Texas. The Lone Star State.
The place where wearing cowboy hats, eating BBQ and carrying a gun are virtually mandatory. As is flying the state flag directly under the American flag on every flag pole. Home to a blazing sun, oil fields, rattlesnakes, The Alamo and a potential border wall.
I’m not quite sure how I’m going to fit in here.
Even if you haven’t ever really closely studied a map of the USA, I’m still betting that you are aware that Texas is a large state. Pretty gargantuan actually. It is the second largest state in the country covering over 268,000 square miles.
We are entering Texas from the south east, along the I-10, almost the southern-most road you can take into the state. This also means that in driving west across the state, we will be crossing pretty much the widest part of the state possible. We are going to be covering a heck of a lot of miles to be sure, so we better get used to the view.
We are cheerfully and thoroughly welcomed into Texas by a jaunty, helpful lady at the Visitors Centre, just a mile over the border. She beckons me over to the desk and asks me where we are headed. “West” I tell her. She nods thoughtfully and before I can blink, she has produced a state highway map, a handful of brochures and has her fluorescent marker pen out and is drawing a driving route and circling destinations we will want to stop at. She explains to us that Texas has these helpful roadside pull-ins where we can spend up to 24 hours (yes, free overnight parking) and also gives us a guide to the state parks to camp. Finally, when we select a route we think we will be taking, she then directs me to all of the relevant leaflets on the shelves behind me, giving me specific directions where to find them “The unit to your right, third shelf down, sixth brochure in from the left for the Observatory”. Yes, she knows her stuff.
Not only does the centre have highly informed, helpful and useful staff, it also has two other things going for it – first, the ‘Welcome to Texas’ road sign is close enough to the centre you can actually get a picture standing by it. This doesn’t always happen; usually I have to snap one from the window as we fly by. Second, if you walk through the centre and out of the back doors, you will find yourself standing in the Blue Elbow Swamp, with an attractive boardwalk to stroll along.
Loops and I manage a mere five minutes on the boardwalk before the blistering mid-day heat does us in. Still, I love the fact that you have an immersive natural experience the moment you enter the state.
Texas I-10 Westbound Visitor Centre – I salute thee. You have an excellent facility.
We have another pleasant surprise in the car park; we are slightly accosted by a lady who seems a little nervous as she sidles up to the bus, but turns out to be a Bluebird owner – their Bird is further down in the car park, hidden from view. She has come to introduce herself. It ends up with us having a brief impromptu tour of their bus while we exchange contact information and general bus talk.
What a welcome to Texas!
As we are coming off of a three day stint of dry camping, our first port of call in the state is an RV park, the Port Arthur RV resort in fact. We’ve booked two days here to allow for washing of clothes, charging of appliances, updating of videos and blog. In short, we plan to take a rest from the hustle and bustle of sightseeing and driving.
We are also stationary because meteorologist Loops, who always has his beady eye on the weather, has proclaimed there is going to be a storm. A rather large storm apparently, which this whole southern region is known for during this portion of the calendar. He seems rather worried about it. I wonder if we are going to be swept up in a tornado.
It turns out he was right on the storm front. At approximately 2am in the morning, the wind picks up to epic proportions, buffeting the side of the bus to the point I start to get a little concerned about being tipped over. The rain pounding on the roof is immense and Loops gets up and videos a little of the weather, showing the rain blowing practically horizontal outside the front window. It lets up a couple hours later; but then again at 6am, it starts all over again with howling wind and rain.
The good news? The leak we thought we had from the roof over the sofa, the one that we discovered back down in Florida – well, it seems Loops has fixed that. Hurrah!
The storm takes so long to cease and for the skies to clear, that Loops has to phone down to the RV office to explain we won’t be meeting the lunchtime checkout today, which they were completely understanding about, given the circumstances.
When we do get back on the road it immediately becomes evident just how much rain has fallen overnight, we pull out of the park and all of the houses in the first mile are like tiny castles surrounded by their own personal moat. I’m not quite sure how some of them were going to get out of their house or off of their property; some of the water was only half a meter from their front door.
Today’s drive was planned as a fairly long jaunt already, and with the late check out we opt for just continuing to shoot down the I-10 in order to make it through Houston city centre and over to San Antonio before dark, which we do, just.
We are booked in for four days at the Fort Sam Houston military base, giving us a central location from which we can do a little sightseeing. The base is the largest installation I have been to so far, it’s so expansive we need to use the map every time we leave in order to find our way out and back in again. The RV park area is very pleasant, dotted with trees and grass areas, and the whole base in general has plenty of facilities that make this a site where you could easily spend a few weeks and be content.
This base, like the one we stayed at outside New Orleans, has regular bugle calls that take place throughout the day. I have no idea what they signal, but I enjoy hearing them in the distance. I could do without the sound of the train though, which is located only a ten second walk away from us, but the sound of the horn bothers me less as time goes by, I guess you just become habituated to it after a while.
Probably what I find most fascinating here is the fact Fort Houston is a training facility and we have obviously arrived at the same time as a hoard of, what appear to be, new recruits of some sort. Every time we drive through the base, there are huge groups of them marching in time together, or walking together in small groups keeping in step with each other, all wearing luminescent sashes to identify them. I find staying on these bases fascinating to learn more of the goings on of the military, to which I’ve never given much thought. It’s like a whole other secret little world, with all of these rules they have to follow; like marching in time if you are in a group, but not in a pair, or saluting an officer when they walk past, or stopping and facing the flag when the bugle calls.
We don’t just hang around onsite of course; our first outing is the following day into the centre of the city to visit the Market Square, a small indoor/outdoor market. What I don’t realise is that this basically a Mexican market, and so I am overwhelmed by the music, smell of food and colour (oh, the bright colours!), when we walk through it. It’s all a rather wonderful surprise.
We wander amongst the stalls and shops filled with marvelous bright pottery, which I take an unexpected liking too, Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) themed art and trinkets everywhere, sombreros (with signs telling people not to try them on for photos) and shirts, shawls and dresses, all frilled in a Mexican fashion.
Loops requires lunch and so we stop in at La Margarita Mexican Restaurant for lunch and while I eat, I sit and people watch. And this is what I realise…80% of the people sitting around me are either Mexican or of Mexican descendant. I listen and hear people either speaking Spanish (or at least what sounds like Spanish to me), or they have a Spanish lilt to their voice as they use the English language.
I peer about and notice all of the faces around me are darker skinned with almost jet black hair, and a fair number are sporting very obvious tattoos – in fact the girl sitting across from me at lunch has both arms covered in sleeve tattoos and one on her forehead, just above one of her eyebrows.
People are smiling and laughing, couples are cuddling and families are entertaining their children. People say hello and acknowledge you as you pass. It’s a scene that makes me happy. I like it very much, and I feel glad that I have been caught unawares by the mix in population, the blending of colour and culture; it has come as a welcome surprise.
It’s the following day that I come to learn why the population of San Antonio is so obviously diverse, when we take a dip back into history.
I have convinced Loops to come on a bike ride with me. I have discovered that one of the city’s most appreciated features is The River Walk. This is a walking and biking trail of 15 miles that flows from the southern outskirts of the city, into its heart. Along this pathway lies the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, comprising of four of the five Spanish colonial missions in the city (the fifth is now The Alamo). In my opinion this is the perfect way to expand our historical horizons, take in some exercise and enjoy the natural environment both in and out of the city.
Let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint.
In calculating how far I can persuade Loops to peddle, I have decided we probably only have about 4 hours of so of time to complete our ride and stop off points, and so I opt for us to drive over to the Mission San Jose, park The Beast and ride the River Walk from there, north. This mean we will see only two Missions and the Alamo, but the two missions – San Jose and Mission Concepcion – I think are the best choices, and you’ll find out why later.
We get straight on with the business of cycling, opting to come back to San Jose and tour it at the end of the day. Although the River Walk could do with slightly better signage in a couple of places, for the most part as long as you are alert, navigating it isn’t too hard.
The path is well maintained and alternates between a smooth concrete pavement and, in some areas closer to the city, cobblestone; but all of the River Walk comes with some sort of beautiful oasis-like scenery. Aptly names it follows the San Antonio River, with the outskirts of the city noticeably wilder in nature, with stones and small boulders ruffling the river and longer grasses and flowering plants lining the pathway. The trail crosses the river at several points with small turreted bridges at near water level for you to use, and I enjoy swinging from one bank to another, adding an extra element to the journey.
It takes us only 15 minutes or so to reach the Mission Concepcion, our first stop for the day. It sits unassumingly on the side of the road on the outskirts of some smaller town area, and could easily be overlooked if you didn’t pay attention to the road sign.
Our first history lesson for the day begins here, and it is here that I feel I learn the most. Let me share this newly acquired knowledge with you now….I take no responsibility for its historical accuracy, I’m more just trying to give a rough outline here from what I can recall – scholars please don’t berate me.
Once upon a time, Texas didn’t really exist.
It was actually a bit of a land that was a province of Mexico called Tejas and was under Spanish rule because, way back when, Europeans pretty much landed on the North American continent and decided they owned it. In totally and not at all fully accurate simplistic terms, the Brits got the north-east, the Spanish got Florida and Texas and the French got Louisiana.
What with Mexico overseeing the area, the borders between the Mexican mainland and Tejas were pretty fluid. Therefore, a large number of the population here were considered Tejas Mexicans – Texas Mexicans.
Now, while there were Mexicans and Spaniards running about, let us not forget about this lands native inhabitants, yes, there were Indians from serval tribes in this area. Because the Mexicans wanted the land settled and were a little worried about being outnumbered by the tribes, they pretty much invited any and all from around the world to come live in Tejas, regardless of race, religion or immigrant status.
In addition to this, the Spanish, being Catholic, decided the world would obviously be a far better place if everyone else was also Catholic, especially those local native Indians because they very much didn’t like their beliefs.
So, the Spanish sent some Franciscan Friars of the time to convert the native people. These Friars set up the missions, which were pretty much like a small enclosed village – a walled area for security, inside which there would be a church, a small farming area, housing etc. They set out to convince the Indians that this would be a great place to live and offered to give them provisions, but they all had to become Catholic. Some Indians took then up on the offer and converted, others did not and told them to shove it.
That’s basically where the missions came from and a little of why Texas has such a diverse population of peoples. I hope that helped.
The Mission Concepcion that we are currently standing in front of is the oldest, least improved Mission of the four and is actually the oldest un-renovated stone church in the whole of America. It was dedicated in 1755 and is the oldest thing I have ever seen in this country. The age of the building is visceral, it presses down on me, and the form of it is so obviously European in style; I stand here and it feels almost like home.
Standing in front of it makes me want to weep.
There is a volunteer guide on site, I can hear him talking to some of the other visitors, but the interpretative displays contain more than enough information and clearly tell the story of the Missions history, of which I have just butchered above. All that is left of this site is pretty much a couple small outer buildings and the church itself, which is actually used for services by its local congregation. I think they are probably one of the luckiest groups of people in the land to be able to regularly use it for worship.
When we have taken in the peaceful atmosphere of the mission, we mount up and peddle away on The Blue Bandit (well, I do anyway, Loops hasn’t named his bike, poor thing, it probably feels really unloved).
As we get closer to the city centre, the pathway becomes increasingly busy with foot traffic, and in one section you are specifically asked to get off your bike and walk it, not that you would know it from the amount of ignorant people who ignore this, despite the signs painted right there on the path.
The River Walk becomes more of a canal walk as you reach the heart of the city, and takes on a different beauty to it, formal and constructed, but well-planted with some lovely wrought bridges spanning it with road traffic rumbling above you.
The final part of the ride into San Antonio proper is on the pavement, weaving around people and finally into the road. There we are one minute dodging traffic and the next, Bam! We were right in front of the Alamo. That came as a shock, I can tell you.
For me, the Alamo was a little bit of a let-down.
I am half and half on being annoyed that this relic is literally in the heart of the city and completely looks out of place, and actually liking the fact it is here and has survived all of the modern invasion around it. Also, there were just far too many people visiting. Compared to the peace and seclusion of the mission we had just come from, this was a circus. For a start, there was a lady offering to take photos of people at the front of the door of the church, like it was Disney. The church contains nothing, it has been stripped of any character it may have once had and there is just a constant stomp of people flowing through, not really looking at anything. It does not speak to me at all.
The interpretative boards outside, on the other hand, were both informative and interesting. Additionally, in the Long Barrack building, there are historical artefacts along with the story of the Alamo; moving from being a mission to a military outpost and the eventual battle there.
I don’t know, maybe it was the heat getting to me (because by now it was flaming hot), but I just wasn’t feeling it.
We grabbed a sandwich each at Jimmy John’s across the street (first time eating there – Veggie sandwich is superb), and then hustled back on our bikes to the River Walk and south to our starting point to see the last mission.
I could now tell the heat was really starting to affect me because my face felt like a furnace and I was supremely ticked off by how fast Loops had decided to cycle back. I had to stop several times for water and then splash my face and neck to try and cool down. Yes, I really do hate the heat, but o the positive side – at least it isn’t humid!
Unfortunately we reach the mission at 4.30pm, meaning we only have a scarce half hour to view the site. Mission San Jose is the largest of the four, being almost fully intact in structure. This means it has a large complete boundary wall; living quarters incorporated into the walls themselves, a church, granary and mill. This site provides the fullest impression of what living inside a mission would feel like, it is easy to cast your mind back in time and imagine this life on a daily basis.
Like our first mission, but even more so, the environment here exudes serenity. Inside the walls you can forget the modern world exists and breathe deeply and calmly. It is very relaxing and refreshing.
The church bell tolls 5pm for closing time, but I do manage to collect my three stamps for today in my NPS passport. I am so eager to get them, I think the lady is a bit put out that I help myself to the stamps, but that’s what they are there for. Maybe she was worried I might not be deserving of them because she quizzed me on our afternoon activities and specifically pointed only to the stamps I had earned today, keeping a close eye on me using them. Oh, brother.
Well, what a jam packed couple of first days in Texas, eh? This is already turning out to be a captivating and horizon broadening experience.
I wonder what we will encounter next on our travels in Texas…?