An Imaginary Country

Occasionally I ponder how one might describe Texas to someone from far flung parts of the US. Today I was thinking about central Europe, and a new angle struck me. This is the result.

Imagine central Europe. The Czech Republic and Germany especially. Beer, strudel, lederhosen, sausage, quaint little Alpine cottages. Lots of polka. Lots. And plenty of unpronounceable names. Take all those people and set them down on some dusty hills right next door to the Great Plains. Still imagining the polka? Good. That’s Central Texas.

Now take all the Cajuns and creoles out of Louisiana. Empty it out until there’s nothing but woody hills up north and swampy bayous down south. Then fill it with people from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. That’s East Texas.

Now take the nice parts of Chicagoland, both the city and the suburbs, and put them on the flatter side of Wyoming, complete with all the cattle and Sheriff Longmire and the antisocial types. The central Europeans and the rednecks will fly out of this airport. This is DFW.

Now combine the Wenatchee area of Washington with the drier and emptier parts of Arizona. This will be owned in large part by the people from Chicagoland and central Europe. This is West Texas.

South Texas bleeds into central Europe and Arizona-Wenatchee. Except it’s got a lot of Spanish influence, and a lot of Mexican music. They also grow oranges here. So it’s like SoCal, but older and minus the glitzy parts of LA.

All of these are united by the shared memory of a revolution. This revolution was fought by a combination of Willie Nelson, Ron Paul, homeschoolers who raise goats, and a lot of roughnecks.

Between SoCal and central Europe is the capital, Portland. Everyone in Portland likes to think about the revolution. They also vote for Bernie Sanders. When they’re not writing surprisingly conservative laws, going to offbeat indie concerts, or inventing new kinds of organic pizza, they go to college. This particular college acts like Berkley some days, like an Ivy league school on others, and gets wilder about their football program than Alabama fans.

Now take the way Europeans see Americans (“American cowboy! John Wayne! Bang bang!”) and crank it up to ten. That’s how everyone not from these areas sees everyone from these areas—when they find out that’s where they’re from. Little German guy who listens to polka while making schnitzel? John Wayne. Goldman Sachs banker from Chicago? Also John Wayne. Redneck swimming in a creek in the woods behind the mobile home park? Also John Wayne. Maoist vegan didgeridoo player? Clint Eastwood.

Some people are okay with that image. Some are not. Either way, it’s too late to find a new one, and it makes good branding for the ad guys. Also Hollywood.

That’s Texas.


The Exiles

At the beginning of the 1760’s, the American world was being torn apart and sewn back together. For the better part of a decade New France had been at war with the British colonies. It was here that George Washington first saw battle along the bloody frontier. For the first time, every British colony from Massachusetts to Georgia stood united against foreign invasion. They were proud Britons, and proud Americans.

After some time it grew apparent to the French that the war was being lost. King Louis XV, expecting to be booted from the continent, sold the portion of New France west of the Mississippi to his Spanish cousins. A year later, in 1763, the Treaty of Paris would end the French and Indian War, and the remainder of the French lands in America would be left to the British.

It took some time for the Spanish to adjust to the new situation. No longer was there danger from encroaching French settlements in the north and east. The buffer state of Texas was unnecessary, as were presidios all along the frontier. In 1772 the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, sent out the New Regulation for Presidios. In the order he called for all Spanish subjects in the missions of East Texas to pull back to San Antonio.

Generations had risen and faded since Father Margil’s miracle on the banks of Lanana Creek. The settlers had long ago forgotten whatever lands they had come from. Their homes were here, their farms and ranches and small towns. They had been raised in East Texas soil, had found love there, had raised children of their own, had worshipped there, had scratched a living out of that ground, and by now it had as much claim on them as any Spanish politician.

Antonio Gil Ibarvo was among these natives. He was born in Los Adaes in 1729, in that portion of the Sabine Country that Americans later tacked on to Louisiana. When he married his wife, Maria, they settled a place they called “Rancho Lobanillo,” a hard day’s ride from Nacogdoches. In 1773, when the Governor sent soldiers to force the East Texans off their land, they rallied behind Ibarvo, naming him their leader. When they reached San Antonio, he petitioned for their return. After some time, his request was partly granted. In September of 1774 they founded the town of Bucareli on the west bank of the Trinity River.

Four years passed. The British were at war with themselves, the colonists fighting for their freedom against a tyrannical parliament and the king that stood behind it. Spain declared war on King George’s forces, but the people of Bucareli were already fighting a war of their own. Flooding and Indian raids ruined crops and laid waste to the town. In 1779, without government permission, they quietly left the settlement behind and passed into the forbidden east, to what may have been the only remaining European structure in East Texas: the mission at Nacogdoches.

The town soon began to thrive, far from Spanish oversight. Here in the wild woods they traded with Caddoes and Frenchmen, and the newly arrived Cajuns. As the years wore on, the victorious Britons of America would spread their Union westward, founding state after state. Outlaws and refugees of every race and creed would find a hiding place in the country east of the Sabine, where Ibarvo was born. But here, in Nacogdoches, settlers and immigrants would find their gateway back into a civilized nation. In time, Spain named Ibarvo lieutenant governor, commander of the militia, and local magistrate. They had no choice but to acknowledge the pueblo that would not die, the exiles that would not leave. Nacogdoches was here to stay.

Into the West

I was raised in green country. Miles of woods in every direction, and grassy pastures where the wood ends. My home is the land of azaleas, and my childhood involved plucking massive amounts of honeysuckle and scarring my face on Mom’s rose bushes. Everywhere I looked, there was plant life. We lived in a land where gardening did not mean convincing the right plants to grow, it meant cutting the wrong ones back. I’m still not sure I didn’t live in the Garden of Eden.

The first time I remember heading west, I was disturbed by the lack of vegetation. The farther we drove, the less trees there were. Everything seemed so barren and lifeless. There was no green, only brown. It was eerie, like some sort of wasteland out of a book. I just couldn’t understand.

But like the characters in those stories, we kept going, because there was something on the other end. We are nature lovers, my family, so more often than not we were driving towards beauty. The Grand Canyon stretched on for miles, and cave after cave was plundered for memories by a sudden swarm of Henrys. We saw mountains and dusty plains, and Enchanted Rock rising bald and smooth above the world.

When we weren’t searching for the Chisos Mountains or another national park, we were headed to the cities. San Antonio captured my imagination like few cities before or since. Austin and I have a love-hate relationship. Amarillo made a good, though brief, impression. Waco and New Braunfels gave flavor to my understanding of Texas. Dallas and Fort Worth had quite the presence, and the shores of Galveston still hold a grey and sandy place in my heart.

All our trips west were adventures, and the strange, endless stretches of dry roads in shadeless country always led back to their beginning. After each departure into the wilds of the empty spaces or the wonders of the urban world, we would return to our own little garden city.

One day, that changed. I went farther west, beyond our borders, beyond the plains, and beyond the mountains. There, in the cold northwest, I stayed for months. Hills stretched on for an eternity, and the color of the world was wheat. If you walk at night in town, you can pretend there are enough trees, but they end at the city limits. In the Inland Northwest, trees belong in the mountains or the cities, and nowhere in between.

The thing about places is that they grow on you. They harbor you, give you a refuge when you need to rest. They host your friends and a million parties, dances, adventures, and conversations you will never forget. They are the setting for the stories that changed you from who you were to who you are. If you stay there long enough, they become part of who you are.

The Northwest is not home, though now holds a warm place in my heart. But it has changed something. When I look out into the endless skies, I don’t see bareness. Instead, I see a world cleared of distractions. It is a place where you are not caught in the little things, but see the whole landscape in one grand sweep. Sometimes you just need to walk towards the horizon and see it stretching out ahead of you.

The west used to be a foreign wasteland in my imagination. Now those trips are part of who I am. I can’t picture my life without a San Antone, or a world without a Big Bend. If there were no plains, something good would have been lost. Without deserts or stunted trees, gardens mean little. Dry distances are nothing to be feared. And now, when I think of home, I smile at the thought of crossing the endless, brown miles back into the green.

Lonesome Dove: An American Epic

This summer I made it a goal to watch Lonesome Dove.

(For those of you tuning in twenty years late, Lonesome Dove is an epic miniseries stretching from South Texas and western Arkansas up into the wilds of Montana. Its all-star cast includes Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, and a half-dozen others more familiar for their faces than their names. Steve Buscemi of the crazy eyes is among them. This western, from an era when the western was thought to be dead, raked in the Emmys and Golden Globes. Back when Netflix still had that awesome “Local Favorites” feature, this was still number one in East Texas. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to take a six and a half hour break and come back when your situation has changed.)

Ahem. Back to “le point,” as the French have been known to not say. It was really good, the sort of thing that makes you feel and, if you’re a thinker, really makes you think. I’m reading the Iliad for class right now, and some of our discussions highlighted issues in Lonesome Dove. So while I’m not going to sit here and explain the intricacies of the worldview of that movie, which is beyond me anyways, I will point towards some interesting rabbit trails.

***spoiler alerts from here on out***

The main thread of the show is Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae’s relationship with his buddy, Captain Woodrow F. Call. And, fittingly for a Texas story, the themes this thread brings out mostly have to do with pride. Gus is a playboy, decked out in his finery, smooth with words, pseudo-educated, quite the gambler, and a real chick magnet for someone his age. Call is a taciturn man, but stubborn as a mule when he wants something, such as a ranch in the unsettled wilds of Montana. He refuses to display any sort of emotion. As Gus says, he doesn’t want to admit he’s human like the rest of us. They’ve been friends since their younger days as rangers when they cleaned the Comanches out of South Texas. (I won’t quibble with that geographical oddity, we’ll just assume they have a good explanation I haven’t thought of).

As we watch their story develop, several interesting things happen. Gus dies of gangrene, refusing to let the doctor amputate his remaining leg. In a poignant moment, one of Call’s rare displays of emotion, at Gus’s bedside he cries out, “Damn your vanity!” Before he is left alone in this world, his friend makes him swear to take his body all the way back across the plains to a little grove where Gus was once happy with a woman. (Nobody ends up with their woman, and the women are all disappointed).

Call is no less prideful. He’s got walls a mile high and thicker than Chesterton’s gut. He won’t admit to loving any woman, especially the one who bore his child. And despite loving the boy in question, he can’t bring himself to say he’s the kid’s father. He ends up leaving his dream behind to take Gus’s body home, and we never do learn whether he returns to Montana.

Despite the destructiveness of pride in our heroes, and they are heroes, this universe is not entirely bleak. Every character is one we can love or hate with a passion, and every event is charged with the sort of emotion only a cowboy can take and not burst into laughter or tears.

And, interestingly, justice does prevail. Life’s not easy for the heroes, but no villain escapes this world alive. From the notorious outlaw Blue Duck to men who simply rode with the wrong crowd, sin ends in death. Tragedy may rule in Lonesome Dove, but so does justice.

Two more themes to note. Injuns. More than dispossessed natives or cruel barbarians, in Lonesome Dove Indians symbolize all the freedom, untamed wildness, and limitless expanse of the world before men like Gus and Call came to make it safe for soft city folk. In several places both men lament the passing away of that old world, the passing they helped to usher in. They don’t regret killing men that needed killing, and there were many, but they do regret the world it resulted in—a world without free land, and a world without buffalo.

Let me tack on that there is a (rather limited, but existent) amount of complexity with regards to said Native Americans. Blue Duck, the vile half-breed, is set in stark contrast to a poor, wandering band of Montanans who fear the encroaching white men. Still, we are left knowing that it is inevitable that both sides will eventually vanish.

Last rabbit trail I want to point to: womens. The women in this movie are treated, particularly by Gus, with a mixture of gallantry and carelessness. There is no doubt many of cowboys are just “looking for a poke,” but repeatedly we see that this cannot be separated from an emotional attachment. Men, of course, can ride off when they get scared, in a way that the women frequently won’t, but they don’t remain untouched by their decisions. And, outside of their friendship, nothing Gus and Call experience in this world is more important to them than specific women they once loved. The story ends in men that died sad but free, and women who are tough but lonely. And, strangely, few hold real grudges.

From start to stop, Lonesome Dove is an American epic. It explores many of the same themes of the Iliad, but in a context we are familiar with as a nation. Sadly, like the Iliad, we are left in an unredeemed world. This is a tragedy in which the only positive victories are those of justice to the lawless and simply having lived. Call is left alone and hopeless, his friend gone, his lover long gone, his son far away in Montana, and the town he began the story in left a dried-out husk of what it used to be. We are left asking the same question the Iliad begs—what can be done? Who can turn the hearts of the fathers to their sons, and husbands to their wives, and redeem a land grown corrupt? But that is a question for another day.