OCTOBER IN THE HILL COUNTRY AND GULF COAST OF TEXAS

 One of the best times of the year to visit the Central Texas Hill Country and Houston/Galveston is in the cooling down period of late October.  Then the broiling sun has begun to recede, Austin is at its wonderfully weird self and the Gulf Coast refinery pollution (sights and smells of people making money) gives way some to a cultural and historic legacy of great interest.

STATE CAPITAL

Austin is without doubt the intellectual heart of Texas and houses its political center ring as well.  A visitor to the sometime circus atmosphere of the state capital might be privileged enough to have old friends who are leading lights in journalism, environmental studies and public affairs media.  This would allow for a day of coffees, lunch and dinners amounting to refresher courses in the affairs of the state and region.  The old friends might courteously start out with, “Who’s going to win the game this weekend?” (referring, of course, to the Texas Longhorns football game) but these serious Texans, well- educated, thoughtful citizens of the nation quickly move to conversation of great merit, ideas for the mind and soul.  One feels at home in Austin.

Now quite a cosmopolitan city Austin is uplifted by the great University of Texas with its world class research and teaching faculty.  On the University campus one may spend profitable time at the Blanton Museum of Art and gain access to a vast enterprise headlined by the dubious biblical quotation engraved on the Main Building, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”  It was from atop this building’s 26-story tower of book stacks that a psychopath, a former Eagle Scout who had made straight A’s, fired his rifle in 1966 down on the campus killing 26 and wounding  more.   Game winning Saturday nights, and other special occasions, are more than enough cause for the Tower to turn orange!

UT Tower in orange

HOUSTON AND GULF COAST

By a short flight, or just a few hours drive across Texas down to sea level, the traveler suddenly arrives at America’s energy capital, one of the most dynamic business regions of the globe, America’s energy capital.    Much of this financial action is enabled by the amazing Houston Ship Channel a 50-mile water route out of Houston to the world, via Galveston and the Gulf of Mexico.  In the old days Galveston was an alternative port of entry for immigrants when New York’s Ellis Island overflowed.  Today it is still much a very charming place with lovely old houses and a raffish beach culture—though the constant threat of hurricanes lurks.  The Gulf breezes are splendid and seem perfect in October especially high on patios of the luxurious condos enjoyed by the wealthy from Houston which less than an hour down by freeway.

Between Houston and Galveston a visitor can make a side trip to the moon via the Johnson Space Center put there by President Lyndon Johnson to direct the Apollo Manned Space Program.Johnson Space Center, home of Apollo Mission Control

GPN-2000-001141[2] Mission Control Center can be toured.   Here, seen in 1969, there was jubilation at winning the space race over the Soviets, as mission control engineers celebrated American’s landing.

The astronauts, including the first lunar visitor, Neil Armstrong, shown here on the moon, trained at Houston. GPN-2000-001209[1]

Earlier President Johnson and rocket engineering chief, Werner von Braun, visited with astronauts.  Von Braun, though a former Nazi missile designer, seen below at left, was not nearly as controversial as Johnson, who was best known for his prosecution of the American war in Vietnam War as well as many domestic initiatives.GPN-2000-001337[1]

With time and generations comes some giving back.  Houston was a new town first started in 1834 by shrewd land developers from New York.  They invaded what was the Mexican territory of Texas, bringing along hundreds of colonists, and slaves, in their settlement efforts.  Then came war with Mexico, Texas Independence, Statehood, slavery, cotton, the civil war and suddenly modernity.

This began with the digging of the Ship Channel, finished in 1911, and before one could blink an eye the entire stretch of waterway was overflowing with oil and chemical refineries for the whole long trench.  One of the abutting towns, Pasadena, became known as “Stinkadena,” but Houston grew up also in a tradition of cultural boosting.  There was the great Hobby family, who gave a Governor or two to the State and much in the way of gardens and showhouses and pride.  And with the oil companies came top law firms and all this sired leaders of the nation including two recent presidents of the United States.  One philanthropist endowed Rice Institute which, with its changed name to “university” provided Houston what it really needed:  Without a great university there can be no great city.  Everyone had jobs and many began to accumulate fortunes.  Now the place has gobs of museums, parks, ball teams (the Astrodome, in the early ‘60s was the world’s first stadium with a dome permitting air conditioning) theaters, a great Grand Opera—just name it and Houston built it.

Unusual in the world is the Rothko Chapel dedicated to spiritual values, human rights and cultural relativism.  As an air-conditioned shield against the blazing Texas sun the walls of its octagonal inner chamber are formed by the works of the late, cerebral American artist Mark Rothko.

5_rothko_int2Rothko’s 14 nearly all black paintings, create an unforgettable sanctuary for self-examination and the on-going search for world harmony.     Inside the chapel one can find relief from some of Houston’s hot, gritty culture.  Open to believers of all faiths, and to non-believers, this space provides year-around relief from Houston’s gritty culture and less than hospital weather.  The world’s pain can find soothing here.

The outside public plaza is dominated by Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” statue.1_rothko_chapel_ext1

Once upon a time one had to travel all the way to New Orleans to enjoy a good meal, to get beyond fried chicken and steak.  Now Houston is a culinary capital with more spectacular food than one can stop to enumerate. 

In October this otherwise climatological hothouse of the universe can be a weather delight and a wonderful place to visit.

–Posted by Barry Jagoda, October 22, 2010

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