The Great State of Texas: Cotton Fields, Pecans and Barbecue

It’s not like me to run through the airport, but it’s been happening more and more. Moving fast with luggage is an emerging theme. First Norway, now Dallas. We’re not even going to discuss that train station in Paris. No way. Now, as an American Airlines hub, Dallas hosts a lot of connections and there’s a strange ring-like train on the outside of all the gates to get you around, but it only boards at a few places. My experience with the Dallas airport train was years ago, and I remembered it was not very good. Since I look askance at unknown transport, particularly when I’m in a hurry, I trusted my feet. Bad idea. To make matters worse, at the last minute they moved our gate about ten gates further away from my next connection. Man. By the time I got to the next plane, with a whole 10 minutes to spare before they closed the door, I was blown, sweating, my arch was killing me, and I could barely remember where I’d put my boarding pass. It was a first class ticket too, but could I manage to look cool, organized and professional? Of course not. That was too much to hope for. Hardly the glamorous and auspicious beginning I’d planned, but lately, that’s been the way of it. I learned later that they’d updated the train to a fast and efficient model. Perfect…

My final destination was San Antonio, Texas. I’d never been here before, and I liked it. People are generally nice and polite all over Texas. Of course, this is a visitor’s perspective and I don’t know what it’s like if you’re not a white lady with no obvious regional accent. You’d have to live in a place to find out that sort of thing. However, I can report that not once have I been required to lift my own suitcase in this great state, nor has anyone been even slightly less than considerate to me, even on the highway in seven hours’ driving. I think that’s pretty neat. There’s something about the Midwest, a conversational pause if you will, where there’s just a half a second extra left for courtesy, kindness, or a chance for help (either giving or receiving). It’s all over the middle of America and it’s something we tend to rush past in California. We might want to rethink the rush. As they say, it’s nice to be nice.

You might be wondering why I flew to San Antonio to then be driving seven hours. Me too. You see, I had to go to Houston and I didn’t realize just how far it would be. Things are bigger in Texas. And further away. My oldest boy had been staying with a friend in Houston, he had to move in a hurry, and he left a bunch of things. Since I was going to be in Texas anyway, I thought I’d stop in, pick the stuff up and ship it home. I didn’t fully understand it would take all day. But he’s worth it and it was a cool little adventure. I plotted out my route, checked the Internet for fun things to do along the way, located the UPS store and got on the road bright and early. And then I stayed on the road. And stayed some more – until I got to the outskirts of Houston. “Finally,” I thought, “I’m here!”. Nope. I still had to get to the other end of town. That took 30 more minutes (!). Houston, like everything else in Texas, is kinda big. After stowing his boxes in the trunk, I was happily on my way to the Cockrell Butterfly Park in the Natural History Museum. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know I try not to miss a good bird or butterfly park , but I had not counted on how cool this museum would be. They had an IMAX theater, all kinds of fun things for the kids to do in the lobby, and even a little McDonalds restaurant inside, in addition to some great exhibits and the butterflies. Everything was so well-presented that I didn’t hear one kid complaining. In August with hundreds of children roaming around me, there was not one complaint. My Texan friend later told me that good behavior is expected from kids, and that there was capital punishment still in force at his elementary school. Hmmm. The butterfly park had lots of beautiful North American specimens, including one very strange large insect and an orange iguana the size of a medium dog. See the pictures below.

All good road trips need to be punctuated with quirky stops, so after a soft-serve cone at McDonalds (hey, it was 100 degrees outside), I got into the oven – err, car –shipped my boxes and headed for the Pecan Shack outside of town. Pecans are big here. I noticed that in Texas towns there always seems to be a Pecan Street not far from Main Street, Mary Street, Travis Street, Houston Street, Austin Street and Commerce Street. Most places in the US have First and Second streets, but Texas has other names for its primary avenues, with pecans getting pride of place. I’d seen the large yellow Pecan billboard on the way into Houston and resolved to check it out later. There were several meat and sausage shop billboards, too, but that would have required shipping and/or refrigeration. Mind you, in farm country like this, the meat is usually delicious. Speaking of delicious, the pecan people were ready for first-timers like me. They had my number all right: warm, sugar-coated nuts. Resistance was futile. I bought the cinnamon sugar ones almost immediately. I was tempted to ask if they’d ship a large pecan package for me, which meant it was time to get out of there while I still could. Safely in the car, my food odyssey continued in the city of Lockhart, Texas. It meant another hour or so of driving, but yum, what a detour. Lockhart’s city politicians voted to name their town the BBQ capitol of Texas due to all the outstanding restaurants, shacks and grocery establishments dedicated to the Big Smoke. A lot of the great barbecue in the southern US is sold by the pound, sort of deli-style, from grocery stores. Lockhart’s no exception, though some places have dropped the dry goods, put in picnic tables and serve side dishes. After an hour’s research on the blog-o-sphere I decided on Black’s barbecue, the oldest family-owned restaurant in Texas. Oh my Lord. It is possible that this is the best $10 meal I have ever had. I tried a little of the moist beef brisket (fatty, but totally rendered fat), the turkey and their original sausage, along with coleslaw, baked beans, green beans, devilled eggs and corn pudding. They had barbecue sauce at the table and sodas on tap, though I think they call it “pop” here. On the table were industrial sized rolls of brown paper toweling in case you were having ribs – your choice of beef or pork. My turkey was moist and flavorful all the way through, the sausage was peppery and uniquely good, and the brisket was a melting little slice of deliciousness. I was pleasantly surprised by the perfectly cooked green beans. Given that the reputation here is the meat, I was impressed by how tasty all the side dishes were. Clearly these folks take pride in their food. After dinner, I walked around the old part of town for a few minutes, learning that it was the county seat and photographing the pretty court building. It was still so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk, so I didn’t linger.

A scant hour later, after passing a few cotton fields on the back roads and several mega-churches along the highway, I was back in San Antonio. I climbed into the fine bed at the lovely Hotel Valencia, edited my photographs, and called it a night. Tomorrow, the Alamo!

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