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.
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.
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."
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.