Tag: texas

for the record

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.

Texas City


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.

hoisting the flag

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.

on the sky island

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: 

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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: 

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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 Waco Empire

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.

over the bluff and not-so-far away

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:

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And a river (the Sabinal) runs through it:

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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:

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Then on to Leakey, and up Highway 83 to Laity Lodge, which you can only get to by driving through the Frio River:

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I never get tired of that. While there, I did some hiking around up above the lodge and the river:

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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.

Lake Waco Wetlands

These wetlands aren’t on the lake as such, but are just off one inlet of it. They are remarkably beautiful and very little-known, even here in Waco. Click on the photos for larger versions.

Palo Duro Canyon

So you’re driving through the panhandle of Texas with the land flat as a bedsheet as far as the eye can see, and then all of sudden the ground drops a thousand feet. Congratulations, you have discovered Palo Duro Canyon.

all hat, no cattle

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.

life in Texas

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.

the great distillery tour!

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:

good times in Waco

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.



“Shaded Rocks, West Texas”, woodcut, Max-Karl Winkler

Robert Iwrin’s Dawn to Dusk, in Marfa, Texas

What Makes Texas 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.

December in Texas 2




Same day, same neighborhood as the set of images posted earlier today. It’s pretty weird having Spring and Fall at the same time.

December in Texas




All from my yard today.

the chief principles of Texas driving as I have inferred them in my 26 months of living in the Lone Star State

  1. 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.
  2. Merge onto interstate highways at a speed no greater than 35 miles per hour.
  3. 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.