I managed to drive nearly one thousand miles across Texas in a 2008 Ford Mustang Bullitt without running over a cow, getting in a gunfight or playing a single hand of high stakes poker. How? If you've never been, the Texas in your head is a rugged place with sun-drenched highways stretching across a flat endless plain as seen in movies actually shot in Southern California. We've got three of the ten largest cities in the United States. We've got dusty hills and verdant valleys. Modern skyscrapers and sandy beaches. Twists and turns. Tangy BBQ and spicy Pho. For both Texas and the Bullitt, the myth serves a purpose but the reality is that much more magical.
My journey started in Dallas, a place where, a poet said, they took a billion steers and made them into buildings made of mirrors. A major metropolitan area, Dallas relishes its wealthy, conservative status. It's home to billionaires, 15 at last count, not bulls. You shouldn't underestimate the city as an urban place, like I did. I was scheduled to fly in and pick up the Bullitt just before 5:00 pm, meaning that I got to share in the universal big-city experience of traffic. Though the clutch isn't particularly heavy, the repetitive motion of engaging and disengaging first resulted in some embarrassing soreness.
The next morning I set out early for Austin, anxious to experience the wide open expanse that is Interstate 35 between the two cities. The sun rising over my left shoulder shined against the hand-turned aluminum covering the dash as I marveled at the joy highway driving could bring after two years crisscrossing Chicago. Driving the Bullitt at speed I'm equally amazed at how solid it feels, how smoothly it drives. The construction and attention to detail are so great that I wonder if it doesn't embarrass the engineers to have to go back to working on other Mustangs.
I check my speed as I cross into Waco, which marks the southern border of the Great Plains and the start of the Texas Hill Country. As the road crests, the braking starts, and my eyes scan the border for the black-and-white-and-browns of the Texas Department of Public Safety patrol cars. How unfortunate it would have been to get busted by the Dr. Pepper Squad, as they're pejoratively known, in the town that invented Dr. Pepper. The Bullitt is so stealth and low-key, especially compared to the wildly-striped special editions, I slipped past all law enforcement with ease.
After thirty minutes of sitting around my friend's North Austin apartment, he politely asks what I want to do. We could grab a Shiner Bock at one of the bars situated along the University of Texas' main drag, but my visit to Austin was about more than gawking at leggy coeds. The city sits at the edge of the Balcones Escarpment, remnants of an ancient mountain range, and has the winding roads to prove it.
Without much effort, I'm able to push the Bullitt further and further without feeling like I'm suddenly going to launch the car off the cliff lurking behind a small barrier to my right. I keep downshifting so we can listen to the syncopated thrum of the pony car's eight cylinders projecting off the limestone walls. The quiet American may be a thing, but there's never been a myth about a quiet Texan.
My hunger for the road was nowhere near waning, but the painted sign of the BBQ shack reminded me of an entirely different kind of hunger. As we exited, a group of teenagers walked by, obviously impressed by the sleek pony car. One of them was misled by the lack of a GT badge or spoiler, saying to his friends "It's just the V6 Mustang." Au contraire! I let them know that they shouldn't be confused by the Highland Green paint and lack of badges, this is a special Mustang. I speak with an embarrassing amount of pride given that this isn't actually my car... but that kid needs to be put in his place.
After a weekend in Austin enjoying the abundant and ridiculously good Mexican food, I point my dark green steed toward the coastal plain and Houston. A truly international city with over 90 languages actively spoken, you're more likely to get into a discussion with a Nigerian ex-pat at an exhibit at one of Houston's world-renowned museums than you are to walk into an argument over the proper way to shoe a horse.
About 20 miles out of Houston, in the little town of Sealy, I'm excited to find an unwatched drag strip behind the shop I'm visiting. With no one looking, I push the Mustang to its limits. While my lungs needed time to readjust to the warm, saturated air flowing off the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, the Bullitt inhaled gulps of air and fuel as it propelled me down the track and deeper into my high-backed chair. Though only slightly faster than a stock GT, this particular pony sounds and feels faster. I circled back to the track repeatedly until I realized I had made plans for lunch where I grew up in one of Houston's affluent northern suburbs.
There's nothing better than showing up back home with a car this beautiful and powerful. There are countless Mustangs on the road, but none of them look quite like this. That's why it's so much fun pointing it out to friends, family and people from high school I randomly bump into near the mall. Sure, the car's not mine, but the experience of driving it was too great not to brag about. Modesty is also not a legendary Texas trait.
My work in Houston done, I drove back towards Dallas to drop off the Bullitt and hop on a plane back to Chicago. I still had 200 miles of the rolling, pine-covered terrain of East Texas to cross before I was done but the thought that this was all coming to an end was inescapable. I contemplated turning west, abandoning my responsibilities so I could explore more of this wonderful state.
Even a thousand miles driven in Texas revealed only part of the story of the state and of the car. Texas isn't just cowboys, it's also astronauts and accountants. The Mustang Bullitt isn't just a film homage, it's a typically American car designed to atypically high standards. Though both owe some measure of their popularity to silver screen creation myths involving rogue lawmen and ruthless killers, limiting one's self to fulfilling these antiquated notions means sacrificing an unimaginably glorious and complex present. Lose the boots for some real driving shoes and toss the turtleneck in the trunk. It's Texas: It's too hot for a turtleneck.
(Photos Copyright Matt Hardigree/Jalopnik)