When our favorite boozy, greedy, love-to-hate TV family, the Ewings, first entered our homes, in 1978, Jimmy Carter was in office and oil was just shy of $40 a barrel. Led by the scheming J.R., the campy clan quickly became the glamorous go-to symbol of all our eighties excesses. Dallas may have saddled Texans with stereotypes we’re still trying to shake, but there hasn’t been a guilty pleasure as pleasurable since. And to think it’s been thirty years since Pam told Bobby, “Your folks are gonna throw me right off that ranch.”
In celebration of this milestone, the state’s official repository for Lone Star history has launched an extensive retrospective of the saucy soap. The semi-tongue-in-cheek “Dallas: Power and Passion on Primetime TV,” on view at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, in (decidedly un-Dallas-like) Austin, teleports us back to Southfork Ranch. At first, one might wonder at the wisdom of this exhibit: Do we really want to be memorializing such outlandish images of Texans? Considering Hollywood’s futile efforts to adapt Dallas to the silver screen (a revolving door of directors and screenwriters has been struggling with it for nearly three years) and Texas’s failed attempt to get J.R. actually shot in Dallas (not enough film incentives), it’s not like our ties to the show are a source of pride these days. Add to that a general shift in the national mood—oil has hit $135 a barrel, “going green” is the trend du jour—and the Ewings’ overindulgences seem particularly distasteful.
But denying the show’s cultural imprint would be like calling Sue Ellen a teetotaler. Dallas remains one of the longest-running (thirteen seasons) and most-watched shows (more than 90 million tuned in to the infamous “Who Done It?” episode) in boob tube history. And from an industry standpoint, Dallas was the prototype of the modern prime-time melodrama—cliffhangers and improbable plot twists now being standard fare (see Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives). It’s even credited with—hold on to your ushanka—toppling Communism. A recent Washington Post column titled “How ‘Dallas’ Won the Cold War” noted that viewers in the Warsaw Pact nations “came to believe that they, too, deserved cars as big as boats and a swimming pool the size of a small mansion.”
Besides, there’s something to be said for commemorating our brazen past before John Travolta—or whoever is next rumored to step into J.R.’s ostrich boots—makes a mockery of it. Truth is, Dallas’s legacy won’t be around forever, so this is our chance to own it (and struggle to disavow it) all over again. Sure, it’s likely that only baby boomers will feel a tinge of nostalgia at the exhibit when they see the black evening gown Sue Ellen wore to the Cattle Baron’s Ball. It’s even likelier that younger attendees will be indifferent to the Ewing and Barnes family tree that maps the numerous trysts and offspring of the feuding tribes. (Though even Dallas virgins will get a kick out of the short film in which visitors to Southfork Ranch—still one of the Dallas area’s biggest tourist attractions—hum that infectious theme song.) But this curatorial tribute lets us resurrect those heady, so-bad-they’re-good old days and embrace at least some of the ways we were. Through September 14 in Austin; 512-936-8746, thestoryoftexas.com
Picture a chunk of rock-solid earth the size of a football field and three stories high. Now imagine it disappearing almost overnight. Gone. In an unfathomable feat, an equivalent amount of land vanished six summers ago in the Hill Country. On July 1, 2002, after receiving a year’s worth of rain (about 35 inches) in a week, Canyon Lake—a reservoir on the Guadalupe River that sits about halfway between Austin and San Antonio—was dangerously bloated. Nearby campsites were evacuated and roads closed. On July 4, and continuing over the next six weeks, nearly three times as much water as the reservoir usually holds began to rush over the emergency spillway. The surge’s force—nearly 70,000 cubic feet of water per second (350 cfs is normal)—was so strong that it sliced open the terrain as easily as if it were a stick of butter.
What was once a nondescript valley filled with mesquite and oak trees is now a stunning mile-and-a-half-long gorge. A mini version of the Grand Canyon, the limestone crevasse (a mere eighty feet at its deepest) is etched with fault lines and rock formations that date back millions of years. Blue-green pools, home to a few fish that washed in with the flood, collect along the bottom, and waterfalls emerge from crystal-clear springs. The swift-moving torrent that exposed this vast swath also unearthed a smattering of fossils (mostly of the gastropod and bivalve varieties), as well as two sets of dinosaur footprints.
Not surprisingly, when the Canyon Lake Gorge finally opened to the public last fall via weekly guided expeditions, it became the state’s hottest ecotourism destination. The official Web site (canyongorge.org) was shut down after being inundated with 160,000 hits in a single day, and the Gorge Preservation Society, the local citizen’s group that helps oversee the 64-acre site, moved quickly to train more docents. The waiting list for the three-hour jaunt through the gorge, which is not for the feeble-footed, currently tops three hundred. Insta-gorges like this one aren’t unprecedented (a shallower one split open in Iowa in 1993). But when a geologic wonder is carved out in mere weeks, you go see it. Tours every Saturday (reservations required) at Canyon Lake; 830-964-5424, canyongorge.org
Hitting a ball with a stick, that august pastime, has been around for so long—in Texas it dates back to at least the 1870’s—we forget baseball was ever a novelty. But now the original game is experiencing a resurgence: Teams devoted to vintage “base ball” are forming in towns from Abilene to Richmond. These “nines” don nineteenth-century-style garb, talk old-school smack (“Show a little ginger, you muffin!”), and use 1860’s rules—such as, a ball caught after one bounce is an out and the “hurler” must pitch underhand. Oh, and everyone plays barehanded. “We’ve got a saying: ‘Real men don’t wear gloves,’” says Joel Brant, a biology professor at McMurry University, who plays in the Buffalo Gap Vintage Base Ball Club. (The Abilene 407s and the Buffalo Gap Chips go head-to-head in the Taylor County Feud on July 4.) Given the sport’s modern-day shortcomings—prohibitive ticket prices, juiced players—the appeal of this anachronistic diversion is clear. On July 4 in Buffalo Gap; 325-572-3365, buffalogap.com/baseball and vbbtexas.org
Go to Arts and Culture for more than 170 other July events, including …
Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic
The Braided One brings his patriotic gig to Selma. 7/4, willienelson.com
Free Kick Masters
The soccer world’s top kickers and goalkeepers face off in Houston. 7/5, freekickmasters.com
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth unfolds Walker’s subversive cut-paper silhouettes. 7/5–10/19, themodern.org
A new generation of contemporary Mexican art is on view at San Antonio’s Museo Alameda. 7/31–10/26, thealameda.org