Podcast Episodes

A Presidential Barbecue

Barbecued meat has played a surprisingly important role in United States presidential politics over the years. George Washington was a Virginia-style barbecue enthusiast. He fed his soldiers a barbecue feast at the end of the Revolutionary War. When the cornerstone of the Capitol building was laid, he presided over the event that had a 500-pound ox barbecued old Virginia-style.

Adams wrote that barbecues “tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty. They render the People fond of their Leaders in the Cause, and averse and bitter against all opposers.”

Recently, archaeologists discovered a barbecue pit on the south lawn of Montpelier that was in use during Madison’s lifetime. As President Jackson was traveling to Fredericksburg to attend a barbecue, the first recorded instance of physical assault on an American president occurred. A soldier who had faced a court-martial for misconduct stopped the President on the road and grabbed President Jackson’s nose and shook it as retribution, before running away.

After the civil war, and before television, when many Americans weren’t guaranteed three solid meals a day, a free barbecue dinner was a compelling incentive to listen to a politician pitch for votes.

But one President made barbecue an art form.

On today’s episode, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, the Texas White House as it’s known, in Stonewall Texas.

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As a teenager, Lyndon Baines Johnson spent summers helping out on his Uncle Clarence Martin’s cattle ranch along the Pedernales River. Johnson’s attachment to this land was strong, having been born down the road on a farm which had originally been settled by his grandfather. Young Lyndon’s fond memories of family gatherings at the Martin house and his daydreams of becoming a rancher were the genesis of his desires to one day own this piece of the Texas Hill Country.

In 1951, Johnson’s widowed aunt gave him that chance. In return for a lifetime right to Johnson’s mother’s house in Johnson City, Frank Martin gave her dilapidated 250-acre ranch to the then-senator. He soon began what became a continuous series of improvements to the newly christened “LBJ Ranch.” Not everyone was confident that Senator Johnson could become a successful rancher. When he applied for a loan to purchase cattle, Percy Brigham, Blanco National Bank President reportedly told him, “Lyndon, if you want to just walk around in yellow cowboy boots and proclaim yourself a rancher, that’s one thing. But if you intend to make money ranching, I hope you know something about cattle.”

But Johnson applied his prodigious energy and determination into creating a showcase 2,700-acre ranch, complete with 400 head of registered Hereford cattle. All at once, he acquired the image of a western rancher and a place to recharge his batteries. Both of these contributions from the LBJ Ranch would be invaluable as he entered the harsh spotlight of national politics.

During his demanding tenure as Senate Majority Leader, Vice-President and finally President of the United States, Johnson still managed to keep his finger on the pulse of the LBJ Ranch. His near-daily phone calls from Washington to check on the rainfall or the suitability of a pasture for grazing were often frustrating for Johnson’s ranch foreman, Dale Malecheck. But it was these discussions of routine matters that helped give Johnson a sense of control in a decade marked by divisive social issues and fracturing foreign conflicts.

The LBJ Ranch also served as Johnson’s stage. Visitors to the ranch included notable figures like President Richard M. Nixon, President Harry S Truman, then President-elect John F. Kennedy, Reverend Billy Graham, the President of Mexico and the Chancellor of West Germany. Guests would be loaded into one of the white Lincoln Continental convertibles for a personalized tour of the ranch, often at dizzying speeds.

No tour would be complete without a drive through the center of the Show Barn to admire the prizewinning Hereford cattle. Registered Herefords sold for breeding purposes constituted a large portion of a rancher’s income, and stock shows played a large part in determining the worth of select animals.

Cattle were painstakingly pampered and groomed for these shows in the Show Barn. Prize-winning cattle would command higher prices when sold as registered bulls or show calves to 4-H Club members, Future Farmers of America students, and other ranchers. Johnson was keenly aware of the practical advantage to winning such prizes. He would often drive past the scale and loading chute near the Show Barn, telling his guests, “That’s where the cattle go out and the money comes in.”

The Show Barn was a symbol of Johnson’s increasing sophistication. The center for Johnson’s early ranching operation was the Martin barn near the main ranch house. With cattle operations located so close to the main house, guests would often watch, and, more often than not, interfere with the ranch work. Mrs. Johnson did not relish the thought of someone getting hurt and she did not particularly care for the smells and noises of the nearby cattle. To alleviate his wife’s concerns, President Johnson moved his cattle operation in 1966 to a new Show Barn about a mile north of the house.

During his presidency, Johnson signed into law almost 300 bills dealing with environmental protection and other resource conservation issues. At the LBJ Ranch, he utilized new ranching practices that demonstrated these stewardship concepts and increased the revenue potential of the ranch. Pastures were fenced to allow grazing rotation, fields were terraced to prevent soil erosion, and “tanks” or ponds were constructed to catch surface water run-off. More than 1,100 acres were planted in improved varieties of grasses. Johnson built one of the first liquid fertilizer plants in this area and had the ranch soil analyzed to determine the proper ingredients for the fertilizer. With additional irrigation and fertilizer, a rancher could graze two cows and calves per acre, instead of the one cow and calf per sixteen acres that was more typical for an unimproved pasture. The LBJ Ranch became the flagship of the various ranching properties owned or leased by President Johnson.

But beef wasn’t just grown at what became known as the Texas White House. It was consumed there.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson hosted large Texas-style barbecues along the Pedernales River in a grove of trees near their home. Guests-of-honor hailed from such places as Mexico, West Germany, Pakistan, and from nations throughout Latin America.

As his political career progressed, the barbecues got bigger and more elaborate, and as more important guests came to Hill Country, Lady Bird remodeled the home to host them in style. The ranch eventually included several guest suites, a swimming pool, a radio tower, and an airstrip capable of handling small jets.

Walter Jetton was his caterer of choice, and he fed a group of three hundred at the first barbecue state dinner. It was held on December 29, 1963 for the West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard. LBJ would continue to host heads of state and diplomats at the Texas White House throughout his tenure.

One of the largest barbecues was on April 1, 1967, with 35 Latin American ambassadors and their wives. There was a huge re-enactment of the settling of Texas by Native Americans, followed by Spaniards, then Anglo cowboys, complete with buckboards and cattle. The menu included 30 gallons of ranch beans, potato salad, sourdough biscuits, stewed apricots, corn on the cob, brisket, spare ribs, half chickens, and beef turned over a fire on a spit. Ribs and little sausages were served as hors d’oevours.

The many civil accomplishments of the Johnson administration were overshadowed by his catastrophic handling of the Vietnam war. The president decided not to run for re-election and returned home to retire in 1969, where he grew his hair long, drank, smoked, and listened to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” over and over. When his daughter tried to pull him out of the funk, he said, “No, I’ve raised you girls, I’ve been president, and now it’s my time.”

Johnson recorded an hour-long television interview with Walter Cronkite at the ranch on January 12, 1973, in which he discussed his legacy, particularly with regards to the civil rights movement. He was still smoking heavily at the time, and told Cronkite that it was better for his heart “to smoke than to be nervous.” Ten days later, at approximately 3:39 p.m. Central Time on January 22, 1973, Johnson suffered a massive heart attack in his bedroom. He managed to telephone the Secret Service agents on the ranch, who found him still holding the telephone receiver, unconscious and not breathing. He was airlifted in one of his own planes to San Antonio and taken to Brooke Army Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. He was 64 years old.

The Johnsons donated the ranch to the nation, with the stipulation that it continue to be operated. To that end, the National Park Service maintains a herd of Hereford cattle descended from Johnson’s registered herd and manages the ranch lands as a living demonstration of ranching the LBJ way.

The Lyndon B. Jonson National Historical Park is located both in Johnson City, Texas, and 14 miles down the road in Stonewall. Visit Johnson City first, where you’ll see the National Park Service visitor center, with a museum containing many artifiacts of the Johnson presidency. Here you can take a 1-mile round-trip trail through the historic Johnson settlement – 1800s cabins and barns belonging to Johnson’s ancestors. You can also take a ranger-guided tour of Johnson’s boyhood home.

The Texas White House on the LBJ Ranch is located in Stonewall, and it is a National Park Service site, but to get to it, you have to make a stop at the LBJ state park visitor center, where you get a free permit to drive into the ranch. It’s a bit strange, but there’s also a nice film and some more Johnson memorabilia at the state park.

When you drive onto the ranch property, just outside the main entrance sign is the one-room schoolhouse Johnson studied in. He returned here to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with his grade school teacher at his side.

As you continue into the ranch, you’ll pass a recreation of of Johnson’s birth home, and then the modest Johnson family cemetary, where the President is buried.

You then drive through the pastures where Johnson’s still active herd of Hereford cattle roam, encircling the LBJ airstrip, and passing the infamous Show Barn. You’ll then park at yet another visitor center, which is hard to miss because it has a Lockheed JetStar — a former Air Force One — emblazoned in a presidential paint job sitting outside.

In the visitor center, you can sign up to take a tour around the Texas White House. They don’t allow people into the house anymore due to structural concerns, but you walk around it and see in the windows, and gaze at the famous swimming pool. There’s also a wonderful collection of Johnson’s favorite cars, including a firetruck just for the ranch, and a rare amphibious car he used to scare guests in, pretending the brakes were failing while driving into a pond.

The text for this episode was written in part by the National Park Service.


Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Four Voices, Four Missions

The Alamo is certainly San Antonio’s most famous landmark, perhaps even the most famous building in Texas, due to its pivotal role in the 1836 Texas Revolution. But the Alamo was built over a century prior as Mission San Antonio de Valero by Spanish settlers on the banks of the San Antonio River. Beginning in 1690, Spanish friars established missions in what is now East Texas as a buffer against the threat of French incursion into Spanish territory from Louisiana. The Alamo is a Texas state historic site, but right nearby, four sister missions, all still working Catholic churches, are protected by the National Park Service as the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

This episode of the podcast follows four people connected to the Missions: a stonemason, a historian, a descendant, and a former church administrator. Their stories comprise Michael Nye’s “Four Voices” exhibit on display at Mission Concepción.

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The missions were built primarily by the native people of the area. As the Spanish Missions arrived, the Couchilticon people were suffering from disease, famine, and savage attacks from Apache tribes. The Franciscan Friars saw them as easy recruits and offered them a devil’s bargain. They could join the Mission, and be fed and protected, but they would have to give up essential parts of their being, converting to Catholicism and the Spanish way of life.

The missions flourished up until the 1780s, mostly through the work of the Couchilticon people. The Spanish had a caste system that said the further from Spain you were born, the less of a Spanish citizen you were, so it was hard to recruit Spanish settlers. Then Couchilticon were essential. They built these places and they are their legacy. Not only the churches but towering stone walls and arches, defense bastions, grain storage, apartments, and an aqueduct that still stands today – the only such structure in the US.

Mission San José

Raising livestock played an important role in mission life. The common lands between the missions were used for grazing. As herds grew, they began intruding into neighboring farmland and common lands, and eating the crops, so the livestock was sent to graze further away on ranchos in an area about 20 to 30 miles to the north and south of the missions along both sides of the San Antonio River.

Mission Indian men were taught to care for the livestock, and became known as the vaqueros. In a twist of the old-west cowboys and Indians trope the first real American cowboys, were actually Indians.

Increasing hostility from the Apache the Comanche, coupled with inadequate military support, caused the Mission communities to retreat behind the stone walls they built, and the never-solved problem of new European diseases reduced their numbers, and the missions slowly declined.

In the final years of the 18th century, Spain’s interests in the area waned, and support for the missions was eliminated. The five San Antonio missions were secularized, and the remaining native converts assimilated with nearby local populations or migrated to Mexico. But the churches lived on, and people lived at the missions for many more years.

Mission Concepción

The most intact and original of the five missions is Mission Concepción. It stands today nearly as it did in the 1700s, due to the fact that it was built directly on bedrock. The church walls are 45 inches thick; however only the inside and outside facings are of solid stone – between the two layers is a filling of small stones and building debris.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park was established on April 1, 1983, in partnership with the individual churches, still owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

The San Antonio missions are unique in that they are one of the few National Historic sites that still play a major role in the regular lives of the people that call the churches their place of worship. Many of whom have descended from the Spanish, and from the Native Americans. These buildings, once shining white adorned with colorful frescos carry the whispers of the people who once lived there and who have worshipped there for centuries.

Michael Nye says that “National Parks connect our past to the present. Sometimes they illuminate natural landscapes while other times they amplify and honor historical events. Our Parks are agreements between generations, symbols of significance, care and deep reflection.”

“The stories from The San Antonio Missions represent divergent and significant points of view: 17th Century explorers – Native American groups of the Southwest – Early Texas history – Spanish colonization – Stone masons and builders of the Missions – Battles of opposing interest – There is also the point of view of the land and creeks and pecan trees and the deep blue South Texas skies above. The history of the Missions did not end in the 17th, 18th or 19th century. No. History is energetic and invites present participation. In every corner, every room, in every mission, light grows brighter or dims. New emerging voices and experiences bring life and breath into a larger understanding.”

Yes, when you visit San Antonio, you should visit the Alamo, but perhaps much more rewarding is a day or two spent touring the grounds of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, just 10 minutes south of downtown. The missions are all connected via a trail and parkway system along the San Antonio river that begins with Mission Espada on the south end and culminates in the center of downtown at the Alamo. Entrance is free, and the hours are generally from 9am to 5pm daily, but vary slightly at the different facilities. The park’s headquarters and visitor center is located at Mission San José, where you can see the park film, visit the gift shop, and take a ranger-guided tour. Parking facilities vary at the different sites, especially for large vehicles. Large RVs and tour buses can park in oversized parking at Mission San Jose, but won’t be so lucky at the other missions.

Our many thanks to Michael Nye for loaning us the audio interviews for this episode. You can hear the full audio of the interviews at Mission Concepción, along with his photographs of the interviewees. You can also view the photographs on the National Park Service website. Please also consider visiting Michael Nye’s website for info about more of his work.

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Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.


Podcast Episodes

Ballads of Big Bend

The shape of the southwestern edge of Texas is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. Here, the Rio takes a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Victor Valdez, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.


Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)

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You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Big Bend National Park — National Park Service Website

Crossing the Border to Boquillas — National Park Service Website

Interview with Victor Valdez on NPR:

“Big Bend crossing brings new life to border town” — Houston Chronicle

Victor singing on the Rio Grande:


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The United States can roughly be divided into 7 different geographic regions, four of which — the coastal plains of the southeast, the interior lowlands of the Midwest, the great plains down the center, and the Basin and Ridge region of the west — all converge in one state: Texas.

The shape of the southwestern edge of the state is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. It’s along the Basin and Ridge region where the Rio take a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


In 1994, After visiting the Mexican border village of Boquillas, on the Rio Grande just across the Mexican border at Big Bend National Park, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen wrote the song “Gringo Honeymoon.”

We took a rowboat ‘cross the Rio Grande
Captain Pablo was our guide
For two dollars in a weathered hand
He rowed us to the other side

It’s very possible that Victor Valdez could have been the man Keen was referring to as Captain Pablo. For 24 years, Valdez rowed a boat across an informal border crossing, leading American citizens to visit our southern neighbors.

The seven-minute boat ride was the easiest of U.S. Mexico border crossings, with no agents, no traffic, no lines, no documentation … just a tip for the boat captain.

The village is several hours’ drive from the nearest Mexican city, having grown from a mining operation that sent silver, lead and other mineral ores from the Sierra del Carmen mountains across the Rio Grande for distribution by train. It boasted a population of more than 2000 in the early 1900s but quickly diminished when the mining stopped. Now, just 2-300 citizens call Boquillas home, and Big Bend National Park is all that keeps it alive.

At the time that Big Bend was established in the 1930s, President Roosevelt was interested in creating an International Peace Park, joining the regions, but the plan never came to fruition. Nature finds its way, though, and the informal border crossing to Boquillas linked Big Bend with natural protected areas on the Mexican side of the border.

The crossing, of course, was illegal without an official port of entry. But Americans visiting the remote wonders of big bend came and crossed, to reach the beauty of Mexico’s nature sanctuaries or to enjoy cheap tequila shots and tacos. The people of Boquillas would cross to buy fresh groceries from Big Bend’s Rio Grande Village convenience store and to visit friends in nearby towns.

Officials had no interest in enforcing the crossing though, and Rangers encouraged visits to Boquillas, treating it almost as an annex of the park. The park even employed citizens from the town as firefighters. They were called Los Diablos and were so effective that they were sent to fight the California wildfires in 1999.

Park visitors would walk to the riverbank, where Mexican boatmen like Victor Valdez waited to take them across for a small fee. Trucks, horses and burros would then take them on the one-mile journey into town.

Valdez served as a boatman for 24 years. There were many boatmen, but Victor was well known for his enthusiasm, and for his serenades. He would sing his charming rendition of the “Cielito Lindo” for his passengers as they slowly rowed across the river. During the busy times of year — Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring break — he could make as much as $300 a day. But everything changed on September 11th, 2001.

The year after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government began enforcing the crossing. Boquillas was effectively closed off from civilization, and the tourism economy that kept it alive. Food, gasoline, mail, and friends all had previously come from the US and were now entirely cut off.

At first, Victor and other villagers squeaked out a meager living selling walking sticks, painted rocks, and other crafts to American’s still walking the Boquillas Canyon trail, but law enforcement quickly began to crack down on any sort of commercial activity.

So Victor, cunning enough, and even encouraged by Big Bend rangers, turned to his other talent. His singing voice. Every day, he and a couple of friends from town would make a mile-long walk through the desert brush and reeds to the river. They built a small shack, and they sat and waited with binoculars on the lookout for hikers making their way over the mountaintop in America. When one appeared, he would begin to stretch his vibrant tenor, permeating the canyon as if invisible borders could not contain him.

Victor was working for tips, but no longer were thousands of people visiting the canyon. Jars were set along the water’s edge, and sometimes he would make as little as $5 a day. Some hikers would wade half-way in the water to meet him and shake hands over the invisible line.

Victor used the money to care for a 94-year-old man, his disabled niece, and his wife, who lived in another town searching for work. Many residents left town, but Victor had lived in Boquillas all his 56 years, and didn’t want to leave.

People loved his singing, and Victor’s presence was more important than he would know. He was more than just a peaceful compliment to hikers’ journeys, he kept the link between Boquillas and Big Bend alive. Word spread of the Singing Man of Boquillas or the Singing Mexican, and Victor became popular. People traveled to the canyon just to hear his voice. All the while, unbeknownst to him, the US and Mexican governments were working on formalizing and re-opening the border crossing.

But the remote location was hardly anything that either government wanted to spend much money on. After nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes reviews and negotiations, the National Park Service along with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol opened a digital port of entry in 2013. It’s a kiosk, essentially, where visitors scan their passports and converse remotely with a Customs and Border Protection agent more than 300 miles away in El Paso. It’s still a bit of an honor system, but people can now cross the border quickly, and for the first time, legally.

The boats were launched once more, along with the trucks and the horses and the donkeys. The bar and restaurant re-opened. “We now hope for better days,” said Valdez. One year later, Boquillas’ population rebounded by 30 percent as tourism began to recover. Victor Valdez was no longer singing to a few hikers, he was again singing to boatloads of visitors, though now he left the rowing to his son.
Boquillas opened a new kindergarten, a clinic, and a second restaurant, and for the first time, electricity flowed through the city with a World-bank financed solar grid. Streetlights, refrigeration, TV, and kitchen appliances became a part of life for residents,130 years after the lightbulb was invented.

The relationship between Big Bend National Park and Boquillas is now viewed as a model for other border towns.

Victor Valdez died on August 10th, 2016 at the age of 65. Word of his passing from a heart attack spread far and wide through the West Texas border communities and nationwide ensuring that the legacy of the singing man of Boquillas would live on.


Big Bend National Park is comprised of 1,252 square miles of land, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. The night skies are dark as coal, lit up by millions of diamond stars, in the temple-like canyons carved by rivers into the ancient limestone.

There’s plenty to do for visitors of all ages. You can take scenic drives, biking tours, and river floats, or hike along the150 miles of trails skirting rivers and snaking through the mountainous desert terrain. 1,200 species of plants and 450 species of birds call Big Bend home, and the geology dates back millions of years.

And of course, you can cross the border, and visit the fine people of Boquillas.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.