Forgive me for the West Coast arrogance, but California is pretty damn awesome. We’ve got it all: mountains, coasts, valleys, deserts, the largest tree in the world, the tallest tree in the world, the oldest tree in the world… yeah, it’s no big deal.
Growing up in California taught me that some regions are better than others. There’s a hierarchy of desirability in the landscape – the Central Coast and the Sierras are the most deserving of awe, somewhere in mediocre middle lie the Cascades and the Coast Ranges, and in the depths of the toilet bowl lie the Central Valley and most of the deserts. Often do trans-state drivers complain of the tedium of I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley citing the boring flatness of the arid land. If nothing else, all Californians can agree on this: the Central Valley blows. Sorry, Fresno.
Living in Texas, however, has taught me that all land is beautiful. Even when it sucks.
Texas doesn’t have the big trees, the extraordinary coastal cliffs, or the towering mountains that California does. For the most part, the state is relatively flat with a few rolling hills and a couple forests interspersed with farms and oil fields, not to mention hours upon hours of nondescript desert. Yes, there are certain pockets of agreeable beauty (i.e. topography), but for the most part, there’s not much to throw on a postcard.
That was my first impression. A while after to moving to Austin, I drove around seeking out places of natural beauty to feed my starving respect for the magnificence of earth. Locating a state park on the map, I arrived to find a scene: a concrete river embankment, a couple picnic tables, and sites for camping. Needless to say, it was underwhelming. I got the impression that Texas has quite a different set of standards than California regarding the type of land deemed worthy to preserve as a park.
But people were there sitting in the shade of oaks drinking beer, and their kids were out playing in the river. Then I noticed how the river left the concrete embankment downstream and wove through a nestling of trees. And then the shade of the oak turned into an oasis of peace against the 105 degree sun, and suddenly Lone Star tasted good.
Since the land of Texas is less extreme, it demands a greater appreciation of the subtleties it provides. Hill Country is spectacular because it lies next to flat country. The Piney Woods are beautiful because they lie beside less piney woods. There is no Sierra Escarpment or Big Sur to steal all the attention. Every little shift in land is worthy, and suddenly the entire state becomes beautiful.
You can hear it in the music. Every town in Texas, no matter how big or small, is referenced in a country song. Whether it be Luckenbach or San Angelo, Odessa or Brownsville, someone has once sung its praises. You don’t get that in California. No one sings songs about Red Bluff. No one writes about Ridgecrest. If Coalinga were to fall into the earth, people would mourn only the loss of beef patties.
But why not sing about Coalinga? Why should its golden rolling hills be any less valuable to us than the rolling green mountains of Santa Cruz? Does their contrast not compliment each other?
There are a lot of worthless hills in California. People drive by them all the time and don’t even notice. But if you take any one of those hills and put it in Texas, Texans will show up with a cooler of Shiner to sit there and look at it, appreciating it for what it is: a hill like so many others, and like the others, deserving of awe and respect – because that hill, although like the others, isn’t the others. It is its own unique feature – a monument to the changes in earth over time. Why can’t we respect our shitty little California hills? Are they not essential in providing us with a unique landscape full of lights and darks, smoothness and sharpness, the glory of life and the freedom of non-life?
I was in the Sierras last week sitting in a cirque at 10,000 feet by a glassy alpine lake watching the sky explode as the sun set over the valley to the west. Not far was the largest tree on earth, the General Sherman Tree, and between us and all around were meadows, canyons, bears, and storms. It was overwhelming, but what struck me was not the grandeur of where I was, but the idea that such grandeur could rise out of the ground between two arid deserts and produce from the nothingness of the surrounding flatland an ecosystem so vibrant and unique as to be worthy of reverence and awe.
And I thought: at what point does this land before me, from the distant San Joaquin Valley, that radiant yet smokey horizon over which the sun set, to the mountain cirque in which I stand, become worthy of our appreciation? Is it the foothills? Is it where the first pine sprouts? Is it the first grove of Giant Sequoia? Why draw a line? Why not appreciate the entire spectrum – that is to say the shift of the ecosystem as desert becomes chaparral becomes forest becomes alpine tundra? Or rather: as non-life becomes life and life becomes non-life once again.
If you learn to appreciate the subtle shifts in land and life, no drive will be too tedious. Not I-5 in California. Not I-10 through West Texas.