Editor’s note: for those who think the national parks are just about majestic scenery, our resident parks expert Christian is here to disavow that with a look at one of a huge portion of park sites: national historical parks. For more of his amazing writing, click here to visit his index page.
I live in Portland, Oregon. Portland is a tough place to live if you like wearing cowboy hats. Portland is a place where it’s normal for grown men to ride a skateboard as a legitimate means of transportation (and I do), but not a place where it’s normal to wear a cowboy hat. Since the Covid rules are starting to loosen up, I couldn’t bear to see my cowboy hat collect any more dust, and so I made my way out to the Lone Star State – Texas.
I showed up at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in my finest cowboy hat; I like to think the Texans thought I was a local and respected my choice to wear such a shockingly beautiful leather hat. I’m pretty confident no one noticed or cared, but a fella can daydream.
Getting to LBJ’s ranch from San Antonio is an undulating drive through Texas’s “hill country.” Disavow yourself of any notion that Texas is just a big desert. The drive from San Antonio out to LBJ’s ranch takes you past wineries, unassuming towns with populations under 100, forests with a low canopy of sprawling live oaks, and roads lined with blooming flowers. By the time I got out to the ranch, I was already thinking about buying my own ranch out there. On a related note, in addition to visiting national parks, one of my other hobbies is pretending like I have a spare $250,000 cash on hand to buy an imaginary ranch.
The LBJ ranch is where our 36th president (1963-1969) was born, lived, died, and was eventually buried. LBJ and his wife Lady Bird Johnson were big believers in conservation. During his presidency, LBJ’s administration created 50 new national park units and expanded many existing ones. His administration created national recreation areas, and with an understanding that national parks aren’t easy for everyone to get to, he also created urban park sites close to big cities. The Johnsons even donated their own home (and surrounding grounds) to the park service while they still lived there. After LBJ died in 1973, Mrs. Johnson continued to live at their ranch part time until her death in 2007.
After Lady Bird’s death, the park service took over the grounds, in accordance with the Johnsons’ wishes, and started giving tours of the ranch. Today, you can take a self-guided tour of the grounds in your own vehicle. There’s a lot to see; plan to spend at minimum an hour, or a few hours if you prefer a more leisurely pace. The ranch is definitely worth seeing, whether you’re into presidential history, ranching, or even just if you like oddities. When visiting, you’ll notice the airplane runway that LBJ built among his cow pastures for visiting politicians and dignitaries. The former president used to host meetings here, at what he called The Texas White House. You can sit on the same porch swing as dignitaries of yesteryear in front of The Texas White House and watch the Pedernales River roll by, just like they did. You’ll probably have less treaties to sign, fewer dignitaries to meet with, et cetera, but it will still be fun.
A private runway isn’t much good if you don’t have a private jet modeled after Air Force One. But LBJ had one, so it wasn’t an issue. You can also visit the president’s smaller private jet, which he jokingly called Air Force One Half. Before you leave, go visit the visitor center to learn about the movie nights that LBJ would host outdoors for friends in summer, and see the roomful of gifts that the Johnsons had for guests. The roomful of gifts, the private jet, and the working ranch got me wondering where the Johnsons got their wealth. Ask a friendly park ranger and they’ll explain to you that a great deal of the Johnsons’ money came from Lady Bird. She invested $41,000 in inheritance into early TV and radio stations. The couple built a small media empire and Lady Bird’s initial investment turned into $150 million.
When you find the time, I highly recommend putting on your best cowboy hat and making your way through the Texas hill country to visit the former home, and current burial place, of the Johnson family at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
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