Tuesday, November 13, 2012

San Antone

San Antonio Missions-
fixtures 3a
Mission Espada ornamentation

Once in a while I get to slip the surly bonds of earth, and make my way outside of the Houston area on business[i].  I relish any chance to see new sights without having to spend the precious coin of scarce vacation days to do so. While I’m all about the business during the day, one of my favorite diversions is exploring urban streetscapes by night[ii].  The saving grace of my limited range of work travel is that Texas cities mostly have pretty unique character[iii] and generally lend themselves to exploration.
I recently gave a presentation at a conference in San Antonio on a paper I co-authored.  I love “San Antone”…it’s a great city. Austin’s fun, and has great music, BBQ, and outdoor activities, but it’s also a little pretentious[iv].  San Antonio has its blighty unfortunateness, but it also has a more organic sense of community.  Either is a bit preferable to the ersatz, noveau-riche swamp gardens of Houston[v] and the cowtown boringness of Dallas/Fort Worth. I’m pretty happy, however, to explore urban areas in general[vi]. San Antonio is a great mix of history, with its chain of Spanish missions and historic buildings; culture, with its thriving Latino community and festivals; and “western” terrain[vii].  It’s a deceptively populous place for all its sleepy feel, which means there’s a lot more to do and see there than I ever have.

Reo Feo2012-04-12_13-45-32_722-2
Sights of San Antonio: The Rey Feo, The Buckhorn Saloon

I stayed at one of our favorite haunts[viii], the Menger Hotel. I can’t get enough of this place…it’s a grand, old style of hotel[ix] with a luxuriant main lobby of marble, and Texas limestone and ferns, and adornments from the turn of the century.  There’s a large amount of display space and a whole bar given over to Teddy Roosevelt memorabilia. He recruited his famed Rough Riders at and near the Menger, and this was certainly his kind of place. The whole place has a certain sort of grandness that can’t be bought by fancy new places. I have never run into any of the famed ghosts of the Menger, but walking down the hallways one does get an impression that one is not alone[x].

The Menger
BarCome play with
us..forever and ever
The Menger hotel, Menger patio,  Menger interior, Roosevelt memorabilia, Menger lobby, Old timey glass, The Menger Bar, Come Play With Us Forever and Ever

This jaunt I was only in town on an overnight. I got in late in the day prior, and immediately headed out for dinner and some urban exploration. The Menger has the advantage of being literally next door to the famed Alamo, which is decently cool as tourist traps go.  It’s run by the Daughters of Republic of Texas to this day, even though there have been several efforts to have it transferred to the decidedly more historically objective Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. We’ve enjoyed visiting the Mission, but the way history is presented there, especially by the DRT, is a wee bit unbalanced. I was almost asked to leave by a grumpy DRT member once because I was discussing both sides of the history of the Goliad massacre/battle of Gonzalez amongst our party[xi].  Still, it’s well preserved, given its history[xii] . I spent a little time photographing it in the last light of the afternoon, before heading to the Riverwalk for dinner.

Alamo lights The
(B&W) Alamo window
Alamo wall
(B&W) Alamo
The Alamo, Alamo Lights, The Alamo, Statuary in Alamo Plaza, Alamo Window, Alamo Exterior Wall, Alamo Wall

The River Walk is simultaneously a monument to tourism and also an innovative and progressive urban design project. A long term flood-management-meets-tourism-potential project, The River Walk is touristy while still being worth seeing. A story below the city streets, the sidewalks along the River wind through narrow canyons festooned with colorful shops and restaurants, with Spanish architecture beneath a canopy of oaks and cypress. If you can get past some of the overtly touristy elements[xiii], it is really quite lovely, as reclaimed-sewage-effluent-public-works-projects go[xiv].  My favorite San Antonio restaurant, Las Canarias, is located along a quieter section of the Walk, and was where I headed that night. It’s a beautiful Old Spanish style upscale restaurant with great views and equally great food.


2012-04-12_13-38-14_848-2Riverwalk Riverwalk
Canarias Las
Las Canarias
River Walk streetscape, River Walk, River Walk, Glass Teardroppy Thing in River Walk Store, Las Canarias, Las Canarias interior, Las Canarias interior, Table with a View.

A filling meal and a jaunt around the River Walk in the evening, and I decided it was time to head back to the Menger for a nightcap. On my way, I stopped to take some pictures of the River from street level at a bridge crossing. A somewhat disheveled looking fellow with a large cup approached me and asked me if I was getting good pictures. I assumed he was asking for money, given his appearance (sorry John!), but he ended up being just a local interested in striking up a conversation. I have found this to be the absolute best way to really get a feel for a place. I talked with John for about 20 minutes, and he told me ghost stories, the history of some of the buildings[xv] and general lore. He was a really wild character, and I’m glad I ran into him, and gladder still I didn’t just brush him off.

John the
John the Storyteller

On the way back, I wandered. It’s almost too easy in this day and age to get efficiently from point A to point B. My greatest discoveries and best times in urban exploration have almost invariably come about as a result of being desperately, joyously lost[xvi].  I eventually meandered back to Alamo Plaza, and grabbed some shots of the mission at night before retiring to the Menger Bar for a drink[xvii].

Neon Alamo at
Alamo at night
(B&W) Alamo at night
Alamo at
Various views of Alamo plaza and the Alamo Mission at night

After I got through with my presentation and lunch with a consultant the next day, it was too late to make it back to work in Houston by the end of the day, so I took an hour or two to tour Mission Espada, my favorite of the Spanish Missions (part of a National Historical Park). While the Alamo gets all of the attention, the other Missions are really far superior in terms of sense of place and grandeur. One can only imagine what the Native Americans thought when what used to be a field in a river valley all of a sudden was an armed compound bristling with cannon, with imposing and austere missions towering over the grounds[xviii].  As always, I could have stayed for hours waiting for good light to photo the architecture and details of the Mission, but home was calling.

IMGP3237-2 Mission Espada
Espada Mission Espada
Mission Espada
Cross Mission Espada
Past the Mission - near focus (B&W)
Conference hotel lobby, Bicycle rentals, Conference center mural, Mission Espada view, Mission Espada interior, Mission Espada, Mission Espada (B&W), Mission Espada cross, the Mission (antiqued), Past the Mission (far focus)

I usually try to find a nearby park to visit when I’m somewhere new…somewhere that I might not make the trip for otherwise. The “bonus park” for this San Antonio trip was Government Canyon State Natural Area[xix]. Unfortunately, no one advised the SNA that they were the lucky bonus park of the trip, and they were closed when I got there on my way out of town. However, they had a nice field of wildflowers[xx] at the front gate, so I got a couple photos in, even if I couldn’t get into the Canyon itself.

Canyon Checkered White butterfly
on Gallardia sp.
Wildflowers Dainty Sulphur
Government Canyon SNA, Checkered White Butterfly on Gallardia, Wildflowers, Dainty Sulphur, Mating damselflies.

All in all, a satisfyingly packed business trip for just an overnighter.


[i] Though not as frequently or spectacularly as my wife. I go on trips to Austin, San Antonio, Dallas. She gets sent to South Africa, Ireland, Indonesia… As you can tell I’m perfectly ok with this and do not resent it. At all. I’m sorry, did you hear that over me gritting my teeth into dust?
[ii] Like Batman, but less angsty.
[iii] Except Dallas/Fort Worth, whose character is mostly “We like cows and shot a president that one time.”  Don’t feel bad..Houston’s character is mostly “look at all this cool stuff we bought!”.
[iv] I’m sorry, Austin. I really do like you. You’re a good time. But you do kind of need to get over yourself a little. You’re not as weird as you think you are. Weird for Texas is not weird in general. Just be weird and stop worrying about making sure everyone knows it all the time. That being said, you have a statue to SRV, which automatically gets you in the running.
[v] And more caveats. Houston is awesome in its own way. Its food is pretty intense, it has greats arts, nice outdoor areas, etc. However, Houston is like a small town in search of a large city there’s a lot of posturing. I wrote a very negative refrigerator magnet poetry poem about Houston when I first got here. I believe one of the lines comparing Houston to a pariah mother was something like “beneath your ersatz garden gowns, tawdry loins produce a juggernaut…screaming tongues howl a crassly-hewn symphony…we birth our gift of screaming viscour road to summer skies..”. So, you know, we have a complicated relationship, Houston and I.  Dallas is just cowtown through and through and Fort Worth is where they actually keep the cows.
[vi] The only place to literally scare me enough to curtail this is Baltimore. Inner Harbor? Pretty cool. Everywhere else? The Wire.
[vii] Unlike the flat swampy coast or flat prairies of eastern Texas, San Antonio is at about the transition point between the flat coastal swamps, forests and prairies of eastern Texas, and the dry “badlands” deserts of West Texas. It has the stereotypical terrain one thinks of in terms of Texas’ depiction in old Westerns, etc.: rolling scrublands of pinyon pines and lush river vallies.
[viii] The term being fairly a pro pos, given its reputation for being haunted.
[ix] In fact, it’s on the registry of Historic Hotels of America.
[x] Also, that one may be invited to play with them forever and ever, and or that one has always been there.
[xi] She objected to anything straying from the stridently nationalistic view of the history of the Texas Revolution being discussed. You know, where valiant Texians fought off invading Mexicans to keep the land Moses gave them in the Old Testament…or something.  Not this crazy talk about Texians abusing Spain/Mexico’s fairly generous offers of land to settle and prohibition of slaves. The real truth is somewhere in the middle, with Texians disregarding the sovereignty of Mexico, who admittedly was swinging a bit toward the dictatorial side. But discussing both sides in Texas is not an emphasized theme.
[xii] It’s the Rasputin of buildings. It done got blowed up, torn down, burned, turned into storage, even peed on, during the less illustrious parts of its history.
[xiii] Like the never-ending tour boats on the “river”.
[xiv] During the summer months, the water in the river walk section is fed almost entirely by treated wastewater effluent from one of San Antonio’s wastewater plant.
[xv] The building behind him in the picture was actually assembled room by room, as individual concrete cells stacked on top of each other.
[xvi] Though, you’re only really lost if you stop trying to get somewhere. If you make it where you need to be, you were never lost, you were just taking an alternate route.
[xvii] At the time, I was reading one of Roosevelt’s books. It was kind of cool to read a couple pages while in a place at which he had actually spent some time. There were some other folks there from my conference (easy to pick out as the only people in the place excitedly discussing the impacts of regulatory changes on wastewater effluent limits). I tried to strike up a conversation (again, see my “talking with strangers is awesome” rule), but they weren’t particularly friendly.
[xviii] Except, of course, the Commanche who were, apparently, the human equivalent of the Honey Badger. It’s scientifically impossible to measure how little of a damn the Commanche gave about the Spanish. Or, you know, the Americans, the Mexicans, other tribes, basic humanity, etc. Every stereotype of “savage redskins” out there finds some kernel of truth in the Commanche. Admittedly, this was not a civil time in general, but the Commanche took it to a whole other level before their eventual “pacification”. They were still in nascent bloodthirstiness at the time of the Missions, but still.  
[xix] While the actual derivation of the name is less obvious, the initial impression is that Texas had just run out of Park names and just gave it the most literal description they could.  Do we own it? Check. Is it a Canyon? Check. Ok, we’re good to go on this one. Let’s go secede from the US now.
[xx] Luckily I am equally fascinated with vast landscapes and the microcosms of small ecosystems. I just needed to switch lenses, literally and figuratively. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Asheville and Great Smoky Mountains trip, Day 7: In which, despite the children's song, my ankle bone is temporarily NOT connected to my shin bone.

Grotto Falls

Wednesday, October 3
Due to fly out of Asheville much later in the evening, we had one final day to spend in the Smokies. Even with the camping luxuries of a swank hotel room and hot breakfast buffet, we still managed to get ourselves going fairly early in the morning.
Gatlinburg hotel
ViewKate at Breakfast
Morning balcony vista, Roughing it at the luxury breakfast buffet.

Roaring Forks Motor Trail was the last “must-see” element of the Park on our list. Conveniently, the entrance to this section of the park was right down the street from the hotel. As we drove toward Roaring Forks through a wooded area, we spotted a bear in the woods. No sooner had we seen one, than there were suddenly bears everywhere. We counted about 7 or 8 individuals. Unfortunately, the light was so dim in the woods that we didn’t get many pictures. It was still pretty great to finally see some of the Smokies most famous residents up close[i].

Black Bear

When the jam of cars stopped to watch the bears finally eased up, we continued on to Roaring Forks. The morning was still pretty overcast and misty. While this gave a mysterious and appealing quality to the forest, it pretty much killed the scenic overviews. This was just not going to be our scenic vista trip. The motor trail was a pleasant, if fairly uneventful, couple miles of auto cruising past a few historic buildings, but mostly just foggy woods. About halfway through the loop, we stopped to hike the ~3.5 mile round trip Grotto Falls trail. The trail was a pleasant surprise, even though it was already crowded early in the morning. Foliage along the way was more colorful than other sections of the Park, and the hike included a goodly stretch in which one hikes alongside a creekbed with multiple waterfalls. The “payoff”[ii] for the hike was a pretty decent sized waterfall one could walk behind. It cascaded down into a pool which fed several subordinate waterfalls. It would have been even better if it wasn’t for the endless line of tourists waiting to take their picture under/behind the waterfall. It was very inconvenient to have to wait for them in order to take our picture under/behind the waterfall[iii]

Sun and Leaves (faux
Roaring Forks
Mist Grotto Falls Trail
Hollow and Leaf
(B&W) Grotto Falls Trail
Grotto Falls Waterfall
(B&W) Grotto Falls Waterfall
Grotto Falls Trail
Streambed (B&W) Log and
Grotto Falls
Falls Grotto Falls
Kate and I at Grotto
Falls Grotto Falls (B&W)
Sun and Leaves (faux infrared), Misty Morning, Grotto Falls trail waterfall, Hollow and Leaf, Waterfall, Grotto Falls Waterfall, Waterfall Cliff, Grotto Falls Streambed, Log and Leaves, Lower Grotto Falls, Grotto Falls, Grotto Falls (B&W), Kate and I at the Falls, Grotto Falls Again, Oh look it’s Grotto Falls yet again.

We hung around for a little, and Kate even found a salamander among the rocks, before we started making our way back down the trail. I guess one could say it was fortunate that this was the last hike of the last day. Partially because it was one of the more interesting hikes we’d done there, but also because about a half mile from the parking lot, carrying a massive camera and tripod combination, I stepped hard on the wrong side of a root, and rolled straight on to my ankle with a statisfying crunch.  I found myself in the odd position of wanting to drop and roll immediately, and also wanting to hand off the aforementioned camera gear. Luckily, Kate was quick on the draw, and grabbed my tripod when she heard me grunt/squeal/yawp. When I regained composure, I had to apologize to the family with small children who had been walking behind us, as I couldn’t recall whether any choice curse words had left my mouth when it happened. Luckily they confirmed I just “sort of grunted”. Kate rushed down the trail to get our hiking poles while I limped my way down.
Even with the ankle issue, the rest of the motor loop was pleasant. We ate an al fresco picnic lunch at a historical cabin site, stopped at yet another mill[iv],  and then drove on out through Gatlinburg to the Foothills Parkway and on to Asheville.  

Unidentified Skipper Lunch!
Corner Cabin
Fenceline Rough-hewn Boards
Mill conveyance
(B&W)Mill conveyance
Foothills Parkway
Pioneer Cabins, Longtail Skipper, Lunch!, Corner, Cabin Hatch, Fenceline, Rough-hewn Boards, Window View, Mill Conveyance, Shower, Foothills Parkway Vista

We grabbed another helping of NC BBQ at the airport on the way out, accompanied by a flight of local beers for my palate and a bag of ice for my ankle; a somewhat mixed way to end a pretty great trip.

Beer Flight before the
Flight Asheville
Beer Flight before the Flight, Asheville Skies from Airport Window


[i] From the safety of a car as opposed to a nose under a tent flap, of course.
[ii] My disdain for this term in hiking literature is my general dislike of the destination hiker mentality. Yes, there are some hikes where there is a major destination. But when I’m hiking, I’m enjoying the stuff along the way. I know a lot of folks who just powerwalk to the destination, snap a picture, then powerwalk back. I’m not that kind of hiker. Different strokes, I suppose, but I always get caught up in all the cool stuff along the way. Yes, there may be a waterfall at the end, but there’s a Fowler’s Toad/Varied Thrush/stand of maple trees right here!
[iii] Oops. “Part of the problem” moment there.
[iv] Every picture Id ever seen of the Smokies involved either overlapping ridges, historic mills, waterfalls, or boulder strewn streams. We missed out on the former for the most part, but had the latter three in spades.