LIKE THE SONG SAYS, I’M NOT FROM TEXAS. That’s okay; in the ten years since I moved here from my native U.K., I’ve learned to love it anyway. But just how much of it do I love? I’ll find out on this trip, as a friend and I climb up from the limestone tumble of the Hill Country to the unfamiliar wide-open prairies of the Panhandle. Perched at 3,676 feet on the patchwork plateau of wheat fields that stretches to South Dakota, Amarillo might as well be in Kansas. But as a teenager, I drove tractors and greased combines on my family’s farm, which is now in my brother’s capable hands, and I’m hoping that as Buddy Holly inspired the Beatles, the South Plains will talk to the boy from South Wales.
From Fredericksburg, U.S. 87 rises gradually out of the Pedernales Valley as we head toward Mason under a blue sky. Clearly visible to the east is Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (eighteen miles north of Fredericksburg on RR 965); climb the pink granite dome and feel like the Lion King as you survey this expanse of rolling, dusty browns and greens (and you might even see an antelope or an ibex—many ranches in the area raise exotic species for hunting). Farther north, you can visit the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, where, from May to October, four million Mexican free-tailed bats raise their pups. Mason itself is about as perfect an example of a small Hill Country town as you’ll find. On the square are craft stores, cafes, and the Odeon Theater, in continuous operation since 1928. Twenty miles north of town, the picnic spot where 87 crosses the San Saba is a great place to spend an afternoon with an inner tube and a cold bottle of Shiner Bock.
In Brady, right in the center of Texas, rancheros parade down the main drag in dually trucks. We park in the square and walk into Evridge’s. Founded in 1937, the department store has 40,000 square feet filled with stuff. There’s a roomful of grandfather clocks, a suit of armor, a wooden hat stand featuring two carved bears, antique cowboy dolls, and much more.
At San Angelo we head south on U.S. 277 for sixteen miles to Christoval (“Chris-toe-val”), where we spend the night at Hummer House, a cottage designed for wildlife watching—in particular, the black-chinned hummingbirds that have been coming here since 1961, when owners Dan Brown and his wife, Joann, started putting out feeders. Brown, a jeweler, shows us a beautiful blue topaz fashioned in the Lone Star cut, the official state gemstone cut.
Deer gather in front of the cottage in the cold, bright gold of next day’s dawn as we head back into San Angelo, Oasis of the Concho. Early-morning traffic clogs the city’s main thoroughfares, but downtown, neon signs advertise boot repair to deserted streets. We stop at Miss Hattie’s Bordello Museum, a former brothel restored to decorous authenticity. Worn, dark stairs lead up to waiting areas full of overstuffed furniture with red tassels. Tidy rooms line the narrow tin-ceilinged hallway; every room has a large double bed. I push gently on a bed frame. It creaks loudly.
San Angelo moved a school and permanently closed a street to restore Fort Concho, the Indian Wars outpost that gave birth to the city. Low-slung barracks sit opposite neat officers’ quarters across the dusty parade ground where soldiers drilled and polished for 22 years. Many military units were stationed here during the Indian Wars, including the famous buffalo soldiers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry. No longer needed, the last troops marched away from Fort Concho on June 20, 1889.
From San Angelo, 87 climbs up nearly one thousand feet through sagebrush and scrubby mesquite to Big Spring. Coming into downtown, we half expect to see Jon Voight staring out from a Greyhound bus headed to New York City. The fifteen-story Settles Hotel still dominates the skyline, as it did in 1969, when Midnight Cowboy was filmed here. The big spring stopped flowing years ago, pumped dry by the railroad companies, but the town prospered through the oil boom, and downtown has many historic buildings. Stop in at the Heritage Museum to see the biggest set of Longhorn horns in the world.
On the flat plains north of Big Spring, cotton fields stretch to each horizon. Grain elevators and cotton gins loom over the earth. Wild ducks float above the clouds reflected in gray ponds. The world becomes bands of muted color, a vast rural Rothko: brown fields, gray sky, endless highway.
Out on the road, each sign brings Lubbock a little closer. Once in town, we head straight for Café J. Nearby tables buzz with talk of Texas Tech and tonight’s games. We dine on cream of green-chile soup, spinach enchiladas, and for an encore, apple-raisin spring rolls with cranberry-caramel dipping sauce. The food is delicious, the service deft.
The next morning we grab coffee and head toward Amarillo, leaving gray skies behind. Sunlight dances and snakes across furrowed fields. At the Hale County Farm and Ranch Historical Museum in Hale Center, rusting machinery is arranged in neat rows by the highway. A dog barks at us from behind the wire-mesh fence as I climb onto the roof of my car to study statues of tractors that were once working Allis-Chalmerses and Harry Fergusons—the kind I drove 25 years ago. I look around. There’s nothing to see in any direction that suggests any distraction from the business of wresting cotton or wheat from the ground.
In Plainview I go into Gebo’s, a kind of convenience store-plus for farmers, and find a neat leather belt that is National Pro Rodeo Association approved. As the checkout girl bags my purchase, she looks at me appraisingly. Back in the car, I glance at the receipt. I have bought “1 ladies belt.”
West of Canyon, dust hangs in the air across Buffalo Lake like fog. Most years the lake bed is dry, but today the prairie light sparkles on the rippled surface. The Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge has some of the best remaining short-grass prairie in the country and, when the lake contains water, is a winter haven for ducks and geese. East of town the shallow depression in the rolling farmland that holds the lake opens out dramatically into Palo Duro Canyon. We follow the signs to Elkins Ranch. Mary Corrigan inherited the place from her mother in 1990 and came back from California to take a look. Standing on the edge of the majestic canyon, she decided to stay. This working ranch serves up chuck-wagon breakfasts, Western nights featuring local entertainers, and—our choice—jeep tours.
The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon is a must-see. Here’s where you will learn the how and why of the Panhandle. Billed as the Largest History Museum in Texas—take that, Bob Bullock—it provides a comprehensive look at the geological and sociological forces that shaped the region. Of the more than three million artifacts, my favorite is an Indian trader’s cart loaded with goods from the pueblos of New Mexico.
We make it to Amarillo for some filling Tex-Mex before returning to Canyon to spend the last night of the trip at the Hudspeth House, a grand seven-bedroom building of more than eight thousand square feet that was ordered as a kit from the 1909 Sears-Roebuck catalog.
The next morning is cold and clear as I look out over the land and think about raising chickens and oats on a hundred acres in Monmouthshire. That’s probably about as far as you can get from the huge wheat fields and feedlots of Swisher County, but if my brother and some rancher here ever got together, I’m pretty sure they would have plenty to talk about.
Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, on FM 168 3 miles south of Umbarger; 806-499-3382; $2 per car
Café J, 2605 Nineteenth, Lubbock; 806-743-5400; closed Mon
Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, James River Rd south of Mason; 915-347-5970; by reservation, Thurs though Sun at sunset from May to October
Elkins Ranch, Texas Hwy 217 at Palo Duro Canyon; 806-488-2100; no credit cards
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 16710 Ranch Rd 965, Fredericksburg; 915-247-3903; $5
Evridge’s, 100 E Commerce, Brady; 915-597-1065
Fort Concho National Historic Landmark, 630 S Oakes, San Angelo; 915-481-2646
Gebo’s, 1605 W Fifth, Plainview; 806-293-3646
Hale County Farm and Ranch Historical Museum, exit 36, I-27 at Hale Center; 806-839-2556
Heritage Museum, 510 Scurry, Big Spring; 915-267-8255;closed Sun and Mon; $2, senior citizens and children 17 and under $1
Hudspeth House, 1905 Fourth Ave, Canyon; 806-655-9809; double rooms $75 to $150
Hummer House, RR 2084 1.8 miles south of Christoval; 915-255-2254; $125 to $150; no credit cards
Miss Hattie’s Bordello Museum, 18 1/2 E Concho, San Angelo; 915-653-0112; $5
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2503 Fourth Ave, Canyon; 806-651-2244; $4, senior citizens $3, children 13 and under $1