Tangent: Surfing, Indians, “Pronounciation” and Bats (Texas for Writers #7.5)

Hey, look what I found! A map with subregions on it. You know how I talked about “Deep East Texas” or about the blackland prairie? Well, this map shows those subregions. Pretty cool, huh. This will really be helpful when I get to talk about the Panhandle Plains region. Because those sectors are pretty different–and yet similar. And that section in blue called Post Oak Savannah? It has stretches of meadow crossed with woods. It’s just that more of them are Post Oaks. And Live Oaks. Lots of live oaks. And native pecans.

This is kind of a bonus blogpost. I’m sticking in a lot of smaller things that probably aren’t big enough for their own blogpost, but that I think really need to be mentioned. Some of them are things I forgot to mention in other posts. Others are little things that I found in books. Again. And yet others are things I’ve been tripping over regularly in other posts–and probably will again.

Surfing in Texas

First, I want to talk about something I meant to mention in the post about the Texas coast, but just ran out of room. That one is already a long post as it is. So, surfing.

Yeah, Texas has a long coast, but you never really hear about surfers catching waves here. That’s because, well, frankly–surfing in Texas sucks.

Surf lessons at Surfside beach

Sorry, all you Texas promoters, but it does. Because the surf along the Texas coast is very gentle. It’s mild. Some days, there isn’t any surf at all. The water is like glass almost all the way in. You usually get a few waves a couple of feet from shore, and most days, there’s a little more surf out to about 100 yards or so. The baby surf in the picture here is pretty typical. The waves just aren’t that big.

This is because the slope of the Gulf of Mexico as it’s coming up to Texas is very shallow. You don’t reach deep water until you’re 50 to 70 miles offshore. Surfing-worthy waves are created by deep water suddenly reaching a shallow shore. On the Texas coast, there’s nothing sudden about it. It’s shallow a long, long way out. The Gulf shore is fairly shallow and gradual all the way around to Florida, but off Texas, it’s the shallowest and most gradual.

What this means is that the Texas coast is fabulous for families, for swimming and for learning to surf. The surf will not beat you to death. Frankly, while I’ve never actually been to the beach in California, just watching movies of the surf there makes me think I would hate it. My sister–who has been swimming in the Pacific, said it knocked her down, rolled her around and beat her up. We both love swimming on Texas beaches. You can get out beyond the surf and just rock on the rolling glassy waves. It’s peaceful, the way the water picks you up and sets you gently down again.

Wake surfing in the wake of big cargo ships was invented in Bolivar Pass (north end of Galveston Island, on the way up the Houston Ship Channel), because the regular surf is so sucky. So–if you’re just learning to surf, you might want to try South Padre Island (the surf is a little better down there, I think). If you have small children or enjoy swimming without getting battered, you might like Texas beaches. If you are a big-time surfer, then no. You’ll probably hate it here. The rest of you? Come on. The beach is just fine.

Indians in Texas 

This next little bit came from a book I read. It was talking about how the B&B in this little Texas ranch town was furnished with blankets woven by Indians native to the area. It was a contemporary novel, which made it sound like the Indians were still hanging around. And a few pages later, the book specifically mentioned “Comanche-woven blankets.” Which made me choke on my Coke Zero.

Why, you ask? Because Comanches didn’t weave blankets. They lived in tipis and everything they owned was portable. They were quintessential nomadic plains Indians. They had no crafts that were not based on the buffalo. They didn’t even wear feathered headdresses until after they were confined to reservations in Oklahoma.

Which kind of brings us back to the idea of “local Indians.” There are from my admittedly brief research, three Indian reservations in Texas. The Alabama-Coushatta reservation is in Liberty County, near Livingston in Deep East Texas. There’s a Kickapoo reservation right on the Rio Grande south of Eagle Pass in Maverick County of about 120 acres, and there’s a Tigua Pueblo reservation in El Paso. None of the three is anywhere near the central Texas area where I finally decided this particular ranch town was located. Most of the rest of the natives in Texas were squashed into Oklahoma. The Comanche went there–after most of them were killed in the Red River Wars. The Tonkawa were sent there, even though they sided with the Texans and helped fight against the Comanche and other Plains Indians in those wars. And in Oklahoma, those Plains Indians ganged up on the Tonkawa and pretty much wiped them out.

George Catlin painting, approx. 1834

Admittedly, I already knew there weren’t many reservations in Texas. The Kickapoo Nation wasn’t recognized by the state until 1977. I actually vaguely remember that. And how small their reservation is. And I already knew that Comanche didn’t weave blankets. Not only were they nomads, but, as my friend with a Comanche grandmother always said–they were too mean. I looked up what I was pretty certain I already knew, to be sure–and I easily found the confirmation. Cherokee weave blankets. Navajo weave blankets. There may be a few other tribes. But unless there are contemporary Comanche artists who have decided to take up weaving as their art, the Comanche do not traditionally weave blankets. Or make pots, or weave baskets. Nor do most of the other nomadic tribes of the plains.


This brings us indirectly around to the way Texans pronounce things. Because a number of towns and places in Texas have Indian names.

I tend to tell people plainly, right up front that I don’t speak English. I speak Texan. And when it comes to some of our place names–the ones from Spanish and other languages, such as the Indians’– We don’t speak our own language the way everybody else does. What makes you think we’ll do any better with someone else’s? The Texas accent is distinctive and we are unapologetic about it. 

San Antonio is in Bexar County. Not pronounced Beh-HAR, as it would be in Spanish, but like the aspirin. BAY-er County. The Pedernales River is the Perd’n-Alice. The town of Refugio, Texas was pronounced Re-FYUR-io, last time I heard anybody say it. I’ve known a man whose first name is Refugio–he goes by Fu.

And I’m not sure where they got the pronunciation of Mexia, Texas. There’s a state school for the mentally handicapped in Mexia, which is in the Crosstimbers some distance east of Waco. Anyway, in Spanish, it would be Meh-HEE-ah, and you’d think that Texans would mispronounce it as MEX-ee-a. But we don’t. It’s Ma-HAY-ah.

My neighbors are the AlvaRAHdos. The town near Fort Worth is Al-va-RAY-da. Both spelled Alvarado, but different. I went to high school with the Na-VAHR-ro boys. But the county Corsicana is in is Na-VAIR-ra. Both spelled Navarro. The country is IT-a-ly. The town in Texas is IT-ly. That middle A is completely gone. And those folks in Itly are tough.

Lamesa is La-MEE-sa. But Quanah is KWA-nah. And while pronouncing the first syllable of Waxahachie like the substance candles are made of is tolerated, it’s really WAHX-a-Hatch-ie. It took me a while to learn how Quitaque was pronounced, since I wasn’t sure whether it was a Spanish name or Comanche. I think it’s Indian of some kind, probably Comanche, and it’s pronounced Kitty-Kway. It’s up in the Plains area, south of Clarendon. They had the only drive-in theater for a while, until the one in Clarendon was re-opened. Waco comes from the Huaco Indians who used to live there at the confluence of the Bosque and Brazos Rivers. But we changed the pronunciation of HUAH-co to WAY-co. Possibly to cut down on the incidence of “wacky” comments. There’s a creek named Tehuacana, that’s pronounced Tawakoni, like the tribe in the map above. So maybe the Spaniards changed the spelling. And Tonkawa Falls is somewhere between Waco and Temple.

Of course, for writers, it doesn’t really matter how these place names are pronounced. They’re still spelled the same. But it’s something that you can use. You can have the out-of-towner fixing to go over to MEX-ee-a, and nobody knows what she’s talking about. Or just trying to figure out how to say Waxahachie. Or Nacogdoches. (Nack-a-DOE-chess) (Not nearly as tough as Natchitoches, LA– which is NACK-a-tish)

I lived for 20 years on a street that dead-ended into Towash Road which ran alongside Towash Creek, and never did quite figure out how to say it. I think mostly I used “TOE-wash,” but I have been told it’s everything from that to “Tow” rhyming with cow and “ash” like the fire residue, to “to-WASH” because people used to go to the creek to wash things. I kind of wonder if anybody knows…

Mines, bats, and caves

Austin, Congress Street Bridge

Now we come to another item gleaned from a book. I don’t think the author necessarily got this wrong, per se. But I found it rather troubling. She had bats swarming out of an abandoned mine on this central Texas ranch.

Now, bats do swarm in Texas.  Austin is locally famous for the large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that live under the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin and all fly out to feed at dusk. People gather on the bridge at dusk just to watch the bats. Austin’s minor league hockey team is the Ice Bats.

Bats are not good when they get inside your attic. The Donley County courthouse smelled funny until they got the bats out–but the Girl Scouts built bat houses and hung them up in the trees on the courthouse square so the bats would have a place to live. (Don’t know if the bats ever used them–but they banished them from the library attic too, so maybe they needed other places to live.) We actually like bats, because of all the bugs they eat. Believe me, Texas has a plenitude of bugs.

Several of the many caves in Texas were discovered when bats flew out of them at twilight. It was just the juxtaposition of mines and bats that made me uncomfortable. But I suppose the author didn’t have room to put in much that would have it make more sense to me.

Entrance to Bracken Cave

Mines–the hole-in-the-ground kind–are rare in Texas. We have canyons that are green with copper, but not enough to mine. Plenty of rust-red dirt full of iron oxide. But not enough to mine. Along with all that oil, there’s quite a bit of coal. And in the 1800s and early 1900s, they did mine it in a crescent that runs along the Edwards Plateau. A few strip mines were dug in the 1950s-70s, but by now, all of those mines of whatever variety have been abandoned. Not enough coal to be profitable. There were also uranium mines, south and a little east of the coal mine region, but those were primarily surface mines. They’re abandoned, too. Now.

Thing is, many of those mines are more than just dangerous to fall into. They have gases, the kind that will kill you if you breathe them. So, when an author talks about a mine in Texas, I want a little more justification for using it than just the fact that it’s there. A little explanation about the historic coal mining. One sentence would have helped. Because historically, there just haven’t been that many, and I’d think the ones that are there would kill the bats. (Or maybe not. Their guano gives off gas, and they seem to breathe that just fine…)

It would have been so much easier just to use a cave. In the area where this book was apparently set, there are a whole lot of caves already, and most of them have bats. The cave in the picture, Bracken Cave, is the proud home of the largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in the state. (It’s in Comal County, home of New Braunfels, the Comal River and the original Schlitterbahn Water Park, not far north of San Antonio.)  One more cave, private to those on the ranch, would have been a lot more reasonable to us Texans than a mine.

I will probably have more blogposts filled with tangential stuff. Like basements. I need to talk about basements sometime. And weather, as opposed to climate. And schools. And…

These posts aren’t meant to be comprehensive or definitive. I’m sharing what I know about Texas in hopes that it will help writers realize there’s more to Texas that what you see in movies or on TV (which is mostly California).

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