texasmonthly.com: Why this story and why now?
AD: The idea for the March cover story came from our editor, Evan Smith. Evan is a native of New York but came to Austin ten years ago, and never has anyone so whole-heartedly embraced all things Texan; he’s unceasingly amazed at the variety of myths and cultures and sights and natural beauties. He figured recent transplants to Texas would want to know all about their new home, and he also knew that native Texans and longtime residents are incredibly loyal and never tire of hearing about the state.
JNP: Well, we’re certainly aware of Texas’ tremendous growth since the time the magazine began, and that newcomers—non-Texans, as it were—fueled most of that growth. So this is our way of showing folks how to enhance their Texan-ness. Also, I think with our past governor becoming president, there’s more focus on Texas than there has been at any time since LBJ. The rest of the world needs to understand our quirks and peculiarities. I thought it was very telling during the inauguration when George W. and Laura danced to the tune of “Waltz Across Texas,” the Ernest Tubb classic, at all the balls, yet most commentators and pundits had no idea what the song was or who made it famous. They need to be educated that this song is to Texas what the “Tennessee Waltz” is to that state.
texasmonthly.com: How did you come up with these items?
JNP: I started thinking of the things that were defining points of interest in my twenty-five years of travel around Texas for Texas Monthly. Where did I go where I felt I couldn’t have been anywhere but Texas? What places, events, sights, sounds, smells, and tastes were definitively Texan? Osmosis had a lot to do with it, so did geography, ethnicity, heritage, history, core values, and other stuff.
AD: There were definite do’s and dont’s: We wanted to include every geographical area of the state, and balance urban items with rural ones; we wanted to include all of Texas’ major ethnic groups and its many sources of commerce—oil, ranching, and such. But we didn’t want the list to be predictable or hackneyed—when we did include something like the State Capitol or the Alamo, we tried to spin the item a bit so the approach seemed fresh. Also, the items needed to be as specific as possible—not just “pick peaches,” but “pick peaches at the venerable Whitworth Orchard in Stonewall”; not just “visit an oil rig,” but “visit the site of the Santa Rita No. 1, the oil well that made the University of Texas rich.” The final result includes quite a few events and adventures that I think will surprise people.
texasmonthly.com: Who decided which items were the top fifty?
AD: A core group of about six of us. Note that the items aren’t in order of importance or popularity, although we kept biggies like the State Fair and the bluebonnet photo pretty high up in the list.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think readers should do these fifty things?
JNP: Well, if you do all fifty things, I don’t care what anyone else thinks, you’re a Texan in my book. And if you do one or just a few things, you’re a Texan in spirit, just by trying. Some things anyone can do. Others, like riding in the trail ride from the Valley to Houston, or climbing South Rim in Big Bend, only a few readers will be able to pull off.
texasmonthly.com: In your mind, is there really a definition of something or someone “Texan”?
AD: No. That would be one Texas-size definition! Today, there are so many types of Texan—the Austin cyber-geek, the Dallas socialite, the Houston blues musician, the San Antonio restaurateur, the West Texas cowboy, the East Texas refinery worker, and many, many more. Various editors and writers have often argued over who, exactly, is a Texan—just people who were born here? Everyone who currently lives here? The truth is, both those groups and more are Texans. The diversity of the state is one reason Texas Monthly will never run out of story ideas.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite item on the list and why?
JNP: Hmmmmmm. Well, I’ve never done the trail ride from the Valley to Houston. It’s now on my to-do list.
AD: I love the Dairy Queen item about the Brown Derby. For info and a quote, I turned to Bob Phillips, of the Texas Country Reporter, who has probably visited more Dairy Queens than any living human. His enthusiasm was infectious—what a store of DQ trivia he has! He waxed eloquent about the DQ as social center, and he knew exactly what turned a regular ol’ dipped cone into a Brown Derby. (By the way, I felt to write the article properly, I should order a Brown Derby myself; naturally, that $1.29 is entirely expensable. The job does have its perks!)
texasmonthly.com: What percentage of readers do you think have done at least five things on this list? Just a guess.
JNP: I have no idea. Maybe 30 percent?
texasmonthly.com: Is there one thing on the list that you think will appeal to more people than the rest of the items? If so, why? If not, why not?
AD: I think Joe Nick’s State Fair item is greatly appealing—it combines having fun, yelling real loud (a Texas specialty), and getting to eat that great white-trash classic porta-food, the corn dog. Of course, the fair isn’t till October, so what will prove more immediately appealing to our readers, I think, will be the bluebonnet outing to Brenham and Washington County. Texas had a very wet winter, which is the main requirement for a killer crop of wildflowers.
texasmonthly.com: How many items on this list have you done?
AD: I counted up thirteen—fewer than I thought! I doubt anyone has done all of these things (except, perhaps, the redoubtable Bob Phillips). The idea of listing them all was to give a broad overview of modern Texas, so we didn’t try to sally forth and do all fifty ourselves, although for each entry we did turn variously to veterans or locals or experts to make sure our information was accurate and authentic. We don’t expect readers to do all fifty things, either—but if they did, they would have the big picture of modern Texas. And a big credit-card bill, and very sore feet.
JNP: There are maybe five I still haven’t done.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story?
JNP: My whole life, really.