The more Texas changes, the more it stays the same. No matter how rapidly drawl-free newcomers pour into the state or how greatly computer geeks outnumber cattlemen and cotton farmers, an essential core of Texanness will always remain. No dilution of the native population could make the Alamo dull, the oil well trite, or the cowboy uncool. Thus, to enlighten novices and entertain veterans, we offer this checklist of fifty things every Texan should do—“should” not in the sense of “have to do ‘em all” but of “if only you could.” To compile it, we waded through hundreds of ideas, from the obvious (drive the 850 miles from Orange, on the Louisiana border, to Anthony, at the New Mexico state line) to the controversial (stand outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville and voice your opinion of the death penalty) to the downright goofy (get breast implants in Houston). The final culling represents a survey course in the state’s history, myth, sights, and sensibilities. More than a travelog, beyond boosterism, it’s a patchwork of adventures and advice that reflects the fabric of Texas, our Texas.
1. Read William Barret Travis’ famous letter of February 24, 1836, while inside the Alamo. At once impassioned and fatalistic, this 165-year-old missive captures the intractability and pride of Texas’ freedom fighters. “When you read the letter,” says Austin’s Stephen Harrigan, the author of the novel The Gates of the Alamo, “remember it was written by a twenty-six-year-old. Travis was untested, and he had a lot to prove—he was hoping to make his career and his reputation, if he survived. It has a youthful bravado to it, even a certain bombast. But it does deserve its place in the pantheon of great American epistolary literature.” a.d.
2. Raft down the Rio Grande through Big Bend’s Santa Elena Canyon. You’ll scramble for adjectives—glorious, majestic, breathtaking—but even a whole boatload of words can’t do justice to the panorama of sheer cliffs, sparkling water, and blue sky. Your most lasting souvenir of the journey will be the feeling of timelessness—seeing the same staggering vistas that ancient tribesmen viewed and venerated centuries ago. Says singer-songwriter Steve Fromholz of Austin, who has floated down the river some two hundred times: “Santa Elena is called the Grand Canyon of the Rio Grande, and you can’t see the canyon any other way than from the water—you just can’t get there. There are fifteen-hundred-foot cliffs on the Mexican side, and in some places the canyon is so narrow you can reach out and touch the rock on both sides. It’s like stepping back eight hundred, maybe twelve hundred years in time.” a.d.
3. Pick your own piece of meat from the giant pit at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q in Llano. (Herbivores may skip to our next entry.)This regionally renowned meatery is a longtime favorite of such tall Texans as President George W. Bush. Follow the smell of woodsmoke and the parade of pickups downtown to 604 W. Young (Texas Highway 29). The line forms outside, and filing past the pit gives you ample time to admire the sizzling piles of sausage links, half chickens, and big ol’ briskets and make up your meat-eatin’ mind. We prefer to pig out on the “big chop,” which might well be the perfect slab of pork—moist, salty, seductive. Wash it down with a Big Red and chase the soda with jalapeños to sample the Texas equivalent of sweet-and-sour sauce. a.d.
4. Hike into McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in late October or early November. Your reward will be the greatest show of fall foliage in West Texas. Maple, oak, walnut, ash, and madrone blaze orange, red, and yellow in the canyon forest, a stunning contrast to the earth tones of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. Choose either a 4.6- or 6.8-mile round-trip hike from the visitors center, at the mouth of the canyon, off U.S. 62 and 180. j.n.p.
5. Do the two-step on Bob Wills Day in Turkey. Where better to strut your stuff than in the adopted hometown of the King of Western Swing? On the last weekend in April, Turkeyites pay tribute to the creator of “Faded Love” and “San Antonio Rose” with two dances in the Bob Wills Center; you can swoop and sway to the Texas Playboys, including Wills’s contemporaries Joe Frank Ferguson and Leon Rausch, as well as to heir-apparent Jody Nix and his band. Locals don’t just swing-dance to the music; they’re also fond of waltzing and two-stepping. Notes Texas’ own Lee Ann Womack (right), whose “I Hope You Dance” has earned her four Grammy nominations: “Texans are apparently the only people who know how to do the two-step. When done properly, it’s as smooth as glass. When I first moved to Nashville, I remember thinking, ‘What’s with all this bobbing up and down?’” a.d.
6. Stand on the star in the floor of the Capitol rotunda, clap your hands to hear the echo, and then—looking up into the dome—twirl around till you’re dizzy. This three-step tradition at Austin’s statehouse is said to bring you good luck. The central location of the star maximizes the reverberation decibels, although the crack isn’t all that loud except to you. Capitol staffers are surprisingly tolerant of the clamor, which tends to perpetuate itself—you’ll pique the curiosity of people who hear you clap, and they’ll line up for a turn too. (And if there’s a school group …!) When your hearing returns to normal, tilt your head back and gaze up at the gold star 218 feet overhead, then twirl and enjoy the dizzying sensation (not recommended after a heavy meal). “Texas hospitality starts right here under the dome of our majestic granite Capitol,” says Governor Rick Perry (left). “This is one stop every Texan should make.” a.d.
7. Attend the Juneteenth Freedom Festival at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston’s Hermann Park. This Texas-specific African American holiday—an official day off for state workers—is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery.