You find more than barbecue and red clay as you angle through East Texas on U.S. 79 and Texas Highway 43. There’s European art, Sicilian donkeys, dusty pioneer trails, and gothic swamp things. Strangest of all, my wife and I realized that as you go north, you’re heading into the Deep South. Actually, the drive begins in the Old West. Take Interstate 35 north from Austin fifteen miles to Round Rock. To see how the city got its name, exit on Sam Bass Road, go about half a mile, and take a left on Chisholm Trail Road for another half mile. At the low-water crossing of Brushy Creek, to your left, is the large, relatively round rock (it’s more like a pitted, anvil-shaped boulder) that pioneers and cattle drivers used in the mid-1800’s as a guide for crossing the creek. Go back to Sam Bass and turn left for a little more history: Another half mile down is the Round Rock Cemetery. In the northwest corner, next to the unmarked slave graves, is the final resting place of Sam Bass, the bank robber who met his end in 1878 and took a deputy sheriff with him.
Now that you know Round Rock wasn’t always new subdivisions and strip malls, head east on 79 past the light brown housing developments with light brown roofs peeking over light brown fences, and then the bright new Dell Diamond, the home of the Round Rock Express, the Houston Astros’ AA farm team. Then, suddenly, after the dense commerce of Round Rock, you’re in the flat, dark, wide-open farmland of Central Texas. Four miles down the road lies Hutto, known for its high school mascot, the hippo. Make a left on East Street and you’ll come upon a concrete hippo, its mouth agape.
Taylor, ten miles past Hutto, is barbecueville, especially as 79 (stay on the business route) becomes Second Street downtown. The most famous place is giant, smoke-stained Louie Mueller’s, which has been here since the forties. But if you want a time warp, head to the Taylor Café (turn right at the light for Texas Highway 95, but hug the curb). The cafe, which opened in 1948, sits at the end of an entire block of boarded-up businesses; open the torn screen door and enter another era, when barbecue wasn’t served “family style” but with a beer. The counter splits the room in two, and the lunchtime crowd is self-segregated, as it has been since the old days: blacks on the far side, whites and Latinos on the near. There are no menus, and the various kinds of sandwiches and plates offered (brisket, sausage, ribs, as well as meat by the pound) are written on butcher paper tacked to the dark, aged walls.
Back on 79, around Thorndale, the terrain starts to roll a little, like a blanket. Just south of Gause, look on your left for a large Brahman bull on a post high in the air. Arnold “Pee Wee” Kornegay, the owner of the 7K Bar Ranch, has been breeding the majestic, fearsome beasts for 28 years, but in the next meadow over are his miniature Sicilian donkeys, which are as cute an animal as you will ever see—that is, if you like small, playful things with big eyes and ears. Miniature donkeys are initially shy, but within moments they come up to you, nudging you and demanding to be petted. Kornegay sells them for anywhere from $300 to $2,000 a head.
After you cross the Brazos River and the terrain flattens out again, you’ll come to Hearne. Follow the signs for downtown, which is cheerier than that of other sleepy, half-dying small towns—many of the buildings are painted bright colors, and it feels like you’re on a movie set. If you take a left onto Texas Highway 485 and go a mile, you’ll see a rusty water tower to your left. It’s all that remains of Camp Hearne, a World War II German POW camp that once held almost five thousand prisoners. After the war, most of it was torn down, and the area grew over with weeds and poison ivy.
Jewett is an odd little town: one short line of old buildings and antiques shops, with a small museum and a lively flea market on the second weekend of every month. Vendors sell everything from tomato plants and emu oil to Boston terrier puppies. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” said a man eyeing the habanero peppers. “My wife gets out of prison tonight.”
Around Palestine (pronounced “Palace-teen”) you start to notice certain changes: The dirt gets redder and the trees get pinier. Follow the signs for beautiful downtown Palestine—you have to go east on U.S. 84—to see the courthouse dome, which looks like something out of Eastern Europe, not East Texas. If you stay on 84 for four more miles, you’ll come to the Texas State Railroad, a cool little train with two old steam locomotives pulling bright red coaches through the Texas State Railroad State Park, which sits between Palestine and Rusk. At fifty feet wide in some places, it’s the narrowest park in Texas, and the fifty-mile round-trip takes four hours.
Back on 79, tune in to 1400 KEBE-AM, a great station that plays old country music—“A little bit of fifties and sixties, a lot of seventies and eighties”—and when you get to Jacksonville, take a right on Main Street and stop at Sadler’s, probably the best restaurant on the trip. As you sit under photos of hometown girl Lee Ann Womack and other country stars (they come for the rodeo every July), feast on the delicious homemade soups, vegetable dishes, lasagna, and pies.
Beware: Many counties in East Texas are dry, including Rusk County, home to our next stop, Henderson. So we drove the eighteen miles to Kilgore for a six-pack and then drove back to Henderson to whoop it up at a Holiday Inn Express (the local motels were pretty run-down). The next morning, we visited