An Okie looks at Texas
By Ken Root
The state of Texas is big. That may seem to be a simplistic conclusion to a two-week visit to our southern cousin, but it’s the basis for most conclusions I can make about the vast expanses, big cities, wide roads and large personalities of those who live south of the border.
Of course, as a native Oklahoman, Texas loomed large in my early life. We were taught in school that the south fork of the Red River was the main channel and court action was required to prevent them from taking even more land away from our already small entity.
Simply put, we were intimidated by Texas and showed our disdain by referring to it as “Baha Oklahoma” or with phrases like: “You can always tell a Texan but you can’t tell him much.” We tried to play football as well as they did but our solution was to recruit players from Texas high schools to come to Oklahoma and play at OU or OSU.
I hadn’t driven through much of the state for a couple of decades so this trip to Dallas, San Antonio and South Padre Island was revealing. I first noticed that they drive about 10 miles per hour faster than Midwesterners. The left lane is for passing, even if you are already running 75 miles per hour. While in that sacred lane, I was encouraged, with flashing headlights and honking horns, to move over and let someone zoom past, disappearing from sight in a few seconds. The roads are also wide. Even if they are just two lanes, they have better shoulders than the surface of most Iowa highways. Again, I felt I was in the wrong lane as several natives zoomed past this distressfully slow tourist on the right, at a high rate of speed, with a disdainful look and additional push on the gas pedal. There was no waving, or signaling that I was “No. 1,” and I appreciated that. Texas seems to have so much space that making a road a quarter-mile wide is not a big thing. The four-lane highways also have access roads that are two lanes on each side but they are one-way. You have to find a bridge and swap sides to go back the other direction. It is good that Texas produces a lot of oil because they burn a lot of gasoline.
The cities are big and bold. San Antonio developed its downtown into a Riverwalk area that took the San Antonio River and made it into a wandering passage that is lined with hotels, restaurants and a huge convention center. My theory as to why farmer numbers have been declining is that they attended conventions here, and at Opryland Hotel in Nashville, where they become lost and are still wandering around and looking for a way out.
The cities may be big but most of Texas is minimally populated. The land is dry and the soil is thin. In driving five hours south from San Antonio, I saw very little that would raise a crop until entering the Rio Grande Valley south of Corpus Christi. The land there is flat and black but the water has to come from irrigation to assure a crop.
This raises the Midwestern question: “If it is dry all the time, how do you have a drought?” In settlement days, up through the 1940s, Texas had years when it rained and the word spread that there was good land that grew tall grass. Hardscrabble farmers pulled up stakes and moved there to farm. Most did not make it as they found the normal climate to be very dry so they hung on for a few years and went back home.
Texas is the leading wind energy state, which could give rise to several jokes but suffice it to say that the wind blows in Texas most of the time. I saw a new wind farm south of Corpus Christi that reached for miles. It is a great energy resource as long as we can develop infrastructure to get the power to urban areas.
As I entered most public building and restaurants, I saw signs that forbid carrying of a firearm, licensed or not, into the establishment. The gun laws make it fairly easy for any law-abiding citizen to get a right-to-carry permit, and the culture seems to embrace it, but the businesses appear to have a problem with liability insurance if they don’t post these signs. I did not go table to table asking how many people had a gun, but if I were a criminal I would not risk it as I’m thinking some of those patrons are packing a pistol.
West Texas has an immense farming area that came into being when the Ogallala Aquifer was discovered. Flying over in summer reveals green, irrigated circles as far as one can see. I spoke with Steve Albracht, a farmer from Hart, Texas, a small town about 75 miles south of Amarillo and the same distance north of Lubbock. “It is so flat that I can see both cities at night from my farm,” said the corn grower who keeps the water running on 24 circles literally all summer. “The wind blows all the time, usually out of the south at about 25 miles per hour.” He has enough water to keep his crops growing in this climate and set the nation’s highest irrigated corn yield in 2013 at just over 418 bushels per acre. Albracht is a very good farmer with an average yield on his whole farm of 300 bushels per acre.
As an Okie, I was always jealous of Texas for its dominance. As an Iowan, I’m not as envious as this state has such good land and abundant rainfall. Now, I admire Texas farmers and ranchers for their determination and innovation that allows them to make a living under challenging conditions. Nothing seems to come easy in Texas except punching a hole in the ground and extracting oil. That, too, has been an adventure and the “wildcatters” of the last century were legendary.
I’ll just leave it that I like the warm winters in the South, the productive lands in the West and the Texas people from all over. They cover almost the entire Mexican border and have developed the Tex-Mex culture into a combination of hard work, good food and strong families.
Next time I go back, I will prepare myself to drive faster and stay in the right lane. I will not pull a gun in a restaurant or convenience store. I will not make jokes about the wind or self-aggrandizing behavior.
I will be pleased to call them brothers and sisters and thank them for covering our southern border and the backs of their northern countrymen.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail for him to High Plains Journal.