There are things about growing up in Texas that are impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t lived there and next door to impossible to explain to someone who wasn’t born there. There the literal things–Whataburger, the excruciatingly hot days of summer, the State Fair–and the ineffable thing: pride that is monolithic in expression and quietly factional in practice. Most people hear Texas and think of cowboys, the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, barbecue, horses, tumbleweeds, football towns, big hair, and rednecks. And, to be fair, that’s all part of it, but the bulk of it is the sense that Texas is like every other American place, but more so.
I grew up in East Dallas, a neighborhood more known for yuppies, hippies, and bicyclists than anything else. I went to an arts magnet high school (that boasts alumni like Erykah Badu) without a football team and never cared about sports. I prefer unsweet tea. I’m not, one could argue, stereotypically Texan. But there is no universal experience of being from Texas beyond the experience of being from Texas. The state is huge. Dallas is huge. All of us from here, whether we live in small towns or big cities, lack the same perspective and share something we struggle to articulate.
When I really think about it, all that I can point to as the unifier of all Texas culture is pride. The problem arises when I try to define what that pride is in. Texas has always been known for being roguishly defiant. The Alamo is remembered fondly despite being a bloodbath and a failure. Texas flags are the only state flags in the United States that are allowed to fly at the same height as the American flag because Texas was, for a moment, its own country — a failed state before becoming an unfailed state. That grand experiment was well suited to Texas, a place where people say, “Why not?” with unnerving and probably dangerous frequency.
The most Texas thing in Texas (other than getting drunk and singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas”) is the State Fair. It’s such a big deal (in 2016, nearly 2.5 million people attended in its 24-day season) that in Dallas, public school students are given free tickets and “Fair Days” off of school. It’s not religious in any monotheistic sense, but it’s a longstanding and powerful tradition.
Here’s a list of just some of the gut-and-budget-busting items that you can buy at the Texas State Fair: deep fried banana pudding, fried butter, fried short ribs, fried Reeses Pieces, fried Sweet Tea, Funnel Cake Queso Burgers, “Pookie Swirl,” tickets to the Top o’Texas Tower, the iconic Ferris Wheel, various Fun Houses that were for sure made before the 1970s, mattresses, horses, pigs, dogs, cold beer, and bail. People coming in $100,000 pickups wait in 30-minute lines to buy $6 dollar Fletcher’s corn dogs, listen to bad country music (depending on how you ask), and peruse animal exhibits that are honestly pretty depressing. This year, just three days into the festivities, a giraffe had to be removed from the fair because of concerns about its health.
The governing characteristic of the affair seems to be “Why not?” and, for that reason, it’s really big. What makes it the best fair isn’t that any single thing in it is the best. The rides themselves are really nothing spectacular: the Tip O’ Texas is definitely not the tip o’ Texas. But there’s something that is very endearing in how low-tech the rides, which are decorated with terrible spray-paint art, tend to be. The fun houses filled with bubbles and low-tech parlor tricks pull at my heart-strings. The fair is great in aggregate.
My childhood home wasn’t far from the State Fair. It was torn down just about a year ago, but the people who redeveloped the lot kept the big old tree in the front yard, which is still growing, and the pool. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t change the road that leads up to it: curbless, one-lane, and oddly rural.
The neighborhood has more affluent, blonder people now and its painful to visit. That pain, the pull between a sense of permanence and a sense of permanent loss, feels very Texas–especially when you’re looking at a construction site from the front seat of a jeep.
Sometimes, I think about how John Steinbeck described Texas as a “state of mind.” That’s a famous quote, but people forget the second half. “But I think it is more than that,” Steinbeck added. “It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
I am a Texan at least in part because I think a lot about being a Texan. Even as Texas changes, even as I change, and even as the things that I truly identified as markers of my identity disappear, there is a feeling, an ownership that holds down this sense of place. This feeling is beyond pride. It closely borders arrogance, but even that is not correct. Neither is “love” or “respect.” There are no words for it, but it’s definitely big.