Driving Through the Heart of Texas

Join us on a weeklong road trip along U.S. 83—from the Mexico border to the Panhandle, through a landscape of vast ranches, epic thunderstorms, and ghost towns.
Les Thomas
Texas Road Trip Photos: Horses
Much of the work at the Four Sixes Ranch is still done on horseback.
Andrew Geiger

Unlike the superhighways that swirl around the big cities where the vast majority of the nearly 25 million Texans live, U.S. 83 veers off through wide-open spaces and small towns. It isn’t an interstate or a major thoroughfare. It is a road you’d hardly notice unless you happened to pick up a map and see the way it moseys across the entire length of the state for 783 miles, lacing together towns with exotic-sounding names like Crystal City, Concan, and Canadian.

I’m traveling the length of the road because I want to meet the people who live along it. I want to understand my native state in a new way, to learn what it’s like to travel a single road here and still go farther than a drive from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. That’s what I want to discover in the next five days. Come along with me for the ride of a lifetime.

April 15: Brownsville

It’s a balmy 91 degrees this afternoon in the Rio Grande Valley, but a voice on the car radio says that a blizzard is howling across the Panhandle at the other end of U.S. 83. So it’s summer at one end of Texas and winter at the other end. I’m glad I brought a coat.

Palm trees stir in the breeze. Signs printed in Spanish advertise Mexican sodas, barbacoa de cabeza, Income Tax Rapido, and Chihuahuas Aqui on a layaway plan. The Hispanic heritage runs deep here. The highway follows the Rio Grande and the Mexican border for 204 miles through fertile delta from Brownsville to Laredo. Citrus groves and lush fields of produce spread up from the river, and a breeze through the open car window carries the scent of fresh-pulled onions.

I want to see some of the birds the valley is famous for, so I decide to stop in Harlingen and call on an expert, Father Tom Pincelli, also known as “Father Bird.” He is the pastor of the 5,000-family St. Anthony Parish in this town and past chairman of the board of the American Birding Association. His three decades of conservation efforts have helped far South Texas become known as one of the most diverse birding areas in the United States, with more than 520 species counted. Father Tom directs me to one of the better birdwatching places, the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, a 30-minute drive from Brownsville. I park and walk a mile-long trail through a dense thorn-scrub forest. It’s filled with more exotic birds than I’ve ever seen in one place. Bright indigo buntings flash past, and a pair of noisy, chicken-size chachalacas cross the trail in front of me.

Back on the road, I ease through McAllen and Mission, where a mural painted across a downtown building honors Mission Eagles football star and hometown hero Tom Landry. At Los Ebanos, I pull off the highway for a look at the landing where the last hand-pulled ferry in the U.S. crosses the Rio Grande ($2.50 for a car, 50 cents for pedestrians). But it’s closed today, as it can be in April, when extra water is released upstream from Falcon Lake to irrigate the valley’s vast fields of produce. This is farm country, after all, and the crops take precedence over everything.

April 16: Laredo

Dull gray clouds line the horizon and fat raindrops spatter on the windshield at mid-morning when I drive past the import shops that line San Bernardo Avenue off the U.S. 83 business route. Most of the shops are simply fenced lots filled with pottery, cow horns, and statuary; much of it is kitschy. But when I stop at Vega’s—one of the largest stores—Eva Vega opens the doors to her shop, a treasure house for elegant Mexican folk art and furnishings. I spend an hour marveling at folk art figures from Oaxaca, beautiful green glazed pottery from the state of Michoacan, painted tiles from Jalisco, and other gems that show off the amazing range of the Mexican people’s artistic ability.