ROUTE: West of Ozona to Sanderson
DISTANCE: 85 miles
NUMBER OF COUNTIES: 3
WHAT TO READ: James H. Evans’s Crazy From the Heat
A drive whose sole purpose is to experience the simple pleasure of being behind the wheel has a few requirements. The route must lead west, because that’s the story of Texas and America. The road must be off the beaten path and as free from traffic as possible. And the driver must have an open mind and an eye for discovery.
That’s why my favorite drive in Texas begins 23 miles west of Ozona, dipping south from Interstate 10, where the speed limit is 80 miles an hour but the landscape is so vast I feel like I’m hardly moving. Buttes and outcroppings covered with oak, mesquite, and prickly pear are interrupted by green river valleys. This is the canyon country of the Trans-Pecos, where the Hill Country and the Edwards Plateau transition into the Chihuahuan Desert and the basin-and-range topography that defines the West begins. It is one of the emptiest—and most scenic—parts of the state, and I am completely at home.
From I-10, I follow Texas Highway 290 west toward Sheffield, and the hills morph into mesas and small mountains. The brush looks harsher and thornier, and the exposed soil is rendered into hardpan or rubble as creosote, catclaw, and other desert plants appear. This stretch of highway is part of the old route that ran from Austin to El Paso before the interstate, but it is still broad-shouldered and sturdy. It’s lonely enough for drivers passing in the other direction to wave or offer a raised hidy finger, acknowledging their fellow traveler.
Nine miles later, the cactus-studded overlook above Fort Lancaster State Historic Site marks the literal edge of the old frontier. This was one of the roughest drops for stagecoaches along the Old Government Road, the trail that ran from San Antonio to El Paso. Beyond the fort, which once boasted 25 permanent buildings but now consists only of ruins for visitors to explore, a rusty metal truss bridge crosses the swift-running Pecos River. That leads to the outskirts of Sheffield, where you pick up Texas Highway 349 and head south for eleven miles. Turn right onto Ranch Road 2400, a tighter two-lane highway with a smaller shoulder, a sprawling desert landscape, and far to the west, mountains rising on the horizon. No buildings, no billboards, no trace of humanity interrupt the view.
Where could this be? Mexico? The Sand Hills? Greece? For 39 more lonely miles, the road runs through broad canyons and magnificent desert vistas to the junction at U.S. 285. From there it’s 16 miles into Sanderson, the Cactus Capital of Texas and a charmingly ancient railroad town. The road twists and curves as the first signs of civilization appear: Sanderson Wool Commission, small houses, mechanic shops, and finally U.S. 90.
Turn left and it’s less than an hour to Judge Roy Bean’s Jersey Lilly saloon, in Langtry. Go right and it’s less than an hour to Marathon. Big Bend National Park is a little more than an hour beyond that. Alpine, Marfa, Van Horn, and the great American West beckon. Where you go doesn’t really matter, because you’re already Somewhere Else. And that’s what a “drive” drive is all about.