Texas Saved My Life
text and photos by Carolina Norman
I don’t know what Texas must seem like to people who don’t live here. Maybe the only time you think about Texas is when one of our Republicans makes the news. Maybe you think about the border we share with Mexico. Or you learned the names of our cities from country songs. Maybe you don’t think of it at all. But if you’re lucky enough to have driven through some of the 268,000 square miles of the state that I call home, then you’ve glimpsed its particular brand of beauty; an expansive landscape that’s both rich and often understated. Texas must seem so plain and harsh from a distance. But I’ve driven on every interstate, scrambled over dirt roads, and hauled up overpasses because I was drawn to something about this place I couldn’t put in words. I still can’t. But I’ll say this: driving across Texas has saved my life.
I grew up in Austin and every year for 30 years straight, my family would pack the car, get on northbound I-35, and drive four hours along the same route, looking at the things I had stared at since childhood, to arrive at my grandparents’ house in Dallas for Christmas. The only joy I felt was when I could finally get out of the car. But in 2017, I had this sudden realization that I was an adult and I didn’t have to take the route we always took. I could do whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted, for however long it might take me, as long as I ended up in Dallas. This stunningly simple realization unleashed a kind of freedom that immediately blew my mind. I frantically started Googling alternate routes and scenic drives in the area, looking for anything–literally any one single interesting thing–and I would drive out of my way to make that mundane drive a little more exciting. That Christmas, I photographed my first historic building in Texas down a dirt road just outside Cranfills Gap. Today, I have over 10,000 photos of Texas sitting on my hard drive from four years of driving out to see some small thing that I felt drawn to for some very specific-only-to-me reason.
That Christmas was also the first time I had gotten sober. I was both learning how to love and take care of myself and in the middle of a ten-month long emotionally abusive and completely isolating relationship. I became obsessive about these trips as a means of escape. I spent all the time I could on the Texas Heritage Trails website, reading stories and looking at photos of these incredible sites. I followed every link and traced down every record. I had notebooks full of routes and ideas and every few months I would break things off with my toxic partner after taking a weekend trip by myself where I could feel the fog of that relationship lift.
Out there, I had the strength to think for myself. The freedom of the road and the insane beauty I was finding in these unassuming and overlooked places helped me clear my mind and find myself again. I felt strong and special and I was connecting with the world around me in a way I had never experienced before. I started finding beauty in things most people would never even stop to look at, much less drive for hours to go see. And the drives gave me the time and space to untangle all of the thoughts going on in my head (My anxiety was so bad that I needed a state the size of Texas to have enough space to sort out my own thoughts.) I could finally figure out how I was actually feeling about things and realize what I really wanted in any situation. Texas was becoming a type of therapy for me and I was hooked.
When I finally walked away from that debilitating relationship for good, I also broke my sobriety. I lost myself for almost two years, adrift in a very dark and lonely place. But Texas was still there. And today, I've managed to drive through every major region of Texas. My feet have touched over 200 of Texas’ 256 counties and there’s not a route within 100 miles of Austin that I haven’t been on.
In March 2020, I lost all 4 of the jobs I had and became unemployed for the first time. With no job or relationship to distract me, I went on a two-week bender fueled by fear and uncertainty, drinking alone in my apartment while everything burned...both literally and figuratively. But then, just like in 2017 when I suddenly and finally realized that I didn’t have to take the same route we always took to Dallas––that there could be more out there––I realized that I didn’t want to go down this route either. I was done.
My sobriety led me to a clear mind, more free time, and some funds I never had before. That, and a world-changing pandemic and subsequent global shut-down, led me to the deepest dive I have ever done in my research. Texas became my new addiction. The beauty I was finding, the stories I was discovering, and the confidence I was gaining was so consuming, I don’t know how I ever felt fulfilled before reaching this chapter of my life.
As I write this sentence, I am 482 days without booze, and I can say, with total certainty, that Texas saved my life. It’s given me the space, the structure, and the desire to get to know myself better as I get to know this place. Alcohol hasn’t entered my mind once since quitting a year and half ago, mostly because I’m too busy thinking about all the architecture and history this state has to offer, and which trip I’ll plan next to devour as much of it as I can. I now see beauty in brick walls and forgotten strip malls and I am so into it. Because once you can see the beauty in a brick wall, you can see the beauty in everything.
Carolina Norman is a sober bartender and fabricator in Austin, TX. Carolina loves her dogs, refried beans, Dana Scully, and architecture. She also likes to drive around the state and take pictures. Follow Carolina on Instagram @linapanth.