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.
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 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.
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.
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 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].
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.
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.
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 identity..so 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.