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35 on 35

Fascinating food, history and popular culture lure travelers along Interstate 35

Interstate 35 in Texas creates a 500-mile corridor of concrete and asphalt between the Rio Grande and the Red River, but it embodies a history much longer than just the highway itself.

I decide to undertake that epic drive through the state—border to border—and along the way learn about Texas popular culture and the route’s history. As a bonus, the stops along the way offer worthy diversions. After all, this massive highway is Texas’—and mid-America’s—major north-south artery, essential for international trade and domestic travel. En route, I’ll drive through 20 counties and 10 electric cooperative territories.

I embark from the southern terminus of I-35 in Laredo. South to north is the way this course developed. Crossing the Rio Grande predates the Mayan and Aztec empires, with evidence of native people doing so more than 11,000 years ago. This path was first defined by hunters following game, and, as they settled into villages, the hunting trails became an interconnected system.

Beginning in the 1500s, the Spanish and French improved upon these trail systems as part of their quest for silver, gold and land. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado ventured north into the Texas Panhandle in 1541, looking for the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola. Other conquistadors deviated north from the Camino Real, the road linking the mission near Laredo with missions in East Texas.

North of the Laredo security checkpoint, the highway is free of billboards and other distractions, allowing the mind to wander. A dozen men burst from the scrub along the frontage road and scramble into an SUV that has eased to a rolling stop. The vehicle takes off before the doors are closed, speeding north. I-35 is still a path of migration. 

Co-op Territory: Medina, Pedernales & Bluebonnet

A visit today to Laredo’s San Agustín Cathedral and the surrounding neighborhood of brick-paved streets shows remnants of the Spanish colonial past. The Republic of the Rio Grande and Villa Antigua Border Heritage museums explain local history.

“The foot traffic depends on how the peso is doing. If it’s doing well, we get a lot of people coming across the border to shop,” says Michelle Garza, shopkeeper in the San Agustín neighborhood. “It’s nice to see people walking these old streets with their kids.”

Construction of the highway threatened this neighborhood until it landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The interstate begins just a few blocks north on its 1,500-mile trek to Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota.

These days, Laredo is the most active border crossing for truck traffic in the United States, with more than 2 million entries annually. I follow the surge of big-rig traffic north through the flat brush country of South Texas, where mesquite and prickly pear dominate the chaparral.

My next landmark is 10 miles west of Artesia Wells, where the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area serves as a research site for ecologists and biologists. The WMA opens to the public by appointment for wildlife viewing and birding. Look for painted buntings and perhaps a lucky glimpse of a wildcat family.

Twelve miles north, in Cotulla, I stop by Ben’s Western Wear for a peek at the Texas Hat Museum. Hundreds of well-worn cowboy hats line the walls, including those of famed Texas Ranger Jack Van Cleve, former Gov. Dolph Briscoe and baseball legend Nolan Ryan, along with the hats of working ranch hands. The only requirement for exhibiting a hat is that it have a story to match its character.

“We have over 400 on the walls and another 250 just waiting to be added,” says Jill Martin, owner of Ben’s Western Wear. “We use shotgun shells to mount them to the walls, but we’re out of space for now at least.”

Rosa’s Hamburger Stand in nearby Dilley is a crowd favorite despite the rough and ramshackle exterior. Morning diners can choose breakfast tacos made with fresh, handmade tortillas.

Seventy miles north, San Antonio tells more of Texas’ early story and explains the next step in the evolution of the I-35 corridor. The city’s frontier Spanish missions were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015, and the complex makes a wonderful stopping point to stretch the legs and imagination.

All the sites except the Alamo are active places of formal worship, so I planned my trip for a Sunday, when some missions offer a mariachi Mass. Walking into Mission San Jose, considered the “Queen of the Missions,” I follow the repeating archways to the sanctuary, where a mariachi band and full choir accompany the service, filling the vaulted space with sound and energy. “The mariachis made the Mass a completely unique and unforgettable experience,” says Kim Mitchell, visiting from Canada.

Afterward in the courtyard, the mariachis continue their celebration, and several couples dance to a few tunes.

After the Spanish colonial period, the stretch of trail north of San Antonio became a supply train and commercial thruway for the new Texas republic. The same supply line holds today, with malls and office parks lining both sides of the highway.

In New Braunfels, I watch inner-tubers float the Comal River, then I catch some live music at the historic Gruene Hall. The German settlements of Central Texas date to the mid-1800s, when the people made agriculture big business.

By 1856, roads still hadn’t improved much. Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of New York City’s Central Park, traveled through Texas that year and described the roads as “a mere collection of straggling wagon ruts, extending for more than a quarter of a mile in width … it being desirable in this part of the country, rather to avoid the road than follow it.”

The Meridian Highway, pieced together in 1911 and billed as “the Main Street of North America,” dominated travel options in that area of North Central Texas. The route was renamed State Highway 2 and then U.S. 81, as it became the main north-south artery in the state, connecting Laredo, San Antonio, San Marcos, Austin, Waco and Fort Worth.

Austin is my next stop along I-35. I get a dose of the city’s “Keep Austin Weird” motto with a trip to the Cathedral of Junk, an ever-evolving structure that includes car parts, hubcaps, TVs and anything else.

The Cathedral of Junk is one of several Americana roadside attractions that dot the I-35 experience. The statue of a half-eaten watermelon in Dilley, a giant armadillo sculpture at Bussey’s Flea Market in Schertz, the Snake Farm in New Braunfels and the Roadside America Museum in Hillsboro are just a few of the oddities that hearken to a bygone age of automobile travel.

Just south of Georgetown, visitors can take a mile-long journey underground at Inner Space Cavern. One of seven show caves in Texas, Inner Space was discovered by a Texas Highway Department drilling crew in 1963.

Urban Detour: San Antonio  I head to Pearl, a half-mile from I-35 in downtown San Antonio, for lunch. The former brewery complex is now a mixed-use development. The farmers market is in full swing, but I duck into La Gloria for a taste of interior Mexico. There are 15 other places to grab a bite or drink and a dozen boutique shops to fill an afternoon.

Urban Detour: Austin  For the civic-minded, the LBJ Presidential Library offers tours and lectures just west of the freeway. Farther north, a slight diversion east will have you cheering for the Round Rock Express, a minor-league baseball team, at the Dell Diamond.

Co-op Territory: Bartlett & Heart of Texas

I stop at Health Camp in Waco for a milkshake, a mainstay in my family’s travels on I-35. Through the painted plate glass window, I watch drivers navigate the large roundabout, a challenging endeavor that has led to the sale of T-shirts reading: I Survived the Circle. If you want to make a longer stop in Waco, consider the Dr Pepper Museum, Texas Sports Hall of Fame or the Magnolia Market at the Silos, made famous on the Fixer Upper TV show. 

Co-op Territory: HILCO & United

Continuing north, I join the drivers pulling off the freeway for kolache at the Czech Stop in West. The 24-hour bakery is a popular stop for travelers around the clock.

“Hillsboro is the best-kept secret in north Texas,” says Carroll Estes, owner of the Roadside America Museum. One of the town’s stops is A Tiskit A Taskit’s soda fountain. “All the kids line up at the counter because they know if it’s not busy, I’m just going to feed them ice cream,” says owner Ronnie Earp. “People are always in a good mood when ice cream is involved.”

Kendra Markwardt, director of marketing for HILCO Electric Cooperative and a resident of Itasca, agrees. “I take my daughter there just about every Saturday,” she says.

Co-op Territory: Tri-County, CoServ & Cooke County

Another milkshake mecca, farther north, the Frosty Drive N in Denton—or, as the locals call it, Mr. Frosty—has been family-owned since 1954, and the menu is virtually unchanged. Broiler burgers, homemade root beer and chocolate malts are staples.

The 1950s were a pivotal time for the nation’s highways. A young Dwight D. Eisenhower was part of the first cross-country military convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in 1919. He experienced firsthand the deplorable conditions of the country’s roads.

As Allied commander in World War II, Eisenhower noted the strategic importance of the German autobahn in moving troops and supplies. Years later, Eisenhower stated, “After seeing the autobahns of modern Germany, I decided, as president, to put an emphasis on this kind of road building.”

Just as railroads bypassed some communities in the late 1800s, the routes of the highway were a complicated issue for local businesses and quality of life. Each mile of freeway gob-bled up 24 acres of land, and each interchange took 80.

I-35 was finally considered complete in 1981, but because of the constant construction, there is no final date of completion on record. The full length of I-35 from Laredo to Duluth was declared 99.7 percent complete in 1992.

The Red River bridge, about 40 miles north of Denton and 7 miles north of Gainesville, marks the end of I-35 in Texas.

Today, urban sprawl and traffic snarls are par for the course on I-35, but there are remnants of the past, oases in the asphalt desert, and fun diversions all along the drive.

Historic Detour: Texas’ First Automobile  Texas’ first automobile was an 1899 St. Louis Phaeton runabout sold to Col. E.H.R. Green. It had two cylinders and a buggy top. The car arrived by train in Terrell, where its new owner embarked on a journey to Dallas, 35 miles away. On that first Texas road trip, Green was run off the road by a farm wagon. A blacksmith in Forney then implemented the first car repair. The trip took more than five hours.

Urban Detour: Dallas  North of Hillsboro, drivers make a choice between the east and west branches of I-35. To the east, I stop at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza for research into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. The museum occupies the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository building, where a rifle and shells led police to Lee Harvey Oswald.

Historic Detour: Cattle Trails  Major cattle trails to northern destinations became the 19th-century stage of this corridor. Between 1850 and 1870, herds swarmed to railroad depots in North Texas and on to Kansas. In 1882, the International-Great Northern Railroad achieved the first unified route between the Red River and the Rio Grande.

Urban Detour: Fort Worth  On the west branch of I-35 at the Fort Worth Stockyards, Billy Bob’s Texas bills itself as the world’s largest honky-tonk. Up to 6,000 people can enjoy the 3-acre establishment that has more than 30 bars, two of which are longer than 100 feet. On Friday and Saturday nights, you can catch professional bull riding at the in-house arena or head over to the Texas Motor Speedway for NASCAR or IndyCar Racing.

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Julia Robinson is an Austin photojournalist.