32 Texas Road Lessons
My two-cents comes in the form of honest discovery from my summer travels. I hope you enjoy the sometimes painfully obvious lessons I accrued while driving through Texas on a book tour for Fearless Critic, makers of the Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio restaurant guides.
Though I have organized this entry in the form of wisdom, do not be deceived. I believe the only wisdom we gain is that which we earn for ourselves. Therefore, I urge you, to strike out on your own accord, dig your own toes into the Galveston sands, traverse the sprawling state of Texas for yourself. In the summer of 2011, I immersed myself in Texas and it made a distinct impression on me. Here are the lessons I earned on the road. I will have these stories to share with my children and grandchildren in the hopes that they, too, will want to travel through this great state, free in spirit and light in heart.
Rule #1. When in doubt, order Shiner.
Rule #2. Get to know your Texas cities.
Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston have a personality unto themselves. Trying to pick your favorite is like taking a quiz in the back of a teen magazine. Are you eccentric? Do you consume locally grown, community-based food? Then pack your bags, you’re goin’ to Austin! If you think Texas cleans up well, little lady, you better head to Dallas! Are you the humble and old-fashioned type, San Antonio might be the place for you! And then there’s Houston. Well, you can find just about anybody in Houston. Home to my college, Rice University, we also boast the first openly gay mayor. Houston is the most diverse city in Texas as well. So Houston welcomes and celebrates people. If you’re not sure where to begin in Texas, which city is a good match, I believe Houston is your best bet.
That’s an incredibly simplified interpretation of the four cities I spent the most time in. But truth be told, I loved them all. How supportive is Austin, that if you have a strange idea, the community will thoroughly support its fruition. And how historically beautiful is San Antonio, that its buildings downtown maintain an architectural theme that celebrates its Spanish and Mexican roots. You won’t find a high-rise made of glass and steel here, and it’s breathtaking. How sprawling and spotless is Dallas, with its Lovers Lane and its Walnut Hill.
Rule #4. Travel with someone who grew up in, say, Brooklyn.
There will be moments – unsuspecting moments – where she discovers something for the first time that will blow her mind. And you will get to observe her astonishment when she sees her first postal truck careening around the residential streets of Dallas. Her jaw will drop. Never before has she been exposed to such Norman Rockwellian realities. This curiosity is priceless. Driving through Texas suburbs turns into an adventure in light of her innocent observations.
Rule #5. Make sure you stop at a few classic roadside chains.
Your co-traveler from Brooklyn is likely to never have consumed an awesome blossom at Chili’s or a blizzard at Dairy Queen. Beware, however, that the regular McDonald’s coffee (we discovered) includes three creams and three sugars.
Rule #6. Not just any road snack will suffice.
This ain’t Iowa folks. Jalapeno peanut brittle, buffalo jerky, and beaver nuggets will do the trick.
That’s right, even Texas does highways different. Texas flags appear larger and fly higher than any other state flags I have seen, period. There are also a ton. Through what would otherwise be unsightly stretches of car dealerships and restaurants, the enlarged, billowing flags catch the eye of drivers like myself.
Rule #8. You are never too old to…
Pull up alongside an 18-wheeler and signal to the truck driver to pull his horn. They. Always. Do. It.
Rule #9. When your radio breaks…
Splurge on that 80s compilation cd sold in every Target purchasing aisle across America and continue cruising down the highway to Jessie’s Girl and Footloose.
Rule #10. Did I leave my laptop on top of the car?
Panic for a split second. Pull over to the side of the road believing you left your laptop on the hood of your vehicle before leaving Dallas for Austin. Find it safely tucked away in the back seat. Laugh it off before the cardiac arrest ensues.
Rule #11. Chase the seagulls on Galveston beach.
Rule #12. Stock up on elk jerky and shot-gun lighters ‘cuz there ain’t another BUC-EES for 231 miles!
Let’s face it, BUC-EES is half the reason you get excited to go on a Texas road trip. If you haven’t visited one, locals will wonder about you. I will wonder about you.
Rule #13. Beware of bees in Dublin, Texas.
But if you happen to get stung, prepare yourself for the best service of your life at the original Dr. Pepper Factory. The staff will shower you with anti-sting ointment, a free six-pack of soda, and apologies, as if they had been the bee-stinging perpetrators. I get the feeling no one has a bad visit to Dublin, Texas.
Rule #14. Cruise Highway 290.
Roll down the window, hang one arm over the side, turn up the country radio, and step on the gas. Take a deep breath. The sweet air surrounds you, and you wonder if that, too, is a product of the fertile farmland soil. The blue skies extend as far as the bluebonnets on the horizon and the combined effect will make it impossible for you to convey the power of the scene in words. Most people just call it Hill Country.
Rule #15. Don’t stop at the first peach stand in Fredericksburg.
By now, you’re deep in the heart of Hill Country, and you chance upon a couple in overalls and barefeet selling peaches along 290. There is something so simply sweet about purchasing summer fruit from the folk who harvest them out yonder. You’re sold, and why shouldn’t you be? It’s been a long drive from Houston and Hill Country’s reputation precedes it.
But peach paradise is a lucrative sell, and you realize this about five minutes down from the first stand after you’ve passed forty other peach stands. Still, you pridefully eye those first peaches, now rolling around in a plastic bag at the foot of the passenger. I can tell you from experience, they’re delicious. However, I couldn’t help wondering about peach vendors who bait newcomers with a nostalgic heart like mine. But I’m savvy now, and passing along my wisdom: try the second peach stand.
Rule #16. Listen to bluegrass songs about gun control while sipping a frozen peach Bellini at Silver Creek Beer Garden & Grille in Fredericksburg. But don’t eat there. Mozy on over to Der Lindenbaum for German.
Usually, an empty restaurant is considered less desirable. But Sunday supper is a homespun affair; the locals retreat home and the passerby’s find a quiet restaurant. At Der Lindenbaum, Frau waitress will devote all her attention to serving you the largest meal of your life: a four-person helping of Jager schnitzel, German sausages, and an apple tort. Drive back to Austin, and go straight to bed.
Inside the cherry-wooded jewel of a bar, the walls are lined with a rich history: Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders here. Built in 1887, more cattle deals were once settled here than anywhere else in Texas. You can still smoke a cigar next to the original brass spittoons. Order whiskey on the rocks.
Rule #18. Parade around the River Walk.
Order the watermelon-sized frozen margaritas and dance to the mariachi band playing your birthday song.
Rule #19. Discover the only gas station near Downtown San Antonio on an empty tank.
The Citgo. They charge the highest gas in Texas because they can, with customers like me. Buy the camarones secos (dried shrimp) next to the beef jerky out of sheer curiosity. Bring it home to a friend as a souvenir! They may gag while eating it (if the case, apologize, and give them a San Antonio mug).
Ain’t nothin’ like it. I, for example, purchased a tote bag with the phrase “BAD COWGIRLS GO EVERYWHERE.” It has taken highest honors in my purse collection, simply for the lingering nostalgia of San Antonio. I am strangely proud to wear it, as it represents (like most thoughtful souvenir purchases) a snapshot of my youthful travels through Texas.
Rule #21. Meet Tucker Max in Austin…without really knowing who Tucker Max is.
After research, I wish I had given him my birth name Colleen instead of Coco, for obvious reasons. (How many women has he met named Candy, Star, or Bambi?) Without context, my name can spin in a completely different direction than who I actually am. I pledge to be careful with my name from now on!
Rule #22. Relish in the true weirdness that is Austin, Texas.
Drive slowly down South Congress and Guadalupe to get the lay of the land. So much of Austin stretches across these two streets.
Rule #23. Befriend the competitive beard grower also checking your ID at Shangri la in Austin.
Take his business card. You never know when you’ll need someone with a full-beard in the future!
Rule #24. People watch at Barton Springs.
I suspect there will be the same Fabio-looking gentleman in Euro swim shorts who keeps asking ladies what material their purses are made out of; he has a bikini line, you know. Jump off the diving board, swim with the dogs, and forget about the Texas drought for an afternoon in Austin’s largest watering hole.
Rule #25. Brave the summer heat in line at the local food trailers.
Order every kind of breakfast taco you can get your hands on. When in Rome!
Rule #26. 6th Street.
The Bourbon Street of Texas.
Rule #27. See it through the eyes of someone who grew up there.
Spend the night in your old college friend’s first big girl apartment. Grab breakfast at Eatsie’s in the morning. She’ll take you on a driving tour through town. You’ll grab drinks at Thomas Avenue Beverage Company and dine at Kent Rathbun’s Blue Plate Special. Snack on Biscoff spread and Magic Pop cakes from Central Market and talk late into the night about old times at Rice University.
Rule #28. WARNING: Don’t leave your phone in a public bathroom at the Dallas Farmer’s Market.
A woman may steal it, call your mother and friends to tell them she is holding it for ransom, and crudely update Twitter statuses on your company’s account until you pay her $5 to hand it over, and phew! crisis averted…maybe for you.
Rule #29. Break for lunch at the largest Hooter’s in the United States.
Thank you, Dallas, Texas, for allowing me to write that sentence.
Rule #30. Drop by the Daisy Polk Inn.
The keeper of the house may not be home, but about 12 cats should be lounging to the right of the doorway on the porch. And SURPRISE! Discovering their hideout, the cats will startle, meow, and scatter in all directions. Afterward, you will feel like you just made a drug bust among cats.
Rule #31. Avoid a Downtown valet snafu.
Don’t just leave your car parked outside the Magnolia Hotel, even if you’re late for a meeting! This will confound the valet! He will find you in the Starbuck’s and ask you to move it.
Rule #32. Refuel at Pearl Coffee Cup.
It seems about half the city’s startups hold daily meetings here, alongside law students and residents of North Henderson.
Alas, I cannot add any road lessons from driving through Houston this summer, as I have lived and commuted there, now, for two full years. We all know that Houston drivers are nuts, yadda, yadda, yadda.
It’s been a summer for dreaming while steadily driving. Naturally, my line of sight settled on the horizon, followed by my mind. I took stalk in making conversation about the past. The day would give way with the setting sun until only the headlights shone before me, and a moon that appeared always (almost) full above me. And the contrast to my present circumstances is slightly humorous, if not telling. I write this now beside my apartment’s bedroom window, a view all brick, overlooking the dingy exterior. And fire escape after fire escape, I still cannot see where they begin or end. Texas may not be for everyone, but it makes me swoon. I have to say, I love the land down yonder.
*** This post is dedicated to the Fearless Critic team, without whom this whirlwind Texas road trip would not have been possible.