On the road in Texas
A chill lay on the land, giving no hint of the oppressive heat of the coming day. The grass smelled like newly washed corn. Two big old pheasants picked around on the front lawn. Across the pasture, a fine mist shimmered on the surface of the lake. And the car windows covered with dew.
It was dawn on an East Texas farm.
All around streched the great "piney woods," tall trees covering the ground like coarse fur: a region of cool forest stillness, interrupted in clearings by intense searing heat. It is in just such a clearing that later in the day -- a 50-mile drive and a long hike through the woods away -- we found John Henry Niederhofer, a tall man in overalls, with limpid blue eyes and sun-browned skin, wearing a nail apron and a peaked cap, and complaining about the invasion of his rustic world. A big black-and-gold butterfly goes by, and Mr. Niederhofer's wife, a short, intelligent woman with thick calluses on her hands, is chopping wood in the sun-scorched clearing on their land. But he hardly notices woman or insect.
"I'm about to declare war on these hippies," he drawls, chomping determinedly on a nail. "We had one down here the other day, broke into my camp trailer and fished in my lake. Sheriff came up and arrested him for criminal trespass. He spent one night in jail, and then they set him loose. I think they were too easy with him."
Mr. Niederhofer, who watches the local papers for instances intrusions into local life, is also upset that the town fathers are "fixin" to condemn that ole nigra woman's place and take it away from her." Not upset because of any great passions for civil rights causes, but because he's sick and tired of what he sees as the land-grabbing, chamber-of-commerce mentality that is running the landscape here.
Standing on the edge of this clearing, so clearly demarking the forest stillness on one hand and the raw, over- turned earth on the other, Mr. Niedorhofer is also cutting edge of a culture in transition.
Texas -- with its glass and silver skylines, wide-open economy, promise of a leisurely life style, and some of the most gorgeous geography you ever saw -- is undergoing a physical and social transformation as it vies with other Sunbelt states to become the new, permanent residence of the American Dream.
here are signs that at least some Texans, like Mr. Niederhofer, think the ensuing influx of Northerners into their backyard is doing more harm than good. Witness the bumper stickers chiding interlopers to "Bring us your money -- you stay home"; and those that read, "Drive 90 m.p.h., -- freeze a Yankee." And there are also complaints that "Dallas is being run by outsiders," that the Texas life style is being destroyed by a combination of greed, ignorance, and a lust for land.
But many more think that this life is what you make of it, that the place is big enough and tough enough to absorb anything.
I went in search of the Texas life style, and the effect that mass migrations from the North might be having here, in a journey of 1,800 miles around the state by car. I might as well have gone in search of America, for all the incredible richness and diversity of the place, its undulating, spectacular land , and the endless variety of its people.
The Edwards Plateau, where I concentrated most of my traveling, is in the heart of Texas, running almost as far west as the Pecos, up to just beyong Fort Worth in the north, and down east and south to Austin and San Antonio. This massive geological uplift (it covers almost 86,000 square miles) is, I am told, like a giant plaster-of-Paris block that has been etched deeply by the source waters of the Colorado, Brazos, and Nueces rivers, into distinct regions, such as the Texas hill country.
A southeastern extension of the Great Plains, it runs from 800 or 900 feet above sea level around Austin to almost 2,500 feet near Sanderson and Fort Stockton in the west. Its eastern gives way abruptly to the flatter, more tropical country leading to Houston and the Gulf ports, but for the most part, it is high country, cooler and more picturesque than the flatlands around it.
I came to the Edwards Plateau out of Dallas and Fort Worth, south on highway 35, away from the eight lanes and silve citadels, down along the highway into the central stillness of the state.
Country and Western music oozed, syrup-thick, out of my car speakers as I left the ultramodern "Metroplex" (as they call Dallas-Fort Worth), -- down past the signs saying, "Want the good life? Only $50.000 an acre. No down payment." And I heard Willie Nelson in his husky-throated version of the theme from the movie "The Electric Horseman": My heroes have always been cowboys, And they still are it seems. Sadly in search of, One step in back of, Themselves and their slow-movin' dreams.
I saw the fenced-in yards become wide open land; saw the flat earth begin to undulate gently and rise out of the programmed spaces into the gentle softness of the hill country; and I knew I was in Texas, for sure.
"Looks like there's some weather up that way," says the large man who comes out to pump gas, as though I stop in here at this time every day. "Tornadoes, they say."
Are they supposed to come down here?
"Naw, they didn't say nothin' about down here. Said it would be up around Dallas and Fort Worth." After a few more gallons slosh down the spout, he looks across the street at some men working on a roof and observes, "Those boys better get their shingles up in a hurry if they're gonna beat the rain."
I haven't seen any signs of rain on my way down from Dallas.
Now he's squeezing the last dollar or so into the tank. "I see those women over there are still plantin' their beans. Most folks already finished with their plantin'. . . . Well, be seein' you."
The gas comes to $15.70, twice the amount shown on the pump. And, as I drive away, the sun comes pouring suddenly out of the clouds. Looks as though they might not get that rain after all.
Diller Hill, once a dance and beer joint south and west of Austin, looks as though it might have been in business for a number of years. The old wooden doorstep is well worn by the constant passage of booted feet; and the earthen parking lot has been beaten down hard from years of cars pulling in and out. Today, it stands empty and closed, out in a desolate stretch of highway, a victim of shifting life styles.
Diller Hill (Diller is the local nickname for an armadillo) is what you imagine the night life of many Texans to have been in the recent past: noisy, boisterous, hard-driving, and gritty. Today, the night spots are chic. There's plastic and simulated wood and soft lights. It's upper middle class. So this place has fallen into disuse.
Sandstone walls and corrugated roof are burned by the relentless sun. There's an old shed out back beside a rusted windmill with its blades long gone. Aside from a peculiar creaking noise echoing in the dark interior of the building, there is no hint of movement, except for the sign swinging over the front door.
This sign, its paint peeled and faded by the sun, is an example of amateur local art, with the words "Diller Hill" on the bottom and top and, in the middle , an artlessly drawn but unmistakable armadillo.
Armadillos should be the state animal of Texas. Not so much because they are plentiful here (they are), but because they seem to embody the amiable toughness of the state, its peculiar combination of armed resistance and corny hospitality.
"Armadillos haven't changed in a million years," I am advised later by a young man who studies the ecology of south-central Texas as a hobby. "They can walk on the bottoms of small rivers or roll themselves into a ball and float with the currents. They used to be found only west of the Mississippi, but somehow they got across."
I got my first close look at an armadillo, not east of the Mississippi, but here in the Texas hill country, on a back- country road. It was sitting beside the tarmac, grubbing for insects in the grass, and it hardly moved as I stopped the car to get out.
Looking exactly like a fat, giant mouse in a suit of armor (the type worn by Spanish conquistadors) with a long, plated tail, it grew nervous as I approached , moving slowly off. And when I bent down to look at it, it took a sudden leap like a jack rabbit and bounced off into the brush.
As I straightened up, I noticed a ranch down among the sloping hills beyond the brush. A couple of buzzards were swooping lazily overhead in the gentle breeze. And it was quiet, a thousand-years' kind of quiet. It made you wish that nothing would come along and change anything, ever. The sky so immense, and the land stretched out beneath it, and everything so perfect.
The word "land" takes on a different meaning here. You can go only so far before you begin to realize that there is something majestic and everlasting about it. Take a turn off the road and go as far back into the country as you can imagine, and there is still an endless stretch of country before you.This is the part of Texas that looks changeless, untouchable, unownable.
But as you get nearer the cities, things begin to change.
With its low, flat buildings and wide, unlandscaped main road, Giddings is still the quintessence of small town Texas, which so far has remained untouched by the architectural splendor of Dallas and Houston and has yet to succumb to "strip city" developments. But, in one respect, it is proving itself remarkably similar to the two megalopolises: It is becoming more and more crowded every day.
A tiny town built close to the ground, as these Texas towns tend to be, Giddings is an awfully busy place. Pickup trucks and cars jam the roads, determined people rush about in a most un-small-town-Texas manner, and there is hardly an empty parking place in sight.
Giddings is a genuine boomtown. Halfway between Austin and Houston, it is the geographic and commercial center of a number of newfound oil strikes that are transforming the life of surrounding communities. (This explains the heavy traffic in a town where, by all appearances, the main vehicular problem should be a flat tire blocking a local driveway.)
There have been oil wells in the area for at least 15 years. But in the last 4 or 5, several strikes have gushed up in local grassland and have made many locals wealthier, local residents wealthier.
Traveling through the bucolic countryside, which sits on the edge of the "lost pines" region of souht-central Texas, you see the bobbing mehanical heads of oil pumps and even an occasional oil field -- flat, dusty, and grassless. Up close, the black, oily pumps look like so many horses, bending to drink from the puddle of Texas crude at their feet, producing up to $500 or $600 a day in new oil.
To the local chamber of commerce, Gidding's new oil is a boon of epic proportions, bringing in quick money and lively growth. But there are problems as well. The wildcatters have imported crowds of oil riggers, construction crews, and roughneck transient workers. And visitors who used to ply this area with total impunity have now been cautioned to "stay off the back roads" where the big equipment trucks roar dangerously close to passing cars.
Perhaps because of the change in population, local people are wary of strangers. Their houses, nestled in rolling grassland that is dotted with "tanks" (small man-made lakes for livestock and irrigation), seem to be shuttered against intruders, and one needs an introduction to get a conversation going.
The paranoia of urban America has arrived in Giddings, Texas. But this paranoia is the only sign of urbia you see all the way through the nearly tropical flatlands that lead to Houston.
Bluebonnets and paintbrush, local wildflowers, make a purple and orange haze in the grass, as if an army of impressionists had come through and touched up the roadside.Water towers rising above the treetops mutely announced the approach of small towns, open, peaceful places that look as though nothing happens too quickly in their precincts. In one, I see a pickup truck breezing along the main thoroughfare with an entire family in it, some on the back and quite a few inside.
On the way to Houston, there is also a large natural-wood structure that looks like a medieval gate (in fact it's called "Chappel Gate") leading to a dirt road winding around twin lakes and several acres of Kelly-green grass to a large, modern ranch house that sits on a hillside studded with grazing sheep. A small red sign on the gate reads, "Posted. No trespassing. Keep out."
Following this good advice, one keeps steady to the road and gradually comes upon the back end of Houston. Unlike most approaches to large Texas cities, this access has no spectacular long- distance view. San Antonio's fairy-tale spires and old Southwestern towers rise grandly from a distance out of a hazy horizon; Dallas, with its skyline seeming to be half under construction, looks like a world's fair exhibit sitting on a giant table; and Fort Worth looks like a collection of cow palaces and old Western-style skyscrapers sitting in the palm of someone's hand.
The first thing you notice about Houston is the onset of crowded housing and the portable roadside signs that read: "Jobs, jobs, jobs." "Houses. Rent to buy." And you spend a good 45 minutes making your way through the single-family slums of north Houston before you come suddenly upon the most crystalclear, glass-marble-and silver dream city of its size anywhere.
The next thing you notice is the traffic jams and the twisted complexes of eight-lane highways, convoluted on- and off-ramps, and interlacing skyways that carry them along. Houston is a city in motion, an urban palace surrounded by a sea of traffic humming and churning its way in and out of the commercial heart of the city.
Dallas is more orderly in its growth than Houston, less pressing in its life style.
Not that there is anything slow-moving about the dreams of commerce or anything else in Dallas. Even the inflation rate here is a steady-stepping 20 percent. And the housing market is breaking wide open with apartment-locator firms springing up like hillside flowers and the cost of rents crawling steadily upward.
But Dallas seems to combine both the economic energy of Houston and some of the relaxed living of the rest of Texas.
"This is a good place to get started professionally. A place where you can cover a lot of ground quickly. There's not 50 people in line for every job," comments one Northern immigrant. "And the quality of seafood restaurants is going up, too," another adds dryly.
Two snapshots of downtown Dallas, which is clean and new and surprisingly compact:
Noontime at the Dallas Times-Herald. In the news room, reporters and editors are huddled around a television set. A secretary looking in from the library wisecracks, "Dallas in crisis," as they all listen to Roger Staubach, the legendary football hero of this part of the country, announce his retirement as the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. And, in the heart of the city, a unique park is scooped out of the earth -- white marble walls, waterfalls, grassy slopes, all leading up to a curling marble tower. They call this Thanksgiving Square and Garden of Gratitude. It is designed "to celebrate our gratitude to God for the gift of Life." And the gateway is marked "Love the Lord your God with all your heart."
You leave this garden, take one swoop through the city, and snake around a superhighway out of Dallas into the generous portion of Texas landscape that separates it from Fort Worth, finding a Texas city untouched by much of the high- voltage economic growth that has swept through Dallas and Houston. Fort Worth retains much of the sandy-faced Western appeal that once earned it the name "Cow Town," and still bills itself as the city "where the West begins." It doesn't seem to have erupted, architecturally or economically, the way Dallas and Houston have.
Steve Murrin, a long, slim weed of a man, who is "living the legend of the West," according to one local observer, tries to explain why.
He's got a think, black mustache streaked with premature gray hairs, grown in the Western style, just as the storefronts are painted in the Western style around the Wild West city he is trying to build in the Fort Worth stockyards area. He complains that Fort Worth, which once was the end of the trail for cowboys on their cattle drives, just doesn't seem to move as fast as Dallas.
He started 10 years ago to try to build his Wild West city around the fabled Fort Worth stockyards and the rodeo coliseum he runs for the city. But he says the local politicos stop almost every kind of progress with "a lack of vision and understanding." Mr. Murrin obviously has an ax to grind, as he readily admits, and he acknowledges that "Fort Worth isn't Dallas"; but he wishes the city could adopt some of Dallas's high-spending, boosterism.
Stomping along a wood plank walkway above the stockyard pens, the sounds of distant cows reaching up occasionally, he complains about Fort Worth's past "scapegoats" -- no convention center and no airport.
"Well, we've got both [Fort Worth now shares a futuristic airport with Dallas and has a respectable convention center of its own], and that still didn't do it for us," he observes testily. "We did get the rock-and-roll shows away from Dallas. But they take money out of our economy and send it to New York and London." Still, he says, this part of Texas remains embedded in its past, a past one can easily see right here in the back of the stockyards in an open-air shedlike building with a cement floor and old wood sides.
Just at the far corner of the stockyards, with a long chute leading out of one of the holding pens, is where cattle are brought for special treatment as a favor to their owners. Here they are inoculated, branded, or dehorned, work generally done in more modernized, mechanized surroundings on feedlots, but still performed on a customized basis here for important customers.
The cow is led through the chute, which progressively narrows, until it is forced into the narrowest part at one end, and a hefty woman in sweaty work clothes heaves her whole weight down on a pull-rope to close the sides of the chute around the beast, so that it can be worked on. Afterwards the cow is released, and makes its way, dazed and wobbly, into the waiting pen.
Brands are carved on the sides of the chutes -- a sort of Western hieroglyphics etched into the wood. A creaking overhead fan hardly stirs the thick afternoon air. And a fly-covered fluorescent bulb swings uselessly overhead.
A muscular man in faded overalls, with his hair so closely cropped his head could be shaved, looks as if he has put in a hard day. Next to him sits a rusted hod of white-hot rocks, with branding irons waiting beside it.
"If you wait around a little bit, we're fixin' to brand a bull," another man offers hospitably. "Maybe you could watch."