In May, we brought you a list of 10 unique things you can see from Texas highways - but that was just the beginning. We asked our readers for cool sights they’d experienced from their vehicles while driving in Texas, and the more than 100 observations ranged from the beautiful to the horrific to the sublimely weird (not unlike Texas itself.) So here we bring you Round Two.
1) Concupiscent Tarantulas
And you thought they were just hairy. Every May and June and again in September, these horny spiders scuttle across the arid mesquite landscape in droves, looking for females. They stay put. But the libidinous males — and really, is there any other kind? — come out of their underground homes and flow across roads and highways like a river, en masse, crunching under tires like a horror movie and freaking out arachnophobes every mating season. They’ll go as far as a mile — a long way for a five-inch spider — and continue their hunt until they get tired or a female eats them. In an article posted by the National Wildlife Federation, expert David Sissom of West Texas A&M University in Canyon recalled stopping on Highway 385 just south of Odessa early one summer morning in 1986. "There were hundreds of tarantulas crossing the road, all moving in the same direction," he says. "For 100 yards or so, there was easily a tarantula every meter or two. It was pretty incredible.”
2) The Leaning Tower of Texas For such a small town, Groom (pop. 563) boasts two well-known highway landmarks. One of them, the giant cross, was explained in Part One of our Texas Highways lists. The second one, the Britten Water Tower, is much more secular and at least as beloved. Initially a functioning water tower in a nearby town, the tower was going to be demolished but was ultimately saved by a man named Ralph Britten, who bought it and moved it to a spot on I-40 on the east end of Groom. It was going to actually hold water, but ended up serving as a sign for his gas station and restaurant. Deliberately buried at roughly an 80 degree angle to attract visitors, the tower instantly became a hit. That stop is now shut down after an electrical fire destroyed it. But the oft-photographed leaning tower remains a popular tourist break for road-weary travelers along Route 66.
Including the canyon is really just a clever way to include the breathtaking 1944 Pecos River High Bridge, which technically you don’t see from Historic U.S. 90 in Del Rio because you’re actually driving over it. The highest highway bridge in Texas, which is also 1,390 feet long, is actually its third iteration (the first two built for the Southern Pacific rail lines, the nation's first southern transcontinental railroad, in 1883 and 1892). The most famous of it the three is the second one, known to historians as the Pecos Viaduct, constructed in a viaduct style with cantilever center sections about 440 feet downstream from the current one, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The 1892 one was supported by two dozen towers and had a total length of 2,180 feet rising 321 feet above the river. It was eventually dismantled and sold in pieces, but parts are still available for viewing at the Seminole Canyon State Historical Park. Some 18 miles east of Langtry on the south side of U.S. 90, there’s a spot with picnic tables open 24 hours for stunning canyon views.
4) West Texas tumbleweeds The image of tumbleweeds, those dried up Russian thistles bouncing across the arid prairies along the highways of West Texas and the Texas Panhandle, carries some romantic notions — if your yard isn’t filled with them. In recent years, drought conditions have turned the iconic tumbleweed into a nuisance for residents who have become accustomed to driving along I-20 and seeing a tumbleweed the size of a Ford F-350 pickup rolling alongside them. But even they weren’t prepared for the onslaught that, during certain times of the year (winter being one of them), can cut off access to homes, pull down fences, fill up backyards and cost homeowners weeks of work trying to rid themselves of this shallow-rooted plant. But even with the problems they create, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in the Wild Wild West when you’re raising a huge tumbleweed down a lonely stretch of prairie highway.
5) "Big Sam" Houston statue The 67-foot figure of Sam Houston outside Huntsville is the world’s tallest statue of the American hero. Standing stark white on a 10-foot sunset granite base and watching over travelers on I-45, the statue was conceived, designed and built by artist David Adickes. The statue is officially named “A Tribute to Courage,” but most know it as “Big Sam.” It was meant to be completed on Houston’s 200th birthday in 1993, but the construction — which used up 30 tons of concrete and steel, took longer than expected and the statue was dedicated on Oct. 22, 1994.
6) Whooping cranes in Central Texas Motorists driving along U.S. 71 near Austin say that one of their favorite springtime sights, aside from the bluebonnets (which need no explanation here), are the huge whooping cranes flying over the freeway on their biennial migration. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the whoopers breed in Canada during the summer and migrate to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge's 22,500 acres of salt flats and marshes for the winter months. You can see them on their way down in the fall and on their way north in the springtime, if you’re lucky. One of the rarest birds in North America, they are a protected species whose biggest threats are man-made.
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7) Paisanos in South Texas This is not a sight you might see from the freeway so much as one you may unwittingly become a part of — the paisanos, Spanish for “countrymen” — returning home to Mexico for the Christmas holiday. In the week before Christmas, more than 100,000 regularly make the trek from all over the country and down through Laredo on I-35 to visit family over the holiday. On a busy day, the line on the southbound freeway can stretch clear up to the 18-mile marker north of the city. For nearly two decades, the city of Laredo and its sister city across the border, Nuevo Laredo, have set up a Paisano Rest Stop to help travelers with necessary documents to help smooth the trek into their homeland. Hotels and retail stores offer overnight parking to help families rest, all three international bridges open up for non-commercial travel and Mexico offers its own Paisano Program to help the families return post-season. Whether from South Dakota or South Carolina, Dallas or Detroit, the paisanos often pick Laredo as their crossing point due to the ease of travel on I-35, the fairly centrally located crossing point.
8) Marfa Lights Nine miles west of Marfa, there lies the best vantage point for one of the Lone Star State’s favorite ghost stories. The enigmatic Marfa lights were first reported in the 19th century and they continue mystifying Texans today. Dancing on the desert horizon at night, the red, blue or white lights have been described both as friendly and aggressive, hovering quirkily in place or zooming across the desert and disintegrating within a few feet of shocked viewers. The more pragmatic among us theorize that it’s car headlights, campfires or atmospheric reflections. The rest wonder where the headlights would come from since there are no roads out there and what sort of campfires dance and zoom around like fireflies you can see from miles away. But hey, feel free to let your sober logic rain on everyone else’s mystical parade. Or go see for yourself. According to the Visit Marfa website: “Bring an open mind.”
9) Marathon Target And if you are, in fact, into West Texas quirkiness, you’ve no doubt heard of or seen the Prada Marfa store, an art installation about 26 miles northwest of Marfa in a town called Valentine. But one day in January, in the wee hours when nobody was looking, an even more interesting — in our view, anyway — art piece popped up on the south side of U.S. 90 in Marathon: the Marathon Target, a tiny abandoned cinder block railroad building painted with the bullseye and “Target” logo. The biggest difference between the two? While Marfa Prada was commissioned by Art Production Fund (APF) and Ballroom Marfa and publicly acknowledged the artists, the one in Marathon popped up unannounced and out of nowhere, and no one knows — or at least will admit to knowing — who is responsible.
10) The Old Baker Hotel On State Highway 180 in Mineral Wells, west of Fort Worth, the historical Baker Hotel rises up in majestic grandeur. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the hotel has a fascinating history that begins with its conception in 1922 as a way for locals (who raised the initial $150K to build it) to profit from the tourists pouring into the town, attracted by the area’s famous healing mineral waters. With 450 guest rooms and the state’s first hotel pool, the Baker opened in 1929 and, by the 1940s, featured such comforts as ice water piped into every room, air conditioners and fans that operated in conjunction with door locks. A popular health spa destination in that era, Mineral Wells — with a population at the time of around 6,000 — saw a number of high-profile visitors to the Baker, including Clark Gable and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Rumor has it that Bonnie and Clyde stopped there as well. The hotel is currently being marked for renovation, with plans to bring back the health spas and scale down the number of rooms to less than 200 to make room for retail space.