Published: August 8th 2007March 25th 2007
Motorhome News from North America 38 13th March - 24th March 2007
Don’t Mess with Texas!
Houston, San Antonio, Fredericksburg, Marathon, Big Bend National Park and The Rio Grande
7.42pm. Touchdown, at George Bush International Airport, Houston.
The clocks have moved forward an hour in our absence. It’s crunch-time for our future travel plans as we approach immigration on our return to US soil after our all too brief visit to Costa Rica. There’s every chance we’ll be out of the USA in five days when our present visas run out if they choose to make life difficult for us.
We follow the signs. The long yellow line for Non-US Citizens. We stand in the queue, waiting our turn, passports and entry forms in hand, smiling nervously, shuffling forward, our luggage between our feet. We're hoping for an extension to our visas - three months at the very least but we don't want to bet on our chances.
“Stand behind the line, Sir, Madam.”
We waited. Two people in front.
We stepped forward to the desk together.
“These are the wrong forms,” the officer said. “You need the white ones -
at the desk behind you….in English, Spanish, German, Taiwanese, Japanese.”
Don’t argue. Stay calm. Mumble, mumble. Poor advice from the airline staff. Start again: Last Name, First Name, Date of Birth, Travelling from, Destination, Passport Number, Reason for visit…. Wait our turn again. Step forward. Present documents.
“You must complete the address of where you will be staying.” He pointed to the line on the form. “Here, here and here. Do it there at the desk”
Search for the campsite address. Wait in the queue. Try again.
“Right,” he said. “Now let’s see if we can get you through quickly.” There is a hint of friendship and sincerity in his voice. After all, we are English. And how many friends does George W. have in this World?
“How long do you intend to stay in the USA?”
“Until June,” Janice replied (that’s not what we discussed!).
“What are you planning to do while you’re here?”
“We’re birding.” (Neither was that!)
“What, until June?”
“There are a lot of birds!”
He looked up, first at Janice - and then at me, rubber stamp in his right hand, poised, whilst he gave it
San Antonio - The Alamo
It's March break and half the Nation's kids are there!
more thought. We stayed quiet. Will he? Won’t he?
His hand wavered. He cocked his head thoughtfully. A long pause. Our knees trembled, hearts pounded.
“OK. I’ll renew, but you might not be able to do it again. There could be a case for abuse of the system.” Bang! Bang! Rubber stamps on the visas - six more months. Great sighs of relief!
There’s a touch of the iron man in Texas. A Texan stands tall, proud and defiant, flying the Lone Star flag and stamping the insignia on everything that moves to remind themselves (and everyone else) that everything is bigger, everything is better, and everything in Texas belongs first and last to Texas. There’s a motto on many road-signs first introduced as an anti-litter campaign, that reads; ‘Don’t mess with Texas’- but today it carries deeper meaning, stubborn and resolute. You betcha!
Texas is also the powerful home base for Texaco, Gulf, Exxon and Mobil, between them producing 30% of all US oil and refining a vast proportion of the country’s imports through the terminals on the coast. Their stocks will have been helped by gas prices, up by 20-30c per gallon since we
The lovely river walk
left the USA two weeks ago.
It had been raining in San Antonio in our absence and it continued on our return with a downpour lasting throughout the night and the whole of the following day, bringing with it brilliant flashes of lightning and angry thunder, rattling the windows and setting Gene Kelley tap-dancing on the roof of the motorhome. Records will show that 4.32” of rain fell on San Antonio in 3 days. We sat it out, doing the laundry, writing and reading in the motorhome.
It rained musket-fire and canon-shot for thirteen days and nights in San Antonio at the end of February 1836. While they waited in vain for reinforcements, 189 Texan and Tejano volunteers defended The Alamo from the advancing force of Mexican General, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his 3,000 strong army. All 189 men, including David Crockett, Commander William Travis and Jim Bowie, laid down their lives for the Texan cause. Mexico would come to rue the day.
Apache, Comanche and many local tribes wandered these lands long before the coming of the Spaniards, slowly but surely displaced through conflict or disease as the mighty passage of Anglo American migrants mercilessly
Mission San Jose. Wonderful to find some historic buildings!
rampaged southwards and westwards in Cavalier fashion across the land, ultimately driving both Indians and Mexican settlers from their homes - and drawing a line in the muddy waters of the Rio Grande to the south. The Mexican War of 1846-8 left the United States with claims to Mexican territory all the way to the Pacific, including Texas, Arizona, parts of Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and California, packaged, (a ‘bundle’ as American citizens would now describe it) for the one-off sum of $15m. You’d pay more than that now for a quarter acre in the heart of L.A.
San Antonio’s River Walk in the heart of town is somewhat reminiscent of Belgium’s delightful Bruges, a little Venice, an oasis of tranquillity amidst towering hotels, cafes and restaurants, their customers eating in the open air under bright umbrellas reflected in the murky water, narrow paths and arched bridges, palms and neatly tended borders of bright flowers - a delightful small town feel in a large city of predominately Hispanic people. We discovered just how large when we left town on the outer-circle highway, a poor man’s version of the UK’s M25, as the hungry hand of development has reached out
Fredericksburg - its main street wide enough to turn an ox cart
with grubby fingers, five, ten, fifteen miles from the centre. America’s children’s children will find little space left.
Time to move on in our snail-like nomadic way, away from the Mexican- Hispanic influences of San Antonio, out to the northwest, to dry Texas hills on steadily rising ground, out to the arid desert of mesquite, juniper and prickly pear, rising again higher and higher to open pastureland where the shady scrub of evergreen oak offers shelter for scattered sheep, herds of goats and small numbers of grazing cattle. Wilkommen, as they say in these here parts, to Texas Hill Country - where wild-flowers grace the landscape and neat farmsteads tuck themselves away behind rolling hills and semi-arid pastures. German and Scandinavian settlers arrived here on the Comanche frontier around 1846 and settled peacefully amongst the local tribes. There’s little sign of an Indian now, even in the craft shops. Fredericksburg’s airy main street hosts German bakeries, galleries, craft shops, shops selling antiques, tasteful home furnishings, tea shops and restaurants with a German tradition and culture - and stone spired-churches off the sidewalk. And the town still rings with Germanic nuance: Der Kitchen Laden, Bergen Valde, Eichen Strasse, October Fest,
Altdorf Beer Garten and Schwettmann’s Emporium.
A restaurant sign in one of the shops read, ‘We don’t skinny dip. We chunky dunk.’ A fitting epitaph to many an outsized American who might well have eaten here. Home-grown specialities in town include a winery, quilt and bead shops in abundance, and sweet, delicious peaches, sold by the roadside in season. For the moment we’ll satisfy ourselves with the hum of bees in the trees and the flurry of pink blossom driven on the wind.
They’ve also harvested a few famous men of their time hereabouts. President Lyndon B Johnson was born within a stones-throw of Fredericksburg, his home and ranch now a part of the Lyndon B Johnson National Park. Ladybird, his First Lady will long be remembered for her campaign to spread the hillside verges with wild flowers - in particular, the Texan Bluebonnet, know everywhere outside of Texas as - the lupin (there are bigger ones in my back garden, but try telling that to a Texan).
Another famous leader was born in Fredericksburg, and his grandfather’s home, the Nimitz Hotel, now houses The Nimitz Museum, its steamboat shaped exterior dominating the wide main street. Fleet Admiral Chester
Fredericksburg - The Nimitz Hotel and Museum
W Nimitz was Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet in WWII, and his story and that of the American battle for the Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbour continues in the National Museum of the Pacific War. America is full of surprises if you care to dig a little, and having dug here and there we have emerged all the wiser. We loved Fredericksburg for its airy streets, its tasteful shops, its chatty people with a love of life, and that hint of Germanic quality, whatever it is, that raises the crossbar on standards. There are no big advertising signs in Fredericksburg. There is a Wal-Mart, hidden away on the edge of town, and that scourge of American society, the fast-food joint, is hard to find - should you really feel you have to. German is still spoken here, but the southern, ‘How y’all doin’, still dominates hereabouts along with the ever polite, Sir, or Madam.
It’s a long way from nowhere west of here, on straight roads dipping and rising to a pinpoint on every horizon. Limestone hills roll out into the distance with nothing but a sprinkling of earth to support the rolling tumbleweed, cacti
and scrub.There are those who love it and those who hate it we discovered. Where any sign of human activity exists, sheep and goats graze the sun-scorched grass, and juniper and prickly pear sit side-by-side on creamy white limestone outcrops, layered and fractured like giant’s teeth. Across broad vistas, beyond linear mesas and buttes, showery clouds lay heavy on the horizon laced with golden shafts of sunlight as the day moved on. This was one of our longest drives, much of the day ‘on the road’ with cruise control at 57, eating up the 340 miles on Interstate 10 to reach the outback town of Marathon, a flash of an eyelid row of wooden buildings, a wonderful bookshop and a handful of galleries making up a delightful artistic community. We stayed overnight in Marathon, still an hour’s drive from Big Bend National Park, a spectacular natural outpost in the heart of the desert; 175,000 square miles (yes, 175,000 square miles), of protected landscape nestled in the hook of the clay coloured Rio Grande as it wends its way 118 miles along the border with Mexico.
Apache legend holds that the Gods left all the spare rocks at Big Bend
The Casa Grande - much like Everest, the last 500ft are the toughest
when the world was created. It is indeed rugged cowboy country and it takes little imagination to picture the scene so often depicted by Hollywood: a cowboy pegged to the ground by the Apaches, eyeing the vultures circling overhead drawn by the smell of death, his partner, Wayne, dizzily trudging across the vast desert rippling with heat, dazed, his vision blurred and his water bottle empty. Somewhere in the distance, a ridge of grey mountains, a days walk, two days, maybe three. And there, silhouetted against the sky atop a distant mountain, the stately figure of Victorio, the Apache Chief in feathered headdress, surveying the scene from his white steed. Got the picture?
The distant mountains are the Chisos, peaking at nearly eight thousand feet, dusty grey in the shimmering sun, rising above the road still some forty miles away across open desert, the cream and pink flowers of yucca standing like Christmas candles on a bed of sand - and creosote bushes, now edged with the bright yellow flowers of spring, seemingly planted in tidy rows as in a market garden. We camped in the mountains for a couple of nights, venturing up over the ridge and down
The Chisos Mountains
again, cruising the steep gradient into the Chisos Basin, a great bowl of green: sumac, mahogany, oaks, juniper, flowering acacia and pinyon pine, cacti awaiting the spring rains and candelilla, used for candle making and gum. Chisos Basin campsite is encircled through 360 degrees by mountains, vertical walls of volcanic schist, their ragged peaks outlined against the deep blue sky of a Texan spring. Like a number of other parks, motorhomes and trailers over 24ft are not allowed in the Chisos Basin. We just scraped in with Winnie. Behind us to the northeast stood the massive volcanic plug of Casa Grande, rising majestically two thousand feet above us to 7,300ft, its peak gold in the last rays of sunlight - and to the southwest where we hiked, a sharp V shaped notch, The Window, a gap in the rocks, overlooking the vast desert beyond the Rio Grande into Mexico. It’s a long time since we had mountains to climb, crisp air to tingle our lungs and huge vistas of layered hills on which to feast our eyes.
Within a couple of days we were getting back into trim, taking our hiking poles out of storage and trekking the stony tracks
on steep gradients to lookouts high above and way below, ever cautious of the searing midday sun, diamond-backed rattle snakes and marauding mountain lions. This was our first serious hiking for many months since we left the Blue Ridge Mountains way back in October. The mind wanders on the trail. We’re not suffering yet, but time passes by the second, mounting almost unnoticed into hours and days, till the years have rolled by and the grey hairs of maturity nudge the weakening brain into thinking; how many more years before the gradient of the path is too steep and the track too long?
Out to the east across the gently sloping desert landscape, the Rio Grande Village offers a resting place for RV'ers and campers on the green banks of the Rio Grande. At a touch below 2,000ft, temperatures there were somewhat higher with only an occasional welcome patch of shade beneath the tall green cottonwoods following the banks of the river. Vermilion flycatchers and golden-fronted woodpeckers greeted us by our pitch and the deep bassoon bellowing of giant frogs erupted from the tall reeds on the water’s edge. We had hoped for cooler weather, but satisfied ourselves with
early morning walks into the rocky arid hills swathed with spring flowers and cacti of a dozen varieties laid out like rock gardens in an English village. There were signs of changing seasons everywhere. Oak trees were shedding their yellowing leaves in exchange for fresh green shoots, tamarisk was suddenly tinged with pink, bold yellow cacti flowers were bursting into bloom and the birds were pairing up with thoughts of romance. In the distance, the Carmen Mountains beyond a boiling cauldron of leaden hills, layer upon layer of ghostly outlines sharply edged with deep blue where land meets the sky. A forecast storm blew hard throughout the night where we later camped to the west of the park, uncomfortably hot and humid, swaying the rustling cottonwoods in its wake and rocking the motorhome from side-to-side. But peace reigned by dawn and we woke to the hoo, hoodoo, hooo, hoo, call of a great-horned owl, the braying of wild burros somewhere in the distance, the enigmatic jangle of Mexican goat bells across the river, the haunting cry of courting gray hawks roosting above us awaiting rising thermals and an inquisitive cardinal tapping at its reflection in the wing mirror. Now, why
The Rio Grande
USA to the left, Mexico to the right
do they do that?
About once a month we start to think about replenishing our nine-gallon Propane gas tank for cooking and heating the water for showers. Propane is generally sold at gas (petrol) stations, but out here in the desert, towns and gas stations are few and far between. This is Texas after all. With the gauge showing a quarter full, it’s not yet desperate, but just to let you know how tough it is out here, let’s tell you how it goes. We stopped for lunch in Study Butte (pronounced, stoodie - boot) on the way to visit the ‘ghost town’ of Terlingua, in an old abandoned mercury mining area. A Propane tank graced the yard beside the local store and filling station, so we strolled in full of confidence and asked to be filled up.
“The man who dishes out the Propane is out of town,” the lady drawled. “He’ll be back tomorrow, we hope. Can you come back?”
“How long’s he been gone?” I enquired.
“He’s been gone three days,” I heard her say as we left the store.
I guess he’s gone to Wal-Mart for a loaf of bread.
We all know that 'The Stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas,' don’t we? They don’t let you forget that of course, and for good reason. The sparklingly clear night sky grows deep blue as the sun fades behind the mountain curtain and Venus rises from the east to accompany the moon on its nightly journey. The air here in the desert is as free of light pollution as free can possibly be. Nobody lives here - for good reason. It’s either very hot or extremely. Summer temperatures are known to reach 115degrees and the annual rainfall is a mere four to six inches! A generously bearded gentleman in a Stetson told us you can die of two things in the desert: the first is lack of water and the second is too much water - when summer rain threatens flash floods.
Many National Parks provide free interpretive programmes on subjects of general local interest: birding and nature walks, history, geology and that sort of thing. A well presented programme for beginners, ‘An evening with the Stars’, sparked a new interest in astronomy for both of us, striking home just how little we
know about what goes on around us - and we’re anxious to know more. There will be another opportunity to learn something new when we arrive at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory tomorrow.
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads
There are more photos below