Since 2010, Jeni’s has paid me to write. I love this agreement.

But beyond the paycheck (every two weeks), the ice cream for breakfast (occasionally), and the opportunity to work with creative, tuned-in people (every day), Jeni’s offers a perk I’d never known until this summer: sabbatical leave. Work three consecutive years for Jeni’s and you’re granted one paid month off in addition to your regular vacation. As simple as that.

There’s just one stipulation: no working at all. Nothing. Zip. Get outta here, forget it all exists for a little while, and recharge. For me, this is an incredible, unprecedented perk. Growing up, when I wasn’t in school, I was working on Indiana farms. I worked through college, took a week off after graduation, and have worked steadily since. Other than time off to recuperate from knee and back surgeries, I’ve never been off work four weeks straight since the mid ’80s.

The thing about sabbatical leave that still astounds me was how tough it was to decide how to spend one month off. The world all of a sudden becomes much bigger when you have four weeks to play with. You don’t want to blow it.

My wife Michelle Maguire, who took an unpaid sabbatical from her job, is always our loose-itinerary travel planner. I have trouble deciding where to go for lunch, let alone for four weeks of exploration. She and I have a blast going anywhere together, and we travel often, but we wanted to make this one count.

One early spring evening we were driving into the sun on Ohio State Route 42. With the windows were down and beautiful light everywhere, Michelle turned down the stereo and said, “Let’s just go to Texas. I’ve never been. What do we like to do the most?” Drive and listen to music and see everything and meet people. Let’s drive to Texas, and keep heading southwest, stop when we want to, and just look around. It’ll be great.”

So, we did. During the entire month of June we saw friends who are typically hard to get to, made a pilgrimage to Larry McMurtry’s book store on the edge of the panhandle in the middle of nowhere, checked out the distant western chunk of the state that includes Big Bend National Park and Marfa, rolled through the gorgeous hill country, camped, stayed in motels on the cheap and in one swanky San Antonio number, did a lot of swimming, named our cooler Kenny Scroggins after a cashier of the same name somewhere in Austin, and ate a ton of great food and drank a lot of ice cold beer.

Leading up to departure, we had a good time telling people we were going to Texas for four weeks in June.

Reactions:

Awkward silence.

“What?

“What?”

“Why?”

“Oh, my God, no. You don’t want to do that. You want to go to . . . ”

“You know you are allowed to leave the country, right? What is in Texas?”

“Do you know how hot it is in Texas?”

“Do you like executions or something?”

I don’t know, it was just funny to say, “Yeah, we’re going to drive around Texas. Michelle loves javelinas and grackles, I love sunstroke and ZZ Top. We’re going to Texas.”

And we were off.

The Texas Fandango mobile/wind catcher, featuring some of our favorite Texans: Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Randy Quaid, Gary Busey, Shelley Duvall, and Phylicia Rashād. “Where’s Willie Nelson?” was the oft-asked question. If you’re in Texas, Willie Nelson is everywhere in spirit. And as Rolling Stone recently put it: “All roads lead to Willie Nelson.” No need to remind yourself of that with a cardboard cutout of his saintly likeness. Willie is everywhere in spirit in Texas.

Hot dog Frito pie ad on a wall in Corpus Christi. The beautiful hand-painted ad is as close to Hot Dog Frito Pie as I’ll ever get. I’m down with the Tex-Mex casserole that is Frito Pie. Hell, jam it in to a Frito bag and call it a walking taco. Or, bring back my elementary school memories and lay some Texas Straw Hat on me. But a factory hot dog version of Frito Pie? Nope. Not ever. The food factory hot dog is the crown jewel of Man’s crimes against nature menu. Beef, pork, and chicken scraps ground up, mixed with salt, corn syrup, and water, then morphed into a meat batter that’s baked and formed into six-inch tubes? My God, man. No. Never.

Now we’re talking.

A ring of from-scratch sausage. I’m totally down with this. Above is a table top scene from the great Luling City Market, west of Austin. At Luling, you order your fare from a man with a knife standing a few feet from the smoker. You feel like you’re in the fire. Makes you appreciate the animal sacrifice and the work it took to prepare your meal.

And where are the utensils? You’re looking at them: pillowy white factory bread. That’s all you need to haul that primal grub to your mouth. Your meat stuffs and all the fixin’s are piled on butcher paper and handed to you the same way cowboys and cotton pickers received their lunch and supper back in the day. For more on the ways and history of the Austin barbecue belt, check this out.

El Golfo de Mexico, San Marcos. Fantastic breakfast tacos served behind these blue cinder block walls. I always take mine this way: refried beans, skillet potatoes, and scrambled eggs, hold the shredded bright orange confetti cheese. Michelle goes for the same, add cactus. I think I ate refried beans 25 straight days in Texas, which is all right with me.

bookedup

The main wing of Booked Up in Archer City, Texas, the hometown and current residence of The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry. The shop has been personally stocked during the past four decades by 78-year-old McMurtry, a book hunter since his college days at Stanford. The fare includes obscure art and wildlife books, as well as titles friendlier to the common man’s wallet.

Here’s what McMurtry says about his shop on Booked Up’s site:

“Booked Up began its life in March 1971 on a corner in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. We operated there for 22 years, selling a general mix of fine and scholarly books. We opened additional stores in Houston, Dallas, and Tucson, Arizona. Rising rents in D.C. and the surrounding areas eventually drove us away, and we took wing to Texas, where we consolidated all four stores in our main building in Archer City. Few books are rare; we have handled only a handful in 44 years in the trade. But many books are attractive. Customers come to us from wherever the four winds blow.”

Above: Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ in Smithville. (Harry Connick, Jr. freaks, you know who you are and you’ll recall Smithville as the town where Hope Floats was filmed.) The stag heads in Zimmerhanzel’s would suggest venison barbecue is part of the menu. Nope. But you will find some delicious wood smoked beef barbecue sliced right from the slab for you. The name of the place reflects the Texas barbecue originators, the Czechs and the Germans, who largely were the ones who opened the grocery stores and meat markets in 1800s Texas.

Crimson and cream Buick at rest in the early afternoon in La Grange. I listen to a lot of ZZ Top no matter where I am, but the self-described “lil’ ol’ band from Texas” really sounds great in La Grange.

Above: Michelle, under the big sky in cattle country, somewhere between Marfa and Valentine in Far West Texas.

Marfa, famous for Giant and the work of Donald Judd, is a beautiful place out in the high desert. The sky there is bonkers, to put it in scientific terms. And it’s populated by a lively mix: natives, cowboys, hipster 20- and 30-something transplants growing witness protection program beards, dusty drifters, and us tourists. We referred to this to-do list quite a bit. When you need refreshment, you can always drop by the Get Go for some Jeni’s.

Above: Joe Sanchez and his dogs Chewbacca and Shania—”You know, like the singer Shania Twain?”

We met Joe during our first evening in Marfa. I was eyeballing an early ’70s Buick battleship parked in a driveway when I heard, “You like the old cars, huh? I had that same car. Hit a pack of javelinas head on one night on the way to Odessa. Lit up the whole dash board. Every light went off. Didn’t do a thing to the grill, though. Car was tough and big, and I just kept on driving to Odessa.”

We became fast friends. Joe, who grew up “on the Mexican side of town,” taught special ed for more than three decades at the junior high and high school and coached “whatever they wanted me to.”

He’s seen a lot of change in Marfa since days of his youth, the time when they filmed Giant. “Namely the house taxes, with all the people moving in it’s crazy how much a little house will cost you.” Fortunately for Joe, he owns three Marfa residences: two houses and a cozy, decked-out trailer, all within a few blocks. On the last night of our time in Marfa, Joe had us over to the deluxe trailer for beers.

“This house and the others, they were cheap and I wasn’t going anywhere, so I thought, why not? You could get a house a few years ago for $30,000. No one wanted to live this far out in Texas. Not now. Now Beyonce and her sister come here. I saw (Beyonce) riding her bike one day by the post office. Oh well. Anyway, when it gets cold I stay in the one house over there. When it’s hot I stay here, and the other one I don’t really use, so when you come back you won’t have to stay in those tents out there at El Cosmico.”

Above: sabbatical in full effect in Marfa while my Michelle hunts down a tumbleweed (that’s now part of the decor in our home).

Above and below: the Far West Texas sun will have its beautiful way with anything you park in the sand for an afternoon, let alone a couple of decades.

Below: cushy tent living at El Cosmico in Marfa.

Landscaping with native grasses outside the art museum Ballroom Marfa.

Below: hand-painted Impala on a Saturday morning in Marfa. (Not sure if the dog in the photo was real or a ghost.) “What year?” Owner: “1981. You wanna drive it?” Sure. “You want to buy it? $4,000.” Nope. I’m partial to DIY paint jobs, boxy sedans, and used anything, but four grand was a little too steep.

Below: neon at the Lost Horse Saloon in Marfa. Go here, and you’ll likely be served by owner Ty Mitchell. He specializes in making micheladas and looks and sounds like he belongs in any western made since the dawn of film.

Marfa cowboy hound:

On to San Antonio.

San Antonio is, among other things of course, home of the Alamo (Phil Collin’s favorite thing on Earth), the puffy taco, the “Big Fundamental” Tim Duncan and the world champion Spurs (loved by man, woman, and child throughout the city), and a zillion places to get paletas, those Mexican ice pops that are especially refreshing at 5 p.m. or so when the June Texas temps are the most scorching.

On to Austin.

Austin is a lot of things, including hole-in-the-wall bar heaven. One of the highlights: Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.

Above: country baritone extraordinaire Dale Watson, America’s heir to Merle Mama Tried Haggard and Dave Six Days on the Road Dudley, slicing up Franklin Barbecue for the people in the back lot of Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.

Watson, when he’s not on tour with his crack band, regularly plays a sweet late afternoon Sunday show at Ginny’s, the roadhouse he bought a few years from original owner Ginny Kalmbach. If you go, and you like some low stakes gambling, bring some singles. Watson has continued the long-running Sunday afternoon tradition known as Chickenshit Bingo, which is exactly what you think it is.

If you like country music, you have to trek someday to Gruene Hall, between Austin and San Antonio. It’s where George Strait made his name before everyone outside of Texas knew it, and it’s where to go for a lively Sunday brunch song-and-dance session. Pictured above is the main stage, where Lyle “friend of Jeni’s” Lovett and the like performs on occasion. On Sundays, the stage is, as you can see, a giant beer coaster for dancers moving to the honky tonk being played at the opposite end of the hall.

Above: Lone Star Light is a perfect thirst quencher, sure, but we took a shining to that ice-cold Guatemalan lager that is Famosa.

Above: early evening thunderstorm rolling into Balmorhea. Stay at the Eleven Inn and swim with the fishes in the world’s largest spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park.

Above: the otherworldly Fouquieria splendens—common name Ocotillo—with power lines in the Chihuahuan Desert on Texas-Mexico border.

Mustang Island State Park, Port Aransas, near Corpus Christi. These birds loved the unofficial Texas state chip, the Frito, as much as I do. These loonies nearly overturned our trip car, an ’04 Volvo. Fortunately, they retreated and we started to make our way back north to Ohio, all the richer having spent four weeks in Texas.

TEXAS FANDANGO PLAYLIST