Grand Falls, Unassuming

Grand Falls, Unassuming

By Alexandra Chasse

August 2, 2007: All Hat and No Cattle                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

So I’m in Houston now. I moved from the city that (by some regards) is the Capital of the World (Washington, DC) to the city that thinks it should be the capital of the world (by others’ regards, anyway; Exxon’s recent earnings are said to surpass the GDPs of a few small countries put together). What has been funny about moving here is the way people who know me have asked the exact same question with the exact same (thinly veiled) scepticism in the their voice—“So, Texas. Um, are you looking forward to it?” This question has invariably been followed by predictable jokes about how good I’ll look in the boots, hat and spurs worn by (according to non-Texans) 90% of Lone Star State residents; or how fantastically cute my son will sound when he learns to say stuff like, “Y’all ain’t seen no big truck lahk the wun in Dale’s yard, tell you whut.”

Based on these comments I’ve come to realize that the entity of Texas is vastly known for little more than its stereotypical fixtures—big pickup trucks, big longhorns, big cotton-candy hairdos, guns, and the home of a certain Yale grad who owns a ranch somewhere outside Waco. And while Texas does have these things in healthy numbers, Houston itself is not what you’d necessarily call a pokey Texan city. It’s huge—and per capita, there are more glossy places to dine-out in Houston (including an unusually high number of sushi joints) than anywhere else in the US. Houston universities rank among some of the best in the country; let’s not forget either that it’s the birthplace of NASA. And while there may be people on my street who own guns (as if I’d ask, people), the first thing three neighbours made clear to me is that they make great cookies and have sophisticated pastimes. All things considered, I’m starting to see that Houston—and Texas in general, more so than any other place I’ve lived in—is a bit misunderstood.

Texas, like me, kind of grew up in the sticks. Yet parts of Texas, also like me, have endeavoured to evolve from its folksy, humble beginnings toward a well-manicured, cosmopolitan identity. We’re weird yet familiar bedfellows, Houston and I. It wants to be a world-class city, and I strive to be a worldly city girl. Yet there is one thing Houston can do better than I can: throw its arms open to the world, while proudly flashing its country roots. It’s a trick I’ve had difficulty playing, and I can’t say I wasn’t slightly envious of this mesmerizing duality when I visited the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last March.

Houston skyline


Sure, the Rodeo may draw out the tacky cowboy in its visitors (picture a hockey game- now remove everyone’s toques and poutine and replace them with 50-gallon hats and corn dogs), but otherwise the event has maintained its authenticity and has avoided becoming (as the Texan saying goes) all hat and no cattle. Beyonce may headline the evening concert, but I’ll be danged if the Rodeo Houston Super Series Championship right before her doesn’t attract at least as many spectators.

But being able to enjoy both (for only $16!) isn’t what I meant when I said I was envious of Texan duality. Rather, it’s a singular image I retain from when I was in Reliant Park stadium. Kurt and I had just left the merchandise section when we decided to get a closer look at the livestock show. Only when we got closer to the temporary stalls did we realize that all the people minding the cattle were kids. As in, country kids who’d no doubt been driven in to the big city from ranches deep in Texas to show off their impressive beasts. One girl in particular caught my eye: exhausted from hours of preparation followed by hours of waiting before her moment in the ring, she’d decided to curl up and take a nap- against her steer. It struck me as funny, that she could find herself in the Big City and still be so utterly Country. At her age, I would’ve done anything not to come off as Country, and I sometimes still feel that way.

My own mother made allusion to my country girl background at the dinner table earlier this year, something which made me wince. It’s not that I’m ashamed of having grown up surrounded by potato fields and not much else; it’s just that this moniker carries with it the implication that it’s how I see myself. And frankly, I don’t, or at least not now. Of course, there are country moments which I’ll always savour. Like the time my sister and I, along with a friend, spent two and a half days picking the field next to our house clean of tiny wild strawberries, just because my mother had bet we probably couldn’t pick enough to make a pie (in fact we picked enough for two). And that time we left with my father at the crack of dawn in late November for a trip to his woodlot deep in the northwest Madawaska forest. My toes were numb by mid-morning, but the cook stove hot dogs for lunch, and the late afternoon sunlight gradually giving way to evening shadows creeping up the birch trees from the snow-dusted ground, made me slightly sad to leave when the work was done. Or the bonfires we had every fall in our backyard, when we sat and watched the pre-winter brush we’d cleared earlier in the day dance graciously as smoke and embers. We could count on big bags of chips, mackinaws that kept our backs toasty, and my dad playing the same prank every year (excusing himself to go look for the dog or fetch more chips, only to start creeping back moments later and jump out of the dark to scare the marshmallows out of us. It worked almost every time, save for when we got older and returned the favour.)

Grand Falls, NB
But these bucolic memories are tempered by others that recall the tedium of growing up in a rural area: itching isolation, boredom that seemed at times endless, and frustration with the conservatism that lingers in small towns. I was often convinced—in both work and play—that I was simply biding time before my flight to the city would finally take place. Honestly, who can blame a thirteen-year-old for overlooking the value of working in a quiet wood?

As I stood watching this young cowgirl snooze against her bovine friend, I wondered if she would find herself, years later, firmly entrenched in her big city ways and remembering how the simple stuff—like strawberry pies, bonfires, and sleeping against cows—used to be so entertaining. I’m guessing the world will soon open up to her too, and I wonder how much longer she’ll stick to the farm once she realizes how entertaining life beyond the ranch can be. Will she still be able to flash her country roots? Or, when asked where’s she’s from, will she even mention her hometown’s name when she says “not far from Houston?”

Not that I’m selling her roots, or mine, short. Regardless of where she ends up, the cow-sleeper will probably always hold a soft spot for the town she was raised in. I myself can’t wait to get back to New Brunswick for my yearly vacation; I’m eager to take my son for a drive up near Grand Falls area, where hopefully we’ll be able to watch some of the big potato harvesters at work. If I’m lucky, there will finally be someplace on Broadway Boulevard that serves a good cappuccino; if not, the Tim’s on Main Street, where we can see all the old-timers come in for their three o’clock coffee, will do just fine.

Come to think of it, my sister usually helps one of her former employers pile her winter firewood when summer comes to an end. I wonder if they’d mind an extra pair of hands this year.

Alexandra Chasse was born and grew up in Grand Falls, NB, before completing her undergrad studies in 1997 at Mount Allison University. Since then, she’s lived in South Korea, Slovakia, Germany, “The South” (Alabama and Georgia) and Washington, DC. She now lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Kurt, and son, JM, a toddler who can say “chicken and fries” in both English and French. Her twin sister Rebekah pokes fun at her French for sounding more and more “international” as she drifts farther from home. “I count my old apartment on Wilmot Court, in Fredericton, as one of the best places I’ve ever lived.”