On the Road
Senior editor Michael Hall, who wrote about Arnold "Pee Wee" Kornegay, and others tell the story behind this month's cover story, "Drive, We Said."
texasmonthly.com: How did you end up with the drive you wrote about? Was it assigned? A drive you suggested? What?
Paul Burka: No editor in his right mind would assign Texas Highway 6; I take sole responsibility. It’s a secondary road that doesn’t go anywhere in particular. What intrigued me about it, when I looked at a map of Texas, is that 1) it started out just outside my hometown of Galveston; 2) I had driven the first part of the route many times; and 3) I had no idea it was the Energizer Bunny of roads that kept on going and going, all the way to western Oklahoma, into a part of Texas where I had never been—and I’ve been just about everywhere. When I started researching the route on the Web, it turned out there were a lot of interesting things to see and do en route.
Katy Vine: I had read Jan Morris’ story about U.S. 281 from an old issue of Texas Monthly and wanted to see how the road had changed since we published her story. Morris is a remarkable travel writer; if you haven’t read her work, run to the store right now and buy her books. I wasn’t that surprised to find that the towns along the road haven’t changed much. Everybody has a different experience on a trip—different people, different impressions—so even though I was passing the same towns, I could write about different things.
Patricia Sharpe: I was incredibly lucky I got Texas Highway 16 given that I procrastinated about choosing a route until the last minute—it was one of the best roads we did. My editor had traced everybody’s routes with a highlighter on a big map of Texas. The obvious roads were already taken, so we started looking for a blank area. I lucked out.
Eileen Schwartz: I requested the drive because I’ve become fascinated with East Texas. My boyfriend, James, who went with me, is familiar with a lot of the turf there, and I’ve spent more time in the region over the past year or so since my first East Texas assignments. Those took me to Tyler, Longview, and Crockett. The beauty I found in East Texas then really surprised me, and I’ve been making trips to the area ever since. I suggested the route we took, trying to take the more scenic roads, off-the-beaten-path routes, rather than just going from point A to point B.
Michael Hall: I’ve always loved this drive [Austin to Caddo Lake], the way it goes from the west to the south, up through the piney woods and all, so I volunteered for it.
Kathryn Jones: I suggested my drive from Brownsville to Laredo along U.S. 83, part of the Los Caminos del Rio, “Roads of the River,” heritage trail along the border. I had made the drive in 1996 for the New York Times travel section when the heritage trail was still developing and many of the historic sites were in the process of being restored and documented. On that trip I focused more on the historical sites and I started at Laredo and drove downriver; on this trip I wanted to visit a wide range of places and I wanted to start at Brownsville and go upriver, following the chronology of history and the paths of Spanish explorers and settlers. I’m from South Texas and spent a lot of time in the Rio Grande Valley growing up, and I’ve crossed the river more times than I can count. But every time I visit, I discover something new. This is one of the richest drives in Texas, and it’s one of my favorites.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult part about this assignment? Why?
KV: Getting people in restaurants and convenience stores to talk about the area. Part of it was my fault because I get into a driving mode and I have to force myself to stop and chat and not appear rushed. But even when I did get somebody to talk, it was hard to get them to discuss the city. Most people—especially young people—in small towns think their life is boring. I’d ask something like, “What do you do around here for fun?” and they’d respond, “Drink. No, not really. We don’t do anything. There’s nothing to do.” One high school girl said, “Cow tip.”
PS: The most difficult part of the assignment was not having enough time to do it in a leisurely way—not that I didn’t have plenty of fun. But on a travel story, you have to make every minute count, so you’re always taking notes while you’re eating or you’re pulling off the road to write down something you’ve seen that you’re afraid you’ll forget. People think a travel story is like a vacation, but it isn’t. It’s work. You’re always thinking, “How am I going to write this so it’s interesting?”
MH: Not buying one of Pee Wee Kornegay’s miniature donkeys. They are pretty adorable. But they poop a lot and eat a lot of hay.
PB: The hardest thing in any travel writing assignment is the writing part. If you aren’t careful, you wind up saying, “. . . and then I went here, and then I went there, and then I went somewhere else.” You have to reflect, to give a sense of the land and the history, to introduce the reader to some people, to give a sense of the miles passing, and no matter how much space you have to fill—and I had a generous allotment—it’s never enough. My first draft ran a thousand words too long.
KJ: The most difficult thing was choosing which points of interest to include in my piece because there are so many interesting places on this drive. The driving itself was a pleasure. I had feared that I might experience delays at border crossings because of the added security since September 11, but I didn’t have any problems.
texasmonthly.com: How long were you on the road?
KV: A week.
PB: I left Austin on a Friday night and drove to Houston. I started early on Saturday, drove down the Gulf Freeway to the Texas Highway 6 intersection by Galveston Bay, started on my route, and reached the Red River on Sunday night. I returned to Austin the next day.
ES: Four days.
MH: It took three days—of course, that was stopping at every place that looked interesting, or even not interesting.
KJ: I was on the road for three days, but if I had to do this trip over again, I’d give it at least five days and maybe even a week.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research did you do before you headed out on the road?
PB: I looked up each town on the Web—not Houston or Waco or Bryan-College Station, but the smaller towns. I also checked out their histories in the Handbook of Texas and read through various Texas guides looking for B&B’s and historical markers. I interviewed a couple of legislators about their districts; then-state senator David Sibley of Waco was especially helpful.
KJ: I did a lot of research before I headed out. Since I had been on this drive before, I knew quite a bit about it, but I wanted to find out what had changed since my last visit. The first thing I did was call Mario Sánchez, who is now at the Texas Department of Transportation. Sánchez, perhaps more than anyone else, is responsible for the creation of the Los Caminos del Rio Heritage Project, a cooperative program between the U.S. and Mexican governments. In his previous job at the Texas Historical Commission, Sánchez was intimately involved in the details of documenting the history of the region and identifying which sites needed preservation work. He helped me a great deal on my previous visit to Los Caminos in 1996, and he was very helpful again, as were other people at the historical commission. Anyone making this trip should get a free copy of a brochure detailing the historical sites. I ordered a copy from the historical commission Web site. Another great resource available from the historical commission is a book called A Shared Experience, which has detailed histories of the area, maps, and locations for more than two hundred historical sites on both sides of the Rio Grande.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing that happened to you while on the road?
PB: Getting stuck in the mud outside of Quanah, the last town before the Red River. I went out to look at the Medicine Mounds, four low hills on an otherwise featureless plain that the Comanche regarded as sacred ground; they rolled in gypsum that occurred naturally there, believing in its healing powers. It was a cold, blustery, wet morning. I drove east of town and took a farm road to the settlement of Medicine Mound. I could see the mounds, but every time I got near one, the road veered away. Finally, I saw a sign that said Little Mound Road and turned onto it reflexively. Big mistake. It was gooey red dirt, and my Suburban sank into the muck. There was nowhere to turn around. I slowed down to try to back up and almost slid off the road into the ditch. I put it in reverse and just spun my wheels. Stuck! I was nine miles from the main highway in the middle of nowhere, wearing a short-sleeved shirt in 53-degree weather with rain and a steady wind. This is what cell phones are for. I reached for mine and . . . no service. There were a few houses scattered about, so I trudged through the goo for about 150 yards, reached the farm road, and started out for the houses, separated by a couple of hundred yards. At the first one, nobody answered. At the second, a very large, very loud dog suggested that I look somewhere else. I passed the Medicine Mound store—long shuttered, now a museum that, according to a sign, was open on Saturdays. It wasn’t Saturday. The third house had several trucks and trailers in the side yard. A voice responded to my knock: “Come in.” Three men were there, a father, son, and friend of the son. I asked if I could use their phone to call for help; I had gone looking for the mounds and had gotten stuck. The father, a balding man with a round face and tufts of white hair, broke into peals of laughter. “You went down that dirt road in the rain?” “I was stupid,” I said. “I saw the sign and went down the road without thinking.” Well, I was the morning’s entertainment. And they were great folks. They did cowboying and cattle hauling and had the equipment to pull me out, which they did, from the rear. The son drove a truck and his friend got behind the wheel of my Suburban. The tow truck kicked up so much red mud that the friend couldn’t see through the back window or use the side mirrors, so we had to open the windows and look at their truck, to make sure we didn’t slide into it. Rain poured in through the windows, and the truck’s wide wheels slung clods of mud through the opening onto the dashboard, my clothes, my hair. We slid into the ditch. Had I been driving, I would have panicked—actually, I panicked anyway—but the driver said, “I think it’s steadier here. Less mud.” So he angled the wheels in a way that kept the front wheels in the ditch while the back wheels were sliding over the road. We made it out without incident, or perhaps I should say additional incident. When I walked up to the other driver, I looked back at Little Mound Road. It was so churned up, it looked plowed. I went over to the driver of the tow truck and gave him twenty dollars. He said, “Take a look at your car.” The back was covered in mud, from bumper to top, caked four inches thick. “Well,” my rescuer said, “You look country now.”
ES: One of the things that comes to mind immediately was a vivid full rainbow that had come out after a storm. It was to the west of us, and James said, “Let’s follow the rainbow.” We drove west for awhile on some country road driving toward it until we passed a paper mill. The rainbow’s arch started on one side of the plant and stretched over to the other side of it. And under the rainbow there was this big outpost of industry with thick clouds of white steam coming out of it.
MH: Rustling through the brush and finding concrete foundations leftover from Camp Hearne, the German POW camp on the outskirts of Hearne.
KJ: The most interesting thing on my trip was revisiting Guerrero Viejo, the ruins of a Mexican town that was evacuated when Falcon Lake was built and partially submerged for years. In the long drought, the town has reemerged and visitors are free to visit and walk around. Getting to the ghost town is a long trip that will consume the better part of a day, but it’s a hauntingly beautiful and eerie place. Part of the town is in rubble, but many of the buildings, constructed of big sandstone blocks, are still standing. The church across from what used to be the plaza is the most architecturally striking building with its columns and arches. I also visited for the first time the old cemetery, which had some headstones dating back to the 1800’s and some beautiful tombs. Guerrero Viejo is certainly worth a trip not only to see the remains of a significant colonial town, but also to see the high price that people have paid for the construction of Falcon Dam. This town was deemed expendable at the time. In hindsight it seems like such a travesty to sacrifice a place like this in the name of “progress.”
texasmonthly.com: What did you find boring about your drive? Why?
KV: There wasn’t anything boring about it; I love driving. I just blast music and watch the scenery. I could go for hours and hours. What I don’t like is parking.
PB: What other people may find boring, I find uplifting—the great emptiness of the West. I’m never bored when I’m driving. The least interesting part of the drive was when I wasn’t driving, just creeping through suburban Houston, miles and miles of strip malls and every chain store and fast-food restaurant known to man.
MH: All those antique stores. Many of them are full of phony antiques or boring ones.
PS: I wasn’t bored with any part of my drive until I got almost to Wichita Falls; the towns are few and far between up there and they’re pretty small, so there aren’t a lot of attractions like little museums and such. But I like the look of the country—it feels like Texas.
texasmonthly.com: Was the drive what you were expecting? Why or why not?
KV: Something that surprised me: The pies along the whole route were outstanding. I didn’t include them all in my write-up, but I must have tried ten pieces of pie. Apple, blueberry, fudge, you name it. I had no idea I wouldn’t get sick of it and that there would be even more waiting for me every few miles.
PB: I was excited about the drive, because some of it was familiar and some of it was totally unfamiliar. Almost everything was as good as or better than I thought it would be—even that awful stretch of Galveston County mainland (I’m speaking with the lifelong prejudice of a BOI, which in case there is anyone who doesn’t know this, is a Galveston term for “Born on the Island”) was as splendidly awful as I remembered it. There are great things to see on this drive—the Nolan Ryan museum in Alvin; Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead; the pre-revolutionary Fanthorp Inn in Anderson; the historic district in Calvert; the George Bush presidential library exhibit of the two father-son presidents, the Adams and the Bushes, at Texas A&M; and the Old Jail Art Center in Albany. These are all three-star attractions (out of three). Even the little diversions were worthwhile, like buying a Dr Pepper made with the original formula in Dublin, seeing the open coffin of Old Rip the horned toad in Eastland, and visiting the Billy the Kid Museum in Hico, which I thought would be a tourist rip-off. The woman in charge tells the story that Billy the Kid lived in town until 1950 in a way that lets the visitor make up his own mind. It’s clear that the guy did claim to be Billy the Kid and that he had some documentation to support his claim. The biggest disappointment was Marlin, which has not made the most of a fabulous past—mineral baths, grand old houses, and the New York Giants spring training site from the twenties. When I called the library to ask where the Giants had trained, all anyone could tell me was that it was a cow pasture somewhere south of town.
ES: Yes and no. I expected the natural beauty of the Piney Woods, but was surprised by the diversity of the landscape. I also found the people I met along the way to be more accepting of outsiders than some prevalent stereotypes would have us believe.
MH: Yeah, to tell the truth, I’ve been that way enough times to know what to expect. The most unexpected thing was the Michelson Museum in Marshall.
KJ: The drive lived up to my expectations, since I had done it before, but it also surprised me. Taking the time to stop in each town and explore along the business route was so much more rewarding than taking the much faster expressway (which runs outside Harlingen to Mission). The expressway is certainly much faster, but it’s a different world with its string of fast-food restaurants, chain motels, and gas stations. The business route is a lot slower but so much more interesting.
texasmonthly.com: What was the funniest thing that happened to you while on the road?
PB: It wasn’t funny to me, at least not at the time, but my newfound friends in Medicine Mound certainly thought my getting stuck on Little Mound Road was hilarious.
ES: On most road trips there comes a point where you have become just a wee bit weary of your travel companion. You’re also sick of all the CDs you’ve brought along. When we had reached this point, during a period of uncomfortable silence, James was impatiently jabbing at the radio tuner button, which landed on a country music station. He left it there (just to annoy me, of course). Then a hit by Toby Keith came on. By the end of the song—the lyrics of which we found so clever and fitting—we were both singing along, holding hands, and smiling. We were perfectly in love again—and totally countrified.
MH: When the miniature donkey kept nudging me in the crotch.
KJ: The funniest thing that happened to me was when I was driving on the jarring, rutted road from Guerrero Viejo back to Highway 2 in Mexico. It’s so remote, with only a scattering of ranches along the way and prickly pear that was taller than me. I was enjoying the solitude and thinking about how I was so alone in this austere landscape when I spotted a tour bus lurching ahead along the road. A few tour companies run buses to Guerrero Viejo during the winter and early spring when the Winter Texans are still living in the Valley. I had to pull over to let the bus pass. So much for being alone.
texasmonthly.com: Did you meet any interesting characters? If so, will you tell us about one?
PB: I wish I had had more space to write about Brent and Gena Cain in Calvert. Brent is a fifth-generation Calvertite, and all of his male ancestors were dentists. He became interested in mountain bike racing, went to Colorado, and saw Gena there. Whether he was more interested in the bike first or in Gena is a standing joke between them. She is from Utah. They moved back to Calvert and live on a ranch. Their shop, Rustique, which incorporates several of their interests (bikes, handmade furniture, coffee), is located in a building his family has owned.
MH: Pee Wee Kornegay was pretty interesting. He’s been breeding Brahman bulls for almost three decades and the donkeys for four years. He’s a gospel singer and travels a lot with a local singing group. He also makes and sells little birdhouses out of gourds.
KJ: One of the best parts of the trip was chatting with people I happened to meet along the way. I enjoyed talking to several of the custom bootmakers in Mercedes and learning how boots are made. And I loved talking to the owner of Smitty’s Juke Box Museum in Pharr and learning about the vintage jukeboxes on display. There was no one else in the museum when I visited, and Leo “Smitty” Schmitt, Jr., gave me a personal tour, explaining how his father, Smitty Senior, had started the museum. He played a few records for me and showed me his workbench strewn with wires where he works on broken machines.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
MH: Caddo Lake is one of my favorite places in the state. It’s like going to a netherworld between Texas and Louisiana.
KJ: I’d like to add that I just scratched the surface on the Los Caminos trip. There were so many places I didn’t get to visit for lack of time, including battlefields, wildlife refuges, and other historical sites along the way. And I think it’s an important trip because you get to see how closely interwoven Mexico and Texas are and how that makes the state so much richer. I hope to return soon.
PB: One of the side trips I took en route was to Crawford, where George W. and Laura Bush have their home. I went to the store in town in the hope that the president and/or first lady might be eating lunch there. No such luck, but I did run into a couple of aides I knew. My cell phone must have been on the blink again, because I was just sure I’d get a call to come out and visit the ranch. But the call never got through.