Between Austin and the eastern border of Louisiana, heading toward New Orleans, lie stretches of meandering state highways and pastures. The landscape feels at once both Southern and Texan. It is not quite a conglomeration of the two—you won’t find oak trees swaying with Spanish Moss next to prickly pear cactuses—but this piece of the state represents a distinctly familiar American landscape. It is the land between, filled with rolling hills, clay-red soils, pine stands, and small towns. It is the buffer between the arid, dusky landscape to the west and the lush Louisiana greens picking up just east of the Sabine. The stretches of road oscillate between rolling, scrubby fields and pine and cedar forests.
Growing up in Florida, I became accustomed to pine forests, learning to identify the trees by the amount of needles in each bunch on the ground. While these pines were an essential part of the landscape, there is one we didn’t have—the loblolly pine.
Loblolly pines are native only to this area of Texas, which is known as Lost Pines; the last of the pine forest here is now almost entirely encompassed and protected within Bastrop State Park. Loblolly pines have adapted to the arid conditions of Texas.
In 2011, a fire blazed through Bastrop State Park, charring 96 percent of the park lands before being controlled. Burning over 34,000 acres within Bastrop County, the fire is reported to have been the worst in the history of Texas. Just over six years later, the park is a testament to the resilience of nature and the perseverance of recovery efforts, with new growth springing forth out of the ashen landscape. In parts of the park less touched by man, you can easily envision the smoke still rising.
The past looms like this over many Texas towns. In Giddings, the main street is lined in modest storefronts, no more than a single story high, each unique. Of course, like any town, contemporary life continues—gas stations churn out cars headed in various directions, grocery store parking lots fill with families stocking up as part of a regular Sunday routine, boys ride bikes underneath a jarringly placed cellular tower just outside of the post office. But the past still creeps in; it is in the names of the streets, the placards adorning various locations like jeweled pins on a map, the peeling paint.
A lot of the towns along the drive feel that way—they have a palpable air of sentimentality. I watched a man carefully unfold and climb a small blue ladder to tend to a corner street light. He didn’t appear to be working for the power company or the city. He was an ordinary man who likely worked just inside of that office on the corner, and who noticed that the bulb had gone out and decided to replace it. That’s just the way things work here.
Evening brought a deepening quiet—one that felt more distinctly native than anything else. The names that a place are given came to mind—the “Lone Star” state, “Big Sky Country.” The sky is big, and vast, and it was beginning to turn from warm to sweetly cool, dying everything in front of me in dripping shades of orange and lavender and pink.
In the bigger cities along the stretch, like Beaumont, if you arrive at dusk, you’ll see the lights beginning to turn on. First to come are the street lights, then headlights, and then those illuminating the churches and storefronts.
Many of the old storefronts are filled with masterfully hand-painted lettering, showing their age in an unabashedly intimate and inviting way. Their signs, hung from posts to make them easy to view from down the avenue, are outlined in incandescent bulbs. I watched them flicker and settle into the flip of their electrical current. Someone had tended to the signs of the defunct stores, and movie theaters, and restaurants.
People are still taking care of their towns. Someone goes and gets out the ladder, carefully unfolds it, climbs the rungs, and changes the bulb.