In the last month, I have made two trips to the state of Texas and have spent time in four of its major cities and much of the ground in between them. Many of you may be guffawing (or even feeling sorry for me) since a surprisingly large number of people seem to loathe Texas and all it stands for. But I have a fondness for Texas that has lasted for 30-some years, and I’m here to convince you to rethink your feelings!
Texas does everything big, but who says living large can’t be fun on occasion? There are some bad big things, like a few megalomaniacal egos, gun racks, snarled mega-highways, and gas-guzzling trucks. But there are just as many harmless and amusing big things, like gargantuan turkey legs, hairdos, and belt buckles, and there are plenty of good big things, too, like a medical center on steroids, expansive fields and skies, towering shiny buildings, wide friendly smiles, … and giant margaritas, of course.
My history with Texas dates back to my first real job assignment when, after training, I was transferred from a northern bank to its oil and gas lending office in Houston. It was not where I ever expected to live, but it was a blast for a few years in my 20s, and I’ve had a soft spot for it ever since. I loved the weather and the casual social life; to this day, there is almost nothing more appealing to me than sitting on an outdoor patio strung with little white lights, drinking a longneck beer, and listening to live music.
Houston is much more than a humid, un-zoned sprawl on a bayou. A few years ago, Forbes magazine named Houston one of the coolest cities in the U.S.; more recently they called it “America’s next great global city” and other publications have proclaimed it a sweet draw for twenty-somethings. Atop the reasons for all these accolades is another big thing: the job market. Young people are flocking to Houston, where jobs are plentiful, rents are still comparatively low, and there is no state income tax. Outdoor music and entertainment venues abound, the arts scene is deep and sophisticated, and upscale bars and restaurants seem to multiply every few months.
The lack of zoning does make for some ugly streetscapes on occasion, but it also produces some fun and funky juxtapositions: a tattoo parlor next to a new gourmet restaurant, open-pit BBQ joints abutting pricey condos, or a highbrow museum nestled into a quiet, unassuming city neighborhood. From the gleaming skyscrapers in one of the best skylines in the country to the Montrose rollerblader (a seriously hilarious dude who cannot be explained, so see here), Houston offers a mix of high and low, sophisticated and quirky attractions under sunny Texas skies. Throw in the annual Rodeo (much more than calf-roping), a medical center bigger than downtown Dallas, NASA, and the fact that Houston is now the most ethnically-diverse city in the U.S., and you’ve got a real winner. Give it another (open-minded) chance and you might be extolling its charms, too!
You can see I clearly love Houston. But there’s more … lots more. This month, I also enjoyed Fort Worth again for a few days. “Cowtown” is smaller and more western-feeling than Houston, but it’s also a great place to enjoy the weather and mix good old country appeal with some upscale stops. Although I’ve been to the Stockyards many times, I had to go again to see the cattle drive down the main street. In my flawed memory, the longhorns stampeded down the cobblestones, but in reality they plod in a most docile fashion! They are still magnificent beasts to behold, and the daily cattle drive and the Stockyards in general recreate the former fame of Fort Worth as the major livestock supply and shipping point it was over a century ago.
Today, Fort Worth maintains its western ambiance while blossoming as a modern city of many cultural and natural charms. Billy Bob’s is still there for you line dancers, and even the businessmen sport cowboy boots under their suit pants.
At the same time, though, the Kimbell Museum and Bass Performance Hall often get the same blockbuster exhibits and shows seen in larger markets, the parks system is extensive and includes the heavenly Botanic Garden, the restaurant scene is growing and impressive, and the town’s support of and connection with TCU, its up-and-coming private college, make for an energetic, young vibe.
In the middle of the state, Austin and San Antonio are well-known towns that are growing by leaps and bounds. Austin, the college town and state capital, keeps making best-places-to-live lists, and San Antonio still feels like a small town even though it’s now the seventh largest city in the U.S. This trip, we visited the Alamo again; the tiny mission in the middle of San Antonio is not only a fascinating historical site, but an oasis of calm and quiet in the city. Its gardens hold centuries-old oaks and ancient cacti along soft gravel pathways, and the bullet-riddled walls of the Alamo glow warmly in the sun.
Between our city stays, we squeezed in a few days in the Hill Country, passing an afternoon in tiny Gruene (where George Strait got his start at Gruene Hall) and spending the night in the charming German town of Fredericksburg.
As an honor to local son Admiral Chester Nimitz, Fredericksburg also boasts the National Museum of the Pacific War, an enormous collection of WWII memorabilia and equipment housed in an architecturally stunning building. We could have spent days around Fredericksburg and a week in the Hill Country, eating barbecue, visiting vineyards, hiking, and shopping.
Texas has its detractors and, like anywhere, it is not perfect, but both living there and visiting often in the last few years have reinforced my feelings of affection for this diverse and spirited state. Luckily, I will be back in the great state of Texas twice more before the end of the summer and if you’re lucky, I’ll write about it again!