I saw one of the top ten greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life while strolling up the San Antonio River Walk with my friend Danielle.
Floating among the mallards in the river was what appeared to be a completely black duck, different from all the others. When we stopped to look it dove beneath the water and didn’t resurface for such a long time that I started to question whether there had even been a duck there in the first place.
Then the duck resurfaced several feet away – except now it had its beak wrapped around the midsection of a sizable catfish it had snagged from the bottom of the river. The catfish, unwilling to go without a fight, was flopping back and forth violently, jerking the duck’s long neck around as it swam back and forth in the river trying not to lose its grip. This continued for a solid five minutes until at long last the catfish suffocated – but the duck’s battle was only halfway over, because now it had to find a way to ingest this not-small dead fish without the benefit of teeth.
We could've sold tickets.
Danielle and I spent the next ten minutes transfixed as the duck painstakingly worked the fish into its mouth head first, tilted its head back, and tried to use gravity and a near-constant neck-shimmy to get it to slide down its throat. We were all but certain it couldn’t be done – the classic Oregon Trail conundrum of killing more meat than you can bring back – but finally the duck’s beak closed around the catfish’s tail and a bulge lurched down its long neck. We hung around for a few minutes after that, hoping against hope that we’d get to see a duck vomit up a dead catfish into a river, but Adam Richman’s waterfowl equivalent just drifted contentedly down the river toward an inevitable food coma.
It was amazing, kind of disgusting, and unlike anything I’d ever seen before in my life. And that’s more or less my impression of Texas, too.
Before visiting Texas, my reaction to Texas was always, “Yeah, Texas. We get it.” The cowboy hats, the cowboy boots, the guns upon guns, the whole notion that their way of life was so starkly different from the rest of America’s that serious people there could entertain the notion of going it as their own country… I just didn’t buy it. It felt like they were trying too hard.
I’m a huge King of the Hill fan and while I don’t want to toot my own horn I did ace the AP US History test, so I knew Texas had its differences from the rest of the country. But every state is different – you don’t see Delaware making a fuss about how their unique Chancery Court system, revered by corporate lawyers the world over, makes them eligible to be their own sovereign nation. You’ve got great barbecue and you’re the biggest state besides Alaska – get over it, already!
But then I actually went to Texas. And holy shit, guys, it is kind of like they’ve got their own country down there!
If you asked a bunch of French, German, and English people who’d never been to the United States to describe what they thought America was like, I feel like they’d probably describe something a lot like Texas. There’s gigantic freeways full of veritable monster trucks, there’s water towers and gun shops everywhere, there’s endless, empty prairie five minutes from huge malls, everyone is extremely friendly, the food is nothing resembling healthy but so incredibly good that you don’t give a shit… It’s just all of the best and worst things about America dialed up to ten, happening at once, with a side of mac and cheese.
Because San Antonio is 65% Latino, pretty much every restaurant in town winds up being Mexican fusion, and because San Antonio is in Texas, just about every restaurant also will put brisket in just about anything. When we went to a trendy new Chinese restaurant, the fried rice had gobs of cheddar cheese and tortilla chips among the chunks of scrambled egg, and my ramen was garnished with two strips of fatty brisket that each weighed more than my car.
When people said that everything was bigger in Texas, I guess I thought that “everything” was an exaggeration and they were referring mainly to geography, personalities, portion sizes, and waistband sizes. But no – even things you never really think about are bigger in Texas. Like the signs outside of businesses along commercial strips, which in San Antonio are routinely taller than any of the buildings in the surrounding area. I saw intersections that appeared to occupy more space than football fields, and an H-E-B supermarket large enough to have its own weather patterns. Unlike LA, San Antonio hasn’t got mountains or an ocean to hem in its sprawl, so there’s really no reason not to make everything large enough to be seen from space.
Before I visited Texas I based a lot of my impressions about the place on the actions of their elected officials. I realize now that that’s unfair – most elected officials everywhere are terrible people, and you can’t in good faith reverse engineer some sort of judgment about a vast and heavily populated area based on the actions of a few bigots wearing designer glasses and cowboy boots. Pretty much everybody I interacted with was friendly and talkative, from CVS clerks to the overwhelmed bartender in a crowded country bar who still smiled and made small talk as she got my drinks.
The one exception was the hostess at a hipster brunch restaurant who gave away our table 20 minutes after telling us there’d be an hourlong wait – and judging by how many nose piercings she had her politics were probably pretty close to mine anyway. And even she was polite about it! The closest thing I experienced to actual hostility was a couple of dirty looks after I tasted Big Red for the first time and said it tasted like Smurf piss. (It really does. I’m sorry, Texas; your soft drink is disgusting.)
For how much fun I had and how much red meat I ingested, it was still a relief when I landed in Burbank on Monday. The wide suburban boulevards and chaotic traffic of the San Fernando Valley had at one time seemed overwhelming to me; after three days in Texas everything in California seems to be a much more manageable size.