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Southern Pacific

If you’ve decided to take the high-speed route along I-20, midway across Texas you’ll pass Sweetwater (pop. 10,755), where, every March during the Sweetwater Jaycees Rattlesnake Roundup, townspeople get together and collect hundreds of rattlers from the surrounding ranch lands, winning prizes for the biggest, shortest, and most snakes handed in. The town, 41 miles or so west of Abilene, also has shops selling all manner of rattlesnake-related souvenirs. Sweetwater was first settled in the 1870s and now earns its livelihood mining gypsum for use in wallboard. Any time of year, it is worth a stop for some of the best fried chicken in West Texas at Allen Family Style Meals (1301 E. Broadway, 325/235-2060, lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun.), along old US-80.

The I-20 town of Cisco (pop. 3,804), about 45 miles east of Abilene, is where Conrad Hilton bought and ran his first hotel, the Mobley, in 1919; the hotel is now the chamber of commerce office, and a couple of rooms have been restored to their circa-1919 appearance.

East of Cisco, the town of Eastland (pop. 3,889) is proud of its two world-class oddities. The middle entrance to the county courthouse displays the embalmed body of “Old Rip,” the horny toad who supposedly survived 30 years embedded as a living time capsule in the cornerstone of the old courthouse before being discovered, still alive, when the building was being torn down. A few blocks away, in the town post office (411 W. Main St.), a 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide mosaic mural composed of some 11,217 postage stamps depicts American legends like Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin, and Martha Washington. It was constructed in the early 1960s by former postmistress Marene Johnson.

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