From the moment we arrived in San Antonio we were impressed with how seriously everyone was taking the pandemic. Signs on local businesses all required masks and people were following the rules. We wanted to investigate the local area so it seemed like a great idea to check out sites where we could socially distance. We began with San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. In 2015, the five missions: Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada, Mission San Antonio de Valero were declared a World Heritage Site, one of only 24 in the United States. Four of the missions are still operating as churches, part of the Archdiosis of San Antonio. I was particularly interested in Mission San Jose, because I have a picture taken with my mother in 1948 in front of the Rose Window. La Ventana de Rosa was completed in 1755 and thought to be one of the best examples of Baroque Architecture in the United States. Little is known of its sculptor. The Missions represent a living history of the blend of cultures of the Spanish and the indiginous communities.
Our Airbnb is in the historic King William neighborhood of San Antonio. We have a great front porch, a perfect place for people watching, reading a good book or a conversation.
This neighborhood was quite the place in the 1800s as we could see by the many palatial homes. Today this is an area of gift shops, a craft brewery and many restaurants. But we didn’t visit any because of Covid.
As I reflect on our years of travel, (We’re beginning year seven.) I realize that travel for us is different from most of the full time travelers’ blogs that I follow. I’ve mentioned before that our pace is far slower. I find myself exhausted as I read the frenetic schedules that many follow. Because we’re not limited by time I think we’re allowed a different perspective. While I read about an area both before we arrive and while we’re there, our stays don’t follow a long list of must do’s. Those play a small part of our day-to-day lives. Instead we’re trying to get a feel for the part of the world where we are currently residing, always comparing it to places we’ve been and experiences we’ve had. Our travels have enabled to us “live” for a month or so in many places where we would never move full time; we’ve learned a lot. Because we are both love history, I think we look less at specific sights and more at the impact those sights or events had on the lives of people who live there. I’m sure many would find our approach boring but it works for us. And I believe that’s a key to happy traveling…doing things the way they work for you. A day at the beach reading a book. A drive through the mountains. A trip to the grocery store. A random conversation with a person I meet in the post office. These are all things that I enjoy. I often ask locals for their ideas about what to see, where to eat, interesting sights, particularly those off the beaten track. And we’ve had many interesting adventures as a result.
Just a couple of days after we arrived I began to check online to see what Texas procedures were for getting the Covid vaccine. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found a site that showed many openings for the following week. No residency requirement was listed. As I began typing in my information, I yelled to Bob, and soon we had two appointments for our first vaccine at the UT Health Center in San Antonio. I was stunned! I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen when we showed our Michigan drivers licenses for identification, but I shouldn’t have worried. All went smoothly.
We arrived on the appointed day, and I’ve never experienced a more efficient process. Our names were checked against the appointment log. Then they moved us to the next location where we showed our IDs. Then we were directed to individuals who gave us our shots. We each were given a proof of vaccine card with our follow up appointments listed. Finally, we were asked to sit for 15 minutes to ensure we didn’t have any reaction. That was it! The entire process couldn’t have taken more than 45 minutes. Very impressive. Thank you, Texas!
Then there’s always the unexpected. And one of the most daunting experiences of our travels happened during this stay in San Antonio.
We woke up on the Friday before Valentine’s Day to a thermostat that read 53. We cranked it up to 90, turned on the oven and put a pot of water on the stove to boil. We managed to get it up to 57 but it didn’t budge beyond that. I contacted our Airbnb host who didn’t seem too concerned but said she’d try to get someone to come out and look at it. Finally, about 4:30 a nice young man appeared and after climbing into the attic (where the furnace is located!) told us that the back of the furnace had come off and that all the heat was staying in the attic instead of coming down the vents into the living area. He said things should warm up shortly. We were ecstatic! Ah heat! Life was good again!
As mundane as it sounds, one of my favorite things to do is to check out local supermarkets, and for the past year this has been a real challenge Since Covid, I generally make grocery lists and then use the curbside pick up most supermarkets offer. I had done the same thing this time but when the app said I couldn’t pick it up until Monday, I decided I might as well go in. I’d be masked as would everyone else! And I’d never been in an H-E-B supermarket. I wanted to check it out. I wouldn’t be in the store long. Wow! I couldn’t have been more wrong! I should have known when I went into the store and couldn’t find a cart that maybe this wasn’t a typical day! I quickly went through the store picking up just the items I had on my list and then headed to the line! The place is absolutely huge! The line at the check out the longest I’ve ever seen anywhere!
Holy moly! An hour and 45 minutes later I had my order paid for and was on my way out of the store. I think it must have been a combination of Valentines Day weekend and the wintry weather forecast that caused the craziness. But as I was soon to learn, it was a good thing I hadn’t waited to pick up the groceries on Monday.
We had planned on venturing further away from the city over Valentines Day as Pat had a three day weekend. Then we saw there were predictions for really cold temperatures. It wouldn’t be much fun to walk along the Texas shore in freezing temps so we decided to postpone our outing until another weekend. The weather forecast continued to deteriorate over the next few days. When we woke up on Valentine’s Day we wondered if someone had moved San Antonio to Michigan. We couldn’t believe there was several inches of snow on the ground.
The heat in our Airbnb continued to work hard to keep the temps tolerable. But as Sunday turned into Monday we had to set the thermostat to 90 to get it anywhere close to 70. Wearing sweatshirts and wrapped in blankets as we watched television kept us pretty comfortable. I had just made a second pot of coffee on Tuesday morning when I noticed Alexa was black. Then I realized our power had gone off. The news was saying that because Texas is on a separate grid from the rest of the country, the entire state would be experiencing rolling blackouts in an attempt to ensure that everyone would have some power. From what I understood, these rollouts were anything but efficient. Some people who had lost their power on Sunday were experiencing a couple of minutes of electricity every few hours. Who knew how long this could last? And in the meantime temps were down in the teens. Time to find a hotel.
I texted our host for suggestions but she came up with nothing. She mentioned one high end hotel downtown but as I began to search various chains I realized hotel rooms were few and far between. I finally found a room at the Doubletree. We grabbed a few things for the night and headed to the Doubletree just a few blocks away. When I checked in, the woman at the desk explained that they had rooms, but they were very cool, had no hot water and it was possible that they would lose power during the night. But what was our choice? This seemed to be the only game in town. We checked in and yes, the room was very chilly but certainly better than an indefinite time back at the house without power. Little did we realize when we checked in that this would be our home for the next three days.
The first night we were able to get pizza delivered to the hotel. For breakfast each day we had coffee we made in our room. Few restaurants were operating after the first day because in addition to the power outage, they had received no deliveries and anyway, most folks couldn’t get in to work. Patrick went out to scour the area and amazingly, found a seafood restaurant not far away. As he carried our treasured meals back to the hotel he was stopped by many who inquired where he had found the food! How lucky we were to have a hotel and the resources to pay for food when we found it.
Then suddenly on Wednesday morning the fire alarm went off! Unbelievable. Already wrapped in our warmest clothes, we tied our shoes and headed out the door. Right next to our room were the stairs. As we headed that way, the housekeeper stopped us saying, “No, no! Don’t go that way! The stairs aren’t safe!” Then she went on to explain she was sure it was a false alarm. What to do! She called down to the front desk and yep, an announcement shortly followed apologizing for our inconvenience. Later the housekeeper showed Bob the stairs she was referring to. They were outside. The snow on them had melted and then refroze resulting in a sheet of ice. We never could have maneuvered them from the fourth floor down to the street. For the next two days we watched the unfolding horror stories of people throughout Texas having no heat, no water, burst pipes, all accompanied by record low temperatures. We watched another catastrophic event become polticized as the governor tried to blame the problem on renewable energy. By Friday, San Antonio was still cold but power was on at our Airbnb. We had hot water, no pipes had burst and while we’d still have to boil our water, that would be a small inconvenience compared to how others were faring. And the sun was shining! It’s crazy how much we learned about energy in Texas in those few days!
There was more fallout from the storm as well. As I walked through the King William Neighborhood I realized that the orange tree I had previously admired had lost all its fruit. How sad! I don’t know enough about citrus fruit trees to know if it was just this year’s crop that was lost or if the tree itself is dead.
Because of the size of Texas we found we could take a lot day trips. Each very different. It appeared the temps were going to continue to warm up over the weekend. It was predicted to reach 73 on Sunday so we decided to drive to Corpus Christi, a little more than two hours south of us. Gas stations were open along the way, and we even picked up a couple of cases of bottled water not knowing when the boil water notice would be removed. We really enjoyed Corpus Christi. We first tried to track down the church where Bob’s parents were married in 1944 when his dad was stationed there in the Navy. The church has since been torn down but we found the general area and found it interesting to walk where they had walked more than 75 years ago. From there we drove just a couple of blocks to see the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier, docked there since the 1980s. It’s now a museum which obviously isn’t open during Covid. As large as it looks in dock, I’m thinking it still must appear just a speck in the water when trying to land a plane on its deck. So impressive.
We followed the water south, past street after street of luxurious homes, then the University of Texas, Corpus Christi, until we came to the JFK Causeway that took us out to Padre Island and Port Aransus.
We stopped to take a walk along the beach. Hard to believe earlier this week we had been stuck in a hotel because of a power outage caused by winter weather! I asked the clerk in a gift shop in Port Aransus if they had been affected by the storm and power outage. She said they hadn’t but she seemed a bit disappointed. She went on to say she had hoped to make snow angels but they turned out more like mud angels. Hmm…
A favorite part of travel for me is local food. On our way back to San Antonio we were looking for a place to eat. Patrick commented on how we used to select restaurants based on their menu. Now we select them on the basis of safety. Is there an outdoor dining area? Are staff masked? Are people socially distancing? I looked on YELP, my ever handy app, to find places locals liked. There appeared to be an outdoor barbeque about half way between Corpus and San Antonio. Would it be open? Well, we’d have to find out. We had discovered an outstanding Mexican restaurant, Rosarios, not far from our Airbnb when we first arrived in San Antonio. And although Uber Eats would deliver, if we picked our order up, we could order half gallons of margaritas.
Not a tough decision which way we’d go! We decided Rosarios would be our back up plan. But we were thrilled when we arrived at Choke Canyon Bar-B-Q and found they were open! They had a patio dining area and only one table was occupied. When we entered the restaurant we found staff were masked, and there was a hand sanitizer dispenser next to the walk up line where we placed our orders. We each got a barbque sandwich with a side. Food was amazing! Pat and I had a beer and Bob had sweet tea. The total bill came to less than $36! What a find!
Five of the largest fifteen cities in the country are in Texas but I never realized before we got here that San Antonio is the seventh largest! Along with the metropolitan parts of Texas, we’ve seen the gorgeous shores of Padre Island and Corpus Christi. We’ve seen desert. But I think my favorite is The Hill Country. The winding rocky hills set it apart from the rest of Texas. We had decided to venture to this part of the state so we could see the Lyndon B Johnson National Historic Park. The Johnsons donated the ranch to the federal government reserving the right to live the rest of their lives there. This is the ranch where LBJ was born, grew up and spent much of his free time. After the President died in 1973, Lady Bird continued to live there part time until her death in 2007. While the individual buildings are currently closed, there is a road that guides visitors through the working ranch. There were various historical markers along the drive. Upon entering the park, we first passed the family cemetery and also the small house where LBJ was born. This building was later converted into a guest house for friends and dignataries who were invited to the ranch.
Across the road from the cemetery we could see the church where the first Head Start Program was housed. Of particular interest to us was the landing strip LBJ had built so he could fly home directly from DC. The road ends at the homestead that overlooks the Pedernales River. LBJ was the first vice president to have a plane. The Lockheed 13 seater plane is housed in the hanger near the Johnson Home and is affectionately referred to as the One Half.
As we were leaving the ranch, we stopped at the giftshop where I asked the ranger for a suggestion for a nearby eatery, again with outside dining. He directed us into Johnson City (named after one of LBJ’s ancestors) to the Pecan Street Brewing Company. This turned out to be another great restaurant with lots of outdoor seating and people socially distanced. The food was great although we did find it a bit disconcerting that the guy at the next table was carrying a pistol on his belt. Guess we are in the wild west!
Probably the most iconic San Antonio spot is the Riverwalk. We especially liked it at night. There are lots of shops along the river which because of Covid we were very selective about entering. But it was fun to sit at an outdoor cafe, and people watch while sipping on a margarita. Note the band of seranaders who are fully masked! Pretty cool!
We really enjoyed our stay in San Antonio. It’s a beautiful city. We met lovely people. It’s very definitely bilingual giving us the feel of a foreign location. Even when times were toughest during the power outage we found people gracious. The city far exceeded our expectations.
The size of Texas is almost beyond understanding. Our next stay is in Las Cruces, NM. That’s only 40 miles beyond the Texas border. But the West Texas border is still 500 miles away. And we decided we wanted to add another 150 mile side trip (one way) down to Big Bend National Park. I mean, who knows, when and if we’ll be this way again?
About 200 miles west of San Antonio we came to the The Pecos Canyon High Bridge, the tallest bridge in Texas. It’s over 270 feet high and the first span was constructed in the late 1800s. That’s hard to even imagine! We stopped at a pretty overlook for great views. It’s said that on the west side of the Pecos is where the Wild West begins!
We continued on a couple hundred miles to Alpine, Texas, where we spent the night. These were the closest accomodations to Big Bend National Park I could find. The hotel clerk suggested a restaurant that had take out. But Patrick and I were stunned when we went in to pick up the order. Not only was it crowded, but there was no socially distancing. We didn’t see anyone who was masked including the staff! We picked up our dinner and high tailed it out of there as fast as we could.
Probably one of the things I liked best about West Texas was the dark skies which makes it possible to see stars and stars and more stars, so many in fact that it was hard to discern the major constellations. It was beyond description.
The next morning we drove the 72 miles to Big Bend National Park. The park is a combination of mountains, desert and various landforms. We followed the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive through the Chihuahuan Desert ending up at the Rio Grande River. We took the short walk down to Santa Elena Canyon which is the iconic view from all the Big Bend posters. We were suprised that the water was ice cold.
We saw some really scary yellow flood gauge signs on the roads throughout the park.
After spending a second night in Alpine, we headed to Las Cruces the next morning. We still had a 220 mile drive to El Paso and another 45 miles from there to Las Cruces. Even though we’ve been to the southwest several times before, I hadn’t realized how much the landscape of the desert varies from place to place. Not long after we left Alpine area we came to Marfa, Texas, a small artsy town with a population of less than 2000.
And just beyond the town, we encountered what we had been looking for, a Prada storefront! My reaction when I first read about it was, “WHAT?” The storefront is a permanent sculpture built in 2005. Prada furnished the items in the windows. A few months after the sculpture was completed it was broken into and six handbags and 14 right-footed shoes were stolen. A security system was then added. When we pulled off to the side of the road to take pictures, we were among more cars than we were to see in the next 300 miles!
As we continued our drive toward El Paso, we were awed by the desert views and the few cars were on the road. We continued to be amazed by the size of the state!