Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Texas Size

To comment about the size of Texas may be to lack imagination, but as a geographer, scale matters almost as much as place, and I have thought a lot about the scale of Texas over the years. Years before living in Texas, I read an article -- I wish I could remember where -- that claimed that Texas is big enough that many Texans do not really consider a 100-mile buffer around the edge to really be part of the state. Too far to the east, and one is really in a spillover area of Louisiana, and the western point terminating at El Paso is really part of New Mexico. Similarly, the north is more like Oklahoma than "real" Texas, and the area within 100 miles of the Rio Grande is in many ways part of Mexico. With north-south and east-west dimensions exceeding 700 miles, there is certainly plenty of room to make this claim. (As I recall, the author was from somewhere near Beaumont, and felt a bit like an outsider when she moved to the center of the state.)

Most South Texans know -- though many Northerners do not -- that the 100-mile buffer is taken quite literally by the United States Government, which operates a checkpoint in Falfurrias, 70 miles from the Mexican border, at which persons and vehicles are searched just as though they were coming in from another country!
The first time I was in Texas, it was to pass through the Dallas-Ft. Worth (pronounced WOH-uth) International Airport, known to all as DFW on our way to and from our summer sojourn in Mexico in 1989. When I started my County Map Project the following year, I learned that the sprawling DFW encompasses a significant part of two counties. By then I had passed through on several other trips, and had taxied so much around that airport that I felt justified in counting visits to both Dallas and Tarrant Counties. Years later, I realized that the enormous American Airlines double terminal was just one of several on the site, and that the small train that connects the two is complemented by another train that reaches distant terminals.

Some claim that visiting an airport does not "count" when considering the places one has known. I disagree, because airports are in places and hold lessons about them. The ample sprawl of DFW itself is distinctive, as are the accents, hats, boots, and belt buckles that can be found in the terminal. Equally distinctive is the tremendous number of in-state connecting flights being announced at any given time. DFW is a national and international hub, to be sure, but it is possible -- and common -- for people to be connecting to a couple dozen Texas destinations from any in-bound flight. That is a big state!

The first time I was in Texas outside the airport came in 1990, within a year of that first airport transfer. Dry cleaner investigations were among my specialties at the environmental consulting firm where I worked in Cincinnati, and when a project near the US-Mexico border in the small town of Mercedes became available, I quickly volunteered. This was also when a Saturday stayover would dramatically reduce airfare, and I volunteered for that, too. This gave me the opportunity to spend a couple extra days exploring the Rio Grande Valley. In the space of a couple days, I explored "the Valley" from McAllen in the west (where I had to visit the public library as part of my research) to South Padre Island in the east (where I enjoyed the waves and some great seafood). Of course, I also took time to park the car in Brownsville so I could walk across to the unfortunately-named city of Matamoros.

A few years later, we were living in Tucson and -- like most of our friends -- working as substitute teachers/librarians. We were searching nationwide and internationally for jobs, and I was scanning the few internet-based resources available at the time (this was before graphics or search engines, or even the Web itself, had caught on). I found a listing for a librarian in McAllen, Texas! Not only did I know where that was: I had actually been in the library! Before we knew it, we were making the long drive to McAllen. Actually, we drove to McAllen, then to visit Maryland back home to Tucson and then back to McAllen, with a couple job-search-related side trips thrown in. This is when we started to learn something about the size of Texas!

We lived in Texas just three years, but it made quite an impression in a number of ways. We settled in the Rio Grande Valley, in the town of Pharr, which had just opened a bridge into Reynosa in Mexico. Our idea of a reasonable distance to drive for something had increased when we lived in Arizona, but it really took on new dimensions in Texas. We lived close to our main jobs, as we've always tried to do, but I started taking on part-time teaching jobs -- just to gain the experience -- that were pretty far from home. For several semesters, I taught one night a week at Texas A & M University - Kingsville, Alice Extension. This met in a high school in a declining oil-service and cattle-auction town that was 108 miles from my house! I taught just one night a week for paltry pay plus a mileage allowance, and stopped at an interior border crossing each time. I eventually learned that a necktie and a university parking sticker made these stops much simpler.

I have lived in seven states, and Texas is nearly as big as all the others combined! With over a quarter million square miles in Texas, every family in the United States could have an acre or more, if they could just get to it.

We also started attending religious services more than 20 miles from home (Quaker meeting in private homes). Eventually we adopted an attitude that I was realizing was somewhat common in Texas, actually flying within the state to visit friends and/or a museum. It is a big place! We also explored quite a bit by car, eventually visiting a slim majority of counties in the state.

One night while driving to Alice (which is west of Corpus Christi), I heard reports on a national radio program of flooding in "southern Texas." I was 100 miles north of the border, and these floods were in Houston, more than 200 miles further north!

Because so much of the southern portion of Texas is north of our old home, I took to calling the place we lived (shown in blue on the map) Way South Texas. I eventually cut my teaching commute in half, when I moved to The University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College. That is the real name of the place: UTB-TSC, where I had international students who could walk to my class from Mexico!

One of our friends in McAllen once commented that Texas is so big that he had never left it. Driving, it would take a long day to reach any other state, it is true. We had to remind him that he had left the state, though: he had been to Mexico many times!

Texas is going to be the focus of a lot of political attention and speculation over the next couple years, as its already-large population has grown enough that it will be allocated four additional seats in Congress. My recent article on Gerrymandering (invented and still practiced expertly in Massachusetts) describes why I don't think all four of those seats will ultimately go to the same party.

Please note: Although we left Texas thirteen years ago after living there only three, it remains important to me in many ways. I stay in touch with some great friends there and follow developments, particularly in the border area. Search Texas posts on my blog for some of these stories. 

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