Guest Column: US Highway 79

by Mary Bryant*

I’m a traveler. Always have been. Always will be. And I like to drive. Not cattle but a car. Highway 79 is an ambiguous, pleasant and thought-provoking drive through sun-baked soil and red neck country amid the wealthy situated along side hard-working farmers and the dispossessed where justice and fairness occasionally leaves a dry taste in one’s mouth.

You see this particular highway stretching from Shreveport, Louisiana to Austin, Texas is one of my very favorite drives. It’s a drive to be started in the early pre-dawn hours and taken alone. You should have an open sunroof, or a dropped convertible or at the very least open windows. The road meanders through places like Carthage, home of the Tex Ritter museum, Jefferson, tomato capital of the world, and Henderson. Henderson is a good place to stop for breakfast. By then, the sun has come up and the small towns are starting to awaken.

The only other vehicles on the road are pickup trucks. Not shiny new extended cab trucks whose loads are never heavier or more damaging than cotton balls, but honest hard-working farm trucks.  Pickup trucks with battered tail gates, pickup trucks with rusted wheel wells, pickup trucks loaded with tools, ropes, chains, and big orange water coolers, pickup trucks with 3 or 4 trailer hitches, pickup trucks driven by farmers wearing straw cowboy hats with sweat on the bands. They also wear faded jeans and dusty well-worn soft leather boots, and hand tooled leather belts tight under their bellies. Pick up trucks driven by raven haired young Hispanic beauties with several small children crawling around the cab with their bottles of “soda pop” and sticks of beef jerky in their tiny hands.

And more pickup trucks with loads of water melon or corn or nursery bedding plants, or even a cow or a pig in the back on their way to market or to the livestock auction barns. You can be pretty sure that you have eaten something at sometime that’s been carried around in these trucks. In Texas, pickup trucks have special license tags that read “Texas Truck” on them, and working farm trucks have even more special plates that say “Texas Farm Truck” on them. I understand they got a real break on registering these fine trucks.

It was on this drive I first heard Guy Clark sing his new song “Out in the Parking Lot” The chorus line of the song is “I love to see the neon dancing on the gravel, I love to hear the pickup trucks come unraveled.”  When I heard that, I played it over and over, thinking of my sweet son at home in his shiny new pick up truck with the dual exhaust system that will rattle you out of your bed in the morning, and in some ways wished he were with me on this journey.

When I got to Henderson, I looked for the local cafe with the most pickup trucks in the parking lot, knowing full well that was where the local “Think tank” would be drinking coffee and discussing world affairs. I was also certain that would be where the best breakfast would be served at the cheapest price with the largest servings. I was not disappointed when my platter of over easy eggs and home cooked potatoes and long crisp slices of bacon arrived.

Another wonderful thing about US Highway 79, a two-lane highway, is when you get behind one of these loaded down pick up trucks, they will always move over to the shoulder and smile and wave to let you by.  At least they did the last time I traveled the highway a few years ago. Not much has changed. And what fun it is when finally someone wants to pass you and you are the one to move over and smile and wave first!

I can’t think of a better way to start a new traveling adventure than to roll along a slice of friendly highway through the pine forests, to the produce farms to the cotton fields of East Texas to my family in Lockhart and where the history of the Chisholm Trail is a significant part of the local culture along with the hope for whatever the uncertain future may offer.

I’ve moved on now and have spent some time in Greece and Mexico among other places abroad and back home and know enough to smile, for my memory, though selective, still retains a fondness for Highway 79 and the possibilities ahead.

  • A romantic traveler.