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McCallum grad travels across Texas for pandemic-fueled ‘Postcards’ podcast



McCALLUM, TX – When the pandemic hit America, native Texan Evan Stern hit the road.

Based in New York City, Stern escaped the worst of the crisis there and returned to Texas, where he normally spent a chunk of time each year; his parents live in Houston. He needed a creative project, however, to get through the long months away from his usual jobs.

The graduate of McCallum High School decided to embark on one of my favorite past times — a long road trip across Texas — that he recorded for a compelling new podcast series called “Vanishing Postcards.”

An actor, bartender and tour guide in New York, Stern rigorously researched each stop and brought along high-level recording equipment. He applied his relaxed, respectful and outgoing personality to each subject that he encountered.

Some of his stops, such as Austin’s Dry Creek Inn, once owned by the cranky, now deceased Sarah Ransom, are fairly well known to local old-timers. Yet I’ll confess, I couldn’t tell you before hearing the premiere episode of “Vanishing Postcards” whether the dive on Lake Austin was still open or not.

Now, that’s something I’m expected to know about. Stern went well beyond interviewing people he found at Dry Creek. For instance, he contacted exactly the right expert on the place’s cultural background, retired Southwestern University professor Ken Roberts, who wrote the seminal book, “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing.”

I was impressed by the other guests Stern tracked down and how adroitly he wove together each of the first episodes of “Vanishing Postcards” that have already been released. I sampled some others that are in the can but not yet posted. Each episode, usually shorter than 30 minutes, deploys insiders as well as people who probably have never given a recorded interview in their lives.

“Born of a passion for oral history — and a valentine to my native Texas — its 15 episodes are the product of a road trip that introduced me to many extraordinary characters in places well below the radar of Condé Nast,” Stern says. “In many ways, it is the most challenging and ambitious project I’ve undertaken. In other ways, it’s a project that has come together with tremendous ease.”

You can subscribe to “Vanishing Postcards” for free at Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or a platform of your choice. I would be remiss if I failed to remind “Think, Texas” readers that those are some of the same places where one can subscribe to the more than 50 “Austin Found” episodes, which delve into Austin culture and history and are recorded with and produced by Austin360 Radio personality J.B. Hager.

“The great Charles Kuralt of CBS News once said you can find your way across the country by using burger joints the way that a navigator uses stars,” Stern says in the podcast’s preface. “In a fast paced, rapidly homogenizing world, places like these with memories etched in their grime are getting harder to find. And when they close, we lose a piece of our sometimes unsung and often irreplaceable history.”

Stern’s second stop is Seaton, a “one-horse town” in Bell County about 9 miles east of Temple. He spends a Sunday evening with the family that keeps a nearly 100-year-old Czech-Texan tradition alive at Tom Sefcik Hall, a dance joint that sounds like the next place you want to put on your to-do list.

“Last year, I had never heard of Seaton and could probably count on one hand the number of times I’d driven north of Austin,” Stern says. “It didn’t come to me recommended by friends. I really didn’t know what to expect in going. In the end, it absolutely stole my heart.”

The terse tales that the Seaton locals tell about stasis and change in this little corner of Texas are priceless.

Stern’s third stop is Bandera, where he visited a honky-tonk called Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar. This I didn’t know: Although only 950 people live there, Bandera is a real party town. I knew about its cowboy heritage and the dude ranches in the hills, but not about its copious nightlife.

Stern focuses on the salty charm of Silver Dollar. He was able to extract more than a dozen unvarnished reflections of its customers and employees. He asked questions of Arkey Juenke, musician and owner since 1968, who refused to be recorded. Juenke gave Stern a CD of his music that he said summed up his life.

As a reporter always trying to nail down unrehearsed personal stories, I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of Stern’s ability to get people, save Juenke, to open up.

“It’s just a honky-tonk that has a lot of memories,” says local cowboy poet James E. “Hoot” Gibson. “It’s kind of like a cowboy church, or a cowboy museum. And if you want to be politically correct, it’s also for cowgirls, too (he laughs warmly). I thought they come together, not come as ones and ones. It’s just a good place to relax, hang your hat, go dancing. The ones that get out of hand, we take care of them, kinda. The ones that’s want to have a good time, we help them.”