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 the Johnson Ranch, where the descendants of LBJ’s original Herefords lazily stepped out of the road near the Texas White House. The brassy guide wrapped up the tour by saying that Johnson had screened movies in an airplane hangar (on the right) and that his favorite film was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She then cued up “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which prompted four of my busmates to sing along, full-throated. I approved of their lack of self-consciousness, although I couldn’t help but wonder if the impromptu performance puzzled the visitors from Puerto Rico and Germany.
As the sun began to set, I pulled into the Homestead Guesthouse in Bulverde and looked at old photos of the place, which has been owned by the same family since the early 1900’s. One photo showed a cluster of old men in an 1897 organization called the Germania Farmer Verein, a group that still hosts a Mayfest and an Oktoberfest each year. No doubt the present-day Hilgendorfs, Krippendorfs, and Wagenfuehrs who continue that legacy frequent Specht’s Store, Restaurant, and Saloon, where I was greeted with a hot biscuit fresh out of the oven the next morning.
Overall, I can report that there is fabulous home cooking to be eaten in the Hill Country, notably at the Bluebonnet Café in Marble Falls (where the lemon-meringue pies are as big as a woman’s hat), the Hill Country Cupboard in Johnson City, and the Blanco Bowling Club and Café in Blanco. The sign at the Cupboard that read “World’s Best Chicken-Fried Steak, Nearly Three Dozen Sold” drew me inside, where a Wranglers-wearing singer led a roomful of locals in “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Brown Eyed Girl” as I ate what was indeed one of the world’s best chicken-fried steaks. On the Blanco square, whose antiques stores evidenced an economic upturn, I asked a shopkeeper about other places I could eat. I wasn’t quite ready to eat health food yet, though that was an option, so I picked the Bowling Club and ate my blueberry pie surrounded by pipe-smoking men and the comforting thunder of nine-pin bowling—still vital and serious recreation in this community.
As the Hill Country gave way to San Antonio, I passed Brackenridge Park, with its huge Japanese garden; the Liberty Bar, a popular restaurant that leans so dramatically it looks as if it might collapse; and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. The last, in my opinion, is one of the most underappreciated attractions in San Antonio. A friend frequently reminds me of the time we watched a gorgeous teenage bride-to-be at Mission San José pull up her gown and run with confidence across the grass and into the church, where at least three rows of bridesmaids in purple dresses stood at attention.
From San Antonio through the Rio Grande Valley—fruit-stand country—I noticed that the locals were friendlier than they had been on the north end of the road, where folks had been clipped and private in their conversation. On the southern outskirts of San Antonio at La Cabaña Mexican Restaurant, for instance, I was approached by a woman in her seventies dressed as if she had just left a Sunday church service. Having overheard my conversation about 281 with my waitress, she told me proudly, “I’m from this road. What would you like to know?” Like a lot of people I ran into, she had never drifted far from 281’s gravitational force. Down the road in George West, I met another woman who was “from 281” and who explained, “People in George West are more philosophical and laid-back than the people just north of here in Three Rivers. Three Rivers people are a little more aggressive, a little wild. The women divorce and remarry and get jobs. They’re different up there. They don’t have as much money, and they’ve fallen on hard times because of flooding, while we in George West profited from newfound uranium. Maybe that changes things.”
As I drove farther south, I also watched the complexion and flavor of the state slowly begin to change—hearing a different Texas on the radio and in the local accents. A fifth-generation Hispanic Texan pointed out the three-year-old Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame Museum in Alice, the Birthplace of Tejano, which proudly exhibited items from Narciso Martinez (the Father of Conjunto) and Beto Villa (the Father of the Orquesta Tejana). Of course, the tastes changed as well. While fast-food chains dominate the streets in the bigger cities in the Valley, I found particularly fresh Mexican fare at Chentes Restaurant in Alice and farther down the line at La Casa del Taco in McAllen.
With only RVs to block my view on the flat stretch to Falfurrias, I got a little carried away with my speed and was ticketed for going fifteen miles an hour over the limit. According to the trooper who handed me my fine, getting pulled over is a frequent experience in these parts. Perhaps appropriately, my next stop was Falfurria’s famous Don Pedrito Shrine, named for the area’s popular faith healer. The milagros and prayers lining the interior of the small concrete building offer much about the local Catholics’ worries: “Don Pedrito, I’m asking for your help. I’ve been struggling to get a job to help my family—” and “Please keep my family with my dad who drinks a lot. Please make him stop and be a better husband. He treats my mother cruelly.” Buttons of football players were tacked next to family photographs, drivers’ licenses, and business cards. One read, “Crewleader. Onions.”
Down where the landscape turned from scrub ranchland into stretches of yawning green farmland pinned down by fluttering palm trees, the winter Texans were out in abundance. I spotted a few near McAllen at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Though the refuge’s tour had already left, Trail A allowed me a sweet-smelling stroll through dense Spanish moss and views of the Altamira oriole, the long-toed jacana, the least grebe (smallest of all grebes), and many binocular-bearing senior citizens wearing ball caps emblazoned with sayings like “Whatever.”
Now six hundredsome miles from the Windthorst General Store and its spartan displays of necessities, I slowly wound my way to the car-clogged end of the road in Brownsville, where the highway dived straight into the bustling downtown. A young boy wearing a cowboy hat and belt buckle held onto his grandma’s hand, and teenage girls in tight pants sipped soda through straws as they walked along the busy street, which bore signs for Nueva York Trading Company, El Toro Sporting Goods, and El Gran Mercado. And then, before I knew it, the international bridge was on my right, allowing a teenage couple feeding each other ice cream to go farther than 281 allowed. There, the highway stopped, made a pin curve, and turned me back to the long road north.
Blanco Bowling Club and Café, 310 Fourth, Blanco; 830-833-4416; no credit cards
Bluebonnet Café, 211 US 281, Marble Falls; 830-693-2344; no credit cards
Booked Up, 216 S Center, Archer City; 940-574-2511; closed Sun
Chentes Restaurant, 107 Cecilia, Alice; 361-668-9781
Don Pedrito Shrine, east of US 281 on FM 1418, Falfurrias; 361-325-2224
Hill Country Cupboard, US 281 at US 290, Johnson City; 830-868-4625
Homestead Guesthouse, 1200 Bulverde, Bulverde; 866-336-3809; rooms $125
La Cabaña Mexican Restaurant, 23425 US 281 South, San Antonio; 210-626-2726; dinner only Thur and Fri, lunch and dinner Sat and Sun, closed Mon through Wed
La Casa del Taco, 1100 Houston, McAllen; 956-631-8193
Lazy T’s BBQ, 901 S Rice, Hamilton; 254-386-4466; closed Sun
Liberty Bar, 328 E Josephine, San Antonio; 210-227-1187
Lonesome Dove Inn, 225 W Main, Archer City; 940-574-2700; from $65 for a single room to $150 for a suite; no credit cards
Longhorn Cavern State Park, 6 miles west of US 281 on Park Road 4, Burnet; 512-756-4680; summer tours daily from 10 to 4 hourly, winter tours daily at 11, 1, and 3; $13, $12 teens and seniors, $8 children 2 to 12
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Johnson City on US 290; 830-868-7128; tours daily from 9 to 4:30
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, San Antonio; Mission San Jose, 6701 San Jose Dr.; Mission Concepcion, from downtown go south on St Mary’s to Mission Rd; 210-932-1001
Royal Theater, 101 N Center, Archer City; 940-574-2489
St. Mary’s Grotto, 101 Church, Windthorst; 940-423-6687
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, on FM 907 just east of US 281, 7 miles south of Alamo; 956-784-7500; $3 per vehicle
Specht’s Store, Restaurant, and Saloon, 122 W Specht, San Antonio; 830-980-7121; closed Mon and Tues
Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame Museum, 213 N Wright, Alice; 361-664-8000; closed Mon and Tues