WE DROVE WEST ON U.S. 290 TO U.S. 281 SOUTH, then turned off to Medina and Vanderpool. After crossing and recrossing the Sabinal along sunset ridges from Utopia to Lost Maples, we spent the night at the FoxFire Cabins with our four children. In the morning we headed north to the Willow City Loop, surely one of the most beautiful stretches of road anywhere in the world.
Five miles of that narrow byway with its single barbecue shack and its many cattle guards is enough Hill Country to break your heart—spectacular vistas, one after another, that no outsider would dream existed in Texas. Knolls as green as Ireland, dramatic bluffs, rolling meadows, and terra-cotta river plains. Knotty live oaks shading winding creeks that run through valleys so thick with bluebonnets they seem, at first glance, to be lakes. Then fields and fields of long-stemmed white prickly poppies lit by the sun, hovering above the grass like tiny angels.
For six months I have known I would be leaving Texas to marry and move to another state. Trying to let go, I have been living like a ghost, in a world where I am already gone. Friends call, but I sit motionless as the machine picks up, struck silent by the image of them lunching at Las Manitas without me. I envision I-35 without my car, the Town Lake soccer fields without my sons, my front steps without my feet. This is my way of easing out gently, and I think it’s working. People now greet me by saying, Are you still here?
Dear Texas, good-bye. You are the only place I have ever loved. In fact, you’ve taught me everything about love of place I’ve ever known. Shot out of deepest New Jersey before the ink dried on my high school diploma, I ricocheted between Providence and New York until I learned I could drive to Atlanta or Chicago overnight. I embraced the interstate highway system like a cult religion. No telling how far I would have gone if I hadn’t screeched into Austin so early in the game, traveling with a college friend from Dallas. There I stopped cold in my tracks, stone in love.
What did a born-to-run Jersey girl see in the Texas capital that tender green spring of 1976? Back before booms and busts, before skyscrapers and silicon, before latte and microbrews and national home delivery of the New York Times, before the whole rest of the country found out Texas was cool? What she saw was a little city with a great big head. It was Texas, all right. Big drinks, big ideas, big university, big fat toast and big wide streets, the biggest swimming pool you ever saw, smack in the middle of town.
Milling around this supersized paradise was a motley crew of hippies, cowboys, hippie-cowboys, Mexican day laborers, sorority sisters, and UT exes in burnt orange Caddies, every one of them so damned happy to be in Austin they couldn’t stop themselves from beaming and calling you honey, couldn’t wipe those big Texas grins off their face, even standing in line outside the convenience store on the melting asphalt in the burning sun, apparently thrilled just to be waiting to pump their cheap Texas gas. This contentment bordering on self-satisfaction bordering on pure-dee arrogance got my attention, then my curiosity, and finally my rent check. In this alien place, so beloved by its alien inhabitants, I had the intense, compelling, and life-changing desire to be at home.
It took me a couple of tries to get my roots to take in the caliche soil. One summer I drove for Roy’s Taxi, shuttling my roommates to jobs serving chicken-fried steak at the Stallion; later I spent a few years in a crazy house over in Clarksville where we tried to stop the South Texas Nuclear Project and used a red bandanna as a communal napkin to save money. “Impeach Reagan” was silk-screened on our front door. More than once, New York or New Orleans lured me with its siren song, but when it was gettin’ on time to grow up, I came to Austin and stayed.
So did a lot of us, I think. I came here two decades ago with a bunch of people like me in their twenties who had weird hair and wobbly bicycles and stayed up all night, then recovered from hangovers with 49-cent breakfast tacos on their way to business school or beauty school or Barton Springs. I’m leaving a group in their forties who wake up in the dark before the alarm goes off, who talk on cell phones from their sport utility vehicles, who are lawyers and motel owners and social workers, who have to leave the kids’ baseball game early because of the book club. The magic of this place is that it made that transition almost painless.
In Austin you can grow up easy; adulthood isn’t all that adult. You can take your time. Your problems don’t have to kill you. They can—I’ve seen it firsthand—but they don’t have to. Unlike cities in the rain-soaked Suicide Belt or the northeastern overdose metroplexes, this place has a sunny spirit that can take your edge off. Maybe you stay a little bit crazy, but nobody minds. They say Austin rocks!—but the real point is that it rocks. Like a hammock, like a mother, like a cradle.
Think of it like this. All over the country people are trying desperately to relax. In Austin you really don’t have to try. In these other places, if you work nights and weekends, people understand it: You’re a go-getter, gotta be. In Austin, if you do that—unless you’re playing in a band or making jewelry out of Fimo clay on the side—your friends worry about you. They say, “What’s the matter? You’re working too hard. Come to our dinner party.”
These dinner parties were once potato soup in mismatched bowls. Then they were barbecues on the deck of somebody’s first real house, where discussion of interest rates was heard