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I own a house in Texas, but I lay my hat in Tennessee, so you could say I have taken Sam Houston’s path in reverse, traveling east instead of west. As a result, I sometimes wonder if the “hero of San Jacinto” ever missed the purple mists that regularly settle over the mountains where he once roamed with the Cherokee, or if he put where he grew up out of mind after establishing a new republic in the 1800s.
The truth is, in my case, I can feel deeply homesick for Austin a full year after leaving it, as I think of fresh-lime margaritas in hundred plus heat, as I recall the joys of live music in old beer halls where people two-step in cowboy boots. There are few scenes as pretty to me as a sunrise over spring fields covered in bluebonnets, miles of highways draped on either side with the wildflowers that were once planted through the efforts of Lady Bird Johnson. I miss the boats and bats by Town Lake. I think it’s cool how children are still taught to be proud of being born in the place their great grandfathers’ settled. The sky really is bigger on the plains, which makes a soul feel more free.
So when I returned for a visit to Austin last weekend and saw that the city is truly opening up again, I was very happy.
My family and I had mezcal cocktails in a bar decorated with statuettes of the Virgin Mary, lit candles, and stone. The heat made me feel sticky in a good way, as we walked streets bustling with life, passing a group of young men singing on the sidewalk.
I like the diversity of crowds in Austin, the different sorts of people who mingle downtown. There are frat boys and tattooed women, bearded hipsters and native Spanish speakers, Republicans living on the down-low alongside outspoken activists wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts…. We had a delightful evening watching all of them together.
Then the morning came.
I went running on “the trail,” which is in the heart of everything. I have run literally hundreds of miles on that packed dirt where children ride bikes and every sort of dog on the planet can be seen trotting beside sunscreen-drenched masters in spandex. This is a main thoroughfare for pedestrians that goes by Zilker Park, a gloriously open space with the city towering up at one end. This is where many of the biggest events of the year take place: outdoor concerts, fireworks, gathering throngs of college students playing sports.
But this is the thing.
Due to the “compassion” of the very progressive city council, tents with homeless people are now touching the trail, clumped on the bridges, littered among the trees. This problem with the homeless–this permissive approach to “camping”–started long before I left–was one of the reasons to leave–but it has grown much, much worse since I’ve been gone, and I can “see” the trash all over the ground where my friends have grown “blind” because it no longer shocks them.
All I can say is that once upon a time, I would have run that trail early in the morning or long after sunset, but I wouldn’t do that in 2021. The decay is too obvious, and while one might argue that the rise in violent crime in Austin has nothing to do with any of this, I would be extremely skeptical of that argument.
Then I went to the gym to meet my husband and son who were deadlifting hundreds of pounds. There is a mask mandate in the gym, but they lowered their masks while in the midst of their exercises, keeping their distance from other patrons, standing on deadlift platforms at least twenty feet away from everyone else.
I kept my mask on completely, as I was just standing by my family, waiting. As a side note, all of us have gotten Covid shots, and everyone is eligible for vaccinations in Texas.
Then I watched a woman older than I walk casually by a gym employee and point at my son. That employee (who had not cared a jack-doodle before the complaint) was obligated to then tell him in a stern voice that he had to wear his mask at all times, whatever the circumstances, whatever the exercise he was doing. He was nothing but polite to the employee and pulled up his mask, as if its drop was actually the greatest of problems in this city, but we decided it was time to go anyway.
Walking out, I looked at the lady who had complained as she lifted up what looked like a two-pound hand weight where she sat on a bench. Her mask said BIDEN in bright white letters across her face. She rolled her eyes when we walked by her, as if we had caused her the greatest offense.
My son glanced at her, too, and said as we left her behind and out of earshot that he felt sorry for her. There was no anger. Just pity. He observed she must be a very miserable human to be so afraid in public. It must take a lot of energy to try to police the rest of the world.
Finally, we went to church where every other pew was roped off. All the people had their faces covered. I was happy to hear muffled singing through cloth, but there was an element of theater to it all that remains quite uncomfortable to endure. I can’t help it, but I often think of how my church acted to minister to its flock during the Black Death, and I have remained strangely disappointed at how much has changed during Covid.
And just like that–in less than two days–I was over Texas. I was happy to be going back to Tennessee with its redbuds and dogwoods and pristine mountain trails in the country.
Still, I think about Sam Houston’s ghost defending the Lone Star State, his fierce eyes trained on me. Among other things, I believe he’d say, “At least Texas is not like California, and you know Austin is weird, right???”
I’d have to laugh at the truth of that and buy him a margarita at the bar where masks must not stave off Covid because they are completely unnecessary to wear.
We could get drunk toasting a mutual thirst for more American freedom, whichever state we call home.Published in