Monday, December 22, 2008


I live in Texas and I'd rather not.

It's not that Texas is a terrible place. It's fine, I guess. There are a lot of people who think Texas is the greatest place on earth. Mostly Texans think this way and they can't understand why everyone doesn't agree with them. I've tried to explain, but they just don't understand. I tell them that Texas is the only state in the country where school children pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag and their state flag. Texas is the only state where people drive around with bumperstickers on their vehicles that proclaim: "Native Texan" or "Wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could" or "Texas Proud"


I'm from the Pacific Northwest and no one is driving around with "Native Oregonian" or "Idaho Proud" on their cars. When I point this out to Texans they just shake their heads. Don't you have any pride? they ask, usually with a mixture of shock and condescension in their voices. The thing is, I am proud of the state I grew up in and identify with -- Washington -- and anyone who listens to me talk for five minutes can figure that out pretty quickly. It's just that my feelings about Washington can't be summed up on a bumper sticker. It's a little more complex than that.

I talk to my students about this stuff. I teach at a four year university and in my sophomore composition class, I focus our writing and discussion around our conception of place and how that affects the way we think and act and respond to our experiences. When I ask my students why they think Texas is so great, most of their answers focus on size and scope: Texas is so big, Texas has so many people, Texas produces so much oil, Texas was its own country. Then I point out that Texas is the second biggest state (Alaska), with the second largest population (California), the second highest oil output (Alaska), and that there was at least one other state (California again) that was its own country before joining the United States.

They're never quite sure what to do with that information. Quite often they are incredulous about California and the Bear Flag Republic. So I ask again: what is so great about Texas? And they usually don't have much to say.

Now, I'm not trying to bash Texas. I'm sure it's a wonderful place and I have met some really great people during my four and a half years here. But I have a problem with Texas. I just can't get my bearings here.

I grew up in the mountains of western Washington. I mean, my little town is right up in the foothills of the Cascades, nine miles (if you could drive straight over the hills) from Mount Rainier National Park. The mountain looms over the northeast corner of our lake, dwarfing everything. Growing up, I found my way around in relation to that mountain: if I could figure out where the mountain was, I could figure out how to get where I wanted to go. I attended college in the Seattle metro area, and in Seattle, everything is between the mountains and Puget Sound. A person can figure out how to get around pretty easily: just find the mountains (east) and the ocean (west) and everything else is fairly simple.

But not in Texas. There are no landmarks in Texas, not that are visible in the way I was used to. I think I have a pretty good sense of direction, but I spent my first year or so in Texas in a constant confusion. I couldn't figure out how to get around because I couldn't find my bearings. There was no 14,000 foot tall mountain to focus on, no wall of mountains or expanse of ocean to orient from. I was frequently lost.

I think this is part of the reason that Texas feels so foreign to me, even after living here for almost five years. In Washington, the orientation is vertical: tall mountains, tall trees. Like the architecture of a gothic cathedral, the very landscape of the Pacific Northwest encourages the eyes to move upward and outward, to contemplate nature and time and the intimate relationship of rock and tree. There is a sense of time in the forests and mountains of Washington that is beyon human comprehension; there is an ancientness to the moss and the fir trees and the lichen crusted rocks that jut out from the green skin of the mountains that cannot be understood. This is a landscape that demands contemplation and reflection.

Texas, on the other hand, is oriented downward. The heat and sun are often so oppressive that there is no recourse but to look down. The landscape is so flat that there is no reason to look out. Dallas and Fort Worth often seem consist of a never-ending repetition of housing developments, chain retailers, and strip malls, stamped out of the dusty prairie in an ever-expanding circle of concrete and glass. Rather than encouraging contemplation, Texas fosters a shallow understanding of the self, focusing on material accumulation in place of personal growth.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe. But I've been here for almost half a decade and I still can't seem to find my bearings.


  1. You've captured it! Oh my. Jack, that's so perfect, how you've expressed what is so inexpressible about Washington, or at least from the Cascades and further west. The ancient connection between nature and man. The contemplation. I've grown up spending half my tie on in Eastern Washington, half in Western. It's no wonder my soul and mindset always feel tugged in two directions, always wavering somewhere in the middle, trying to find balance and clarity by combining the best of both sides of every coin. Every chapter of my life is defined, in my mind, by the home I was in. You have an excellent way of weaving words.

  2. Ah Jack. It's funny to see the same places I loved through the prism of other eyes who have also loved them.

    It took me years to stop being surprised by how short the trees are in New England and to cease sniffing contemptuously every time someone talked about a "mountain" that was shorter than Peterman's Hill.


Global Wanderings . . .