Story by Nicole Horowitz
A little after 2 p.m. on a Monday, I find myself drifting drowsily toward an out-of-sight informational film and thinking, “God, I’m in love.” I’m in the visitor center of Austin, Texas – a place that’s all wood and bolts, most of which have been fastened into the shape of the emblematic Lone Star. I’m lulled toward the recorded voice of Matthew McConaughey as he narrates a film on the virtues of the Capitol building (“taller than our nation’s Capitol!”), which I can see through a nearby window. Though it’s 38 degrees outside and I’ve just driven three hours from Houston, I’m pleased as punch and under no delusions about it.
Americans tend to believe we exist at the center of the world, that our land was forged close to the fires of some almighty being, and being brought up so close to the hot flame has emboldened us with the power to wield it; to live life loudly, largely, unabashedly. Travel is touted as the antidote to this syndrome. Hop on a plane, step off the continent, and you’ll find freedom from the oppression of a close-minded up-bringing and the “American Way.” And I must say, I’ve taken that to heart. For me, travel is akin to rampage: landing in a place and going for broke absorbing the ways of the people and the land, spurred by my underlying belief that the more unfamiliar, the better.
So I’ve spent my life avoiding places like Texas. Born near the shores of Southern California beaches and college-educated in the booming Manhattan chaos, I felt like I understood all the “good parts” of American culture. Everything left was the flyover states. But with college graduation looming, I decided to take a road trip to visit a friend at Rice University. I set off with a high school friend, a hybrid SUV, and a week to burn. Our destination: Houston, Texas. The beating heart of the South.
As we broke east, traveling peacefully along the I-10, a change overtook us. The speed limit rose as the blood-red sunset fell and the mountains flattened out to sandy cliffs, leaving me feeling like a stranger, a Yankee washed up on the cliffs of desert. Was this really America? My home and country? When we crossed the border from New Mexico into El Paso on a freeway, suddenly six lanes wide with large red, white, and blue signage suggesting, “Drive Friendly – The Texas Way,” I knew I was out of my element.
Over the next week, I filled my days traveling down lanes peppered with 20-foot tall oak trees, shoveling down Tex-Mex of varying quality, getting lost in Super Targets and staring down the Spec’s rabbit as I bought booze from this well-loved liquor establishment. But I also spent time in the Rothko chapel, eating food-truck doughnuts in a park in Austin, and strolling down college campuses. All of these things, though strange and confusing to my eyes and ears, are components of a Texas life lived with a prickly pride and graceful bravado the likes of which I’ve never experienced. The Texas spirit is hard to come by in our post-9/11 world. New Yorkers don’t love their landmarks the way Texans do. Californians don’t love their climate like Texans do. Americans don’t even love America the way Texans love Texas.
But who are Texans? Far from the stereotypical string of cowboy towns, the population of modern Texas is on the rise, with an upswing in minorities and major urban growth in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. In this new Texas, the cultural landscape is one in which freedom and self-expression are often encouraged (hence “keep Austin weird”). The change may be coming slowly, but it’s coming all the same.
As I sit on the stone steps of the Capitol eating a messy taco from Torchy’s, I realize that there is a unique sense of pride here. Texans are excited and proud that you’ve made it to Texas. You are in a promised land of oil and stars and desert and cowboy boots and Whataburgers, and the people want you to know that. The place takes a part of you through this feverish pride, stamping your soul with the shape of a bright, shining lone star. Suddenly you’re speaking in a Southern drawl, and hey, you deal with it, because taking a cultural dive in, wherever you find yourself, is the key to traveling to the fullest.’
This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Baedeker.