The moment your wheels touch down, things begin to suck. It’s as though the air vents above you have reversed themselves, literally pulling all of the good, fresh, Portland air out into that big Texas sky. Your taxi to the gate is at least ten minutes long, a reflection of a culture that would rather spread wide than build up. When you arrive, you might depart the plane with a newspaper–like I did a few years ago–looking in earnest for a recycling bin for near a half hour before realizing that the other state philosophy is, “Fuck it. Toss that shit in the trash.”
You’re in for a long shuttle to the rental car counter and an even longer drive to civilization. DFW, in particular, is ridiculous in its inconvenient convenience. City planners figured that it’d be better to build the airport in between the encroaching suburbia of Dallas and Fort Worth than to give one the upper hand over the other. You’re at least thirty minutes from where you need to be, no matter where that is.
You follow google maps the smart way into town, and then realize a moment too late that you’ve landed on one of a few unmarked Texas Toll Roads. They’ve recently given up taking cash or credit at their toll booths, a sort of Texas-sized middle finger to out-of-town visitors. “What, y’all don’t have the Easy Pass?” As you approach a checkpoint, cursing under your breath for the last thirty seconds, you begin to envision a maneuver worthy of an action movie: a quick dart across three lanes and a powerslide through a dusty brown field to the service road and financial freedom, maybe spinning a 360′ on the way. Instead, you grit your teeth, pass under the arch, and await the penalty to come in the mail.
I’ve been traveling to Texas for five years now, and I never board the plane with enthusiasm. I’ve found positives here and there–restaurants I like, coffee shops I’ll visit because they’re unique oases from an explosion of boringly big personalities–but by and large, Texas remains a monument to all the kinds of things that I believe are wrong with the United States.
Walking through San Francisco a couple of weeks before my trip to Dallas, I got the feeling that I was in a foreign country. The North Beach area, with its smartly-stacked Italian restaurants and its nowhere-to-be-found parking felt decidedly European to me. But for the English being spoken, I’d have thought I was in Italy. A couple of hours in the Texas heat, and I realized that I was in a place much more foreign than San Francisco would ever be. The language is different, the wardrobe is different, the values are different. Life is lived on a grand scale with the baby-booming philosophy of individuality and selfishness, cul-de-sacs and SUV’s. It’s pretty hard to get used to.
Even more striking is the juxtaposition of pride with these kinds of values. Texas is as proud of itself as a three-year-old who’s just learned to wipe his own ass. You’ve got restaurants like The Texas Roadhouse and businesses like Lone Star Insurance and Longhorn Ford. The state flag flies everywhere, and just in case you miss the acre-sized banner over that auto dealership, every third truck has the flag’s emblem adhered underneath the “Heavy Duty” logo. Seeing the reflection of the state’s values in national politics–with Rick Perry and George W. Bush before him–doesn’t help to improve the state’s image. They undervalue public education, build communities segregated by wealth that are paradigms of excess and poverty, and sprawl outward and outward, trusting that the local gas prices will always make auto commuting the smart option.
The affluent are the red-faced white people, overweight and sunburned, with close-cropped hair and a tidbit or two about the upcoming football game or the quarterly decline in capital investment. The poor are the homeless, the people of color, the immigrants. If you have any questions about the wide gap in wealth in this country, take a trip to Dallas and drive from Highland Park to the south part of the city. Or start in Houston’s Hunter Creek Village, with its oligarchic remnants of the great Texas families, and head northeast until you hit trailers and shacks and broken-down living. Our country should be better than these deeply planted poles. We should strive to bring people together, not push them apart.
Going to Texas is such a struggle for me because it’s a reminder of the widening gap in our country. There are income gaps and education gaps. We are divided by our views on science and religion, on liberalism and conservatism. The country is polarized not just in our opinions and our values, but also in our lifestyles. Driving a long commute in a big truck is a way of life in Texas. Oil is the foundation of their community, and has been since long before we started identifying the environmental impact of drilling and burning. Asking folks down there to hop on a bicycle is as stupid as requiring every Portlander to buy an SUV. Telling them that church has no place in school is like telling them that ribs don’t go on the barbecue. The inability to understand one another will continue our segregation and our polarization. We’re going to get a lot farther from one another before we end up any closer.