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The Louisiana Purchase

It's a Texas thing

There's no shortage of superlatives to describe the state, to hear a Texan talk. They may not be exaggerating.

By SPIKE GILLESPIE
Published February 1, 2004

The Lone Star State, in neon.
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Editor's note: The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of our young nation. Here is the sixth in a series of articles reporting, state by state, what the Louisiana Purchase represents today.

AUSTIN, Texas - In 1988, on assignment from my New Jersey home to interview a number of Tennessee psychics, I found myself faced with four pleasantly ambiguous prognosticators who didn't much impress me and one guy who blew the lid right off the top.

Bobby knew events in my family's past I'd never heard before but later confirmed. He knew the names of people most important in my life. He predicted specific ailments that would later befall me. But when he said one day I'd live in Texas, I figured nobody can ever be 100 percent right and I smiled politely at that ridiculous notion.

Well . . .

I've been living in Austin since 1991. This 13 or so years is the longest I've lived any one place where I wasn't held captive (spending my first 18 years in South Jersey was definitely not my choice). I have no plans of leaving the Lone Star State, either.

My laying down roots here gives me strong cause to believe in fate. What else could it be? The truth is, if I were to logically select a location that met my definition of perfect, there would certainly be a major ocean no further than three blocks from door. Yet here I sit, in a landlocked city, content to call my home a state that is the second largest in the union but one that has only one natural lake of any size.

(Sure, the Gulf of Mexico serves in a pinch, when I can't wait another minute to smell saltwater, but it is hardly the Atlantic Ocean that I spent my childhood summers frolicking in, and the gulf is more than 200 miles from my front door.)

If, in fact, fate brought me here - and there was nothing else: no job lined up, no place to live, no big plan, not even a little one, only the voices whispering "Go, go, go!' - certain specifics have held me here.

I am still enamored of three magnets that pulled me on my first (and only) visit to Texas before I officially moved. On that drunken, Kerouacian excursion, I found myself wooed by an enormous sky, a minuscule bookstore (the BookWoman), and an ironic Neptunian sculpture on the campus of the University of Texas.

But now I've got an insider's view, too, a broader yet more detailed take on what makes this place the place where I always want to be. If you were to come to my house and stay for a spell and ask me to show you the magic, I'd initially suffer a bit of where-to-start paralysis.

First of all, there is the music. Austin has dubbed itself the Live Music Capital of the World, but that's a title I think better suited for the entire state. We have enormous superstar acts - the Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones - but we have less enormous acts that are no less talented:

Bruce Robison has written hits performed by the Chicks and Tim McGraw. Robison's wife, Kelly Willis, busted loose from her big label and sold piles of her two most recent, independently released, critically acclaimed CDs. Patty Griffin, Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, James McMurtry, Shawn Colvin, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett . . . the list goes on.

Beyond these nationally known acts there are all the others either working to break through or content to be beloved on the home front.

We have live music in our bookstores and our coffeehouses. I have, on more than one occasion, encountered a mariachi band playing in the dairy section of my local grocery store. I have had to hit the brakes to avoid colliding with a bagpipe band marching down the street during its midday practice. You really can't swing Barbie's ukulele in this state without hitting a musician - and odds are, that musician will be exceptionally good and belong to at least two bands.

Next reason: food.

Tex-Mex has grown trendy enough over the years that you can buy it in the freezer section of a grocery store in Lincoln, Neb. What I prefer is authentic Mexican, and there are two restaurants where I insist on eating: Cisco's Bakery on the east side of Austin has America's best migas - eggs scrambled with cheese, tortilla chips, jalapenos and onions, topped with a warm ranchero sauce and served with piping tortillas.

Evita's Botanitas, way down south, starts every table off with complimentary chips and six salsas, including a black bean and sour cream variety that is so irresistible there is seldom room for the entrees, such as a gordita or chile relleno del mare.

All of this is washed down with Coca-Colas from Mexico, made with cane sugar, not fructose.

There's no shortage of steakhouses and barbecue joints, this being cattle country. But Texas was settled by multiple ethnic groups, so there's cuisine for every taste bud, from fussy to daring. When I'm not wolfing down a mahi-mahi burrito at Chango's, I'm dreaming of the drive to Dallas. Not because it's a scenic drive (hardly) but because halfway there I can stop in a little town called West and pig out on Czech pastries called kolaches.

Meteorological and geographical diversity make this state Mother Nature's theme park, a thrill around every corner. It was less than five minutes one recent Sunday between when I was sweating walking to the store for the newspaper and when I got home and had to pile on sweat shirts and crank up the heater.

The hail dents on my car's hood are attributed to "Texas rain." And if you're the sort who enjoys a good Man vs. Nature challenge, try one of my 4-mile jaunts at high noon in mid July.

We also have a little place known as West Texas, which hardly can be explored without life-altering results. The mountains and desert join forces here to suck away any big-city worries you brought with you: They make you vow to sell off your material possessions, pack the dog and one suitcase and move here for good.

The locals are eccentric and welcoming, the evening sky purple and orange, the stars more dense and brilliant than anywhere you've ever been before, the pace a million miles slower, and the wildlife, both real and mythical, impressive - from wild, piglike javelinas to the purely invented horned rabbit, the "jackalope."

My first trip there, I hiked the excruciating Emory Peak, 4.5 miles seemingly straight up. And then, to torture the two muscles left unscathed by that trek, the next day I went trail riding, my first time on a horse.

I was chaperoning a bunch of German exchange students and the goal was to give them a taste of the legend everyone associates with Texas: that we all drive trucks, ride stallions, rope steers and wear big hats.

It was also a reminder to me of how enormous this state is. As Texas songwriter Butch Hancock sings, "You can drive all day and never leave Texas."

Perhaps the most common trait of Texans, regardless of whether they live in the city or country, regardless of which way they vote (politics being a bigger sport here than even college football), is an inimitable jingoism. A friend once pointed out that few folks easily recognize the flag of my home state, New Jersey, while everyone knows the Lone Star flag.

What's more, I doubt that Idaho or any other state has pasta made to match its geographic outline, as we do.

I think this belief that all things are bigger (and better) in Texas grates on some folks' nerves. So they move away. Which is fine with the rest of us - if you won't join us, beat it.

Me, I've caught the fever. A few years ago I took some visiting Japanese friends on a tour of San Antonio and then Galveston, showing off these places as if I'd created every little detail with my bare hands, spouting off facts rife with history.

Galveston is an especially favorite destination of mine, not just for the salty water but the haunting feel. First settled in the 1500s, it eventually became a major port and, at one point, was the richest city in Texas.

So many houses there - now falling down and carved into dumpy apartments - still give a whiff of a bustling, thrilling boomtown that once was. A deep sense of tragedy haunts the place, too, for this was the scene of the deadliest natural disaster in the United States, when an estimated 6,000 islanders died in a hurricane in 1900.

Apart from that tragedy, this is what I love most of all about Texas: Every town you visit has a story.

That may sound ridiculous on the surface. After all, any place anywhere has a story. But the difference here is you can always find folks ready to tell you every last detail of these stories. Their know-it-all pride is not the arrogance you might take it for initially, but actually a genuine desire to share.

- Spike Gillespie is a freelance writer who, of course, is now a Texan.

On the Web

Readers can find all the articles in our series on the Louisiana Purchase, which runs until May, by going to the Web site www.sptimes.com/lapurchase There are links to the installments and interactive features.

Did you know this about Texas?

Top two annual festivals:

SXSW, a.k.a. South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, in mid March. The 18th edition, March 17-21, will include hundreds of acts on 50 stages. This year's acts come from as far as Sweden, Belgium and England. For more information, go to www.sxsw.com Texas State Fair, just outside Dallas, each fall. This year's extravaganza runs Sept. 24 to Oct. 17; events run from pumpkin-carving and livestock competitions some of it taking place in the Fur and Feather Building to an auto show and midway rides. On the site is the Cotton Bowl, site of the Texas-Oklahoma football game.

For more information, go to www.bigtex.com

The best legend - true or not:

Well, Willie Nelson is a "legend," for sure, and the best we've got. Then there are all the conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. But maybe the most-intriguing legend is the Marfa lights.

Here's a quote from www.marfalights.com: "Nine miles east of the Texas city of Marfa, far out into the west Texas desert at the base of the Chianti Mountains, lies, or rather floats, an age-old conundrum. Small, ethereal lights suspended in the air with no apparent source, no identifiable location. They float, they ebb, they glow and move . . . and they defy explanation."

The Ghost Lights of Marfa, as they've come to be known, were first reported more than a century ago. Robert Ellison, one of the first settlers, supposedly witnessed these mysterious glowing orbs in 1883. Since then the legend, and the surrounding curiosity, has grown.

Three must-see places:

Big Bend National Park: Literally on a big bend in the Rio Grande, on the border of Mexico, it offers 801,000 acres of stunning desert and mountain scenery and hiking.

Galveston: once a wealthy main port city, it's packed with old ghosts and historic architecture.

Austin: There's a saying about how there's Austin and then there's the rest of Texas. The capital city is a liberal stronghold in a conservative state and the place made famous by Rick Linklater's film, Slacker.

Three places to avoid:

Houston at rush hour: The parking-lot sensation and smog combo on the highways make Los Angeles seem like a pure-oxygen speedway by comparison.

Texas City: an industrial hellhole that Dante couldn't fathom.

Cotulla: Known for its rather warm weather, it should most certainly be avoided at noon any day in July.

The best place to taste regional cooking:

We've got choices: Head about 35 miles south of Austin to Lockhart for barbecue, any time. The annual Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler Memorial Championship Chili Cookoff draws thousands to a West Texas ghost town on the first Saturday each November. And there is the Austin Chronicle annual Hot Sauce Festival (in August in Austin).

A famous native son or daughter:

Susannah Dickinson. The only adult survivor of the Alamo, she and her baby, Angelina, were sent to warn others. Dickinson's Austin house was recently discovered inside the walls of a barbecue place being torn down to build a hotel. It is being restored as a museum, on the grounds of the O. Henry Museum in downtown Austin.

A major problem residents now face:

Redistricting has been a huge political firestorm that has viciously divided the state. Democratic legislators twice fled Texas to prevent a quorum from voting for a gerrymandered map that would give Republicans a huge advantage locally and nationally. This has been decried all over the place and is a major scandal.

The best joke that locals tell on themselves:

The biggest joke in Texas is the biggest joke in the world, seeing as any Texan will be glad to tell you how everything's bigger in Texas.

[Last modified January 30, 2004, 11:06:37]

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