Like the song says, I’m not from Texas. That’s okay; in the ten years since I moved here from my native U.K., I’ve learned to love it anyway. But just how much of it do I love? I’ll find out on this trip, as a friend and I climb up from the limestone tumble of the Hill Country to the unfamiliar wide-open prairies of the Panhandle. Perched at 3,676 feet on the patchwork plateau of wheat fields that stretches to South Dakota, Amarillo might as well be in Kansas. But as a teenager, I drove tractors and greased combines on my family’s farm, which is now in my brother’s capable hands, and I’m hoping that as Buddy Holly inspired the Beatles, the South Plains will talk to the boy from South Wales.
From Fredericksburg, U.S. 87 rises gradually out of the Pedernales Valley as we head toward Mason under a blue sky. Clearly visible to the east is Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (eighteen miles north of Fredericksburg on RR 965); climb the pink granite dome and feel like the Lion King as you survey this expanse of rolling, dusty browns and greens (and you might even see an antelope or an ibex—many ranches in the area raise exotic species for hunting). Farther north, you can visit the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, where, from May to October, four million Mexican free-tailed bats raise their pups. Mason itself is about as perfect an example of a small Hill Country town as you’ll find. On the square are craft stores, cafes, and the Odeon Theater, in continuous operation since 1928. Twenty miles north of town, the picnic spot where 87 crosses the San Saba is a great place to spend an afternoon with an inner tube and a cold bottle of Shiner Bock.
In Brady, right in the center of Texas, rancheros parade down the main drag in dually trucks. We park in the square and walk into Evridge’s. Founded in 1937, the department store has 40,000 square feet filled with…stuff. There’s a roomful of grandfather clocks, a suit of armor, a wooden hat stand featuring two carved bears, antique cowboy dolls, and much more.
At San Angelo we head south on U.S. 277 for sixteen miles to Christoval (“Chris- toe-val”), where we spend the night at Hummer House, a cottage designed for wildlife watching—in particular, the black-chinned hummingbirds that have been coming here since 1961, when owners Dan Brown and his wife, Joann, started putting out feeders. Brown, a jeweler, shows us a beautiful blue topaz fashioned in the Lone Star cut, the official state gemstone cut.
Deer gather in front of the cottage in the cold, bright gold of next day’s dawn as we head back into San Angelo, Oasis of the Concho. Early-morning traffic clogs the city’s main thoroughfares, but downtown, neon signs advertise boot repair to deserted streets. We stop at Miss Hattie’s Bordello Museum, a former brothel restored to decorous authenticity. Worn, dark stairs lead up to waiting areas full of overstuffed furniture with red tassels. Tidy rooms line the narrow tin-ceilinged hallway; every room has a large double bed. I push gently on a bed frame. It creaks loudly.
San Angelo moved a school and permanently closed a street to restore Fort Concho, the Indian Wars outpost that gave birth to the city. Low-slung barracks sit opposite neat officers’ quarters across the dusty parade ground where soldiers drilled and polished for 22 years. Many military units were stationed here during the Indian Wars, including the famous buffalo soldiers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry. No longer needed, the last troops marched away from Fort Concho on June 20, 1889.
From San Angelo, 87 climbs up nearly one thousand feet through sagebrush and scrubby mesquite to Big Spring. Coming into downtown, we half expect to see Jon Voight staring out from a Greyhound bus headed to New York City. The fifteen-story Settles Hotel still dominates the skyline, as it did in 1969, when Midnight Cowboy was filmed here. The big spring stopped flowing years ago, pumped dry by the railroad companies, but the town prospered through the oil boom, and downtown has many historic buildings. Stop in at the Heritage Museum to see the biggest set of Longhorn horns in the world.
On the flat plains north of Big Spring, cotton fields stretch to each horizon. Grain elevators and cotton gins loom over the earth. Wild ducks float above the clouds reflected in gray ponds. The world becomes bands of muted color, a vast rural Rothko: brown fields, gray sky, endless highway.
Out on the road, each sign brings Lubbock a little closer. Once in town, we head straight for Café J. Nearby tables buzz with talk of Texas Tech and tonight’s games. We dine on cream of green-chile soup, spinach enchiladas, and for an encore, apple-raisin spring rolls with cranberry-caramel dipping sauce. The food is delicious, the service deft.
The next morning we grab coffee and head toward Amarillo, leaving gray skies behind. Sunlight dances and snakes across furrowed fields. At the Hale County Farm and Ranch Historical Museum in Hale Center, rusting machinery is arranged in neat rows by the highway. A dog barks at us from behind the wire-mesh fence as I climb onto the roof of my car to study statues of tractors that were once working Allis-Chalmerses and Harry Fergusons—the kind I drove 25 years ago. I look around. There’s nothing to see in any direction that suggests any distraction from the business of wresting cotton or wheat from the ground.
In Plainview I go into Gebo’s, a kind of convenience store-plus for farmers, and find a neat leather belt that is National Pro Rodeo Association approved. As the checkout girl bags my purchase, she looks at me appraisingly. Back in the car, I glance at the receipt. I have bought “1 ladies belt.”
West of Canyon, dust hangs in the air across Buffalo Lake like fog. Most years the lake bed is dry, but today the prairie light sparkles on