Someone once said that the only place you can find truth, beauty, and dead armadillos is on a Texas highway. My wife and I have been rolling west from the stenchy Gulf Coast hamlet of Port Arthur toward the giant swamp known as the Big Thicket for less than an hour and we have already seen all three. I evaded the dead armadillo a few miles back, just outside Beaumont. The beauty has begun to emerge on either side of the road, in the form of soaring stands of pine and spruce so thick you can't see a speck of light through any of it and so preternaturally green that it shimmers in the late-morning sunlight. And the truth?There's always been something elemental about the way this 70-mile drive takes you from the smoking oil refineries of Port Arthur to the forest primeval of the Big Thicket region, the last stretch of the great hardwood forests that begin up in Virginia. The experience of passing from some of the most polluted air in the state to some of the most pristine in the course of an hour never fails to resonate.
This is the first leg of a 750-mile east-west trip across the breadth of the largest of the Lower 48. I made a similar drive three decades ago when I was a college student at the University of Texas, with no purpose in mind other than to see if my friends and I could do it. Road-tripping has always been a kind of sport in Texas, and driving all the way across the state is considered the Grand Prix. Back then, I'd found the trek—from the swamps and piney woods of eastern Texas to the chalky hills of central Texas through the vastness of the west Texas desert—alternately tiring and exhilarating. Now, I wanted to see what the intervening Sunbelt boom—and the attendant development of large swaths of the state—had done to the experience.
Gliding through the almost claustrophobic Big Thicket region, I am reminded more of the Deep South than of the Southwest. This remains one of the more arresting discoveries that one makes in crossing Texas: the topographies and ecologies of the state are impossibly diverse, to the point where you often feel as if you're someplace else entirely.
The Chain-O-Lakes Resort rests in a wooded glen off a forgotten farm road near the tiny eastern Texas swamp town of Rye. After stowing our luggage in a one-room spruce-log cabin overlooking a lake, we paddle a canoe through a couple of the 20 interlinking lakes that roam over 500 acres of pristine wilderness. This was a gravel quarry before dentist James Smith cleared hiking trails and turned it into an ecotourist destination—creating one of the signature resorts in the area. And Big Thicket National Preserve, which borders Chain-O-Lakes' 32 cabins, is said to be home to more species of both poisonous snakes and wildflowers than any other eco- system in the United States. Hiking through the property's well-maintained trails at dusk, we don't manage to see any snakesbut do spot a beaver, a couple of rabbits, a wide variety of exotic birds, and, finally, the resident alligator that trolls through these waters.
We work up an appetite canoeing and walking, and venture out Farm Road 787 to the Myte-Fine Café for dinner. This place demands a visit simply because of its name. It's a shotgun shack, really, with a Baroque mural of the nearby woods on the wall, a collection of beer bottles on another. We share a club sandwich brought to life by a juicy tomato and make small talk with our waitress, a honey-haired teenager with a radiant smile. When we tell her we're from Dallas, her eyes light up and she offers a long dissertation on a high-school project she is involved in, on the Kennedy assassination.
"Do you think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?" I ask.
"No," she says firmly.
Well, that hasn't changed in about four decades.
We awaken shivering in our bed. A cold front has blown in overnight, lowering the area's ordinarily balmy temperatures. But the rickety front deck that overhangs the lake beckons anyway, and it is worth the chill to watch daybreak rouse the waterbirds and turtles on the shores. We linger for a second cup of coffee until a carriage drawn by a somewhat weary white horse picks us up and trots us to the Chain-O-Lakes Hilltop Herb Farm and Restaurant—one of the best in the state in the unlikeliest of places. From an ample buffet, we choose tasty, freshly baked granola (thick with peanuts and pecans), plump strawberries, homemade breads, and spicy sausages. We eat at a table overlooking the water and watch the sunrise beyond.
Heading west on 787, we pick up State Highway 105 at Cleveland, getting out to stretch our legs at the mini-mall in the town of Cut and Shoot (population 1,158). Down the road is the Kountry Mart, and beyond it, Kuntry Barbecue and Kuntry Catfish. I wonder whether I should begin counting roadside establishments that spell country with a K?(By the time I finish this trip, the number will hover around a dozen.) Near Montgomery, the forest recedes and the terrain turns to rolling farmland crisscrossed by the distinctive white fencing of horse farms. We find Farm Road 390, the so-called Independence Trail, and head for the Mariposa Ranch B&B. Mariposa's owners, Dr. Charles and Johnna Chamberlain, have made their combination working ranch-B&B fit the area. The plantation house, a rambling, gray-clapboard and column affair, circa 1860, was moved onto the property from the oldest neighborhood of nearby downtown Brenham, for authenticity. The four-poster oak bed in our room even has a mysterious bullet hole in the footboard.
This is Washington County, a must-see if you're a Texas history buff, as the historical markers and museums along this trail tell the eternally improbable story of that decade during the mid 19th century when Texas belonged to neither the United States nor Mexico, but was its own republic. The presentation has been largely pasteurized of the suggestion by some historians that this movement—and connected military actions such as the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio—were the work of slightly deranged frontiersmen, many of whom were in it for the money. But the distinction between myth and fact has never had much of a place in Texas history.
It's interesting how you can always tell where you are in Texas just by the fencing. In the Big Thicket there was none; in and around Brenham, white fences. And we know we've entered the Hill Country when we start seeing barbed wire beyond the shoulders of the road. One of the more quietly dramatic junctures in Texas is at U.S. 290 and I-35, in the northern part of Austin, where those rolling, green hills abruptly give way to chalky, gnarled limestone elevations that look like the knuckles of an old man's hand—the most singularly Texan landscape in any of the regions we've passed through.
Perhaps because of this, the Hill Country may have grown too popular for its own good. There are still some quaint gems like Comfort (population 2,358), which has a truly historic historic district, including more than 100 buildings erected before 1910. I'm especially taken with the shambling Ingenhuett's hardware store, a drafty place that smells vaguely of rubbing alcohol, where I buy some Luden's cough drops but could just as easily have purchased buckshot or hummingbird feed. Yet more and more you find places like Boerne (population 6,938), which used to be just like Comfort until it became a big, bustling suburb of San Antonio, with an overly precious restored downtown, too many tourists, and growing pains.
After spending the night at the nearby Guadalupe River Ranch, we rise the next morning just as the fog over the Hill Country is lifting, which is a particularly thrilling sight from our second-story suite. We walk to the restaurant, a timber-and-limestone structure that used to be the hideaway home of actress Olivia de Havilland, and each have a cinnamon roll the size of a Jeep Cherokee. Like Mariposa and Chain-O-Lakes, Guadalupe has had quite a past. Before Ms. de Havilland's arrival, it was a turkey ranch, then a "chicken ranch" (in Texas, a well-known euphemism for a place with gambling and girls). Now it has become less a place to sleep overnight than a living museum and a unique cultural experience.
Later in the day we head out on I-10 and make a stop at the Caverns of Sonora, which prove to be even more spectacular than the descriptions we've often heard but have never quite believed. For almost two hours we meander underground, looking at a gleaming fairyland of stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites, including one that looks positively like a butterfly.
We decide to stay in nearby Ozona (population 3,700) because an old friend has always spoken fondly of this "oasis" in the west Texas desert. I ask a motel clerk about the best place to eat in town, and she recommends the Hitchin' Post Steakhouse—as the name implies, a throwback to the golden age of steak houses with corrugated-aluminum roofs and waitresses who say "fixin' to." Most steak houses these days—even in Texas—feel inauthentic, but the Hitchin' Post is the real thing; my "gourmet chicken-fried steak" is 12 ounces of tender rib eye breaded and deep fried to insidious perfection.
"Bring me my heart attack!" demands a stout cowboy who ordered the same thing.
We make the final part of our drive across the rest of the desert to the Big Bend region—a trip I've done countless times. Even with the growth of various desert towns along the way—Fort Stockton, for instance—and the inevitable intrusion of fast-food arches on the horizon, it is still possible to get lost in time and space out here, so much so that when you finally reach the town of Marfa, in the far west of Texas, you end up feeling more as if you've awakened than arrived.
Marfa (population 2,424) is best known as the location where the movie Giantwas filmed. But in recent years it's been repeatedly described as the new Santa Fe. This, for better or worse, makes some sense. Like the Santa Fe of 50 years ago, Marfa is arid, big-skied, mostly Latino,and home to a major private museum, the late minimalist sculptor Donald Judd's internationally renowned Chinati Foundation. It has a lovely restored Victorian courthouse, a rehabilitated old hotel (the Paisano), a number of terrific Mexican restaurants, and a growing population of artists.
There are Big Bend purists I know who insist that this is the end of Texas as we all know and love it. But based on the Marfa I see—and the Ozona and Comfort I saw—there's not too much cause for concern.
The Cibolo Creek Ranch, which is located about 30 miles due south, is another fine example of a certain sort of progress that doesn't soil the soul of a place. While some people might call this just another expensive dude ranch, what the clerk tells us at check-in rings more true. "Watch out for the snakes," she says, perkily.
Even though Cibolo has gotten entirely too much ink—due in large part to its prices, celebrity guests like Mick Jagger, and the no-expense-spared res-toration of the three 19th-century forts that serve as its residences—the feeling of the place is hardly upscale or resorty.
Just check in and take a trail ride with the Mexican-American cowboy guide named Elmer, as we do, and you'll understand. This ride seems a fitting way to end our journey across six distinct ecologies—the final one being these craggy mesas and deep valleys studded with yucca and sagebrush that look a little like the landscape you see behind the young Clint Eastwood in spaghetti western movies.
We ride for nearly two hours without encountering another soul. Even the solitude is the real thing out here. That hasn't changed in decades, and I doubt it ever will.
JIM ATKINSON is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and contributes to GQ, Esquire, and Gourmet.
Day 1 (70 miles)
From Port Arthur, drive U.S. 96 west to spur 105. Near Saratoga, take FM (farm road) 787 through Rye to Chain-O-Lakes Resort in Cleveland.
Day 2 (120 miles)
Head west on 787 to Cleveland, pick up 105 again to FM 390, and turn west to get to Mariposa Ranch.
Day 3 (165 miles)
Take 390 across Highway 36 to Gay Hill and Burton. Drive U.S. 290 west to Austin, then to U.S. 281, which runs through the Hill Country. Turn south on 281 through Blanco until you reach FM 473 going west. Follow along to FM 474 and the Guadalupe River Ranch.
Day 4 (175 miles)
Take 474 to Boerne; pick up I-10 west to Sonora.
Day 5 (225 miles)
Take I-10 west to Balmorhea; turn south on Highway 17 to Marfa. Take U.S. 67 south out of Marfa another 30 miles to Cibolo Creek Ranch.
WHERE TO STAY
ONE-ROOM CABIN $145. 235 CHAIN-O-LAKES RESORT, CLEVELAND; 832/397-4008; www.colresort.com
Mariposa Ranch B&B
DOUBLES FROM $125. 8904 MARIPOSA LANE, BRENHAM; 877/647-4774; www.mariposaranch.com
Guadalupe River Ranch
DOUBLES FROM $104. 605 FM 474, BOERNE; 830/537-4837; www.guadaluperiverranch.com
Cibolo Creek Ranch
DOUBLES FROM $450, INCLUDING MEALS. HCR 67, MARFA; 866/496-9460; www.cibolocreekranch.com
WHERE TO EAT
DINNER FOR TWO $10. HWY. 146 S., LIVINGSTON 936/685-4964
Manuel's Mexican Restaurant
DINNER FOR TWO $20. 409 W. MAIN ST., BRENHAM 979/277-9620
Hitchin' Post Steakhouse
DINNER FOR TWO $20. 1305 SHEFFIELD RD., OZONA 325/392-5280
WHAT TO SEE
Big Thicket National Preserve
Caverns of Sonora
FULL TOUR $20 PER PERSON; www.cavernsofsonora.com
TOUR $10 PER ADULT. 1 CAVALRY ROW, MARFA; 432/729-4362
Big Bend National Park
$15 PER VEHICLE; www.nps.gov