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Texas As A Unit Of Measure

By W. F. Strong

Tom Hanks in the movie “Cast Away” was stranded all alone on a deserted pacific island. He was the lone survivor of a plane crash. The seriousness of his situation sunk in as he did the math in his head. He explained radial geometry to Wilson (his Volleyball friend) as he illustrated their predicament on a stone wall. He concluded, impressively, that since they went 400 miles out of their way to circumvent the storm the search area would be (400 miles squared x pi) 500,000 square miles. And he thought a moment and added, dejectedly, “it’s twice the size of Texas!”

Texas is often used as a unit of measure like that – in movies and in the real world. Exactly 30 years ago this week, Texas Congressman Mickey Leland’s plane disappeared over Ethiopia. It took a week for a massive search to find the crash site. During that week people around the world couldn’t believe that they couldn’t find the plane, despite dozens of aircraft looking for it. A frustrated Search Commander explained to the media, “We are looking for a needle in a haystack. The haystack is half the size of Texas.”

More recently many a news report warned about the growing environmental disaster of a floating island of plastic trash out in the Pacific, which is twice the size of Texas. And this is not just for U.S. consumption. Worldwide it seems to be a comparison that provides clarity for people because most people around the world know at least one thing about Texas – it’s BIG.

Even Alaska uses Texas to explain its size. “We’re more than twice the size of Texas,” they say. Of course one of those Texases is mostly snow and ice.  Just kidding Alaska. As far as states go, we’re brothers. BFFs.

People have a good deal of fun on the Internet laying Texas over other countries and regions of the world. It’s bigger than Spain, bigger than France, bigger than Germany, twice the size of England and bigger than Japan.

Texas was even used as a unit of measure in relation to Pluto. When Pluto was kicked out of the Solar System (as a planet anyway) and demoted to a dwarf planet, there were people who said, as justification,  “It’s smaller than Texas!” That was truly an exaggeration. As the Austin American-Statesman pointed out in 2015, Pluto is has almost twice the diameter of Texas, if you use the state’s widest point, which is north to south, and Pluto is 24 times larger than Texas by land area. Still, interesting that was used as a unit of measure even way there in space, or 4.6 billion Texases away.

Even we Texans like to use Texas distances to illustrate things and amuse ourselves. We enjoy noting that El Paso is closer to the Pacific Ocean beaches of San Diego than it is to Beaumont. Brownsville is closer to Mexico City than it is to Dallas. Reminds me that a friend from Chicago once had a conference in El Paso to attend. He decided to take that chance to get a good look at Texas. He flew into Dallas, rented a car and enthusiastically started driving to El Paso. He said I knew it would be long drive,” but after driving about 3 hours I got to Abilene and was immediately depressed by the sign I saw there: El Paso 444 miles.”

We Texans know that the first day of a driving vacation to anyplace outside of Texas will be devoted to getting out of Texas. Maybe our version of the Chinese saying should be, “A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a long drive to the border.”

We do have fun finding all the ways that border cities are closer to Chicago or Denver or Nashville than they are to other parts of the state, which is why we measure distance in hours more often than miles. And most Texans think we are closer to heaven than most anywhere else – we’re God’s Country, they say. This time of year, though, it often feels like we are closer to – Well I’m out of time. Gotta run. I’m W.F. Strong and these are stories from Texas. Some of them are true.

Sure, Texas Is Big – But It Used to Be Even Bigger

Texans have a kind of proverb that goes like this:

“Driving across Texas isn’t a trip; it’s a damn career.”

Texas is big, no doubt about that. But it used to be a lot bigger – about a fourth bigger. When Texas joined the United States in 1845, Texas’ borders (and shape) were quite different.

The northern boundary of Texas in those days stretched all the way up into what is today southern Wyoming. It´s true. In those days, the northernmost town in Texas was not Dalhart, it was Rawlins. You think it’s a long way from Brownsville to Dalhart now – at 860 miles – try 1,400 miles to Rawlins. In 1845 a trip like that would have been measured in seasons, not days. We’ll leave in early spring and get there before winter sets in.

Texas used to have a panhandle for the panhandle. It stretched north of the present day border and passed through prime Colorado Rockies real estate (including Vail) into Wyoming. They called that the stovepipe because that is what it looked like – a long skinny stovepipe, snaking northward. You can still find vestiges of Texas up there in that part of Wyoming. For instance, there is a creek up there named Texas Creek.

Texas used to include what is today the panhandle of Oklahoma. That territory is comprised of three counties. One of them is still named Texas County. So some Oklahomans still live in Texas. Well, Texas County, anyway.

The southwestern tip of Kansas was claimed by Texas. Dodge City was in Texas. Glad to know that. “Gunsmoke” always seemed like a Texas series. We know that Marshal Matt Dillon was born in San Antonio. His father was a Texas Ranger. It’s all coming together.

New Mexico used to be about half its current size because Santa Fe and Taos and all the eastern part of the state was Texas. Texas was so big in 1845 that if you had put a hinge on the northernmost part and flipped it northward, Brownsville would have been in Northern Canada next to Hudson Bay. Don’t think those Brownsvillians would have liked trading the tropics for the tundra, but that would be the result.

If you had flipped Texas southward, the people of Rawlins would have been in Peru. The East-West boundaries would have been about the same as they are today. Still, flip Texas eastward and you will have the El Pasoans trading their margaritas for mint juleps in Georgia. Flip it westward and the Beaumantians will be hanging ten with California surfer dudes.

So what happened to all our land? The U.S. government bought it in 1850. For $10 million they bought our claims to our Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma – it came to 6.7 cents an acre. Seems like we sold out cheap, but we desperately needed the money then. And remember that $10 million in 1850 is $300 million in today’s dollars, which is almost enough to buy a nice vacation home in Vail.

But, as I said, we really needed the money. We had a state to build and the only true assets we had in those days were land – and a tough, hardened people made of unbreakable spirits. So we sold the land and paid off debts and got a much more appealing shape to the state, a shape that fits nicely on t-shirts.

So even though we sold off our lands, we are nonetheless no slouch of a state, especially when we drive it. We still measure distance in time. We still feel like we are crossing an enormous frontier when driving I-10 through West Texas or I-69 to the southern border. And this old Texas saying is still valid:

“The sun has riz; the sun has set; and here I is in Texas yet.”

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.