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After seeking inspiration elsewhere, expatriate Texas writer experiences separation anxiety

After I graduated from college, I had dreams of writing the great American novel. I had read the classic American canon of Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck and pored over the classics of road trip writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. I found myself itching to get out on the road myself and find a new, unfamiliar place to call home. In keeping with the spirit of so many disillusioned youths who become not so content with their old stomping grounds, I knew I would not be able to find the words to my American novel in my quiet hometown of Queen City, Texas.

Queen City is a small town, hidden away in the pines of East Texas, on Texas Highway 59 between Linden and Texarkana. It’s pretty much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place, identified by the quaintness you’d see in other corners of rural America. Growing up, you could steal away to the woods and never see the same sights twice. The smell of the paper mill in Domino would waft over the town in the morning, and Friday nights always brought you to the high school stadium, where you’d go hoarse singing the fight song.

As I was putting the finishing touches on my college coursework, I started looking at other small towns in which to settle. I considered Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, the bootlegger’s paradise. But, thinking back to my coursework in American literature, I decided to anchor myself in William Faulkner’s “postage stamp of native soil,” Oxford, Mississippi. Somehow, living in someone else’s famous hometown seemed more appealing than living in my own.

Fast forward five years. Yeah, it’s a nice town. It’s got live music, shrimp and grits, and enough football culture to choke a horse. It’s got two movie theaters, a music store and a bakery that sells the best coffee and blueberry muffin I’d wager you’ll ever find. It’s got local color, it’s got history, and it’s got tradition.

But as I consider it, I’m painfully aware that these traditions are not my traditions. This history is not my history. My traditions, as well as my history, are in Texas, eating beef barbecue and my mom’s Tex-Mex, listening to music at Shooter’s Bar and Grill, and running those back roads ragged in my Silverado. My history is written on the trunks of a thousand pine trees and on the winding blacktop country roads. The blueberry muffins aren’t great, but I never liked them that much anyway. I soon realized that the adage about writing what you know is anchored in cold, hard truth.

I eventually reconnected with the woman who would later become my wife, a Texas native from Ore City. We knew each other in high school and started talking again. Call it fate, call it happenstance or call it the universe’s way of saying “I told you not to leave.” I began to realize that while I might have left Texas, the Lone Star State was definitely not done with me. We have a little girl now, and we’re trying to make our way back to Texas so our daughter can one day know the feeling of being blissfully lost in the Pineywoods.

Every place has its merits, but Oxford is too big for my taste. I come from a place where everybody knows everybody, and if you go to a barber shop, you might find yourself jawing so much you forget to get your hair cut. Take a trip to town in East Texas and you might find yourself talking to friends from a decade past. Take a trip to town in Oxford, and you find yourself surrounded by other people’s friends. There are so many things you can’t know about leaving your hometown. The most sobering reminder for me was that I had not only left a town behind, but I had also left all the folks in that town.

I put my plans to write my great story on hold after I grew up and saw what a terribly romanticized pipe dream it was. Everyone has a story to tell, and I realized that I had all but deferred my storytelling dreams until I could get back to Texas for good.

Every so often, when I get off work for the weekend, I’ll load the Jeep up, throw on some Willie Nelson, and we’ll make the seven-hour drive back to where my roots are, and where they’ll always be: the woods of East Texas, where the Tex-Mex is spicy and people still say y’all.

Word to the wise: If you’re lucky enough to grow up in Texas, stay put.

Writer Michael Pate grew up near Texarkana but lives in Oxford, Mississippi—for now.