Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On the Road: San Angelo, TX, to Fort Lancaster, TX, and Back

As a general rule, I enjoy driving around West Texas. Roads are usually very good, traffic is normally light, and the scenery can be quite impressive. On our recent trip to Fort Lancaster and back, we were fortunate to see some good scenery.

Our 267 mile route for the day
We left San Angelo about 8:30 AM and headed southwest on US 67 for just over 50 miles. This stretch of the highway is two-lane for the most part, but there are numerous passing lanes in both directions. Green signs along the way indicate upcoming passing lanes and give mileage to them. I think this is done to encourage drivers to be patient and wait for these passing lanes. On this stretch, though, that doesn't work well. With the recent oil boom in this part of West Texas, there is increased traffic on the roads. These folks are here to make money; many of them seem to be very aggressive and quite impatient. It can be a stressful drive.

We lived in Ozona for 8 years during the 1990s, so we drove this route frequently on our trips to and from San Angelo. It used to be a pleasant drive, and few cars were encountered. Most of the traffic then was either folks like us from outlying towns heading to Angelo, or tourists traveling the countryside. Today, this is a road I will avoid unless I absolutely must take it.

After about 20 miles, we passed through the small community of Mertzon. About 30 miles later, we arrived in Barnhart, where we turned south on Texas 163. Both Mertzon and Barnhart are showing the affects of the boom. There are new RV parks, new convenience stores, new eateries, and lots and lots of oil field services along the highway. White limestone dust seems to cover everything as it is used for side roads and parking lots.

We followed Texas 163 south for 16 miles, then turned west on US 190 for a 43 mile drive to Iraan. Traffic gradually diminished along this highway until we shared the roadway with only local traffic (ranchers, for example) and the occasional tourist, like us. After about 25 or 30 miles, the landscape begins to change and becomes more rugged, with occasional canyons visible off to the side. The road dips down for a few miles into Live Oak Draw, then back up. Then it begins a dip again, this time into the Pecos River Valley. On the down slope, we turned off the road into a roadside park to snap a few pictures of the valley.

The Pecos River Valley as seen from a roadside park along US 190. You can see the small community of Iraan in the distance. The country along the river is like this all the way south until you get near the Rio Grande, where it becomes even more dramatic.
Following our break, we continued to descend into the valley, eventually crossing the Pecos River and arriving in Iraan, pronounced in 3 syllables as Ira Ann. The town was named for Ira and Ann Yates who owned the ranch land upon which the town sits. Iraan is a small community of just over 1,000 people. During the oil boom of the 1920s, V. T. Hamlin lived and worked here. Many of you old timers will know Hamlin as the creator of the old comic strip, Alley Oop. It is said he got the idea for the strip while working here.

Alley Oop Land in Iraan, Texas
From Iraan, we parallel the Pecos River south on Texas 349 for 21 miles to the dwindling community of Sheffield. U.S. 290 runs through Sheffield. This highway was replaced for the most part by I-10, which bypasses Sheffield a few miles to the north. Today, travelers along the interstate don't see this community or even know it is there; as a result, the town has little economic revenue.

At Sheffield, we pick up U.S. 290 and head east for a few miles and stop at Fort Lancaster. After leaving the fort, we climb up the east side of the Pecos River Valley to the most impressive views of the trip. Atop the ridge is a roadside park where we've picnicked a time or two in the past.

The storied Pecos River on US 290. It's not much of river. Water upstream is drained for agriculture; by the time the river reaches Texas, there isn't much in it.
From the park, US 290 winds up the Pecos cliffs. The little roadside park is at the top of the ridge, just left of center in this photo. Notice the rock foundations added to support the roadway.
Pecos River Valley from the roadside park atop the ridge.
After leaving the roadside park, we followed 290 east until it merges with I-10, and then headed into Ozona. We drove around Ozona for a short while. It was our home for many years in the 1990s. Courtney started the 4th grade there and we remained until she graduated. I guess it is the closest thing to a hometown that Courtney has.

After a short tour of the town, we stopped in at El Chato's for lunch. El Chato's was one of our favorite eating places when we lived there. Now, there is better Tex-Mex in the world, but when you live in a small town and your dining choices are limited, you realize that the food there is really pretty good. When we lived there, I really enjoyed their hamburgers and considered getting one. Instead, I opted for my old standard, their combination plate with soft tacos and cheese enchiladas. Donna had a taco salad. Yeah, we've had better, but the food is really decent. The tomatoes and lettuce were fresh, service was good, and the food was piping hot, the way Mexican food should be.

After leaving Ozona, we head north on Texas 163, this time turning east on US 190 to go to Eldorado, the little West Texas town that gained fame in recent years as the home of the Yearning for Zion Ranch. More recently, the little community was in the news for Steve Fromholz, noted musician and former Poet Laureate of Texas, who died near there in a hunting accident on January 19.

At Eldorado, we picked up US 277 for our return to San Angelo. It was a good day. We got to see some wonderful scenery, we visited our past in Ozona, and we toured a historic Texas fort and got some fresh air.

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