The “Drive” Drive
By Joe Nick Patoski
ROUTE: West of Ozona to Sanderson
DISTANCE: 85 miles
NUMBER OF COUNTIES: 3
WHAT TO READ: James H. Evans’s Crazy From the Heat
A drive whose sole purpose is to experience the simple pleasure of being behind the wheel has a few requirements. The route must lead west, because that’s the story of Texas and America. The road must be off the beaten path and as free from traffic as possible. And the driver must have an open mind and an eye for discovery.
That’s why my favorite drive in Texas begins 23 miles west of Ozona, dipping south from Interstate 10, where the speed limit is 80 miles an hour but the landscape is so vast I feel like I’m hardly moving. Buttes and outcroppings covered with oak, mesquite, and prickly pear are interrupted by green river valleys. This is the canyon country of the Trans-Pecos, where the Hill Country and the Edwards Plateau transition into the Chihuahuan Desert and the basin-and-range topography that defines the West begins. It is one of the emptiest—and most scenic—parts of the state, and I am completely at home.
From I-10, I follow Texas Highway 290 west toward Sheffield, and the hills morph into mesas and small mountains. The brush looks harsher and thornier, and the exposed soil is rendered into hardpan or rubble as creosote, catclaw, and other desert plants appear. This stretch of highway is part of the old route that ran from Austin to El Paso before the interstate, but it is still broad-shouldered and sturdy. It’s lonely enough for drivers passing in the other direction to wave or offer a raised hidy finger, acknowledging their fellow traveler.
Nine miles later, the cactus-studded overlook above Fort Lancaster State Historic Site marks the literal edge of the old frontier. This was one of the roughest drops for stagecoaches along the Old Government Road, the trail that ran from San Antonio to El Paso. Beyond the fort, which once boasted 25 permanent buildings but now consists only of ruins for visitors to explore, a rusty metal truss bridge crosses the swift-running Pecos River. That leads to the outskirts of Sheffield, where you pick up Texas Highway 349 and head south for eleven miles. Turn right onto Ranch Road 2400, a tighter two-lane highway with a smaller shoulder, a sprawling desert landscape, and far to the west, mountains rising on the horizon. No buildings, no billboards, no trace of humanity interrupt the view.
Where could this be? Mexico? The Sand Hills? Greece? For 39 more lonely miles, the road runs through broad canyons and magnificent desert vistas to the junction at U.S. 285. From there it’s 16 miles into Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas and a charmingly ancient railroad town. The road twists and curves as the first signs of civilization appear: Sanderson Wool Commission, small houses, mechanic shops, and finally U.S. 90.
Turn left and it’s less than an hour to Judge Roy Bean’s Jersey Lilly saloon, in Langtry. Go right and it’s less than an hour to Marathon. Big Bend National Park is a little more than an hour beyond that. Alpine, Marfa, Van Horn, and the great American West beckon. Where you go doesn’t really matter, because you’re already Somewhere Else. And that’s what a “drive” drive is all about.
The Road to Nowhere Drive
To be fair, Ranch Road 2810 isn’t exactly a road to nowhere—it leads to the oasis of Chinati Hot Springs. But this spot outside Marfa did provide the perfect setting for this month’s gorgeously remote-looking cover. It’s unlikely that you’ll see another soul out here (except maybe the Border Patrol), and be forewarned: the final 22 miles bump along over a gravel road, so a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
END: Chinati Hot Springs
DIRECTIONS: West on RR 2810 (look for the sign for the springs)
DISTANCE: 55 miles
The Birding Drive
By Patricia Sharpe
ROUTE: Mission to South Padre Island
DISTANCE: 89 miles
NUMBER OF COUNTIES: 2
WHAT TO READ: David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Guide to Birds
Hugging the U.S.-Mexico border in far South Texas, the sultry stretch of land known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley is the Casablanca of the bird world. Sooner or later all of the usual—and some very unusual—suspects end up here. Want to see a green jay, which looks as though it has been dunked in a bucket of chartreuse paint? No problem. What about a black-and-orange Altamira oriole, which wears a Halloween costume year-round? Easy. Species from Mexico and Central America find the Valley’s subtropical climate very much to their liking, and U.S. and Canadian birds take time out here for R&R during their marathon migrations.
Happily, seeing some of the five hundred species that live or visit here is a breeze because many top sites lie just off U.S. 83. And though I saw my fair share of fast-food joints and trailer parks, what
I remember most about the scenery are the palm trees and bougainvillea that dot the route.
Begin your trek near Mission at the sprawling Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park. This oasis is part of the World Birding Center, a fantastic group of nine government-sponsored sites spread across the area. Right off the bat, I saw a great kiskadee, a flycatcher with a black-and-white mask and bright-yellow vest. As it turns out, the mammal-watching isn’t too shabby either. I joined forces with a couple from Wisconsin, and the three of us waited patiently for a bobcat, javelina, or coyote to cross the trail as daylight faded.
Just a mile away is the National Butterfly Center, where more than two hundred species of butterflies have been sighted. Kids love the green ravine called the Hackberry Trail that forms a sort of leafy secret tunnel. At the end of it is a clearing where multiple bird feeders and slices of fresh orange guarantee you’ll see something fun, like a flock of red-winged blackbirds or maybe