Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies (you know the rest)

It would seem to be sports apostasy for a longtime daughter and son of Washington to not just attend, but also carefully photograph, a Dallas Cowboys’ NFL game .  . . in Texas!

But that’s exactly what Carol and I quite recently did.

Cowboys meet Broncos.  Unlike the usual western script, Broncos prevail.  (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)

Cowboys meet Broncos. Unlike the usual western script, Broncos prevail. (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)

Rest assured, Carol’s not a Cowboy fan or, in fact, a follower of any sport. She finds team sports and frothing fans to be, as she puts it, indelicately, “completely stupid.” I follow hockey and baseball but, as you’ll see in a moment, I have no great fondness for Almighty Pro Football.

It has to do, in part, with our Washington-area base. I have disdain for our city’s NFL team on a lot of grounds, including my concurrence with those who deplore its disrespectful and disgraceful name. And I’m heartened to see that the New York Daily News, and even several Washington Post writers, led by columnists Mike Wise and Thomas Boswell, refer to the team only as “Washington” throughout their stories.  Momentum is building for a name change. With two NBA basketball owners already biting the dust for racist comments, how can Daniel Snyder continue to abide, let lone arrogantly defend, his team’s racist nickname?

I’ve also always had an arm’s-length dislike of the Cowboys for more benign reasons, having placed them in the pantheon — ruled by the New York Yankees— of Teams Too Wealthy and Snooty and Successful For Anyone to Like.

But Carol and I had the very good fortune to not only experience “Jerry World”— the Cowboys’ cavernous, extravagant AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas— but also to photograph Cowboys’ owner/ president/ general manager Jerry Jones and his wife, Gene, and then walk the sidelines and stands, taking many more photographs during a game.

Gene and Jerry Jones at the Cowboys' sports palace in Arlington, Texas.  (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)

Gene and Jerry Jones at the Cowboys’ sports palace in Arlington, Texas. (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)


This, of course, for inclusion in Carol’s visual study of Texas for the Library of Congress, and for a beautiful, 265-page keepsake book of the most memorable and meaningful Texas images.

Here are some observations from that experience:

 The 80,000-seat (for football; 100,00+ for concerts) AT&T Stadium is, as advertised, almost not to be believed. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that when you stand on the field, the last row in the Nosebleed Section is barely in sight. Of course the reverse is true as well! Pity those folks in the ionosphere if the fog rolls in when the behemoth’s retractable roof is open.

 The dual, 160-foot-long, 1.5 MILLION-pound* video scoreboards — stretching from just about one 20-yard-line to the other — are jaw-dropping to behold. So much so that even Cowboys’ staffers admit a whole lot of fans in attendance watch the video board rather than the game. I guess they pay the hefty ticket and parking prices for the barbecue.

This looks a little like two separate photographs.  It's not.  The top part is the Cowboys' über-colossal scoreboard, stretching almost the entire length of the field.  (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)

This looks a little like two separate photographs. It’s not. The top part is the Cowboys’ über-colossal scoreboard, stretching almost the entire length of the field. (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)

(*That’s no exaggeration: 1.5 million pounds EACH.  Everything in Texas is big, including the wires and girders that hold them monsters up, as a Texan might say.)

 The NFL game IN PERSON is just as annoying and anticlimactic as I remember it from previous games I’ve attended in New Orleans and Washington.

Particularly nettling, even if you have a rooting interest in the team, are the delays while the TV networks “go to commercial.” Compared with the action of, say, a hockey game, a football game is like a tedious chess match, with long pauses punctuated by a quick, sometimes violent, move or two. Even baseball in person seems animated, in terms of continuous action, by comparison.

 To replace the built-in excitement of COLLEGE and high-school football games, NFL teams pipe in noise at such a frequency and ear-shattering level that it’s a wonder game officials aren’t deaf as well as — in some fans’ estimation — blind.  The Cowboys also employ a legion of lovely, lithe, scantily attired cheerleaders, who can really shake their . . . pompoms. I swear, though: If I had to smile like that for that long, my cheeks would lock up.  Especially if I were doing the splits and the can-can all the while, which, I know, would be a horrible specter to contemplate.

It seems as if the ladies in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders squad smile nonstop for the better part of four hours on game day.  How is that possible!!???  (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)

It seems as if the ladies in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders squad smile nonstop for the better part of four hours on game day. How is that possible!!??? (Photograph: Carol M. Highsmith)

 I’m showing my age to say it, but I really don’t like the cozy byplay between “opposing” teammates in the pre-game warmups and post-game lovefests.  Denver’s Peyton Manning spent more time high-fiving and hugging Dallas players and executives than he did talking to his own players.  Of course, this was a preseason game in which Manning didn’t play a lick, so had no slants and curls and corner routes to consume him.

Except for the very few thousand people who get to play them, pro sports are the very definition of a vicarious experience.  For diehards, it’s a momentary rush to see a running back break free before being tackled, or a quarterback elude tacklers and throw a successful “bomb” to a teammate.  But all the expense, and all the ramped-up cacophony, and all the down time, and all the promotional announcements, and all the lines at the concession stands, and all the standing around by teams waiting for the commercials to end, and all the traffic to and from the game make those moments of an elevated heart rate hardly worth the trouble.

We chose our hotel for the Dallas-area portion of our trip to Texas carefully, picking a lovely Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington, strategically placed smack between Dallas and Fort Worth.  What we forgot was that is also almost steps from Jerry World, which means that for two weekends straight, it has been awash in pro football fans of the Cowboys and visiting Broncos and 49ers, some of whom drove from way out West to get to the game.

The hotel jacks up its room rates for game weekends, so you can add even more expense to fans’ tabs, just to catch a . . . yes, Carol is right . . . boring NFL game.

There’s some sort of psychological thing going on here.  A whole societal sports bonding thing that would be a good subject for its own posting sometime.

Maybe down the road.

Carol did enjoy ONE moment at the Cowboys' game -- a hug from Rowdy -- the team mascot.  (Hey, I get the photo credit on this one!)

Carol did enjoy ONE moment at the Cowboys’ game — a hug from Rowdy — the team mascot. (Hey, I get the photo credit on this one!)

Tuneful Texas

Carol and I are back in Texas for a couple of weeks to catch some things that weren’t catchable when we were there for almost five months this past winter and spring. On the way here, I got to humming, even quietly whistling, Texasy songs.

Most states have official songs (though I can’t imagine Idaho’s; does it have “spuds” in it?).  Texas’s is the old ditty “Texas, Our Texas,” but listening to it, you’d guess it’s “The Eyes of Texas.”  “The eyes of Texas are upon you” are, in fact, the anthem’s first words.

And things get even stranger.  The song is set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”  That’s sort of like Francis Scott Key’s writing “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the melody of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” or fitting the words to my state’s song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” to the “Now I Know My ABCs” tune.

Come to think of it, “Maryland, My Maryland” IS written, for some odd reason, to the score for “O Tannenbaum,” so who am I to get worked up about “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”?

But I digresss.

More than a century ago, “The Eyes of Texas” began its as the “school spirit” song of what is now the sprawling University of Texas at Austin, student population 1,465,000.  And it has some bizarre lyrics, even for 1903. They go, in part:

The ‘Eyes of Texas’ are upon you,
You cannot get away!
Texas Fight! Texas Fight!
For it’s Texas that we love best!
Hail, Hail, the gang’s all here!
And it’s goodbye to all the rest!

Weird, especially the “you cannot get away” part.

Thanks to Gene Autry and Tex Ritter and such, there are lots of tunes about Texas.

gene autry

The Singin’ Cowboy, Gene Autry, in the 1936 horse opera, “O Susanna!,” set on a mythical ranch in Mineral Wells. They didn’t say so, but it was probably the Mineral Wells in Texas, not the one in West Virginia. (Photo: Wikipedia.com)

Among them:

“The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

“Waltz Across Texas.” (What, you’re too young to have heard Ernest Tubb twang through that one?)

“The Red River Valley.”

And of course “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” (Commence clapping after “are deep and bright.”)

But Carol and I also found ourselves singing about Texas cities and towns.

You know those tunes, too:

“Abilene, Abilene,” where “women there don’t treat you mean.”

“Galveston, Oh Galveston,” where “I still hear your sea waves crashing.”

“The Streets of Laredo,” where “I spied a cowpuncher all wrapped in white linen.”

“I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas).” Don’t ask me how I know the words to that one. I’m a loose-lipped lunk from Lakewood.

“Amarillo By Morning,” where “I ain’t got a dime, but what I got is mine.”

“San Antonio Rose,” where “the Rose of San Antone” has “lips so sweet and tender/ Like petals fallin’ apart.”

“Dallas Days and Fort Worth Nights,” which pretty well sums up the DFW experience.

Rather than the running of the bulls, this is sort of the leisurely stroll of the Texas Longhorns at the Fort Worth Stockyards.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Rather than the running of the bulls, this is sort of the leisurely stroll of the Texas Longhorns at the Fort Worth Stockyards. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

“Wolfman of Del Rio.” Really.

“Luckenbach, Texas,” with Waylon, Willie, the Boys, and every tourist who ever heard the song.

“Houston, Houston, Houston,” sung by that wobbly-in-the-saddle cowpoke Dean Martin.

“The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Sorry, wrong Paris.

“Marfa Lights,” which are quite a bit spookier than Harbor Lights.

Marfa, Texas, is not your average, dusty, West Texas town.  It's a curious contemporary-arts mecca.  These cubes don't look like six-guns, you'll have to agree.  (Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith)

Marfa, Texas, is not your average, dusty, West Texas town. There are weird, shimming lights in the distance, for instance.  And somewhat astonishingly, Marfa is a contemporary-arts mecca. These cubes don’t look like six-guns, you’ll have to agree. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

There’s even a song about a place so far away, it’s practically in Arizona: “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.”

That’s a lot of singin’ and twangin’.

But Texas is so vast that some places still don’t yet have a song to call their own.  That’s what I’m here for.

In a rare idle moment, I jotted down some catchy lyrics that just might work. All they need is a cheap composer or a nonsensical tune on the level of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Perhaps “Happy Birthday to You”!

No titles yet. Town names and a couple of countryfied lines are all I’ve come up with so far.  Here goes:

—–

I left my pal in

Old McAllen

—–

Oh I do so want

To get to Beaumont

—–

Shush your cryin.’

We’re goin’ to Bryan

—–

Please don’t leave, Victoria,

I beg you and imploria

—–

I call my horse, Bandana,

“The Nag from Corsicana”

—–

Let’s go to Temple, Shirley!

“Why, yes” she said, “surely!”

Czech dolls are displayed at the Czech Heritage Museum & Genealogy Center in Temple, Texas.  The museum describes Czech immigrants' home life, work, and music, as well as thousands of books, many written in the Czech language. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Czech dolls are displayed at the Czech Heritage Museum & Genealogy Center in Temple. The museum describes Czech immigrants’ home life, work, and music, as well as thousands of books, many written in the Czech language. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

—–

I’m caught in between

New Braunfels and Seguin

—–

Down at the Wal-Mart in ole Frisco

I got me some beans and some Crisco

—–

There ain’t no vermin

Up in Sherman

—–

Oh tisk, oh tusk

We just passed Rusk

—–

You know, I’m right partial

To a gal down in Marshall

—–

Dang, I left my roaches

Back in Nacogdoches

——

For my gal’s sake-o

I’m on a Greyhound,

Bound for Waco.

—–

Killeen, Killeen,

It’s Killeen they say

On the far side of the hill.

—–

You know, you really ought-a

Try the tacos in Zapata

Lucio Jimenez, Pablo Martinez, Carlos Lara and Javier Rodriguez of the Los Liberadores Group have the desired menacing effect at the Zapata County Fair in South Texas.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

These hombres, members of of the Los Liberadores Group have the desired menacing effect at the Zapata County Fair in South Texas. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

 

—–

I miss the cotton and the grasses

And my darlin’ in Lampasas

—–

Drove my big rig down to Corpus

To get me some sand.

The bill was enorpus.

Far higher than I’d planned.

—–

I met this dude, Armando,

Outside a bar in Hondo.

—–

Of all the snakes in Brenham

I picked the one with venom.

—–

I have a friend, Juan Hollis,

The toast of old Gonzales.

—–

Don’tcha dare try to bill for

That weekend binge in Kilgore.

A depiction at the East Texas Oil Museum, in Kilgore, Texas, of a muddy street in "Boomtown U.S.A.," an amalgam view of Texas during the rush to extract "black gold" in the 1930s.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

A depiction at the East Texas Oil Museum, in Kilgore, Texas, of a muddy street in “Boomtown U.S.A.,” an amalgam view of Texas during the rush to extract “black gold” in the 1930s. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

—–

I bought a truck in Plano.

It made it just to Llano.

—–

And my tour-de-Texas:

Oh my darlin’,

My little Muffkin,

Let’s get us hitched in Lufkin.

—–

Scoff if you must, but Texas song-writin’ ain’t easy. Try finding something to rhyme with Palestine, which the locals call Pal-es-teen. Or Marble Falls (“Garble y’alls”?) Try rhyming with “Port Isabel” or “Goliad” or “Wichita Falls.” You could work “longhorn” around “Boerne” if Texans didn’t call it “Barren.”  And “ruin” might work with Gruene if it weren’t pronounced “Green.”

Do help me with some finger-snappin’ rhymes for more Texas places, though.  I dare you to start with “Pflugerville.”

Carol captured (photographically!!) this lonesome longhorn just outside forbidding Big Bend National Park.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Carol captured (photographically!!) this lonesome longhorn just outside forbidding Big Bend National Park. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

It’s Texas, By Cracky

That headline is the best reference to Gabby Hayes — the cranky codger whom I associate with Westerns, which in turn make me think of Texas — that I can manage without a dadgummed wheezy impersonation.

You wouldn’t want that, you whippersnapper.

It’s Texas, all right, in which Carol and I have been working since February, as you might have guessed from a couple of previous postings that dealt with the Lone Star State. We didn’t want to make it official that Texas is following Alabama and Connecticut among our fully funded state photographic expeditions on behalf of the Library of Congress until all the T’s and I’s had been crossed and dotted.

So I am pleased to report that Dallas “philanthropreneur” Lyda Hill, through the Lyda Hill Foundation, is underwriting this work.

Ms. Hill, whose support was personally cemented by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, is the maternal granddaughter of legendary Texas oilman H.L. Hunt. While the Lyda Hill Foundation primarily funds what it calls “organizations that make game-changing advances in nature and science research,” it made an exception in backing Carol’s photographic study of early-21st Century Texas.

Like our Alabama and California studies, funded by businessman George F. Landegger and the Capital Group investment firm, respectively, the Texas undertaking will result in a 265-page, hard-cover book that features Carol’s images and an introduction by a prominent historian. In this case, William Seale of Jasper, Texas, who has written prolifically about the restoration of historic American buildings, especially state capitols.

The book will be co-published by Carol’s Chelsea Publishing, Inc. and the Library of Congress.

As in Alabama and California, the This is America! Foundation will introduce a dedicated Web site, ThisIsTexas.us, displaying Carol’s photographs in the Lone Star State for anyone and everyone, worldwide, to see and use without copyright restriction. Watch for it in June!

We’re Deep in the Heart

So Texas it is, and we’ve been here long enough for us to form lasting impressions and discover ample prospects for future blogs.

Here’s what we’ve noticed more than anything else so far:

Texas Pride in the state and its colorful history is everywhere represented: in roadside plaques, detailed historical markers on what seems like every other building, and the nation’s most impressive online Web site about a state’s places and history (in our travel-honed opinion) mounted by the Texas Historical Commission. It even offers info and photos about the Lone Star State’s many ghost towns.

But Texans’ self-regard is most colorfully expressed through their ubiquitous display of their red, white, and blue Lone Star flag. You see one not just at state offices and car dealerships and Texas Independence Day parades but also on bumper stickers, building murals, art pieces, palominos in rodeos, and what seems like every second front porch from Orange to Amarillo.

I’ll demonstrate with a dozen or so images that Carol photographed as we combed this gigantic and diverse state. Stick with me to see them . . . or make me sad by scrolling ahead.

Carol and I are Marylanders, and we think our state flag is unique, beautiful, historic, and worth flaunting. We do so at our house, but we’d gauge the ratio of state-flag images seen in Maryland to those hoisted and plastered across Texas at about 1 to 1,000.

Part of it reflects the “we’ll show YOU” spirit that abounds in a state where Texans have plenty of scrappy history to snap their suspenders about.

Remember the Alamo (and Goliad, and San Jacinto)?

Texas Flag Pride traces to the 11-year bubble from early 1836 until early 1846, when Texas was a sovereign republic under the very same Lone Star flag. Rather than being conquered or acquired as another nation’s unwanted territory, it joined the United States as an independent and equal partner.

As a result, common urban legend abounds that the Texas flag is the only state ensign allowed to fly at the same height as the U.S. flag. As that yarn goes, Texas earned this right as a former independent nation or because it specifically negotiated this privilege.

Ain’t so, consarn it, as Gabby would say.

The annexation provision says nothing about flags. According to the United States Flag Code, any state flag can be flown at the same height as the U.S. flag, but the U.S. flag should be on its right (the viewer’s left). Consistent with the national code, the Texas Flag Code specifies that the state flag should either be flown below the U.S. flag if on the same pole or at the same height as the U.S. flag if on separate poles.

Vexillo-WHAT?

Part of the Lone Star flag’s popularity may stem from its sheer attractiveness, and it’s not just Texans who think the flag is fetching. ALERT: Juicy VOCABULARY WORD comingIn 2001, a survey conducted by the North American Vexillological Association rated the Texas state flag second-best in design quality out of 72 U.S. state, U.S. territory, and Canadian provincial flags. (Vexillology: The scientific study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags.)

Only New Mexico’s flag, with its striking Native American red sun symbol, ranked higher.

See for Yourself

That’s enough vexillogicalism from me.

Check out the purty and creative Texas flags that Carol caught, below:

(all photographs by Carol M. Highsmith)

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Are these artistic examples of the famous “Texas brag”?

Maybe.

I’d say Texans’ flag is worth braggin’ on.

And impressive up close, too. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

On the Road Again

I’ll bet you’ve taken a few road trips in your time.

Over the river and through the malls to grandma’s.

A week in the Smokies with the in-laws.

A haul to your buddy’s wedding or your high-school reunion.

A lark to every major-league baseball park west of Cleveland.

I didn't make ALL the MLB parks west of my hometown, but I enjoyed this one: Wrigley Field in Chicago.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

I didn’t make ALL the MLB parks west of my hometown, but I enjoyed this one: Wrigley Field in Chicago. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Or maybe, like my late father-in-law who sold everything from storage lockers to funeral cars and who heated canned beans on the radiators of threadbare motor courts across the frigid Northern Plains — or the tire-valve peddler I met who ran a figure-eight route out of Raleigh into burgs from Virginia to South Carolina — you travel a lot for your job.

But for four to five months straight, without a day home, as Carol and I do?

I’m not whining. There’s been many a delightful surprise along the way for us wandering souls with curious minds.

Surprise? How about meandering down a winding park road in Texas looking for fields of bluebonnets, which are not only the state flower but also Texans’ second love after their flag — more on that subject in another post soon — only to see, looming above the trees on the highest hill in Hill Country, a real, honest-to-goodness, gen-u-wine castle. A really tall one, too.

I didn't make ALL the MLB parks west of my hometown, but I enjoyed this one: Wrigley Field in Chicago.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

You’ve gotta admit: This looked pretty impressive, and imposing, from a distance. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

The castle looks old. Medieval old. Its solid-stone walls rise 90 feet into the air. The buzzards we saw peering down at us from its parapet had to flap hard to get up that high.

Turns out, Falkenstein Castle — not Frankenstein . . . Falkenstein! — is practically new. Texas realtors Terry and Kim Young built it as their dream home over several years after coming upon the actual plans for a Falkenstein castle in Germany that was never built.

 

And impressive up close, too.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

And impressive up close, too. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

The Youngs’ castle is private, but they do open the lower floor, which happens to boast a beautiful chapel, to weddings and a few other special occasions. Kim, meantime, feeds the hillside foxes, mountain lions, and the buzzards, whom she knows by name.

A passionate animal-lover, she abhors the plans of a neighbor to enclose his own wooded property with a high fence so as to trap wildlife and turn it into a sports-shooting preserve. That sounded like a revolting idea to Carol and me as well.

So don’t think we don’t realize, and appreciate, how fortunate we are to be clambering, for a living, in Hill Country, the waterfalls of Yosemite National Park, the cypress stumps of Big Thicket National Preserve, lovingly attended museums and gardens across our vast and multifarious land and countless other amazing places.

People pay a lot of money, and take a lot of time, just to see views like this, at Yosemite.  We are lucky.  We see them as part of our job.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

People pay a lot of money, and take a lot of time, just to see views like this, at Yosemite. We are lucky. We see them as part of our job. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

No hardship pay is in order. We’re not Meriwether Lewis and Sacagawea, hacking through the undergrowth. I’m far from home, but I can still catch the suddenly sorry Washington Capitals’ and break-your-heart Washington Nationals’ games on satellite radio and my i-Pad. There are tasty edibles at markets in many places, and the victuals at a certain roadside restaurants, though belt-expanding, have the soothing taste of home.

Still . . . five straight MONTHS away from our wundercats Tuxey, Tabby, and Toasty? Five MONTHS in beds that range in sleepability from magic carpets to the cushions of nails upon which inscrutable mystics sleep? Five MONTHS without mulch to spread or sheds to paint or – sorry friends in Maryland – snow to shovel?

That’s a lot of days, and a lot of miles on the old bod, and the old Expedition. Seven thousand miles filling the guzzler at $75 a pop so far on this photo exploration alone, and we’re less than halfway done.

That's not our car, or the kind of place where we fill-er up.  But we see lots of these examples of what Carol calls "Disappearing America" along the road.  They're memorable, too, in their own way.  (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

That’s not our car, or the kind of place where we fill-er up. But we see lots of these examples of what Carol calls “Disappearing America” along the road. They’re memorable, too, in their own way. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

So yes, there are irritations. As in life at large, it’s little things that set the blood a-curdlin’ and fingers a-clenching when you’re away from home for 150 days straight.

Here’s my incomplete list of nits, only one of which, surprisingly, pertains to other drivers:

– Highway work zones that last ten miles, only 250 feet of which involve any work.

– Clerks with the personality of a bowling ball who don’t know how to get to their own downtowns, 0.6 miles from the hotel.

– Biscuit-‘n’-gravy breakfasts in which the biscuits are hardtack and the pre-made gravy with the consistency of glue is glopped out of a giant can.

– Disorientation when confronted with the garish parade of interchangeable chain stores. Is this Pocatello? Portland?  Port Arthur?  How would one know?

– Rack brochures that promote more shopping malls as a town’s greatest amenity.

– Zippy three-wheel, airport-style luggage carts that tote, max, one large suitcase and two hanging bags when we need three standard, sturdy carts piled to chin level to lug in our baggage and camera cases and lights.

This is part of our road reality.  And actually, it takes THREE full carts to get us situated.  You can see why the frilly little zip carts don't cut it for us. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

This is part of our road reality. And actually, it takes THREE full carts to get us situated. You can see why the frilly little zip carts don’t cut it for us.  Note my pride and joy: my trusty road atlas! (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

– Drivers who can see perfectly well that we’re way-out-of-towners trying to edge over to a fast-looming off-ramp, but block the way with a jolly wink and jaunty middle finger.

They’re all part of doin’ bid-ness, as they say here in Nueces County, in our otherwise enjoyable road adventure.

Where’s Nueces County? It’s part of Carol-and-Tedland!

Stretch your mind, and your fingers. Look it up!

Hint: Carol took this photo on the beach at this Nueces County location. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Hint: Carol took this photo on the beach at this Nueces County location. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

 

A House is Not a House. It’s a Museum!

At first blush, we think of museums as illustrious storehouses of art and artifacts such as the Smithsonian Institution’s complex of 19 scientific, historical and art museums on Washington’s National Mall.

01-J.-Paul-Getty-Museum-LA

Here’s one of the nation’s newest museums: the J. Paul Getty art museum, designed by architect Richard Meier, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

But in ever-increasing numbers, curious “cultural tourists” are also poking their heads into much more modest and personal houses of treasures.

Houses, literally. “House museums,” as they’re called, range from fabulous manors and plantation homes where people can glimpse vestiges of the lifestyles of the rich and famous to humbler, but locally significant and sometimes eccentric, abodes.

Every decent-sized town has one or two.

In the past few days, Carol and I have visited several fascinating historical gems that, only by the grace of trust funds, local benefactors, or cities willing to take them over, have been saved from decline, deterioration, and destruction.

Most recently, we explored the gorgeous McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont, a onetime oil boomtown in southeast Texas. Think Spindletop Gusher, a 1901 oil geyser of “black gold” so incredible that it set in motion the boom that propelled the nation into industrial dominance.

mcf-w

The magnificent McFaddin-Ward House, a Victorian Beaux-arts masterpiece. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

These nostalgic treasures are rarely jammed with visitors, and most don’t bring in much revenue, if any at all.  Many morph into bed-and-breakfast inns whose proprietors eagerly assume the role of doting docent.

Carol and I have spent hundreds of pleasant hours examining and, in the peripatetic Ms. Highsmith’s case, photographing, such places, and I’d like to tell you about some of them.

The George Read II House, New Castle, Delaware

The Read House, spooky by design. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Carol took the neat photograph (above) of this house’s basement taproom, once the scene of raucous theme parties.  To bring in alcoholic beverages for one of them during the Great Depression before Prohibition ended, a seaplane landed out front on the Delaware River.

The High Federal-style 1804 Read House, on the strand in the state’s manicured colonial capital, was the home of the scion of George Read, a Delaware statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Adorned with gardens and a vista of the wharf where William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, first set foot in the New World, the house has the look of a prim, look-but-don’t-touch place.

Au contraire.  It was a veritable fun house, from its rathskeller to its parlor, where every so often the staff would stage a not-terribly-reverent funeral of a departed resident, complete with coffin, mourning jewelry, death mask, and music.

George II himself, though, was a miserly, grumpy, self-important sort who often ran for Congress, losing every time.  Yet no one could deny that his house, which humbled nearby taverns and brothels with its gilded fanlights, balustrade with Grecian urns, and elaborate bas-reliefs on its parlor mantels, was a stunner.  Read, though, foundered in business and died bankrupt in 1836.

The fun came later, under the watch of other owners. Lydia and Philip Laird, both in-laws of the state’s fabled Du Pont family, for instance, commissioned a fancy history of New Castle that was printed on the dining room wallpaper, and they turned the basement larder into a private speakeasy that hosted ribald drinking bashes during Prohibition.

The Lairds helped Delaware rediscover the town where Penn’s Quakers, Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch, and a colony of Swedes had once lived.  The Read House was, and remains, its centerpiece.

Seelye Mansion, Abilene, Kansas

Abilene’s finest abode. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

The place they call Kansas’s Tara — after the plantation home in the sweeping Civil War saga Gone With the Wind — was built with the considerable profits of a salesman of bogus health tonics, better known as snake-oil.

The house displays a number of Seelye’s “snake oil” potions, guaranteed to cure what ails you, no matter what it is. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

Just before and after 1900, Alfred B. Seelye’s medicine wagons fanned out into 14 states, where his salesmen, whom he called “drummers,” touted his “Wasa-Tusa” cure-all potion and “Ner-vene” nerve medicine.  All were concocted in a factory next to his Abilene home.

Seelye’s Georgian-style manor boasted 11 bedrooms, 18 closets, a Tiffany fireplace in the grand hall, and light fixtures personally chosen by pioneer inventor Thomas Edison at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.

The patent-medicine business and the family fortune dwindled in the 19-teens and ’20s with the advent of food and drug regulations, income taxes, and exposés about phony nostrums.  The grand house became tattered, but Seelye’s daughters Marion and Helen, who had inherited it, rebuffed many offers to buy it.  They relented in 1982 when Terry Tietjens, who owned a resort in northeast Kansas, agreed not only to purchase the place but also to adopt Marion and Helen, then in their mid-80s, and assure them they could stay in the home for life.

Despite a damaging fire, Tietjens went through with the deal, fixing up the place, and — in a change that the Seelye sisters came to enjoy — opening this Tara in a Cow Town to tours.

Roseland Cottage and Ice House, Woodstock, Connecticut

Just a part of lovely Roseland Cottage. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

What’s wrong with this picture?

In 1846, Henry Chandler Bowen, a dry-goods merchant; publisher; proper Congregationalist; pillar of Brooklyn, New York, society; a founder of the Republican Party; and an amateur horticulturist with a passion for roses — remember the roses — builds a glorious, Gothic Revival-style summer house in his hometown — Woodstock, in Connecticut’s northeast “Quiet Corner.”

Prosperous Woodstock is full of impressive Federal-style homes, uniformly painted white.

A parlor at the so-called “cottage,” photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Some cottage! (Library of Congress)

Borrowing from the showy bushes in his formal gardens, Bowen paints his “Roseland Cottage” — as wealthy people liked to call their getaway places, no matter how grand — shocking pink, not just once but 13 times in the 50 years he summered there.

Around Independence Day each July, Bowen threw the party of all 19th-century parties.  He presented respectable Woodstock with calling cards for an afternoon of lemonade, Strauss waltzes, fireworks, and a whirl of croquet.  Four sitting U.S. presidents made the scene.  One year, after Ulysses S. Grant celebrated a strike on the bowling alley inside Bowen’s barn by lighting his customary cigar, the host, betraying his Puritan stock, informed the president that smoking and drinking were not permitted at Roseland.

The old general stamped his stogie out — but took a room in town that night.

Eventually the ornate house, the barn, the rose gardens, and an 1870s ice house came into the hands of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which stabilized, restored, and painted the structures.

Pink, naturally.

Longwood, in Natchez, Mississippi

Longwood: the “Unfinished Symphony” of historic restoration. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

This stunning antebellum home — the largest octagonal house still standing in America — has not been brought back to the splendor that cotton baron Haller Nutt had in mind when he put northern craftsmen and plantation slaves to work building it, beginning in 1860.

And so long as the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez owns it, it never will be completed.

Instead, Longwood is a freeze-frame testament to the demise of an opulent era when Natchez, a city of many mansions on the Mississippi River, boasted 11 millionaires — more per capita than any city in America.  Nutt was one of them.

A quiet scene at Longwood, displaying some of the few artifacts remaining when construction was hastily terminated. (Carol M. Highsmith)

With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861 and the spasms of rhetorical venom against all things Yankee, the Philadelphia artisans who were constructing Longwood put down their tools and fled north while the fleeing was good.  They had completed only the exterior; 24 rooms inside remained unfinished and nearly empty.

Undaunted, Nutt turned his crew of slaves toward completing the basement as temporary living quarters.  But because he, like many wealthy planters, had opposed the South’s departure from the Union, fellow Mississippians burned his crops; then marauding Yankees stole every window frame, mantel, and chimney cap piled outside Longwood and made off with Nutt’s wagons and livestock.  He died a broke and broken man in 1864.

His widow, Julia, and their children hung onto the brick “Oriental villa,” as it was described, surmounted by a “Persian dome,” surviving for a time on weeds and soured milk.  The estate stayed in family hands until 1968, when its owners donated it to the garden club.

Today, walking through Haller Nutt’s Longwood, admiring the few furnishings — Haller’s gout chair among them — one can still imagine the primitive, haunting scene of a century and a half ago.  Exposed to the elements through uncompleted arch windows, Longwood’s rusted paint cans, discarded tools, and never-completed woodwork are still in place, a ghostly symbol of the finality of war.

Dowse Sod House, Comstock, Nebraska

The ultra-modest Dowse soddy, restored. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

About six kilometers from the speck of a town called Comstock, population 60, stands a remarkable house, built in 1900.  Remarkable, and quite the antithesis of a mansion.

It’s made of “Nebraska marble.”  Quarried right out back in river bottomlands, this is not stone.  It is old-fashioned Great Plains sod — tufts of coarse bluestem grass, clumped in rich soil and held together by an intricate web of roots.

Lacking enough trees for wood to build a house in 1900, homesteader William Ryan Dowse improvised.  He sliced long, deep strips of sod with what was called a “grasshopper breaking plow,” cut them into slices about 75 centimeters long, and stacked them — grass-side down — in rows that became the walls of his prairie home.  Scarce wooden boards were laid across them to form joists and the outline of an attic.  More sod was arranged atop the roof paper, and openings were cut for windows and doors.

The preserved and restored Dowse family kitchen. (Photo: Ammodramus, Wikipedia Commons)

Finally, cloth was hung below the ceiling to catch most of the dirt that kept falling from the ceiling onto the family below.

The Dowses moved away, and for a time the “soddy,” as such houses were called, stood empty.  Like thousands of other sod housesabandoned by families driven out by locusts, prairie fires, blizzards, droughts, epidemics, Indian attacks, and homesickness  — the Dowses’ empty home would have disintegrated had not neighbors and a descendant of Bill Dowse decided to restore the place.  One of the jobs was a complete replastering, using old-time material made from sand, clay, and hog’s hair.

Today, travelers heading for western Nebraska’s sandhills may spot a simple, handmade sign pointing down a road to William Dowse’s soddy.  If they follow it, they’ll find, to borrow the title of a famous American children’s book, a most interesting and authentic “Little House on the Prairie.”

And Then . . .

There are what I would call “mega-mansion” museums that are so stupendous, the proprietors sometimes offer separate tours of specific parts of the house, including the servants’ quarters, guest bedrooms, even the basement power plant.

There are some of these “cottages,” as the titans of industry who originally owned them called these American Downton Abbeys, in places such as Newport, Rhode Island, and the sea islands off Georgia, where the moguls and their families would “winter” with their yachts.  A Vanderbilt built — yes, bilt-built — the magnificent, 225-room Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  And probably the most opulent place of all, when one accounts for the furnishings, now worth billions, is Hearst Castle, atop a hill in Central California.  It was merely an occasional retreat for publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (and his mistress).

I don’t have the space to regale you with the many wonders of these ginormous American palaces. There are lengthy books and Web sites about them, and if you’ve not toured them, you should.  And you can find Carol’s images of Hearst Castle, particularly, on her Library of Congress online archive at (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/highsm/).

I’ll never forget those shoots, but I still appreciate the loving care that administrators and docents put into preserving and showing off wonderful smaller houses such as the McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont.  Smaller in relative terms.  McFaddin-Ward is plenty big and beautiful.

Here’s are two last images of Carol’s, taken there the other day.  I hope they whet your appetite for a google search, a look at its Web site, or a visit if you’re ever in southeast Texas:

dining room

This is just the breakfast room! You should see the formal dining room. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

detail

A remarkable vase, and a couple of other keepsakes, on a McFaddin-Ward House mantel. And a beautiful photograph, too, if I do say so. (Photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

The Iceman Goeth

As you can imagine, Carol and I have a lot of time to chat during our thousands and thousands of miles driving the roads of America. And it’s not always “work talk.”

The other day between distant highway interchanges, we got to talking about objects and phrases you don’t hear much about any more. It started when one of us mentioned “the quick brown fox.”

Let me ‘splain for our readers under 50, as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy . . . another dated reference for sure.

“The quick brown fox” is taken from junior-high-school typing class. I can attest from having driven past a few that there still ARE junior high schools, but I’m not sure they still teach typing.

Expanded to read “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” it’s a phrase that students are instructed to type, preferably without error and without looking at the keyboard, because it contains every letter in the English alphabet.

Every letter, but in a bizarre order. The “a” sits next to the “s,” and the “b” is next to the “m,” for example.

On the top line of letters, the first six from the left are Q, W, E, R, T, and Y. In fact, the English-speaking world’s keyboard layout is actually called the “QWERTY Design.”

What kind of logical sense does this scramble of keyboard letters make? (Photograph: Flickr Creative Commons)

What kind of logical sense does this scramble of keyboard letters make? (Photograph: Flickr Creative Commons)

This quirky (or qwerty) format was developed by Christopher Sholes, a small-town Wisconsin newspaper editor, in the mid-19th Century. Somehow his alignment of keys caught on and stays with us to this day, even though the “typewriter” itself has become one of those nearly forgotten objects that Carol and I got to talking about.

And as they bit the dust, so did an entire noble profession: that of the typewriter repairman. (Repairman. I broke a lot of Royals and never met a typewriter repairwoman.)

Even before these masters of picas and elites put away their cleaning fluid for the last time, the “icemen” referred to in this posting’s title had gone on to other things.

Being an iceman had its advantages in the hot summertime. (Wikipedia Commons)

Being an iceman, though not necessarily the iceman’s horse, had its advantages in the hot summertime. (Photograph: Wikipedia Commons)

I’m old enough, however, to remember the ice boxes in which we put the big blocks of ice that the iceman lugged on his rounds.

How many of these characters and things, fast fading from memory, are you old enough to have encountered?

Milkmen. Milliners. Newsboys (again, mostly male) hawking papers, and copy boys rushing about newspaper offices. (Newspapers, too, are on life support.)

Draftsmen who used T-squares. Door-to-door salesmen. Travel agents.

Hot, noisy, linotype machines that set type and made clinky, clunky sounds.

The linotype did indeed produce a line of type from hot metal.  The lines were then placed in order in a form within a printing press.  (Photograph: Wikipedia.com)

The linotype did indeed produce a line of type from hot metal, with the letters in backward order. The lines were then placed in order in a form within a printing press. (Photograph: Wikipedia.com)

More dinosaurs: Floppy discs. VCRs. Book maps.

Clocks with hands, and expressions such as “quarter to four” that originated because of them.  (Ask a youngster to meet you at “half past six” and watch her or his quizzical expression.)

Switchboards and “long distance” operators. Telegrams. Lamplighters. Wringer washers.

Knife-sharpening peddlers. File clerks. Darkrooms and, for that matter, photographic film.

Video stores. Bowling pinsetters. Books called dictionaries and encyclopedias. (You DO remember books, though, don’t you?)

Calling “information” (later simply 411). Yellow pages.

Pay phones. Hand-written letters. Party lines having nothing to do with dating.

And — with thanks to Chris Sholes — typing pool typists.

Typing pools, or secretarial pools, were a standard part of the office setting before computers came along.  (Photograph: Wikipedia.com)

Typing pools, or secretarial pools, were a standard part of the office setting before computers came along. (Photograph: Wikipedia.com)

Remember these?: Faxes. Marbles. Mimeograph machines. Pot-luck dinners. Casseroles. Stick shifts. Pogo sticks. Teeter-totters. Records.

Dial telephones. We have a young friend who, when confronted with one of these heavy, black-bakelite “landline” objects with a rotary dial, had no clue how to “make it work.”

As I said, Carol’s and my drives are often   l o n g!   So the conversation soon progressed to expressions that were an everyday part of our lives as well. I can’t swear that all of these are totally toast — or, as young people would say, like totally toast — but you sure don’t hear them much any more:

Two cents’ worth. Gee whiz. Hot dog! (or the spiffy version: Hot-diggity dog). Spiffy’s an anachronism, too.

Sharp, as in, “She’s really sharp.” Chick. Zits. Zonked.

Bummer. Don’t sweat it — the current version being “No worries.”

Get a grip. Flip out. Let it all hang out. Blow your mind.

Some of the language that geezers still hang onto originated in the peace-and-love hippie years of the 1960s.  (Photograph: Wikipedia Commons)

Some of the language that geezers hang onto originated in the peace-and-love hippie years of the 1960s. (Photograph: Wikipedia Commons)

With it. Scarf. Stoked. Not worth jack. Cut the mustard.

Going steady. Hanky-panky. Square.  Nifty. Neat — or its hipper variable, neato-mosquito.

Wasted. Tee’d off. Babe. Right on! Do your thing.

Going all the way. Split. Take a wiz. Outa sight. Crash at your place. Vibes.

Dig it. We had a blast. He’s bad news. Cheesy. Dibs. Dude. Hunk. Getting bombed or loaded or wasted.

Keep on truckin’. Boob tube. Funky. Stuck up.

In the hood. Going ape or having a cow. My old lady (or old man).

These all sound — here comes another one — corny today, don’t they?

If all of this is Greek to you, ask your grandma. Or a Greek.

Texas Two-Step

When we left my overview of Texas, to which we’re driving  (Hello, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock on the way!), I was mentioning a word that changed not only the sprawling state but also our perception of it.  Texas almost equals oil and oilmen, right?

When Anthony Lucas, an Austrian-born mining engineer, struck oil on Spindletop Hill, the gusher spewed for nine days until the well was capped.

When Anthony Lucas, an Austrian-born mining engineer, struck oil on Spindletop Hill, the gusher spewed for nine days until the well was capped.

The “discovery” of oil with the eruption of the 60-meter-high Lucas gusher, at the Spindletop oil field near Beaumont on January 10, 1901 at 10:30 a.m., turned Texas into a boom state and changed it forever.

I put “discovery” in quotation marks because oil had lain in plain sight in pools under the very noses of Texans for decades. Indians used it for potions, and it annoyed settlers who, searching for water, had to drill through it. You got a feel for this in the epic 2007 movie “There Will Be Blood,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

But “black gold” would bring fortune, international fame, and larger-than-life characters to cities such as Dallas and Houston, which became shooting stars in the exploding Sunbelt.

Spindletop ushered in an Energy Age, a population explosion, and a dramatic spike in Texas’s political power. Texans soon ran big energy companies (that “big” word again), the Congress of the United States, and the White House after Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.

And in 1992, H. Ross Perot, a billionaire Texas businessman, ran the most successful – in percentage of popular votes – third-party campaign for president in American history. (Gasp! He is a Texan who is not so big. Perot stands just 5-feet-6 inches tall.)

You Want Variety?

Each spring, “bluebonnet trails” in Central Texas attract thousands of wildflower enthusiasts. The flower (or its cousin) also pops up in a cheery red in some places.

Each spring, “bluebonnet trails” in Central Texas attract thousands of wildflower enthusiasts. The flower (or its cousin) also pops up in a cheery red in some Each spring, “bluebonnet trails” in Central Texas attract thousands of wildflower Each spring, “bluebonnet trails” in Central Texas attract thousands of wildflower enthusiasts. The flower (or its cousin) also pops up in a cheery red in some places.

One could certainly carve up Texas on a map the way we draw the cuts of meat on a steer: piney woods in the humid northeast, tallgrass prairies along the Oklahoma border, flatlands and mesquite-scrub plains west of the Pecos River and in the “Panhandle” that reaches northward to the Colorado Rockies, enchanting hills ablaze with bluebonnets each spring in the hills around San Antonio, Louisiana-like bayous to the southeast, brush country and vast rangeland in far-south Texas.

Out of graduate school, I lived for two years in Wichita Falls, across the Red River from Oklahoma. It’s a sister city of Fürstenfeldbruck in Bavaria. That’s apropos of nothing, but it’s fun to write “Fürstenfeldbruck.”

Wichita Falls is a military town (Sheppard Air Force Base) – kind of down on its luck and rough around the edges – but God-fearing. Lubbock, to the west, may have the most churches per capita in the nation, and Houston the largest church, but Wichita Falls holds its own with the Lord. Its nickname is “The City That Faith Built.” And it’s a good thing, since some of the meanest tornadoes in U.S. history have dipped out of roiling black clouds to level parts of the town. One twister in 1979 left 20,000 people – one-fifth of the city’s population – homeless.

When I lived there in the 1960s, we got only hot, relentless winds from the west, carrying what seemed like half of the Panhandle’s gritty soil. These red-dust “blows” turned our car and house and hair a hideous salmon hue. Wichita Falls was also the first and last place in my life, other than on an Indonesian island years later, where a fist-sized tarantula spider walked across my table.

Flat, Dry, and Far Away

A quirky sight on the Cadillac Ranch along historic U.S. Highway 66 near Amarillo is a graffiti artists’ delight called the “Ant Farm.” Beyond it is nothing but Panhandle flat land.

A quirky sight on the Cadillac Ranch along historic U.S. Highway 66 near Amarillo is a graffiti artists’ delight called the “Ant Farm.” Beyond it is nothing but Panhandle flat land.

A quick word about the Texas Panhandle. As big as the entire state of Indiana, it remains unabashed cowboy country. Cowboy hats, trophy belts, and boots are as thick as grasshoppers in Amarillo. In the logo of the city that calls itself the “Real Texas,” two boots take the place of the double-L’s in Amarillo’s name. And little wonder: In 1893, its population was officially listed as “between 500-600 humans and 50,000 head of cattle.”

One-fourth of the nation’s beef is shipped from Amarillo, and at the city’s Big (what else?) Texan steakhouse, diners eat free if they can finish a two-kilogram steak the size of a small roast, plus bread, a salad, and a small dessert in an hour.

The historic sign outside, and the steaks inside, the Big Texan in Amarillo live up to the name.

The historic sign outside, and the steaks inside, the Big Texan in Amarillo live up to the name.

Almost no one succeeds. I’m a big guy, was plenty hungry, and had deliberately skipped lunch the day I gave it a shot. I got about halfway through the hunk of steer before capitulating with a groan. It was little comfort to learn that it’s little old grandmothers and other tiny young women, mostly, who have polished off the whole slab of meat. My internist will have to explain that one to me.

So the Panhandle is cowboy-real. For cowboy chic, you’ll need to hit Dallas or Austin or the Fort Worth line-dancing clubs . The only similarities between today’s edgy, pulsating “alternative cowboy” music and the gentle old western yodels of Gene Autry or the Sons of the Pioneers are the boots and hats.

Playin’ With the Big Boys

Shimmering Dallas is the economic hub of a 12-county “Metroplex” that also includes the legendary “cow town” of Fort Worth, about which I wrote a while back.

Shimmering Dallas is the economic hub of a 12-county “Metroplex” that also includes the legendary “cow town” of Fort Worth, about which I wrote a while back.

Today’s Texas cowboys have plenty of company when they get to town. Six of America’s top-20 cities are now in Texas: Houston (4), San Antonio (7), Dallas (9), burgeoning Austin (11, up from 16 the previous census), Fort Worth (16), and El Paso (19).

And three of them – Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso – regularly rank among the nation’s fattest cities as rated by Men’s Fitness and other magazines.  We’re talking waistlines, not land mass.

These places have large Latino populations for whom homemade tamales and enchiladas prepared in lard and covered in cheese and rich, fatty gravy are everyday, irresistible fare. Irresistible to gringos, too, I can attest. And there’s a paucity of public parks for exercise. Little wonder: these are stifling-hot places where a “run in the park” has a great deal less appeal than a brisk trot through the Boston Common.

The River Walk provides a respite for conventioneers. A full story beneath street level, the enclave was created over several decades along the San Antonio River.

The River Walk provides a respite for conventioneers. A full story beneath street level, the enclave was created over several decades along the San Antonio River.

Word from the U.S. surgeon general that 30 percent of San Antonians are obese some years ago prompted that city’s director of health to launch a “Don’t Super-size San Antonio” campaign. 

The beautifully shaded River Walk, San Antonio’s biggest attraction save for the historic Alamo, looks like the ideal, relatively cool strolling paradise at which to get some weight off. But it’s more of a fairyland – a Venice of the American West – festooned with lounge chairs and umbrellas.

Mexican mariachi bands serenade as tour boats glide past its cobblestone walkways, and tourists sip Shiner beer and stiffer drinks, including prickly pear margaritas made from the fermented juice of the cactus pear. In times like these, who wants to jog?

A shuttle mock-up at Space Center Houston.

A shuttle mock-up at Space Center Houston.

Texas leads the nation in oil, beef, and cotton production. And you surely know about its vital role in the space industry: doesn’t every astronaut’s call from space begin with “Houston . . . .”?

Look under “Texas crops,” and you can hardly see an end to the list: Beets. Spinach. Oranges. Pistachio nuts. Marijuana. (Just checking to see if you’re still with me.) Texas has more floral varieties than any other state, and a greater assortment of reptiles than anywhere else in the land.

Meet Dasypus novemcinctus

In San Angelo several years back, Carol photographed “Jalepeño Sam,” who raised armadillos for racing. Not that they move very fast. One wag called the little burrowing animals “anteaters on the half shell.”

In San Angelo several years back, Carol photographed “Jalepeño Sam,” who raised armadillos for racing. Not that they move very fast. One wag called the little burrowing animals “anteaters on the half shell.”

That brings me back to my friend Bob Blachly, who grumps, “They’ve commercialized everything in Texas. Even armadillos are tourist attractions. We knew them as road kill.” (Some, even more unkindly, call them “Texas speed bumps.”)

Stop! Don’t write to remind me that armadillos are not reptiles. They’re homely little mammals with pointy snouts and leathery skin. (Their scaly likenesses do make cute stuffed animals, though, Bob.)

***

Getting back to the Bush family, whom I mentioned last time, and their love of the Texas lake country: Just as Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson could not wait to get home to the LBJ Ranch on the Pedernales River down hill-country way, it can be noted that Texas has not a single snow-covered peak, no incredible waterfalls, no rain forest or particularly memorable babbling mountain stream.

There are striking red-rock canyons down along the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park, but that’s forever from anywhere. Carol and I found it once and photographed it, and I think we’re still paying for the gasoline it took to get there.

Big Bend National Park includes the most scenic portion of the Rio Grande River, which forms more than 1,500 kilometers of the border between Mexico and the United States.

Big Bend National Park includes the most scenic portion of the Rio Grande River, which forms more than 1,500 kilometers of the border between Mexico and the United States.

No doubt the Bushes and the Johnsons, and even my friend Blachly when he’s in a better mood, were drawn not to the grandiosity of Texas, but to its “small packages,” as photographer George Oxford Miller wrote in 1991. He found “fields of flowers unblemished by footprints, air unadulterated with human additives, stars undimmed by city lights, and the uninterrupted sounds of nature.” Simple pleasures in a brash, beautiful – and, I’ll remind you again – BIG place.

A place where we’ll lay down roots, albeit shallow ones for just four months, in the days ahead.