At the junction of US-83 and I-20, Abilene (pop. 117,063) sits approximately in the geographic center of Texas. Abilene’s fundamentalist Christian seminaries and the tame (for Texas) demeanor of its citizens have earned it the much-used nickname, “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” Abilene, Texas, originally named after the raucous cowboy town of Abilene, Kansas, grew from nothing once the Texas and Pacific Railway came through in the 1870s. Then, as now, cattle played a predominant economic role, though Abilene’s economy has diversified into other classic Texas endeavors, such as a huge U.S. Air Force base and oil refining. Abilene supports big-city amenities, including a symphony, though its indigenous fundamentalism precludes more libertine nocturnal notions; in 1925, the town fathers made it a misdemeanor, in the eyes of the law, to “flirt in a public place.”
Abilene’s downtown area, marked by a pair of 10-story towers, is not quite gentrified, but obviously galvanized for the attempt. The grand old Hotel Grace has been refurbished as the Grace Museum (102 Cypress St., 325/673-4587, closed Sun.-Mon., $6 adults, free on Thurs. evenings), with an art museum, an engaging historical museum, and a children’s museum, all air-conditioned and well worth a look. East of downtown, the 13-acre Abilene Zoo (daily, $6 adults) features a great exhibit on southwest and Texas Panhandle habitats, comparing veldts and plains of places as diverse as Africa and the United States, as typified by the local habitat of the “Elm Creek Backyard.” In between the zoo and downtown Abilene, you’ll find Frontier Texas, an impressive high-tech historical museum. West of town is the Dyess Air Force Base and its “Linear Air Park,” a collection of aircraft from World War II to Desert Storm; it’s free and your parents’ tax dollars already paid for it, so you may as well check it out. Dyess AFB is home to the bulk of the Strategic Air Command’s potent B-1B bomber fleet. In the 1960s it served as command center for Atlas Missile silos, five of which line the Atlas ICBM Highway (Hwy-604), which loops around the southeast fringes of Abilene.
Abilene’s best place for food is the upscale Cypress Street Station (158 Cypress St., 325/676-3463), next to the museums in the heart of downtown. If you’d prefer to search out some local flavor, aim for the classic Texan BBQ of Joe Allen’s (301 S. 11th St., 325/672-6082), famed for rib-eye steaks cut to order as thick as you want ’em. It’s south of downtown in an otherwise unpromising industrial district.
Most of Abilene’s accommodation options line up along I-20 or the older US-80 strip along the railroad tracks.