Texas, for me, has always been a fly-over state. Aside from a long-ago business trip to Irving, I’d never set foot in the Lone Star State. I imagined Texas to be one great stretch of arid land with only tumbleweeds to break the monotony. A place only Wile E. Coyote could love. Well, folks, I was wrong.
First of all, Texas is not flat. At least not in Hill Country, a crescent-shaped swath of land bordered by San Antonio in the south and Austin in the east. Its’ a lush place rich with surprising combinations of cactus, pine and fern.
They say everything in Texas is big and that certainly applies to the skies. A storm threatens our hike at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Rain does in fact fall on our parade but it’s a welcome relief from the intense heat.
We crisscross Hill Country. Barb wire fences lead the way. Once they were enough to cause bloodshed between cattlemen and farmers. Now they get decorated Texan style.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, was born and raised in Hill Country. His family roots lie buried deep in that place and their mark never left him. That Texan drawl and the folksy Hill Country sayings like:
He was a good man to go to the well with.
Since my husband is a US history buff, we go to all the LBJ hot spots. The Johnson City District is a collection of buildings with LBJ significance, including his boyhood home and some terrific exhibits on cattle drives and the Texas frontier life. Hostile Indians, a rough river crossing, the price of cattle: any one of these things can kill a man and ruin his family.
A few miles down the road lies the LBJ Ranch aka the Texas White House. It’s the place where Johnson felt most at home, meeting political rivals and allies on Johnson’s own turf.
And then there’s the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas in Austin. The campus is a lovely, tree-shaded place. Not the kind of venue you’d associate with a mass shooting. In 1966, Charles Whitman made history by placing himself and his arsenal on the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower. It wasn’t the first mass shooting or even the first campus shooting in America. But it did spark the creation of SWAT teams and mark the first live media coverage of an active shooter.
UT students are still fighting for the right to get an education in a gun-free zone.
Texas is an open carry state. That means you can carry a handgun, openly or concealed, as long as you are licensed to do so. You must also carry your handgun in a holster. Other than that, it’s a free-for all. No restrictions on assault weapons. No background checks required. Gun control is one of the many wedge issues at stake in this November’s Senate race between the Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke against the Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.
We arrive in Austin on the night of the first O’Rourke – Cruz debate. Our restaurant is broadcasting the debate live. All of the waitstaff and most of the other diners are wearing Beto for Texas regalia. Our hosts are surprised but I’m thrilled to be in Beto country and surrounded by his supporters.
So why not take it to the next level? We go to the Beto O’Rourke campaign headquarters. My husband does his journalist thing while I take in the action. There’s a constant stream of supporters coming in to buy lawn signs or just donate money. Nathaniel wants to take a picture with the Beto cardboard cutout (or maybe it’s his mom who wants it).
But if politics is big in Texas, then music is even bigger. Janis Joplin and Selena grace the city walls. Wherever you go in Austin, live music can’t be far. You might get unlucky and hear Billie Jean played on a harmonica, an electric keyboard or a ukulele. Or you might hit pay dirt like us. We find ourselves in the midst of the Pecan Street Festival. The Superfónicos are playing their special brand of Afro-Colombian funk and we groove to the tunes under the watchful painted eyes of Willie Nelson.
Last but not least, there is the food. We devote our first night in Austin to Rudy’s smokehouse. We pull up behind the Shell station, just off the busy Capitol of Texas Highway. Wait our turn like everyone else. There’s a football game on the big screen and lots of neon signs to announce the options. You can buy Rudy’s secret sauce but what you really want is the beef brisket.
I could eat that stuff every day if I lived in Austin. Hang out by the lake and read. Make Austin my new home on the range.