Road Trip From Hell
Driving across Texas can be funsometimes.
IN THIS MONTH’S ISSUE OF Texas Monthly eleven writers and editors were assigned to drive various routes—horizontally, diagonally, and vertically across Texas—then write about their experiences along the way. I was not one of them.
I did, however, for reasons related to necessity (I was traveling to Colorado and needed to take my car with me), embark upon a whirlwind drive through much of Texas, from down to up and back again around the same time many of the writers were cataloguing their journeys. I can honestly confess that the sights blurred by and the sounds were muted (the windows stayed tightly sealed to ward off the chilly February air), and most of the friendly bantering that occurred was between me and myself as I drove the 1,069 miles each way—alone.
About 550 of those miles were within Texas, from Austin northwest through Lampasas, Brownwood, Abilene, Lubbock, Amarillo, Dalhart, and all the way to the New Mexico line. While I did stop here and there for gas and to sample one or two roadside dives along the way, most of my time was spent speeding down all forms of asphalt and concrete, from ranch roads to state highways to interstates, with the cruise control locked firmly in place.
I stopped for bottled water, granola bars, and a stray apple or two, attempting to avoid the bright lights of the ubiquitous truck stops and the clusters of neon-fused fast-food outlets that dot the small towns and interstate exits. Reflecting upon this journey a few months later, I feel I should share these few things with anyone intent on driving the great lengths of this state.
Never Pass a Corvette
Texas is famous for its law enforcement, and while Texas Rangers on horseback are no match for my speedy SUV, it turns out that Department of Public Safety troopers have pressed uniforms and fast patrol cars. The sun had just gone down, and I was playing follow-the-leader behind an aquamarine Corvette that passed lumbering eighteen-wheelers and cautious drivers with equal finesse. Our speed hovered in the high eighties on this 65-mph stretch of road. We zigzagged around traffic for a good many miles until the driver of the Corvette suddenly swerved into the right lane and slowed the muscle car way down, way fast.
Forgetting my golden rule of never ever being the fastest car on the road, I sped past him thinking of the good time I was making toward Amarillo, my stop for the night. I should have been thinking about investing in a radar detector instead. A few minutes later, lights were flashing behind me, and I barely managed to pull over onto the shoulder without flipping my car in the gravel on the edge of the highway. The Corvette sped by us flashing his high beams in what I took to be either a gesture of his victory or my stupidity—or both.
Luck was on my side as the officer calmly noted that I was traveling 76 mph in a 65-mph zone. After the requisite inquisition regarding whether there was an emergency or a fire somewhere that he was not privy to, I decided not to contradict his radar gun readout (low) versus my speedometer (high). He gave me the once-over, shined his flashlight at the various belongings in my vehicle, and then announced that I would receive a written warning, not a pricey ticket. Had I stayed comfortably behind the sports car and followed his radar detector, then I would have arrived in Amarillo a bit earlier, quite possibly snagging a motel room that wasn’t soaked in cigarette smoke.
Maps Are Small, Texas Is Big
On most maps there are small numbers underneath the road lines indicating distances between towns and cities. If you add up all of those little numbers between towns to judge the distance between big cities, the sum of those numbers is usually quite large.
Variety may be the spice of life, but I discovered that it does not get you home any faster. Though I suspected that my original route from Austin was the speediest, on my return, the highway sign on U.S. 287 in Amarillo pointing toward Fort Worth was just too inviting. I knew that Fort Worth was three measly hours from Austin, so I followed the sign, ignoring my instinct to retrace my previous steps. The sign did not lie per se, but it failed to mention that Fort Worth was more than three hundred miles away. That arrow got the best of me (and the next six hours of my life).
Doing 80 mph in a 65-mph zone will still take you four hours to go 320 miles. Since the distance from El Paso to Austin (573 miles) is almost as great as the distance from El Paso to Los Angeles (712 miles), plan on driving for a long time if you are attempting to get from one part of the state to another.
Stop to Smell the Bluebonnets
My last observation is this: Driving alone can be fun. Driving alone through Texas also can be fun. Driving alone across most of Texas in a hurry to get home because you are coming down with a cold and just want to be home is not fun. Driving 1,069 miles from Colorado to Austin without stopping for this reason is downright maniacal, bordering on suicidal.
I must confess that I am the culprit who drove seventeen hours straight, stopping only when necessary to replenish the car’s tank and empty mine. I figured I would make it from the Colorado Rockies to Amarillo or so, mimicking my initial drive from Austin a few weeks before. That in itself is about a five-hundred-mile journey worthy of two days of driving, especially when grappling with a fierce winter storm during the first two hours out of the mountains. Once in Amarillo, however, the sun was still shining and the hour was relatively early, despite losing one when crossing time zones.
So what do you do? You follow the signs in Amarillo toward familiar places like Fort Worth or Abilene. You press on. And then it gets dark and your eyes sag, so you turn off cruise control so as not to fall asleep and drive off the road. And then Wichita Falls comes into view, but you promised yourself Fort Worth, and it’s not even one hundred miles away—heck, that’s not even two hours at this speed! And then it’s nine o’clock at night and you are well past the long-distance driving comfort zone.
Fort Worth is way too big to stop and mess with food and lodging. Then it’s down Interstate 35—a straight line, more or less, through Waco and Temple. You’re too close to consider paying for a motel room, and you are beyond tired, your eyes no longer sagging, instead dry and sore; your elbow raw from rubbing against the cloth armrest; your back aching; and your right heel throbbing from being pressed against the floor mat for hours on end. And not so suddenly, you are home.
My reward for this hideously stupid feat? A safe arrival and a ravaging four-day-long head cold. I probably should have sucked it up and stopped along the way. But for me, there is something about driving across the state of Texas that makes me want to beat it at its own wide-open-spaces, speed-limit game.