Ode to Texas

Texas.

I can remember the first impression Texas made on me as a teenager who’d spent his entire life in New Jersey. As I walked out of the airport, the heat struck me immediately—shocking for a March day, I thought. On my first car ride, I peered out the window and took note of how sun-blasted everything looked.  Shorter trees than I was used to seemed permanently twisted by that sun. The grass looked wispy and parched. Dust and haze stuck out to me in an unappealing way. My knowledge of Texas culture was usual for someone from my region: cattle and early entry into the Confederacy were the focal points. It was not, to my mind, a good first impression.

I left after one year, only to return later for graduate school. I left again, for good I thought, in 2006. Little did I know that life and career would change in ways I had never thought possible and take me to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2009. It was only after a couple of curious road trips down to Austin that I began to think I had not left Texas for good. Lured back over time through memories of good things only half-appreciated in my former life and good plans made with good people, I returned in 2012. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Lone Star State and its story were destined to leave quite an imprint.

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I’m reflecting on it now because once more the good life is taking me somewhere else (for good?) and the slow drip of everything I had absorbed as a converted Texan is missing. There will be great new stories and adventures of course, but they won’t have the unique smell of burning post oak as I line up, whiskey bottle in hand, for some brisket done the correct Central Texas way on a late morning. Some other states have fine BBQ, but when they bother with brisket, it’s usually a dry afterthought—a counterpoint to pig. Only in Texas does brisket occupy the proud number one spot where it belongs, rubbed and smoked so precisely that sauce is not necessary. Only in Texas is someone a fool for thinking sauce is necessary. Real brisket cooks can prove that wrong, and Texans line up to get the results—crisp, salt-and-pepper outer “bark” and juicy meat bursting with smoke flavor underneath. That whiskey: distilled here in the hot limestone Hill Country from Panhandle corn or blue corn, it has a fire and depth to it that I can’t find anywhere else.

Aside from flavors, I’ll miss the massive possibilities in the terrain. Close to the Sabine River, humidity, lushness and alligators remind me of the Deep South. I’ve rolled through miles of flat nothingness and forbidding little towns in the Panhandle. I’ll think of Central Texas and the Hill Country, with its limestone and stands of dark or faded green live oaks (stunted-looking no more to me) spreading themselves out over years in landscape dotted with small, old German towns and quiet hamlets. Most of all, I’ll remember Far West Texas (not Midland or Lubbock—the REAL deal, beyond the Pecos River), opening up like an old John Ford movie into huge landscapes with crested buttes, making a traveler feel like an infinitesimal stranger “in an antique land” as Shelley wrote. Strange colors shift and change in that land through sunrise and the sunset that gives way to an explosion of stars in total silence. Thousands of feet up out there, small mountain streams riffle along to refresh the tired hiker, wondering maybe that less than a day ago, he was walking the streets of Austin an 8 hour car ride away in the same state.

I’ll miss Austin, sinking though it is under the weight of its trendy status. The heart is still there: in some of its simple, great food, in the music that exists in out-of-the-way places many blocks from the puking college students and flashy people throwing money around. The heart is in the genuine artists, the old hippies who run craft operations, and for me, most of all, in the endearing local DJs for one of the country’s last pure classical music stations. Jeffrey Blair and Sarah Schneider, with their quirky, reassuring, and whole-heartedly nerdy voices welcomed me to Austin with their radio programs in 2003. I’ll miss being able to connect with those programs whenever I liked on my morning commute. I’ll miss camping with my buddy Jourdan out in the quiet of the hills, miles from Blanco. I’ll miss the silence of Marfa’s crumbling streets early in the morning, an unusual dusting of snow on the ground, a cold northern wind blowing the clouds off the distant West Texas mountains.

 

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That feeling of space, distance, and solitude—other places in the country have it, but few have the otherworldly and wild presence of Texas, quietly imposing on the visitor the idea that mankind here is the tolerated guest rather than the conqueror. A run through the history of the Lone Star state confirms this impression. What we call ‘civilization’ struggled to maintain itself for a long time. The Spanish hacienda system withered on the vine here. Restless adventurers from the canebrakes of Appalachia—no tame place in the past by any standard, felt at home here when they arrived. The ruthless and creative Bowies, hard-drinking and hard-fighting Tom Green, frontier legend Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston, troubled adopted son of the Cherokee,–all were drawn to Texas before the end of their famous lives. The Comanche arrived here and went from being a despised minor people to the most feared and brutal tribe in the West. Reconstruction quickly and sadly foundered here as Texas proved nearly ungovernable. William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the hardest cases to ever serve the U.S. Army, said during his tenure as military governor of Reconstruction Texas that if he owned both Texas and Hell, he’d “rent out Texas and live in Hell.” Crockett, by contrast, called the fierce beauty of Texas in the 1830s his “paradise.”

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‘Paradise’ is not a word most people would use to describe Texas now. It certainly looks a lot different from how it looked in 1830. When the cattle ranchers were through ravaging it, the cedar invaded, the creeks receded, flash floods became more common, and erosion increased. I have often wished, like the great Texas writer John Graves, that I could have seen Texas in its full glory, when bison roamed west of the Escarpment, cedar had yet to choke the land, and the grass was still “balls-high to a Belgian” as the fictional Colonel in “The Son” remarked. I would have liked to stand in October twilight and see the sky over Fort Davis filled with birds and unblemished by the pollution just over the border in Piedras Negras.

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I’d love to see more than just the natural history, too; the human history has a grand and wild drama to it that makes me wish I could slip in as an unobtrusive stranger and interact for a brief time. I want to see the Comanche ride from Palo Duro Canyon (from a safe distance), in full gallop with those distinctive lance streamers and bison headdresses, and put a Texas Ranger company to shame with their horsemanship. I want to take a knife fighting lesson from Jim Bowie and warn him that the “lost” San Saba Mine was only a myth. I’d like to ride out west with Sul Ross, by all accounts a real gentleman, and ask him why he and his troops casually shot so many women and kids at Pease River. I know the Comanche were a brutal people, but I look into my own infant son’s eyes and I can’t imagine shooting anyone’s little kids. To see Charlie Goodnight’s trail, just once in its earliest days: heading north from the Big Bend when it was still possible to hear the howling of wolves, joining the cowboys at the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos, and then all the way up the eastern border of the Rockies to Wyoming, where I could wash the filth off in the electric chill of the Wind River, keeping an eye on the horizon for Cheyenne raiders. To sleep under a perpetual carpet of non-light-polluted stars in the presence of those great mountains and truly be a small speck in an open, untamed range—ah, just once!

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Texas is a layered story like no other place I’ve been. To have lived as a very small part of it for a time changed my appreciation for many of the greater and lesser aspects of culture and the human story itself. To even the hardest of Appalachian frontiersmen in the early 19th century, Texas was ‘ultra’ in the real sense of the Latin root—‘out there,’ ‘on the other side.’ Huge, rugged, savage, mixed, deep, rich, beautiful, and tragic, the story of Texas and its culture is still very much ultra-American.  Until we meet again, Lone Star State!

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