Freeport, Texas was merely a pit stop on our path eastward. Neither of us had seen the Texas coastline, and we were due for a night of camping — both for our souls and our budget. As always, we seemed to be the last guests to arrive at the campground — this one Quintana Beach County Park — but at least, for once, we were able to pitch our tent and cook dinner before dark. We also were happy to see a flat expanse of grass, which is a luxury for tent campers accustomed to sleeping atop dirt and rock and roots. The dogs chased seagulls across the open field, and later zigzagged through the sand in pursuit of crabs during a late-night walk on the beach. It was a perfect pit stop, and it set us back only 17 bucks.

—Jill

Our bellies full of brisket, Scott and I made our way toward the Texas coast. We cruised through rural roads, past cattle ranches and pastures filled with horses, goats and yellow wildflowers. The scenery was breathtaking. I’ve never known this Texas. My previous trips followed Interstate 40. I remember eating country-fried steak at a Grandy’s in Amarillo, and I once interviewed for a job in Houston — in August. Had I known Texas was so splendid in spring, I would have bypassed I-40 and opted for a 600-mile detour through the belly of the Lone Star State when the bluebonnets were blooming. I now have a better idea why Texans don’t want their state messed with.

—Jill

A sure sign of maturity is that the more a man knows, the less of a know-it-all he becomes.

A truly evolved man wears self-deprecation better than cockiness. The smirk of his youth gives way to a gentle and knowing smile. He values curiosity above zealotry, and he asks questions even when he might already know their answers. He knows there is an art to letting a conversation come to him, and there is grace in suppressing his own opinion to allow another’s to breathe.

As I ramble across the country with my 40th birthday on the horizon, this is the man I strive to be. I really do. But two things stand in my way: SEC football and North Carolina-style barbecue.

My opinion of these two things is so lofty, my conviction of their peerlessness so assured, that any differing or disparaging view toward them, be it issued from a bar stool or church pew, causes my outer Charlie Rose to be elbowed aside by my inner Glenn Beck. I don’t care who you are or where you live: My football and barbecue are better than your football and barbecue, and I will lecture you as to the reasons why as long as you will listen (and sometimes longer). I might manage to speak in measured tones, but they almost certainly will drip with condescension.

For the first three months of this trip I didn’t have to worry about barbecue and college football corroding my interactions with strangers, because these topics aren’t conversational priorities for most people in California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

But then along came Texas.

Texas is home to the college football team that was defeated by my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide in last season’s national championship game, and the state’s byways and backroads are dotted with joints that serve barbecue I consider inferior to similar fare in North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Put simply, I found myself in enemy territory, a place that challenged not only my allegiances but my quest to become a reasonable man.

(I will not bore you with football boasts here, other than to say it was Jill, not I, who verbally assaulted a drunken frat boy wearing a Texas Longhorns cap when he wobbled off the sidewalk and into our car’s path in downtown Austin then had the audacity to swear at us. Our parents read this blog, so I hesitate to print what Jill shouted at the young man, other than to report it began with “Roll Tide” and ended with a four-syllable epithet that insulted his lineage. Yet another reason to love her.)

Jill and I had already decided that, from Austin, we would follow the Texas BBQ Trail, a circuit of barbecue purveyors scattered throughout four small towns — Elgin, Lockhart, Luling and Taylor — within a hour’s drive of the state capital. My intention was to give Texas barbecue a fair shake.

Photo by Scott Dunn

Best I can tell, the Texas BBQ Trail is the creation of the aforementioned towns’ chambers of commerce, with plenty of help from Richardson Media, a Texas-based marketing company that produced a website and brochure about the trail that makes it seem vaguely official to tourists.

Placing these four towns on the BBQ map (literally) was a stroke of genius, because I cannot imagine another reason to visit them other than to satisfy one’s appetite for smoked meats.

Elgin, Lockhart, Luling and Taylor share a pan-flat landscape crosshatched by wide, straight streets and unfettered by buildings over two stories. The expansive horizons insulate the towns from the big-city silliness of Austin and provide a blank backdrop for Friday-night football games. A sense of provincialism envelopes each locale like a sausage casing, which is probably why Elgin and Lockhart were chosen as settings for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Waiting For Guffman — movies that deal in their own sweet way with small-town disaffection.

The towns on the Texas BBQ Trail share something else: They all were settled in the late 1800s by German, Polish and Czech immigrants who brought their expertise in butchery and sausage making to central Texas. That’s how barbecue began here. These transplanted butchers didn’t have the luxury of refrigerators or deep freezers, so they either had to sell meat fresh or smoke it before it spoiled.

In 1886, a butcher named William J. Moon, having grown tired of hauling meat to town day after, opened a storefront in Elgin and called it the Southside Market. He ground his beef trimmings, doctored them with salt and spices, and packed the mix into casings made from intestines. Moon smoked these “hot guts” and sold them to the townsfolk, and Texas’ first barbecue joint was born.

Southside Market has changed hands and locations a few times over the past 124 years, but it still serves smoked sausage to the people of Elgin and, now, travelers on the Texas BBQ Trail. The restaurant has been in its current location on Highway 290 since 1983, and it was our first stop on the trail.

Southside Market — like Meyer’s, the other Elgin barbecue restaurant on the trail — is famous for sausage, so that’s what I ordered. For variety’s sake, I also sampled the beef brisket and pork ribs. Let’s get this out of the way right now: If you can help it, don’t order pork ribs from Texans. It’s just not their thing. Ribs need to be accentuated by a good dry rub or a tangy sauce, and Texas barbecuers tend not to specialize in either. Brisket is always a better choice in the Lone Star State, and sausage usually gives you the most bang for your buck.

Another helpful road rule for the BBQ trail: Don’t go overboard when ordering. By the time I polished off a half rack of baby backs and several slices of brisket at Southside Market, my decision to save the sausage for last didn’t seem like such a good idea. Still, it proved the best of the trio — smoky, juicy, coarsely textured. New York food critic Ed Levine calls it “simply the best smoked sausage I have ever eaten.” It’s not the best smoked sausage I’ve ever eaten — I prefer mine a little spicier — but I don’t pretend to be the culinary authority Ed Levine is.

I will say Southside Market’s sausage is the best I ate in Elgin — a town that was founded as a railroad stop called Glasscock before growing into the “Sausage Capital of Texas” — because the beef sausage down the road at Meyer’s left much to be desired.

To be fair, I arrived at Meyer’s at closing time after consuming a full meal at Southside Market. Still, the link I was served was wrinkled and odd tasting, and the tomato-heavy sauce I dipped it in ranks among the worst barbecue sauces I’ve ever tasted in a restaurant. Every bite triggered a childhood food memory for me, and it was not until I drove away, a tomato-y taste lingering in my mouth, that I tracked back to its source: Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs with Sliced Franks.

I must confess that my underwhelming barbecue double feature in Elgin brought out the worst in my regionalistic posturing and dissuaded me from following rest of the Texas BBQ Trail. Grumbling around a toothpick, I boasted to Jill that I could name a hundred places that served better barbecue than what we had just eaten, and I mockingly questioned how a place with sauce as lousy as Meyer’s could stay in business for half a century. Why, I asked, should we waste time driving around the middle of Texas in search of decent barbecue when the sauce-slathered promised land of Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee lie ahead?

Jill, no fan of barbecue, was quick to agree with this logic, and the next day we headed eastward. Alas, our path carried us straight into Lockhart, and we happened to pass Smitty’s Market at lunchtime. A massive pile of post oak was stacked in the gravel parking lot, pungent wood smoke swirled from the pit, and a line of customers snaked out the front door. I decided to give the place a chance.

Smitty’s is named after Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, the father of owner Nina Sells, and it occupies a red-brick building that housed Schmidt’s Kreuz Market for more than 50 years. Smitty’s pit is indoors, and it’s the first thing you see — through a haze of smoke — when you walk through the door. A soot-stained menu posted on the soot-stained wall reveals that all meats are sold by the pound — no plates, no sandwiches, no combos. The gals taking orders at the cash register move fast and talk fast, and the front of the line is no place for indecision.

I ordered a pound of brisket, and it arrived on a big square of butcher’s paper. I paid in cash and proceeded through a pair of glass doors into shotgun dining room filled with long wooden tables and jolting light. I purchased a sweet tea at the “side counter” and found a seat. While I waited for Jill to arrive with her bowls of potato salad and avocado(?), I searched for a fork. I wandered the length of the dining room, twice, surveying every countertop and cranny, but found nothing. Finally, I turned to a busboy.

“Could you point me to where the forks are?” I asked.

“We ain’t got any,” he replied, then went back to his work. I had outed myself as a tourist.

Next, I looked up and down the rows of tables for a bottle of sauce. Again, I found nothing. This time I wasn’t about to ask for help. It was quickly becoming apparent that, at Smitty’s, you eat meat with your fingers, and you don’t defile it with sauce. I explained this protocol to Jill (who did get a plastic spoon with her potato salad), and we dug in.

I generally refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain, but … oh my god. The first bite of Smitty’s brisket was a revelation. It was a hot, juicy amalgam of smoke and salt and grease. A glorious blend of flesh and char and fat. I chewed, swallowed and licked my fingers. Then I handed a slice of meat to Jill.

“Try this,” I said in a tone that might easily be mistaken for disgust. Jill gave me a wary look then took a bite.

Oh my god.”

She shared my amazement, as well as the instantaneous realization that we had just discovered brisket so good it redeemed the barbecue reputation of the entire state of Texas.

Going with the flow of food euphoria, Jill launched into a mini soliloquy about how good her avocado was and how pleasantly surprised she was to find such a Cali-like treat in a Texas barbecue joint. But I tuned her out, mesmerized by the taste of the brisket and the echo of my own mastication. I reckon my evolution as a man hasn’t reached the point where I can discuss avocados while eating the world’s best brisket with my bare hands.

I’ll work on that. In the meantime, allow me to list my favorite barbecue joints. Allow me also to admit that I know somewhere in Texas, far off the BBQ trail, there are little towns with no chambers of commerce, and in those towns are little barbecue shacks with no fancy websites, and in those shacks is prepared barbecue that might be even be better than the glorious stuff served at the restaurants below. I admit that.

But I don’t really believe it.

12 Legs BBQ Hall of Fame

Best wet ribs: Dreamland BBQ, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Best dry ribs: Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn.

Best pulled pork: Scott’s Walk-Up Bar-B-Q, Cartersville, Ga.

Best smoked sausage: Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q, Leon Springs, Texas

Best brisket: Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, Texas

— Scott