Texas, Our Texas
The phenomena of Texas as a mythical place to visit has become an ever-present thought on my mind since I moved away. “Wait, you’re from Texas?!” is a common question, closely followed by, “But where’s your accent?” or “I bet it’s hot there!” and, my personal favourite, “Do you still ride horses to school?” My replies vary based on the person, but they are usually: “It’s there, just listen to how I say vehicle,” followed by, “Yes, it’s hot, but it also snows...” and, finally, “No, thankfully, we welcomed vehicular transportation into our communities within the last one hundred years or so...” Like it or not, most people in North America (and elsewhere) have a mythical idea of gunslingers, saloons, and cacti floating around in their heads when Texas comes to mind. Although it is well-known, Texas’ notoriety seems to be based on an anomaly from its past and present culture, specifically in the arts, that support the peculiar and downright bizarre characteristics forming this myth.
I have spent countless moments defending its history, promoting its diversity (albeit problematic at times), and drawing attention to evidence to debunk the myth. However, I’m finally beginning to realize the myth has encroached on my own perception of the Lone Star state. I’ve begun to see the elements in films and music that signify the “essence” of Texas people long to be true in their imaginations.
It all began when I took a course on the Western film. There I was, cowering in my desk, as Walter Brennan made a nuisance of the accent I had grappled with most of my life in the film Rio Bravo (1959), directed by the celebrated Howard Hawks, while my peers attentively watched. As they giggled at his foolish behaviour, I thought of sixteen different reputable facts about Texas that would prove not everybody acts that way. Then a song came on, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” and the narrative halted — I listened with a critical ear, “Oh great... a song about guns and horses,” I thought, “just what I need.”
Much to my surprise, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sang it so beautifully that I felt an overwhelming nostalgia for home and I almost lost my composure with the line, “Whippoorwill in the willow, sings a sweet melody / riding to / Amarillo...” The soft utterance of my hometown with a gentle acoustic guitar proved to be too much for my heart to handle. The song reflected on some of the things I grew up around, including “purple light in the canyons”, a place where I “longed to be” many times while I was away. I sniffled and regained my cool for the rest of the film, which continued to reinforce my initial bitterness. I forgot about the song’s merits by the end of the class.
Another inward battle I consistently fought was the confusion about geography and landscape in Texas with special thanks to Mr. John Ford and his penchant for Monument Valley, a landmark in Arizona and Utah... Please, commit that to memory, readers! I know it’s tempting when The Searchers (1956) claims to be in Texas, but you’re looking at a place hundreds of miles away. Ford contributed heavily to the mythical image of Texas, simply because he liked how Monument Valley looked and it became a trademark in his Western films. I think my will was weakening due to the number of 1950s Westerns and overbearing presence of John Wayne as Texas’ darling hero, because I never openly expressed my hatred for this representation. I did, however, utter a few heavy sighs.
Finally, we began watching counter-cultural Western films and Midnight Cowboy (1968) was on the docket. I knew most of the film was shot in New York City, so I went into the screening expecting just that. On the contrary, Midnight Cowboy opens with a shot of Big Spring, Texas. My thoughts halted and I was absorbed in, yet another, moment of nostalgia. An actual shot of an actual town in Texas, what a concept! Interestingly, when my peers were presented with a glimpse of reality, they tried to contest that the film created Texas as a mythic space. Some were unwilling to accept a ‘truth’ instead of a Hollywood studio backlot... and well, there was just no way I was going to allow that. My hand was promptly in the air.
Midnight Cowboy taught me something. The character, Joe Buck (Jon Voigt), ventures to New York City donning his cowboy attire and stereotypical “simplistic” Texas attitude with hopes of becoming a successful paid escort. He relies on the myth to carry his weight and flee from responsibility. Upon arrival, he discovers the stereotype already spread to the Big Apple and shifted to have an entirely different meaning. The myth of Texas that Joe believes in is one involving a “simple” but successful life — I finally understood why everyone wants to go to Texas.
Texas is beautiful with a variety of different landscapes to explore. Amarillo is flat, Houston is abundant with trees, and Big Bend National Park has over 800,000 acres of deserts, creeks, and arroyos. A lot of events happened in Texas that make it seem like a really cool place and, somehow, people “remember the Alamo!” without knowing that’s a cry to recall a colossal failure against the Mexican Army. Our past is colourful and very problematic. Yet, somehow we are defined by life in the right lane, the slow lane, where “doors” are “dow-urs” and you’re always “fixin’” to do something, but never get around to doing it. It’s not laziness, it’s a life without difficulty... and who wouldn’t want to believe in that?