Friday, June 11, 2010

Home with the armadillo: a love letter to Texas

Recently we and our three kids went to Martin’s native San Francisco to help celebrate his father’s eighty-fifth birthday. The five of us spent an afternoon walking along the cliffs of Point Reyes National Seashore, where the ground was springy, the wind was fierce, and in some spots along the trail we pushed through wildflowers up to our shoulders. Hawks wheeled through the cloudless sky, elk sunned in the lees of the cliffs, and the ocean’s shining hide swelled and stretched like the flanks of a well-groomed, self-satisfied, and very large cat. At one point, our son Tito turned to us and said incredulously, “You mean we had a choice between this and Texas?”

Yes, well. Despite Martin’s entertaining recent post on how he has come to terms with living in Texas, he has spent much of his time in the Lone Star State not entirely convinced that civilized life is possible here—certainly not from May to October, and frequently not after elections. I grew up spending summers in Colorado, where despising Texans is a competitive sport, and as a teenager and young adult I also got to spend time in places of unsurpassed beauty such as the highlands of Guatemala, the Swiss Alps, the Masai Mara, Paris, and the Canadian Rockies. And yet I love Texas and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Time for that apologia, son.

Some of my love of Texas is just an old bad habit. Many fine writers have noted how people stubbornly cling to the smells and sounds of their childhood, sensations that undermine the idea that time moves only into the future. Much of my first decade was spent in the then-unbroken woods just north of the San Antonio airport. The uncanny whinny of the screech owl, the languid moan of the mourning dove, the overpowering sweetness of mountain laurel at Easter, the loneliness of the north wind on a clear winter day: each time I experience these now I’m reminded that the girl who was gripped by them forty years ago is still inside me. She isn’t gone, despite all appearances to the contrary.

There’s more to it than nostalgia, though. Texas tells stories about itself, some of them true. While I know that many find this self-conscious tale-telling irritating—maybe even pathological—I find it sort of comforting. So maybe we actually lost the battle of the Alamo. So maybe the Texas Rangers weren’t a bunch of ethically ripped superheroes. So maybe every cowboy doesn’t have the soul of a poet. But there seems to be a (nearly) conscious yearning for the power of myth to work among us with these stories. Of course, there are stories Texans tell about themselves that I loathe: bigger is better, we should each of us be our own posse, it’s manly to kill animals with automatic weapons and spurn the meat—but this is a place that recognizes the power of stories to shape reality.

One of the stories told over and over in multiple variations is the power and variety of the land itself. One of my favorite signs is on Interstate 10 at the Louisiana-Texas state line. It reads something like this: Beaumont, 20 miles; El Paso, 937 miles. While I have lived only in Central Texas—in some ways the easiest part of the state to love—I’ve learned to respect and admire many of the landscapes between the ends, from east to west and from north to south. I make no claims to anything but the cursory knowledge that comes from road trips involving grumpy children – me and my siblings years ago, and more recently our own children. My parents drove us to Colorado every summer through the Panhandle; Martin and I chose instead to make our annual pilgrimage by way of Fort Stockton and then north through the Pecos wilderness. One hot summer day the gas tank light came on when we were halfway through the hundred inhospitable miles between Pecos and Loving, New Mexico. The prospect of running out of gas here at midday with a dog and several children concentrated the mind wonderfully and caused me to sweat through my clothes despite the car’s air conditioning. (We managed to make it to the next filling station.) We passed by multiple examples of the land’s indifference to human striving: we often threatened to abandon our squabbling children in Orla, an oil ghost town baked into dusty submission, if they didn’t behave. (It didn't help.)

We always planned our route back to Austin through Balmorhea and Fort Davis and, inevitably, a thrashing summer thunderstorm would force us off the highway—or so we assumed, since we couldn’t even see the highway through the mud on the windshield. But before the storm hit, you could see the Guadalupe Mountains to the west, and when we made it to Marfa and the high grasslands, we—well, some of us—were exhilarated by the wind and the shadows, by the pitilessness and delicacy of the Chinati Mountains.

At the other end of the spectrum, I love the featurelessness of the south Texas brush country, an admittedly perverse passion. In March, the mesquite bloom neon green. At least as many things will sting, bite, or poison you as won’t. As our friend and mentor Hugh Fitzsimons of Thunder Heart Bison says, there are two seasons in south Texas: January and summer. At the rare watering holes, there are birds of remarkable beauty: green jays and hooded orioles and American widgeons. Once in April, on my way back from Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass, I drove through a migration of yellow sulphur butterflies that extended for dozens of miles. When I got back to Austin, probably a dozen people pointed out the grotesque beauty of my Suburban’s grille, which had become an extravagant collage of dead butterflies.

I’m leaving a lot of verses out of my Texas love song, but the last verse here has to be the one about the Hill Country. Loving the Colorado Rockies as much as I love any landscape, I’ve been trained to seek out views, to climb and pant and strain and exult upon reaching the summit. Well, the Hill Country upends that paradigm. Once you make it to the top of the hill—at least at Madroño—the landscape sinks into an unexpected anonymity. The personality of the Hill Country is in its draws and canyons, the intimate interstitial places where oaks and pecans crowd together, and great slabs of limestone create undulating walls and pools, and ferns and cedar sage grow with the demure confidence of cloistered beauty. In February, the draws ring with the slurred chatter of hundreds of intoxicated robins and waxwings. The draws also snarl with the movements of feral hogs, coyotes, and mountain lions, and vibrate with the possibility of rattlesnakes on sunny shelves, the clatter of unseen hooves in caves and cedar brakes, and the songs of maddeningly invisible birds that suddenly move, shine, and disappear again before they can be named. The draws protect and expose, invite and terrify. You want stories? You’ll find them here.

So, son, I’ll be happy to spend time in California, especially in August, even if the locals make fun of how I talk and where I’m from. But I’ll always want to come home.

What we're reading
Heather: Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality
Martin: Ian L. McHarg, Design with Nature


  1. Texas is damn lucky to have you. And ain't it always the way that the incredulous questions of children (no matter how old they are) can prompt us to articulate and honor some deep place in ourselves. Beautiful.

  2. Well, I just had to put down my mouse and look over my shoulder at the view of Texas from my window and say, "This is a good place." Thank you for a little reminder. I love the posts that you write that often take me back to childhood road trips, especially our summer sojourns to Alpine for Girl Scout camp. The blend of rustic romantic beauty (including the exciting tarantulas crossing the road) combined with fussing children in the car ... ah, those were the days!