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Driving Texas: A European Take

Joao Canziani Texas

Photo: Joao Canziani

"Texans are like that," McNeely growled. "Everything has to be bigger. We’re the only state that was once an independent country." What if Texas had remained that way?"We’d be as dumb as we are now, I guess." Spoken like a true Texan, I thought: self-mocking, yet deeply proud.

LBJ was like that, of course. But like so much in the American South and Southwest, he had more than a whiff of mythology about him too. At the LBJ Ranch, outside of Johnson City in the Hill Country, where Johnson was born and died, everything is being restored to the way it was during his presidency. After his retirement, he liked to show visitors around himself, like a docent of his own life. He would recall how he used to sit on the porch of that beloved house, or by the fireplace in winter, listening to his granddaddy’s yarns about driving cattle along the Chisholm Trail.

As the brochure says, the "myths and realities of…Johnson’s frontier heritage helped shape both his life and what was written about him." Myths is right. That much-loved house was actually a reconstruction with new furniture. LBJ, the cattle rancher rooted in his boots and Stetson, was a stagey character. Here, too, one felt, listening to the rush of the Pedernales River, that history had blurred with legend, visible only through a haze of nostalgia.

What is it about "Texan-ness," acted out by such dissimilar Texas figures as Friedman (whose unsuccessful 2006 run for governor made national news) and LBJ, that makes it so theatrical?Is it the movies or perhaps the relative shallowness of history?What is it to be a Texan anyway?I thought a drive 90 miles southwest to San Antonio to see that most mythical of places, the Alamo, might provide some answers.

As soon as you enter the cool chapel of the 18th-century Spanish mission, you step on "hallowed ground" in "the shrine of Texas liberty," where heroes "made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom." I quote from the official Web site, but this reverential tone is everywhere in the mission itself, from the trinkets in the gift shop to the admonitions on the wall asking visitors to keep their voices down, as though this were a church, which, in a sense, it is. A quick look at the historical material for sale shows that here, too, myth has intruded, for the movies feature the John Wayne version of The Alamo.

Every nation has its share of tragic heroes, whose glory lies in the hopeless odds they faced. Liberty is at the heart of the American civic religion. What I wondered about, in this chapel to the glorious martyrs, is whose freedom they were supposed to be fighting for. Clearly not that of the United States. This was a Texan rebellion against the centralist government of Mexico.

And yet, this Tex-Mex monument did strike me as very American too. At least a dozen of the fighters were from Europe, but in the Alamo, they all became Texans, just as subsequently all Texans became Americans. That is the beauty of America. But what is perhaps most American about the Alamo is the note of high idealism injected into what was really a raw scramble for land. That, and the sad nostalgia for something purer, more spiritual, once that land had been disfigured by the rush for material wealth.

I thought about all this, as I drove north along Interstate 35, heading toward the Panhandle, past the strip malls and billboards and churches, all advertising the good life as well as salvation. I listened to a CD of James McMurtry’s music. He has the angry voice of a Texas Lou Reed. I had gone to see him perform that midnight at the Continental Club, a long-haired figure in a torn T-shirt and a baseball cap turned back to front. Many people there knew his music and sang along. He sings about people losing their way in life, getting involved in shabby murders on the outskirts of shabby towns—a rotting, drifting world of broken neon lights and cracked asphalt. And yet his songs have an elegiac quality, like so much else in Texas. In his rasping, snarling way, he too is nostalgic for something older, purer, more rooted. "I’m not from here/but people tell me/it’s not like it used to be/they say I should’ve been here/back about ten years/before it got ruined by folks like me."

My goal was Archer City, another place mythologized in the novels of Larry McMurtry, who was born in Wichita Falls and bred on a ranch near this small west Texas town of ranchers and oil prospectors. On the way, I listened to smooth radio evangelists talking about reaching Jesus directly, without a "performance clause," or losing weight on diets prescribed by Jesus.

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