Tall Tales

Tall Tales

Texas Monthly
November 2001

Photographer Laurence Parent and senior editor Joe Nick Patoski talk about climbing, the best shot, and their new book, Texas Mountains. Interview with Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski

Texas Mountains - Joe Nick Patoski

texasmonthly.com: When was the first time you saw a mountain? Do you remember where you were and what you thought?

Laurence Parent: I was born in the mountains of New Mexico, so I guess that I saw them when I was pretty young. They must have made an impression, although I sure don’t remember my first thoughts.

Joe Nick Patoski: The mountains I remember seeing were in the Big Bend. We’d driven in my daddy’s new ‘59 Studebaker Silver Hawk from Fort Worth to San Antonio one day, then from San Antonio to Ciudad Acuña and on to Marathon the next, arriving at night. The following morning we got up and drove to Big Bend National Park and up to the Chisos Basin. I thought it was pretty cool.

texasmonthly.com: Laurence, your father was a National Park Service ranger and your mother wrote travel pieces. Do you think you may have a different perspective on the outdoors because of their influence?

LP: My parents had a huge influence on me. Growing up in beautiful National Park Service sites with parents who loved the outdoors greatly shaped what I do for a living (outdoor photography) and what I love to do for fun (hike, run, camp, and climb).

texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to publish a book on the Texas mountains?

LP: No one had ever done such a book. Some Texans don’t even realize Texas has mountains. Many others don’t realize that there are beautiful mountains in Texas besides the Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains. I wanted to surprise people. The Texas mountains have waterfalls, movie sets, pine forests, aspens, and many other surprises.

texasmonthly.com: How long did it take to come up with the material for your book and put it all together?

JNP: A little more than a couple years. I’d really been working on it for more than forty years, but just didn’t realize.

LP: Some of the photos go back to the mid-nineties (they were shot for other projects). Most, however, were shot specifically for this book beginning around mid-1999. The West Texas drought didn’t help. The schedule accelerated last fall, though, when rains finally came to West Texas. The grass greened, the air cleared, and the waterfalls flowed. I made two trips in October and November to wrap up the book that lasted 26 and 17 days each. After that, I was ready to be done.

Joe Nick Patoski at Coal Mine Ranch
Joe Nick Patoski
at Coal Mine Ranch.
Photo by Laurence Parent

texasmonthly.com: Joe Nick, what was involved in getting your information? Did you go on many climbs?

JNP: Lots of time was spent in libraries, online, and on the phone. But the best part of doing it was getting to go on-site. A lot of the ranges are on private land, so our research involved introducing ourselves to folks, asking permission for access, and in many cases, assuring sources that we wouldn’t identify precisely where we were lest trespassers and poachers try to go where they’re not welcome.

I should mention that the photography required getting to vantage points on peaks and pinnacles that were not necessarily the highest points in a particular range. Nonetheless, we climbed a bunch. There’s one photo Laurence took of me standing on a smaller pinnacle in the Chinatis that ran in Texas Highways (Laurence needed a model and I was the only other human around). The picture is pretty great, capturing me standing on this high point overlooking the rugged, desolate valley of the Rio Grande, with no other human being or any man-made structure in sight. What you don’t see is how I propped myself up on the rock, trying to maintain my balance, and how I was seized by a severe case of acrophobia while trying to stand still and remain calm. The wind was gusting, and I kept trying not to look down, because one false move and I was a goner. Standing across the way, on an equally perilous promontory, was Laurence, snapping away, changing cameras, loading film, trying to get the shot. It’s one thing to ramble around high points and scurry up to the top; it’s another thing to do that while carrying sixty pounds of equipment on your back. Laurence, I think, has a little mountain goat blood in him.

texasmonthly.com: Laurence, what type of format do you use? Why?

LP: I mostly use a large-format camera, 4×5, for my landscape work. Only a tiny handful of the photos in this book were done with a 35mm camera. A 4×5 reproduces larger, with greater sharpness, less grain, and potentially greater depth of field. I do use a 35mm for shooting outdoor sports, but there wasn’t any of that in this book.

texasmonthly.com: Do you find the mountains in Texas that different from the mountains in Colorado? Why or why not?

LP: The mountains in Texas are significantly lower and drier that those in Colorado. However, many of the Texas mountains have considerable relief (above the surrounding plains) and are still very impressive.

JNP: Much different. As a University of Texas at Austin professor from Germany told me recently: “We in Germany know about the Rockies, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevadas, the Appalachians. We have mountains like that. But there’s nothing in Germany like the Texas mountains. That’s why we love to come here.” It’s the delicate combination of mountains and desert. Nowhere but Texas.

Joe Nick Patoski at Sierra Diablo
Joe Nick Patoski and Chris Gill
at Sierra Diablo.
Photo by Laurence Parent

texasmonthly.com: What is necessary to get such spectacular shots? Can you describe a shoot for me?

LP: First and foremost, you have to be a pack mule. My camera pack usually weighs between 35 and 40 pounds just for day hikes. A lot of strenuous hiking was required for this book to reach the photo locations that I wanted. Quite a few hikes were cross-country in areas with no trails. Several shots were taken on overnight trips, and my pack weighed 60 pounds or so. Besides dragging my gear to ideal locations, I have to anticipate the light and weather to try to get the best possible images. Many times the weather does not cooperate, requiring me to repeat a trip, often several times.

texasmonthly.com: When is the best time of day to take nature shots? Why?

LP: Most commonly, the light right before, during, and after sunset works best because contrast decreases, long shadows give depth, and the light turns gold and pink. However, weather is at least as big a factor. Dramatic skies, especially from breaking storms, add immeasurably to photos.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite photo in the book? Why?

JNP: I don’t really have a favorite. I love‘em all. But when I first thumbed through the book, the shots of ZH Canyon really stirred me. Sunrise on a perfect June morning, seeing and hearing and witnessing all the life in this “isolated” spot—the canyon was a veritable aviary, choked with raptors and Neotropical songbirds. It was one of the more blessed moments in my life. The photos brought it all back.

LP: Tough question. I’m not sure that I have a particular favorite. I do like the cover, in part, I guess, because it was taken during a miserable windy sunrise in a spring dust storm, which is why the light is so red—not because of a filter. Another favorite is probably the aspens shot because it was such a bear to hike to them, plus it reminds me of the New Mexico mountains, where I did a lot of my growing up.

Joe Nick Patoski at Coal Mine Ranch
Joe Nick Patoski
at Coal Mine Ranch.
Photo by Laurence Parent

texasmonthly.com: What was your most difficult shoot? Why?

LP: Several are contenders. The aspens shot was difficult because it required carrying my heavy gear cross-country up and down very steep, loose, and treacherous slopes. I twisted my knee when a slope shifted under me; it still hasn’t completely recovered. The shot of El Capitan taken from the summit of Guadalupe Peak required carrying my pack four and a half miles up a trail while gaining three thousand feet of elevation in a howling, frigid dust storm in January. After taking my sunset shots and getting almost hypothermic, I hiked all the way down in the dark.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite mountain range in Texas? Why?

JNP: My favorite ranges are the Franklin, Hueco, Guadalupe, Sierra Diablo, Sierra Vieja, Davis, Chinati, Chisos, Bofecillo, and Glass ranges. Each has qualities separate from the others. Laurence has convinced me that there is much more to the Quitmans than initially meets the eye. The Eagles, which parallel Interstate 10 to the south for twenty miles or so, west of Van Horn, are the most underappreciated. The view from Eagle peak was one of the most breathtaking of them all.

LP: I’m not sure that I have a single favorite. They’re all really different. Some favorites are the Sierra Vieja, Davis, Guadalupe, Chisos, Beach, Quitman, and Sierra Diablo mountains.

texasmonthly.com: If you could climb any mountain in Texas, which would it be? Why?

JNP: North Franklin Mountain. Because I haven’t done it yet.

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Water Foul

Caddo Lake
It’s not just for the birds. An egret hunts on the surface of the lake.

Water Foul

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 2002

To the city of Marshall, Caddo Lake is a profit center, a reservoir from which millions of gallons can be pumped each day and put up for sale. To the people of Uncertain, Karnack, and other communities nearby, it’s an ecological jewel, a symbol of our natural heritage – and depleting it for a few quick bucks is an unforgivable affront to nature.

On a blazing hot morning in June, I got lost paddling a kayak in the swampy backwaters of Caddo Lake. This is not a difficult thing to do. The greenish-brown water is so dense that you can’t see the bottom. The surface is covered with an iridescent lime-green coating of duckweed and water lilies. The shoreline is barely discernible, and any view beyond is blotted out by an impenetrable thicket of sweet gum, ash, pine, oak, and tupelo. The heavy, dank stillness that’s a defining feature of these parts only adds to the disorienting sense that you’ve entered another world. Earlier in the day, when the British-born president of the local chamber of commerce told me with a straight face that she wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see a dinosaur rise up out of the murk, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Eventually, five men in a spacious pontoon boat pulled up alongside me and offered me a lift. When I saw the ice chest full of beer, sodas, and water, I hopped aboard; typical Caddo Lake hospitality, I thought. But then I found out that they had set out to find me-that they knew who I was and why I had come to this remote area of northeast Texas. I was curious about news reports of an impending threat to the wellbeing of the lake, which is the only naturally formed lake in the state and the biggest in the South. The City of Marshall, with the state’s blessing, planned to capture water from Big Cypress Bayou, the primary source of Caddo, and sell it to a willing buyer. Those plans had been thwarted by the “lake people,” an unlikely coalition of bubbas in overalls, urban dropouts, and other novice ecowarriors, but only temporarily. The threat was still real, and that’s what the men in the boat wanted to show me.

At the helm was Ken Shaw, a retired manager at International Paper who lives on the lake and sits on the board of the Cypress Valley Navigation District, which maintains the markers that show the way through the network of sloughs and keeps them open. Riding shotgun was Jack Canson, a public relations consultant who spent several decades in Austin and Los Angeles before coming home to Marshall. His boyhood buddy taking photographs from the boat’s bow, Ron Munden, had recently moved back to Marshall after living in Northern California, where he designed software for the Navy. Next to Munden was Barry Benniek, a Houston native who runs the Pine Needle Lodge on the lake’s isolated northwestern shore. Manning the binoculars was Tom Walker, who grew up near the western shore and now works as a librarian at Texas State Technical College’s Marshall campus. As we puttered along in a shallow part of the lake, Walker pointed out places with colorful names Whangdoodle Pass, Death Hole, Old Folks Playground-and Shaw engaged his depth finder, calling out readings: “Four feet. Four feet. Five feet. Six feet. Four feet.” At Kitchens Creek, we cruised past two john-boats occupied by elderly black fishermen picking up bream. “By summer’s end,” Shaw said, “most of these routes will be impassable.”

Shady Glade Marina, Uncertain
A pier at Shady Glade Marina in Uncertain.

They’ll all be impassable, the men told me, if Marshall prevails. In addition to the 5 to 7 million gallons that it already draws out of the bayou daily for residential use, the city of 23,000 can, according to the permit approved by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), pipe out several million more gallons each day and sell them, even in drought conditions. Only when Caddo drops seven and a half feet below the spillway at Mooringsport, Louisiana, would an “emergency situation” be declared, at which point any water taken would have to be replaced. “By that time,” Bennick explained, “there’ll be no lake left.”

“Or alligators,” Walker chimed in. “Or snapping turtles. Or fish.”

If this has a familiar ring, it should. Across Texas, the war over water is all anyone wants to talk about these days. In El Paso and the Panhandle, water marketers like developer Woody Hunt and corporate raider Boone Pickens are plotting ways to move the suddenly precious commodity from rural areas to thirsty cities. In San Antonio golf course developments and booming bedroom communities are competing with recreational interests and small towns to the north for water from Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River. Along the border, farmers are squabbling with their counterparts in the Mexican state of Chihuahua for their fair share of water from the Rio Grande Basin. And on and on. Court dockets are backlogged with water-related suits (you might say they’re waterlogged). Candidates for high office speechify about the problem but offer no real solutions. Lobbyists stuff their pockets in anticipation of a legislative session in which water will be on the agenda yet again, one of the most serious long-term issues facing Texas and Texans.

At first glance, the Caddo conflagration looks a lot like the others. In the eyes of the state, it’s not so much an ecological jewel or a symbol of our natural heritage as a reservoir, a storage facility that can be drained at will. That mind-set explains why, although the lake belongs to all Texans, it’s perfectly legal for a city like Marshall to profit from it. But in fact, there are two things that distinguish this fight. One is the involvement of folks with pockets deep enough to make the playing field level. Chief among them is Don Henley, the drummer for the rock and roll band the Eagles, who was raised nearby, in Linden. In the past decade Henley has donated more than $1.6 million to the Caddo Lake Institute, a nascent research and educational facility, partly to pay legal fees associated with court fights on behalf of Caddo. You may remember that a few years back, Henley’s passion was saving Walden Pond, the Massachusetts stomping ground of Henry David Thoreau, from the clutches of developers. Well, his latest cause celebrity is Caddo, where he caught his first fish as a boy.

The other thing is that the locals have decided, to borrow a phrase, that they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore-a point that was brought home to me after a couple of hours on the lake, when the pontoon boat docked by the grocery in the tiny town of Uncertain. Behind the counter was Betty Holder, Uncertain’s mayor, who greeted each of us with a very certain hug. The diminutive Miss Betty, an area resident for thirty years, reiterated Shaw’s calculation of how much Caddo can stand to lose. “They’ll leave us with nothing but a mud hole,” she said. “People can’t imagine Marshall being so simpleminded. The only good thing coming out of there is Highway 43.”

Betty Holder
Betty Holder, the mayor of Uncertain.

Her feistiness turned to elegance when she spoke of the lake. “We have something here. We didn’t buy it. We didn’t make it. The good Lord gave it to us. We’re just trying to take care of it, and we won’t give up. We’re going to win. When people around here band together, we pull in the same direction.”

ONCE YOU’VE SET EYES ON CADDO LAKE, IT’S DIFFICULT NOT TO GET emotional about it one way or another. No other body of water in Texas remotely resembles it. If you stand on its banks, which are lined with stately bald cypresses draped with Spanish moss, and gaze on the still water, you’ll either scream, turn around, and never come back again or you’ll get hooked for life.

By day, distant culls of Acadian flycatchers, northern parula, Prothonotary warblers, and cardinals echo through the forest along with the buzz and hum and splish and splash of the natural world, and you might spy a yellow-crowned night heron plucking its breakfast out of the water or a great blue heron lumbering in flight above the canopy like a pterodactyl. By night, bullfrogs work themselves into a whooping frenzy, almost drowning out the whir of crickets and locusts and the occasional hoot of barred owls. In the summer Neotropical songbirds are drawn to the lake; in the winter it’s wood ducks and bald eagles. Year-round, alligators, snakes, and lizards thrive here. “Remember the year when people were wondering where all of the frogs had gone?” Bennick once asked me. “We knew where they were.”

The ethereal, primordial lake of today wasn’t always thus. When the Caddoan people, a relatively sophisticated civilization that embraced farming and a highly organized, complex society. set down roots in the area 10,000 years ago, it was just a rivet No one knows for sure when the lake was formed. Indian lore speaks of a big shake from the Great Spirit, implicating the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It could just as well have been the Great Red River Raft, an eighty- to one-hundred-fifty-mile logjam of red cedar, cottonwood, and cypress so thick that you could literally walk across it. By 1856, the raft had backed up to the Big Cypress Bayou tributary, effectively creating Caddo Lake and making the upstream town of Jefferson Texas’ main riverport. The lake became permanent when a dam was built at its eastern end in Mooringsport, south of Shreveport, in 1914.

Ever since there was a Caddo Lake, hunting and fishing have been popular, but its recreational potential wasn’t fully realized until the state’s oldest continually operated hunting and fishing club, the Dallas Caddo Club, was established in 1906 on its southern shores. A flyin fishing resort even operated briefly in Uncertain, which was incorporated in 1961 to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages. But Caddo’s popularity had already peaked; over time, jet-skiers, cigarette boats, and the high-dollar bass-fishing crowd were lured to the wider-open waters of new lakes like Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and Lake 0′ the Pines. Promoters continued to hatch big ideas for Caddo, the last a half-cocked attempt ten years ago to build a barge canal. Otherwise, the lake is about as off the beaten path as you can get. In 1993 the Nature Conservancy purchased seven thousand acres on the northern banks of the lake and turned them over to Texas Parks and Wildlife, which designated them a wildlife management area.

Ed Smith
Ed Smith, the mayor of Marshall.

Most visitors today frequent the state park or the fifty or so bed-and-breakfasts around Uncertain and the neighboring town of Karnack, the birthplace of Lady Bird Johnson. They may drop a line or dip a paddle, but mostly they come to sit and contemplate in one of the most picturesque spots in Texas.

“I INHERITED THIS PROBLEM,” ED SMITH SAYS WITH A LONG SIGH. The affable mayor of Marshall, who runs a petroleum exploration company when he’s not doing the public’s business, is a fourth generation local for whom fishing in Caddo is a treasured boyhood memory. But the problem he’s referring to isn’t the city’s plans. It’s the behavior of the lake people. “I tried to work with them,” he says. “I hope the ability to reason has not gone out the window.”

As far as Smith and the city were concerned, the deal was going to be a no-brainer, an economic-development project that required little more than moving water in exchange for a big, fat check. The potential buyer came on line a year and a half ago: New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation, which needed water to cool its power plant under construction near Marshall and was willing to pay $600,000 for it annually. But immediately the lake coalition attacked the deal. First it demanded a guarantee from Marshall that any water taken from Caddo during dry spells would be replaced with water from Lake 0′ the Pines. Marshall officials agreed in principle but disagreed about who would determine when water replacement should start. Then the coalition attempted to contest Marshall’s permit or, at the very least, bring the matter before a public hearing. The TNRCC shut them down on both counts-a decision that drew fire in a rare public fashion from Parks and Wildlife, who warned that drawing down lake levels would result in a severe loss of habitat in the adjacent wildlife management area. The back and forth continued until May, when Entergy executives decided they’d had enough, pulled out of the agreement with Marshall, and resolved to buy the city of Longview’s treated wastewater instead. (Even though Entergy is out of the picture, the Caddo coalition is now contesting the permit in a Travis County court.)

The turn of events greatly pleased Henley, who has been back in East Texas over the past few months tending a sick relative. “There are too many people interested in using up the lake’s resources without fully understanding, or caring about, the health of the ecosystem,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “They just take and take without putting anything back. Fortunately, true stewardship traditions exist within the lake communities. We decided to make significant investments in those communities to help them move beyond the meaningless lip service of those who say they love Caddo Lake but do nothing about the risks to it. We wanted to give the people who truly care the means to take action-to make reasonable demands on the state and federal agencies that should be intervening to reverse the lake’s decline.”

That wish is seconded by Dallas oilman Albert Huddleston, whose political leanings, it should be noted, are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Henley’s. A longtime contributor to Governor Rick Perry’s campaigns, Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into defending Caddo Lake. “I believe in both economic prosperity and environmental awareness,” Huddleston told me by telephone from Peru, just hours after he’d climbed down from Machu Picchu, “but sucking water out of Caddo Lake and destroying that fragile ecosystem is no different than sticking a pipe in the Alamo and selling it brick by brick.”

Albert Huddleston
Albert Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into defending Caddo Lake.

Henley’s and Huddleston’s money has bought, among other things, the expertise of Dwight Shellman, who is the founding director of the Caddo Lake Institute. Henley met the slight, 68-year-old attorney in the late eighties in Shellman’s hometown of Aspen, Colorado, where he had a reputation for bringing together apolitical factions of the community to beat back excessive urban expansion. The rock star thought Caddo could use a guy like Shellman and paid his way to Texas, where his first act, in 1993, was to negotiate the lake’s designation as a Ramsar site, the thirteenth wetlands in the U.S. said to be internationally important according to criteria adopted at a global ecological convention in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.

At Shellman’s behest, the institute initially focused on education, developing wetlands science programs for the Marshall public schools as well as East Texas Baptist University and Wiley College, also in Marshall. He made headway with the colleges, using the resources of their science and biology departments for research. But the public school program was scuttled in 1998 after an instructor on a field trip realized that Marshall’s sewer main was on the verge of collapse. Instead of being rewarded for reporting her discovery to the city, she was reprimanded, and eventually she resigned and moved elsewhere to teach. “I realized then that the environmental education of teachers and students in a place like Caddo Lake was a poor investment because these were people who were ready to leave town,” Shellman says. It was then that he shifted the institute’s focus to promoting activism within the lake communities. “The people closest to the landscape are the ones who have the greatest awareness,” he says. He set out to find common ground among the institute, the Caddo Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, the Greater Caddo Lake Association, and the town of Uncertain and held meetings, under the fancy, official-sounding name of the Caddo Lake Ramsar Wetlands Clearinghouse, at which the locals were taught how to play the game. Judging by the outcome of the Entergy deal, it worked, and the lake people are grateful. “Dwight is a real sweetheart,” coos Robin

Holder, a burly, bearded lake guide who is married to Uncertain’s mayor.

The mayor of Marshall, not surprisingly, has a less charitable view of Shellman’s efforts. As much as Ed Smith says serenely that the city may simply find another buyer for the water, his displeasure with the other side shows. “It’s not about the power plant anymore,” Smith says. “Sometimes I think they’d like to see the bayou as a national park or a wildlife refuge. You have to question if their aim is to get Marshall out of it altogether.”

On muggy Tuesday night in August, about seventy people are congregated inside the community center in Karnack, just down the road from Uncertain, for a clearinghouse meeting. It’s TMDL Night, as in total maximum daily loads, the maximum tolerance levels of air and water pollution as allowed by the state. For three hours, the talk focuses on nutrient loads, dissolved oxygen solids, and airborne mercury contamination. Shellman, who moderates the discussion, explains that if the TNRCC would formally establish a TMDL limit for the lake, it might prevent even more pollution and maybe even speed up the lake’s recovery. But for that to happen, the TNRCC has to designate Caddo as a high priority, rather than its current medium ranking, and the Legislature would have to fund a TMDL program. The process is simple, he says. “You determine what’s contributing to the problem, find the total load, and then find the rate that it’s deposited. The goal is to restrict input from the source.” Translation: You figure out who’s polluting the lake and get them to stop.

Presentations made in the Karnack ball by Roy Darville, the chairman of the biology department at East Texas Baptist, and Henry Bradbury, a freelance environmental manager in Dallas, both members of the clearinghouse’s scientific advisory board, underscore the lake’s failing health. Five years of water-quality data indicate a severe loss of oxygen, in an area that already has a high level of acid rain-thanks to coal-fired power plants in East Texas-and the presence of mercury contamination throughout the Cypress River Basin’s food chain at levels high enough to warn pregnant women and infants against eating fish caught in the lake.

The responsibility for combating those problems, Shellman tells the group, rests with them. They appear to be happy to step up. Armed with scientific data, fluent in regulatory legalese, they discuss existing power plants in East Texas that are already polluting, how to build alliances with people on the Louisiana side of Caddo (one third of the lake’s 25,000 acres are over the border), how to make a formal presentation to the city of Marshall, and how to beef up Caddo tourism-for instance, qualifying it for a “Keep Texas Wild” specialty license plate, which at the moment features only bluebonnets and the horny toad.

The message is clear: It’s their show, not Shellman’s, Henley’s, or anyone else’s. “I’ve learned that these citizens don’t normally participate in the political process,” Shellman says. “They’re like most Texans who own property. They want to live within their boundaries and be left alone. But if you rile them up, watch out.”


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25 Top Custom Bootmakers

Bootmakers
FROM TOP: A custom pair made by Rocketbuster Boots in El Paso; a bootmaker works on a top at Arditti Footwear; a vamp is fitted around a last at Arditti. Photography by Wyatt McSpadden.

25 Top Custom Bootmakers

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 2002

ABILENE

James Leddy Boots
1602 N. Treadaway Boulevard
915-677-7811
The nephew of boot king M. L. Leddy is now royalty himself, and he runs a real family business: He does the cutting, his wife and daughter do the stitching, his son-in-law does bottoms, and his former daughter-in-law creates the prettiest inlays anywhere. Specializes in: Flowery tops, old-fashioned crimped vamps, zipper tops, sharp pointed toes. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singers Buck Owens, George Jones, and Johnny Bush; U.S. representative Charles Stenholm.

Bell Custom Boots
2118 N. Treadaway Boulevard
915-677-0632
The gregarious Alan Bell understudied with Tex Robin in Coleman (see below) before going solo. Twenty-five years later, his is one of the state’s busiest husband-and-wife operations (Pauline Bell does the top stitching). Specializes in: Versatility (his leather ranges from tough and rugged to soft and supple) and signature stitching outside and inside the vamp. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Race car driver Kyle Petty; cowboys from the 6666, the Pitchfork, and other mega-ranches.

AMARILLO

Western Leather Craft Boot
1950 Civic Circle
806-355-0174
Four generations of the Ross family have been making fine working and dress boots since 1914. Specializes in: Work boots, art boots, wing tips, and flower inlays. Prices start at: $575. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Singing cowboy Gene Autry.

AUSTIN

Texas Traditions
2222 College Avenue
512-443-4447
Lee Miller apprenticed under the late, great Charlie Dunn and took over the business when Dunn retired. Specializes in: Flashy designs, such as wild flames decorating the tops and trademark Charlie Dunn pinched rose overlays. Prices start at: $1,000. Turnaround time: Three years for new customers (they’re not taking any right now), thirteen months for old ones. Has made boots for: Country singer Lyle Lovett, rock singer Sting, actor Slim Pickens, golfer Arnold Palmer.

COLEMAN

Tex Robin Custom Handmade Boots
115 W. Eighth
915-625-5556
Robin’s father, also called Tex, opened his doors in 1944 and passed his talent and commitment to high quality on to his son, who has now run the one-man shop for thirty years. Specializes in: Artistic tops with eclectic stitching (e.g., prickly pear cactus spines), brilliant coloring, and trademark butterflies and eagles. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Governor Rick Perry, gambler Benny Binion.

COMANCHE

Kimmel Company
2080 County Road 304
915-356-3197
Since learning the trade from the late Dan Trujillio, another Comanche legend, Eddie Kimmel has built up one of the most productive small shops in Texas. Specializes in: Old-style boots that are a little stouter and have a heavier inner sole, which means they last longer. Prices start at: $550. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Actresses Sandra Bullock and Priscilla Presley; movie producer Lynda Obst.

EL PASO

RocketBuster Boots
115 S. Anthony
915-541-1300
Their boot designs are part flash and part kitsch, so it’s no surprise that the showroom in which Nevena Christi and Marty Snortum greet their customers—by appointment only—resembles Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Specializes in: The wildest tops in the business, from Hot Rod Devil and Custom Car Angel logos to fiery chiles and the Virgin of the Guadalupe. Prices start at: $750 (take $40 off any order if you trade a childhood cowboy photo). Turnaround time: Twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Actors Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, and Bruce Willis; actress Sharon Stone; director Steven Spielberg; talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

Tres Outlaws
421 S. Cotton
915-544-2727
Co-owners Scott Emmerich and Jerry black (the third outlaw "we hung," says Emmerich) supply boots to high-end retailers, including Emmerich’s Falconhead in the tony Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Specializes in: Elaborate designs, exotic leathers, handstitching as wide as 25 rows, braided kangaroo-skin piping, and silver inlays built into the boot. Prices start at: $595. Turnaround Time: Four to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Actresses Brooke Shields, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Renee Zellweger; rock singer Sheryl Crow; uberagent Mike Ovitz.

The Stallion Boot and Belt Company
100 N. Cotton
915-532-6268
Longtime boot collector Pedro Mu–oz, Jr., made a killing off of the Urban Cowboy craze. Twenty years later, he still designs boots for sale via trunk shows and couture retailers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Dior. Specializes in: Replicas of classic boots emphasizing starbursts and flame stitching, as well as buck stitching and lacing. Claims to be the only bootmaker using fossilized walrus and woolly mammoth ivory. Prices start at: $500. Turnaround time: Six to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rock singers Madonna, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan; actress Ashley Judd; actor Tom Cruise.

Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footware
910 Texas Avenue
915-532-7833
A twelve-year veteran of the leather biz at age 31, Thomas Yves Arditti produces high-end designs for boots made of alligator and other exotic leathers. Specializes in: High-quality leather inside and outside the boot and signature sterling-silver logo built into the heel. PRICES START T: $550. Turnaround time: One to two months. Has made boots for: Actor Jack Nicholson, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

FORT WORTH

Carman Allen
8616 Quebec Drive 817-367-7976 Formerly a bull rider, Allen designed chaps before shifting his focus to boots. Specializes in: Detailed tooling and a trademark lightning bolt. Prices start at: $650. Turnaround time: Eight to ten months. Has made boots for: The cutting-horse crowd.

HOUSTON

Wheeler Boot Company
4115 Willowbend
713-665-0224
Dave Wheeler has been working at his father’s shop since he was twelve; forty years later he continues the family tradition by working alongside his wife and his mother. Specializes in: Colorful, elaborately designed boots-as-art Prices start at: $825. Turnaround time: Eleven months. Has made boots for: Vice President Dick Cheney, actor Robert Duvall, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin.

Maida’s Blackjack Boot Company
3948 Westheimer Boulevard
713-961-4538
First-generation Italian bootmaker Sal Maida, Sr., served Houstonians for years; since 1977 that task has fallen to his son, Sal Junior, and bootmaker Richard Salazar. Specializes in: Upscale boots suitable for cowboy balls. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: Ten to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rockers ZZ Top, actor Ben Johnson.

R.J.’S Boot Company
3321 Ella Boulevard
713-682-5520
A bootmaker to the power elite, Rocky Carroll is a worthy successor to his dad, who started the business in 1938. He is backed by independent contractors, including 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, maybe the state’s finest craftsman, who works semi-exclusively for him out of a garage in Mercedes. Specializes in: Conservative, upscale boots with artistic tops, such as corporate logos, and lots of gold and silver. Prices start at: $295. Turnaround time: Two weeks. Has made boots for: Both President Bushes, Governor Rick Perry, country singer Dolly Parton.

LAMPASAS

Jazz Boot Shop
803 E. Avenue G
512-556-3857
Pablo Jass worked for twelve years alongside the late Ray Jones, also of Lampasas. He still turns out tougher-than-hell real cowboy boots made for working on the range. Specializes in: Jones’s box toe, white piping, and stiff tops, and electric topstitching done by his wife, Juanita. Prices start at: $600. Turnaround time: Six months to one year. Has made boots for: Author and boot aficionado Tyler Beard.

MERCEDES

Cavazos Boot Factory
302 Second
956-565-0753
Vicente Cavazos, an unsung elder of the bootmaking biz, does the whole boot himself, from fit to finish, excelling in artistic stitching, inlays, and overlays. Specializes in: Imaginative top designs, including roses and a Corpus Christi cityscape, and stylish ostrich wing tips. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Four to five weeks. Has made boots for: Former president Bill Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Camargo’s Handmade Boots
710 U.S. 83
956-565-6457
Henry Camargo considers himself an artist and lets his imagination fly, producing an assortment of unconventional designs on exotic skins with free-form stitching. Specializes in: Tops with 55 Chevy convertibles, ’66 Corvettes, Harleys, Ford pickups, speedboats, Dallas Cowboys helmets, and Lone Star beer logos. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Three to five weeks. Has made boots for: Country singer Willie Nelson, actor Patrick Duffy.

MILLSAP

Stephanie Ferguson Custom Boots
2112 Poe Prairie
817-341-9700
The Ohio native-the only female bootmaker in Texas going it alone-understudied at Jack Reed’s place in Burnet, where she developed a flair for flamboyant colors and overlays. Specializes in: Tops with three-dimensional hummingbirds, coconuts, flamingos, parrots, and morning glories. Prices start at: $850. Turnaround time: Six to eight months. Has made boots for: Country singer David Allan Coe.

RAYMONDVILLE

El Vaquero Boots
722 E. Norman
956-689-3469
Ignaclo "Nacho” Martinez, another unsung elder, was part of the team that built boots for President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the dedication ceremony for Falcon Dam, in 1954. After spending most of his career at Raymondville’s now-defunct Rios Boots, he currently works out of his garage with his son, Joe. Specializes in: Flaming-red rose inlays, intricate braided-lace piping, and lizard scallops. Prices start at: $300. Turnaround time: Six to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Armstrongs, Klebergs, Yturrias, and other ranching elites.

Armando’s Boot Company
169 N. Seventh
956-689-3521
Abraham Rios once had Raymondville’s biggest shop, serving area ranches like the King Ranch. Today his nephew Armando Duarte Rios puts his 45 years of experience into each and every boot. Specializes in: Fancy inlays and nimble stitching up to ten rows wide. Prices start at: $420. Turnaround time: Eight to ten weeks. Has made boots for: Former governor Mark White; former Speaker of the House Gib Lewis; actors Sean Penn and Peter Coyote; country singer Willie Nelson.

Torres Brothers Boot Company
246 S. Seventh
956-689-1342
In 1997 Raul and Frank Torres reopened the longtime business run by their father, Leopoldo Torres, who still consults for his sons on a regular basis. Specializes in: Butterfly stitching and white-alligator boots. Prices start at: $200. Turnaround time: Six to seven weeks. Has made boots for: King Ranch cowboys, Texas Rangers, border patrolmen.

SAN ANGELO

J. L. Mercer and Son Custom Boots
224 S. Chadbourne
915-658-7634
J. L. Mercer began working in his daddy’s shop at age eleven. Seventy years later, he sells boots out of a rickety storefront and at rodeos, cutting-horse competitions, and the State Fair. Specializes in: Basic work boots, roper boots, and crepe soles, Prices start at: $450. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Lyndon B. Johnson; former governor Mark White; actors Barry Corbin and Tom Wopat; country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

Rusty Franklin Handmade Boots
15 E. Avenue D
915-655-7784
Franklin split off from his venerated grandfather, M. L. Leddy, sixteen years ago and recruited master bootmaker Eugene Lopez from the late Charlie Garrison’s operation in Llano. Specializes in: Stiff tops, school logos, and Texas icons such as the Capitol, the Alamo, mockingbirds, oil derricks, yellow roses, and bluebonnets. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Five to six months. Has made boots for: Actor Tommy Lee Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

M. L. Leddy Boots
2200 W. Beauregard
915-942-7655
One of the oldest and largest custombootmaking operations in the state. Specializes in: Old-fashioned high-heel range riders, nuevo-retro cockroach stompers, tool tops, and lace-ups. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singer Trisha Yearwood, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actor Paul Newman.

SAN ANTONIO

Little’s Boots
110 Division Avenue
210-923-2221
What Lucchese Boots once was to San Antonio, Little’s Boots-established in 1915-is today. Little’s sets the standard for fancy custom boots, which are on display at the state’s best showroom. Specializes in: Expensive, unembellished exotic leathers and intricately detailed art boots, including three-dimensional pinched roses and unique wildflower and leaf patterns. Prices start at: $750. Turnaround time: Three and a half months. Has made boots for: Country singer Reba McEntire, actor Tommy Lee Jones, author Alex Haley.

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Boot Anatomy

Boot Anatomy
This boot is one of the most popular styles made by Lee Miller of Texas Traditions in Austin.

Boot Anatomy

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 2002

Top

The top, also known as the shaft, is the artist’s canvas: Here is where the most detail work is done (although, ironically, if you’re a man, the top stays hidden under your pants legs unless you’re riding or at a cowboy ball). Standard tops are twelve inches high, though custom boots that replicate vintage models of fifty years ago or older—especially old-timey cowgirl boots called peewees—sometimes have tops that are shorter. Luccheses have always had thirteen-inch tops. Yahoos and Buffalo Bill wannabes go for even higher tops, despite their propensity to cause the feet to sweat more in the summer.

Leather

When it comes to skins and leathers, the sky—and your wallet—is the limit; the rarer the species, the costlier the material. Calfskin is the basic starter, followed in no particular order by goat, lizard, anteater, shark, kangaroo, quill ostrich, stingray, buffalo, bullfrog, snake (not very durable), bullhide (very durable), elephant (the most durable), and alligator (the most expensive).

Stitching

The stitching of custom boots is done by hand. Think decorative, not practical: Once upon a time, stitching held the layers of leather together, but today glue mostly does the trick. The more rows of stitching, the finer (and more expensive) the boot. Two rows are standard. Ten rows are awesome.

Vamp

The vamp is the lower part of the boot, and ideally it’s cut from a single piece of leather. It comes together in a series of steps. First the medallion—or bug and wrinkle, so named because it looks like, well, a bug and a wrinkle—is stitched onto it. Then it’s sewn to the top, wetted, and stretched over the last. Next, it’s pulled back so the toe box can be inserted. Finally, it’s sculpted and dried.

Pulls

Pulls, or ear pulls, are the loops sewn into the side of your boots at the top to help you get them on. Over-the-top pulls are standard. Mule ears, which are five to seven inches long, and flush pulls, which sit inside the boot, are fancier. Some boot buyers prefer holes in the top to slip their fingers into.

Inlays

Inlays are sewn into the top or, less frequently, the vamp. This is the delicate part of the artistic process, sometimes involving microscopic strands and pieces of leather. The more detailed the inlay, the harder the job—and the longer it takes. (Overlays, or foxings, are pieces of leather attached to the outside of the top or the vamp; they’re the bootmaking equivalent of hair extensions. They perform the same decorative function as inlays, but they’re susceptible to scuffing or being torn off.)

Piping

Piping covers the vertical seam where the tops are stitched together. Typically it’s a single strand, but sometimes it involves more-elaborate braiding.

Toe

Your choice of toe reveals what kind of person you are. Rock stars and fashionmongers gravitate to pointy toes, also known as pin box toes, roach stompers, and fence climbers. Yes, they’re trendy, but they’re actually the kind grandpa used to wear when he rode horses (the pointy toe makes it easier to stick the boot into the stirrup). The box toe—also called the five-eighth toe, since the boxed front is five-eighths of an inch across—is the most popular version of the pointy toe. (The boot pictured has a three-fourths-inch toe.) Round toes, reflecting more conservative tastes, are preferred by modern ranch folks and professionals who want something to wear with a business suit. The number one round is a modified pointy toe. The number three, also known as a J toe, is the most common of the round-toe styles and is preferred by the button-down crowd. The number four is so round that it can pass for a shoe.

Bottom

The bottom consists of the insole, the outsole, and the shank cover. The insole is nailed to the bottom of the last before the vamp is stretched. After the vamp is dry, it is stitched to the insole by hand, creating the welt. The nails are pulled from the insole, and the last is removed. Then the outsole is stitched to the welt.

Heel

The heel determines height and function. Higher heels make it easier to stay in a stirrup while on horseback, but they’re hard if not hell to walk in (getting around on a two-and-a-half-inch “undershot high narrow rounding heel” is like wobbling on Manolo Blahnik spikes). Most boot wearers prefer a lower, flatter heel, like a one-and-five-eighth-inch “walking wide heel” or a one-and-three-fourth-inch “short contest heel.”

see also Alive and Kicking; 25 Top Custom Bootmakers


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Alive and Kicking

Enrique Velasquez
Bootmaker Enrique "Kiki" Velasquez of Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footwear in El Paso. Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden.

Alive and Kicking

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 2002

As apparel goes, handmade cowboy boots are one of the last remaining links to our past—and they look sweet on your feet. Here’s where you can find a pair that fits your personal taste, plus everything you ever wanted to know about vamps, stitching, and more.

LIKE SO MUCH ELSE IN Texas these days, apparel—the kind that proudly proclaims our Western heritage—ain’t what it used to be. Jeans were co-opted 25 years ago, when Gloria Vanderbilt designer-labeled them, and all hope of taking them back is lost now that Wranglers and Levi’s, those icons of the cowboy way, are made out of the country by workers who wouldn’t know a Santa Gertrudis from a milk cow. Cowboy hats? Gimme caps supplanted Stetsons and Hi-Rollers long before Bum Phillips coached the Oilers. Spurs and chaps? Appropriated by the alternative-lifestyle crowd (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Shirts with pearl snaps? Hell, folks are more likely to wear running shorts with the Texas flag on the backside.

Cowboy boots, on the other hand, are inviolable. They’ve been with us forever and still look damn sweet on a pair of feet today. And they don’t have to be Texas feet; anyone who dons a pair (well, the right pair) can pass for a native. Boots directly connect us to our storied past—they were the footwear favored by the Spanish conquistadores who brought the horse to North America, although there’s still some dispute as to whether the first cowboy boots arrived in Texas from Kansas via the cattle drovers or from northern Mexico by way of the vaqueros. Their shining moment came in the early eighties, when the Urban Cowboy craze transformed them into a pop culture artifact embraced around the world. But by the early nineties, sales were back down and the industry began to consolidate. More recently, venerable Texas bootmakers like Tony Lama and Lucchese have followed jeans makers in shipping some of their manufacturing operations across the border and overseas. Several lines of Justins, once the pride of my hometown of Fort Worth, are today made in Mexico.

This, I would argue, is not necessarily a bad thing. With the decline of the big boys, the small bootmakers—the ones who custom-make them by hand—are on the rise. Presidents, movie stars, rock stars, and even the occasional Mexican wrestler, along with regular folks all across the state, regard made-to-measure boots as one of the last remaining status symbols connected to the Western myth. Mind you, they’re expensive, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for a single pair, and assuming you can find someone willing to take you on as a customer, it can be weeks or months before they’re ready to wear. But price and patience have their rewards, because custom boots are more comfortable than a pair of slippers and last for a minimum of ten years. The way I figure it, they’re a far better value than the new pair of $200 Air Jordans you have to buy every year—plus they look cooler and are versatile enough to be worn in the saddle or propped up on your desk.

The place to buy custom boots is Texas, which is home to more than one hundred of the best bootmakers on earth—though you’d never know it; most custom bootmakers don’t advertise, as word of mouth brings in all the business they can handle. Aesthetically speaking, their shops are like barbecue joints: The funkier the place, the better the product. Some have a fancy showroom out front, but the actual work is done in environments charitably described as messy, dank, and musty, and the air is redolent with the sweet, mellow aroma of tanned hides. Piles of leather scraps are scattered in every nook and cranny, as are such tools of the trade as awls, hammers, and ancient sewing machines (the model 3115 Singer is particularly revered).

Yes, bootmaking is an art form—literally. Over the past twelve years, custom boots have been the subject of three coffee-table books—100 Years of Western Wear, The Cowboy Boot Book, and Art of the Boot—by Tyler Beard, a writer and collector of Western memorabilia living in Lampasas, and Jim Arndt, a photographer from that upper Midwestern hub of bootmania, Minneapolis (Arndt also publishes boot calendars). At the moment there are two major boot-themed exhibits in Texas: “These Boots Are Made for Gawking,” at the Grace Museum in Abilene, which features the works of Texas’ best modern bootmakers, and “Heels and Toes and Everything Goes: Cowboy Boots As Art,” at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, including boots worn by Lyndon B. Johnson, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.

With an eye to all this, I spent a few weeks traveling around the state this spring, visiting some of the state’s best bootmakers. I was sorry to be reminded that so many of the veterans are no longer with us: Charlie Dunn, of Austin, Ray Jones, of Lampasas, Charlie Garrison, of Llano, Dan Trujillio, of Comanche, Willie Lusk (the only African American to distinguish himself in the trade), of Lubbock, and Genaro Hector Uribe, of San Antonio, the last in a family line that stretched back 150 years to bootmakers who shod soldiers in Emperor Maximilian’s army. Yet I discovered some old masters still at it, such as 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, of Mercedes, 73-year-old Ignacio Martinez, of Raymondville, and 65-year-old James Leddy, of Abilene.

From these and other Michelangelos of leather, I learned that getting the new generation to follow in their bootsteps is no easy task. “I’ve got two sons and a daughter who didn’t go into the boot business but live in nice houses with all the finer things in life,” says seventy-year-old Dave Little, whose family’s boots, hecho en San Antonio since 1915, favorably compare with ones the Luccheses once made in the Alamo City. Thankfully, another of Little’s daughters is getting ready to take over the business. An additional problem is finding good craftsmen—the only dependable talents are Mexican nationals, the occasional Mexican American kid from the border region, and the handful of graduates (never enough) from the bootmaking school at the technical branch of Oklahoma State University, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

Custom bootmakers, I was told, are divided into two camps. Solo operators insist that you can’t turn out really great handmade boots if even two people are involved in the process. Ideally, the person who does the measuring should be the person who makes the last, cuts the patterns, and cuts the leather. “Those four steps are so critical that you’re asking for trouble if more than one person does it,” says Houston bootmaker Dave Wheeler. Shops with two or more bootmakers hoot at Wheeler’s premise, pointing out that specialists who focus on stitching, stretching vamps, or putting together boot bottoms make for a better overall boot. Besides, going it alone is akin to taking a vow of poverty, says Little, who makes the sale, does the measuring, and collaborates on the design but leaves the actual assembly to six workers in the shop out back. “The fellow who makes boots one at a time, from fit to finish, can’t make any money,” he says.

There are regional differences in Texas as well. Small bootmakers who make real cowboy boots for real cowboys—durable footwear that’s nothing fancy—are easily found wherever big ranches are nearby, with two significant clusters around Abilene and San Angelo. Custom bootmakers in El Paso, the undisputed Cowboy Boot Capital of the World, tend to be larger operations and focus on sales not to individuals as much as to retailers in Texas and elsewhere, who measure their customers and then send for the boots to be made. Not surprisingly, boots tend to cost more the farther you travel from the border. The least expensive boots are made in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley towns of Mercedes and Raymondville, where many makers were trained in the Mercedes factory of revered bootmaker Zeferino Rios, whose family was in the business for nearly 150 years.

Whatever you pay for them, wherever you get them, get them. This is an industry worth supporting. “It’s not going to die,” insists Lee Miller, of Austin, one of the nation’s finest young bootmakers. (Miller is doing his part: He was taught by Charlie Dunn and eventually took over Dunn’s business, and he is now teaching a Japanese man named Atsuki Sumi, who aims to open up the second custom-made-boot shop in his home country.) “The boot boom may have ended in 1983,” says Scott Emmerich, who co-owns Tres Outlaws bootmakers in El Paso, “but the serious boot buyer has never gone away. It always has been and always will be, because Texas is Texas and Texas is boots.”

see also Boot Anatomy; 25 Top Custom Bootmakers


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A Time to Drill

Kemp's ridley turtlesA Time to Drill?

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March 2003

Last year the feds went toe-to-toe with environmentalists over allowing natural-gas drilling on Padre Island, but neither side has scored a knockout. Here’s what to expect in the next few rounds.

So who threw the first punch in this fight? The Bush administration. A year ago, citing the growing demand for natural gas and the need for the U. S. to become less dependent on foreign energy supplies, the Department of the Interior approved a permit allowing BNP Petroleum, of Corpus Christi, to drill an exploratory natural-gas well inside the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). In November, after BNP struck a reserve fifteen miles from park headquarters, the Interior Department agreed to let it drill two additional wells.

Since when is drilling legal on Padre Island? Since forever. In fact, oil and gas exploration is legal throughout the national park system (nearly seven hundred oil and gas wells exist in thirteen other parks). In the case of PINS, when the federal government began acquiring its 160,000 acres in 1962, it limited the purchase to surface lands, leaving oil and gas rights in the hands of the state and private owners. Any company can apply for a drilling permit, but approval must also be granted by the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department. Nineteen wells have been drilled on Padre since 1979, but only two in the nineties, and both were dry holes.

Okay. But if drilling has always been legal, how can environmentalists fight this? By playing every green group’s favorite trump card: suing under the Endangered Species Act. Few roads exist inside PINS, and to access its drilling sites, BNP must send eighteen wheelers down the beach, which, from April through July, is prime nesting habitat for endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles. Roughly five thousand female turtles exist, and critics of drilling argue that the giant oil company trucks will crush both turtles and their nests. Using this argument, the Sierra Club filed suit against the Interior Department in April.

How is BNP addressing the Sierra Club’s concerns? BNP spokespeople argue that their trucks are no more harmful to the turtles than the thousands of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who roam the beach already each summer. Besides, they say the existing regulations governing their beach access, which include requiring drilling trucks to maintain a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and to travel in caravans led by trained turtle spotters, will adequately protect wildlife.

So how does all of this affect Texans? First, the bad news: Increased drilling will unquestionably have a negative impact on tourism. Nearly 800,000 visitors flock to PINS each year, and no matter how environmentally and visually friendly BNP’s operation is (it will use quieter, diesel- and electric-powered rigs painted the color of their surroundings), nothing spoils a beach picnic quite like a rumbling caravan of industrial truck traffic. On the other hand, there’s a significant financial carrot being dangled by the pro-drilling camp. Because BNP’s proposed new wells will be on state-owned reserves, state law stipulates that between 20 and 25 percent of the revenue the wells generate must go to Texas’ Permanent School Fund. And considering the state’s $9 billion budget shortfall, the estimated 80 billion cubic feet of gas sitting untouched beneath the island could represent an irresistible revenue source.

What happens next? Don’t expect the feds to purchase Padre Island’s oil and natural-gas rights like they did last summer for Big Cypress National Preserve, in Florida. The move to protect the preserve was largely viewed as a political maneuver (read: a chance for President Bush to boost brother Jeb’s 2002 reelection efforts), and the administration has been otherwise adamant about the need to tap our existing energy supplies. A compromise that involves limiting drilling trucks during turtle nesting season or cutting a road down the island away from the beach might appease some critics, but remember, there’s an endangered species involved, and the Sierra Club doesn’t typically go down without a fight. Expect this issue to drag on in the courts, where a judge will issue a final TKO.

[Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club] [Padre Island drilling] [Padre Island National Seashore] [Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle]


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See the Forest of Cooperation for the Trees

See the Forest of Cooperation for the Trees

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
May 19, 2003

The first shot marking a new phase in the great American environmental war was fired last week — in Fort Worth, of all places. But hardly anyone heard it.

A two-day writers workshop titled “Beyond Command and Control” — sponsored by Environmental Defense and the Sand County Foundation of Madison, Wis., and hosted by Ramona Bass — was largely ignored by the Texas media, other than the five outdoors writers who attended the conference and me.

It’s understandable. On the surface of it, there isn’t much newsworthy about 40 people getting together to hash over land use, endangered species, law and human interaction with nature, topped off by a tour of the Texas Wild! exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo led by Bass.

But the mere fact that landowners and greens were engaging in dialogue to develop consensus about land, water, wildlife and the environment rather than yelling at one another other was not just news — it was downright earthshaking.

Ten years ago, the Endangered Species Act, which originally was intended to identify, protect and save rare birds, fish, animals and insects, was having precisely the opposite effect.

Landowners who had endangered species on their property were being punished with onerous rules, regulations and restrictions rather than being recognized for harboring unique plants and animals.

Many Texas landowners felt so threatened by the heavy-handed enforcement of the act that they summarily denied federal and state biologists access to their property out of fear that endangered species would be found and some bureaucrat would step in to tell them how they could or couldn’t manage their own land. Some went so far as to kill rare birds and destroy their habitat.

Similarly, whenever a green organization such as Environmental Defense saw a problem, the first reaction was to “Sue the bastards,” as Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense’s president, explained at the workshop.

Those attitudes defined the old rules of engagement. Today, it’s a far different story.

Environmental Defense, having recognized the pitfalls of wielding a heavy hammer to instigate change, has taken the lead in developing “Safe Harbor” agreements that reward landowners for having endangered species rather than penalizing them.

Several landowners, including Dr. Rickey Fain from Glen Rose and Bob Long of Bastrop, testified how such agreements and cooperative efforts among landowners, environmentalists and regulators have worked to protect endangered species including the black-capped vireo and the Houston toad.

That mirrors the philosophy articulated by Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin conservationist who inspired the creation of the Sand County Foundation by championing personal responsibility and individual stewardship as the most effective means of preserving and protecting the environment.

A news conference was held during the workshop to announce Environmental Defense’s $1 million investment in a partnership with the Sand County Foundation to create the Leopold Stewardship Fund.

The money is already being spread among 14 landowner groups dealing with endangered species across the country.

Landowner incentives ring especially loud and clear in Texas, which is home to more animal species than any other state in the nation, and which happens to be 97 percent privately owned.

The sometimes not-so-subtle message tucked into the $40 million Texas Wild! recreation of the state’s regions and its wildlife is that private property owners are conservationists, too, and despite the doom-and-gloom message that humans are destroying the environment, there’s plenty of reason to have hope.

The message reflects the beliefs of Bass and her husband, a former commissioner of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Basses own tens of thousands of acres. My family owns less than 10.

Ramona Bass and her husband are avid hunters. I prefer observing wildlife to shooting at it.

But when it comes to describing the flight of a caracara, knowing why side oats grama is good and guinea grass is bad, and appreciating the subtle beauty of the South Texas brush country, we are equals in our passion.

We both recognize that it is in the best interest of Texas and Texans to care about land, water and wildlife — especially in the current climate of budget cuts and an administration that has been less than enthusiastic when it comes to environmental matters.

In the long run, Congress and the Legislature are not the places to seek answers. If you own it, it’s yours to take care of, no matter how big or how small the parcel of land.

The responsibility of stewardship goes hand in glove with property rights. Cooperation trumps confrontation — especially when the natural world we all live in is at stake.

To pull it all off also will take a leader much like Lady Bird Johnson, who helped beautify America with wildflowers.

Are you listening, Mrs. Bass?

[Fort Worth Star-Telegram]


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Pom-pom and Circumstance

February 2003 coverJudith Zaffirini — Pom-pom and Circumstance

Texas Monthly
BY JUDITH ZAFFIRINI
AS TOLD TO JOE NICK PATOSKI
February 2003

Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. What did I learn from cheerleading? How to lead and how to foller.

I FIRST REALIZED HOW BEING a cheerleader could help you in politics when I became a candidate for the state Senate in 1986. I remember going to a high school out of town, not in Laredo, during the campaign. They invited me to go to a pep rally right before the football game. I had already checked out the football schedule. Every time I went to a high school, I knew the mascot, I knew the colors, I knew their scores, I knew the record for their football team. I knew the details, just like I know about the rainfall when I visit another county, because farmers and other people in agriculture will ask questions such as “How much has it rained in Laredo?” I always have the answer.

During the pep rally, someone turned and asked if I wanted to say a few words. I walked the entire length of the gym to get to the microphone, and Dennis Longoria, a family friend and volunteer who was traveling with me, wanted to die. He said, “Oh, no!” All he could think of was that the cheerleaders had just had the pep contest between the classes to see who could yell the loudest, then had formed a human pyramid with layers of people standing on each other’s shoulders, and now I was going to talk about economic development and tort reform and all those issues I’d been talking about, and they were going to boo me. Dennis said that was the longest walk he ever saw me take. And I walked up to the microphone and said, “Are we going to beat the Bulldogs?”

I really helped rev up the audience. They were stunned. They didn’t expect that from me. To this day, when I visit high schools, if I’m invited to a pep rally, I know what to do: ask questions, involve the audience. And don’t get up and talk about yourself and get serious. Be able to go with the flow. Create an appropriate atmosphere. Focus not so much on myself and what I want to say and do but on them and what they need to hear. That’s what cheerleading teaches you.

George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison—they were all cheerleaders, and they are all very effective with an audience. As cheerleaders, they learned how to work with a crowd. It’s important to bond with an audience and to help the audience come together as a unit. At this point in their careers, they don’t need to rev up a crowd too often. Cheerleading is particularly an asset for first-time candidates. It gives you the ability to understand audience psychology and know how to respond to an audience yet help unite them. I wish Tony Sanchez had been a cheerleader in high school. He would have known how to rev up the troops from the beginning. Instead, he had to master that art along the way.

Part of leadership is knowing when to lead and knowing when to follow, and cheerleading teaches you that. The best leaders have that skill. I saw it in George Bush. After Bush’s election in 1994, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock asked me to talk to the governor about welfare reform. I said to Bush, “I’m the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. I have passed welfare legislation and have a bill for this session, but Bullock asked me to meet with you and to ask you what your bill does and who will carry it for you.”

Bush looked at me and said, “Senator, your bill is my bill.”

I smiled. “Governor, we’re going to get along just fine.”

The image of cheerleaders as shallow couldn’t be further from the truth. So many leadership skills are involved: not only bringing the audience together but also sharing enthusiasm with them and motivating them to be enthusiastic too. I really believe cheerleading develops leadership and develops understanding of other people. It builds character in so many ways. One of the opportunities cheerleading offers is learning to handle victory and defeat with grace and dignity. That’s important in politics too. I vividly remember using that lesson the night of the runoff in my first race for the Senate. I was at my headquarters telling everyone, before the election results came in, that whether we won or we lost, we would act the same way. That if we won, we would not gloat, and if we lost, we would not cry, and we would handle it—using those words—”with the same grace and dignity.” And then someone said that my opponent was on the phone to concede, and everybody went, “Yaaaay!” and started just being very ugly. I tried to calm everyone down and said, “I’m not going to pick up the receiver until everybody is totally quiet. Let’s thank him, and let’s be very dignified about it.”

In 1959 I went to Ursuline Academy, an all-girls school, and tried out to be a freshman cheerleader for St. Joseph’s Academy, the all-boys school. The cheerleaders were selected after tryouts and elections. Whoever went to the tryouts got to vote. Since we were freshmen, it wasn’t exactly a popularity contest, because no one was known. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors certainly didn’t know the incoming freshmen. The election was held during the summer before the academic year, so we hadn’t met anybody. I can tell you the exact cheer:

Chickalacka chickalacka, chow chow chow
Boomalacka boomalacka, bow wow wow
Chickalacka boomalacka, who are we?
St. Joe’s Antlers, yessiree!

My sister Celita was already a sophomore cheerleader at Ursuline. After my election, one girl who was a sophomore yelled, “Ya llegaron Las Papitas“—”The Little Potatoes have arrived.” Our maiden name was Pappas. It’s a Greek name. In Laredo many people think it’s Papas—Spanish for “potatoes.” So we were called Las Papitas in high school, “the Little Potatoes.” My sister was and is very popular. Certainly that helped me. I wanted to be very much like her. She was a role model. I learned to read at the age of three because she knew how to read. She was five. That’s my first memory of childhood: learning to read.

We had friends who were cheerleaders at other high schools. They were our role models too. A dear friend of mine who died recently, Nora Montemayor, was a cheerleader at Martin High School, the only public high school in town. (Now we have seven.) She was a friend of my oldest sister. Nora and her twin, Dora, were just darling, very energetic and popular. Certainly they impacted us.

We didn’t have women role models. I never thought of going to college until I was a senior in high school. I don’t recall anyone urging me to go to college. My mother encouraged all four of her daughters to be prepared to fight our own battles. She encouraged us to be well mannered, to be bilingual, to speak English with an American accent and Spanish with a Mexican accent, and not to be pocho—you know, Tex-Mex—and she encouraged all of us to learn how to type. So I type very, very well, very quickly. She wanted us to be prepared. If we married and our husbands got sick or died, we would be prepared to work. She wanted us to be prepared to be secretaries, as she was a secretary. She wanted us to be prepared to cope.

When I was in high school, from 1959 to 1963, cheerleading was the closest thing to sports for a girl. At Ursuline Academy, we didn’t even have intramural activities, only P.E. classes. Many years later, I was the director of communications and Title IX coordinator at Laredo Junior College, and I wondered how many cheerleaders from my era would have been athletes if we had had the opportunities girls have today.

Today, cheerleading is a sport that requires athletic prowess. They’re gymnasts. When I was a cheerleader, it was different. We practiced—we had so many practices. We had to learn cheers, timing, and how to synchronize our moves. We learned self-sufficiency, discipline, teamwork, and leadership. We didn’t have advisers. We didn’t go to cheerleader school. We did it ourselves.

Judith Zaffirini, 57, has served in the Texas Senate since 1987. She lives in Laredo.


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Up Close and Texan

Los Angeles TimesUp Close and Texan

The Los Angeles Times
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 30, 2004

Visitors for the big ‘fooba’ game have their own ways. So listen up, all y’all.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the sudden appearance of 40,000 or so strange-looking tourists in Pasadena and nearby environs – the ones in burnt-orange golf outfits with big hats and big hair that block your views of the San Gabriels.

If you’ve leaned in close trying to decipher the language they’re speaking, you might have overheard phrases like “fooba” or “purtier’n Tyler.” And if you’ve followed them, you’ve noticed how they get excited about the prospect of horses clopping down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day and go gaga about the Gap in Old Town Pasadena because it’s nothing like the Gap back home.

These visitors are called Texans, a breed apart from the usual out-of-towners from the Midwest who typically materialize around this time of year. But this particular group is hardly composed of your run-of-the-mill, boot-scooting, Wrangler-wearing, pickup-driving, yee-hawing Texans. Rather, they are devotees of the Longhorns of the University of Texas (a.k.a. “The University”) in a state where the only two sports that matter are football and spring football.

We Texans are by nature an exuberant, friendly and sometimes obnoxious lot. But this bunch is really over the top. Forgive them their arrogance (at least that which is not inherent), because they’ve never been to the Rose Bowl before and it’s been a long, long time since they’ve been to any big bowl game.

Like all Texans, they speak with a pronounced accent that is sometimes hard to understand, a point driven home a few weeks ago at a bookstore in Michigan where I was searching for a copy of Life magazine.

“Laugh magazine?” the clerk said, shooting a funny look. “Never heard of it.”

You might think you’re hearing “techsuhsfaht” repeatedly, but that’s really “Texas fight” with a severe drawl.

You will also notice their tendency to blurt out “Hook ’em!” and make odd little waving gestures whenever they encounter a fellow tourist.This arthritic expression of raised index and little fingers, with the middle and ring fingers held down with the thumb, is not a gang sign nor a heavy-metal rock-on signal. This is an affectionate shadow-puppet version of a Longhorn, the UT mascot, summoned to demonstrate faith that UT will gore the University of Michigan’s Wolverines on Saturday.

If they suddenly turn somber, as if they’re having a patriotic moment, it is advisable to give them plenty of space. The school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” is a celebration of paranoia. Of course, you’d be paranoid too if you went around singing, “Do not think you can escape them/ Rise up so early in the morn/ The Eyes of Texas are upon you/ Till Gabriel blows his horn.”

Although more than a few of these UT boosters are in the oil and gas “bidness,” which plays to the old Texas stereotype, many of the really serious fat cats reflect modern Texas’ diversity. Their numbers include a character who is really named Jim Bob, who owns the world’s biggest gold mine; the Dallas takeover artist who made George W. Bush a millionaire by paying him too much for his baseball team; a car dealer whose real name is Billy Joe but prefers to be called Red, who also happens to own an NFL team on the side; and the Houston lawyer who beat Pennzoil out of more than $1 billion in a lawsuit and has since spent so much of that loot on his alma mater that university officials have erected not one, but two statues in his likeness on campus. If you run into any of the above, there may be some benefit in placating them, like a really big tip.

To avoid offending the visitors, it’s best to avoid addressing them as “you guys.” Always refer to them as “y’all” except when referring to a group of them, when the proper reference is “all y’all.” When in doubt, just give a knowing wink and smile and say, “yewbet.”

Under no circumstances try to pander by suggesting the visitors sample the local Mexican food or barbecue – the California versions just don’t cut it with this crowd and never will, no matter how much sour cream and avocado you pile on. As far as Texas fans are concerned, California is all bean sprouts and tofu anyway. Better to offer a really big steak. A side of beef is hard to mess up.

And don’t talk politics or energy price gouging. If you must bring up a famous W. from Texas, better to discuss Willie (as in Nelson) than the president. The latter is embraced as a native son (even though he is in fact an Eastern blueblood born in Connecticut) mainly because he says “noo-cul-lar.”

Which is another great thing about Texans. Anyone can be one. Declaring yourself a Texan is all the roots you’ll ever need. It’s like the popular bumper sticker says: “I Wasn’t Born in Texas but I Got Here as Fast as I Could.”

And if Texcess seems a tad overbearing, remember, it could be Texas A&M playing in the Rose Bowl instead. The University of Texas is in Austin, a blue island in a red-state sea that is frequently described by the rest of Texas as the People’s Republic of Austin.

Aggies, by comparison, are the Lone Star bund, partial to military uniforms, knee-high leather boots and severe buzz cuts. Their “traditions” include spending the whole football game standing up with their hands on their knees, as if straining at stool. Fortunately, for UT fans and Californians alike, the Longhorns regularly whip the Aggies in football.

So all y’all make the best of this weekend. It could be worse. Honest.

[The Los Angeles Times]


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It’s a Texas Thang

It’s a Texas Thang – Or Is It?

The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 3, 2004

It was on a trip to my mother’s native country of Greece that I realized there really is such a thing as Texas culture. My cousin had just introduced me to a teenage boy on a bicycle. He asked where I was from. As was my habit, I told him I was a Texan.

His face lit up with recognition.

“Texas? Ah, yes!” he said in broken, thickly accented English. “Cowboys! Kennedy! Bang bang!”

He hadn’t gotten it exactly right (or so I thought at the time; these days I’m not so sure), but at least he had an image in his mind.

Telling him I was from Iowa wouldn’t have sparked a visual in his head. New York, maybe, but only if I was talking about the city, not the state. California might have triggered some form of recognition. But any Californian would know which California to specify—northern or southern—from the git-go. The two regions are very different from one another, as any northern or southern Californian will tell you.

Texans, on the other hand, think of themselves as pretty much one and the same, no matter if they’re born-again rednecks or flaming secular humanist libs, city folks or country folks, if they live in downtown Houston or suburban Plano, or come from Dalhart on the treeless Great Plains or from the Rio Grande Valley, 700 miles south on the edge of the tropics. For all those people from all those disparate places to think of themselves as a whole, some kind of culture has to exist.

Texas culture has been the conceit that’s driven much of my writing career over the past four decades. I staked my point of view to the belief that Texas was a place unto itself, and that if I treated it as its own country, there was more than plenty to write about. New York or Los Angeles would no longer be necessary. Besides, “Texas writer” sounded a whole lot more respectable than “minor regional writer.” I found the subject matter I was looking for in music, the finest of all the fine arts in Texas, where regionalism flourished in the sounds of Texas country, Texas rock and roll, Texas blues, Tejano, conjunto, and Texas jazz. Two artists in particular, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, proved consistent fodder since they shared the belief that you could do your art in Texas, carve out a comfortable existence, and still Be Somebody on the national stage. It worked for them and it’s worked for thousands of others since. I took to heart the observation of the accordionist Ponty Bone: Texas was an isolated pocket of good taste.

Over time I came to discover Texas culture expressed in the literature of McMurtry and Graves, the films of Horton Foote and Robert Rodriguez, sports (Dallas Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas Aggies), food (you name it), and couture (hats, buckles, etc.). Besides Texas music in its various forms, I championed the three basic Texas food groups (BBQ, chicken-fried steak, and Tex-Mex), indigenous folkways such as rodeo, the Hidy sign, Big Red, Dublin Dr Pepper, dancehalls, jeans, and handmade boots—the icons that make us stand out from everybody else.

Lately though, I’ve been asking if there really is a Texas culture left. Did Wal-Mart culture subsume it and I just missed it in the papers? Or has Texas always been an amusing caricature to distract us from the reality that Texas is always and forever the minor leagues, a cute, charming, somewhat blustery place to stop that will never be confused for the Big Show? Marketing people love talking about branding concepts, people, and material goods. Well, Texans may have invented the branding iron, but it is that very marketing mentality that threatens to dilute those characteristics that make us Texan and create the dynamic of Texas culture. To which I say: Don’t fence me in.

Geopolitics has a lot to do with this reassessment. Our president has jingofied Texas to the point that anyone else flaunting anything remotely smacking of Texan is subject to acts of overt revulsion as much as they’re likely to elicit a smile or a hug. When I travel out of the country, I don’t take my boots with me anymore.

It’s weird to admit that, since I bought into Texas culture from my very first taste of barbecue at the age of two. But it may be true. Twenty years ago, more blue jeans were manufactured in El Paso than any city in the world. Today, no one makes jeans in El Paso (or San Antonio, for that matter). Kids don’t wear ’em much either. Joe Peters, whose family has been selling cowboy hats to the rich and famous for more than 75 years in Fort Worth, complains hats are out of style. Where’s the next McMurtry or Graves? Just what are those tepid box office receipts for the second filming of The Alamo trying to tell us?

Or, Texas culture may have morphed into something else, judging from the month of programming the Trio cable television network dedicated to the state last summer. “Texas, America Supersized” month featured a nice concert in California starring Willie and his heavy friends and several airings of Slacker, which defines modern alt.Texas culture. Three documentaries focusing on Texans and guns, obesity, and the unique way we mix bidness and politics pretty much nailed the modern version of the culture. The bidness/politics doc was from Germany. The other two were British. In their eyes, we’re a little scary, somewhat reactionary, and a tad crazy from the heat. But no matter how harsh the point of view may be, we still manage to come off radiating just enough charm to win them over. Sound familiar?

The documentaries viewed Texas as neither unique nor distinct but rather as the anti-California. The Texas wildcatter, the oil millionaire driving the big Cadillac, smoking the biggest cigars, and throwing around $100 bills is gone. He has been replaced by the fattest, least literate, dirtiest-dealing, back-slapping, Halliburton-whoring corporate citizen in these United States. Hell, we’re not even Mississippi with good roads anymore. Mississippi’s highways have been upgraded while we’re busy talking toll roads.

Which begs the question: Is Texas still Texas anymore? Or is it all hat, no cattle? Real cowboys are nigh impossible to find these days. As Alpine rancher Tom Beard told me a few years back, most so-called cowboys would prefer to admire themselves in the mirror than put in a hard day’s work. Then again, ranchers aren’t what they used to be either. Robert Halpern, the editor of the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, told me locals speak in code when they define people as either ranchers or ranch owners. It’s a nice way of acknowledging ranch owners aren’t real ranchers. (Note to the White House press corps: Before the Bushes bought land in Crawford in 1999, the “ranch” was referred to by locals as the Englebrecht hog farm.)

There’s a conspiracy at work here. Blame it on interstate highways that have linked the nation together and made everywhere look like everywhere else, immigrants from elsewhere who bring their ways with them—not so much the Nigerians, Nicaraguans, or Oaxacans, but the New Yorkers and Angelenos—clone restaurants, big box stores, and electronic media. Country music is no longer about music from the country or for country folks; it’s the pop music of the suburbs of America, lite rock in disguise. Valley Girl-speak is the lengua de preferencia in the Woodlands and Frisco, same as it is in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Wal-Mart is bigger than Texas even.

Worse, what little distinctive culture that’s left has been pimped and whored to the point it isn’t really Texan-ness that’s being projected. Note to all y’all: Some of us may still say warsh instead of wash even when we know better, but no one I know, even the last Bubba on earth, says noo-cu-lar like our President does.

Heck, even Texas music has been compromised. For all the good the Dixie Chicks and Lloyd Maines have wrought, I’m wary of Pat Green, who pulls in crowds bigger than Willie by serving up a watered-down version of what Texas music once sounded like. No fool, Green built his career on injecting the word “Texas” into as many songs as he could write when he was a young pup striving to become the next Robert Earl Keen. He has matured considerably and has uncanny business sense. But if you take his artistry at face value, say on his recent single “Wave On”—an exceptionally well-constructed song that calls up images of water and the beach and if nothing else, the lake—it has no sense of place, in a Texas kind of way. At least Charlie Robison has the good sense of name-dropping the Dallas Cowboy transvestite bar in Nuevo Laredo’s Boystown, where most of the pretty waitresses have Adam’s apples. A real Texan understands these things without having to make a big deal out of it.

A similar debate is stirring up a stew in culinary circles. Board members and supporters of the Hill Country Food and Wine Fair are questioning whether affiliation with Saveur magazine and national food celebs has been beneficial or deleterious to showing the best of Texas foods and wines. If they think New Yorkers’ embrace of barbecue is off the mark, they should’ve been around when Hollywood discovered Gilley’s back in the 1970s.

So just when I’m ready to kiss it all off and start buying jeans at the Gap, my neighbors tell me about the foreign exchange student from Germany who came to live with them this summer. Wolfgang stepped off the plane wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt. He got to suit up and practice with the local 3A high school football team. He bought a Seal of the State of Texas belt buckle. Before he left, he was fantasizing about buying his very own Dodge Ram pickup even though he admitted, “My countrymen would not understand.”

No, they wouldn’t. But while Wolfie’s vision may be as skewed as that Greek boy all those years ago, he gives me hope. I can relate to his fantasy vision of Texas because in isolated pockets of good taste, that vision is more than just a fantasy. Yewbet, Texas culture still exists. I’m betting the ranchette on it too.

[The Texas Observer] [Joe Nick’s Blog for It’s a Texas Thang – Or Is It?]


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