A Tale Of Three Cities In The Middle Of America

From ranches to space centres to beer trails and the Rocky Mountains, writer Sopan Joshi visits Houston, Austin and Denver to find out what makes them tick
The Denver skyline with the Rocky Mountains in the background
The Denver skyline with the Rocky Mountains in the backgroundFlickr: Jeffery Hudson

The term "space cowboy" comes from the eponymous Steve Miller Band song of 1969. To understand what the phrase actually means however, you have to visit the middle of America and experience the mind-boggling transition from watching cowboys at a ranch to gazing at moon rocks.

As it is for many visitors, the US for me meant the Pacific and Atlantic coasts with a vast something in the middle surrounding the Grand Canyon. I'd travelled up and down the two coasts but had never wandered inland and I had my doubts on whether it was worth the trouble.

The 1890s Davis House at the George Ranch Historical Park
The 1890s Davis House at the George Ranch Historical Park Wikimedia Commons: Carol M. Highsmith


My first day in Texas began to clear up those doubts. You don't have to be fond of cowboy movies to be charmed by the George Ranch Historical Park which is 50km south-west of Houston, Texas. It has been helmed by four generations of the Jones family who have restored the houses to present an animated account of life in times past; even the employees dress up in period clothing.

The guided tour is especially popular among children. The tour ended with the Saturday Historic Lunch, which on this occasion centred around the food of the poorer sharecroppers. There was fried chicken gizzard (stomach muscles of the chicken), dirty rice prepared with leftover meats and offal, and cracklin' cornbread made with pork rind. It's not the kind of food you would advertise but it made for good dinner conversation.

The Space Center Houston
The Space Center HoustonWikimedia Commons: John Cummings

Our return to the city became a back-to-the-future affair when we landed at Space Center Houston in the afternoon. From horses and longhorns to posing for photos behind a space suit and poring over the world's largest collection of moon rocks - all in a matter of hours.

I wouldn't advise visiting both these places on the same day because it took some serious reorientation of time and space. What soothed the mind at the end of such a hectic day was the Kemah Boardwalk, a seaside walkway that has emerged as a food district and is interspersed with entertainment parks overlooking Galveston Bay.

Kemah Boardwalk
Kemah BoardwalkFlickr: Sergiy Galyonkin


Houston is the fourth largest American city and has many attractions as befits its status. But the real Texas-sized surprise is Austin, the state capital. Half a day here is enough to understand why it's the preferred place for young couples building their life. Its clement weather means it's the preferred location for retirees and students enlisting at the University of Texas at Austin, among other well-regarded educational institutions.

But that was well before the digital boom. Today it's a hotspot for technology companies and Austin is where smart people work at smart jobs. In fact, there is a place here called Silicon Hills which has daily flights to San Francisco nicknamed 'Nerd Birds'.

The city of Austin
The city of AustinFlickr: Randy von Liski

There are still pockets of industry in the city of Austin though Houston has the manufacturing sector covered. Austin makes do with its factories, ports and fishing economies. The smart and the enlightened like to eat well so naturally Austin is brimming with restaurants, which in many cases reflect the character of the districts. Food vans are ubiquitous.

That's the other unusual thing about Austin: each of its localities has its own character. New money has not gentrified it inside out, not yet anyway. Its geek-turned-hipster vibe might resonate with Silicon Valley but this is America's South. The city has a natural old-world ease and it doesn't take any effort to relax in Austin.

A shop at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin
A shop at the South by Southwest Festival in AustinWikimedia Commons: Paul Hudson

The city markets itself as the live music capital of the world. Restaurants book their musicians well in advance and special Austin-themed albums are easy to find. There is a year-long schedule of festivals, the most notable being the film and music extravangaza South by Southwest. It personifies the Austin Independent Business Alliance's slogan 'Keep Austin Weird', which the city has adopted as its unofficial motto.


Austin's rival in luring the smart and the young is Denver, Colorado, which has several universities in the area and is among the fastest growing cities in the country. But there are some striking differences between the two.

At an elevation of 1,609m above mean sea level, Denver is a dry place and people find the altitude a little hard on their breathing. It also gets quite cold what with the snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains casting their shadow over the city. But that's also a big part of the allure of the city because Denver is a magnet to those who like the the outdoors and adventure.

Denver's Union Station
Denver's Union StationWikimedia Commons: Darkshark0159

Denver grew into a major city due to its location. It was a transportation hub that linked the Midwest and the West Coast. The city's fortunes have risen and fallen with trends in the mining and energy industries but the quality of life here attracts skilled young people, which then brings in big corporations. We got a taste of its eclectic nature in the most peculiar vegetarian restaurant I've ever visited where liberties were taken with various types of cuisines. The results however, were surprisingly fresh.

Denver keeps you walking. During the day it doesnt have the kind of buzz Austin has because people here mostly work in offices. It's in the evening that the city comes alive.

The Stanley Hotel
The Stanley HotelWikimedia Commons: Miguel Vieira

We joined a famous beer trail where my guide was a writer who had moved to the city back in his hippie days. The real high, though, came in the Rockies. With a packed breakfast of bagels and cream cheese in the van, we reached Rocky Mountain National Park in the morning and set off on a snowshoe hike. The trail was blessed with clear skies and tall trees, the kind of landscape that is familiar from the photos of Ansel Adams.

On the way back to Denver, we stopped at another picturesque location made famous by another artist. The Stanley Hotel is where writer Stephen King spent a night with his wife when there were no other guests around. He had a nightmare of his three year old son running around in the desolate corridors and upon waking up, King had the idea for The Shining. His famous novel was adapted into an even more famous film directed by Stanley Kubrick.

The Rocky Mountains
The Rocky MountainsWikimedia Commons: Khoshhat

From the serenity of the Rockies there was only one place our excursion could conclude at: following the trail of the Colorado River to the Grand Canyon. We took a helicopter ride through the canyon from Las Vegas where we found gambling, fine dining, the High Roller and the Cirque du Soleil.

The middle of America is a wide, wide palette.

Getting There

There are no directs flights from India to Texas or Colorado so consider transiting through the Gulf countries and Europe, or flying directly to New York from New Delhi or Mumbai.

Apply online for a tourist or business visa at least six to eight weeks before you plan to travel. Do not book plane tickets or hotels until you have a visa.

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