One sunny morning in July, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday, I slide into the driver’s seat of my car and head south. I pull onto the highway, a map of Texas in the passenger seat, like an ancient rune from a time before GPS, and I watch as the billboards turn unfamiliar and disappear. Big-box stores and strip malls turn to metal silos, oil refineries, and wheat fields.
After U-turns on the edges of grapefruit groves, repeated pullovers to study our Rio Grande Valley street guide, and a precarious three-point turn on the narrow levee road where a border patrol truck blocks our path, we are really lost. Like so many wanderers before us, we are searching for La Lomita Mission, which a local history buff named Frank told me about at an Edinburg bar the night before. “Just travel the Old Military Highway that goes along the Rio Grande,” Frank said. What Frank didn’t say was that Military Highway, much like the river it runs along, is a trickster that stops, starts, and twists in unexpected ways.
A mile or two into my hike to the top of Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains, I stepped to the side of the trail as two speedsters overtook me on the uphill slope. “I guess that’s where we’re headed,” I said, nodding to a rocky outcrop on the horizon far above. “Nope,” one of them responded. “Baldy Peak is beyond that—you can’t see it yet.”
“Islands will always be places we project onto,” writes Judith Schalansky, the German author and designer of Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands. Their inaccessibility is part of their allure, the crossing over water a literal rite of passage—the more remote, the more deserted, the better. And Texans have options: From my experience, you can pitch a tent on the mud, sand, and weeds of islands in East Texas rivers; string up a hammock between bald cypress trees on a crescent-shaped gravel bar on a Hill Country stream; and lug your gear across the wooden footbridge at Martin Creek Lake State Park near Tatum to spend a night among the pines on an island ringed by a short hiking trail.
My personal slice of Texas paradise lies 14 miles southwest of Austin, tucked into the idyllic canyon that cradles an immaculate stretch of Barton Creek. The Paisano Ranch is a 245-acre retreat owned by the University of Texas at Austin, and it has been awarding fellowships to a few select writers every year since 1967. My lucky number came up in 2010 when I spent three blissful summer months nestled in this sanctuary.
Not far from the banks of the Canadian River, tucked among the River Valley Pioneer Museum’s artifacts of Panhandle ranching and railroad history, black-and-white portraits gaze from the gallery wall as if they’ve been waiting patiently for a century to look you in the eye.
Anticipation grows as you roll down the window and drive onto the Port Aransas ferry to cross the narrow channel to Mustang Island. Salty air invades the senses, and sunrays glint on the shifting waters where dolphins play. As you disembark into the heart of this historic fishing town, brown pelicans skim the water for dinner or perch on weathered piers. Fishing boats rock gently in the harbor, rigged for their work in nearby bays or the open ocean.
When I think of my Amarillo childhood, I think about Boots’n Jeans. Not the attire, but the retail store. The rustic wooden doors of Boots’n Jeans once beckoned shoppers beneath a life-size sculpture of a wild, rearing horse. Every year, for my birthday, my grandparents took me there for a new pair of ropers.
That was then. In the decades since, the store sold to a big corporation, transformed into a national Western-wear chain, and finally closed for good in 2016 after 43 years. A Jimmy’s Egg opened in its place a few months ago.