That’s the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. The lovely photo is by Sean Fitzgerald from this story. The theme of this issue of Texas Highways is rivers — and more generally water in Texas. It’s something that concerns me profoundly. I have an essay on water and the West coming out in Raritan soon — I’ll link to it when it appears.
Almost anywhere you find tourists in Texas, from waterfront neighborhoods on Galveston Island to the ghost towns in the western reaches of the state, locals are bemoaning the changes unleashed by short-term rentals and the visitors who temporarily inhabit them. In Dallas, where one neighborhood STR was turned into a raucous wedding venue, infuriating neighbors, the city council is weighing a plan to outlaw STRs from residential neighborhoods. In Fredericksburg, the popular Hill Country getaway, locals have blamed STRs for exacerbating a severe housing shortage. In Wimberley, about an hour southwest of Austin, they’ve been accused of encouraging debauchery. But when it comes to STRs in Texas, there is no place quite like Austin. The influx of STRs is inextricably linked to the city’s transformation, in just over a decade, from one of the most affordable cities in America to one of the least. Between 2000 and 2010, Austin was the only city in the U.S. experiencing double-digit growth that also saw a decline in the percentage of its Black population — a decline that continued over the next decade. No longer a countercultural haven for artists and independent thinkers, Austin has embraced a new role as the tourist-obsessed, bachelor party–dependent STR capital of Texas — a kind of Las Vegas with tacos in which it can feel as if the real world has been subsumed by the digital one being marketed on Instagram by newly-arrived influencers and real estate agents.
This is incredibly depressing but also utterly unsurprising.
There’s a self-regarding preciousness to much of Donald Judd’s work — and to the whole town of Marfa — that I don’t care for, but he also did some truly major work and I hope the Chinati Foundation reaches its financial goals. The most interesting installation there, I think, is Robert Irwin’s massive study in light and shade.
More familiar instances of toxic masculinity concern the wanton infliction of violence, especially the sexual kind, especially upon women and girls. Yet on the other side of the wall was, it seems, another sort of toxic masculinity — a platoon of armed and trained men who had evidently come to rely so heavily on guns and armor in lieu of courage and strength that they found themselves bereft of the latter when outdone in the former. Instead they were beset by cowardice, evidently as convinced as the shooter was that the gun really does make the man, and that outgunned is thus as good as outmanned.
In its own imagination, Texas is the land of men who would never admit defeat at all, much less surrender instantly with decent odds and innocent lives at stake: Surely its police ought to feel the highest and noblest sort of calling to valor, the type of vocation that surpasses profession and speaks to a person’s mission in life. Or perhaps those things, too, all the militarism and bravado, the heady authority and free respect, the unearned certainty in one’s own capacities provoked by so many Punisher bumper stickers and decals, had the same corrupting effect as the guns and body armor. Eventually, one either develops their own virtues or finds they’ve developed vices instead.
Balko has often over the years pointed to the recruitment strategies of police departments, which commonly feature images of men in body armor riding in military assault vehicles. When your recruiting strategy targets people who get excited by that kind of thing, you get what you ask for — instead of, for instance, finding people who take satisfaction in serving and protecting the community. But even if you get emotionally immature recruits, you can train them in better ways. Alas, as Bruenig suggests, at places like Uvalde the emphasis seems to be on exacerbating their recruits’ vices rather than cultivating their virtues.
You have to hope and pray that the shame of Uvalde will cause police departments around the country to reflect on the kind of men they’re hiring — and the kind of men they’re making. But the rot is so deep that it’s hard to be hopeful.
UPDATE: Arthur Rizer: “So much of this turns out to be LARPing: half-trained, half-formed kids playing soldier in America’s streets and schools. Many of the thousands of SWAT-team members in this country don’t have the training and expertise to respond like they’re SEAL Team 6. It’s time to stop pretending that they do.”
Happy 83rd birthday to the McDonald Observatory!
Happy birthday to Willie Nelson, 89 years young today. Smoke ’em if you got ’em. The Texas Monthly podcast One By Willie — in which musicians talk with John Spong about a Willie song of their choice — is consistently terrific. Why not listen to an episode or two in commemoration of the great man?
Moving to Texas eight years ago forced me to think often about water — and the future of American places that simply don’t have enough of it to sustain their populations. (I have an essay on this topic coming out in Raritan, but not for a few months.) Stories like this one are, to me, harrowing, and they always push me towards a counterfactual thought experiment: What would America look like if the growth of our population and the movement of our people had been governed by rational expectations of water supply?
What a lovely tribute to Willie Nelson’s sister Bobbie, the heartbeat of his band for so many years. R.I.P.
Whatever you think of McMurtry as a writer, it’s worth reflecting on this plain fact: No other writer has ever had a career remotely like his, and no writer ever again will have such a career. The bookshops, the Hollywood screenplays, the novels pounded out on a manual typewriter — and a single dominant theme, something he recognized early on:
In their youth, as I have said, my uncles sat on the barn and watched the last trail herds moving north — I sat on the self-same barn and saw only a few oil-field pickups and a couple of dairy trucks go by. That life died, and I am lucky to have found so satisfying a replacement as Don Quixote offered. And yet, that first life has not quite died in me — not quite. I missed it only by the width of a generation and, as I was growing up, heard the whistle of its departure. Not long after I entered the pastures of the empty page I realized that the place where all my stories start is the heart faced suddenly with the loss of its country, its customary and legendary range.
And that is a theme no writer will ever again have, either.
“It’s always a good idea to go to Texas, if you can’t think of anything else to do.” — so says Winfield Gohagen, in McMurtry’s novel Somebody’s Darling. Sage advice. I took it myself.
When power was out all over Waco and the temperatures were dropping into the single digits, the city set up “warming centers” for residents in danger. This got Aaron Zimmerman – the rector of my parish church, St. Alban’s – musing. A year ago St. Alban’s had completed the addition of a brand-new Parish Hall, only to have the church shut down by the coronavirus before we could even enjoy it. Since then the space had sat mostly unused. But it was spacious, and well-lit, and well-heated; it even had a kitchen and wifi. Why not offer it to the city as an additional warming center? So Aaron called the mayor, and the mayor agreed.
It ended up being a wonderful ministry to people very much in need – including people with unaddressed chronic health issues that some of our medical-professional parishioners could help. You can and should read the full story here.
I am so proud of my church! But I’m also feeling a twinge or two of retrospective envy. Teri and I were huddling around our fireplace when we could’ve been in a big warm room eating a breakfast made by Corey MacIntyre?
Finally: Don’t forget that we’re still doing Morning Prayer six days a week – and other services as well – on our parish YouTube channel.
It seems to me that human beings in general, and Americans in particular, stubbornly resist the idea that life often presents us with trade-offs — opportunity costs, as the economists say, or incompatible goods. Isaiah Berlin says something especially hateful to most of us when he asserts that “Some among the Great Goods cannot live together…. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”
I’ve reflected on this point over the past few days as silly people have insisted that the state of Texas should obviously have prepared its power-generation plants for every eventuality: Arctic cold as well as Saharan heat.
The silliness here is twofold. First, it’s practically unfeasible: the financial cost for Texas to build its infrastructure around the possibility of Chicago-like winters is just as outrageous as would be the cost for Seattle to prepare its infrastructure for Texas-like summers.
But there’s a second and deeper point to be made: What if there are circumstances in which it’s actually not possible to prepare for every possible eventuality, because the opportunity cost of preparing for one extreme is failure to prepare for the other?
See, for instance, this Wall Street Journal article on the design of Texas’s power plants:
The state’s plants are designed to shed heat instead of keeping it in, which helps in hot months but can be detrimental during cold snaps, according to researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute. But on Thursday Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who criticized the performance of his state’s grid operator this week and called for changes amid a public outcry, recommended that Texas plants winterize their equipment and that the state should supply the funding to make it happen….
Given the state’s normally warm climate, not all of Texas’ power plants are fully equipped with winterization measures — protections plants use to prevent freezing of pipes, sensors, motors and other components. In northern climates, many winterization measures are permanent and plants are housed within entire building structures for protection from the cold. But experts said that because of Texas’ summer heat, plant operators need to keep components exposed.
What if sometimes you have to choose between two goods? What if you actually can’t have both? Wow, that would really suck. Therefore it cannot be true.
We’re spending much of the day harvesting snow so we’ll be able to flush our toilets when the inevitable comes: a period without water. When the thaw arrives, probably sometime tomorrow, frozen pipes will start to burst. As we near 32º I’ll turn off water to our property and hope for the best. The warming will be gradual, which I hope will help.
The situation itself has been difficult but obviously survivable, a condition that will continue if we lose our water for a while. I’m sure there are people in charge of various things here in Texas who could have and should have done their jobs better, but this is as close to a black-swan event as one is ever likely to see, so let’s please be reasonable in our criticisms.
But who am I kidding? The most simply annoying element of the whole situation has been the constant noise of axes grinding among the politicians and commentariat, whether the lefties gleefully mocking Texas as a “third-world nation” — their rhetoric is indistinguishable from Trump’s, with his sneers at “shithole countries” — or the right-wingers blaming everything on wind turbines and/or Joe Biden’s powers of weather manipulation. (Between Biden attacking Texas with his crack team of polar vortices and the Rothschilds wielding their cleverly targeted space lasers, these sure are hard times for solid Christian folk like me.) The greatest frustration I have with American axe-grinding is the way everyone always grinds the same axe, grinds it to absolute powder, then grabs a clone of it and starts grinding that. For partisans on both sides, every story has a moral and every story has exactly the same moral. And they never stop chanting it, transfixed as they are by their politico-verbal OCD.
Okay, time to fetch more snow.
Some years ago, when I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s outstanding Science in the Capital trilogy — later condensed into a single volume called Green Earth — I thought that Robinson deftly executed a bold move in setting the second volume in a Washington D.C. beset by unprecedented cold. After all, might that not confirm the suspicions of certain skeptics that climate change is just a hoax, that “global warming” isn’t happening at all? But Robinson wanted to make the point that while climate change certainly will mean a gradual warming of the entire earth, it will also make the weather all over the earth considerably less predictable and often more extreme.
Over the past couple of days, something else unprecedented has happened: Each of the 254 counties of Texas — yeah, Texas has 254 counties — has been under a winter storm warning, all the way down to the Rio Grande. My house was without electricity — and therefore without heat — for two days, as the temperature dropped yesterday morning to 5º F. My wife and I closed off the one room where we have a fireplace and sheltered there, with our long-haired dog who was delighted by the cooler temp. The cellular phone network (though not the data network) stayed up, so we were able talk to friends and get some extra firewood, which required some driving on slushy roads and through one intersection slicked with ice from a broken water main. We stayed warm enough, though the rest of our house was literally freezing.
We have a small battery-powered generator that’s useful primarily for charging phones and running lights, and we have some battery-powered lanterns, so we could see where we were going and stay in touch with family on the phone. We were told by Fox News-watching family members that Texas suffered from a failure of wind turbines, but that was the least of our worries, as Joshua D. Rhodes has explained. A few turbines may have frozen up, but the overwhelming cause of the power shortage was the failure of natural-gas-fueled power plants, some of which were under maintenance when the storm hit and some of which failed because their gas wells froze. Texas already generates more wind power than any other state — a quarter of the nation’s total — but we’d have been better off if we had invested more heavily in wind, not less.
(UPDATE: More on this from the Texas Tribune. A noteworthy item there: It’s standard practice for power plants in Texas to undergo maintenance in the winter, because the demand for power is so much less in our mild winters than in our torrid summers.)
I’ll be very interested in the coming investigations of the failure points here, but I don’t expect anything from the ones pursued by legislators because they will simply be exercises in blaming and posturing. (Nothing and nobody in America could possibly be more completely useless than our elected representatives.) The explorations pursued by the energy industry will be of infinitely more value. They will probably suggest some changes in policy and procedure, but I think we all need to be adult enough to realize that it’s impossible for the energy sector — or any other organizations, institutions, and businesses — to prepare for every weather-based eventuality. What to Expect When You’re Expecting Anything and Everything would have to be, paradoxically enough, a very short book.
Our power is back for now, but maybe not for long — we’ve been warned to expect “rolling outages” for a while — so I think I’d better hit the “Publish” button.
First time I’ve seen anything like this in my eight years in central Texas, and I strongly suspect that if I live here the rest of my life I won’t see anything like it again. (Photos cropped but not filtered or otherwise edited.)
Walking around in my neighborhood I keep hearing, from down in the arroyo, the gunshot crack of snow-burdened branches breaking.
As several people have pointed out, the recent explosion in Beirut bears many eerie similarities to the Texas City disaster of 1947. Also, the same kind of explosion happened on a rather smaller level seven years ago and about 20 miles from where I am sitting, in West, Texas. Maybe the world needs a serious rethinking of how we store ammonium nitrate.
The official death count for the Texas City explosions was 581, but there’s good reason to believe that many more died. And Stephen Harrigan, in Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, adds this mournful postscript:
Of the 468 bodies deposited at the local funeral home and at a makeshift morgue in the garage of a gas station, 63 could not be identified. It was decided that they would be buried in the same location, with best guesses made about which body parts should go into which coffins. Preliminary arrangements were made for a parcel of land a few miles away in the town of Hitchcock to be used for the burial, but the citizens there wanted to know beforehand whether there were any black people among the dead. When they were told there were, they canceled the deal.
I mentioned on my micro.blog that I’ve been reading Stephen Harrigan’s magnificent Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. (The title comes from the painter Georgia O’Keefe, a native of Wisconsin who remembered her first coming to west Texas: “I couldn’t believe Texas was real. When I arrived out there, there wasn’t a blade of green grass or a leaf to be seen, but I was absolutely crazy about it…. For me Texas is the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”) As I said over there, the book is full of passages like this one:
The Edwards brothers, and Martin Parmer, another outraged colonist who called himself the Ringtailed Panther, launched a rebellion, wrote yet another declaration of independence, designed yet another flag, and established yet another evanescent republic. This one was called the Republic of Fredonia, a brand-new country that in the Edwardses’ mind included not just the territory of his former colony but the greater part of Texas itself. Though it was at heart an Anglo rebellion, Haden Edwards managed to enlist a smattering of Cherokee allies, under the leadership of Richard Fields, who was a tireless advocate of the tribe despite his run-of-the-mill Anglo American name and his one-eighth measure of Cherokee blood. “The flag of liberty,” Edwards exulted, “now waves in majestic triumph on the heights of Nacogdoches and despotism stands appalled at the sight.”
The rhetorical flamboyance of Edwards’s description of what he had achieved — alas, Fredonia lasted just a few months — makes me smile. Maybe you had to have a lot of energy, in those days, to try to make a go of it in Texas, and that energy manifested itself not least in your language.
Such vibrancy could be terse — as in Davy Crockett’s famous farewell to Tennessee politics: “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas” — or elegant — as when the magnificently named second President of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, offered his hopes for the country: “Our young Republic has been formed by a Spartan spirit — let it progress and ripen into Roman firmness, and Athenian gracefulness and wisdom.” But more often it was, like Haden Edwards’s encomium to Fredonia, unashamedly flashy. Presumably such flash was regularly inspired by the aforementioned “flag of liberty.” One hopeful colonist headed for what was then the northernmost province of New Spain was encouraged by a newspaper of the time with these stirring words: “God speed ye, [and] may no difficulties or obstacles oppose you — until the flag of liberty waves triumphant over the prostituted insignia of time-serving priests and the broken truncheons of substitute kings.”
I am sad that my culture has lost this facility and lost it altogether. Look at some of the statements of the Black Lives Matter organization, for instance:
We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.
We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).
Doesn’t exactly stir one’s loins with revolutionary fervor, does it?
I started to write that this language sounds like it comes from a draft manifesto of the Theory Collective at a midwestern university — but then I reflected that it sounds more like an except from the Policies and Procedures manual that your Human Resources department posted on your institutional intranet. And then I realized that Black revolutionaries, literary theorists, and HR departments all write exactly the same way. What a nightmare. What a desiccated, lifeless, mechanical, exhausted and exhausting nightmare.
Friends, let us recover some of the linguistic flamboyance of our ancestors. Only then may the flag of liberty flutter and snap with proud delight as it is tickled by the powerful winds of Progress!
Also, please call me the Ringtailed Panther.
Earlier this week I drove from my home in Waco to West Texas: first to the little town of Goldthwaite, then South through San Saba, Llano, Fredericksburg, Kerrville; then a long westward haul on I-10. On such a drive you start in mostly flat farm country — corn, soybeans — and move gradually into the Hill Country, with its limestone escarpments and ridges mostly covered in junipers. (People in Texas call those trees cedars but they aren’t.) Gradually the trees become smaller and sparser until, eventually, you find yourself in the Chihuahuan desert.
There’s a nice new rest area on I-10 between Fort Stockton and Balmorhea that looks like this:
The temperature when I took the photo was 106°. I got back in the car and resumed my journey. I took the Balmorhea exit and started headed up into the Davis Mountains. About half an hour later, here’s what I saw:
That’s the McDonald Observatory, on Mount Locke. But just look at that grass! — a veritable greensward. And all those trees! (Also, the temperature was 87°.) All this just half an hour from sheer desert. What’s the deal?
The deal is that the Davis Mountains constitute a sky island. Far above the desert that surrounds them, the mountains, the tallest of which is Mount Livermore at 8200 feet, have their own distinct climate. They get far more rain than the desert does, and as a result support quite different species of flora and fauna. Sometimes those species can evolve in distinctive ways, just as they do on actual islands, because of their isolation from other communities of their kind.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon — and the transition is really something to experience.
The newest outpost of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s local empire is Magnolia Table, and Teri and I had breakfast there this morning. It was really good. The restaurant is located in the building that for many years housed the Elite Café, and it’s nice to see the predecessor acknowledged on one wall:
It’s a lovely space:
And the food was really good:
But I was fascinated by how thoroughly designed (and therefore, of course, branded) everything in the place is:
(That leather folder is what they bring your check in.) Imagine the money that went into all this! Such attention to detail is simply impossible for most new businesses, but the Gaineses have made so much money from Fixer Upper and the Magnolia Silos — which gets more visitors than the Alamo — that they can make the investment up front.
We moved here in 2013, before the first season of Fixer Upper, and it has been quite remarkable to see a city changed so much, in so short a time, by the energy and ambition of two people. Houses and hotels are being built, restaurants and bars opened, existing properties renovated — the city of Waco has even begun to realize that they can now fix some of the terrible roads around here. It’s wonderful … and yet it feels so, so fragile. Here’s hoping that the cult of Chip and Jo lasts long enough to bring permanent improvements to this shabby old town.
I’ve been spending a few days of retreat and reflection at the amazing Laity Lodge, whose ministry of hospitality to writers, musicians, artists, and lovers of the arts is one of the best things in Texas — which is to say, one of the best things in the whole world.
On my way down here I decided to stop at a place I hadn’t visited before, Lost Maples State Natural Area — not for the autumn color, which has passed, but just to take a look around. And even post-bright-foliage, it’s a beautiful place:
And a river (the Sabinal) runs through it:
After hiking around a while, I headed down the road a bit and took State Road 337 over the hill towards Leakey — and it’s a pretty serious hill. Here’s the view from one of the higher places on the road:
Then on to Leakey, and up Highway 83 to Laity Lodge, which you can only get to by driving through the Frio River:
I never get tired of that. While there, I did some hiking around up above the lodge and the river:
And here’s something I never realized until this visit. If I were to hike up that bluff you see a glimpse of on the other side of the river, probably bushwhacking some of the time, but still hiking for only 45 minutes or so, and got to the top and started descending the other side, you know where I would be? Lost Maples.
T. S. Eliot and his sister Marion, during Eliot’s 1958 visit to the U.S. with his new wife Valerie. At one point in the trip they visited Dallas, where Eliot was named an honorary sherriff and received both a badge and the Stetson he’s sporting here.
Just enjoying my usual tableside refresher here as Teri returns from H-E-B, where she bought another case of this life-giving substance. When she was grabbing the case an elderly man next to her said, “I had my first Topo Chico in Mexico. In 1972. Been drinking it ever since. Mama and me don’t drink sodas, but we have some Topo Chico every day.” Teri noticed that he was slim and trim and had beautiful skin. “Can I introduce you to Mama?” His wife, of course. She beamed at the mention of Topo Chico. “We met on that same trip,” he said.
I love living in Texas, I really do.
My former student Gabriel RiCharde is now working for the pride of Waco, Balcones Distilling, and today he gave me a tour. It was really fascinating. I have read a bit over the years about the process of distilling spirits, and I knew that it is complicated — but when you actually get walked through each stage … wow. At every step of the process complex science is involved, but also decisions that require artful intuition.
Here’s a closeup of the door to the mash tun, which was bought from the Speyburn distillery in Scotland, and which has been used to make whisky for about 75 years:
And here’s one of the amazing new stills, just arrived a few weeks ago from Scotland:
And this steampunky thing is attached to the stills — I don’t know what it is, but it looks super cool:
Here’s the tasting and blending room, where I could have stayed for quite some time:
And here the aging process, in barrels made variously of American, French, and other European oak:
And finally, after all that hard work of listening and gaping, I had to take a couple of presents home for myself:
I live in Waco, Texas, which is a relatively small city and a relatively poor city, a city with its share of problems both historic and current — but also a place where some pretty cool things are happening. Last night, for instance, my wife Teri and I enjoyed an early Valentine’s Day dinner at Balcones Distillery — maker of some of the finest and most celebrated spirits in the world — where the distillers had teamed up with Milo Biscuit Company, a local food truck and caterer, to create a lovely dinner in the tasting room.
Each course came paired with a cocktail or a straight Balcones spirit — their Baby Blue corn whisky, their classic Texas single Malt, their wonderful rum-like spirit called Rumble.
It was quite peculiar having a fine dinner without wine! — and I probably wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but the pairings were really well-chosen and the food was delicious, right there next to some of the aging barrels.
I had fresh Gulf snapper, perfectly cooked, and Teri had duck breast, also perfectly cooked, but perhaps the best taste of the evening was the cheese course, a Delice de Bourgogne paired with a whisky aged in rum barrels (not yet released to the public). It was truly memorable. I meant to take pictures of the food but was too occupied with eating it until I got to dessert, a flourless chocolate cake with rose cream and raspberries.
And then when we were on our way out we were given a piece of salted caramel that the chef, Corey, had made with a touch of Balcones Brimstone, a whisky smoked with scrub oak. That was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
All in all, big fun here in Waco! Our hearty thanks to chef Corey and the rest of the crew.
Robert Iwrin’s Dawn to Dusk, in Marfa, Texas
Texas, of course, comes by its sense of being a place apart honestly: From 1836-1845, it was its own country, the Republic of Texas, and it has long feasted on hyperbole. But these days Texas does feel increasingly like a caricature of a caricature.
— Manny Fernandez in the NYT. In other words, it’s not exactly like states dominated by liberal elites.
- At some point during the execution of a right turn, but always before your car is completely out of the road you have been driving on, be sure to come to a full stop.
- Merge onto interstate highways at a speed no greater than 35 miles per hour.
- Once on the interstate, if you are driving below the speed limit, make sure to stay in the far left lane and never leave it for any reason except to exit.