America at Last – Part 17
By Parson Thru
So! San Antonio. Well what can you say? It’s the southernmost point of our trip – famous for The Alamo and Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. Next major stop from here is the wild border town of Laredo. I’m not sure it’s still wild - maybe. Out west on Highway 10 is El Paso and then New Mexico and the route to California and the Pacific coast. So we made it to Texas.
We didn’t move until lunchtime. We had a double bed each and a whole load of chocolate and snacks, bought at the truckstop. Looking out the window, we were surrounded by crumbling apartments with brightly-coloured washing drying on balconies.
On the TV, the coolest advert ever was playing. The soundtrack is Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”. A big granite-hewn cowboy drives his pickup truck along a dusty desert trail, hauling a horse-box with a couple of handy-looking Draft horses in back. He comes to a small river, stops the truck and draws the back of his forearm across his sweaty brow. He’s in his fifties, but as virile a specimen as you’ll ever see under a cowboy hat. He jumps out of the truck, unties the horses and soon has them hauling the truck through the river. As he disappears off in a cloud of understated macho dust, we hear the message (paraphrased) “Viagra – you didn't used to let anything get in your way. Why let it now?”
We walked out into the bright sunlight of the early afternoon and headed down Broadway Street. The location was perfect. We passed car lots, a trailer café and crossed East Houston Street onto Alamo Plaza. I had this idea that the Alamo would be somewhere out of town – a tourist bus-ride to some dusty redoubt in the scrubland.
As we neared a row of souvenir shops on our right, a bleached stone wall across the road caught my eye. It curved gracefully in the Spanish style to a peak at its centre where I imagine a bell being frantically rung. Who wouldn’t recognise the Alamo? Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, wet Saturday afternoons in front of the telly and suddenly here it was.
Entrance is free. We passed through the gift shop into the leafy gardens, where we were grateful for the dappled shade of the trees. The gardens are enclosed within the thick stone walls of the fort and barracks. They are an oasis of peace in the centre of the city. We read the history of the defeat of the Texan defenders by Mexican forces of Gen. Santa Anna. There are similarities with the great British defeat at Dunkirk. Disaster turned into a heroic symbol of national resolve.
Crockett, Bowie, William B. Travis and their companions are immortalised in a frieze on Alamo Plaza. Their plea for reinforcements was ignored by neighbouring Texan settlements and their subsequent massacre is a blight on the conscience of Anglo-Saxon America. Perhaps this is the real power behind the legend of the Alamo.
A pot-bellied man in a pale brown uniform was patrolling the garden. He wore a Stetson hat and a gun with the handgrip swinging casually from its holster. He could have been the sheriff, or maybe just a security guard – it was hard to tell.
We saw mockingbirds for the first time. We didn’t know they were mockingbirds at that point. They looked like skinny crows or mynah birds and made a pronounced shriek, preceded by a long rattling. These birds give the place much of its character.
Walking back into town in the evening, I was struck by a huge stars and stripes flying above the comparatively modest Tower Life Building. It was lit by silver-white illumination and billowed in the wind against an ink-black sky. I stood on a street corner for moment and watched it move. It brought a few things together that might not have meant anything had I not been standing on that corner in Texas. I suppose it’s the sense of freedom. These days we kind of take it for granted in Europe – it’s more a right than something that sometimes needs to be defended. Occasionally, though, it does.
I think Americans feel that more, hence the flow of tourists to the Alamo and the outpouring of emotion at the World Trade Center the day the news broke about Bin Laden. What is it about the presence of that flag on buildings, bumpers, buses and trains? It means something that the Union Jack doesn’t appear to – that the EU flag certainly doesn’t. And, out of interest, what flag does the British head of state fly?
What else can you say about San Antone? Well, for the passing visitor, it’s nice. The people you meet are nice and the River Walk – a man-made enhancement of the San Antonio river – has turned the centre of the city into a kind of Texan Venice. The water meanders tamely along a grotto and its tributaries, proving shade and places to eat and drink. The food is mainly Tex-Mex and the drink is beer, sangria and the biggest margarita I have ever sat in front of. Well, this is Texas.
The real reason for the River Walk being there is that it forms part of the city’s flood defence. It's the creation of San Antonio native Robert Hugman, who proposed the walkway as a less prosaic solution than a plain old culvert. And it sure is pretty. We sat for a while over burritos and fajitas at Casa Rio as the world wandered past or floated by on flat-bottomed tour boats.
We bought our last Greyhound ticket in San Antonio. This one would take us north to the state capital of Austin. We still had one more journey from Austin, but the friendly and helpful Anna sorted that one for us way back in the New York bus terminal.
Our last afternoon in San Antone was spent wandering through baking streets to find the Mexican Mercado - a huge area of cheap goods, food and drink. We did a bunk from a food counter when something very untoward seemed to be going on with the drinks we ordered. No thanks – been caught too many times. I still carry the scars of my poisoning in India.
We found a huge bakery and café with the most amazing selection of very unhealthy treats behind a glass counter. Their main trade seemed to be hand-made tamales. We went straight for the cakes. Through a wooden screen behind us was margarita heaven – and it was Happy-Hour!
We sat and froze our brains on $3 margaritas served in glass mugs. Perfect! We were feeling relaxed, stuffed, happy and a long way from home. Where is home anyway? Home, for us, is where we are together. Travelling is us at our best.