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Gone Country

How Covid changed everything

Cindy Gabriel
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Denae Schenker, Julia Gabriel, Eli Weber, Colette Schenker, Colton Schenker, Faires Weber

FREE RANGE FRIENDS Moms Denae Schenker and Julia Gabriel delight in country life with children Eli Weber, Colette “Coco” Schenker, Colton Schenker, and Faires Weber. (Photo: Morgan Weber)

It seems so recent, yet so long ago. The great sequestering of March 2020 began. Morgan Weber was trying to ignore the pit in his stomach along with the banging of pots and pans as toddler Eli emptied the kitchen cabinets for the third time that day. With daycare suspended, my daughter Julia, pregnant with Eli’s little brother, was doing her best to contain yet entertain the toddler as Morgan and his Agricole Hospitality partners grappled with plans to shut down the seven restaurants they had nurtured over 10 years. Zoom meetings seemed like a cold way to ask loyal staff to start the tedious work of suspending their livelihoods for who knows how long. 

Within a matter of weeks, it dawned on the couple: “We could do this same stuff in Leakey, Texas,” under the Cypresses and Oaks, by the flowing Frio River. They were married on that river in May of 2016, in the tiny town 100 miles west of San Antonio where Morgan spent magical childhood days tubing, fishing, and dancing at Garner State Park. His parents bought a small house on the river before he was born, attracting aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins since the ’70s.

Meanwhile in San Antonio, Denae and Alex Schenker were living an enviable life by any standards in a penthouse called The Cellars next to Hotel Emma near the River Walk on an expanse of green lawns, restaurants, and shops known as The Pearl. Then, suddenly, everything came to a halt. All the amenities they enjoyed disappeared. The pool, the restaurants, even the River Walk had gone silent. Their son Colton’s private school became online only, and daughter Colette “Coco’s” pre-school closed. 

Alex was finding traction as a script writer and director for some projects in Los Angeles when the entertainment industry went dark, and everyone went home. Meanwhile, some friends of the Schenker’s, who rented a farm in Leakey, let them know they were moving back to Alabama. The farm was available.

For Julia and Morgan, the weeks in the Morgan family cabin flew by. Morgan was a pro in how to enjoy the place, setting up swinging chairs from the huge oak trees on the lawn between the house and the river, building a campfire daily, for warming, cooking and marshmallow roasting. Eli discovered rocks could disappear by tossing them into the river. At night, masses of fireflies took over in a surreal scene that seemed to dance to Morgan’s download mix of country and folk rock music while canines Weller and Lula Mae crashed by the fire. “We knew how fortunate we were and how special this was. It calmed us all down,” Julia said.  It was like a buffer as Morgan continued to head into Houston for various attempts at masked, curbside delivery, then ultimately, the slow, methodical reopening of the restaurants. 

But something had changed. Julia didn’t want to go back to Houston. The couple put their house on the market and found another house on the river while Morgan Zoom-worked from home and zoomed to Houston in real miles to check on restaurants. 

Of course, Morgan can’t live in a town without opening a restaurant. So, he and Julia remodeled an abandoned gas station into a restaurant and bar, Gypsy Sally’s, on Main Street in Leakey. It was a risk for sure, but Gypsy’s has become a central hub of the area, like in the sitcom Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”  

One October day in 2022, while Julia was with Eli at Gypsy’s, a young woman and her two kids stepped out of their car and Eli screamed, “Coco” to a little girl, who responded, “Eli,” as they met in a delightful hug. 

“Coco’s in my class!” Eli announced. Coco’s mom, Denae, took one look at Julia and sensed a fellow “city girl.” We both had on Lululemon yoga pants,” said Denae. 

By then, Denae’s retired parents – real ranchers and farmers, with the name to go with it – “The Farleys,” got their own ranch down the way from the Schlenker’s after three months of sequestering with them.   

That same week, Denae, with Julia’s permission, organized a pumpkin carving event for kids outside at Gypsy’s, bringing all the materials plus extra moms and kids. Denae was the extrovert friend who Julia (a tad timid) needed. “Will you be my friend?” Denae proposed. Julia accepted.  

It would be a while before their traveling husbands met. But by the time they all gathered for dinner at the Weber house, the conversation between the two men lasted until 3 a.m.

“Did you like him?” Denae asked Alex on the way home. 

“I love that guy,” Alex responded. 

“Well, not as much as Julia and I love each other,” said Denae. 

So add in the writers’ strike to Alex’s work setbacks. But he’s back again, finishing up on a script based on an award-winning book his mother wrote called Throw a Hungry Loop.  It’s a cowboy roping term. In Alex’s version, it takes place in Leakey and has a local dive in it called Gypsy Sally’s. This story is just getting started. 

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