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. 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