Not long after California officially banned state-funded travel to Texas this summer, we awoke in a hotel there, behind enemy lines.
It had been decades since my last visit to the Lone Star State; our daughter had gotten an offer she couldn’t refuse there from a graduate program. That was the good news.
The bad news was, she’d be spending the next several years in a state whose political leaders are pathologically hostile to the blue state where she was born and raised.
To view Texas through Californian eyes, at least politically speaking, is to give thanks for the sheer size of this country – and for the freedom a parent has to put daylight between her kids and politicians who might do them harm.
It is, famously, the place that California isn’t. Gerrymandering has put tea party extremists and Trumpers in charge of a government of 27 million people whose cities largely voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. On the upside, that has meant low sales taxes and a political climate in which, as The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright recently pointed out, disgraced Republicans need only go on “Dancing with the Stars” to earn redemption. On the downside, it has meant a whole lot of guns and freakishly mean treatment of everyone not male and Anglo.
Texas state lawmakers in May passed a draconian and possibly unconstitutional crackdown on immigrants without papers. Local law enforcement can now demand proof of legal status from any legitimate detainee, and those deemed to get in their way, from campus police to elected sheriffs, can be criminally charged and removed, never mind the will of the voters.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill letting adoption agencies use religion to discriminate against same-sex couples; that’s what prompted California’s boycott of taxpayer-funded travel to Texas. Undaunted, Abbott has called a special session to push a bathroom bill modeled on the one that led to the nationwide shunning of North Carolina.
The state’s politicians are on track to eviscerate what little is left there of Planned Parenthood funding. Meanwhile, Abbott has alternately boasted about how many Californians have come crawling to his state because of the low tax rate, and complained about the “Californianization” of Texas in the more liberal cities.
In short, it seems that to view California through Texan eyes – or at least through the eyes of Texas’ political leaders – is to want to hurt people who think like Californians.
So I did what any California mother would do. I got on a plane with my kid to check out the place with my own eyes.
The airport in Austin smelled like barbecue and bar rooms. Outside, highway traffic whipped by at a legal 75 mph or screeched to a full stop for people to make inexplicable U-turns. A statewide ban on texting while driving, we were told, would not be enforced until September. This news was passed on as if it were good.
The used Prius our daughter bought was cheaper than it would have been in California, but most of the bargain had to do with low hybrid demand and end-of-the-month sales quotas. The vaunted sales tax differential amounted to a few hundred bucks.
Lone Stars were everywhere: on houses, on bedposts, on manhole covers, on license plates, on barns, on flags by the roadside. Glittering high rises gave way beyond Austin to billboards warning that “after you die, you WILL meet God.” At our hotel, signs on the front window announced that loaded firearms weren’t to be openly carried inside the building. They weren’t reassuring.
“Mom, what use will I be if the only people I can relate to are in California and Manhattan?” our daughter asked, laughing. In theory, I knew she was right.
But I grew up in a place that also was vehemently not California or Manhattan. A voice in my heart kept retorting, “What if the people here don’t relate back? What if you feel all alone and everyone is armed to the teeth and reason is jeered at and the people in charge bully the weak with impunity?”
On the weekend before the Fourth of July, in the midst of a heat wave, we looked out the window of a hipster coffee shop in Austin and watched pro-Trumpers march by chanting “USA!” and carrying side-arms. Some wore camouflage and combat gear.
One contingent carried a green-and-black white nationalist “KEK” flag; a fat man ran past, bare-chested in what appeared be a partial suit of armor. A pair of middle-age women sported star-spangled bikini tops and Daisy Dukes. It looked like a hate-pride parade.
At the next table, my husband, a UC Berkeley alum, noticed a young girl in a blue and gold hat that said “Cal Tennis.” He offered the universal UC Berkeley greeting: “Go Bears.”
The girl, who was raised in Orange County and Singapore, watched the commotion outside for a beat, then returned to her cappuccino and iPhone. Around her, hipster Texas gawked at Trumpster Texas. “Go Bears,” she said, laughing and shaking her head.
The next day, state troopers and local police would have to separate the Trump marchers from a larger, less-armed “Impeach Trump” rally. “Buncha dad-gum babies and we gotta babysit ’em,” a middle-age state trooper told us across the street from Texas’ preposterously beautiful statehouse.
Silently, I marveled that he had actually said “dad-gum.” Aloud, I agreed that the Trump marchers seemed to have a screw loose. He looked at me blankly. He had meant the dad-gum babies hoping to impeach Trump.
Later we drove far outside the city, miles passing in the vast, green stretch between Austin and Houston. Waiting in a long, long, long line down a dirt road for barbequed hot links, we overheard a conversation about health reform.
“I didn’t much like Obamacare, but there has to be a happy medium,” a women from the next town over told the man ahead of her, a local who said he had just had a hip replacement.
“I’m glad I got what I got when I got it,” the man said. “Trumpcare’s just another word for ‘throw ’em to the wolves.’ ”
So maybe Texas wasn’t as self-destructive as I’d imagined. Maybe California wasn’t the only place struggling to balance fiscal prudence and human decency.
There was, after all, that stunning riverfront park in downtown Austin, clearly a public-spirited gesture, and the cool water of Barton Springs, open and affordable to all comers. There were the HGTV “Fixer Upper” people, whose Magnolia Market juggernaut has, house by house, sought to rehab Waco’s dark reputation. And rural or urban, we’d encountered nothing but kindness.
How odd, I suddenly thought, to feel so estranged in your own country. Texas hadn’t always elicited such mixed feelings.
I’d seen San Antonio before, and marveled at how European its streets felt. I’d been to Dallas in the 1980s, and appreciated its free-wheeling ethos.
When I was my daughter’s age, my friend Marilyn taught me to drive a stick shift one night as we drove from Tucson, where I had been living, to her parents’ big ranch house in El Paso. The stars at night were big and bright, just like the song said, and it felt as if we could cruise forever in that land of cold beer and cool boots and Fabulous Thunderbirds and Willie Nelson and Larry McMurtry.
That Texas, I could trust with my daughter. Was it so unlike this Texas? Might some Texan with a Cal Bear in Berkeley have similar fears about California?
Maybe. Maybe not. Or maybe we’re all just trapped in some sad country song about bad government happening to good people. And about blue-state parents who shouldn’t have to wonder if their red-state kids are behind enemy lines or not.
Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.