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A road by any name in Texas would be an interesting trip, especially in a coonskin cap

April 29, 2013

I can’t remember where I just put down my coffee cup, but for some reason I have a keen, photo-like memory of my fourth-grade history textbook. And sad to say, it’s taken me a lifetime to unlearn all the incorrect images that this book left behind.

For example, the textbook had me thinking that Lewis and Clark and an Indian woman basically walked from Washington, D.C., to Seattle in a week or two. The drawing showed the two men in coonskin caps and Sacagawea in fringed buckskin with a feather or two popping out of her dome — they were standing on a hill, and she’s pointing to the Pacific Ocean, in case L & C had somehow missed it.

It probably was another 30 years before I learned that the expedition needed a small army and a couple of years to span the continent.

Beth says she can remember similar images from her Virginia elementary school texts, including the happy slaves having a grand time of it hoeing crops and grinning in a cool, lush Garden of Cotton Eden.

The Alamo in my childhood history book was represented by Davy Crockett, again in a coonskin cap (in grammar school history texts, everyone was drawn wearing a coonskin cap up until about 1900, including Susan B. Anthony), waving a rifle from the top of the Alamo behind the iconic parapet whose profile resembled Napoleon’s hat.

It’s a great scene, but it couldn’t have happened that way, because the parapet wasn’t added until 1850. Before that, the mission would have resembled a rather nondescript box.

This was one of the things I learned about Texas last week, where we spent a few days to attend a wedding and check out as much of Austin and San Antonio as time allowed. Of course you can’t make much sense of Texas in four days, and I doubt you could in four decades.

My friend Dick said he once lived in a part of the state where you could drive nine hours in any direction — and still be in Texas.

I’d only been there once before, and that involved a brief incident on the Mexican border at El Paso, and the less said about it the better.

I was particularly interested in Austin, since I’m of the opinion that very few decent pieces of music have been written outside of Texas, and Austin musicians represent the best of the best.

By coincidence, our trip coincided with the passing of George Jones and the 80th birthday of Willie Nelson. It’s fascinating to note that George Jones lived to be 81. Considering the life that he led, Jones living to be 81 would have been like Jack LaLanne living to be 500.

We experienced some other interesting musical moments, including the discovery of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, popularized by Todd Snider’s ballad by the same name. Curiously, we found it in much the same way Snider did — by accident when we were lost on a backcountry Texas road.

Sallie the bartender said Todd’s long-ago experience there had been a godsend, because the area is getting trendy and becoming populated by people who would otherwise not patronize the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, as a rule.

But we had fun hunting down all the musical shrines, like Fischer Hall and Gruene Hall — an accomplishment that is all the more impressive because the rural highway system is all but indecipherable to a newbie.

All the roads are called “ranch” or “farm to market,” followed by a suffix of numerals that tend to get lost in the shuffle. So all you hear is “Take Ranch Road to Ranch Road, then make a left on Ranch Road that in five miles will bring you to Ranch Road.”

But it doesn’t matter much, because no matter where you end up around there it is bound to be someplace interesting. Or at least different.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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