In my last post, I describe my experiences visiting the City of Austin, Texas. Some people describe Austin as being “not really Texas”. And, while that may be a simplification, or exaggeration of the experience there, the general point is that the experience of being in Austin is different than the the experience of being in any other part of Texas. So, while I spent some time in Austin last weekend, I also got the opportunity to experience other places in Texas, and actually get immersed into the culture here.
One of the first places I went to, just 20 miles or so outside of Austin, was the Salt Lick, for some high quality Texas barbecue. I was surprised to see such a large establishment. I had gone to BBQ in places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the past, and those experiences usually involved smaller, more side-of-the road type establishments. I had come to, in my head, assume that was the standard BBQ experience, but the Salt Lick is pretty gigantic. And, the first thing I saw when I entered the restaurant was a gigantic barbecue pit. The last time I had seen so much meat in one place was at the World’s Largest Brat Festival in Wisconsin.
Texas style barbecue, of course, includes brisket. In order to experience the full range of barbecue experience, I ordered a combination plate that included brisket, ribs, and sausage. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant asks their patrons if they want their brisket “lean”, or “moist”. Not being a fan of fatty meats, I chose “lean”, and really enjoyed the entire meal.
In fact, I kind of felt like I spent the entire weekend eating brisket! The other establishments I went to, like the Salt Lick, were sizable establishments. Coopers, in New Braunfels, was big enough to accommodate a group of 16 people without really having to adjust anything from their normal operating experience.
Whenever I was not eating barbecue food, I was eating Mexican food, which is plentiful in Texas due to it’s close proximity to, as well as history of being a part of, Mexico. I visited several Mexican food establishments while in Texas, including a place many of us that live elsewhere should become familiar with: Torchy’s Tacos. Later this year, they will expand beyond the borders of Texas, opening up a location in Denver, Colorado. They may very well expand to some other areas as well.
This area is often referred to as “Texas Hill Country”, as, well, unlike most of the Great Plains, it is kind of hilly. Parts of it sort of remind me of the “Driftless Area” of Southwestern Wisconsin, with rolling hills one to several hundred feet tall. Although, the geological history these regions is quite different.
Here I attended a wedding, and took part in another local custom, floating the river. At the wedding, the main thing I noticed about the culture here in Texas was the affinity for line dancing. I had expected the country music line dancing. But, what shocked me was how often people would just naturally form a line while dancing to other songs. When YMCA, and Gangnam Style, came on, people here just naturally formed themselves into a line as if it were second nature.
In Texas, if is quite common for people to go on “floating”, or “tubing” trips. It is basically an outdoorsy activity that is far more relaxing than the ones I usually take part in here in Colorado. It mostly just involves laying in a tube, and gently floating down a river. Many people here own their own tubes to float in, and bring floatable coolers, where they pack beer. I have heard it is quite common for people to get quite intoxicated while taking part in a float trip.
Texas hill country also contains a lot of natural features, some of which have become common family-type tourist destinations. A few miles west of New Braunfels is a place called Natural Bridge Caverns, which, just as the name advertises, is a Natural Bridge above ground with a cavern below ground.
Every time I visit a place like this, I always come away with mixed views regarding the commercialization of these natural features. One one hand, I look at staircases, buildings, and all of these artificial looking features being present, and wonder if we are losing out on some of the experience. But, I also see that having paved roads to get here, walkways through the area, and other comfort related conveniences opens up the experience of viewing these places to many people who otherwise would not have been able to see them.
It was in San Antonio, however, where I learned about the history of Texas. Downtown San Antonio kind of has an odd combination of historical significance. On one end of downtown is The Alamo. Originally a “mission“, the place later became a military post in the war for independence from Mexico, and now a museum, which is also considered a Shrine of Texas Liberty. This place very much celebrates the people of Texas separating from Mexico, and, of course, later joining the United States.
On the other end of downtown is a place called Historic Market Square, a place that celebrates Mexican cultural heritage. In the plaza, I saw T-Shirts for sale that exuded Mexican pride. In fact, with authentic Mexican food and cultural items for sale everywhere, I almost felt like I could have actually been in Mexico.
It just makes me wonder. Is this a City that is in conflict with itself? How do those of Mexican decent here in San Antonio feel about Texas history?
The area between the Alamo and Historic Market Square was also kind of confusing. On the surface, the city looked kind of dreary. I kind of felt like I was in a bad part of Chicago, or any other big city that has a significant amount of blight. But, underneath the surface was San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which is quite lively.
In fact, San Antonio kind of pioneered the idea of riverwalks. And, it appears other cities are trying to copy them.
After reading about Texas history, I kind of had a better understanding of the place. Specifically, at the Alamo, they describe a struggle in Mexican politics. On one side there was a group of people that strongly supported a Federalist type system of government based on a constitution that was modeled after the United States. Under this system, some powers were devolved to the states, of which Texas (or Tejas) was one. On the other side, was a group of centralizers that wanted more control in the hands of the central government in Mexico City. Texans strongly supported the former over the latter, and when the latter won power, they felt their way of life threatened. The successful defense of Texas, establishment of the Lone Star Republic, and later admission to a country whose values more closely resembled their own is viewed as a triumph.
It is without a doubt that many Texans today see a lot of parallels (whether or not they are correct) to today’s political struggles in the United States. Having this history, one in which many people in the state take pride, definitely explains why succession talk would be much more prevalent here than it would be in other states who strongly oppose some aspects of how our Federal government is operating.
There was always some concern over whether I would fit in here in Texas. Anyone that talks to me can clearly hear my Long Island accent. I do not try to hide it. Some people who have lived in Texas told me that it would also be obvious that I am an outsider by the manner in which I conduct myself, and the types of topics I discuss on a regular basis.
But, I took a “leap of faith” of sorts, and just decided to be myself when interacting with people here. And, I was actually received quite warmly here, by people who probably have a significantly different lifestyle and set of values than my own. Everyone was friendly to me, and they were even receptive to the kinds of conversation topics I tend to engage people in.
As I thought through the acceptance I experienced here, as well as the history, the current succession talk and anger, I came to an important realization. Maybe we are not nearly as divided as people make us out to be. Maybe it is really only the most vocal (and angry) among us that display this division. After all, if 1.4 Million people can live in a city which celebrates both it’s Mexican heritage and it’s struggle for independence from Mexico, maybe we can find a way to celebrate what makes everyone unique.