On his first trip to the place that inspired the toy guns and cowboy hats of his faraway childhood, Ian Burma takes in the poignant realities behind monuments, characters, and stories that still have the power of legend.
Joao Canziani Texas
| Credit: Joao Canziani

Like many Europeans, I grew up with a myth that originated somewhere in the American Southwest. My first encounter with it, as a child in the Netherlands, was a toy revolver with 'Texas Ranger' engraved on its silver barrel. I also sported a cowboy hat with 'Arizona Kid' on the band. Then the landscape of cowboys and Indians arrived with Laramie and Bonanza, television horse operas set in a timeless Western zone. I knew of certain cities—Laredo, San Antonio, Tombstone—but had no clue where they were.

Later, songs by Elvis and Chuck Berry about Route 66 and other magical places added to the mystique. As an adult, I caught performances by Kinky Friedman at the Lone Star Café in New York. He had a getup—oversize Stetsons, outlandish boots, big cigars—even more histrionic than my Arizona Kid gear. His zany tunes about Dallas or Houston or Austin didn’t make these cities seem any more real than Tombstone in the movies, but he invested them with an attractive combination of farce and glamour.

It was in a state of considerable excitement, then, that I headed for Texas. It was, in a way, like taking a trip to the other side of the rainbow, to a place that had only existed in my imagination. The first stop was Austin or, to be more precise, the Hotel San José, on South Congress Avenue, opposite the Continental Club, a place soaked in rock ’n’ roll mythology. Before the hi-tech boom transformed South Congress into a strip of fancy restaurants, boutique hotels, and upmarket stores selling cowboy boots, this had been a stretch of honky-tonks, room-by-the-hour motels, juke joints, streetwalkers, drug pushers, and rock dives.

Some might lament those seedy days, but I felt quite comfortable at the San José as it is now. Nostalgia is part of the fun. You can rent iPods filled with golden oldies and DVD’s of legendary Texas movies like Hud and The Last Picture Show at the reception desk. You can sit in your elegantly minimalist hotel room, turn up Janis Joplin or the Sir Douglas Quintet, and pretend you’re in rock ’n’ roll heaven, 1969.

Before I arrived, I had called James McMurtry, one of Austin’s most interesting rock musicians. I told him I had never been to Texas before. "Austin ain’t Texas," he drawled. The second time I spoke to him, over the phone from the San José, he had just been out hunting deer around Archer City, the setting of The Last Picture Show—written by his father, Larry McMurtry, from the novel of the same name. (The novel that became Hud, also by McMurtry, is titled Horseman, Pass By.) After shooting deer, he said, he’d be on stage at the Continental Club, around about midnight.

Austin prides itself on being an exceptional oasis of liberalism in Texas. But Texas liberalism, if rather beleaguered, is not an eccentricity. Walking around the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum at the University of Texas is a touching experience. For there, among the Disneyfied kitsch (a life-size, moving doll of LBJ telling corny jokes), is a record of achievements that puts today’s politicians to shame. It was this Texan, after all, who signed the bills giving poor Americans better education and better medical care, and all Americans civil rights.

There isn’t much of that spirit left these days, even in Austin. The best that Dave McNeely, who writes for Texas Monthly and the Austin American-Statesman, could do was point out some of the surviving places where "old Austin" once thrived: the Scholz Garten, where politicos and freethinkers alike gathered to drink beer, or Sixth Street, where many of the rock venues are, or Barton Springs, an idyllic spring-fed swimming spot that campaigners have long been trying to stop developers from wrecking. He showed me around his beloved State Capitol, a splendid 19th-century edifice in red granite that is higher than the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

"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.

Compared with many of the almost deserted small towns I passed through, Archer City looked well-kept and prosperous. But on closer inspection, it was a surprise to see how little it had changed since The Last Picture Show, set in the 1950’s, which was shot here in 1971. Everything seemed as it did then: the empty, windswept main street, the ruined cinema, the old-fashioned sputter of pickup trucks driven by young men in straw hats. This is a place that time, for better or worse, seems to have passed by. If anything, it is more forlorn than it was in 1971. Young people head for cities like Wichita Falls. Stores close for lack of customers. Nothing appears to be thrown away. If you want body parts for a 1950’s Chevy pickup, chances are you’ll find them in the backyard of a house in Archer City.

The best place to stay in town is the splendid Lonesome Dove Inn, run with impeccable hospitality by Mary Slack. Susan Sontag once told McMurtry that he lived in his own theme park. If so, the Lonesome Dove Inn is a theme park within a theme park. Every room is named after a McMurtry novel or character, and his books are liberally displayed all over the house. Even the old literary journals, thoughtfully piled up beside the beds, belonged to the great Texas writer.

Although McMurtry’s name is not universally known in his hometown ("The old folks don’t read his novels," Mary said, "and young people just know him as this friendly guy who buys milk at the grocery store"), his presence is almost overwhelming. In his book of essays, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry writes about the nostalgia of his pioneering forebears for a time when the land was empty, "a place of unpeopled horizons." His aim, in his novels, is "filling that same emptiness…"

But he did not only do this in his imagination. McMurtry was content growing up in Archer City, with its wide-open spaces and dramatic sunsets, except for one thing: there were no books. And so, as he became a successful novelist and book dealer, he acquired more and more volumes, with a collector’s obsessive fervor. As Archer City’s old stores went out of business, he bought them up and turned them into showcases for his books, hundreds of thousands of books, on every conceivable subject: anthropology of the American West, Cecil Beaton’s stage designs, learned tomes on German humor, travel books on Africa and Siberia, and so on. Because of McMurtry, Archer City has been turned into a monument to bibliomania.

Mary put me up in the Evening Star suite. The Lonesome Dove Inn had at one time been the town hospital. You catch a glimpse of it in The Last Picture Show, when Timothy Bottoms is recuperating after having his eye bashed by Jeff Bridges. I had fancied staying in the old operating room, but the dinner prepared by Mary more than made up for that disappointment. We were joined by her brother, Gowdy, and his wife, and their little boy, dressed in a proper hat and a slick pair of boots. Gowdy was a real cowboy, who had herded cattle in Montana and raised horses in Texas.

As we worked our way through turkey with great chunks of stuffing, we talked about life in Montana—"Nice place to live if you don’t have to bathe the cows in warm water to stop them from freezing in the winter." We talked about a local boy burned all over his body by an oil rig explosion, and about the way times had changed, even right there in Archer City. Used to be, Gowdy said, that a man could leave his car unlocked. Drugs changed all that. We talked about a bunch of cowboys who brought their horses into the center of town, which irritated Mary. This may be overly romantic, but as we talked, I felt for a moment that the myths of my childhood had become real.

I asked Mary and Gowdy whether The Last Picture Show was a realistic portrayal of life in the early 1950’s. "Well," he said, "the movie is a bit bleaker than it really was." "Oh," Mary said, "but we only remember the good things. And we didn’t know anything else. It was bleak all right." Perhaps it was. But it seems a fruitless exercise to sift what is real from what is not. For me, a part of Texas will always remain mythical, for no amount of exposure to real landscapes with real people in them will ever erase the ineffable glamour of that gleaming silver revolver I once owned in my previous life as a Texas Ranger.

When to Go

Spring and fall are the best times to drive through Texas.

Where to Stay

Hotel San José 1316 S. Congress Ave., Austin; 800/574-8897; sanjosehotel.com; doubles from $150.

Lonesome Dove Inn 225 W. Main, Archer City; 940/574-2700; lonesomedoveinn.com; doubles from $75.

What to Do

The Alamo 300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio; 210/225-1391; thealamo.org.

Booked Up 216 S. Center, Archer City; 940/574-2511; bookedupac.com.

Continental Club 1315 S. Congress Ave., Austin; 512/441-2444; continentalclub.com.

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum 2313 Red River St., Austin; 512/721-0200; www.lbjlib.utexas.edu.

Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch Park Rd. 42, off Ranch Rd. 1, Stonewall; 830/868-7128; nps.gov/lyjo.