IF YOU WANT A QUIET GETAWAY where the tall pines are plentiful, the wildflowers beautiful, and the folks down-home hospitable, then East Texas is the place. This scenic region is also rich in history: Prehistoric Caddo Indians made their home here, and Spain and France sent explorers to the area in the 1600’s. Though it was only last year that I made my first trip to East Texas, I feel at home hiding out in the Piney Woods. Maybe it’s because my maternal grandmother was born in Daingerfield and, my mother tells me, my great-grandmother ran a sawmill somewhere in these parts.
My boyfriend, James, and I headed north from Beaumont on U.S. 69, which doubles as the Big Thicket National Preserve Parkway as far as Lufkin. After a few miles, the oil refineries that line the highways of the Golden Triangle faded into the distance as the Gulf Coast prairie began to give way to the lush forests surrounding the Big Thicket National Preserve. Operated by the National Park Service, the preserve embraces 97,000 acres of woodlands, marshes, and swamps. Our first stop was the Big Thicket Visitor Center, on FM 420 (turn off of the parkway seven miles north of Kountze and follow the signs). When we asked about driving tours, the park service’s Robert Valen told us that the lack of signs and detailed maps has made it difficult to direct visitors to public-access areas. “Fortunately,” he said, “we’ve just gotten some money for that.” Valen recommended that we drive FM 1013 but advised, “The Big Thicket should be taken foot by foot. You can’t drive through and expect to see it.”
We took his suggestion and hiked on the nearby Kirby Trail, where I began to understand what Valen meant as I walked through the woods. Wild violets bloomed in the shadows of towering pines that mingled with an assortment of hardwoods and the tallest magnolias I’ve ever seen. A few steps more and we came upon one of many swamps we would encounter, the cypress trees looming eerily out of the water. Back in the car, we drove north on the parkway for 23 miles, then turned east on FM 1013, a two-lane road that was lined with purple, yellow, and white wildflowers on this early spring day. We caught Texas Highway 87 in Bleakwood, then went for a pleasure ride on FM 1414, a winding 16-mile loop with rolling hills and pastoral vistas. It leads to the Wild Azalea Canyon (6.7 miles from 87), a two-hundred-acre wilderness park at the end of an unpaved 1.8-mile road. We parked and walked down the trail into the canyon through a forest of longleaf pines, looking for wild azaleas, which bloom from mid- to late March. The only other visitors we saw were Fritz and Irma Kornegay, who had come from Liberty. As we chatted, I spotted a lone azalea blossom. “These things grow most anywhere in East Texas where creeks are,” Fritz said. “That is a very puny exhibit.” A late freeze had evidently delayed the season.
Rejoining 87 at Burkeville, we drove eight miles north and took another sight-seeing detour on Recreational Road 255, a lonesome road that took us to the south end of Sam Rayburn Lake; the biggest body of water entirely in Texas, it’s tucked inside the 153,179-acre Angelina National Forest. Later, over lunch at the nearby Stump Restaurant, we listened to the fishermen discuss the water level of the lake (up from last year) while we ate the best burgers and onion rings this side of the Sabine River. Back on 87, we drove through the Sabine National Forest, where the dark green backdrop was dotted with the deep pink and white blossoms of redbud and dogwood trees. At Milam, we headed west on Texas Highway 21, known as the Old San Antonio Road. This two-lane stretch was once part of El Camino Real, one of the earliest highway systems in North America. First used by Spanish missionaries, it was a network of roads that extended from Mexico to San Antonio and into parts of Louisiana held by Spain.
In San Augustine the town square, dominated by its 1927 Classic Revival county courthouse, offered us a chance to stretch our legs. This was one of the first Anglo settlements in Texas, back when it was a part of Mexico. It is also where James Pinckney Henderson set up his law practice before he became the first governor of the state. The Misión de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Aís was established here on the banks of the Ayish Bayou in 1717. Though the original structure no longer stands, a visitors center has exhibits documenting the life and times of the Indians and the Spanish missionaries who were sent to Texas to convert them. We continued on 21, enjoying more of the evergreen-redbud-dogwood mixture before stopping for the night in Nacogdoches, where we stayed at the Moundstreet Bed and Breakfast. The 1899 two-story house, which is filled with antique clocks collected by owners Mary Elizabeth and Chappell Jordan, exuded Southern hospitality.
The next morning we left Nacogdoches on U.S. 59, which we would stay on for the remainder of the trip. In Garrison a sign outside the Gift Barn advertising “old trunk restoration” caught our attention. We stopped and met 74-year-old Dickie Thomson, who told us he has restored 2,110 trunks during his 36 years in business. Pointing to one with pride, he said, “You can see the alligator skin built in. It was probably made around the 1870’s.”
Just minutes outside Garrison I saw a bizarre wood carving of a figure in a cowboy hat and boots on the east side of the road, next to a sign that read “Tex Critter.” We pulled into Flat Fork Village but found ourselves alone, although a camper home sat some fifty yards beyond this mysterious artist’s workshop. Browsing around on our own, James pointed out a work in progress: a pine sofa with carved images that included a mountain man and a serpentlike creature. The price tags on these “Unique Wood Carvings by Rick” ranged from $40 to several hundred dollars. In Carthage we paid a brief visit to the Tex Ritter Museum and Country Music Hall of Fame, which is filled with memorabilia from the life of the singing lawyer, then stopped north of town at a public boat ramp on the Sabine River. The murky water and the traffic on the bridge above didn’t seem to concern the local teenage fishermen, who were eagerly reeling in sand bass.
We stopped in Marshall (for more on Marshall see “Austin to Caddo Lake,” page 112) for an espresso at the Magnolia Hall Coffeehouse, a hip cafe in a home that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, before pulling into Jefferson. It turned out to be our favorite town on the drive. We stayed at the Excelsior House, a hotel that was built in 1844 by Captain William Perry, who brought the first steamboat to Jefferson. The Excelsior’s famous guests have included Ulysses S. Grant, Oscar Wilde, and Steven Spielberg, who reportedly became spooked by a voice he heard in his room during the night and promptly left. (We thought perhaps he had been watching too many of his own films.) Maids and guests have reported seeing a ghostly woman in a black dress and hearing strange voices coming from empty rooms and water dripping where no leaks or wetness could be found. But other than a light thunderstorm, we didn’t hear anything go bump in the night.
Anyone who says you can’t get a good meal in East Texas hasn’t eaten at the Stillwater Inn, where we dined on such big-city fare (at big-city prices) as grilled yellowfin tuna topped with mango chutney. The next day we learned a bit about Jefferson, which was founded in 1834. In the early days, it was a bustling riverboat town; paddle wheelers would come into the Big Cypress Bayou basin, pick up goods, and take them to New Orleans via Caddo Lake, the Red River, and the Mississippi. We toured the historic Jefferson Playhouse, built in 1876 as the Hebrew Sinai Synagogue, and the adjacent Ruth Lester Memorial, a modest two-story house where the rabbi and his family once lived. Their small guest book sat on a table, and we thumbed through personal greetings left more than 120 years ago.
We had reached the final leg of our drive; Texarkana was only 58 miles away. The woods began to thin, replaced by parking lots. I had become so accustomed to thick forests and the refuge they provided that their absence made me feel almost agoraphobic. We negotiated the road signs, trying to avoid getting on one of the three other highways that intersect on the outskirts of town. “Texarkana is twice as nice,” boasted the water tower as the city divided by the Texas-Arkansas state line came into view. We would need some convincing, though, because we were ready to retreat back to the comfort of the woods.
Excelsior House, 211 W Austin, Jefferson; 903-665-2513; double rooms $85 to $119
Gift Barn, 388 US 59 North, Garrison; 963-347-2284; closed Sun
Jefferson Playhouse, Market and Henderson streets; tours by appointment; call the Excelsior House, 903-665-2513, for information
Magnolia Hall Coffeehouse, 303 N Columbus, Marshall; 903-935-9793
Mission Dolores Visitors Center, Texas Hwy 147, just south of downtown San Augustine; 963-275-3815; closed Sun
Moundstreet Bed and Breakfast, 408 N Mound, 2 blocks north of Main (Texas Hwy 21), Nacogdoches; 800-247-1687; double rooms $85 to $95
Ruth Lester Memorial, corner of Market and Henderson streets, Jefferson; free tours by appointment; contact the Excelsior House (above) for information
Stillwater Inn and Restaurant, 203 E Broadway, Jefferson; 903-665-8415; dinner only; closed Sun
Stump Restaurant, Sam Rayburn; from Texas Hwy 87, turn west onto Recreational Rd 255 and go 20 miles; 409-698-9495
Tex Ritter Museum and Country Music Hall of Fame, 300 W Panola, Carthage; 903-693-6634; closed Sun; $3, children 6 to 12 $2, under 6 free