As I drove south through the Hill Country, it was prettier than anything else I'd seen so far in the Lone Star State, but we're talking Texas here, so the bar wasn't all that high to begin with. I still didn't get why it was that every Texan I'd ever met loved this state with a love so big and braggartly it seemed like it would take all the rest of us in the other 49 sneering at it just to even things up.
I drove through a small town. The main street was as wide as Pennsylvania Avenue, with old-fashioned storefronts lined up along either side of it for two blocks. The storefronts looked a little too practical to qualify as quaint. My rental car bumped over the railroad tracks, and then I was back out in the countryside.
Mineral Wells, Texas.
(Sarah Ross Wauters)
Okay, so it was pretty. The Hill Country is where the dry, flat plateaus of West Texas break up, the limestone crumbling and tumbling down into the wetter piney woods and coastal prairies of East Texas. Along the bony spine between east and west, the Hill Country rolls in silky waves of grass that by autumn have been tanned like a rippling, tawny hide. The grass breaks up around pale outcroppings of rock, and bristling green paddles of prickly pear cactus. It rolls on through parklike stands of gnarled oak and juniper, and silvery cottonwoods that hug the streams. Oncoming winter was turning the oaks yellow and orange. But still, to me, it couldn't hold a candle to autumn in New England, or even in Maryland or Virginia.
Dry leaves blew across the road. Tejano music bounced out of the car radio -- a spiced-up German oompah polka playing in triple time; a singer rapping in Spanish over a spastic accordion and a hip-hop scratch track. Windmills on their long, spindly metal legs turned slowly behind clapboard houses and in the fields where cattle and horses grazed. I rounded a bend, and that's when I hit the brakes.
They hung from the barbed wire by their hind legs, head down into the dun-colored grass. Even going slow I couldn't tell what they were, so I pulled onto the shoulder and walked over. The wind rustled the grass, ruffled their fur, three of them, evenly spaced every six feet along the wire fence. Coyotes.
I'd never been this close to a coyote before, dead or alive. They hung there on the edge of an empty field, wild animals reduced to furry no-trespassing signs. I was thinking it should seem sad, but it didn't; it was too alien. A pickup came down the two-lane blacktop and blew past. I caught the sweetly dreadful whiff of decay.
Someone else scheduled this trip for me; business, you know. It hadn't been my decision, once the business was done, to strand myself in Texas for three extra days with nothing to do. Back in D.C., my neighbor Arthur Townsend had commiserated. He's married to a Texan. Over the course of an otherwise orderly life, he's been stranded in Texas a few times himself. "But you're going to be in the Hill Country," he'd said. "Becky and I drove down through there last summer on Highway 16, and it's really lovely."
At the time, I gave him a skeptical frown. I'd driven across the Lone Star State before, more than once, but only because I had to in order to get someplace else. Everything's bigger in Texas, especially the flat, dusty emptiness. As my trusty travel guide Road Trip USA puts it, "As far as things to see, the state doesn't offer a very high quotient per gallon." Texas is a long way to go to see a whole lot of nothing.
But to a city gal, a trio of dead coyotes was certainly something. With my business wrapped up and three days to kill, I had put myself on State Highway 16 west of Dallas, started driving south, and there they were -- varmints! The sight of them conjured up a more rugged way of life, a time in America when warnings were blunt and backed by a gun.
As I got back on the road and continued south, I started daydreaming about the romance of cowboys and Indians, homesteads and cattle drives. It was like I'd stepped through the screen into "How the West Was Won." Here in the Hill Country I suddenly felt so all-fired American, buddy, I was fixin' to go buy me a ten-gallon hat in good-guy white.