WOULD YOU BELIEVE THAT WACO is so called because the word is an anagram of "a cow"? That McAllen was named for a brand of scotch? That "Dumas" is a sanitized version of "Dumbass"?
DEEP IN A FAR SOUTHWESTERN corner of Texas, where the wild things outnumber the people and the Rio Grande makes a grand detour around exquisitely rugged terrain, lies Big Bend National Park. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres—1,250 square miles—of desert and mountains, the spread is so remote, surreal, and sprawling that the eye loses perspective: Is that mountain in front of you two miles away or twenty? Established in 1944 by Congress, the park may appear to be a vast wasteland to a first-time visitor.
WHEN I WAS ABOUT TWELVE, my mother took me on a pilgrimage to Neiman Marcus. This was in the pre-Southwest Airlines days, so we must have driven the five or so hours to Dallas from San Antonio and stayed overnight in a downtown hotel. We ate pecan-studded ice-cream balls in the Zodiac Room, and my mother bought me a dress in what you might call the milkmaid style—a beige apron over puffed calico sleeves—that was so tight through the bodice I had trouble breathing. It itched.
This promises to be a banner year for Texas flag buffs. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has assembled an unprecedented exhibit of 32 Texas flags—from a tattered one that survived the Battle of San Jacinto to the huge ensign that flew over the battleship USS Texas— and the catalog is really a combination of breakthrough historical text and glossy coffee-table centerpiece.
NO ONE HAS EVER ACCUSED the city of Port Arthur of being cute or mistaken it for a vacation paradise. It is home to one of the largest oil refinery and petrochemical complexes on earth, a place where rusting inventories of offshore oil rigs are stacked alongside hulking tankers and where tank farms disappear into gumbo swamps. At night the plants look unearthly: a science-fiction writer's nightmare of a prison colony on the outer moons of Jupiter. This is not a place that beckons to the casual tourist.
I have a recurring dream. In it, I am trapped in a corner while inquisitors with burning eyes bombard me with questions: “Where’s the best chicken-fried steak in Texas?” “Where should I take my wife for our anniversary?” “What’s fun?” “What’s new?” “What’s hot?”
RECENTLY, I READ A NEWSPAPER ARTICLE ABOUT something called "lifestyle centers," a concept hatched by developers and retailers to attract consumers who are suffering from megamall-o-phobia. In a nutshell, these lifestyle centers—with their smaller scale, lush landscaping, and national specialty shops—are fancy strip malls pretending to be neighborhoods. Squeaky-clean, sanitized neighborhoods. Well, here's a thought: Why not shop in a real neighborhood instead of a fake one?
IF THERE'S ONE THING KIDS DISLIKE MORE THAN BEDTIME, it's being dragged to some stuffy history museum or art gallery. I know, because since my eight-year-old daughter, Rayna, was a toddler, I've tried to force-feed her large helpings of any type of culture higher than Chuck E. Cheese. We have spent countless hours at children's museums and grown-up museums with children's sections, but most of the time both of us have come away unsatisfied.
AH, THE CHALLENGE OF RUNNING WHITE-WATER RAPIDS, of dipping a fly in swift streams rife with rainbow and brown trout, the exhilaration of being in a wild place when there's a chill in the air: These are a few of my favorite things. Every summer, I pine for the Rockies or somewhere else in the great American West. But over the past couple of years, I've discovered that I don't have to wait until June or travel a thousand miles to be on a great Western river.
Grab a tube and ride one of these rivers.