Explore USA

Houston Calling

SHORT of moving to Houston, Texas (and an average of 200 people a day do just that) it’s hard to imagine how you could begin to see it all. It’s not just that it’s such a big city  – although it is the fourth largest in the USA -or such a sprawling city with 10 major business districts, it’s that it’s such a diverse, quirky, upbeat city which seems to have spawned an awesome number of unmissable attractions, many of which you’ll nevertheless have to miss in the length of an ordinary holiday.So it’s a question of priorities.

Because I was there at the same time as the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, that was top of my list. Run by thousands of volunteers, it’s the biggest rodeo in the world, attracting a million or more spectators and raising multimillions for scholarships and educational programs. In Houston’s vast Astrodome, the world’s top broncobusters, ropers, bare back riders and steer wrestlers compete for the rodeo circuit’s biggest purses. (Even the losers win. In each event, the competitor with the worst luck, as chosen by audience applause, limps off with the consolation of free air travel from Continental Airlines! ) Afterwards, the sawdust is swept up and the best country music entertainers take over the arena. it could be anyone from Destiny’s Child to Garth Brooks.

A parade through downtown Houston kicks off the event with marching bands, mounted officials, chuck wagons, horse drawn carriages plus hundreds of the 6,000 or so trail riders who converge on Houston for the rodeo from up to 400 miles away. Add tens of thousands of spectators, balloons, clowns, flags, the occasional skittering horse and dumped rider, and there’s wild excitement in the air. It’s a time when Texans, and particularly Houstonions, celebrate their cowboy roots. 

For them, part of the fun is sporting their best Western gear. For this visitor, part of the fun was gaping at the outfits. One perk of being a Texan, male or female, is the right, and the nerve, to wear fancy boots and a big brimmed hat, jeans and a fringed leather jacket on a city street, in a restaurant, in a nightclub any time you like, but always during rodeo.

If you should be tempted to join in, there are plenty of Western clothing stores where you can transform yourself, but watch the price tags. I saw crocodile boots for $6,500, (customdesigned ones can cost a very great deal more ), a Stetson cowboy hat for $3,200 and an 18-carat-gold and ruby studded hatband to dress it up with at $2,600.

But who’s counting? After all, thanks largely to oil, Houston is a rich city .

It didn’t start out rich, though. It wasn’t until 1901 that oil gushed up at Spindletop. Three-quarters of a century earlier, Houston had begun as a hard-sell development scheme marketed by two speculators, the Allen brothers. Having acquired over 6,000 acres of swampy bayou headlands they managed to convince land-starved people from elsewhere in the States and from Europe to come there to settle. You can still see for yourself the kind of land that was on offer by visiting the Armand Bayou Nature Reserve.

Miraculously untouched, between an industrial park and the Space Centre, lie these 2,500 primitive acres of Texas, an extraordinary ecological time capsule.

The reserve is criss-crossed with walking trails, one of which leads to a turnof-the-last-century farmhouse. You can wander in forests of oak, elm and ash to the bayou where blue herons nest and alligators drift, their eyes just above the green water. They share the habitat with hundreds of species of bird, fish, insects, mammals and reptiles, including some impressive snakes. The centre also preserves one of the country’s last remaining prairies, 900 acres of grass and wildflowers where, after 200 years, bison can again be seen. The reserve was recently presented with two young steers, rare pure-blooded descendants of the vast Great Southern Herd of American Bison that roamed the area thousands of years ago.

From time capsule to space capsule is just a matter of a half-mile in Houston. That’s all the distance there is between the haunting, lost world of Armand Bayou and the glitzy, Disneydesigned visitor centre of Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre. It’s Houston’s number one attraction and you’ll need to budget at least a full day to see it. In fact, nearby hotels offer a discount for overnights and, particularly if you have children with you, that’s an idea worth considering. A 90-minute guided tram tour leaves the centre at regular intervals during the day, wending its way through the facilities of Nasa. In addition to actual space craft like the Gemini and Apollo capsules, you’ll see Mission Control and the Space Environment Simulation Laboratory where astronauts may be in training for an upcoming mission.

Back at the visitor’s centre, you can touch a real moon rock, explore a fullscale mock-up of a shuttle cockpit, watch a demonstration of daily life in space, check out the space suits worn on previous missions or blast off at a space journey film in the largest IMAX theatre in Texas. Telephone for the schedule and you could time your visit to meet some astronauts in person at a briefing session.

Clever interactive exhibits in the Kids Space Place let them experience the sensations of jumping on the moon, flying the shuttle or launching a rocket.

And you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it, either.