Ed. Note: This the first part of a series on heading west to Big Bend and back. Check back next week for our continuing adventures.
The very first thing we have to decide is which way to go. We're meeting friends in Big Bend for a New Year's camping trip, but we have several days to get there. Interstate 10 is the fastest way. But when I look on the map, Highway 90 looks far more interesting.
Texas Traveler is kind of naive. I have never been to Mexico, and though I have been to states west of Texas, I have never been to West Texas. We're going to be close to the border, and recent news reports kinda freak me out. Do we need to bring a gun? Do we need to bring our passports? I have no idea.
I have wanted to visit West Texas, specifically Marfa and Big Bend, for a long, long time. It's way the hell out there, so we decide to split the drive into two days. We'll take 90 and stay overnight in Del Rio. We're armed with a guidebook, a MAPSCO book of Texas Roads and a car full of camping gear. Like Anthony Bourdain, we have no reservations.
The drive from Houston to San Antonio is boring, and we've seen most of it before anyway. We stop in Luling for lunch and are surprised to find that there is not one, but two Luling barbecue joints claiming to be the standard-bearer in what passes for Luling's downtown. It's late for lunch, but Luling City has a line out the door still, so we opt for Luling Bar-B-Q, which is dead. On a white board there is a handwritten note asking customers to compare them to the other, more famous restaurant. My chipped beef sandwich was good but not life-changing, though the scalloped potatoes were awesome. My travel companion has spicy sausage. "I should have eaten something healthier," he said.
We take a break next door at an antiques store housed in an old movie theater but don't find anything worth carting home. In the lobby there is a poster of all the old movie houses in Texas and I try to pick out the ones in Houston. River Oaks and Alabama are easy. I also recognize the marquee from the Texas Theatre in Dallas.
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We breeze on through to San Antonio where I-10 turns into Hwy 90. My travel companion ignores my requests to stop and have a look at the Alamo since we've been running late all day. We want to make it to Del Rio before dark because we don't have a hotel reserved. In Uvalde we stop for gas and I try horchata for the first time. It's warm, so I add it to my coffee as a sweetener. I think about my many vegan friends who drink horchata as a dairy substitute and I find it funny that I'm trying it on my travels, especially after eating my body weight in barbecue. Traveling is why I could never be a vegetarian -- eating local, traditional food is a major aspect of the travel experience for me.
As we approach Brackettville I finally persuade my travel companion to turn off 90 for a roadside attraction -- Alamo Village. We've been seeing billboards for it since San Antonio, and if I can't go to the real Alamo I at least want to go to the fake one. Built by rancher James T. Shahan, it was the setting for John Wayne's epic 1959 film about the mission and is billed at the largest outdoor movie set in the world. Huge billboards + small town + roadside oddity is always a winning combination. So we head 7 miles north of Brackettville on a small winding road, part of the Pecos Trail, ignoring a tiny cardboard sign halfway there that says simply: Alamo Village closed. "Maybe I can still get pictures," I say.
We arrive to find even more billboards and a locked gate. I'm bummed, but persevere, getting out of the car to take pictures of what I can, even though I can't see the fake mission. A truck comes rambling around a hill on the other side of the gate and I half expect to get harassed for trespassing. But it's just the ranch's caretaker, there to feed some animals. He tells me that the Shahan's wife, 93 years old, died this summer, and that one of their daughters was going to keep Alamo Village open, but then she died a few months ago, so the attraction is now closed. So we turn around and drive back to Brackettville.
Luckily, the town itself is kind of interesting, Downtown is filled with empty, decaying buildings of undetermined age or origin. Brackettville is the county seat, and one of only two cities in Kinney County. As we get back onto Hwy 90 it's starting to get dark. Our next stop is Del Rio.