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Texas: Introduction

Texans are a unique bunch, unapologetic in their swaggering embrace of the place they call home. "It's flat and dry," you say. "Yup, parts are," they reply. "It's hot," you say. "Hotter 'n hell," they confirm. "Texans talk funny," you say. "Y'all do too," they retort. Self-confident and independent almost to a fault, Texas seems to embody all that's good, bad, and especially big about the United States. The former independent Republic of Texas -- which shook off the landlord claims of Spain, Mexico, France, and even the United States -- has diehards who still wish Texas would suck it up and secede.

Texans don't seem to mind too much if outsiders get caught up in the myths and clichȳs about Texas (that way they get to keep the truth to themselves). A 10-gallon hat doesn't hold 10 gallons of anything, nor is Texas flat, dry, and featureless, filled with cowboys on the range, oilmen watching their backyard gushers spit up black gold, and helmet-haired beauty queens. But it's hard to compete with the state's image, the canvas for 100 Western flicks. The big-sky frontier of Texas and the West is the quintessential American landscape, the mythic cowboy leading his longhorn cattle on long drives a heroic figure. The outlaws who thumbed their noses at authority (behind the barrel of a gun) and the boomtown gamblers who struck it rich are also part of the romantic tale of Texas.

The cowboy still exists, but Texas is now decidedly more urban than rural. Three of the nation's 10 largest cities are here: Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Texas today is as much a leader of high-tech industries as it is an agricultural and ranching state. There are world-class art museums and collections in Houston, Fort Worth, and Dallas, where local philanthropists have used their money and influence to import the world's most celebrated architects to build some of the nation's most talked-about museums. Although Texas is by and large a conservative place, Austin has for decades supported thriving hippie and renegade musician communities, and Dallas is nipping at its heels with a thriving music scene. The state is a melting pot dotted by pockets of Czech, German, and Irish communities; bilingual populations in the lower Rio Grande Valley and border towns; and more than four million people of Hispanic descent statewide.

This enormous state also has immense geographical diversity. Cross Texas and you'll see desert plains in the Texas Panhandle, the Piney Woods in East Texas, beaches in the Gulf Coast, North Texas prairies, scenic wildflowers and lakes in Central Texas Hill Country, desert canyons in Big Bend National Park, and the rugged Guadalupe Mountains.

Still, some of the clichȳs are true. Texas, the second-largest state in the United States in both land mass and population, is larger than any country in Europe. You can set out from Amarillo in your car and drive south for 15 hours and still not reach the Mexico border. And everything is bigger in Texas, of course: The ranches are bigger, the steaks are bigger, and the bigger and badder cars -- Cadillacs with longhorns on the grille and monster pickup trucks with gun racks in back -- really do exist. In Texas you can carry a concealed handgun -- even in church -- and the state is known as the capital punishment capital of the world. "Don't Mess with Texas" is more than an effective antilitter campaign.

Texans, though, are startlingly friendly and hospitable folks. Deals are still completed with handshakes, and adults say "yes, ma'am" and "nossir" to each other. Also, Texans love their sports, especially football. This is a place where entire towns pack the bleachers for Friday night high school games and preachers mention the game in their sermons, praying for victory in a kind of gridiron holy war.

Former Texas governor and owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team George W. Bush, who delights in using the down-home moniker "Dubya," lost the popular vote but was elected the 43rd president of the U.S. in 2000 and reelected in 2004. Bush regularly draws the national media corps to his sprawling ranch in Crawford, Texas, outside of Waco, when he takes long breaks from Washington "to get back in touch with real people." (Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar activist who lost a son in the Iraq war and camped outside the ranch, may not have been what he had in mind.) Bush usually makes the best of a photo op by strapping on his cowboy boots and homespun airs and hopping in the pickup, showing that he knows how to make the most of his transplanted Texan status.

It's hard for most people to be indifferent about Texas. It's a place to romanticize and ridicule, to dream about and dismiss. Texans can leave the state, but sooner or later they'll admit their weaknesses for Texas dance halls and Old West saloons, Tex-Mex and barbecue, cowboy boots, and country music. From the big sky and flat plains and the Hill Country highways lined by Texas bluebonnets to the larger-than-life personalities like LBJ, Anne Richards, and Willie Nelson: Texas stays with you.

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