Travel Texas: Big hats, big park, big welcome

The Lone Star state is known for extremes, and extremists.
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The Independent Culture
The state of Texas evokes strong images and strong opinions: from the dramas of Dallas to the desperadoes of the Alamo and Waco, it is larger than life and tends to extremes. So when I ventured that I wanted to spend a holiday in Texas, it was perhaps inevitable that my husband - brought up in a state (Maine) that claims to be in every way its antithesis - replied "But it's just oilfields and cattle and parched plains and, well, when there are so many other places to go in the world, why go to Texas?".

After two and a half weeks touring Texas by car, we can both give any number of reasons for going there; from the splendour of the landscape, through the monuments of history to the hospitality of the Texans. Now, when we see the Lone Star flag on a car or lorry, we even feel like waving in solidarity.

Our route started and finished in Houston, our furthest destination the Big Bend National Park and the Spanish mission churches of El Paso. The aim was to stick where possible to less-travelled roads and, that is what we did: no skyscrapers or major art galleries; no Austin, no Dallas, no Kennedy memorabilia, no JR, no Waco and no Houston, except for a half- crescent of the Houston's outer ring-road - a multi-lane monster. In other words, no big cities, bar a detour or two into San Antonio.

Beware San Antonio. It is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the US, and the signposts have not kept pace.

The central area is relatively small, mostly pedestrianised and it can also be very crowded, especially the famed river walk, a shady promenade of charming views, lined with small shops and - mostly Mexican - restaurants.

The Alamo itself, complete with bullet marks in the massive doors, is a shrine - there is no other word - to Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and the rest, whose last stand against Mexican power has been thoroughly absorbed into the all-American myth of freedom and nation-forging. For Texans, the Alamo is also a shrine to a failed bid for Texan independence that still brings tears to the eyes of grown men in cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats.

An easy day's drive from San Antonio is a series of "twin towns" that straddle the Mexican border. We chose Del Rio because of its frequent bus service across the Rio Grande into Ciudad Acuna on the Mexican side (the bus means no awkward questions about the validity of your car insurance in Mexico). Del Rio is a quiet, sleepy, Texan town, with a school, a small shopping centre and spacious streets of modest houses, but from the moment you step onto the almost armoured bus to cross the river, you are in another world.

Just minutes from an outpost of the richest country in the world, you arrive in an impoverished townscape where everything - the streets, the buildings and even the cars - need repair. You find yourself asking whether drinking water should be boiled, checking your supply of instant diarrhoea cure and your vaccination certificates.

From a country where every store and factory seems to have posted "help wanted" signs, you have entered one where legions of young and not-so- young men sit around with nothing to do.

You pick your way along uneven pavements, scan the giant pots and tilework that Americans come to buy, and pick up a taco or an ice-cream for a paltry sum. Then you board the return bus almost guiltily, realising that this brief journey between worlds is a privilege barred to most of those on the southern side.

The thought crosses your mind: if fate had placed you on the other side, what would you do to cross over? Would you even know what was there?

Another day's drive from San Antonio brings you to the Big Bend National Park, one of the most spectacular - and emptiest - in America. The highlight is the deep gorge through which the Rio Grande passes, but every stop has a vista to savour. Be prepared, though. Places to stay are often booked up and, in summer, take more far water than you think you could ever drink.

Two-thirds of the way back to Houston, to the south-west of Austin, is the pretty Hill Country, much of which was first settled by Germans. Its two centres are Fredericksburg and Braunfels, the former a small and lively town with interesting shops that makes a good base to stay. The town's origins survive in the German restaurants and cafes, and in a local wine industry.

An hour or so out of Fredericksburg is Johnson City, close to the ranch of the late President Johnson (the Lyndon B Johnson State Park), which is open to visitors.

The sweeping landscape is vaguely familiar thanks to those TV pictures of Johnson hosting foreign leaders at his home; but the well-told tale of how the local boy of modest beginnings became president is worth the few dollars and half a day required.

Finally, on the last leg of the journey, you pass through a small settlement of cafes and galleries arranged around a square and nestled in woodland. It is a centre for artists and craftspeople that sensibly eschews the cutesy, quilted "gift-ideas" of so many American craft centres. Watch the clock, though, or you could easily miss your plane.

The vast distances and the extremes (summer temperatures often reach beyond uncomfortable heights) make touring in Texas hard work.

The rewards, though, in the landscape and the welcome, are immense. We remember especially the lady in the cafe in Rockport where we had breakfast who packed up three times more doughnuts than we could ever eat "for lunch".

Then there was the small Mexican restaurant in the otherwise fading town of Pecos, where the owner rooted round in his storeroom to offer a selection of Texan wine, and the lady in a Wimberley art gallery who removed a large painting from its frame and packed it in the time it took us to drink milkshakes next door, so that we could take it on the plane that evening.

A spirit of independence still stalks the Lone Star state and the Texas star is flown everywhere. It comes as no surprise that sects and separatists find a haven in the wilds of Texas, or that liberal, foreign objections to the rate and manner of executions meet little sympathy.

Texans have precious little time for the vagaries of "abroad", and even less for Washington.

But they appreciate no end the fact that you have taken the trouble to come to see for yourself, and they make you more genuinely and graciously welcome, perhaps, than the locals of almost any other state in what seems still - at least to outsiders - a generous country.

Fact File

Getting there:

Tim Perry paid pounds 236 for a return flight from Gatwick to Austin via St Louis on TWA through Flightbookers (0171-757 3000) and pounds 318 for two weeks' car rental with USA Rent A Car (0171-499 1300).

To reach San Antonio or El Paso - the start and end of Mary Dejevsky's journey - there are no direct flights from Britain. A range of discount fares is available from companies such as American Airlines from Manchester or Gatwick via Dallas or Continental from Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow via Houston or Newark. The lowest fares are available through discount agents such as Flightbookers (0171-757 3000) or Quest Worldwide (0181-546 6000). Before the end of June you might travel for pounds 300 return, but in July and August expect to pay around pounds 500.

There is currently no risk of tornadoes in Texas, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Oklahoma.