In a world where there aren’t enough hours in the day and in a state where an arterial highway means setting your cruise at seventy, it’s rare that people slow down long enough to explore Texas’s many roads. But Texas Monthly writers Suzy Banks, S.C. Gwynne, Michael Hall, and Charlie Llewellin did just that. Here, the four seasoned travelers talk about the best parts of the unbeaten path, the intersection of people and place, and the advantage of driving without an agenda.
texasmonthly.com: Did you get to pick the region you explored or was it assigned? How did you map out your exact route?
Suzy Banks: The Hill Country was assigned to me, but even if I’d gotten to choose, it would have still been the Hill Country, not only because I’m lazy (I live in Dripping Springs, the self-proclaimed Gateway to the Hill Country) but also because it is, hands down, the dreamiest chunk of real estate in Texas. Unlike some areas, which will remain nameless in case I have to go there again in the future, the Hill Country doesn’t have to be spun; I mean, I don’t have to write disclaimers like how “one has to learn to appreciate its subtle beauty.”
S.C. Gwynne: I heard that we were doing a section on interesting drives, and I volunteered to do the Panhandle. I have driven through it several times. I find it to be an extraordinary place. With the help of an intern, I researched the subject as well as I could, and came up with three or four likely routes. Then I drove all of them and chose the best.
Michael Hall: I chose the route, which I’ve driven several times. It’s one of my favorites in the state.
Charlie Llewellin: I’m not sure how I ended up with East Texas. I usually get the West Texas routes, but I guess Mike Hall is the Marfa guy. I’ve done the drive he did many times and it is beautiful; I was glad to get a new area to explore. As for the route, we were going to start from Houston, but it would have taken too long to get anywhere, so we picked Lufkin as a suitably cosmopolitan place to begin and end the trip.
texasmonthly.com: Did you travel solo? If so, was it helpful to be alone with your thoughts? If not, what did your companion think of the trip?
SB: I did my drive solo. I’m not sure if it was exactly helpful to be alone with my thoughts—we’re alone together perhaps too much of the time as it is and always find each other tedious—but I’ve found that when I travel with other people when I’m on assignment, I waste a lot of energy worrying about whether my buddy is enjoying the trip.
SG: Yes. No. I would have preferred company.
MH: Yeah, I went alone, which is probably best for the nuts and bolts of focused reporting but probably not as good in the long run. My wife loves this part of the country too, and she’s smarter and more observant than I am. It’s good to bounce observations off of each other.
CL: I did, and I’m used to that. I can detour where I want to, stop where I like, and as you say, be alone with my thoughts. I generally speak my unedited impressions into a tape recorder, and you really have to be alone to do that, I think.
texasmonthly.com: Was this your first time exploring the area? If so, what kind of research did you do on the area before loading up the car? If not, were you able to look at these drives with fresh eyes or did they seem old hat?
SB: This wasn’t my first time in the Hill Country by a long shot. I’ve done several articles about the area, and I’m always looking for an excuse to take off for the hills. Still, the scenery on the route I picked changes so much according to season, weather, varmint activity, the rise and fall of the creeks, and such that I don’t think it would ever seem stale.
SG: Yes. I had been through it before on my way to Colorado or New Mexico, but I had never stopped to explore the Panhandle. By far, the best research I did was at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, in Canyon, south of Amarillo. I went there before I started driving. The exhibits told me everything I needed to know about the things I saw over the next three days.
MH: I read up on some of the places I’d be passing through, such as Shafter and Presidio, but I was pretty familiar with the towns already. I took more care to try and figure out the terrain, which down around Study Butte and Terlingua can never be fully comprehended. All you can do is stare.
CL: It was my first time going into Deep East Texas, and I had wanted to travel there for a while. I read up a lot on the Web—about the area, recreational opportunities, and some historical background. I didn’t have a lot of time to do the route, so I wanted to make sure I went to some good places. But pretty much every little town out there has a great history, and every road was scenic, even US Hwy 59, which is a busy road.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most surprising thing you encountered on your trip?
SB: I saw an armadillo on the road and it was alive! Which reminds me: Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the armadillo how it’s done.
SG: A flight of thousands of sandhill cranes that suddenly appeared in front of my car near Silverton. They wheeled as a group and then landed in a roadside playa. It was quite spectacular. The birds are very large, gray and white, and pretty much all landed in the playa at the same time.
MH: How poor Presidio is—still. It’s one of the fastest growing communities in the country, and I had read about how the town was annexing land, getting a new clinic, and building a new community center. But there are still few outward signs of progress.
CL: The hilliness surprised me; I really thought it would be flat. And there are so many trees. The timber industry, from the point of an outsider, seems to coexist quite well with the forest. Of course, I grew up in Wales surrounded by what we called forestry land, which would be clear-cut now and then, so I am used to that sight.
texasmonthly.com: Some of you made comparisons between the people and the land. By becoming so intimately acquainted with the countryside, do you feel you now have a better understanding of the people who live there?
SB: No. I’ll never understand people.
SG: I have a better understanding of what they do for a living, but I did not spend much time talking to individual people.
MH: I don’t know that one could ever truly understand the residents of Study Butte and Terlingua. Yes, they are craggy individualists, just like the “igneous intrusions” that dot the landscape. The latter came about because of magma boiling upward. Who knows why the former came to be there.
CL: Everyone is the same underneath, but knowing something about where people come from helps enormously in communicating with them. You search for a common piece of knowledge and then widen the connection from there.
texasmonthly.com: You each explored a distinctive piece of Texas. Describe the quintessential character of the area in four words or less.
SB: Earth rumbled to perfection.
Oh, oh, I feel a haiku coming on:
in the Texas hills
earth rumbled to perfection
make sure your brakes work
SG: Flat. Flat. Flat. Flat.
MH: Strange stones grow here.
texasmonthly.com: In Texas it’s easy to think that all roads begin with I—I-35, I-10, I-45. What is the advantage of getting off the interstates and exploring the world of farm-to-market roads, county roads, and other roads not often taken?
SB: It’s safer and less depressing. I don’t spend the entire trip stewing about the problem of overpopulation or yelling at people tailgating me.
SG: On the smaller roads there is a real sense of remoteness. In West Texas you really come to understand just how empty the landscape is. There is almost nothing out there. Encountering a farmhouse is like encountering a ship in the middle of the sea.
MH: The interstates are means to an end: your destination. Taking the smaller roads forces you to pay attention to the journey itself. Farm, county, and creek roads were often laid according to the dictates of nature—hairpin curves around steep hills or bends in a river. Stretches of these roads are sometimes unpaved, so you have to slow down. There aren’t many gas stations or restaurants, so you have to keep sharp. The chances are greater that you’ve never driven this route before. The whole nature of narrower, lesser-traveled roads makes you more aware of the world off the asphalt.
CL: All interstates tend to look the same, though I-45 is a great drive. You don’t see what makes a region different until you get off the main roads.
texasmonthly.com: How does driving for the sake of the drive differ from driving with a set destination? Which kind of trip do you prefer?
SB: Oh, goodie. Now’s my chance to get profound. I think we spend so much time in our lives pursuing the end goal—the promotion, the hunky spouse, the dream house, the trophy for best-trained dog—that we often forget to enjoy the process. Taking a drive without a destination is great practice for rediscovering the joys of the process. Of course, now that I’ve spewed that philosophy I guess I’m forced to say I prefer a “sake of the drive” trip. But arriving at a nice hotel with a big swimming pool and poolside bar service is pretty great, too.
SG: I am very destination-oriented these days. When I was younger I used to like to just drive aimlessly and see what I found. That is one of the reasons I liked this assignment so much. I was forced to go back to the old ways—just driving around and seeing things, with no particular agenda.
MH: It depends what’s at the end of the trip. I love driving just to gaze into the distance and listen to myself think, but I also love that feeling of getting near home and wanting to be there as soon as I can.
CL: If you’re driving for the sake of the drive, I guess you’ll be off the main roads, almost by definition. I like to stop and take pictures, so that’s my goal, even if I don’t have a destination as such. I always like to plan ahead and allow for extra time so that I can stop whenever I want.