Hell and Texas

October 13, 2020 § 13 Comments

I’m from Texas, which is generally a better place to be from than to be at.

But really, I’m not from Texas, which I learned when I was sixteen, selling phone subscriptions to the Houston Post. I was talking to this lady. “Where you from, honey?” she asked.


“No, you ain’t. Where you from?”

“Texas,” I protested. “My parents are from Texas. My grandparents on both sides are from Texas. My brother’s from Texas. I’m from Texas.”

“Where was you born?”

“New Jersey.”

“I knew it,” she said, and hung up.

No matter how thick your drawl, if you weren’t born in Texas, you aren’t Texan. I don’t know if New Jersey people are as territorial. I suppose they are. All people are.

I was born in Princeton and lived there until I was two. Then we moved to Houston, where my dad got a job at Rice University with their new sociology department. That was in 1966. Two years later we moved to Galveston so that my mom could go to medical school. Mom was a French major who decided to be doctor. She took all the science courses at the University of Houston while halfheartedly raising two little boys and being unhappily married. Since we lived in Houston, she applied to Baylor School of Medicine. She sent her application in on a Monday and got her rejection on a Friday. It advised her she had been rejected because she was too old; male applicants had no expiration date.

She was 25.

Four years in Galveston, then back to Houston, where I lived from ages eight to eighteen, and that lady who immediately identified me as a foreigner had some skills, because my drawl was as thick as any kid who’d been born and raised there. Nonetheless … when you live in Texas, and all your family’s from Texas, and you were born in New Jersey, it sort of takes the wind out of your sail, like saying “I’m a bike racer,” and then when asked saying “Cat 5.”

I posted a couple of days ago about transformation, and about the hard left turn my life has taken, a good left turn, but a hard one. A reader sent me a very moving email and said these profound words: “The cage I had to liberate myself from was different; and boy is it hard to liberate yourself from cages of any kind.”

But the lock has been kicked off, the door is open and I’ve stepped out, me, my bike, what years remain to me, and instead of bars there’s nothing in front of me except the open road. And as I think about that and feel the shivers of fear and excitement that are the baggage of freedom, I think that what I want to do is relive my life, and I want to do it on my bike.

“Good luck with that,” you may be thinking. “Can’t rewind the clock, haven’t you heard?”

I have, in fact. But one thing I realized two days ago as I pedaled up the Cove climb in PV is that place is everything. The physical places we live and where we have powerful experiences affect our physiology and our psychology. Here’s an example:

I was pretty sure that on my heavy touring bike, riding with a loaded backpack, returning from a long tour, that I was done with the competitive side of cycling. People want to ride fast? Good for them. I don’t.

And then at the bottom of the climb a freddie in gym shorts, tennis shoes, and no shirt came stomping by, flexing his upper body gym muscles to show me what was what. I took the bait, caught him, and dropped him. He looked at me gap-mouthed as I easily whizzed past, backpack and all. And after that I felt terrible for playing the game, but then realized that I really couldn’t help myself any more than a drunk can help himself when seated at a bar wedged between two people slugging cold pints of Racer 5.

I thrived in PV and the way I did it was by riding hard, for fourteen years–not to mention the 25 years before that–and one of the key behaviors was picking up the gauntlet when it was thrown. How in the world did I think I would shake those neural pathways when I returned to my literal stomping grounds simply by riding slowly on a heavy bike to Canada and back? The elevated heart rate, the mental focus, the internal dialogue of “Oh no you don’t,” and then the blanking out of everything except the target, forgetting about the grade or the weight or anything else … these are reactions deeply ingrained into me and they are doubly, triply sensitive when returned to familiar physical places.

This part of the story has a happy enough ending, because after thinking it through, I got passed again, this time by Shirtless Keith on the Switchbacks. He grunted at me as he pounded by on his single speed, fast enough to pass but slow enough to catch. I felt my heart beat hard, took a deep breath, and let him go.

In the bigger picture of life, though, you are what you eat, you are what you read, you are who you hang out with, and you are where you live. This explains a bunch, because I’ve lived a bunch of places, and why can’t I go back to them? Not go back in the literal sense, but return to places that shaped my life, recall those experiences, examine them through the foggy lens of fast-approaching dotage, turn them over, and try to better understand who I am and what I have left to contribute.

And why not go back to places I’ve never even been? Leesville, where my great-grandfather Edward Davidson left at age fifteen to find his fortune, on foot, in Alpine, a mere 400-mile walk with nary a Camelback nor Salamon hiking shoe to assist. Why not try to locate the owner of the old Davidson Ranch in Alpine, and at least set foot on the land that my great-grandfather acquired by miracle and the dumbest of random luck?

Texas is shot-through with places I’ve ridden, driven, lived, hurt, loved, and is a skein that holds virtually all of my family history since the mid-1800s. Why not pedal through the dust-blown cotton fields of Colorado City, where my grandmother Sarah got snakebite and had her life saved by her father, who drew out the poison with tomato poultice? Most of all, why not revisit, reframe, and try to relive some of the seminal places in my own life, let those memories well back up, see if what was, surrounded by place, can help explain what is? Is that little grove of trees still growing behind the Carlton Woods apartment, where I found an old mattress under the boughs and laid Cindy down on it, running my hand for the first time ever over a girlfriend’s naked chest?

A fool’s errand perhaps, but like any quixotic quest, it’s backed by the firm conviction and confidence of the truly deluded, and in this case, doubly armed with a bike. As Davy Crockett said upon losing his congressional bid, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.” The first part I’m not saying, but the second part? I am.


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