sink into comfortable wicker chairs. Looking beyond the towering oaks to watch the night sky fall, seeing glittering stars that never seem as bright at home, we settle easily into the ranch’s nocturnal rhythms.
This, I learn, is the most common activity at Texas Ranch Life. After a deep night’s sleep in my antique, four-poster bed with downy pillows and a fluffy comforter, I join Taunia and John, my friends, and other guests around the massive table in the barn’s modem, attractive kitchen. It turns out that all of the visitors have spent the previous evening stargazing, and rediscovering the bliss of silence.
As we pour more mugs of coffee and enjoy the ranch’s own Longhorn sausage and a cheesy brunch casserole with homemade salsa, Taunia talks about when the couple’s three daughters will be back home on a visit from college, and John chats with fellow ranchers who stop in to talk about cattle and horses. By now, my friends and I feel as though we’re part of the family and don’t want to leave. We just want to stay here and live the ranch life.