Trips to Change Your Mind

A cloud in front of a mountain in Big Bend National Park A mural in downtown Lufkin Texas An overhead view of the surf in Port Aransas A man sits in a chair in Lufkin Texas Two kids play in the waves in Port Aransas A river in Palo Duro Handprints in the snow in the Chisos Mountains

Photos: Brandon Jakobeit (Big Bend); Sean Fitzgerald (downtown Lufkin); Larry Ditto (kids in Port A); Kenny Braun (Palo Duro and Port Aransas aerial); courtesy DaLyah Jones (Lufkin porch); Clayton Maxwell (Chisos Mountains)

One of travel’s many gifts is its ability to change our perspective. When we set out to experience something new, whether close to home or in a far-flung locale, the resulting shift can be subtle—a little more empathy, a little more courage, a little more understanding. Or it can be overt, altering the way we see the world permanently. Perhaps it’s because our hearts are more open when we travel: We must surrender to different rhythms and customs, and yield to unfamiliar landscapes. Here, four writers reminisce about trips that changed their minds, or brought their own knowing into sharper focus.

A beach scene at Palmilla Beach Golf Club
Palmilla Beach Golf Club. Photo by Kenny Braun.
Fish hanging from a string
Woody’s Sports Center. Photo by Kenny Braun.
A man and woman standing on the seashore
Eric and Natalia Sylvester in Port Aransas. Photo courtesy Natalia Sylvester.

Something About Sand in Your Tires

By Natalia Sylvester

Starfish on the seashore
Photo by Kenny Braun

“You’re going to hate it,” my friends said the first time my husband, Eric, and I planned a trip to Port Aransas. Not exactly the ringing endorsement we were hoping for. But having moved to Austin from Miami in the winter of 2010, by summer we were in desperate need of sand and ocean.

“The water’s…brownish,” they said. Not a beautiful translucent blue like the beaches of South Florida. Although I’d lived in the Rio Grande Valley as a child and taken countless trips to South Padre Island, my husband—born and raised in Miami—was a complete newcomer to Texas beaches. I began to wonder if my fond memories were rose-tinted. Could it really be that bad?

We laughed off their warnings, got into my Mini Cooper, and drove three-and-a-half hours to the Gulf Coast. We took State Highway 358 east and gazed at the large, gray expanse of road all around us. It was a weekday and cloudy, so we weren’t exactly feeling the summer vibes. But when we crossed the JFK Memorial Causeway, something shifted. Being on a bridge over water just did something to us; windows down and music up, I put my bare feet on the dashboard as we drove blissfully down State Highway 361 with the ocean breeze massaging our senses. Before we got to the beach, Eric stopped at Walgreens to get a parking permit, and I marveled at the novelty.

“You mean we get to park right there? On the sand? Like in the movies?” I asked. In Miami, parking at the beach was a lot like fishing: It took forever and you’d have to constantly be on the lookout for any sign of movement, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. Even then, my family always only managed to find a spot blocks away. We’d end up trekking for 20 minutes with our coolers, towels, chairs, and volleyball in tow, only to realize, once we got on the sand, that someone left the sunscreen in the car.

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Port A was nothing like what we’d known and loved back in Miami. Not a bustling hotspot perfect for people-watching. No volleyball nets or neon yellow, pink, and blue lifeguard towers splashing color all around us. Here, the beach was bare, but not empty. We had a clear view of sky, unobstructed by resorts and high-rise condos. When we pulled in past the grassy sand dunes, we saw the nearest cars were hundreds of yards from us. The breeze was the only sound for miles.

We’d experienced nothing like it—and we adored every inch of it. Sometimes the opposite of the place you’ve always loved is not, like my friends had assumed, a place you’ll hate. Sometimes the contrast satisfies a newly discovered longing, and you feel like you’ve grown and expanded because of it, capable of appreciating the unknown.

We stretched our towels on the sand and ate snacks out of the trunk. When I awoke from a post-sandwich nap, I snapped a picture of my rearview mirror, in awe of how you could see the water in the small reflection. “Not a bad parking spot,” I captioned on my Instagram post. It didn’t matter what color the water was; the point was we were right there. We’d gotten in our car and driven to the edge of the coast and gotten closer to the water than we’d ever been. Perhaps our friends thought we’d arrive expecting these new places to be like the ones we’d already been.

But what would have been the fun in that? You can’t meet a place halfway between where you’re going and where you’ve been. If you’re going to go, go all in.

A selfie of the writer
Sarah Hepola. Photo courtesy Sarah Hepola.

Inward Bound

By Sarah Hepola

Two hikers walk down a dirt trail in Palo Duro
Hikers at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Photo by Kenny Braun.

About a year ago, I was sitting at home in Dallas, having an existential spinout. I’m a fortysomething, chronically single woman who lives alone. I’m lucky for the freedom of my life, but I’m occasionally plagued by the solitude. Existential spinouts are a specialty of mine.

The only solution was to get away for a bit—I needed perspective, the feeling of being in motion. I Googled day trips around Texas until I stumbled across a modest stone cabin situated on the lip of Palo Duro Canyon, a half-hour from Amarillo in the Panhandle. Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the country, but in all my years of wandering, I’d never visited. So many of my adventures had been designed to escape this state, not explore it. But I was starting to realize how much I’d missed.

I arrived to find Palo Duro Canyon State Park gloriously uncrowded, and I stared out at a stubbly cliffside whose layers told its history: the Permian rust of the base, the Pleistocene beige of the top. The part of me that loves list making and flowcharts delighted at this geologic rendering of time—the chaos of civilization compressed into neat, clean stripes.

The cabin was plain but sweet, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal program. I’d seen black-and-white photos of the construction in a gallery near the visitor center, and I thought about those men carrying stones by hand as they sweat under the Texas sun. How strange I would have seemed to them: a middle-aged woman traveling by herself, strumming Taylor Swift songs on her guitar as she contemplated the universe.

The next day I hiked to a striking rock formation called the Lighthouse, named for the way the towering natural spire appears to keep watch over the canyon. As I trudged through a muddy riverbed, I thought about the other feet that had stepped along this path. This was Comanche territory once. Fossils of saber-toothed cats and an ancestor of the crocodile called a phytosaur found here date back millions of years. I grew up in Dallas, where an abandoned shopping mall felt like ancient ruins, but Palo Duro was an invitation to think about our complicated past, and how much progress has been made so that a woman like me might spend an afternoon roaming the canyon in pants with quick-drying capabilities.

It was a simple weekend, which was exactly the kind of weekend my emotional state needed. For much of my life, I’ve chased drama and passion. I’ve scoured distant places for wisdom but sometimes overlooked what I had closer to home. My weekend in Palo Duro was a reminder of how much is left to discover within the borders of my own state and the quiet but profound companionship nature can provide a lonely traveler.

That night, I stepped onto the walkway outside my cabin in bare feet to look up at the stars. They were pulsing so brightly it’s like they were waving to me. We’re here, they seemed to say. The canyon was whisper-dark, and the horizon so flat the sky appeared like a dome, as though I could actually see the curvature of the Earth. I found Orion’s Belt, then I found the Big Dipper—the constellations a reminder of the mysteries that had eluded us for a long time.

I waved back at the stars. I’m here, too.

A rock cabin
Lighthouse rock at night
A man sitting in a car in a plaid shirt
Leroy Reed. Photo courtesy DaLyah Jones.
Cows stand in a field
A farm just southeast of Lufkin. Photo by Sean Fitzgerald.
A road near Lufkin
The Piney Woods on a road near Lufkin. Photo by Sean Fitzgerald.

On the Road with Pawpaw

By DaLyah Jones

It sounds like an oxymoron to say that highways and backroads are where I found solace and felt the safest growing up as a Black girl in East Texas. It’s where I learned to meditate, focus, and be mindful of life’s many journeys—a practice I inherited from my pawpaw. Highways and country roads are still where I turn when I can’t find my way.

Growing up in Lufkin, my pawpaw, Leroy Reed, found peace while driving. He was rarely worried since he always traveled with his shotguns and usually knew where to go. Especially when he was younger, he knew how to avoid the pockets of East Texas where bored white men or the Klan might be.

He taught me how to navigate the roads throughout my childhood, often taking me on rides with him. Every one of them started with, “You wanna ride?” It’s a phrase Pawpaw, who always had a baseball cap gracing the top of his smooth, dark-skinned head, would whisper in his low voice, almost timidly. It was a conscious habit he practiced in an effort to avoid intimidating those he towered over with his 6-foot, 7-inch frame.

I always eagerly opted in. Not one of his many grandchildren was foolish enough to say “no,” especially if the ride ended with a stop at the liquor or feed store and resulted in a pickled quail egg or, on rare occasion, a box of baby chicks that could be paraded in front of envious siblings and cousins as a triumphant prize.

Throughout my childhood, backroad rides with my pawpaw were random but always well-timed. He drove a brown 1960s Chevy pickup that smelled like pennies and exhaust. The three-seater would chug up and down Lufkin, rattling the windows. The truck once belonged to his Uncle John—the brother of my grandpa’s mother, Jessie Lee Baker—who passed before I was born. I remember trips to the meat markets in Wells and Zavalla where we would pick up summer sausages wrapped in a waxy, cherry-red casing. We ate saltines with the sliced, peppered meat. I chewed the rind like gum until it no longer pleased my taste buds.

That truck was later stolen and replaced in the early 2000s with a red-and-white Chevy truck with black stripes. I remember Tim McGraw and Johnnie Taylor blasting from his cassette radio over the rumble of the engine. Once, we were driving late at night and he saw a dead raccoon on the side of the road that had been hit. He pulled over and put it on the hood of his truck on some newspaper. When he got to his house, he cleaned, skinned, and gutted the animal in his sink before throwing it in the freezer to be smothered or barbecued the next week.

I’m not sure what time of year it was, but once we drove to a farm on the southeast edge of Lufkin where two border collies greeted us. We were looking to buy a goat to eat the weeds along the fence of my family’s backyard. A farmer herded his goats up to the front of a fenced pen. He handed me a glass root beer bottle filled with cold milk and topped with a nipple so I could feed the baby goat through the fence hole.

Then, there was the brown Dodge Ram Pawpaw bought in 2011. The rides were smoother, and with the introduction of a CD player in his car, he always asked his grandkids to burn CDs for him—specifically with “Burn” by Usher and “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson, two of his favorite songs. It was also the first truck of his I was old enough to drive—he constantly warned me about my lead foot. I think about that now as I drive in my own car to find the calm I once knew as a child between the pines.

I recently spoke with my pawpaw about going on a ride together. It had been years. He agreed that he missed our trips, but this time he said, with a chuckle, “You driving!”

A woman in a graduation gown holds a diploma next to a man in a gray sweater
DaLyah Jones with her pawpaw, Leroy Reed. Courtesy DaLyah Jones.
The night sky in the Chisos Mountains
Photo by Jason Weingart
A family laying on a trampoline
Carlisle (top), Scott, and Harry Sloan. Photo courtesy Clayton Maxwell.
A pair of bare feet overlooking the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains
The author’s feet over the edge of the South Rim Trail. Photo courtesy Clayton Maxwell.

The Wean-About

By Clayton Maxwell

It was a long way to go: an eight-hour drive by myself to Big Bend, an uneasy night alone in the desert, and, for an additional eight hours, simply stepping one boot in front of the other.

Emory Peak in the distance past a meadow in the Chisos Mountains

Emory Peak, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains. Photo by Laurence Parent.

After two years of nursing a baby while simultaneously playing Candy Land with my 4-year-old daughter, I craved the crunch of hiking boots on Big Bend National Park’s South Rim Trail, a hike I did often in my 20s. As much as I relished being home with my kids, I wanted to unshackle myself from other people’s wants and stride through the meadows and atop the cliffs of this 12-mile loop to its farthest edge overlooking vast Mexican mountains. So I left my nursing bras at home and packed the camping gear. My husband dubbed the adventure my “wean-about,” and we said goodbye.

I pulled into the Chisos Basin campground on a Tuesday in February—few souls were around. I hurried to pitch my tent before nightfall. My sole companion was an illustrated edition of Moby Dick, a gift from a dear friend. I placed it next to my makeshift dinner on a picnic table. I may have been a tired mom, but I was also like Ishmael, the novel’s narrator. Rather than questing for a whale on the high seas, I was chasing a version of myself I’d packed away—the one who was unafraid and could walk freely down a hard trail through the desert.

But that night it was dark in my tent—too dark. Plus, I was sloping. In my rush, I’d pitched my tent on an incline, and my sleeping bag was scooching toward my ankles. I heard sounds like an animal moving outside my tent. Earlier that day, I’d seen signs posted about mountain lion sightings in the Chisos. What did it say to do if you meet one? I thought about my children at home in their beds.

When my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I grabbed Moby Dick and rested the book on my chest. If Ishmael could survive his whale chasing, I could curtail my dark imaginings. Eventually, I fell asleep.

After sunrise, I hit the trail. The first steps were strange, knowing I had many thousands more ahead. But soon the steady beat of my boots upon gravel put me in a meditative state, a rhythm punctuated by the staccato song of canyon wrens and ladder-backed woodpeckers at work. Fat, blue Mexican jays flashed through the pines.

I passed through Boulder Meadows and recalled camping there with my husband, back when it was just the two of us. I remembered my college roommates and me almost skipping down this trail on a spring break trip, singing Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.” I stepped in patches of snow as I ascended higher into the Chisos.

After about four hours, I arrived at the South Rim, collapsing near the rocky ledge that juts out over the never-ending canyon below. Freed of boots, my achy feet felt the winds from Mexico. I pulled a squished PB&J sandwich out of my backpack, the jelly oozing out the side, like my daughter likes it. High on endorphins and untamed landscape, I made a vow. I will not let my children miss out on such wild joys: fat blue jays, long hikes, clarity, the satisfaction of doing something hard. Life is too fleeting to not embrace its beauty—and share it—as much as you can.

I laughed. I laughed at my yearning for solitude, at my vexed night in the tent, at the paradox that I had to be this blissfully alone to understand how very not alone I am. My husband, my friends, my kids, and even Ishmael were with me at the edge of the world. With so much space, I could feel the full strength of the fibers that linked us. Giddy, I did a dance for the blue jays.

From the January 2021 issue

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