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

April 18: Abilene

It’s 56 degrees at 8:48 a.m. and 316 miles from here to the Oklahoma line near Perryton. I take some time to learn what the Old West was like at Frontier Texas! It’s an innovative museum that uses state-of-the-art technology to re-create a whole range of experiences from buffalo stampedes to prairie thunderstorms. I listen to harrowing stories told in the words of everyday people who settled here when it was wild and dangerous country. I even sample an evening filled with fireflies. It’s an astounding place.

North of Abilene, the land flattens and the plowed dirt is the color of a terra-cotta pot. A sign on a church marquee offers a “Free ticket to heaven.” North of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, rolling hills dotted with cedar remind me of the Central Texas Hill Country. The north wind makes it feel colder than the 64 degrees the temperature climbs to this afternoon. It’s coat weather.

April 19: Guthrie

In Guthrie, I meet with Dr. Glenn Blodgett, who manages the horse division at the fabled Four Sixes Ranch. The ranch covers more than a quarter million acres—and much of the work is still done on horseback. “It’s rugged country and a good environment for a horse to grow up in,” Dr. Blodgett says. “They learn to be sure-footed and agile.”

I leave the ranch headquarters, and then take a side trip to Benjamin to see Wyman Meinzer. He knows this country as well as anyone, having photographed it for a book on the Four Sixes and others on critters from horned frogs to coyotes.

“Wyman is a piece of nature himself,” someone once told me. He lives with his wife, two sons, and two pet wolves in a complex of historic buildings in Benjamin that includes a jail with 2-foot-thick sandstone walls.

“I like the big vistas you get out here,” Wyman says. “I like to see a storm coming 100 miles away. People who live out here have a different way of looking at things.” He believes—maybe because they can see so far—the vastness makes the people who live here feel free. “To me, there’s a sense of hope,” he says. “When you drive down 83, it goes through so much contrast from the High Plains to the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Brush Country. You see what Texas must have looked like 150 years ago.”

I get another glimpse into the past when I cross the wide, shallow Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River north of Childress. This is where outlaws Bonnie and Clyde plunged off a bluff into the river on June 10, 1933—then kidnapped the local sheriff and police chief to make their getaway.

North of Shamrock, I turn off the highway at Wheeler to visit the ghost town of Mobeetie, once an outpost for buffalo hunters, gamblers, and gunslingers. The oldest town on the Panhandle, Mobeetie had 13 saloons before being swept away by a twister in 1898.

North of the pretty town of Canadian, the grass is golden in the afternoon sun and the views across the hills extend to the horizon. Expansive fields of green border Perryton, the “Wheatheart of the Nation” and the last Texas town on U.S. 83. I park at a granite sign that marks the beginning of what once was called “No Man’s Land.” The Missouri Compromise left a strip of land 34.5 miles wide and 167 miles long without any form of government or laws until Congress attached it to the new Oklahoma Territory in 1890.

It’s here, at this northern tip of Texas, that I stop to watch just one more Texas sunset. It paints the sky in colors so vivid  I almost believe I can reach up and touch them. On a road so long, in a place so vast, even that seems possible.

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