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Still cherishing the memory that it was from 1836 to 1845 an independent nation in its own right, TEXAS stands apart from the rest of the United States. While its sheer size - eight hundred miles from east to west and nearly a thousand from top to bottom - gives it a great geographical diversity, is firmly bound together by a shared history, culture and ideology.

Independence is key to the Texan mentality, from the overriding distrust of government - any government - to the absence of unionized labor. As the old anti-litter campaign put it, "Don't mess with Texas."

Preconceived ideas about what exactly is "Texan" are soon shattered. It's actually one of the most eclectic and cosmopolitan states in the Union and each of the major tourist destinations has its own distinct character. Hispanic San Antonio , for example, with its Mexican population and historic importance, has a laid-back feel absent from the big-city neurosis of Houston or Dallas , while trendy Austin revels in a lively music scene and intellectualism found nowhere else in the state.

Regional differences are vast. The swampy, forested east is more like Louisiana than the pretty Hill Country or the agricultural plains of the Panhandle , and the tropical Gulf Coast has little in common with the mountainous deserts of the west. Changes in climate are equally dramatic: snow is common on the Panhandle, whereas the humidity of Houston, in particular, is only made bearable by nonstop high-power air conditioning.

One thing shared by the whole of Texas is the constant boasting - everything has to be bigger and better than anywhere else. Such chauvinism is tempered both by a delight in self-parody and by the state's melting pot of cultures. The much-cited Texan friendliness is not imaginary; to be unwelcoming would simply be unpatriotic. Texas is, after all, named for a Native American word meaning friend, tejas , and a visit here, especially to the Panhandle or the Hill Country, is not for those who want to be alone.


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