Don't hate Texas (or any state) before you visit

Staying open-minded to travel reaps rewards

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson performs at The Backyard Live Oak Amphitheater in Austin, Texas, on Sunday April 28, 2013. (Jay Janner, McClatchy-Tribune)

Quick: What's your least favorite U.S. state?

I recently asked a couple dozen people that question, as curious about the states they'd mention as to whether they'd name a state at all. Most answered. The leading vote getter was little surprise: Texas.

The antipathy for the largest state in the Lower 48 seems obvious, but evidence is ample. For instance, in a poll of 1,603 people last year by Business Insider, Texas easily took the top spot (or bottom, if you prefer) in response to the questions, "Which state is your least favorite?" and "Which state would you like to see kicked out of America?"

Texas' healthy self-regard — and the rest of the nation's distaste for that self-regard — is mostly amusing and seemingly good-enough-natured. But after hearing yet another bit of knee-jerk disparagement for that state recently, I felt an urge not to defend Texas as much as to argue against the notion that there are places beneath us or not worth exploring.

After six years of travel writing, I've learned that the greatest discoveries can come in places where we expect the least. (And that's why I've been meaning to get back to the thick clouds and rolling plains of eastern Colorado since happening upon that stunning landscape during a drive to Denver).

As far as Texas goes, I've had memorable times in Marfa (a quirky, artsy high-desert outpost), Big Bend National Park (as stunning as any of our national parks), Austin (the perfect hybrid of food, music and college town progressivism), the Hill Country (warm people and wonderful barbecue in all directions) and Houston (a diverse and underrated city). But more important is the larger point: We miss out on experience and knowledge by dismissing a place based solely on what we think we know about it.

Lucy Nashed, press secretary for the Texas governor's office, which includes the state's Division of Economic Development and Tourism, chuckled when I asked her about the bias reflected in Business Insider's survey.

"We realize people might have a preconceived notion about what our state is, but we do our best to get across that it's a great place to be," Nashed said. "We have a lot of pride in our state, and I think that comes across. Hopefully, anyone who comes to the state learns that and can appreciate it."

She ticked off her own list of Texas highlights: "Six hundred miles of coastline. Six of the (nation's) 20 largest cities, and all that goes into that with food and shopping and cultural arts. State and national parks. The live-music capital of the world in Austin. There are a lot of things people might not know about Texas, and that's our focus."

There is plenty we don't know about most places, and it makes them all the more worth exploring. (I long to take a road trip across North Dakota precisely because I have no idea what is there.)

That's why my favorite answer to the "least favorite state" question came from the person who replied, "How could I know when I haven't been to them all?"

jbnoel@tribune.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

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