New Orleans; Lafayette, LA; Gruene, TX (532 Miles)
It's hard to believe we're staring down the last stretch of our once-in-a-lifetime, across-the-South road trip (which started 1,554 miles ago in Charleston, South Carolina), but as my driving buddy, Tim, and I trade the mahogany seats of a New Orleans St. Charles Streetcar (norta.com) for the now-very-familiar ones of our own trusty vehicle, reality—and wistfulness—set in.
Fortunately, there's still plenty of scenic ground to cover. Today, in particular, will be a haul. Looking north from I-10 as we skirt the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, the horizon disappears, and all we can see is a blurry wash of blue from the road to the sky. The driving-on-water feeling only intensifies as we go, and when we reach the 18-mile-long Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, I can't help but crane my neck for a glimpse of gators swimming below. At Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, 140 miles in, we branch off to visit the Cypress Island Preserve (337/342-2475), our time-saving stand-in for a full-blown bayou tour. Grabbing a bird-watcher's checklist from the Visitor Center, we hit the quarter-mile-long boardwalk loop through the cypress-tupelo swamp. Tim's got his eyes peeled for blue herons and white ibis, but I'm focused on finding gators. Every log looks like it could be a semi-submerged head, and I follow the reptiles' weird, bullfrog-like calls in one direction after another, always arriving just in time to spot the patches on the water's surface where they'd gone under again. It's their version of Marco Polo, and I eventually realize that I'm not going to win.
To soften the sting of defeat, we treat ourselves to syrup-drizzled, boudin ball-and-bacon sliders on buttermilk biscuits (a dish known as Sweet Baby Breesus) at The French Press (thefrenchpresslafayette.com) in Lafayette, Louisiana, 5 miles away. There, we discuss the one last Hail Mary for gator-spotting I've got in my playbook—a free roadside exhibit run by the Jefferson Davis Parish tourism commission called Gator Chateau (337/821-5521), where visitors can hold rescued baby reptiles that have been abandoned by their mothers. An hour later, I'm cradling Tiny T-Doux, a juvenile about the length of my forearm, against my chest. He couldn't be sweeter, with his bright, watchful eyes and still-vulnerable limbs. I nearly melt. Now we can set out for Texas.
The Lone Star State's vast skies are perhaps most famous for their nighttime twinklers, but dusk really should get a little more credit. As we drive deeper into East Texas, the heavens unfurl a sunset of such splendor we're compelled to park on the roadside to watch its progress. Long, taffy-like layers of pink and gold and tangerine stretch out before us, and each time we think it's almost over, a vivid new composition replaces the last.
By the time we make it to Gruene, Texas, a 19th-century cotton town along the Guadalupe River, it's pitch-dark, but we know just where the action is: Gruene Hall (gruenehall.com), a historic live-music venue that, tonight, is bursting at the seams with revelers savoring one of summer's last shows. So after bolstering ourselves with Tex-Mex and margaritas at Adobe Verde (adobeverde.com), down the street, we join the throngs in the 6,000-square-foot open-air hall. Teenagers fill the massive courtyard (some practicing their two-steps, others glued to their smartphones), and inside, it's an all-ages, no-holds-barred hootenanny, with dozens of people swirling in the center of the floor and smaller eddies of secondary dance circles forming downstream near the bar. We feel certain every couple in the room could best us on the worn wooden floor—including those in which neither partner appears to be older than 6 or younger than 86—a suspicion that's proven when strangers ask each of us to dance. After stumbling through the steps separately, we reconvene, laughing and sweaty, and head outside to cool down under the stars. Luckily, our home for the night is just a half mile up the road, at a collection of half-timber cabins called Gruene Cottages (gruenecottages.com; from $165), where a claw-foot tub and a king-size bed await to rest our road-weary bones.
Gruene, TX; New Braunfels; Lockhart; Austin (99 Miles)
In the morning, we take a quick spin through Gruene, surveying its general store, souvenir shops, and an old-timey photo booth—many of which are housed behind facades of delicately decorative, weathered woodwork or topped with rusted metal roofs. Then, at the century-old Naegelin's Bakery (naegelins.com) in nearby New Braunfels, Texas, we join the line for breakfast-sausage kolaches—soft, doughy, Czech-by-way-of-Central-Texas treats—and grab a clear plastic bag of powdered sugar-dusted sand tart cookies for the road. It's only a 35-minute drive from there to Wimberley, Texas, where we've planned to beat the heat (and the crowds) at the Blue Hole Swimming Area (512/660-9111) by arriving just after the parking lot opens at 10 a.m. We have the place to ourselves for a whopping 10 or 15 minutes before the first groups of moms and kids join us in the cool water, which is dappled with shade from the surrounding cypress trees and still hushed with morning quiet. It occurs to us both that we've reached the polar opposite of the vast, merciless Atlantic Ocean, where we started our trip. Here, everything is protected, enclosed, gentle, serene. At least until the park fills up, and a pack of older kids commandeers the highest rope swing, leaping and laughing and splashing on an endless, ecstatic loop.
It's enough to make us tired just watching, so we shake out our towels and drive 45 minutes to Lockhart, Texas, a town of 13,000 that feeds a small army of barbecue pilgrims each week. Its three most famous establishments—Kreuz Market (kreuzmarket.com), Black's Barbecue (blacksbbq.com), and Smitty's Market (smittysmarket.com)—all trace their founders' roots to the same family tree, and each has its own strengths, quirks, and passionate devotees. Rather than play favorites, we visit them all, loading up folded pockets of thick brown paper with brisket at Kreuz, where there's a strict "no sauce, no forks" rule, ribs at Black's, which also has the best dessert selection, and house-made sausages tied with thick twine at Smitty's, which inhabits a storefront purchased from the Kreuz family in the 1940s. We ramble from place to place; then, thoroughly sated, it's back to the car for the 30-mile drive to Austin.
Tim wants to kick off our Austin stay with some live music, so we make our first stop the strip of 1930s bungalows along Rainey Street in the southeast corner of downtown, where a nightlife theme park of food truck lots and bars in converted homes inhabits this once-residential historic district. One recent arrival is Craft Pride (craftprideaustin.com), a beer-centric bar with 54 taps pouring in-state suds and a gravel courtyard where we watch a four-piece band run through Waylon Jennings covers on the alfresco stage.
Just across I-35 is our hotel, the newly opened Heywood Hotel (heywoodhotel.com; rooms from $179). It's not only stylish—with white Acapulco chairs out front and botanical-print wallpaper and quirky local ceramics in the seven guest rooms—it's also ideally situated for exploring Austin's fast-developing East Side. In fact, we're having dinner just five blocks away at Qui (quiaustin.com), the hot solo debut from Top Chef winner and food truck royalty Paul Qui, of the beloved East Side King chain (eskaustin.com). At Qui, the denim-clad staff delivers Far East-meets-Southwest mash-ups (such as Chawanmushi, a riff on a Japanese egg custard dish that's made with sturgeon caviar, country ham, hash browns, and chanterelles) from the open kitchen out to the skylit tables. But it's the sneaky, tongue-in-cheek treats that delight us most with their strangely familiar tastes—like seaweed crackers crowned with hot Vermont Cheddar cheese foam (the restaurant's take on Ritz Crackers and Cheez Whiz) and the avocado-based Qui Lime Pie, topped with icy lime sherbet and chili meringue.
After a quick post-dinner mezcal cocktail at the cabaret-inspired East Side Show Room (eastsideshowroom.com), we circle back to The White Horse (thewhitehorseaustin.com), a spacious honky-tonk down the block from Qui that has free live music and dancing every night, plus occasional polka and two-step lessons for the newbies. Lone Star Beer in hand, we watch couples take turns on the scuffed dance floor and rank the best ones in our minds, vowing to improve our own moves one day.
Austin, TX (5 Miles)
The morning meal is always a tough decision in Austin—you could spend weeks sampling the city's breakfast tacos alone. But on a tip from some folks we met at The White Horse, we opt for a proper sit-down feast at Hillside Farmacy (hillsidefarmacy.com), a flawlessly designed restaurant in a converted 1950s drugstore complete with original glass-and-wood pharmacy cases. The copper-topped tables gleam beneath our plates of bruléed grapefruit, tomato-and-cheese croissant sandwiches, and peppery sausages with scrambled farm eggs (sourced, like much of the produce, from small growers within the city limits). By the time the dishes are cleared away, we've started to get nostalgic. We've seen (and eaten, and sipped) so much on our drive through the South, and now we have to hang up our keys and get back to real life.
But not without one final souvenir: a pair of cowboy boots. For the widest selection, we scoot down to South Congress and make the rounds, perusing the look-but-don't-touch displays of intricately hand-stitched styles at Heritage Boot (heritageboot.com), browsing the over-stuffed aisles (stocked with everything from studded Fryes to embroidered Old Gringos) at Allens Boots (allensboots.com), and scanning the rows of wooden lasts labeled with clients' names (Robert Plant! Giancarlo Esposito! Austin's unofficial mayor himself, Mr. Willie Nelson!) lining the shelves at Texas Custom Boots (texascustomboots.com). I find the perfect fit at vintage store New Bohemia (512/326-1238), where any one of the time-tested, worn-in pairs would make the ultimate reminder to, ahem, get on the road again, as soon as we possibly can. We think Mr. Nelson would approve.