After two days spent navigating a tight swirl of traffic congestion, Panamanian-jungle humidity, overwrought Tex-Mex restaurants, and the collective false bravado of 100,000 accountants in large pickup trucks, I was anxious to slip the master-planned tentacles of Houston. The 160-odd miles of back roads between two days of meetings in Houston and another day’s worth in Austin offered a chance to ditch the grind of contemporary, big-city commerce and, for a few hours anyway, tune into the Willie Nelson side of Texas.
I felt my blood pressure drop a notch or twelve as I turned off busy I-10, trading the lurid plastic of the strip malls and trial lawyer billboards for the gentle green of open pasture, recently kissed with rainfall, and the purple-blue and orange-yellow of roadside wildflowers in full bloom. As the traffic thinned and the speed limit dropped, I rolled down my window to take a swallow of fresh air.
I’m big on driving scents. It’ll be forty degrees outside, legal-speed-limit gusts of wind streaming in the wide open driver window, and my arm hanging out like it’s midsummer at the lake, while the poor kids behind me burrow deeper into carseats and plead for blankets and heat. All for the sake of a prolonged whiff of seabreeze or alpine forest or sagebrush from a rare desert storm. This Texas air didn’t have any of that magnificence to it, but it smelled faintly of grass and impending summer, and it felt exactly like stepping into a nice, warm shower after a long two days of breathing chainsaw exhaust fumes.
I had now officially entered the lyrical Texas. Honkey tonks and cowboys. Rugged independence and big, open skies. More than a state it’s a genuine brand with a healthy reservoir of equity built over years of country music songs and steak dinners. A well so deep that not even the most earnest of siphoning by the airport gift shops has come close to draining it.
That extra Texas country sheen, the bigness and boldness of it, can be intimidating for small time farmers from small time states like Michigan. You get the feeling of being in a foreign country, a bit tentative and unsure of yourself. Still, there was a lot along those country roads I recognized from back home. Domestic trucks – I counted thirty-seven straight at one point – for one.
And the cattle breeds. As a first time cattle owner I’m no expert at identification, but I could make out the jet black coats of the Angus. The Longhorns were of course unmistakable. Here and there I spotted Hereford, distinctive just like my neighbor’s with their white facial markings and deep red coloration. I noted several herd of lighter colored cattle, almost albino in appearance. I thought they looked like Charolais, but I couldn’t say for certain. All of them were strikingly beautiful. Noble even.
I passed a small, brown cowboy store in a small, brown cowboy town and it took me about four-hundred feet of additional storefronts to realize that I was now in the market for a genuine cowboy hat. That’s how smitten I had become with Texas in just a few short miles since Houston.
A man with a George Washington nose and withered shoulders was on call. From a distance I had him down for seventy-five, but as he sprang from his seat I noted his little blueberry eyes were alert and appraising, and his gait fluid and sturdy. I pulled out the eraser in my head and penciled him back in at sixty-five.
He wore a comfortable striped cotton cowboy shirt, faded from years of selling the newer ones, dark blue jeans and weathered cowboy boots. He looked like he had stepped right out of the lyrics of a George Strait song.
When I told him I was in the market for a hat he escorted me to a wall of them, many of which were endorsed by square jawed, straight legged, and heavily belt buckled guys I had never heard of.
“What kind of hat are you in for, Son?” he asked.
No idea, I told him. What should I be looking for?
He proceeded with a 25-minute discourse on the origins of the cowboy hat, the pros and cons of the various construction techniques, and the danger associated with an increasingly outsourced American manufacturing sector.
“I like to buy domestic whenever I can,” I told him, inadvertently peering out the store window at my Japanese Hertz loaner, the cup holder straining against a 1.5 liter bottle of Evian, a half-eaten Toblerone, and a package of Walker’s shortbread cookies.
He measured my head and told me it was too big, that he didn’t carry anything in a 7 7/8, but that if someone in town had a head that big he probably would.
“Besides, what do you need a cowboy hat for anyway, Son?”
“I want to look good when I bale my hay and drive my cattle,” I said, quickly qualifying my use of the word ‘cattle’ by adding “I just have two head of Angus. Small potatoes really.” My voice trailed off noticeably.
The sternness in his countenance disappeared in favor of an approving look and knowing nod. “Shoot, that’s two more than the last thousand business guys riding through here on the way to Austin.”
“Any idea where I can find a big cowboy hat?” I asked as we bid farewell.
“Try Amazon,” he answered.
An hour later I hit another cowboy shop. This time a superstore with approximately three million hats in stock – including two models called the ‘’Patron” and the “Presidente” in a glass display case – but none in my size. I left disappointed.
But the local station was playing Patsy Cline when I again boarded my Nissan. Above me hawks circled, waiting for careless field mice that dared to venture out before dark.
Back on the road to Austin, in the fleeting glint of early evening sun, I passed a ranch sign advertising Angus and Charolais for sale. Holy cow! My instincts had been dead on. Indeed, I did speak the local language just fine. No need to apologize. A small part of me felt genuine Texan.
And not like one of those rush hour, big city pretenders either.
Yes. I was all cattle.
But still no hat.