With the terrain of a pulled hairpin—flat on the ends, bumpy in the middle—U.S. 281 changes little in landscape but a lot in personality over eight degrees of latitude. Beginning in Wichita Falls, I point my car south, with traffic whizzing by on both sides. (I’m not sure if the state gradually slopes downward like a pinball machine, but the road provides nearly all of its vistas to the southbound patrons.) And though 130 years have passed since cattlemen made this trek from the opposite direction, I spotted two teenage boys on horseback on the feeder road, anachronistic remnants of the route’s history peeking through as if no amount of construction could suppress the city’s original purpose.
I blew into Windthorst as gusts of wind brought the smell of dairy cattle across the bright green pastureland in powerful waves. Like many of the places along 281, the center of the town says much about its flavor: This German Catholic community’s main attraction is the artful, stone-lined St. Mary’s Grotto, which houses the Franciscan church’s Virgin Mary statue (although the old-fashioned Windthorst General Store, with its wood-and-glass case of display items, is also worth a stop). When I visited, much of the talk revolved around high school sports. Apparently the Windthorst Trojans and Trojanettes, grown tall and calcium-strong from the area’s dairy products, pack a wallop unmatched by teams from the larger surrounding towns.
When I got back on the road, I took a short detour on Texas Highway 25 to Archer City, where I used the rest of the day spending my monetary limit at that town’s main draw, Larry McMurtry’s four-storefront book empire Booked Up . I had just been to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, a couple of weeks previous, but that warehouse’s personality pales in comparison: You won’t see a section at Powell’s, for instance, marked “Books With Boring Titles.” That night I sneaked out of a songwriter’s concert at the Royal Theater (the restored movie house immortalized by McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show ) to visit the Lonesome Dove Inn (originally the 1926 Archer County Hospital, now a bed-and-breakfast), and the short walk down the empty street on a balmy, starry night made me feel as if I had walked into somebody else’s dream.
The success or failure of these towns along the highway is immediately visible: Some, like Archer City and Windthorst, emerged nicely through difficult times, while others have been pulled into the ground by vines and weather and gravity. As I barreled down 281, I passed a northbound bicyclist who was obviously riding more out of necessity than enjoyment (unlike the Spandexed bicyclists I’d pass farther down the road in the Hill Country): Mustachioed and sunburned, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, he inched his way up the highway carrying a garbage bag of clothes on the back of his ten-speed. Perhaps he was fleeing Mineral Wells, a town that passed its prime in the twenties. The shell of the gorgeous, deserted sandstone-colored Baker Hotel dominates the city, whose downtown is now abandoned, like a lavish and fragile movie set flaking apart.
Windmills and hay bales began to dot the landscape as I approached Hamilton, where hunters’ money flows through a town square that hasn’t changed much since the fifties. In a barbecue mood, I stopped by Lazy T’s BBQ trailer, parked on the west side of the highway. The proprietor, an eager-to-smile Rick Turner, held on to his belt loops as he bragged that, why, yes, this business ran in his blood and did I know, in fact, that he was a distant cousin of the Cooper family in Llano? When I bit into a sliced-brisket sandwich, tasting the fat that had melted like butter onto the bread, I began to wonder whether cousin Rick would wrestle the crown away someday in the state’s ongoing Shakespearean barbecue drama.
I was now halfway through my journey, and Jaguars and Lexuses became my road companions, replacing the giant manufactured houses that had lumbered down the highway in the north. I saw the stone house built by Moses Hughes, the first white settler and the founder of Lampasas, who came for the springs in 1856. Moses’ sickly wife, Hanna, bathed in the healing waters and went on to bear ten children.
Rolling out of Lampasas on an overcast day, I stopped briefly at the Longhorn Cavern State Park in Burnet. The hour-and-a-half tour of the cool interior would be a relief in the summertime. But I was already cold, and a marker in the area bearing the name of another cave had made me curious: Dead Man’s Hole in Marble Falls. Seventeen bodies had been thrown down it during the Civil War and Reconstruction, including pro-Union judge John R. Scott and several county officials who sympathized with the North. Apparently there are a lot of new residents in Marble Falls, for when I asked a few strangers where I could find the hole, the responses I received were “I’ve lived here only a year” and “I don’t know. I’m visiting from New York.”
I finally found a mechanic who shared nostalgic memories of setting tree limbs on fire and hurling them down the hole in the fifties, when he was a youngster. “That hole is covered now, though,” he said, squinting. “I guess they didn’t want anybody else thrown down there.” Using his directions, I found the spot in the middle of a field, which bore a state historical marker. Though it was just a concrete-blocked, 155-foot-deep opening in the earth, its placement in a barren field far from traffic was a menacing reminder of the years when this land was much more hostile to its out-of-towners.
I didn’t know it before I toured the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park , but singing was in store for me on this trip. I boarded the tour bus in Stonewall, just west of Johnson City on U.S. 290, with a wide-ranging assortment of visitors and surveyed