OF ALL THE LONG-DISTANCE DRIVES in Texas, Highway 6 is the most surprising. The purpose of a state route is to fill in the gaps between the major highways, not to go gallivanting off on its own—yet gallivant it does, from sea to Great Plains, one of the longest roads in Texas that is not an interstate or a U.S. highway.
I toured it from the coast inland, as I started doing as soon as I was old enough to drive. Growing up in Galveston, the route’s eastern terminus, I was imbued with the local wisdom that Highway 6 was a shortcut to Austin or San Antonio via Interstate 10, avoiding the dreaded Houston traffic. It never occurred to me then that I could continue all the way to western Oklahoma. Even today, I doubt that many Texans have driven the entire length of Highway 6; if someone wanted to go from Galveston to Quanah, there are faster ways to do it.
But speed isn’t everything. If you want to save minutes, take the interstate. If you want to save decades, take Highway 6. It is a road that leads not just to a different place but to a different time, one in which more Texans lived in and near small towns than in big cities. Here you can discover the forgotten Texas that was left behind during the great twentieth-century migration from farm to metropolis—a land of cotton and cattle, of graceful homes, of broken dreams, and the will to persevere. For travelers who want three-star attractions, the route has its share of those too.
Highway 6 departs from Interstate 45 amid the wetlands of Galveston Bay. Although it has been more than twenty years since I drove this route—it ceased to be a shortcut when the Houston suburbs reached the highway near Sugarland—the bleakness of the Galveston County mainland was all too familiar. Hardly a structure had changed, not even the rusted ruins of the towering Flamingo Isle logo, still touting a development that failed at least thirty years ago. A few signs still bore the names of the three communities that had joined together to become Santa Fe back in the seventies: Alta Loma Cafe, Arcadia Car Wash, Algoa Community Center. It was a relief to get to Alvin and the Nolan Ryan Foundation and Exhibit Center.
I can’t be a tough critic, since I’m a Nolan Ryan fan, but I’d rank the exhibit of Ryan’s career as superior to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York—even if an autographed baseball did cost $65. The critical difference was that you could see videos of Ryan throwing no-hitters and striking out batters, instead of a static collection of old bats, balls, and uniforms. My favorite display showed a batter staggering back from a pitch at his chin, then freezing in fear as Ryan buzzed strike three over the outside corner.
I inquired if Ryan was around and learned that he enjoys eating at Joe’s Barbeque on Highway 6, a favorite local hangout. I had the mixed plate, brisket and sausage and richly flavored pinto beans. Nolan wasn’t there, but his cattle were: All the restaurant’s brisket and beef ribs come from Ryan’s ranches. I learned this after a man with wiry black hair and a bright yellow plaid shirt approached me while I was taking notes on the aggressively Texan decor. “Who’re you with?” he wanted to know. It was Joe Saladino, who had opened the restaurant in 1973. “I want to show you something,” he said and led me out back. In a separate shed were four fifteen-foot-long pits. “We cook our beef the old-fashioned way,” he said. “Every day, we start at three in the morning. I feed a thousand people a day.”
Beyond Alvin lay the burbs, with Southern-themed names like Vicksburg, Savannah Plantation, and Sienna Plantation—a little unsettling, because Highway 6 back near Santa Fe was a reputed Klan stronghold in the seventies. After the road skirted the far west side of Houston, an eternity of traffic lights and fast-food franchises, it linked up with U.S. 290 and headed into the countryside at last. On the right loomed a large store, identified by its sign only as D&D. Cars streamed into the parking lot, and my curiosity got the best of me. D&D turned out to be a sort of farm-and-ranch Wal-Mart, a superstore for weekend Westerners. You can buy jeans and saddles, tractors and horse trailers here; pick up drive-through feed; or get that octagonal silver platter you’ve always wanted, with a Longhorn head on each of the eight sides. D&D belongs to the New West, not the Old.
Not until Hempstead, fifty miles from Houston, did the Coastal Plain begin to crinkle into undulations. The county seat of Waller County, Hempstead is home to one of Texas’ best-kept secrets, Peckerwood Garden, where you’ll find the finest collection of Mexican oaks outside Mexico, a species of Mexican magnolia that hasn’t been seen in years, and other extraordinary plants (or so a visiting expert told me; I wouldn’t know a boxwood from a boxcar). No billboards or highway signs lure travelers, and the place is marked by an unrevealing green sign reading “Peckerwood Foundation.” The reason for the lack of publicity is that the twelve-and-a-half-acre garden is on the grounds of the home of Texas A&M architecture professor John Gaston Fairey, for whom Peckerwood has been a thirty-year labor of love.
Back on the road, I arrived at the spot where, Kipling notwithstanding, the twain really do meet: U.S. 290 heads west to Austin and the University of Texas, and Highway 6 goes on to College Station and Texas A&M University. Before Aggieland, however, is the pleasant town of Navasota, with many homes and buildings surviving from the turn-of-the-century era. One old building on Railroad Street caught my eye; it was the long-defunct P.A. Smith Hotel, made of limestone with a cast-iron facade. Today it and the neighboring building are occupied by the Wood Factory, which produces millwork for Victorian homes as well as rustic furniture, including a massive hutch that was on display.
I spent the rest of the day in the area, taking side trips to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park, where nascent Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836, and to Anderson, the quaint Grimes County seat. The main attraction at Washington is Independence Hall, a single-room structure so tiny—I paced it off at 40 feet long by 22 feet wide—that it seems implausible so great a result could have come from so small a place. Washington was chosen for the signing because promoters promised a free meeting place. You get what you pay for.
Anderson became the county seat because it was a stop on the stagecoach routes. But the big planters didn’t want the railroad running through their lands, and so the tracks—and the prosperity—went west, to Navasota. Today Anderson has settled into genteel decline, the kind of place where you can find an old-fashioned soda fountain and see once-grand houses in decay. Its main attraction is the Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site, one of the best-preserved buildings of prerevolutionary Texas. Built in 1834 as a home for Henry Fanthorp and his third wife, it developed into an inn because it was the stagecoach stop and later became the post office. Henry’s daughter tried to keep the inn going after the Civil War but gave up in 1868. Remarkably, the property stayed in the family until 1977, when the state purchased it; as a result, many of the original furnishings remain, including Henry’s desk as postmaster.
After dinner back in Navasota at the CowTalk Steakhouse—located, appropriately enough, at the cattle auction barn—I drove 26 miles to College Station, where Highway 6 is part of Aggie lore. The business route runs in front of the campus, and those unfortunates who express disagreement with the way things are done at A&M are told that if they don’t like it, “Highway 6 runs both ways.” The next day I started out at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on campus, which has a special exhibit on the two father-and-son presidents: George and George W. Bush, and John and John Quincy Adams. The exhibit, on display through July 31, has Gilbert Stuart portraits of John and Abigail Adams, the bullhorn George W. used to address workers at Ground Zero at the World Trade Center, and a letter that George W. wrote to his father on the day he ordered the bombing of Afghanistan: “I feel no sense of the so-called heavy burdens of the office. . . . Thanks for all the lessons over the past 55 years.”
A more localized type of politics has affected the next part of the drive. In early Texas, Stephen F. Austin and Sterling Clack Robertson feuded over the land between Bryan and Waco; Robertson eventually won, but only a county name marks his memory. More recently, a battle has raged over whether Highway 6 or the roughly parallel Texas Highway 36 should become a major traffic artery. Highway 6 has prevailed, but not every town along the way is celebrating. Residents of Hearne and Calvert oppose a planned bypass that would shift traffic away from the antiques shops and galleries along the current highway. The situation is particularly acute in Calvert, where the brickwork in old buildings that sit a few feet from the roadway is degenerating, shaken by heavy truck traffic. The argument in town is whether to save the buildings or save the businesses.
I heard about this dilemma at Mojoe’s Coffee Cart, on the sidewalk in front of a store called Rustique, an eclectic place filled with antique bicycles and handcrafted furniture. The owners, Brent and Gena Cain, told me that the name of the cart has a double meaning: In addition to “more joe,” it refers to the gruesome story of Calvert’s most infamous resident. Back in the twenties, a drifter died when he fell off a train passing through town. A local funeral home used so much embalming fluid that the then-unnamed corpse became mummified before it could be buried. Locals called it Mojo, a name that stuck. The body was kept at the funeral home, where it remains to this day.
After driving through the historic residential district, built around a cemetery and still looking like something out the twenties, I was feeling the pull of the West—open roads and open skies. I drove through Marlin, looking for a sign of the glory days, when its mineral baths made it a major attraction, but there was scant evidence to find. I moved on, to Waco and beyond. For the rest of the way to Oklahoma, almost four hundred miles, I did not see a McDonald’s, a national chain motel, or a town with more than four thousand people. In choosing where to eat or bed down for the night, just follow the old rule: You pays your money and you takes your chances.
It is hard for towns to survive out here, for the old ways of making a living, oil and agriculture, are playing out, and new ways are hard to come by. Clifton, 47 miles beyond Waco, is doing better than most. Once a college town before its Lutheran school closed in the fifties (and, long before that, the focus of Norwegian settlement in Texas), it has been reborn as a center for Western art; the old main building of the college is now the Bosque Conservatory. Two members of the Cowboy Artists of America reside here, Bruce Greene and Martin Grelle, and five other well-known Western artists have had ties to Clifton; together they are referred to locally as the Bosque Seven. Greene’s life-size bronze of a cowboy astride a horse drinking water is located on the way into downtown.
After hundreds of miles of gently rolling countryside, the twelve-mile stretch between Clifton and Meridian was a welcome piece of Hill Country, with characteristic limestone bluffs. I was so glad to see hills that I took the three-mile side trip to Meridian State Park, which is famous among birders as prime golden-cheeked warbler habitat. (May is the ideal month to visit.) The park road goes around a small lake, winding through low hills and thick, thick stands of cedar. I found a picnic table and finished off a hefty sausage sandwich from Bunkhouse Bar-B-Que in Clifton. Afterward, I returned to Meridian and drove into town, drawn by a handsome limestone courthouse that is the domain of the Word family, one of the oldest small-town political dynasties in Texas. It has produced four generations of county judges—five if Cole Word wins the general election in November.
Traffic was light now, and I rolled through farm country: dairies, pecans, peanuts. I stopped in Hico (with a long i) to check out the town’s two claims to fame, the pies at the Koffee Kup cafe and a deceased resident known as Brushy Bill, who insisted that he was really Billy the Kid and had some documentation to prove it. Stop in at the Billy the Kid Museum and you might be persuaded. In Dublin, who could resist the opportunity to have a fountain Dr Pepper, using the original recipe, at the Dr Pepper Bottling Museum, the company’s first bottling plant? Not I. And, yes, it does taste different, smoothing out the acidic sharpness of modern soft drinks. Eastland is the home of Old Rip, a horned toad who was placed in the cornerstone of the old courthouse in 1897 and was found to be alive and slumbering like Van Winkle (Old Rip—get it?) when the courthouse was demolished 31 years later. After his death, Old Rip was embalmed and placed in a teeny open coffin in a display window of the new courthouse. Albany merited a longer visit. Its Old Jail Art Center has one of the finest collections in rural America, including works by Renoir, Klee, Modigliani, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Matisse. The Nail family established the museum and donated several collections. The former family home is now a bed-and-breakfast on the square, the Ole Nail House.
After Albany there would be no more stops. The road turned north beyond Stamford and headed for the Red River and Oklahoma, still a hundred miles away. Now the country was unmistakably the West—brush instead of trees, rolling ranchland, an occasional mesa, and always, sweeping vistas, a dome of sky, and low lines of hills far in the distance. I watched a storm move over the horizon, with great streaks of horizontal lightning scrawling their signatures across the sky. It was completely exhilarating to be out here, so far from anything, without a home or a business along the roadside to fill even a fraction of the emptiness. Beyond Knox City, Highway 6 crossed the Brazos and climbed out of its watershed for the first time since the route began. Instantly the landscape changed again, to red-dirt badlands with striped bands of gray and white showing on the exposed bluffs: Red River country. Daylight was fading to dusk by the time I reached Quanah, named for a famous Comanche chief, so I kept going, heading for the river. Its wide bed, which had the distinctive color of the badlands, contained only a trickle of water. Somewhere in that little stream, I like to think, was a grain of dirt that would be washed down the river. Perhaps one day it would reach the Gulf of Mexico and, maybe, end up on the beach at Galveston, completing the loop I had begun.
Billy the Kid Museum, 105 N Pecan, Hico; 254-796-4004; $3, students $2, children 12 and under free
Bosque Conservatory of Fine Art, 1701 W Ninth, Clifton; 254-675-3724; closed Sun
Bunkhouse Bar-B-Que, 1003 S Avenue G, Clifton; 254-675-8409; closed Sun evening and Mon
CowTalk Steakhouse, 7846 Texas Hwy 90 South, Navasota; 936-825-6993; lunch Tues through Sat, dinner Sat; no credit cards
D&D, 33402 Hempstead Hwy, Hockley; 281-401-6006 or toll-free 888-869-6202
Dublin Dr Pepper Bottling Museum, 221 S Patrick, Dublin; 254-445-3939 or toll-free 888-398-1024; $2, children 6 to 12 $1, under 6 free
Fanthorp Inn State Historic Site, south end of Main, Anderson; 936-873-2633; tours Sat and Sun; $3, students $1.50, children 5 and under free
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, 1000 George Bush Dr, College Station; 979-260-9552; $5, senior citizens and students $4, children 6 and under free
Joe’s Barbeque, 1400 Texas Hwy 6 East, Alvin; 281-331-9626
Koffee Kup Family Restaurant, Texas Hwy 6 and US 281, Hico; 254-796-4839; no credit cards
Meridian State Park, Texas Hwy 22 at Park Rd 7; 254-435-2536; $3, senior citizens $2, children 12 and under free
Nolan Ryan Foundation and Exhibit Center, 2925 S Bypass 35, Alvin; 281-388-1135; closed Sun; $5, senior citizens and students $2.50, children 6 and under free
Old Jail Art Center, 201 S Second, Albany; 915-762-2269; closed Mon
Ole Nail House, 351 S Third, Albany; 800-245-5163; rooms $70 and $75
Peckerwood Garden Conservation Foundation, 20571 FM 359, Hempstead; 979-826-6363; for hours, go to peckerwoodgarden.com; $5, students and children 12 and under free
Rustique and Mojoe’s Coffee Cart, 600 E Main, Calvert; 979-364-2449; closed Tues and Wed
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park (from Navasota, take Texas Hwy 105 West for seven miles and turn on FM 1155); 936-878-2214; $4, students $2
Wood Factory, 111-113 Railroad, Navasota; 936-825-7233; open daily, by appointment Sat and Sun