Deep in the heart of Texas

LANCE RICHARDSON
Last updated 13:50 23/10/2012
Texas
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Alaskans like to point out that their state is larger than Texas. They make their claim on T-shirts and sell them as souvenirs: an outline of one state encompassing the other. This joke is funny only because Texans are legendary for their bravado. "Everything is bigger in Texas" is a popular saying, affirmed with the conviction of a constitutional amendment.

It is not without substance, though. The Texas Motor Speedway is so large it comes with its own high-rise; spectators can buy a balconied apartment. And more than one restaurant treats steak like a gastronomic dare: finish the whole slab and the meal is on the house. Then there are the super-size sodas and belt buckles and bouffant hairdos. You know you're in Texas by the fierce and boundless patriotism. A person is Texan first, American second, world citizen third.

And yet it is also a place that bursts beyond its stereotype. Wandering the drivable triangle of Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio, I realise that Texas plays some big cards close to its (bigger) chest. The story of these three cities, each with its own distinct personality, reveals the true nature of the state.

Where the West begins: Fort Worth

For much of the second half of the 19th century, Fort Worth was the last so-called "civilised" stop on the Chisholm Trail, a lucrative cattle drive that started in Brownsville and snaked north to Kansas City. Beyond Fort Worth there was only "Indian country" - unsettled territory to the west. Cowboys would hole up in Fort Worth for days, buying used bathwater for a nickel, or indulging passions in Hell's Half Acre, a notorious district characterised by rampant crime and prostitution. At the Blue Light Saloon, Ben Tutt, a petty gambler, once "let fly three rounds in the general direction of the bartender, who prudently ducked behind the bar", writes local historian Richard Selcer. Fort Worth, in other words, was as lawless as they came.

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The Chisholm Trail faded in the mid-1880s with the arrival of the railroad, which turned the cattle trading post into "the Wall Street of the West". But its legend thrives. More than most places in Texas, Fort Worth draws inspiration from its wild Cowtown past.

Visiting the Stockyards Historic District (Fortworthstockyards.org) I find a daily drive of longhorn cattle, corralled along Exchange Avenue past rough brick buildings and old street lamps. Then there's the hotel room preserved as tribute to Bonnie and Clyde, who stayed here in 1933 (stockyardshotel.com). The White Elephant Saloon, relocated from Hell's Half Acre, was the site of an infamous 1887 shoot-out re-enacted each February (whiteelephantsaloon.com). And pride of place is the Cowtown Coliseum, in which the practice of cowboys casually polishing their skills has evolved into the only year-round competitive rodeo in the world (cowtowncoliseum.com).

The Stockyards District has an aura of romantic nostalgia - Fort Worth was, after all, far grittier than it seems today - but this is part of the cultural legacy, too.

"Cowboys are romantics," writes Texas novelist Larry McMurtry. "They are oriented to the past and face the present only under duress, and then with extreme reluctance."

When they do face the present, the results are impressive.

The cattle industry, along with the discovery of oil, injected tremendous wealth into Fort Worth; this gave rise to a desire for cultural refinement. Instead of Hell's Half Acre, I now find a vibrant downtown filled with structures such as the imposing Bass Performance Hall, built from funds contributed by more than 6000 private donors (basshall.com). The city even has its own Michelangelo painting, the only one in the US and the oldest attributed to the artist anywhere.

New York's Metropolitan Museum couldn't afford The Torment of Saint Anthony, but Fort Worth could. It can be found in the Kimbell Art Museum (kimbellart.org), sometimes accompanied by the reverberating clap of a visitor's vaquero boots. Though sophisticated and art-savvy, Fort Worth is still a cowboy town at heart.

Honky-tonk Austin

About 300 kilometres south of Fort Worth, Austin takes Texas in a very different direction. The taxi driver who collects me on my first night is nodding along to heavy-metal music. It's a fitting introduction to a city with the unofficial slogan of "Keep Austin Weird". While Texas is overwhelmingly Republican, Austin is a liberal stronghold. It's a city where chain stores are boycotted in favour of "mom and pop" alternatives; where mini-golf is BYOB (bring your own beer); and the course of a popular Sunday bingo game, at Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon, is determined by the bowel movements of a chicken. Then there is the Cathedral of Junk, a 10-metre tower made from vacuum parts, a bust of Beethoven and assorted flotsam.

If Fort Worth builds on the legacy of its cowboys, Austin is a rebel without a cause - unless, that is, the cause is music. "I've always viewed Austin as the oasis, watering hole or gathering place of the south-west," John Kuntz tells me when I visit him at Waterloo Records (waterloorecords.com), the legendary store he co-founded in 1982.

In Kuntz's telling, Austin has absorbed a variety of cultural groups, from Scandinavians and Poles to African-Americans and Mexicans. Being a university town as well as the state capital, it also attracted artists and the intelligentsia. Mixing the art and music of these disparate groups was inevitable, though cultural fusion picked up speed in the mid-20th century. "A lot of folks could see what was going on," Kuntz says, "and they wanted to keep that pure and unadulterated; let the art be."

Commerce was subordinate to art, competition to collaboration. This means that in Austin today, as Kuntz puts it, "a mandolin player can be doing a jazz brunch in the morning, a folk gig in the afternoon, gypsy jazz in the early evening, and a blues gig after that".

Austin has more than 200 music venues and 1900 active artists. In 1991, it crowned itself the Live Music Capital of the World. For a traveller, a single night out can traverse the full musical spectrum: ragtime, Tejano, classical, punk, country. There are big-name acts at Austin City Limits Live (acl-live.com), also home to the longest-running music show in American television history. The young and hip hit the Parish (theparishaustin.com), where slick indie bands dominate the stage. In South Congress, the Continental Club transforms dive-bar Americana into an electrifying spectacle of red neon and sweaty rock (continentalclub.com). It is very late when I reach the Broken Spoke (brokenspokeaustintx.com), an iconic shrine to honky-tonk. The ceiling sags so low the double bass almost grazes it, but nobody in the two-stepping crowd seems to give a hoot.

Recently, real-estate developers unveiled plans for an apartment complex adjacent to the Broken Spoke. They knew better than to touch the Texan dance hall. It will be surrounded like a doughnut, left alone to revel in its own weirdness. Just like Austin.

Tex meets Mex in San Antonio

On March 6, 1836, the Mexican army launched its final assault on the Alamo Mission, pouring over its walls in the pre-dawn darkness. The 200 rebels inside, under siege for 13 days, fell before sunrise, but their legend was already formed. They became symbols of Texan liberty and pride. "Remember the Alamo!" was the rallying cry at San Jacinto on April 21, when General Sam Houston surprised the Mexican troops and defeated them after 18 minutes on the battlefield. Texas broke from Mexico, becoming an independent republic for nine years before joining the United States in 1845.

The story of Texas is tied to Mexico in the south. Nowhere is this more apparent than the city of San Antonio. More urban than Austin, just 130 kilometres away, it has the trappings of a typical American city and something more besides.

Chain stores surround the Alamo today; there is a tidy River Walk (thesanantonio riverwalk.com) with popular cafes and floating tourist taxis; and legions of starched army recruits wander the streets from a nearby military base. But there is a pervasive multiculturalism that makes the city feel unique to me: 58.6 per cent of the population is Hispanic. According to the terrific Museo Alameda (thealameda.org), San Antonio has long been "un lugar de encuentros" - a place of encounter between diverse ethnic groups. Even more than Austin, cultural fusion colours the city.

Mi Tierra is a Mexican institution, serving tacos and enchiladas beneath a ceiling of sparkling pinatas since 1941 (mitierracafe.com). But I quickly discover that Tex-Mex is more than just a style of food. Most impressive are the city's missions, imposing structures built by Catholic orders to convert the native population in previous centuries. San Antonio is currently connecting these together via a Mission Trail driving tour (nps.gov/saan). The Alamo is, in fact, one of five missions here, and visiting Mission San Jose or San Juan is a fascinating glimpse into the development of a distinctive Texan culture from the evangelising attempts of another. The first cowboys, for example, were Mexican and Native American mission herders doing the bidding of Spanish friars. It's a long way from here to the licentious lifestyle lived by cowboys in Hell's Half Acre, Fort Worth - but Texas is a land of contrasts.

Indeed, more than the sum of its parts, Texas is the distinctive by-product of a thousand competing interests. To visit its cities is to marvel at odd connections, larger-than-life characters and cultural affectations. Nothing is done in moderation in the Lone Star State.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of the Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio convention and visitor bureaus.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Dallas-Fort Worth from Sydney (15hr, direct flight) for about $1754 low-season return. Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect. See qantas.com.au.

Staying there

Omni Fort Worth has culture packages, an impressive rooftop pool and comfortable rooms from an average of $US240 ($235) a night; see omnihotels.com/fortworth.

A stunning Austin landmark, the Driskill Hotel blends historical regard with a contemporary feel. Presidents have stayed here, but indie folk band Bon Iver would feel just as comfortable. Rooms from $US279; see driskillhotel.com.

Hotel Contessa, San Antonio's luxury all-suite accommodation, has rooms on the River Walk from $US164; see hehotelcontessa.com.

While there

Learn to two-step with legendary country-swing dance teacher Wendell Nelson every Sunday and Monday at Fort Worth's Billy Bob Texas, the "world's largest honky-tonk"; see billybobstexas.com.

Confront the epitome of Austin weirdness at Weird Wednesdays, a weekly celebration of obscure cinematic trash at the Alamo Drafthouse; see drafthouse.com.

Eat real Mexican street food at La Gloria restaurant on San Antonio's River Walk; see lagloriaicehouse.com.

More information

See fortworth.com; austintexas.org; visitsanantonio.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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