|President Bush has frequently vacationed at his Prairie Chapel Ranch near Crawford. Like former President Ronald Reagan at his Western White House, Bush relaxes by clearing brush.|
Love it beyond reason, it can seem to others, since Texas is home to killer bees, biting red ants, ill-tempered rattlesnakes, flying cockroaches the size of dirigibles, raging blizzards, blinding dust storms, a coastline routinely mauled by hurricanes, thorny cacti, smelly oil and gas refineries, and entire counties where temperatures average 37 degrees Celsius for two or three straight months each summer. They topped 38 degrees 10 days in a row one year that I lived in Texas, and “I like to have died,” as Texans and southerners sometimes say. Yes, yes, it was “dry heat” up by the Oklahoma line, but Texas endures sponge-wringing humidity anywhere south of San Antonio (or San Antone, as old cowboy-movie heroes liked to call it).
And the cuisine is even hotter. Who wouldn’t hurry back to such a place!?
A Desperate Start
|American settlers in the Mexican state of Texas turned the old, limestone Alamo mission into a fortress where they made a heroic but fatal stand for independence in 1836.|
|Burgeoning Houston, the nation’s corporate energy capital, has bounced back from many devastating recessions in the oil economy. It also features the world’s largest medical center.|
Just as bobbing pumpjacks dip into the earth, up and down, day and night, night and day, hoping to suck oil from the West Texas prairie, let’s drill into Texans’ love affair with what a lot of them still stubbornly consider the country’s largest state. (Dismissing remote Alaska, which is twice as large, they snort, “Daggone it, some place that’s one-half ice and th’other half moose bogs don’t count.”)
On the Road – Forever
|West Texas is hot and dry in the summer and endures fierce blizzards each winter. And as you see, it can be unforgiving to humans and beasts alike. |
That’s no big whoop to a Texan. Thanks to those “westerns,” the state is world-famous for open spaces. (“The prairie sky/ Is wide and high/ Deep in the heart of Texas.”) All by its ownself – another Texas expression – one South Texas cattle spread, the 334,000-hectare King Ranch near Corpus Christi is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. It’s no coincidence that just about every Texas town sports a business with the word “big” in it: The Big State. The Big Texan. Big Red’s...
And then there’s the entire city of Dallas: “Big D.”
Funny, though. Despite Texans’ fondness for welding first and middle names into a single identity, I don’t remember seeing “Big Jim Bob’s” or “Big Janie Sue’s” in my Texas travels.
A Place Unto Itself
Journalist and fiction writer Pete Hamill once observed, “There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.” But what does he know? Hamill is from Brooklyn.
|Breeders did not fashion the exotic longhorn. The breed developed on its own in rugged territory. Crossbreeding nearly wiped out the species, but longhorns are now carefully preserved.|
Now let me tell you about what, in the words of the Associated Press, “sounds like another tall tale told by a Texan.” The state has embarked on an audacious project to build superhighways so big and so complex “that they will make ordinary interstates look like cow paths.” Here’s just how adventuresome and outrageous one of these roads, the new Trans-Texas Corridor from the Mexican border all the way north to Oklahoma, is projected to be: Picture a concrete ribbon as wide as five soccer fields, with extra lanes just for trucks and freight trains and commuter rail. The plan even sets aside space along the road for oil and gas pipelines and broadband voice and data cables.
Allow me to reiterate the width of this blacktop beast: five soccer fields. Driving along, will one even be able to see the houses and barns on the other side of the road?
Bird Dogs and Pickup Trucks
|Pickup trucks have been a part of the fabric of life in the American Southwest – and especially in Texas – for a long time.|
So Texians find a lot to love about Texas. “Loved is a better word,” says my friend Bob Blachly, an Austin native and former VOA colleague. “Now it’s homogenized, not much different from anyplace else.” “But once,” he adds with a wistful sigh, “we were our own breed: independent, optimistic, self-reliant, friendly as all outdoors.”
|Galveston Island is – between hurricanes – Texas’s playland and antebellum retreat, reminiscent of the days when the city was known as the “Wall Street of the South.”|
Ah, Texas A&M, the onetime agriculture and mechanical school that bears the brunt of “Aggie jokes.” These were all the rage when I lived in Texas. (They’re less politically correct now.) Sample: “Did you hear about the Aggie at a stop sign? He’s still there.”
Antebellum Victorian mansions in what’s left of hurricane-ravaged Galveston may remind one of magnolia-draped Mississippi, and it’s hard to tell North Texas and western Oklahoma apart. But somehow you know when you’re you’re in Texas, perhaps because you’re sure to be addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.”
|Down at the end of Texarkana’s Stateline Avenue, shown here in a historic postcard, a federal post office and courthouse straddles Texas and Arkansas. So do lots of tourists, for their vacation photographs.|
Well, maybe it’s not so easy to tell when you’re one place in Texas. Up in the northeast corner, the city of Texarkana is actually a twin of another city in Arkansas, also called Texarkana, which butts right up against it along Stateline Avenue. They’ve even drawn the state line down the middle of the post office and federal building used by both towns. Upstairs, the judge’s chair is bolted to the floor so he or she is always sitting in two states.
Texarkansans consider it all one place, where eight railroads and four U.S. highways once converged. Yet the “beer joint” side of town, where it’s legal to sell liquor, wine, and beer, is “wet.” And the other side is “dry.” Shockingly, given the state’s saloon-and-gunfighter image, the dry side is in Texas.
And the Skies are Not Cloudy All Day
Tejas. Friendship. As the song goes, Texans are at “home on the range,” where “seldom is heard a discouraging word.” Their history of relentless entrepreneurship would confirm that Texans are doers. Work now. Work hard. Talk later. After, all, on the open range, far from town, neighbors still need each other’s help stringing fences, raising barns, or mounting posses to chase outlaws. (Well, maybe not the outlaw part so much any more.) Water, long before oil, was precious, and when a stranger stopped at your well after a long, hard ride, you welcomed him and offered a meal. Glad to help. No questions asked. Nothing expected in return.
Texans knew all about “diversity” before it became a buzzword. The flags of six nations, including France, Spain, Mexico, the brief American southern confederacy, and, for nine years ending in 1845, a sovereign Republic of Texas, have flown over the land. The state and the Dallas football team get their Lone Star symbols – and Texas its nickname – from the star on the Texas Republic’s flag.
At one time in Texas, one could count 25 distinct tribes of American Indians, including fierce Comanche and Apache raiders, as well as thousands of African slaves. “Seminole Negroes,” the product of escaped black slaves and renegade Seminole Indians who hid together in Florida swamps and later settled in Texas and Oklahoma, became legendary scouts for the U.S. Army during the western Indian Wars of the late 1800s.
We’re Rich! We’re Rich!
|When Anthony Lucas, an Austrian-born mining engineer, struck oil on Spindletop Hill, the gusher spewed for nine days until the well was capped.|
Spindletop ushered in an Energy Age, a population explosion, and a dramatic spike in Texas’s political power. Texans soon ran big energy companies (that “big” word again), the Congress of the United States, and the White House after Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963. And in 1992, H. Ross Perot, a billionaire Texas businessman, ran the most successful – in percentage of popular votes – third-party campaign for president in American history. (Gasp! He is a Texan who is not so big. Perot stands just 1.68 meters tall.)
You Want Variety?
|Each spring, “bluebonnet trails” in Central Texas attract thousands of wildflower enthusiasts. The flower (or its cousin) also pops up in a cheery red in some places.|
Out of graduate school, I lived for two years in Wichita Falls, across the Red River from Oklahoma. It’s a sister city of Fürstenfeldbruck in Bavaria. That’s apropos of nothing, but it’s fun to write “Fürstenfeldbruck.”
Wichita Falls is a military town (Sheppard Air Force Base) – kind of down on its luck andrough around the edges – but God-fearing. Lubbock, to the west, may have the most churches per capita in the nation, and Houston the largest church, but Wichita Falls holds its own with the Lord. Its nickname is “The City That Faith Built.” And it’s a good thing, since some of the meanest tornadoes in U.S. history have dipped out of roiling black clouds to level parts of the town. One twister in 1979 left 20,000 people – one-fifth of the city’s population – homeless. When I lived there in the 1960s, we got only hot, relentless winds from the west, carrying what seemed like half of the Panhandle’s gritty soil. These red-dust “blows” turned our car and house and hair a hideous salmon hue. Wichita Falls was also the first and last place in my life where a fist-sized tarantula spider walked across my kitchen counter.
Flat, Dry, and Far Away
|A quirky sight on the Cadillac Ranch along historic U.S. Highway 66 near Amarillo is a graffiti artists’ delight called the “Ant Farm.” Beyond it is nothing but Panhandle flat land. |
|The historic sign outside, and the steaks inside, the Big Texan in Amarillo live up to the name.|
So the Panhandle is cowboy-real. For cowboy chic, you’ll need to hit Dallas or Austin or the Fort Worth line-dancing clubs I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The only similarities between today’s edgy, pulsating “alternative cowboy” music and the gentle old western yodels of Gene Autry or the Sons of the Pioneers are the boots and hats.
Playin’ With the Big Boys
|Shimmering Dallas is the economic hub of a 12-county “Metroplex” that also includes the legendary “cow town” of Fort Worth, about which I wrote a while back.|
They have large Latino populations for whom homemade tamales and enchiladas prepared in lard and covered in cheese and rich, fatty gravy are everyday, irresistible fare. Irresistible to gringos, too, I can attest. And there’s a paucity of public parks for exercise. Little wonder: these are stifling-hot places where a “run in the park” has a great deal less appeal than a brisk trot through the Boston Common.
|The River Walk provides a respite for conventioneers. A full story beneath street level, the enclave was created over several decades along the San Antonio River.|
The beautifully shaded River Walk, San Antonio’s biggest attraction save for the historic Alamo, looks like the ideal, relatively cool strolling paradise at which to get some weight off. But it’s more of a fairyland – a Venice of the American West – festooned with lounge chairs and umbrellas.
Mexican mariachi bands serenade as tour boats glide past its cobblestone walkways, and tourists sip Shiner beer and stiffer drinks,
|Space Center Houston is a showcase for America’s space program. This interactive visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center includes this shuttle mock-up.|
Texas leads the nation in oil, beef, and cotton production. And you surely know about its vital role in the space industry: doesn’t every astronaut’s call from space begin with “Houston . . . .”?
Look under “Texas crops,” and you can hardly see an end to the list: Beets. Spinach. Oranges. Pistachio nuts. Marijuana. (Just checking to see if you’re still with me.) Texas has more floral varieties than any other state, and a greater assortment of reptiles than anywhere else in the land.
Meet Dasypus novemcinctus
|In San Angelo, “Jalepeño Sam” Lewis raises armadillos for racing. Not that they move very fast. One wag called the little burrowing animals “anteaters on the half shell.”|
Even armadillos are tourist attractions. We knew them as road kill.” (Some, even more unkindly, call them “Texas speed bumps.”)
Stop! Don’t write to remind me that armadillos are not reptiles. They’re homely little mammals with pointy snouts and leathery skin.
(Their scaly likenesses do make cute stuffed animals, though, Bob.)
***And getting back to the Bush family and their love of the Texas lake country: Just as Lyndon and
|Big Bend National Park includes the most scenic portion of the Rio Grande River, which forms more than 1,500 kilometers of the border between Mexico and the United States.|
No doubt the Bushes and the Johnsons, and even my friend Blachly when he’s in a better mood, have been drawn not to the grandiosity of Texas, but to its “small packages,” as photographer George Oxford Miller wrote in 1991. He found “fields of flowers unblemished by footprints, air unadulterated with human additives, stars undimmed by city lights, and the uninterrupted sounds of nature.” Simple pleasures in a brash, beautiful – and big – place.
Did you ever read a Zane Grey western novel or see an American western movie? What impressions did it leave?
On my last post, Giang commented:
"I like your blog. I also like to make blog but I don't know some technic to make a nice blog like yours. So, would you like to show me some technic.
Here's what I told her in reply:
"Thanks, Giang. I created my blog using Blogger.com. Creating a blog using Blogger.com doesn’t cost money. You simply need to set up a Google account and choose a name for your blog. Blogger.com offers several templates for you to customize your site. You can pick the color, theme and layout of your blog. You also can add extra features like photo slide shows – check out my wife’s photos of Texas on my current homepage. We have modified the basic Blogger template using HTML code. This takes some time to learn, but you can find out about HTML by searching the Web or checking out the Blogger.com help center for suggestions. Good luck with YOUR blog, and please tell your friends about MINE!"
Keep those questions and suggestions coming!
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Back 40. Undeveloped land next to a cultivated spread. The “40” refers to acres, though the actual size is often smaller or larger. Why 40 acres – about 16 hectares? The use of that figure may trace to the “40 acres and a mule” promised to freed African-American slaves at the end of the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Very few former slaves ever got such land or mules.
Dirigibles. Slow-moving, lighter-than-air craft filled with a lifting gas and steered by rudders and small propellers. Those without skeletal frameworks are called “blimps.” Rigid, hydrogen-filled airships such as the massive Zeppelins of the mid-20th century all but disappeared following several terrible explosions. Today’s dirigibles are filled with inert helium gas.
Festooned. Lavishly decorated. The word traces to the noun festoon: a garland of leaves or flowers. So if you want to literally festoon something, string a pretty chain of petunias or pine branches along it.
Paucity. A scarcity. Usually people understand you better if you just say you don’t have very many of something.
Posse. A group of citizens called together, usually by the local sheriff, for a common cause like chasing down desperados on the run. The word derives from the common English law posse comitatus, or the right to conscript male citizens 18 years and older to assist in keeping the peace.
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