searching for the true texas
This essay originally appeared in Compass Magazine.
I have this image of Texas exuding a lucid, flowing, confident state of its own union. That said, one more day’s combination of muggy hotel air conditioning and baking San Antonio heat will surely give me a cold and griddle my brain.
Texas has a panhandle; I must be in the pan.
This is not the true Texas, I decide, even though there is a flowing waterway that meanders through San Antonio lined with lucid and confident pedestrians. But not me. It’s hot. I’m broiling.
So, now I have a mission. I want to find that place of lucidity, flow, and confidence.
How do I seek the soul of the "true" Texas? Its right-to-bear-arms sense of jurisprudence? JR Ewing’s ranch? The moleville underground labyrinth of Houston?
The ending of my San Antonio convention graciously coincides with a free weekend so I can be off in search of the lucidity, the flow, the confidence that must surely exist in this state.
I could stay and visit the Alamo, but I’ve just read that Ron Howard got into a fight with Disney over the movie he wanted to make about the Alamo and quit the picture; if Opie and Mickey Mouse can’t get it together, I figure that I’ll remember the Alamo even more if I don’t visit.
I crave the coast and the waves. I decide to put my finger on the map and simply go. Well, that’s not entirely true. My finger lands on Corpus Christi. All due respect: I don’t want to stay in the body of Christ. And even though Farrah Fawcett is from Corpus Christi, I move my finger. Port Aransas. Better. I find the 281 and drive south.
I’ve never been in this part of Texas. All I remember about my visit to Dallas 30 years ago is the School Book Depository, and that memory is clouded by Oliver Stone’s JFK movie. I was in Beaumont once, east and south on the griddle, visiting a friend who delicately described the indelicate smell of the oil refineries as "eggy," but that was okay by me because Janis Joplin was from Port Arthur, the next town over, and I liked Janis Joplin, so I could deal with "eggy." And in Austin once I had coffee with a professor-friend; to my question about the nature of Texas, he sighed and said, "Vast . . . it’s vast."
Did I know Texas? Not at all. Three brief visits do not an expert make. But Texas had always come in handy to show foreigners, mostly New Yorkers, where I grew up: my left shoulder was New York, my right shoulder California, my belly button was Texas, my heart Oklahoma, and my nose—my home state, my sniffer—was Kansas. And that was Texas for me—the navel of our nation. Geographically, the real navel of America is pert near the sleepy town of Lebanon, KS (pop. 303; center north, near the Nebraska state line), but such accuracy would have forced me to reconfigure my body map, which would have rendered Texas . . . well, you get the picture.
• • •
Big state, Texas. Sprawling. Gargantuan.
Twenty-one million people living on 261,797 square miles—larger than Iraq and Kansas combined. Output is 12 percent of the national gross domestic product.
Here’s how big Texas is: they fought the last battle of the Civil War at Palmito Hill, just above the mouth of the Rio Grande, on May 13, 1865. The Civil War had ended on April 9, more than a month earlier, but the soldiers on Palmito Hill hadn’t received word yet.
Texas is so big that under terms of the 1845 Annexation, which heralded the Republic of Texas as our 28th state, it retains the right to divide into as many as five states. That’s why we don’t mess with Texas. Where would we put the extra four stars on the flag? (Note to file: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Think Muzak. Think Donald Trump’s hair. Think two "Matrix" sequels.)
From this sprawl of geography and population has spawned an impressive list of people we know. A sampling:
Scott Joplin. Alvin Ailey. Robert Rauschenberg. Buddy Holly. Roy Orbison. Barry White. Willie Nelson. ZZ Top. Meat Loaf. Edie Brickell.
Jack Johnson. Tom Landry. Willie Shoemaker. Dandy Don Meredith. Nolan Ryan. Gene Roddenberry. Bill Moyers. Dan Rather. Molly Ivins.
Tex Ritter. Joan Crawford. Larry Hagman. Carol Burnett. Sissy Spacek. Lyndon Johnson. Howard Hughes. Ross Perot. Ann Richards.
Bonnie & Clyde.
Bonnie & Clyde.
• • •
I skirt Corpus Christi and take the causeway toward Port Aransas—the northernmost town on Mustang Island, a three-mile-wide, 18-mile-long barrier island off the continent, the top of a grand hundred-mile-long dot and dash of dunes and white sand beaches lining the Gulf of Mexico like the rice/bean demarcation on your combination platter. The longest barrier island of our contiguous United States, it stretches all the way down to the Spring Break mecca of South Padre Island before reconnecting with the mainland.
But the road ends. My search for the lucid, confident flow is disrupted. Oh, I see what they’ve done. There’s a ferry service, connecting the mainland to the island. I pull my car onto the J.C. Dingwall. They have six ferries, each of them named after former directors of the Texas Department of Transportation. Nice touch. Honorable. I give a mental wave to the Mark G. Goode as we pass on the water. The ride takes less than five minutes. I like that the road ends, that you have to take a ferry to get to the island. And it’s no quaint service: when hurricanes threaten or pummel, the ferry becomes a lifeline to the mainland.
Port Aransas has gone through a number of name changes. In the early 1800s, it was known as Wild Horse Island and then Mustang Island because of the wild horses ("Mestinos") that the Spaniards brought here. In the 1830s it was called Sand Point.
Colonel Elihu Harrison Ropes came here in 1888, bought up land, and had big plans for a magnificent seaside sprawl with parks and wide boulevards and diagonal intersections like those in Washington, D.C. and Paris. He promptly named the place Ropesville. Envisioning an enormous port, he also dredged a channel from ocean to bay, 30 feet wide, which quickly filled with sand and was subsequently abandoned. The colonel’s dreams were grander than his dredging abilities. When the colonel’s backers backed out, he left. Thus ended Ropesville.
Eventually it would become known as Port Aransas, but not before, at the turn of the century, it was named Tarpon for the abundance of such fish in the waters. Ken Schultz, the fishing editor of Field & Stream magazine, writes that the tarpon “presents the foremost qualities that anglers seek in sportfish, being very large, very strong, challenging to hook and land . . . and a spectacular leaper when hooked.”
You read that, and you begin to formulate your theory about the soul of Texas.
• • •
So, naturally, I take a room at the Tarpon Inn. Franklin D. Roosevelt stayed here, as did Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb ("We deactivated his room," says the hotel’s Web site). Duncan Hines married and honeymooned with his ultimate cupcake here. Today it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The lobby walls are lined with 7,000 fish scales, one of them signed by FDR.
I drive down the coast, abutted with gorgeously eerie sand dunes and scrub. I take an inlet road toward the sea. You can drive on the sand here; the waterfront is dotted with cars and RVs and SUVs, like a beached whale convention, and—oh—people. Dozens of them: picnicking, fishing, sailing, walking, seashell collecting, swimming.
I need to feed my id. Back on Highway 361, twelve miles south of Port Aransas, I find the Mustang Riding Stables. Timing is good, and I get on a horse just as the tour is leaving. Once past the thrill and pleasure of being on a horse for the first time in five years, I realize that I’m the oldest rider in this group of a dozen. I’m older than the guide. Okay, I’m riding with adolescents. It’s a birthday party. I didn’t even bring a present, and we’re not allowed to even trot. The guide describes our pace as a "brisk walk." Youngster. Good to be back on a horse, though.
• • •
In the evening I walk to Shorty’s Place, a bar just down the street from the Tarpon Inn. The hot day has given way to a warm night with a breeze that almost cools, when it wants to. Hundreds of hats, mostly baseball caps, hang from the ceiling. A salmon-colored neon sign in the shape of Texas buzzes from the back wall behind the bar. I order a scotch from the bartender, a small, sturdy, confident woman with elbows bent at such an angle as to show proprietary pride if anyone was in doubt.
"No scotch," she says. "Have a beer."
"I’ll have a beer," I say.
I settle for a Corona, wedge of lime. Sitting next to me is a bear of a man with slabs of beef for arms and legs, a boulder of a body, no neck, and a choirboy smile. He sees my Howard Johnson Curacao T-shirt. I visited Curacao a while back. I did not stay at the Howard Johnson’s but went there one night to gamble. The best part of that experience was leaving. It was hot and unventilated and smelly, and everybody hunched over slot machines looked like they were being punished. I decided that those who die and go to hell have to stop first at the Howard Johnson’s Curacao casino and blow a roll of nickels.
Bears can talk in Port Aransas. This one says to me, "How ’bout that? I just got back from Curacao myself." He smiles an enormous smile that fills the room and knocks the air from my lungs.
"Well," I say, "what a coinci–"
He says, "Say, did you happen to see that iguana living in an unplugged nacho crisper?"
We chat for a while about Curacao, and then I walk outside to the porch that wraps around two sides of Shorty’s Place, where the music is just starting up. Two guitarists strum and sing, and the music is good, and the breeze is cooler now, and I sip my beer, and around me I see gratuitous toe tapping and ankle swaying and feel the contented enjoyment of tunes on a porch in Port Aransas, and poof—just when you’re not looking or seeking, that almost forgotten quest for lucidity, flow, and confidence sneaks up and grabs hold and you surrender to its fine Texas embrace.
Best beer I ever had.