The Ultimate Toy Guide 2017
Real kids tested hundreds of toys to help us pick our favourites!
From crossing the spectcular West Texas terrain to cruising the Gulf Coast shorelines to driving the Mississippi Delta Blues Highway—our editors hit the road to map out three scenic summertime drives. Who's ready for an adventure?
West Texas is in my blood. Even though I haven't lived in Midland now for over 20 years, it still feels like home. It's where my parents first met as innocent, unsuspecting seventh-graders at San Jacinto Junior High School—and where they fell in love on a summer night at a backyard barbecue. They were married, just three months later, at First United Methodist Church, in the heart of downtown.
Actually, Mom and Dad might never have met if my paternal grandparents weren't so adventurous. Everybody probably assumed that my grandfather would take a high-powered job in New York City when he graduated college. After all, he was a war hero with a Yale degree—clearly on his way up. But instead, he and my grandmother left their families on the East Coast and drove from New Haven, Connecticut to Midland's neighboring West Texas town—Odessa—like a couple of young mavericks taking on the great frontier.
My mom's father, Harold Welch, was one of the most prominent homebuilders in Midland. When I was a young girl, we would hop in his beat-up "75 Buick and go searching for his signature ranch homes, which lined the flat streets like pieces on a Monopoly board. Even today, you can find homes that he built, leaving his mark on this part of Texas.
Once Henry and I fell in love, it seemed like a rite of passage to take him to the place where my roots run as deep as the oil beneath that tabletop of a landscape. We set off on a make-it-or-break-it driving tour across the country. Ultimate destination: West Texas.
Midland is an oil town. When there's talk of a boom, the town booms with it. When gas prices fall, Midland falters. Somehow, though, the essentials endure. When we landed, we picked up my maternal grandmother, Jenna Welch—I'm her namesake—and drove to Johnny's BBQ, a restaurant owned by my grandfather's best friend, Johnny Hackney. He showed us the back room where, years before, men (including my grandfather!) would come to watch football and play cards on Saturdays.
We packed up ribs and beef brisket before Henry and I set off to experience a West Texas adventure together. From Midland to Balmorhea to Marfa and Big Bend, the two of us were mesmerized by the rugged countryside, constantly transforming itself, sometimes in subtle nuances and sometimes in the kind of dramatic sweeps that can take your breath away. We ate Pecos cantaloupes and swam in the natural spring-fed pool of Balmorhea State Park, built in the 1930s.
Last year, we started feeling nostalgic for the sense of freedom that we had enjoyed so much on that first West Texas trip together. So we decided to re-create it, this time bringing along my sister and some close friends. Together we drove across the desert, with the infinite sky as our guide. Texas never ceases to amaze me. And it's home.
LOCAL COLOR Feast on brisket, stargaze under a big sky, and two-step like you mean it. You're in Texas.
Note: Many Marfa locations are open only on weekends. Call to check current hours before making your plans.
STATE FARE Out here you can dig into everything from Swiss chocolate and craft brews to Texas "cue and burritos.
Southerners own the Gulf of Mexico, or at least we like to think we do. Here in the U.S., it washes only Southern shores, which makes us more than a little possessive of its waters—and irresistibly drawn to them.
Drive from Apalachicola, Florida, to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, and your view constantly changes as white dunes morph into marsh grasses and then back again. You might tunnel for miles through pines or palms, then round a bend and find yourself suddenly soaring over blue water on a giant steel rainbow of a bridge. The water can curl into foamy breakers or lie flat, placid, and serene, depending on the time, the tides, and the barrier islands.
There are vestiges of Old Florida here, like the two remaining cotton warehouses in Apalachicola, once a bustling port city for the South's king crop. And you'll see the new Mississippi, whose entire beachfront was virtually erased by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Anchored by Biloxi and Gulfport, this coastline—which has some of the longest unbroken views of the Gulf—has not only rebuilt but also reinvented itself since that horrific storm. On Florida's enormously popular County Highway 30A, vacationers continue flocking to some of the most jaw-dropping communities ever dreamed up by a design team—and to quirky, authentic Grayton Beach just up the road.
You can't beat Gulf Coast towns for interesting, locally owned shops and galleries. As for food and drink? Salty-sweet oysters and golden-fried shrimp; snapper, grouper, flounder, and crab; burgers and muffalettas; piña coladas and (welcome) hurricanes; ice in the cooler and salt in the air . . . It's summertime. The Gulf is calling.
When in Rome, rent a condo. Beyond the major chains and mom-and-pop lodging, hotels on the Gulf are steep during the peak summer season (but you can get a deal by booking weeknights or planning ahead for a fall getaway). Families and other groups often go for a condo to help contain costs.
DETOUR Main highways don't always follow the Gulf. Venture onto some waterfront forks in the road.
On a sunny morning, the blacktop of Money Road outside of Greenwood, Mississippi, glimmers as it unfurls past fields so flat they seem to defy nature. To drive this road is to seek the essence of the Mississippi Delta, land of epic riches and searing poverty, deep suffering and joyous creativity. You'll see the fertile fields that made cotton king. And you'll find not just the birthplace of the blues but the music's very soul. Here, blues legend Robert Johnson lies buried along the roadside.
And that's just one stretch of highway. Bounded by Memphis to the north and Vicksburg to the south, this alluvial plain is both storied and stunning. Curving rivers and cypress-studded canebrakes flow across fields and beneath highway bridges. Old service stations and tin-roofed tenant shacks dot the landscape, and spectacular sunsets color the sky in shades of pink and orange above grassy levees.
At Red's Lounge in Clarksdale, you can pass an unforgettable Saturday night watching a bluesman like Terry "Harmonica" Bean sing about bad luck and mean women. He's an heir to the likes of B.B. King, Charley Patton, and Muddy Waters. All lived and played here, inventing an honest, bawdy musical genre that captured the world's imagination.
Elsewhere, America might be yielding to a numbing sameness, with everyone rushing to strip malls and chain restaurants. But the Delta remains its funky self, and it puts a premium on slowing down. "People tell stories; they talk to one another," says Greenwood novelist Jamie Kornegay. "You may not even realize you're missing that, but the ease with which they share things—it's just very nice."
BLUES LEGEND Make a pit stop and pay your respects to Robert Johnson where Highway 49 crosses Highway 61.
MELTING POT The many ethnic groups who came to work the fields brought recipes with them.
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