The great undiscovered American road trip. Words by Jo Stewart

By Jo Stewart, 18/3/2016
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When it comes to great American road trips, the highways and byways of Texas are often overlooked (probably because the other states featured on Route 66 hog the limelight). That’s a shame because if there’s one thing Texas doesn’t like (apart from being told what to do) it’s being overlooked.

If you love eating in diners that haven’t changed in decades, sinking brewskies while chewing jerky, and staying in cute roadside motels with wood-panelled walls, then get yourself to Texas, pronto! And if you don’t there’s plenty more to keep you occupied. A week-long improvised drive from Austin to Dallas the long (and wrong) way round shows Texas in all its star spangled glory.

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Image: Jeremy Pawlowski / Stocksy

Capital of cool

What’s the capital of Texas? Not Houston. Not Dallas, but the little hip cat known as Austin. As the birthplace of Wholefoods Market, you may assume that Austin is full of health nuts but rest assured the whole city isn’t living on kombucha and kale. After all, this is the home of Franklin Barbecue, a place where people line up for five hours for barbecued meats.

Staying at the adorable Lone Star Court is a genius way to start the road trip. Inspired by the motor inns of yesteryear, the sweet set up here includes a food truck, communal fire pit and big old chairs on the porch outside each room, presumably for sitting on while whittling wood. Austin, could you get any cooler?

Austin is also home to the burger place from Dazed and Confused. It’s still open and in the words of Texan local Matthew McConaughey, it’s “alright, alright, alright”. Top Notch serves burgers, fries and all the supersized sodas your bladder can handle (exactly what you need before hitting the road) and they even deliver to your car window. Surely curb-side service must be the most lazy and glorious thing to come out of America (closely followed by the drive-thru ATM).

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Image: Janet Wood / Qantas cabin crew

Honky tonk heaven

A couple of hours from Austin lies Bandera, the self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World. Here, you need to look no further than the main street to get your fill of rootin’ tootin’ Wild West action. Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar is a honky-tonk joint full of walking, talking cowboy clichés. Wearing wide-brim ten gallon hats, oversized belt buckles and cowboy boots that go ‘clickety-clack’ as they walk, the patrons of Arkey Blue’s could be extras off the set of Dallas, except they’re not. They’re real people and this is how they dress.

Entertainment options include a Dolly Parton pinball machine and a beat-up pool table. The senior working the bar doesn’t say much, yet her lined face and thousand mile stare says she’s seen it all and ain’t gonna take crap from nobody. Just like the “Don’t mess with Texas” bumper stickers indicate, this lady isn’t to be messed with. We order a couple of beers, sit up at the bar and watch her give people “the look” while classic country tunes fill the air.

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Right side of the tracks

Heading further west, we drive through Texas Hill Country and beyond, past towns with smile-inducing names like Comfort, Welfare, Valentine and Kermit. The days are long because there’s so much territory to cover, but a killer ’80s synth playlist and frequent stops at Dairy Queen keep us going. Once you leave the cities and hit West Texas, there’s space. Lots of space. The gaps between gas stations get worryingly long as the fuel gauge hovers near empty. There are tumbleweeds, tiny churches and big barns on the side of the road. This is the beauty of West Texas. It really is a world away from everywhere else.

Arriving in the appropriately-named town of Marathon after a super long drive, we flop into our beds at the Marathon Motel, a family-run motel and RV park sitting opposite railway tracks. Earplugs are provided for guests, as freight trains blow their whistles and rattle on by all night long. It’s the type of sound you either find comforting or infuriating, but for less than US$90 (AU$125) a night we can’t complain. We’ve got soft beds, cable TV and some of the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen. There’s a bar, old-fashioned soda fountain and coffee house down the road. In West Texas, this is all you need for a good time.

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Lost highway

About 50 miles from Marathon, the tiny town of Marfa is experiencing a comeback thanks to its emerging arts scene. Built on the backbone of cattle ranching, Marfa was put on the map in the 1950s when James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor rolled into town to film Giant. Decades later the area is still a favourite with filmmakers, with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men both shot in and around these parts.

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These days, most people come for the galleries and installations that have proliferated since contemporary artist Donald Judd invested in Marfa decades ago. Prada Marfa, an art installation built on a desolate, dusty stretch of highway is easily the most photographed spot in the area. Fringed by nothing but desert and railroad tracks, this replica Prada store (stocked with handbags and shoes) is a sublime sight. I’m sure it’s making a profound statement about consumerism but that commentary is best left to the art critics.

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The Borderlands

Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the United States, but not because it doesn’t have anything worth seeing. The tyranny of distance makes it difficult to get to and being located on the US-Mexican border (within the Chihuahuan desert) tends to scare people off.

The drive to Big Bend is full of “only in America” moments. When we run over a dead skunk, its truly awful, musky odour fills the car and makes us retch. We see a roadrunner scamper across the road just like in a Looney Tunes cartoon, and we fill up our Buick at a dilapidated gas station run by people who speak with that Southern drawl.

Big Bend National Park is utterly astounding. The austere, rocky landscapes are astonishing in their scale and quiet, all-knowing power. These mountains have been here a really, really long time. They know stuff, but they’re not spilling their secrets to some insignificant human taking photos of cacti. Nope. They just look on quietly, listening to the wind and the distinctive, all-American call of the bald eagle. I think to myself that this is the perfect place to hide a dead body, then scold myself for having such a morbid thought.

Driving out of the park, a brush with border control induces sweaty palms and thumping hearts, despite no guns, drugs or people being in the trunk of our car. Our fears are completely unfounded when the poker-faced, moustachioed officer cracks a wide smile and wishes us well. It’s not an urban myth that people from the South are nice – Southern folk are kind.

During my time in Texas, a woman helps me pump gas into the car because I can’t work out how. A man in a bar translates for an Alabaman bartender because each of us have no idea what the other is saying (despite both speaking the same language), and a motel owner does our laundry for free. Despite this, Texans won’t be trifled with and can throw serious shade with the best of them. The general attitude is that Texas is different from the rest of America. Texans don’t suffer fools easily so it’s best to adopt what I call the “Lone Star State of Mind”. If you want to avoid confrontation, don’t talk about guns, religion, politics or veganism unless you’re in a big city (or Jonesing for a fight).

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Destination: Dallas

Arriving into the handsome city of Dallas via a system of looping freeways and overpasses, we head straight to the Sixth Floor Museum. This is the infamous building from which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 (although conspiracy theories might have you believe otherwise). While this city has plenty of bars, steakhouses, and galleries, this museum offers a rare perspective on a moment that changed American history. It does a great job of inspiring hope, just as JFK did.

Once you’re ready to kick off your cowboy boots, you can stay in everything from five-star “I can’t afford this but am going to do it anyway” luxury to cute-as-a-button B&Bs, but finishing a road trip at the Belmont Hotel is pure perfection. Built in 1946, the Belmont was once a fancy motor court hotel during the Golden Age of motor travel. Now it’s been restored to its former glory and even has a bar and restaurant too (the ultimate win for tired travellers).

Bar Belmont offers spectacular views of the Dallas skyline (and a damn fine martini too). Next door, Smoke lives by the words: ‘Food – Fire – Glory’. Serving smoked brisket for breakfast and coffee-cured brisket for dinner, when it comes to cooking the underside of a cow, these guys and gals don’t mess around. Cheesy grits, pulled whole hog and other calorific, finger lickin’ Southern standards enable us to order a farewell breakfast of suitably Texan proportions before driving to the airport.

As a brash state where big hair and bedazzled denim jackets are A-OK, and tucking a big paper napkin bib into your shirt to protect yourself from rib juice splashback is perfectly acceptable behaviour, you can’t help but love Texas. Before I fly out, I pick up a “Don’t mess with Texas” mug at the airport gift shop. No other souvenir sums up the state better.

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Image: Mohamed Said / Unsplash

(All images unless otherwise credited: Jo Stewart)