I’m back from visiting my daughter Rachel in Texas. If you remember, she’s usually the one to edit the Diecast for us. I’ve spent the last 5 days or so in and around the tiny town of La Mesa in west Texas where she lives. I also spent about half a day in Dallas, which is five hours away and yet somehow still in Texas. (And in fact, neither place is anywhere near the edge.)
It was good to have the whole family together again, and the trip gave me a nice break from making content.
I know that travel observations from a guy who never leaves the house is about as useful as restaurant reviews from someone who only eats pizza, but for the curious: Here are a bunch of random comments on Texas based on my brief visit…
1. Texas is spread out.
People from the denser parts of Europe will come to the Boston / New England area and remark on how spread out things are. The roads are wider, the buildings are further apart, yards are more spacious, and even parking spaces are roomier.
Then someone from Boston will visit (say) western Pennsylvania and have the same experience. There’s more room, and even individual towns are further apart.
And then you go from western Pennsylvania to west Texas, and it’s the same thing, only moreso. The towns are ridiculously far apart, and the roads are so wide it feels almost decadent. I swear the shoulder of a typical street – the wasted margin between the traffic and the curb – feels wider than the “2 lanes of opposing traffic + 1 lane of parking” that runs in front of our apartment at home.
In places where I’d expect to find a little two-lane highway, there would be a six-lane monster. In towns, the shoulder on either side of the road is wide and flat and could easily make for another entire lane. It’s really bizarre to have a pair of four-lane highways meet at a simple stop sign. Where I’m from, roads that large would produce so much traffic you’d need traffic lights with part of the cycle dedicated to left-hand turns. It feels like a game of SimCity where the player has slapped down the largest roads but the zoning hasn’t caught up yet.
2. You can’t walk anywhere.
When Rachel lived with us, we used to take walks all the time. For old time’s sake, we tried to do that during this trip and found that walking was kind of annoying and impractical.
All we wanted to do was walk a half mile through a residential neighborhood, from a church to a gas station. It seemed plausible enough. The sidewalk was there. Why not use it?
But while residential zoning mandates a certain amount of space be given over to pedestrians in other places I’ve lived, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Texas. In Texas, sidewalks seem to be a courtesy, and not everyone is courteous.
You’ll pass three buildings with a proper sidewalk out front, and then the fourth will have some sort obstacle course instead of a walkway. Maybe the building presses up against the shoulder and you have to walk into the street to get around it. Or maybe there’s a low wall or a hedge made of solid cactus that spills out into the streetI’m not kidding we actually encountered this.. Or maybe the sidewalk simply vanishes, leaving you to cross some unkempt ground.
“So you have to walk in the grass. What’s the big deal, Shamus? Do you walk to go for a walk or not?”
When I say the sidewalk gives way to “grass” I don’t want you to picture the green at St. Andrews. What we’re talking about here is an ankle-deep tangle of fiercely territorial plant life. It’s filled with bristling podsTexans call these “stickers” for the way they relentlessly cling to your clothes. And yes, their needles CAN penetrate blue jeans! that can trip you if they snag your foot, and the pods can give you a nasty rash if their needles scratch your skin.
Animals like to make hidden burrows in these patches, which are large enough to turn an ankle or swallow your leg up to the shin if you’re unlucky enough to step in one. Texas doesn’t get a lot of rain, but when it does fall there’s nowhere for it to go. So in the cool winter it hangs around to form cold, wet, slippery mud mixed in with the grass.
And just to keep things interesting, in the summer these “grass” patches are where things like venomous snakes like to hang out.
The effect was that this simple half-mile walk was infused with more danger than I’m used to.
3. Everything’s bigger in Texas… including Texans.
I hope this doesn’t come off as rude. They were fine people and I was delighted to meet them. They were just big. The vast majority of people I encountered were overweight. This includes adults from many age groups in many different walks of life and various income levels. Again, I only visited a couple of small towns in the corner of a state larger than France, so we’re talking about a very small sample size. This is not a scientific study, it’s just the observation of one guy.
But if you’re willing to entertain my biased and possibly skewed observations, then here is what I saw:
I was usually the thinnest person around, which is already odd because I am not particularly thin. People under twenty seemed more or less to be the size I’m used to, but the adults always seemed to be carrying a lot of extra weight.
This isn’t hereditary. I observed the same body types and trends across whites and non-whites. I also don’t think we can blame it entirely on “overeating”. We ate at a couple of restaurants, and the portions seemed to fall within American normsWhich is still too much in most cases, but that doesn’t explain the increase in weight I’m looking at here..
One obvious culprit is that it’s just too hard to get exercise. Just a simple walk to the corner store puts you at risk for sprained ankle, painful rash, surprise mud, and maybe even snakebite. On top of this, everything is spread out to the point where it’s pretty dang hard to take a “short” walk. If you’re looking to get something done, then you’re going to need to cover several miles in those conditions. Temperatures frequently rise to 113F (45C) in the summer. That’s almost halfway to boiling. Those kind of conditions don’t just make exercise unpleasant, but dangerous. So it’s not surprising people drive everywhere. (Which makes it less practical to maintain good sidewalks, which makes walking even more impractical, which makes you even less likely to waste money on building them, which… you get the idea.)
But I don’t think lack of exercise alone can explain this. It’s supposedly impossible to get anywhere in LA without driving, and yet LA isn’t famously overweight. And some of the people I met were clearly hard workers with physically demanding jobs. In fact, it seemed like more work was loosely correlated with more weight. The people who worked behind the front desk at the hotel were thin, and the people who cleaned the rooms weren’t. Again: This sample size is too small to draw any conclusions. This isn’t “data”, it’s anecdata. Still, it’s strange.
Looking for a cause, I find myself wanting to blame air conditioning. Heat tends to kill your appetite. Counter-intuitively, the hotter a region is, the less time people spend in the heat. They stay indoors. And when it’s over a hundred degrees out, I can’t say I blame them.
The pet theory I’ve been nursing for years is that our tendency to put on or shed weight is partly regulated by environmental temperature. I’m wondering if there are systems of hormones that are designed to be triggered by heat. Something like:
Spring / Summer: Shed weight to stay cool and burn stored calories to gather resources.
Autumn / Winter: Store calories to keep warm. Lower activity levels to make the stored calories last through winter.
But in the modern world, people in the really hot regions spend the entire year in air conditioned spaces, and so their body keeps storing energy, caught in an artificial autumn that never ends. This is a problem that feeds on itself because as people gain weight, they turn up the air conditioning to remain cool.
I have no data to back any of this up and it’s entirely possible that this is all bunk. The only reason I like it is because it explains America’s weight problem beyond the lazy stereotype of “stupid lazy Americans”. I find it hard to believe the waifish barista in San Francisco works that much harder than the portly mechanic in west Texas. Some of these heavy people clearly exert themselves for a living. They work a lot harder than I do, anyway. The problem isn’t that they don’t work, it’s that when they’re working it’s typically in a climate-controlled environment.
I don’t know. I’d love to see someone look for a link between air conditioning and body weight.
Wait, what was this post supposed to be about? Oh right, Texas….
4. Texas Drives Fast!
In the northeast, the highest speed limit is usually 55 miles an hour. (88kph.) In fact, throughout my childhood that was the maximum speed limit for all parts of the country thanks to a dumb, counterproductive law that was passed at the time. That thing was repealed when I was 24, and places like Texas were once again allowed to set speed limits that made sense for them.
In the northeast, a 55mph limit works. Highways around major cities are tricksy things that require rapid parsing of complex road signs and frequent lane changes just to keep up with the constant onslaught of traffic and information.
You’ll be on a four-lane expressway skirting a major city and your only goal is to NOT get off of this road. Aware that you’re in unfamiliar territory, you hang out in the slow lane. Then the slow lane abruptly becomes an exit, and if you don’t want to exit then you need to elbow your way towards the center. This is made harder by all the other drivers pushing their way into the exit lane because that’s where they want to go.
The slow lane peels away, meaning the lane you’re in is now the new slow lane. Whoops! The lane you’re in is again an exit ramp and you once again have to fight your way to the center. Meanwhile, the highway you’re on merges with another, adding more lanes but also more cars, some of which want to cross all the lanes of traffic to reach the exit ramp you’re trying to escape.
Tired of the way this highway keeps trying to boot you off, you fight your way into the passing lane. But now you see the highway is going to split again. The signs pop up as you round a bend, giving you just a few seconds to parse them and figure out where you need to be when the split happens.
Just to keep things interesting, sometimes one of the lanes will be tagged as HOV”High Occupancy Vehicle”. A lane for vehicles with more than one person. Or is it more than two? Quick! Read the fine print if you don’t want a ticket! and you have to worry about avoiding that one.
What I just outlined above is pretty common across the entire northeast, although Boston is the ultimate example of this problem. In Boston the terror is greater because you know that one wrong move might dump you into near-gridlock traffic downtown, or shunt you onto an outrageously expensive toll road that runs perpendicular to your desired travel direction, or plunge you into a lengthy underground area where your GPS will lose contact and you’ll have to make several last-second navigation decisions blind.
In those sorts of places, 55MPH is about as fast as anyone dares to go. If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s probably still too fast. If you do know where you’re going, you probably don’t want to be going too much faster than those twitchy, confused visitors.
But in Texas? If an exit happens, they add a new lane for it. If two highways join, they add lanes rather than funneling six lanes of traffic into four. The roads are straight so you can see signs far in the distance rather than speed-reading them as you scream through the twisting concrete canyon. Since people aren’t making abrupt last-second lane changes, everything is smoother and higher speeds are safer. The visitors can keep up with the native drivers.
Driving is less stressful because mistakes are less punishing. If you screw up and take a bad turn, it won’t be hard to get back to where you want to go. Even if you end up downtown, you’re probably not more than a few blocks from the way back to the highway.
And then you get out of the city to the long stretches of highway that cross the desert. The road runs flat and straight all the way to the horizon. There are no exits, no on-ramps, no crossings, no lights, no mergers, and no special lanes. You’ve got three entire lanes of traffic all to yourself. You look at all that open road and think about how insane it would be to limit everyone to driving this at just 55mph. Out here, even the posted 75mph (120kph) limit can feel ponderousAlthough in our car, 75 was still the limit. The vibration and roaring wind would have made it uncomfortable to go faster. Minivans are not built for speed, particularly not ones that are 16 years old.. And at this point maybe you can understand why Texas resented the “one size fits all” speed limit of the 1970’s, and why they’re so enamored of doing their own thing.
5. Land of the white extended cab pickup truck.
About half of the vehicles on the road were extended cab pickups, and most of them were white. The ones that weren’t white were black or grey. I don’t remember seeing a single pickup that would look different if viewed in the context of a black and white photographI was wrong! When writing this post, I found a picture of a colored truck. Look for it in the next image.. I heard many plausible justifications for this, but I don’t really know the cause.
I assumed it was practical: It’s HOT in Texas, and anything that isn’t white is going to get to be scorching hot in the Texas sun. Also, maybe the sun will cause vibrant colors to fade?
One person suggested it was basic economics: There’s a lot of infrastructure out there in that big and otherwise empty desert: Power lines, communication towers, and petroleum systems. The petroleum and energy companies need durable vehicles for their army of mechanics, inspectors, engineers, and surveyors to use. The vehicles need to have space for a lot of tools, and they need to be able to handle makeshift roads and mud. So they buy fleets of pickups. And because these are corporate vehicles, they buy them in simple white because that’s easy. Rather than worry about maintenance, they replace the vehicles when they go out of warranty, which floods the used vehicle market with white pickups, meaning they become the most economic choice for general civilian use.
Another person suggested it was cultural: Supposedly back in the day, white was more common because it was cheaper. Like in Japan, once white was the dominant color it became a self-sustaining thing. Nobody wants to be “That guy”, tooling around in a bright red pickup.
The only time I saw any color was when I saw a muscle car. Also I saw I bright pink stretch limo made from a Humvee. No I’m not joking. Sadly, it was going in the opposite direction so it was long gone by the time I got my camera out. I thought I was seeing some crazy one-of-a-kind novelty, but no. Apparently pink hummer limo rental is available in many major cities?
In terms of infrastructure, navigation, cleanliness, and cost of living, Dallas beats any major city I’ve visited in the northeast. But in terms of weather, it’s basically uninhabitable for humans.
I’m sure internet service is stellar in the Dallas area, but it’s downright barbaric once you leave the metro area. Often the service people have is comparable to the “high speed” connections of 2002. Again, basically uninhabitable.
So that was my trip to Texas. The end of the year is coming. Time to get back to work.
 I’m not kidding we actually encountered this.
 Texans call these “stickers” for the way they relentlessly cling to your clothes. And yes, their needles CAN penetrate blue jeans!
 Which is still too much in most cases, but that doesn’t explain the increase in weight I’m looking at here.
 ”High Occupancy Vehicle”. A lane for vehicles with more than one person. Or is it more than two? Quick! Read the fine print if you don’t want a ticket!
 Although in our car, 75 was still the limit. The vibration and roaring wind would have made it uncomfortable to go faster. Minivans are not built for speed, particularly not ones that are 16 years old.
 I was wrong! When writing this post, I found a picture of a colored truck. Look for it in the next image.
The Best of 2016
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2016.
Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
Deus Ex Mankind Divided was a clumsy, tone-deaf allegory that thought it was clever, and it managed to annoy people of all political stripes.
Steam Summer Blues
This mess of dross, confusion, and terrible UI design is the storefront the big publishers couldn't beat? Amazing.
Are Lootboxes Gambling?
Obviously they are. Right? Actually, is this another one of those sneaky hard-to-define things?
Skylines of the Future
Cities: Skylines is bound to have a sequel sooner or later. Where can this series go next, and what changes would I like to see?