FORT WORTH — Recent holiday road trips across the state spurred me to wonder whether I am, in fact, a typical Texan.
You kindly interrupt: “But Michael, you were born here and have lived here — or Texas-adjacent — for all but a few months of your life. You are married to a Texan. You graduated from two Texas colleges. You write about the state’s people, places, culture and history for a Texas metro newspaper. Your column appears in other papers around the state. Your four books are about Texas. Of course you are a typical Texan.”
Am I, really?
These doubts nagged at me while driving across the state to visit the Barnes family (50 of us) for Thanksgiving in Houston, and the Keller family (20 of us) for Christmas in Fort Worth.
Setting aside my primary question, that is a darn lot of Texans, don’t you think?
Texas in my eyes and in my heart
While driving, what I saw through my windshield pleased me in ways that I don’t entirely understand.
The germ of an idea for this column came to me in a broad valley — hemmed in by short mesas, themselves sundered by narrow gaps — between Adamsville and Evant on northbound U.S. 281 headed to Fort Worth.
Early thought: What if Hollywood had shot all those classic films about Texas here, rather than in Utah’s Monument Valley?
On these two holiday trips, we passed through other typical — and authentic — Texas landscapes.
To and from Houston, we took Texas 71 and Interstate 10 through broken prairies, piney woods, rolling hills, oaky bottomlands and griddle-flat coastal plains, passing through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange, Ellinger, Columbus, Sealy, Brookshire and Katy.
To and from Fort Worth, we took the arcing western route through scrubby valleys, hill country, hardwood forests and flooded prairies, passing through Liberty Hill, Lampasas, Evant, Hamilton, Hico, Glen Rose and Cleburne.
From there, we sailed into Fort Worth on the Chisholm Trail Parkway, my favorite freeway in the state.
Wait, can someone really have a favorite freeway? Indeed, one can. If only other Texas freeways were as conscientiously designed, with long, clean entrances and exits, landscaped verges, no billboards and limited opportunities for reckless driving.
Another speculative thought: How different would our history have been if these rivers were more navigable?
Anyway, I cherish all these Texas landscapes, especially on a sunny winter day.
It seemed that the only major Texas regions we skipped were Trans-Pecos deserts and mountains, Panhandle plains and canyons, and South Texas thorny brushlands. (The northern stretches of Houston are part of the East Texas pine forest, in case you were wondering.)
If I hold dear these typical Texas landscapes, doesn’t make me a typical Texan?
10 ways I am not a typical Texan
I must preface the following two personal lists by emphasizing that these are not really typical, but rather stereotypical Texan subjects and qualities. They do not apply to all — or even most — Texans, but they are part of the state’s painstakingly burnished self-image.
Starring Texas: What you can learn about the state through its movies
One more note: I’m not trying to start a fight. That would be stereotypically Texan, right?
- Trucks: I don’t drive a pickup truck. These days, my vehicle of preference is a 2012 pale silver Volvo SUV XC90, big enough to haul our rambunctious Lab-hound mixes with room left over for cabin supplies. To the apparent rage of the state’s pickup drivers, I cruise almost uniformly within the maximum legal speed limit. I do understand, however, that if you are sitting on that much horsepower, you must be tempted to use it.
- Boots: I don’t wear cowboy boots for strenuous outdoor labor such as clearing brush. I reserve a pair of plain work boots for that. Otherwise, you’ll usually find me in a pair of black Allbirds tree runners. Made from eucalyptus fibers, they are great on 5-mile morning walks with the pups. They breathe in the summer, stay warm in the winter. Do not, however, wear them in the rain. They absorb rather than repel moisture.
- Hats: I don’t own a cowboy hat. I never found one that sat easily on my head. Anyway, the stiff, crisp types preferred by country stars and politicians these days run counter to my almost juvenile urge for historical authenticity.
- Camo: I don’t wear camouflage. Most of the people who do these days are clearly neither active hunters nor members of the armed forces. They are not attempting to fade into a natural background, but rather they are making a quite visual public statement.
- Guns: I don’t own or carry a gun. Haven’t seemed to need one, at least during my first 70 years. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
- Beef: I don’t dote on beef. I eat it. Regularly. With relish. Omnivorous, I don’t prefer it to pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, goat, duck, goose, turkey, lamb or game. In fact, I rather prefer a certain gaminess in my animal proteins.
- Music: I don’t listen to country music with any degree of consistency. (See list below.) If I’m on a Texas road trip beyond the major media markets, there aren’t many choices. I listen to country until the inevitable “list song” comes on. You know what I’m talking about: The singer lists the things that make him or her “true country,” and you likely not.
- Football: I don’t attend high school football games. I’m not even a big fan of the NFL. College ball is another story. Luckily, I live in Austin.
- Friendship: I don’t greet everybody with an aggressive “Howdy,” or its substitute, “Hidee.” I smile, nod and keep myself open to any number of polite greetings, to which I respond with equal measures of friendliness.
- Accent: I don’t normally speak with a strong Texas accent. Get this straight: I’m not trying to be something I’m not. Can’t escape the fact that I grew up in a big Texas city, interacting with people from all over the world, while watching mostly American TV and movies. That is the way we sound.
10 ways I am, after all, a typical Texan
You thought you had me figured out. There are always exceptions to the rules.
- Trucks: I did drive a truck once upon a time. It was a broken-down ’70s-era red Ford. Do I sacrifice Texas-tough points by pointing out that I purchased it to haul around material for theatrical scenery?
- Boots: I do still own a pair of cowboy boots. I might squeeze into my black 1978 Tony Lamas for weddings, funerals and black-tie events, meaning they are more formal than informal wear. These are replacements, by the way, purchased at one of the many boot shops near us in South Austin, for my original “Urban Cowboy” boots of the same vintage. Wore those out long ago.
- Hats: I do own and religiously wear more than a dozen hats — straw, felt and canvas. That is because, as a fair-skinned redhead who grew up in a high-UV state, my sun-damaged skin is now putting my dermatologist’s daughter through college.
- Camo: I do agree that there are legitimate uses for camouflage. Pushing ahead in the snack line at Buc-ee’s is not one of them. By the way, we patronize only the original, blue-collar Buc-ee’s in Freeport, Brazoria and West Columbia, not the suburban usurpers found elsewhere.
- Guns: I did hunt with a gun. More than once. Killed nothing. Growing up on the coast, I fished for a big part of my youth. Yes, I was one of those people with a freezer full of self-caught redfish before conservationists, thank goodness, came to their rescue. The fish are back!
- Beef: I do order a good cut of steak, lightly seasoned, charred and cooked medium rare when spied on a restaurant dinner menu. That is because I still don’t grill steak proficiently at home. For pretty much any other uses of beef, I’m your man in the kitchen.
- Music: I do like Americana, some pop-country crossover, country gospel and virtually all legacy country and western. Once, I nearly froze my face off at Loretta Lynn rodeo concert. Wasn’t going to miss that.
- Football: I do binge on “Friday Night Lights” every five years. A perfect Texas TV show, true down to the last detail. I did attend high school games when I was in high school. Not that Houston’s Strake Jesuit performed all that well during the late ’60s and early ’70s. It got better.
- Friendship: I do follow up polite greetings with amiable personal questions that might spark a real human chat. I am curious about people and fascinated by our similarities and differences.
- Accent: I do slip into an authentic Texas accent when appropriate, as when chatting up the occupant of the next barstool in a small-town dive. That fluency lies just below the surface, along with “ma’am,” “sir,” “y’all” and “this ain’t my first rodeo.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]. Sign up for the free weekly digital newsletter, Think, Texas, at statesman.com/newsletters, or at the newsletter page of your local USA Today Network paper.