The term ‘Space Cowboy’ comes from the eponymous 1969 Steve Miller song. To understand the meaning of that term, however, you have to visit Middle America. And you have to experience the mind-boggling transition from watching cowboys at a ranch to gazing at moon rocks.
As it is to so many visitors, the US to me meant the Pacific coast and the Atlantic coast, with a vast something in the middle surrounding the Grand Canyon. I’d travelled up and down the two coasts but never wandered inland. So, I had my doubts.
Day one in Texas began to clear up matters. You don’t have to be fond of cowboy movies to be charmed by the George Ranch Historical Park, about 50 km south-west of Houston, Texas. Four generations of the Jones family owned this estate. Their houses have been restored and the employees dress up in period clothing to present an animated account of life in times past. This guided tour is especially popular among children. The tour ended with the Saturday Historic Lunch, on this occasion themed around the food of the poorer sharecroppers. There was fried gizzard (stomach muscles of chicken, for the uninitiated), ‘dirty rice’ prepared with leftover meats and offal, and cracklin’ cornbread, made with pork rind. It’s not the kind of food you would advertise, but it makes for good dinner conversation.
Our return to the city became a back-to-the-future affair, for we landed at the Space Center Houston in the afternoon. From horses and longhorns, to posing for photos behind a space suit and poring over the world’s largest collection of moon rocks–all in a matter of hours. I wouldn’t advise visiting both these places on the same day; it takes some serious reorientation of time and space. What soothed the mind at the end of such a hectic day was the Kemah Boardwalk, a seaside walkway that has emerged as a food district, interspersed with entertainment parks overlooking the Galveston Bay.
Houston is the fourth-largest US city and has many attractions, the kind that large cities flaunt. But the real Texas-sized surprise is Austin, the state capital. Half a day here is enough to understand why it is the fastest growing of the 50 largest cities, why it’s the preferred place for young couples to build a life. With its clement weather, it used to be the preferred location for retirees and students (University of Texas at Austin is highly rated). But that was before the digital boom. Today, it’s the hotspot for tech firms (Dell Computers started here). Austin is where the smart people head for smart jobs. In fact, there is a place here called Silicon Hills, which has daily flights to San Francisco nicknamed ‘Nerd Birds’.
There is industry, but not manufacturing–that’s Houston, with its factories and fishing and ports and old-world big industry. The smart and the enlightened like to eat well. Naturally, Austin is brimming with restaurants, which in many cases reflect the character of the districts. Food vans are ubiquitous and, in Austin, themed.
That’s the other unusual thing about Austin: each of its localities has character. New money has not yet gentrified it inside out–not yet, anyway. Its geek-turned-hipster vibe might resonate with Silicon Valley, but this is America’s South. The city has a natural, old-world ease. It doesn’t take any effort to relax in Austin.
The city markets itself as the live-music capital of the world. Restaurants book their musicians in advance and advertise the dates; special Austin-themed albums are easy to find; and there is a year-long schedule of festivals.
The Austin Independent Business Alliance has a slogan, which is also an informal theme for this fast-growing city: Keep Austin Weird. There is also a book that investigates, from a demographic angle, how that slogan was commercialised; it’s titled Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas. Get it?
Austin’s rival in luring the smart and the young is Denver, Colorado, which has several universities in the area and is among the fastest growing major cities. But there are some striking differences between the two. At an elevation of 5,280 feet above mean sea-level (Denver is called the milehigh city), it does get dry up here; some people find the altitude a little hard on their breathing. It also gets quite cold, what with the snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains casting their shadow over the city. But that’s the big attraction here, too, for Denver is a magnet to those who like the outdoors and adventure.
Denver grew into a major city due to its location: it was a transportation hub, the link between the Midwest and the West Coast. The city’s fortunes have risen and fallen with trends in the mining and energy industries. But the quality of life here has become an attraction for skilled young people, and that’s bringing in the big corporations. We got a taste of its eclectic nature in the most peculiar vegetarian restaurant I’ve ever visited, where liberties are taken with several kinds of cuisines, and the results are surprisingly fresh.
You want to keep walking around Denver. During the day, it doesn’t have the kind of buzz Austin has, for people here mostly work in offices. But in the evening, the city comes alive. We went on Denver’s famous beer trail, for in no other US city is more beer (or more kinds of beer) produced. My guide was a writer, Rich Grant, who had moved to the city back in his hippie days. The real high, though, comes in the Rockies. With a packed breakfast of bagels and cream cheese in the van, we reached the Rocky Mountain National Park in the morning and set off on a snowshoe hike.The trail was blessed with clear skies and tall trees, the kind of landscape that will seem familiar from the frames of Ansel Adams. On the way back to Denver, we stopped at another picturesque location made famous by another artist. The Stanley Hotel is where writer Stephen King spent a night with his wife when there were no other guests around. This is where he had a nightmare of his three-year-old son running in the desolate corridors. King woke up with the idea for The Shining, his novel that was adapted for an even more famous film directed by Stanley Kubrick.
From the serenity of the Rockies, there was only one place our excursion could conclude at: following the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon. We took a helicopter ride through the canyon from Las Vegas. Back in Sin City, there was gambling, fine dining, the High Roller and the Cirque du Soleil. Middle America is a wide, wide palette.