HIT THE ROAD
We’ve reached that magical time of year when it’s neither too cold nor too hot to drive a good distance with the windows down. Mid- to late-April provides perfect weather in which to hit the federal, state and county roads of the Republic of Texas and be reminded of the huge majesty and preposterous diversity of our weird, glorious land.
The Texas map is jam-packed with road trip destinations, and the various tourist info portals on the Information Superhighway (are people still calling it that?) can tell you about all of them. We’re going to focus on just two of the available highway directions, to get you started, and we’ll put a little lagniappe on each route with a sprinkling of pleasant on-the-way or on-the-way-back diversions for your rambling attention.
Take a road trip tip from an expert: Always leave yourself extra time to get back. Take an extra day off or depart a day early. The feeling of winding your way back home gradually, poking into little towns and taking lunchtime hikes through unsettled woods and creek beds, soaking up the state in its raw form without the threat of schedule alerts popping up on your BlackBerry (do people still use those?) is a sublime and marvelous way to understand why so many people quote that Emerson thing about life and journeys and destinations.
West: Marfa and Big Bend
Itching to visit a top-tier modern art museum housed in a former US Cavalry outpost? Interested in weird natural skybound light shows (or clay-fired crackpottery about alien life)? How about that decontextualized Prada store that you’ve heard so much about? Marfa is a desert town full of art and stuff. Go there if you like to look at art or stuff.
Big Bend is a desert. It is absolutely vast and completely breathtaking. Go there if you like rocks and fresh air, if you hate humidity, or if you could use a strong dose of the smallness and fragility of the human condition.
Most people make their way to West Texas destinations on venerable old Interstate 10, known in sections as the Veterans Memorial Highway, the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway, the Rosa Parks Freeway, the Atchafalaya Swamp Freeway, the Baytown East Freeway, the Papago Freeway, the Katy Freeway, the Pontchartrain Expressway, the Stephen Ambrose Memorial Highway and, in quaint and conservatively historical fashion, the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway. You’ll be driving across none of these sections, on this route. That’s how long this highway is.
Savvy road-ramblers will skip the San Antonio loop and cut to 10 via 290 — passing through Dripping Springs, Johnson City and Fredericksburg — for the sake of Hill Country views and losing a half-hour of that predictable I-35 scenery. Add a potential last stop at the Salt Lick on the way back to town and you’re basically happy forever.
South: Mustang and Padre Islands
Austin’s hippie-ass wilderness bathers go loco for the rivers and springs around town, and that is perfectly all right. If you like a little salt in your air and sand in your hair, though, the Gulf of Mexico seashore is always just a few hours away.
Mustang Island is a nifty strip of sand just south of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and accessible by ferry service from the mainland. Beach camping in Port Aransas is free for 3-day stretches, locals are friendly, and the town itself is crawling with motels, seaside condo rentals and kitschy kitchenettes, if air conditioning and mattresses are more your trip.
The nearest entrance to Padre Island is by bridge — the John F Kennedy Memorial Causeway, incidentally — on State Route 358 through Corpus Christi. Corpus itself is a worthy weekend destination, what with its kelp-free beaches and brass-statue memorial to the Tejano glory of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Local attractions include the Texas State Aquarium, the first ever Whataburger, the color-changing harbor bridge and the junction of Corn Products Road and Valero Way at Exit 5 on I-37.
Although the quickest route to these sandy getaways is almost pure interstate, via I-35 and 410 to I-37 South, we recommend the detour beginning at Exit 204A in San Marcos. Texas Route 123 South gives endless country landscapes and makes for a surprisingly speedy alternative to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, not to mention that you can stop off at a well-meaning yet slightly out of place public house in Beeville for a pint of fancy imported and a dish of Scotch eggs to keep your strength up.
You might notice that South Padre Island is missing from this section. Honestly, however much fun you might’ve had drinking yard-tall daiquiris and flashing your buttcheeks at other late-life children during Spring Break ’98, there’s more to the Gulf’s barrier islands than the part that America saw on MTV’s The Grind. Grow up, already.*
Aside from the earlier wisdom to make your last day’s drive an occasion (and do this, or at least try to, because you’ll understand why if you do), there are a few things that every road traveler should know:
- The sun rises and sets. Going west, leave early or the night before. Going east, leave at noon.
- The numbers on interstate exits and mile markers increase as you go west or north and decrease as you go east or south.
- Nothing you can eat at a gas station is good for you.
- You won’t need your guitar. You’re going to want to need your guitar and you’re going to think you need your guitar but you will not need your guitar.
- Check your spare tire.
- Bring a tent.
- On trips of 1,000 miles or more, overestimate your need for snacks.
- Listen to books.
- Spot things. Tell the other people in your car about the things you’ve spotted. Smile like hell.
Texas is truly full of reasons to liberate your car from the drudgery of your commute and your garage and go find out why so many people decided to settle down in this here stretch of country in the first place. Practically any road you try will reward you with clear horizons in the dark and a mile-a-minute panopticon of cultural and visual treats in the daytime. It’s wildflower season, after all.
*Clarification: South Padre Island is actually quite beautiful all year long. It’s probably the best seashore in Texas. Go there if you like to go to places that were on MTV’s The Grind.