A River Runs Through It

Part 12 of Across America, 24 Feb 2012

Never forget the…

I was still in Tucson on the 16th of January. It was one in the morning and I was waiting for the Sunset Limited to spirit me away to Texas. I had San Antonio, New Orleans and Miami to squeeze into ten days. It would take a whole day for the train to reach San Antonio, crossing New Mexico and the bulk of Texas. We left around 2am and I settled down to doze until morning.

Once fully conscious I found myself in desolate New Mexico. There was grass, sand, the occasional cow, many fences, but no trees. I couldn’t imagine living there. We crossed into Texas: it was more of the same. I went to the dining car for lunch. The conductor confirmed we were now on Central Time, but that the dining car was still observing Mountain Time. This temporal anomaly denied me my first meal of the day. An hour later I returned to find myself seated next to a gay episcopalian priest (retired). We had an enjoyable afternoon discussing anything and everything. Alas, not having made any notes I can’t remember the details, but I do recall talking about the eye of a needle.

It was around nine in the evening when we pulled into San Antonio. I took a taxi to the old mansion-cum-hostel that I was staying at. The owner wasn’t around, but there was a big note on the front door with a key attached. Having stayed in a dorm for a week in Tucson I was happy to have my own room. The electrics and plumbing were reminiscent of home: random pipes sticking out of walls, switches in the oddest places and taps the dispensed water at a temperature contrary to their labelling. There was also a old iron bath on feet. I filled it as high as it would go with water as hot as I could tolerate and sunk down into it. Bliss.

Eagle Rock III (Al Held)

The next morning it was 25ºC and sunny. Though I was assured that cold does happen in southern Texas, there was no evidence of it during my stay. I made my way down the hill, past the large army base of Fort Sam Houston and under the freeway to the old Pearl Brewery. Having been away from Mexico for couple of weeks it was time to renew my culinary relationship. I ordered some grapefruit soda and my waiter asked if I’d tried Big Red, the famous Texas soda. I enquired as to its flavour, which seemed to stump him. “Errrr red flavour, sir”. How could I refuse? So I ordered one of them too. Both were disappointingly insipid. I read my book while awaiting my food. A waitress commented that it was unusual to see someone reading a paper book these days. I assumed she meant everyone had moved to Kindles and iPads, but I didn’t see much evidence of this in Texas. I didn’t get more than a few pages before my tacos arrived. They were good, if somewhat less “street” than those in Mexico.

After lunch I set off down the River Walk™ towards downtown. The northern part of the river had recently been redeveloped. It was a bit like a modern version of the Grand Union Canal with less character. There were mallard ducks on the sluggish water, sparrows and pigeons on the path. Admittedly there were also banana trees, but that was a minor detail. Once I got to downtown proper, things changed. The River Walk was crowded with hotels and restaurants. It was like a theme park. I left the river and headed for the Alamo. Before I could reach the unforgettable building, I had to navigate the shouty pedestrian crossings. They told me which streets I could cross with countdowns worthy of a Bond Film 9.. 8.. 7.. 6.. 5.. 4.. 3.. 2.. 1.. (BOOM), DO NOT WALK.

The Greekling

What remained of the Alamo was engaging, if not spectacular. Most of the interest lay in the history as little of the original mission complex remains. Perhaps I’m just spoilt by the number of historical buildings back home? Anyway, I won’t try and recap the battle here, Wikipedia has an extensive article. I’ll just note that it didn’t seem like the Texans made a very good job of running their country during the decade of independence (monetary policy pfffssssshhhhhht).

In the evening I went to a local diner, which turned out to be hosting a meeting of the Guardians of the Children. They were obviously bikers, but I didn’t get a chance to speak to them to learn more. The mushroom Swiss burger was excellent, but continuing my poor luck with drinks, the Lone Star lager failed to distinguish itself.

The next morning I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art. I’d been listening to The History of Rome so decided to look around the classical galleries. I enjoyed the Roman statues, including Trajan and a head of Hadrian who’d been for a dip in the sea (look at his chin in the photo). Amongst his many achievements, Hadrian brought stability and beards to the Empire. There were also an intriguing Al Held (pictured, above) in the museum reception.

In the afternoon I took the bus over to the botanic gardens. Even though it was warm, the gardens were definitely in winter mode. There were few flowers and many of the plants had died back. There was a butterfly activity maze in association with the London Natural History Museum. Oddly there weren’t any butterflies, apart from big plastic ones. The plants weren’t especially exciting either, but it was pleasant to relax in the sunshine.

Botanic Swing

Despite being in Texas, the heavy hand of the state was on numerous signs. In the gents toilets of the Botanic Gardens the Surgeon General warned women about the dangers of drinking while pregnant. I can’t imagine many men saying to their partners “I was in the restroom honey and the Surgeon General says you shouldn’t drink.” Signs threatened a $200 fine for using cellphones near schools and the restaurant menus were just as alarming as the rest of America. You’d think the vast quantities of salt and lard, sorry Southern specialities, would be the main dangers. But it’s that juicy steak you need to worry about: it should be cooked until all tenderness and flavour have been remorselessly destroyed. San Francisco was positively sign free by comparison. Though to be fair, everything causes cancer in California.

In the evening I returned to the Mexican restaurant by the river. This time I tried the slow cooked beef. It was served in a bubbling cauldron with cheese on top and was the best thing I’d eaten in Texas. Eschewing the underwhelming soda, I started with a margarita; it was pretty good. Draining my glass, I decided to try a house speciality cocktail. It soon became clear that my run of insipid drinks was over. It came in a glass the size of a small bucket, had bits of apple and tasted 100 proof. Beyond that I don’t remember; I was on the far side of the river of sobriety.

Thursday 19th was my last day in San Antonio. I managed to check out on time (just) and took a bus downtown to watch Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. It was one of the best action films I’d seen in a while. Beyond that there wasn’t really anything else to do: my train didn’t arrive until after nine. I sat around in the sunshine, drank coffee and waited for time to pass. The most exciting event was noticing a sign outside Hooters advertising Novartis breast cancer research.

In the evening I went to a random steak restaurant on the River Walk. The steak was fine, but the River Walk was more like a theme park than ever. Halfway through my meal a series of boats appeared with military personnel, some dressed as Santa. This was a little bizarre: it was late January after all. At that point I really felt the need to be somewhere else. I finished my meal and went to the station, even though my train wasn’t due for a while. San Antonio hadn’t agreed with me, despite some nice Roman statues and tasty Mexican food. It was an insipid America without personality or vim. I hope there is a proper Texas out there and that I get to see it one day. But it was time for me to move to my next state: Louisiana.

PS. I succumbed. My blog is in Texas, I’m in London. See the postscript to unreality.

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Tags: AcrossAmerica, Alamo, Amtrak, art, Hadrian, Romans, SanAntonio, Texas, Train, Travel, USA