Traversing the Lone Star State.
By Masha Nehme
AUSTIN, TX: Wanderlust is incurable. What happens to one case of wanderlust when dropped right smack in the middle of Texas? The said case gets in the car, because that’s how the great state is to be explored, and promptly travels to four of its corners.
West and North
There’s nothing more American in American travel than going West. The bright, nicely-paved, and often empty road unfurls itself past the cornfields, and the mountains, and the rivers, and the towns, straight into the glorious sunset, into hope and promise, and all that is worth living for.
Going West from Austin means a brief drive through the Hill Country with its, well, hills, olive gardens, wineries, and breathtaking views. Not your stereotypical Texas, whatever your stereotypes might be. If you are not up for making a leap to the state border in one day, there’s plenty to do within just an hour’s drive outside the city. Visit Becker winery for a sip of an award-winning claret, or a cabernet, or a chardonnay – 2009 was a good year for Central Texas wine, I hear. There are more wineries all around, offering beautiful settings for picnics and leisurely sitting on elevated decks, in pergolas, swings and rocking chairs. Had too much wine to keep driving? Stay overnight in one of the lovely Hill Country B&Bs, overlooking lakes, or streams. Not into wine? Head on over to Fredericksburg to enjoy some antiquing, souvenir shopping, beer and savory food. German immigrants settled in enclaves all around Texas, and Fredericksburg is one of those cute little towns that would have reminded you of the Old World more, if only its streets were narrower and less car-oriented. But it’s Texas, baby, so keep on drivin’.
Eventually, you’d want to keep going West to see what else is out there, and the reality is that, for a long while, there won’t be much, so stock up on podcasts and caffeinated drinks. Stripes, which is a convenience store you are likely to run into filling up your car all around Texas, carries a so-called “Big Gulp” – a half-gallon or so plastic cup you can come to own for a couple of bucks, filled to the brim with your soda of choice… There will be lots of flat lands, big skies, windmills for miles, cows, sheep, horses, more cows. Make sure you got your lunches and dinners figured out, because the next town may still be an hour away, where folks go to bed early and everything shuts down.
Since our wanderlust had not taken us straight West, through Midland and Odessa, and all the way to Juarez on the Mexican side, we suggest taking a turn North to head over toward the wondrous Palo Duro Canyon. The scenery along the way remains much the same – vast expanses of land that will make a space-starved city dweller feel better about the world’s population growth. “There is room!” you will begin to think, slurping down what remains of your “Big Gulp”, as you arrive in the dusk to the town of Canyon, just 30 miles south of Amarillo.
There are a couple of reasons to travel to this corner of Texas. One would be to cross the border into New Mexico, which is a story of its own. Another would be to see the Palo Duro Canyon. The drive to Palo Duro from the town of Canyon, TX takes about 15 minutes through the flatlands suggesting nothing of what awaits ahead, to the point that you begin questioning the accuracy of your GPS. But not to worry, soon enough the flat fields on both sides will drop into an abyss, revealing intricately-shaped pinkish crevasses and rock formations, and towering mountains covered with minimalistic dessert plants and contorted trees. The colors are fresh, but bold: peach, spinach-green, carrot, and mustard (oh yes, bring your lunch and lots of water). If you are a mountain-biker – this is your paradise. Same goes for hikers of various degrees of seriousness: you can hike a quarter mile from the parking lot to pose in front of one of the most famous rock formations, or spend days exploring the rugged trails and taking in the canyon’s ancient calm and beauty.
Somewhere in this great state there is a coast. In fact, it’s called “the third coast” – Texas’s answer to North America’s East and West Coasts. Unlike the other two coasts, this one won’t deliver you directly to the ocean; instead, you get the warmer, calmer, and slightly muddier waters of the Gulf of Mexico. All the same, you get the wind in your hair, that faraway place where the sea meets the sky, the smell of seaweed, toes in the sand, workable surf, and unlimited sunshine. As an added bonus, in many places you get to drive on the beach. The sand is nice and packed, so you can drive all the way up to the surf. This proves useful mostly for tailgating fishermen (and women), although not being one, I can’t further elaborate.
Along the coast there is a variety of beach towns. Some are better for wild frat parties, while others have a mellow atmosphere, suitable for beach bums of any denomination. When it comes to beach towns, I am picky Goldilocks-style: Corpus Christi is too big and too car-oriented; Galveston – too touristy, Rockport – too small and too sleepy. Port Aransas, or “Port A” as locals lovingly call it, is just right – small and quaint with a number of decent restaurant choices and a bit of a night life, in a sense that there is usually a couple of places featuring live music and a lively crowd adorns the main drag past 9 PM. There’s enough variety that you can have a nice dinner at a sit-down restaurant with white tablecloths one night, kick back on a deck of a local microbrewery with some burger and fries the next, then dig your bare hands into fresh Gulf shrimp and crawfish poured right onto the paper on your table the following night… I highly recommend this exact progression, as you slowly relax into your beach life, growing slightly disheveled but handsomely tanned in your Hawaiian shirt/sundress/flip-flops/sunglasses/hat.
If you’ve never taken a ferry with your car, traveling to and from Port A is an excellent opportunity to experience this free of charge, thanks to the Texas largesse and general affection for the car. Port Aransas is located on Mustang Island – a narrow strip of land between the mainland and the Gulf of Mexico. The ride to and fro, via Aransas Pass, takes just a few minutes, and the wait is usually another few, if at all. The ferry is a pretty smooth and efficient operation with a romantic flair – you might catch a sunset while crossing over, or just roll down the windows and breathe in the wind and the sun, and watch the seagulls float up in the air.
Beyond the beach, “the third coast” offers some interesting bird-watching and other exciting wildlife, such as alligators, inhabiting the brackish waters around the area. I am not saying this to scare you away – au contraire! Alligators are easy to catch a glimpse of from a safe distance at Aransas Wildlife Refuge, where it’s safe to say that the most likely creatures to ruin your day are mosquitoes – not only there’s plenty of them in this muggy, swampy paradise, but they are also incredibly furious and just won’t take no for an answer. Forget that organic insect repellent you brought with you and get the real stuff at the visitor’s center!
On the way to and from the Texas coast, we discovered a few handsome, albeit sleepy towns. They are typically built around an ornate courthouse and a main square that is perfectly rectangular and lined with one-to-two-story buildings with arcades housing dusty souvenir stores, cafes, and local services. Goliad, TX, is one of those towns – its population is below 2000, so life is slow, which can be delicious if you know what I mean. Enjoy an unhurried meal in the shade of the great Texas live oaks and a friendly conversation with a local. Unlike any bigger town, where a traveler might succeed at an attempt to blend in, here anyone passing through is acknowledged as such and treated with genuine upbeat politeness. They call this lovely attitude “Texas nice”, and it takes some getting used to if you, like I, come from a place where strangers are either ignored or snarled at.
Texas summers can be brutal, which is how a seven-hour drive East sounded like a good idea in the middle of July. East Texas is home to luscious pine tree forests, where the key word is “shade”. “Green” is another key word, as most of Texas is yellowish and brown, especially after a drought of the recent past.
Our destination of choice was Caddo Lake, in the Northeast corner of the state, right on the border with Louisiana and not too far from the border with Arkansas. We rented an air-conditioned cabin on the less developed side of the lake (and don’t let anybody fool you into renting a cabin without air-conditioning). We had a canoe at our disposal, were a short drive away from a country store, and had the town of Uncertain, TX, just a little further East. It was comforting to know that a bit of civilization was not too far, as the place itself felt as wild as I can manage. The cabin faced a swampy shore of one of the lake’s many sloughs. Cypress trees, tall and solemn and covered with moss, lined the shore, their roots deep in the pitch-black mud of the swamp. Egrets sat on the pendulous branches in the quiet distance and something splashed in the water below.
Caddo Lake is one of the few natural lakes in Texas, although it was altered by a dam in the beginning of the 20th century and is currently struggling with an invasive aquatic weed brought over from Brazil. It snakes through the wetlands of Texas and Louisiana, opening into a wide expanse in the middle, and closing back down among the cypress trees in sloughs, bays, and ponds, some of which dry out and become barely passable in the drought. We explored several of the lake’s canoe trails. The trails are well-marked on maps, as well as on trees and poles along the way, which surely took the stress out of the undertaking for me. As a fan of unconventional means of transportation, I was thrilled to learn that we could canoe to a restaurant and several sandy beaches in the more developed part of the lake, although being there felt like cheating. Caddo Lake is at its best when wild – there’s a mystery to each bend as we paddle along a slough, the bird calls echo against the trees, the strong Texas sun barely reaches to the surface of the water, the muggy air can be cut with a knife, and as we reach the shore and the drag the canoe out in the setting sun, the chorus of frogs begins its nightly concert.
As anyone who’s ever looked at the map of the lone star state would know, Texas has more than four corners, not to mention, there’s more to see in the middle. There’s more wandering to do, to be sure. Until then!