Gone to (and From) Texas
An editor says goodbye.
I was not born in Texas, nor was I raised here, and in 1999, when I first arrived to take a job as a reporter in a small desert town west of the Pecos, I was behind the wheel of a car that seemed comically out of place, as sure a sign as any that I wasn’t from around these parts. It was a 1982 forest-green Toyota Corolla station wagon, and rumbling past the Dairy Queen or the post office, invariably flanked by ranch trucks fore and aft, it had the look of a small and peculiar float that has drifted into the wrong parade. The natural habitat for this vehicle was the parking lot of a food co-op or socialist bookstore in Berkeley, California, which was where I’d purchased it. I grew up in Berkeley and neighboring Oakland, and before moving to Texas, I had returned home from the East Coast, where I’d been living for a few years, to outfit myself for the journey ahead. It was an open-ended one. I had no plan beyond the first few months, just the vague notion that I wanted to be a writer of some kind. According to most of the accounts I’d read, this would require some wandering, so I took pains to pack light, assuming I’d be pushing on again before long. I bought the car (if I remember correctly, the woman who sold it to me was some sort of labor organizer), had it painted, and loaded it up with a bag of clothes, two boxes of books, and, slave to romantic nostalgia, my grandmother’s old Royal typewriter. Then I drove to my first stop: Marfa.
I arrived at night. Within minutes, a sheriff’s deputy pulled me over. One of the Toyota’s headlights was busted. He advised me to have it fixed, and when I let on that I was going to be staying in town for a spell, he also advised that I go ahead and register the car and get some proper Texas plates. The old blue-and-yellow California ones only confirmed, as if this were necessary, that I was not a Texan.
Over the next few months, however, I acquired a vivid understanding of why this might be something to aspire to. Living in the state’s most remote and undeveloped corner provided a thorough dunking in its classic themes. The Welcome signs on the edge of town announced that Marfa was “What the West Was,” and though Charles Goodnight might have demurred on this point (thanks to a burgeoning arts community, by 1999, one could already purchase an espresso and the New York Times in town), there was still something undeniable about the slogan. Marfa was, and is, surrounded by ranches, and the lunchtime crowd at the three local cafes that existed back then (Carmen’s was my favorite; oh, for a bowl of that chile verde) often included tables of working cowboys whose spurs jangled whenever they got up. The sheer fact of the town’s remoteness—three hours from the nearest major airports, in El Paso and Midland—gave life a moderately hardscrabble quality that seemed reminiscent of the one described in the histories of Texas I was beginning to devour.
Within weeks of my arrival, I had discovered the small but rich Texana section at the public library (which back then was impressively separated from the rest of the stacks by an iron fence) and fallen into a haphazard and enthusiastic course of study. I was captivated by Texas history. I read accounts of early travels across the state, like Through Unexplored Texas, a somewhat fanciful diary kept by a scout in Captain R. B. Marcy’s 1854 expedition, dispatched to pacify some of the local Indians in what was then a vast and unknown land. That land was even more vast and unknown in Cabeza de Vaca’s La Relación, the story of his journey, three hundred years earlier, through parts of what are now the Texas-Mexico borderlands. I ate it up. These tales—as well as the better-known ones about the Alamo and the Cattle Kingdom and the Mexican Revolution and the oil boom—were alive in a way that the history of other places I’d lived never had been. Partly this had to do with the fascination of the stories, but it also had to do with the relationship between the stories and the people I was coming to know in Marfa, some of whom could trace their roots back many generations in that place. A Texan, I came to understand, is one for whom the past supplies a layer to every present moment.
This was among the first of my Texas lessons. There would be many more. Though I eventually did push on from Marfa, I have not strayed far or long from Texas since. We are being honest here, so I’ll freely admit that this was unexpected. Part of the reason it wound up taking me a year to finally comply with the deputy’s reasonable request to change the license plates on my alien station wagon was that I kept figuring I would soon be leaving Texas, so what was the point? And yet with each month that passed, I found more to keep me from leaving. Actually, a better way of expressing this would be to say that with each month that passed, I better understood why I had come here in the first place—I had come for the frontier. The same was true, of course, for the hardy pioneers whose accounts were collected behind that iron fence in the Marfa public library. To them, Texas meant opportunity, possibility, openness, freedom. The same is true today. Even after the modernizing and constraining effects of the past century and a half, if you take the state as a whole (as we try to do in every issue of Texas Monthly), Texas retains the spirit of a frontier.
Sounds like a cliché, doesn’t it? This state’s “frontier spirit” has been invoked so many times by so many of our chroniclers and celebrators that it has been drained of some of its meaning. In 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Texas was still just a generation or two removed from the wide-open early years of Anglo exploration and settlement (James Hogg, the governor at the time, was the first to have been born in Texas). Turner’s essay advanced the notion that American democracy was the product of the rapidly expanding nation’s experience of the Western frontier, where, far from the jam-packed cities of the Atlantic coast, remote groups of settlers were constantly reinventing their small societies. “This perennial rebirth,” wrote Turner, “this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.”
Ten million cries of “Go West, young man!” later, most of what was thought of as frontier in Turner’s day has lost its frontierishness (this was true even in his day: the occasion for Turner’s paper was the 1890 census, which concluded that “up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line”). Among the few places where it can be said to abide is Texas, particularly West Texas. Anyone who has lived in this state a long time knows what I mean. The frontier itself may be a thing of the past, but most of the qualities that we think of as quintessentially Texan are derived from the frontier experience—individuality, frankness, boldness, optimism, self-reliance, aversion to pretense, a kind of rustic humor, small-town communitarianism writ large, and the egalitarian ethos of a place unburdened by a centuries-old pecking order.
You would be hard-pressed to find this combination of attitudes, shaped as they have been by our particular history and geography, anywhere else in the country. A dim sense of this singularity is what drew me here in the first place; it is what has kept me here for most of my adult life; and it is what I will dearly miss. The occasion for this column—and the somewhat maudlin thoughts it contains—is my imminent departure from Texas. This will be the last issue with my name atop the masthead. After six years as editor of this magazine, I am moving on; in a few weeks, I’ll be taking over as editor in chief of the New York Times Magazine.
I could easily fill this entire issue with all that I have learned since I first came to Texas Monthly as a senior editor in 2006. Being a part of this magazine in any capacity is a tremendous privilege. I’ve had the honor of working alongside an amazing group of people, some of them already legends of American journalism. It is exceedingly rare to find a staff that is as dedicated to doing excellent, genuine, meaningful work as the one assembled here. And I have no doubt that the work they’ll do in future years will far outstrip what’s been accomplished during my tenure. This group is frighteningly talented, and it’s just getting started.
Much of the credit for the magazine’s sturdiness goes to our forebearers: Mike Levy, who started Texas Monthly in 1973 and was its publisher until 2008; Bill Broyles, the founding editor; Greg Curtis, his successor; and Evan Smith, from whom I inherited the magazine. The vision that they supplied, of a smart, sophisticated magazine that would be a home for great writing, engaged political coverage, and friendly, useful reader service, remains intact today. In recent years, as we’ve developed Texas Monthly into a more multi-platform operation, with a rapidly growing website, robust social media, and a thriving events series, those original principles, and the legacy of excellence that Mike, Bill, Greg, and Evan created, have guided and inspired our progress.
That legacy owes a great debt to you, since a magazine is only as smart as its readers. I tend to think of every issue as a theatrical performance that we’re staging for you; without an audience, graciously giving of its time and attention, we’d have no reason to put on our show. Thank you for filling the house, month after month (well, maybe not every month—I’ll admit to a few newsstand dogs).
The greatest debt, however, may be to something bigger than the magazine’s staff, and bigger even than its readership: Texas itself. Without the history, identity, attitude, scenery, culture, food, politics, economic success, and ambitions of Texas itself, there would be no Texas Monthly. Sure, there might be a magazine called Texas Monthly, but it wouldn’t be this magazine, with its unique position in the world. There’s a reason that Texas Monthly, of all the country’s regional magazines, is the only one that is able to operate essentially as a national magazine: Texas, of all the fifty states, is the only one that was once a nation. (Sorry, Hawaii, Vermont, and California! This is the last time we’ll have to have this argument.)
I first came to understand this national Texan identity at the Marfa Public Library. Though I didn’t know it at the time, those books, and the enthralling portrait of Texas that they painted, would form the basis of my approach to editing this magazine. Over the past six years, I’ve tried to make a magazine that is worthy of the character of this place—and that, in small ways, helps contribute to that character. Every decade, the homogenizing force of American popular culture and our more rootless, mobile citizenry (Exhibit A: me) keeps smoothing out Texas’s rough edges and making it that much more like the rest of the country. This has been going on since before Texas Monthly was founded (in early editions of this very column, Bill can be found lamenting it). It can’t be stopped, but we should all try to slow it down as much as possible.
As for me, I’ll be leaving on different wheels from the ones that brought me here. I drive a truck now, having sold my old Toyota in 2003, after I moved to Austin. Every once in a while, I’ll see it puttering around town. It blends in more than it did in Marfa, but with its distinctive non-factory paint job, it’s still hard to miss. And it still has Texas plates.