OF ALL THE LONG-DISTANCE DRIVES in Texas, Highway 6 is the most surprising. The purpose of a state route is to fill in the gaps between the major highways, not to go gallivanting off on its own—yet gallivant it does, from sea to Great Plains, one of the longest roads in Texas that is not an interstate or a U.S. highway.
I toured it from the coast inland, as I started doing as soon as I was old enough to drive. Growing up in Galveston, the route’s eastern terminus, I was imbued with the local wisdom that Highway 6 was a shortcut to Austin or San Antonio via Interstate 10, avoiding the dreaded Houston traffic. It never occurred to me then that I could continue all the way to western Oklahoma. Even today, I doubt that many Texans have driven the entire length of Highway 6; if someone wanted to go from Galveston to Quanah, there are faster ways to do it.
But speed isn’t everything. If you want to save minutes, take the interstate. If you want to save decades, take Highway 6. It is a road that leads not just to a different place but to a different time, one in which more Texans lived in and near small towns than in big cities. Here you can discover the forgotten Texas that was left behind during the great twentieth-century migration from farm to metropolis—a land of cotton and cattle, of graceful homes, of broken dreams, and the will to persevere. For travelers who want three-star attractions, the route has its share of those too.
Highway 6 departs from Interstate 45 amid the wetlands of Galveston Bay. Although it has been more than twenty years since I drove this route—it ceased to be a shortcut when the Houston suburbs reached the highway near Sugarland—the bleakness of the Galveston County mainland was all too familiar. Hardly a structure had changed, not even the rusted ruins of the towering Flamingo Isle logo, still touting a development that failed at least thirty years ago. A few signs still bore the names of the three communities that had joined together to become Santa Fe back in the seventies: Alta Loma Cafe, Arcadia Car Wash, Algoa Community Center. It was a relief to get to Alvin and the Nolan Ryan Foundation and Exhibit Center.
I can’t be a tough critic, since I’m a Nolan Ryan fan, but I’d rank the exhibit of Ryan’s career as superior to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York—even if an autographed baseball did cost $65. The critical difference was that you could see videos of Ryan throwing no-hitters and striking out batters, instead of a static collection of old bats, balls, and uniforms. My favorite display showed a batter staggering back from a pitch at his chin, then freezing in fear as Ryan buzzed strike three over the outside corner.
I inquired if Ryan was around and learned that he enjoys eating at Joe’s Barbeque on Highway 6, a favorite local hangout. I had the mixed plate, brisket and sausage and richly flavored pinto beans. Nolan wasn’t there, but his cattle were: All the restaurant’s brisket and beef ribs come from Ryan’s ranches. I learned this after a man with wiry black hair and a bright yellow plaid shirt approached me while I was taking notes on the aggressively Texan decor. “Who’re you with?” he wanted to know. It was Joe Saladino, who had opened the restaurant in 1973. “I want to show you something,” he said and led me out back. In a separate shed were four fifteen-foot-long pits. “We cook our beef the old-fashioned way,” he said. “Every day, we start at three in the morning. I feed a thousand people a day.”
Beyond Alvin lay the burbs, with Southern-themed names like Vicksburg, Savannah Plantation, and Sienna Plantation—a little unsettling, because Highway 6 back near Santa Fe was a reputed Klan stronghold in the seventies. After the road skirted the far west side of Houston, an eternity of traffic lights and fast-food franchises, it linked up with U.S. 290 and headed into the countryside at last. On the right loomed a large store, identified by its sign only as D&D. Cars streamed into the parking lot, and my curiosity got the best of me. D&D turned out to be a sort of farm-and-ranch Wal-Mart, a superstore for weekend Westerners. You can buy jeans and saddles, tractors and horse trailers here; pick up drive-through feed; or get that octagonal silver platter you’ve always wanted, with a Longhorn head on each of the eight sides. D&D belongs to the New West, not the Old.
Not until Hempstead, fifty miles from Houston, did the Coastal Plain begin to crinkle into undulations. The county seat of Waller County, Hempstead is home to one of Texas’ best-kept secrets, Peckerwood Garden, where you’ll find the finest collection of Mexican oaks outside Mexico, a species of Mexican magnolia that hasn’t been seen in years, and other extraordinary plants (or so a visiting expert told me; I wouldn’t know a boxwood from a boxcar). No billboards or highway signs lure travelers, and the place is marked by an unrevealing green sign reading “Peckerwood Foundation.” The reason for the lack of publicity is that the twelve-and-a-half-acre garden is on the grounds of the home of Texas A&M architecture professor John Gaston Fairey, for whom Peckerwood has been a thirty-year labor of love.
Back on the road, I arrived at the spot where, Kipling notwithstanding, the twain really do meet: U.S. 290 heads west to Austin and the University of Texas, and Highway 6 goes on to College Station and Texas A&M University. Before Aggieland, however, is the pleasant town of Navasota, with many homes and buildings surviving from the turn-of-the-century era. One old building on Railroad Street caught my eye; it was the long-defunct P.A. Smith Hotel, made of limestone with a cast-iron facade. Today it and the neighboring building are occupied by the Wood Factory, which produces millwork