The Trump-Pence and Make America Great campaign signs so evident throughout the Hill Country and points west just months ago are mostly gone now. That in no way suggests a change in the political landscape, but the visual respite from the contentious, ultimately violent post-election period is a welcome one.

Travelers along the highways and byways of West Texas have other political distractions, like looming highway signs warning of eternal damnation for Democrats, socialists, and others who support legal abortion. The signs are a jarring wave goodbye in small towns near the New Mexico border.

Bilboards lamenting the practice of abortion greet drivers in West Texas.
Billboards condemning the practice of abortion greet drivers in West Texas. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

Not a facial mask was visible at stops west of San Antonio until my family and I reached Lubbock, where service industry employees everywhere went about their business masked.

If there is anything inescapable for Texas road travelers this summer, it’s the endless landscape of wind turbines stretching to the horizon, their relentlessly spinning blades, 50 meters in length. Here and there, small, rusted pumpjacks work away in the shadows of the turbines, a contrast in 20th and 21st century energy production, their rocking horse arms lifting oil out of the West Texas depths.

Neither energy source suggested the state was gripped in an energy delivery crisis in February, and likely remains at risk as Texas struggles to adapt to increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

The highways and secondary roadways are busy this summer. People are on the move after more than one year of reduced mobility. The cost of gas, around $2.80 a gallon in San Antonio, averaged more than $2.92 in the small town stops west of San Angelo. By the time we crossed into New Mexico, the lowest price we found was $3.09.

It’s a long, monotonous road to Lubbock, with fenceposts and sagebrush and clouds floating on the long horizon for as far as the eye can see. An overnight stay in Lubbock is a welcome pause, a growing city of 255,000 that’s home to Texas Tech University offers the traveler appealing options.

This is the third road trip west in recent years where I have stopped to recharge in Lubbock. MacKenzie Park is a great destination for travelers with a dog, with its spacious, grassy parks for small and large canines, an 18-hole golf course, frisbee golf, and lots of rolling green space for joggers and walkers.

And then there is Prairie Dog Town inside the park. If the words “lovable” and “rodent” can go hand-in-hand, it’s here. The colony of burrowing, semi-tame prairie dogs are naturally herbivorous, so it’s disheartening to see tourists feeding them Cheetos and other junk food snacks. We saw no signage discouraging the practice.

We stayed at the newly opened, 165-room Cotton Court Hotel in downtown Lubbock, about one mile from Texas Tech on Broadway, next to the Depot District. Our rooms opened up to a large, landscaped public courtyard featuring outdoor fireplaces, numerous hammocks and rocking chairs, and a large pool and deck. The plaza turns passing strangers into momentary friends. The retro design and well-crafted buildings offer a hotel experience that would cost three or four times the local rates were it located in Austin or Dallas.

The Cotton Court Hotel in downtown Lubbock opened in Spetember 2020.
The Cotton Court Hotel in downtown Lubbock opened in September 2020. Credit: Courtesy / Monika Maeckle

We dined at La Sirena Cocina, a Spanish tapas bar with a dog-friendly patio and a welcoming staff with entrees and cocktails that could hold their own with restaurants at the Pearl or in Southtown. One son traveling separately from us gave good reviews to Manara Cafe and its Middle Eastern cuisine.

The next morning we headed west to Taos, happy by the afternoon to be leaving behind the small towns of West Texas, and the flat landscapes and vast emptiness of eastern New Mexico with its occasional crumbling dwellings in small ghost settlements. Our excitement grew as we began to gain elevation in Mora County, once a vast Spanish land grant, on the road from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to Taos. Fences and desert flatland gave way to steep rock faces, tall conifers, and running streams winding alongside the roadways. Temperatures dropped nearly 30 degrees as we crested the mountain pass at 9,000 feet and began our descent into Taos.

Along the way, we searched for information about wildfires and air quality, knowing at least one fire burned near Albuquerque. A fireball sunset to the west suggested a view screened by smoke, and we soon felt its irritating presence in our eyes and throats.

A meandering evening walk to the Taos Plaza helped us and our rescue dog, Cacteye, recover from two days in a vehicle. A crowd filled the plaza for live music, some couples dancing to the easy rock harmonies, others just hanging out as temperatures dropped into the 50s, and we donned long sleeves.

Being far from home, in a place very different than home, in a cooler mountain clime, is a sublime escape from pandemic-induced torpor. Perhaps the retreat from the heat of Texas politics mattered just as much.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.