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The Toad and its riders are dirty from the road thanks to almost 2,000 miles of highway and byway and track. We’ve been rolling across half the waistline of the United States, where bugs and birds are sacrificed to the grille and the windshield. The sun burns and bewilders before storms of dust and rain race across plains to smite you.

It’s time to wash up and roll out. We clamber into the Toad (a big, black, tough Toyota Sequoia, because when you ask for “American” at the rental desk you get Japanese – but that also means “tough as old boots”, which may be handy on the long road west). As we settle into our seats we remember big skies and wheeling eagles, pristine pines and glittering lakes, one-horse towns and strip malls on the freeways, truck stops and billboards and cattle. Then those mail boxes atop 10-mile-long driveways, asphalt arcing out of swampland and a thousand churches off the interstate. And all the time driving onward, chasing a horizon that shimmers like a promise.

Our road trip sweeps from the sweet sweat jungle of New Orleans to the fossil and bone of bright White Sands, via art and dust and beauty in Marfa. From Louisiana to New Mexico through the heart of Texas, where the signs say “Drive Friendly – the Texas Way”. That big-heartedness is dispensed by gunslingers in 10-gallon hats, sheriffs in mean Dodge Chargers and men with one tanned arm slung out the driver’s-side window of chrome-rimmed pick-up trucks as high and wide as houses.

When told the tale of a road trip, America will tell you one back. We’re in the Old Point Bar in the quarter of New Orleans called Algiers (after the city from which many north Africans were shipped into Southern slavery). Over Coors Light and iced white wine, Bruce and Debbie are reminiscing about Route 66 and “getting the hell out of Houston just as quick as we could”. Tales of diners and motels, the Grand Canyon and the road abound as another round goes down.

The road trip is an attainable dream, a continental quest that requires no passport or papers, just gas and an oil check and time. Warren Munster owns the Old Point Bar and talks in jokes, anecdotes and Hollywood name-drops. His joint has been in the movies plenty; it’s where they come to shoot gangsters, molls and jazz bands in a place unchanged.

Algiers itself is beautiful – an irregular grid of well-maintained, pine-boarded shotgun houses and grand mansions fighting to stay tidy against nature’s tropical tide. Mighty oaks, which offer succour to vines and shade to gardeners, are listed and protected by the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, whose plaques stand next to fan-cooled porches.

A levee as high as a steeple guards the lawns from the big, brown Mississippi swirling just beyond. At dusk, by the dry dock that fixes the paddles of the tourist steamers, the Algiers Ferry takes you over to the French Quarter. Here Bourbon Street is a riot of stag nights and brass but Frenchmen Street offers the traditional sounds of cool bands amid clicking fingers, strong drinks and gumbo. New Orleans, which uses its stained-glass, jazz and cast-iron balconies for work more than show, is a beautiful place gone too soon. The road is pulling us onward.

It’s 99 degrees and hazy as gauze as we head north toward Baton Rouge on Interstate 10. It starts as a thrilling causeway, a loop of high road on vast concrete stilts over dark water, swamp and half-sunken trees, like a screen from a fast and fanciful video game. Airboats zoom about on the bayous beneath, helmed by fishermen armed with rods for the catfish and guns for the gators, just in case. Eventually the enormous Lake Pontchartrain is behind the Toad and we thunder on through big, flat countryside that seems novel now but won’t later. We see huge fields, little farmsteads, shacks and gas stations. Signs for the Ease on Inn and ambulance-chasing lawyers (“Gordon McKernan – Car Wreck?”) sprout on the roadside while detailed theology burbles away on God’s own AM frequencies.

Towns called Zimmerman, Lena and Chopin pass in a moment as the road curves northward to Natchitoches, a pretty town of porches and hanging baskets and three barn-sized drive-through liquor stores. “Maggio’s sells a thousand different types of alcohol,” says the man at the Filling Station, an affiliate booze-barn. “Yep, Maggio’s is gonna blow your mind, period – and you don’t even have to leave your vehicle!” But of course we do: it’s a warehouse of whiskey and beer with a road running through it. Mind? Blown.

Then the flatness recedes and rolling hills and trees become pines and the deep, dark water of Sabine Lake, the state boundary between Louisiana and Texas at this latitude. Then another miles-long bridge, the end of which is the Lone Star State, although it doesn’t look like cowboy country just yet. But it’s definitely country: the radio croons and yodels it at every turn of the dial. There’s a thrill in crossing borders and Texas is so notoriously Texan that you want it defined for you in every syllable and vista, every exchange at a motel. Maybe it’s because it’s the size of France and the only state to own the outline of a nation that Texas doesn’t disappoint. The Toad’s thirsty again and the gas station is a marvel of snacks, fishing bait and guns. A big camo-coloured hunting rifle? A cute rhinestone-crusted pistol in pink? Maybe just the gas and some Cokes for the time being, please.

There’s an unkind thought that’s rife on the east and west coasts of this country, and in any large city in between: that these hundreds and hundreds of miles of Louisiana into Texas, and plenty before and beyond them, are a hell of a lot of nothing. What are we talking about here? Liquor stores and churches and bungalows and trailers circled by perfectly kept lawns and impeccably mown verges. The ride-on mower should be as emblematic to this part of the world as the silver spur and the Stetson. There’s no litter thanks, perhaps, to Godliness and signs that say “Littering is unlAWFUL”. Or maybe it’s just that you can recycle all those bottles of rye.

The Davy Crockett National Forest is big, dark, evergreen and endless; teenage nights spent watching The X-Files conjure an impenetrable wilderness populated by wandering ghouls. Eventually we reach Navasota but the grill at the Western Club is bust so it’s fried stuff only: chicken-fried chicken, chicken-fried steak and chicken-drumstick-sized chicken-fried frogs’ legs. We park the Toad facing the other way – kith and kin and all that.

Driving at dawn does things to the mind: the rush of adventure, the paradise of going somewhere that’s still so far away. Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt sing us through Giddings and Smithville; ZZ Top past La Grange. The countryside opens again and never stops. It’s 100 degrees as we bomb southwest on the small roads south of Austin, with an eye on the Tex-Mex border town of Del Rio by dusk. The terrain is mundane: green scrub and wind-slanted trees; a poor paint-by-numbers of real rolling countryside. The radio tells us that Aretha has died and Madonna has turned 60 and they play a couple of each amid the ocean of country.

The border patrol cars hold no fear for us but they do for others. The green-and-white sedans cruise the interstates and hunt the smaller roads like sharks circling in shallow water. Close-sided trucks are flagged down and old cars are pulled over with an eye on a faulty rear light and a brown-skinned driver. We are in border-crossing country now, where a sense of politics, headlines and the 45th president’s presence seems to hang like a haze. Or maybe it’s the smoke from the trucks backed-up as they wait to get back into Mexico, just a few miles down the road.

Del Rio is nominally on the Rio Grande but it’s really a border town like many others along this stretch, cut in half by a line rather than a natural wonder of the world. The Rio is not so Grande here and the town is one of boarded-up hopes. It looks as if Americans have been told that Mexico is scary and they have agreed and gone east. But a night at a friendly dive like Gorzugis offers a glimpse of Mexican-American and white American locals who are exasperated by edict and rhetoric and thus intent on getting along, getting on and getting pretty far gone. “We’re ashamed the world thinks we agree with all this wall shit,” says Benji Delgado, who’s on his night-off as barman at another place in town. “You can move or you can try and be civilised, and be proud of where you’re from. I, for one, am staying.” Then it’s shots and more shots and there’s hell all else chance of knowing who said what to whom from then on in.

What is Marfa? Is it a trendy art town, the visual version of Austin’s music scene? Or is it a rustic, Stetson-wearing cattle station? Perhaps it’s neither. Or both. In the cool, tiled lobby of the Mission-style Hotel Paisano, beneath the taxidermied bison and longhorns, The Wall Street Journal is more dog-eared than Livestock Weekly but they’re both on the rack.

The town is named, supposedly, after characters in Dostoyevsky stories. He wrote a lot of Marfas, not least in The Brothers Karamazov, and the wife of a railway engineer was said to be reading just that when her husband worked on extending the Southern Pacific Railroad through this part of west Texas. Giant, a long-winded Western starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean was filmed here in the mid-1950s. It was a glossy take on the rural: the stylised story of a rancher with a deeply glamorous cast.

Most notable, though, is Donald Judd’s love of – and association with – the town, better still the craggy and inhospitable high desert beyond. The artist bought a house here to get away from the high society of New York’s art scene and wasn’t just playing cowboy on weekends away: he ventured deep, mentally and physically, into the acute sort of remoteness offered by such a location. His art, mostly spare, angular sculpture at the time, became larger, more complex and more effusive, yet also more solipsistic.

Since the artist’s death in 1994, the Judd Foundation has looked after a sprawling estate of works and locations. In Marfa that means a handful of buildings preserved as he wanted them; out in the desert it means three ranches, comprising about 100 acres of land, with dwellings and outbuildings designed by Judd and populated by his artworks and furniture. Rainer Judd is Donald’s daughter, the a president of the foundation and a formidable presence, possessing the playful hauteur of an internationally curious frontierswoman. Sitting on the floor of her childhood bedroom, in what is now called The Block, she talks about dinner. At dinner she talks a little about the land and the notion of remoteness: “I feel very comfortable here but not every Judd is the same, you know.”

Las Casas, a three-hour drive from Marfa along rough tracks, is Judd’s most remote ranch, unfinished in his lifetime. A house, a guesthouse, a living and dining space and a studio building make up the incarnation of an artist’s intent; water tanks, irrigation systems and a planned vegetable garden and stables make up a self-sufficient vision a world away from New York. There are beguiling rooms filled with Judd’s books and collections of lassoes, hip flasks and rustic crockery set in buildings of big blocks of local stone, baked by summer sun and frozen by the desert’s harsh winter. If solo, the remoteness and the toughness would be unnerving; it is a mindset concerned not so much with taming the wilderness as embracing it.

Coming back into town for a night of pool and beer at the Lost Horse saloon is a relief – but, man, it feels busy after the hills. There’s a wedding on in town and the bar is full of fun, music and flirtatious beerlight. Bands play spiky post-punk and the owner, Ty Mitchell in eye-patch, moustache and spurs, looks like Daniel Day-Lewis stole all his moves. Bottles of Modelo are only three dollars though, so it hasn’t sold its soul. Is Marfa an art town or a cattle station? It’s worth coming to decide.

Morning means that we and Toad ride on out of town for good. Six hours away, New Mexico beckons, with its missile-test sites that feed conspiracies, the lunar dunescape of White Sands and the skies, if anything, bigger. After Marfa it’s desert as you imagine it: grand, yellow, deathly, blinding, beautiful. The desert is strong stuff. Westward, the Mexican border crackles with haze and significance; eastward lies Texan land, uselessly hot but owned by someone. Ahead lies the horizon, always the horizon, like a new world in the sun.

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