THIS IS THE ROUTE INTO THE wide-open spaces, a path worn through the desert and uplands by Native Americans, conquistadores, pioneers, and the second transcontinental rail line. Sure, times have changed along the trail; it is only a few hours’ drive between cappuccino machines, for instance. But the best things about the journey—prehistoric pictographs, gushing springs, legendary rivers, grand mountains, and mind-altering sunsets—remain the same.
Immediately west of San Antonio’s Loop 1604, the suburban jungle gives way to typical South Texas scrub. Within fifteen minutes, however, things ain’t so typical. I’ve landed in a misplaced chunk of Alsace known as Castroville, which was settled by Henri Castro on the Medina River in 1844. At Haby’s Alsatian Bakery, the pastries are mostly all-American. The best taste of the old country comes courtesy of salesperson and lifelong Castrovillian Mildred Jagge, who will rattle off some lilting Alsatian at the slightest prodding. I can’t resist walking around the historic downtown, which is simply lousy with darling stucco cottages. At La Normandie Restaurant, off Houston Square, the hearty lunch buffet offers a quick sampling of Alsatian and other continental fare; I’m going back some evening for the onion-cream-and-puff-pastry appetizer that takes thirty minutes to prepare. And after dinner I’ll waddle over to the Landmark Inn for the night. Constructed in the mid-1800’s as a general store and now operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife, the inn boasts spanking-clean rooms sweetly furnished with vintage pieces and antiques.
On the way out of town, the humps of the Hill Country make a showing to the north, baby versions of the mountains ahead. The next three towns—Hondo, D’Hanis, and Sabinal—look to have been laid out by the same city planner, with Old West-style downtown buildings clustered to the north of the Southern Pacific tracks that parallel my route. I pull into Sabinal, where I admire the elegant mesquite furniture at Hart’s and get a dish of Blue Bell ice cream at the soda fountain of Brown’s Pharmacy, in the turn-of-the-century building that once housed the Sabinal National Bank.
I roll into Uvalde, the hometown of John Nance Garner, one of the vice presidents who served under FDR, a little past three o’clock, just after the First State Bank has closed its doors. As I press my nose against the window looking for the museum-worthy artworks the bank owns, a concerned-looking man peers back at me. Persuaded that my interest is in the art and not the cash deposits, Lewis Bracey, Jr., the bank’s CEO, unlocks the door and assistant vice president Alexis Petty leads me on a tour. I’m suitably awed by the two Rembrandt etchings, the two portraits by Joshua Reynolds, and dozens of other treasures amassed by the bank’s senior chairman, former governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr., and his late wife, Janey. The bank itself is a piece of work, a cavernous, brick-walled space that’s furnished with Persian rugs, brocade curtains, plastic light fixtures, and Gay Nineties-style settees upholstered in button-tufted red leather. High art often triggers my carnivorous instincts, so I stop at Evett’s Barbecue, a Uvalde fixture since 1964, for a pound of rather sweet but falling-off-the-bone pork ribs (available Thursday through Saturday only). For dessert I pop into Uvalde Rexall Drug for a lime freeze. The fountain also serves creditable burgers and chalupas at prices as retro as the boomerang-patterned laminate covering the counter. Thanks to a brisk walk around the bustling town square and a mocha latte at the Main Perc, next to the sublimely restored 1891 Janey Slaughter Briscoe Grand Opera House, I am wide awake for the drive to Brackettville.
The population definitely begins to thin out here; Brackettville is one of only two towns in Kinney County, which is a little larger than the state of Rhode Island. Such isolation must breed eccentricity, for the county can lay claim to a real fort that’s been transformed into a gated community and a fake fort that’s been transformed into a tourist attraction. Seven miles north of Brackettville on FM 674, Alamo Village—built for John Wayne’s fact-challenged 1960 epic, The Alamo, and still used for movies and commercials though it’s now up for sale—is a patently faux Old West town that attracts families and herds of burly bikers alike. As surreal as Alamo Village strikes me, it’s got nothing on Fort Clark Springs. The historic stone officers’ quarters of Fort Clark, an 1852 cavalry post, have been converted to residences, the barracks are a motel, the officers’ club is a restaurant serving fried everything, and the parade grounds are part of a golf course. The jewel of the community, the pool fed by the prolific Las Moras Springs, is reserved for members of the local homeowners association and guests of the motel.
As twilight descends, I motor into Del Rio, disappointed by the lack of low-flying jets around Laughlin Air Force Base. For dinner, I buck bordertown convention and pass on the ubiquitous Tex-Mex in favor of—gasp!—Italian cuisine. At Avanti my daring pays off with a fabulous traditional Caesar salad and garlicky shrimp. Del Rio has no shortage of chain motels, but for character and serenity, there’s the Villa del Rio, a bed-and-breakfast in a Mediterranean-style mansion on a tree-lined street. Next door is the Val Verde Winery, the oldest in the state, which is open for tastings and tours. (Locals recommend its port.) I tool around the downtown area, soaking up the historical limestone architecture, then stop by the Whitehead Memorial Museum, an eclectic assemblage of Western stuff, from the actual grave of Judge Roy Bean (on the grounds) to an exhibit on John R. Brinkley, the infamous goat-glands doctor, and his million-watt border radio station. The extended drought has left the level of Lake Amistad more than fifty feet below normal, but even so, all that bright blue water is a refreshing shock in the midst of so much desert. I toy with the idea of crossing the six-mile dam into Mexico, but there appears to be less than nothing