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

The highway turns northwest, away from the river at Laredo. Thick green mesquites spread over the countryside. The road is so straight I can see 15 miles to the horizon. There hasn’t been a house or a building in sight for more than 20 minutes. I cross the Nueces River into rain and watch a buzzard picking at a deer carcass so thin and flattened it bounces up and down like a piece of cardboard. There are big pickups out here with deer guards as wide as train tracks and ranch gates stout as fortresses.

Sunny yellow cactus blooms dot the ranch country around Uvalde, where onetime U.S. Vice President John Nance Garner once led a failed campaign to make the prickly pear cactus the state flower of Texas—and was known forever after as “Cactus Jack” Garner. I stop at the First State Bank of Uvalde, owned by rancher and former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe, to see its famed collection of Western art and European antiques. Some locals like to joke that the imported German prayer bench here comes in handy for loan applicants.

Farther north, I drive through hills dotted with live oaks where the rugged landscape of the Edwards Plateau juts up abruptly from the prairie and U.S. 83 crosses into the most dramatic scenery of the entire route.I turn off the highway for a look at Garner State Park (named for Cactus Jack), where the Frio River twists past towering limestone bluffs. The park is quiet on this Thursday afternoon—it’s too cool to splash in the river now—but in a couple of weeks it will be filled with families who come to tube the river and two-step under the stars at jukebox dances.

On the road out of Frio Canyon north of the state park, I’m in another landscape of beguiling solitude: I haven’t seen another car in 15 minutes. Finally, two trucks pass me, heading south. High from a roadside overlook, I can see the South Llano River bridge and the town of Junction.

April 17: Junction

In my motel room, I doze off just in time to be awakened after midnight by a spring storm outside. Rain. Hail. Lightning. A radio report says an icy sheet of hail has closed roads in the Panhandle. After breakfast, I press on under a clean sky as blue as a bottle of Windex.

I cross the San Saba River at Menard, the Concho River at Paint Rock, and the Colorado River at Ballinger. As the highway traverses these rivers, it links towns and high dramas of life and death long forgotten. Menard has the ruins of the Presidio de San Saba, a Spanish fortress and mission where in 1758, 2,000 Comanche and their allies routed a European foothold.

I turn off the road onto Paint Rock Ranch in Paint Rock, Texas, and Kay Campbell shows me a landmark left by travelers who passed this way long before there was a highway. Hundreds of pictographs painted by American Indians cover a rock outcrop half a mile long. “That’s the reason my grandfather was inspired to own this ranch in 1878 to preserve these paintings,” Kay says. “From my birth, he taught me to respect and preserve them too.”

On their ranch, Kay and her husband, Fred, use llamas to help care for their flocks of Rambouillet sheep and Angora goats. “The llamas take care of the lambs. Their size scares the coyotes,” she explains. “It’s like having a scarecrow.” Llamas have another strange quirk that comes in handy out here in this rough country: They eat prickly pears.

Like the panoramic landscape that surrounds the highway, many of the people seem larger than life. Near Tuscola, the hometown of former University of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, I turn off to Buffalo Gap to have dinner at the Perini Ranch Steakhouse and meet Tom Perini. The former champion chuck wagon cook now runs one of the best steak houses in the state. He’s cooked ranch burgers on the Today show and catered picnics at the White House. Actor Robert Duvall wrote the foreword to his cookbook, Texas Cowboy Cooking. “It used to be the mark of a good steak house that it had a lot of rooms added on to accommodate more customers,” Tom says. The restaurant sprawls over a large building and outdoor tables. “I looked around the other day and realized that’s what we’ve done here.”

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