Far West Texas and Big Bend

Last week, Mattie and I made our first road trip alone, travelling to the remote wilds of Far West Texas. After a 300 mile journey along Highway 90, during which we made several photo stops and picnicked at Lake Amistad on the Mexican border, we arrived late afternoon at our destination: the Gage Hotel in Marathon.

A tiny town, Marathon today boasts little more than a grocer shop, a couple of churches and a library. It is so-named because one of its founders likened the surrounding area to the plains around Marathon in Greece. The hotel itself was built in 1927 by Alfred S. Gage, a wealthy local rancher, who wanted a comfortable lodging place to return to after he became a business leader in San Antonio. I had booked a room for three nights and for the next three mornings – after excellent coffee, homemade scones and Spanish omelette – Mattie and I drove through empty, rugged and quite beautiful scenery for 70 miles to the northern entrance gate of Big Bend National Park.

The other-worldly Big Bend, which covers over 800,000 acres of Far West Texas, is so-called because it lies on a big bend of the Rio Grande river that divides the US and Mexico. Built in 1944, it is the least visited National Park in the US because of its remoteness (the nearest airport is over 200 miles away). In its time the area has been home to early Chisos Indians, Comanches, Spanish and Mexican settlers and Anglo ranchers. Now just a few of the Park’s rangers live there.

Big Bend is famous for its spectacular geology, more than 1200 plant species (including some 60 cactus species) and wildlife – we spotted jack rabbits, quail and roadrunners though we missed the black bears and mountain lions! But just as thrilling for me were the pinkish-mauve and dark blue Texas sage bushes, desert and mountain wildflowers of every colour, shocking-pink cactus blossom and tall cream yucca plumes. On our first visit, at the start of a hike through Mexican pine, oak and juniper in the Chisos mountain range, Mattie was thrilled to spot a tarantula before it scooted into a hole. The views at the end of our long climb were breathtaking and we rewarded ourselves that evening with dinner at the Gage Hotel restaurant: I ate two locally caught quail on a bed of polenta and Mattie a roasted red pepper pizza. We shared a chocolate pudding.

As well as its cuisine, the Gage is noted for its cocktails and I very much enjoyed a Paloma – a mix of tequila, freshly squeezed ruby red grapefruit juice, Topo Chico (a Mexican sparkling water) and a dash of lime. Mattie, for tradition’s sake, had a Shirley Temple: ginger ale or sprite mixed with grenadine and a cocktail cherry – she recalled drinking her first Shirley Temple at the age of 6, the last time she, Mike and I were in this part of the world.

Mattie’s other memory of that earlier visit was of standing on the banks of the Rio Grande and watching a horseman come trotting over the river from the Mexican village of Boquillas. My memory is of her anxiously clutching her teddy bear as the rider approached a nearby rock where some handmade wire scorpions lay, gathered the few dollars left behind by tourists and trotted back across the river. At that time, I was unaware that this crossing point had once been a popular tourist stop but was closed by the Federal Government after September 11th. . The crossing point re-opened about a year ago and so, on the second day of our trip, Mattie and I were thrilled to be ferried across the river by rowing boat and then ride a mile or so by donkey into the village.

Although it was sad to see the old village bars and other adobe buildings that had gone to ruin since September 11th, it was also heartening to learn that Boquillas is experiencing something of a rebirth and around 50 people live there now. After passing through Mexican passport control (inside an old trailer) Mattie and I walked around the village with its bright-yellow stone church, tiny bright-pink school, old adobe ruins and small gift shops and restaurants where we stopped for a drink. Mules grazed outside villagers’ houses and occasionally a man on horseback trotted through the village. After buying a few souvenirs – including, of course, handmade wire scorpions – we heaved ourselves onto our ever patient mules and headed back to the river. On the other side, a roadrunner crossed our path; normally quite skittish, this one very kindly stopped for a photo. After snapping away, I turned and looked back at Boquillas, splendidly located against the backdrop of the massive Sierra del Carmen, and I felt as though I had left another world.

On our third and final day in the National Park, we drove along the Ross Maxwell scenic trail, stopping for photo shoots, a picnic and short hikes to remains of old adobe ranches. We ended up at the awe-inspiring Santa Elena canyon. Due to all the rain we have experienced recently in Texas, we had to wade through a small creek almost 3 feet deep in water to the canyon, cameras held high in one hand and clutching each other with the other. We then climbed steep stone steps to the canyon trail which we followed until its vast walls met the Rio Grande. Tiny (from our viewpoint) canoes in the river below lent a splash of bright colour to the magnificent scene.

Later that afternoon, we drove along the at times hair-raising, unpaved Old Maverick Trail which finally brought us to the Park’s west exit. ‘Let’s give each other a high 5’ said Mattie at the end of the day. She looked radiant and it struck me that being in this wonderful wilderness for a few days had done us both much good.

Dinner that night was in the Gage Hotel bar where a large white buffalo head on the wall peered over us. Two young men in cowboy hats and wearing silver belt buckles entered the bar, ordered their drinks and then sat in complete silence at the next table. I turned and took a peek at them: both cowboys were immersed in their iPhones, a reminder that we were in the real world once again…

A Cardinal In A Fig Tree

I was counting the figs on our fig tree, the other day, when I spotted a northern cardinal sitting in a tiny nest. The fig tree is only three years old and just a little taller than me, so I was surprised that the bird should choose such a low spot. The plumage of the female cardinal (in contrast to the bright-scarlet male) is a soft fawny-apricot, and they have a rather handsome orange beak. Occasionally, Mike and I will take a cautious peek at the one in our fig tree: sometimes all you can see is the scarlet tip of her tail; other times she is gone and we might see her in the loquat tree, at the bottom of the garden, being fed tidbits by her male. The eggs, by the way, are white with blue and brown spots.

Our own little bird had her last day at middle school last week and it was, so I heard, quite an emotional time for one and all. Happily, Mattie’s new high school, which will commence in late August, is only a little further away so I am sure that she, like many of the ex-middle schoolers, will pop in from time to time to see their favourite former teachers. Mattie’s last band concert was in fact the very evening I arrived back from a recent stay in Worthing to see my parents and Mattie, Mike and I had to make a quick dash from Austin airport to be there to watch marvellous Mr Rios, the band director, conduct the 8th grade musicians for the last time.

I seemed to have timed the weather right for my trip to the UK: Mike said it rained the whole time I was away. In Worthing, in contrast, it had rained up until my visit but didn’t begin to rain again until the day of my departure. It was lovely to see my parents, especially my mother, who had been poorly, but she was already making a good recovery around the time I arrived home. I also was pleased to see my parents living so cosily in their new flat, which is located closed to the town centre, beach, a charming old bowls club and excellent local shops. Inbetween outings to places like Chichester and Littlehampton (as well as a two-day sojourn I made to Lewes, staying with my sister, Molly, and family) I enjoyed many an invigorating walk along Worthing’s windswept shingle seafront, which is dotted with tiny villages, seaside cafes and beach huts.

There were three different types of cuisine that I hoped to enjoy whilst back home: roast lamb, fish & chips and a curry. I devoured a very delicious lamb roast at a lovely little pub near the village of Storrington which I visited with my parents (in fact, we went there twice). The excellent fish & chips we consumed at a local seaside café – the weather was so warm that day that we could eat around a table on the beach and the fish was particularly fresh; I have fond memories of washing it down with a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. Although there is an excellent Indian restaurant near my parents’ flat, we didn’t have time, in the end, to fit in a curry. Indeed, my stay was all too short and it was with great sadness that I said goodbye to my parents, outside their flat early in the morning, the taxi driver waiting. I had to smile to myself, during my flight, when the British Airways air steward came and asked me which lunch selection I would like and I ate, what turned out to be, a surprisingly good chicken tikka masala.

Enchanted Rock

We must have had perfect weather conditions (not too cold a winter, plenty of rain in spring) in advance of this wildflower season because the colours are just Glorious now. I have never before seen such a variety; even the local parks are sprinkled with flowers they’d don’t usually sport and yesterday, I had to concentrate hard to keep my eye on the road as I drove up Interstate 10, headed toward Enchanted Rock State Park: the central median and side verges of this Interstate are currently carpeted with swathes of bluebonnets, scarlet paintbrush, golden coreopsis, white-flowered milkweed, winecups – and violet, pink and lemon wildflowers the names of which I am not yet acquainted.

Whenever I visit Enchanted Rock – a huge dome of pink rock in the centre of the Hill Country – I always think back to the first time Mattie, Mike and I visited it just a few months after Mattie and I emigrated from the UK. Then we were in the midst of a house renovation, Mattie was about to start Middle School and I recall still feeling somewhat bewildered by the whole experience, so our hike that day for me was a breath of fresh air and, well, enchanting. Yesterday, I followed a trail (about 2.5 miles) around Enchanted Rock so that I was able to view it from all angles; the wildflowers were blooming, as well as dark-red flowers of small cactuses growing out of rocks and a plant called ‘blue curls’, which is similar to and in the same family as the lovely soft-blue caryopteris shrub that used to flower in autumn in my old garden back in Lewes. The scenery during parts of the trail was quite sparse – cacti, yuccas, splendid muhly grasses, old wizened live oaks – whilst other stretches were covered in golden wildflowers and small ponds were beginning to fill with pale-green sedum. At times I heard the soft scrunch of my footfall where the pathway was covered in tiny pieces of pink rock crystal; I picked up a larger piece to take home.

I ate a small picnic lunch on a group of high rocks overlooking the Hill Country and then continued my walk, now encountering large chimney-shaped boulders that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Just feet above my head vultures soared in a sky that earlier had been cloudy but now was that lovely shade of mid-blue I always associate with south Texas. (The only other wildlife I spotted were lark sparrows, cardinals and a black Hill Country squirrel.)

On my way back to San Antonio, I stopped by the small German town of Comfort where I purchased Dahlberg daisy plants from a small livestock & garden shop and enjoyed an excellent coffee and cake in a local café. Mike (who had been working that day) had just picked up Mattie from school on my return.
‘What’s that?’ Mattie asked, immediately having spotted the rock crystal on the kitchen counter.
‘It’s enchanted,’ I replied.
‘Can I have it?’
‘Yes of course! You can make a wish to it every single day.’
‘No, you can only make one wish,’ she declared.
‘OK Mattie,’ I said, with a smile.

Armadillos, Bobcats And Other Firsts

This week, whilst walking in a local park, an armadillo scuttled across the path in front of me. It was the first armadillo I have seen in Texas and I followed it for a while as it wandered through the grass and frogfruit (a Texas native groundcover that has suddenly sprung up in this warmer weather). Continuing on my walk, it occurred to me that I have experienced a series of especial wildlife ‘firsts’ lately. Only a couple of months ago I spotted a bobcat at Mitchell Lake, which is just a few miles south of San Antonio and noted for its migratory birds and ducks. The bobcat came out from behind a bush, strolled up to the lake and sat gazing out for a minute or so. I hardly dared to take a breath! Then he turned, spotted me and dashed back into the bush.

Around the same time, in the greenhouse of the Botanical Gardens where I volunteer once a week, I had my first sighting of a Monarch butterfly chrysalis which was suspended from one of the plants. Yesterday evening I was reminded of that chrysalis whilst watching a program about the annual migration of millions of Monarch butterflies from Mexico, via Texas, to Canada and back. Since only the fourth generation makes the journey from Canada to Mexico, I deduced that it must be that emergent butterfly’s great-grandchild which, hopefully, will arrive safely in Mexico this fall.

Mike, Mattie and I have just returned from our own trip to Mexico, albeit with the help of an airplane, a fine hotel and our guidebook. We stayed six blissful days in Huatulco, an as yet little developed beach resort on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. As soon as we spotted the tall palapa roofs of the airport, we knew it would be lovely. Even the dawn chorus screech of chacalacas in the trees outside our hotel window was thrilling (though Mike took a different view) and I loved watching the orioles, Mexican jays and great kiskadees swoop from palm to palm. After lounging on the beach or by the pool until mid-afternoon we would often take a short taxi drive to the small and quite charming town of Crucecita where, from the second-floor open shutters of our favourite restaurant, we could look down onto the little square, or Zocalo: no matter where you are in Mexico there always seems to be a balloon or ice-cream vendor going by, children playing in a fountain and couples strolling along the pathways of the Zocalo.

At the end of our beach trip, prior to our return to San Antonio, we spent a couple of days in Mexico City of which I again had no preconceptions. Luckily, it had rained just before our arrival and the sky was blue and there was no sign of smog. After dumping our bags in a hotel we had booked in the historical zone, we headed for the Zocalo and as soon as I saw it I knew I would love the city! This square must be fifty times bigger than the one in Crucecita. It is bordered by a huge cathedral, the National Palace, a fine arcade of shops, the ancient Aztec ruins of the Templo Mayor and the Gran Hotel de Mexico with its wonderful Tiffany stained-glass ceiling. After two days in the historical zone looking at other colonial buildings, Diego Riviera murals and dining at handsomely tiled restaurants that reminded me of Spain, we still had only covered half the area. Mattie, who had spent much of the holiday thus far taking pictures with a new camera (bought with Christmas money from former Lewes neighbour, Jo), was particularly riveted by a Cartier Bresson exhibition in the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts. Turning to me, she announced, ‘If you always took me to exhibitions like this, I’d always be willing to go!’ So I wondered whether this was not only a first for her, but a life-changing event?

Mariachi Bands, Chacalacas and Tarzan

The travel section of Sunday’s New York Times listed Texas as the second most visited place in the US and this, I am told, is because of San Antonio’s River Walk. Lined with tall cypresses, live oaks and smaller, exotic trees and blossoming foliage, you can stroll along the shops and patio restaurants as far as the museum district to the north, take a ride on one of the little tourist boats, or cycle to the Espada Mission in the south.
Three other Missions, all dating back to the 1700s, lie on or close to the San Antonio river and one of them, San José, holds a Mariarchi mass each Sunday. Shortly before Christmas, Mike and I attended the mass for the first time; I assumed it would be a touristy event and we were both pleasantly surprised to find the packed church mostly filled with parishioners. The service was bi-lingual, and to the side of the altar a Mariachi band accompanied the small choir that sang out so joyfully. It was very simple, and very sweet. Mike grinned afterwards that his former Methodist Sunday school teacher would have probably turned in her grave if she could have seen him there.

On Christmas Day, after we had opened gifts and enjoyed an early lunch of Tamales (a Mexican Christmas specialty given to us by our good neighbour, John Gonzales), Mike, Mattie and I went for a stroll in the downtown section of the River Walk. We saw Christmas lights that stretched from tree to tree and were lucky to get the last available table in an outdoors-heated Italian patio restaurant that we all like.

On Boxing Day, we drove at a leisurely pace to the southernmost tip of Padre Island, a 70 or so mile spit which, at its southern end, is accessible via the Queen Isabella causeway. The untouched, dune-lined beaches of Padre Island are almost empty at this time of year, save for seagulls, pelicans and other shorebirds. After shell-hunting, a picnic and a drive along the beach, Mike took Mattie for a swim in the hotel pool whilst I took out my binoculars and went for a stroll in the birding centre, opposite. Built on wetlands, all sorts of migrating ducks bobbed about on the water, blue and green herons and other waders stalked the rushes, and dozy alligators lounged (unfortunately I did not manage to get a glimpse of their babies). I was also thrilled to see a dozen or so roseate spoonbills having a nap, whilst out in the bay American white pelicans flapped. On the other side of the bay, brown pelicans flock around the tiny town of Port Isabel. This tiny, charming town which sports an old lighthouse used as a lookout post during the Civil War, had been an exclusive seaside resort during the last century – its excellent historical museum displays photos of yacht club members playing water polo.

The following day it drizzled when we left the Island, headed for the Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande River. I had read in my Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine that the newly built border fence, separating the US from Mexico, cuts right through this sanctuary and indeed, we had to drive through a hole, literally, in order to reach the original plantation house which now serves as a visitor center. Although raining by now, I had a quick trot around a small forest (according to a guide, the first Tarzan film was filmed there) of original sabal palms that once had flourished for 90 square miles along the Rio Grande River. Close by, the last battle of the Civil War was fought at Palmito Ranch, and at Boca Chica (‘Little Mouth’), the southernmost part of the Texas coast, a Silicon Valley tech giant has recently been given permission to build a rocket launch pad there. Mattie’s recollection of Boca Chica is that it is the only place in the world where she has pee’d in the rain.

On the final day of our trip, we drove further westwards along the Rio Grande River. Apart from the border fence that appeared here and there, I found the area quite charming: large oranges and grapefruit (the ruby red variety) grew on trees, fields were planted with sugar cane, broccoli, spinach and cotton, and in the middle of a ploughed field or two sat a brightly-festooned Mexican cemetery. We also spotted an unusual old brick church which, a historical marker informed us, had had its wooden steeple blown away in a snow storm during the last century. Small Mexican shops and restaurants dotted the route, too, as well as advertisements for a Curandero, or traditional native healer. Later turning inland, we headed for the gorgeous Estero Llano Grande State Park, built on wetlands and part of the World Birding Center. Already at its entrance green jays, chacalacas and red-winged blackbirds flocked around the feeders. Lunch was in a rather smart restaurant in the nearby prosperous town of McAllen – ‘The best meal I’ve had on our trip,’ said Mike, now rather tired of the coast’s staple of fried seafood. (The restaurant owner’s family has loaned many of its handsome artefacts, dating from the Mexican and Civil wars, to the new Briscoe Western Museum on San Antonio’s River Walk.)

US 281 took us back to San Antonio (about four hours’ drive north). On the way, I was mesmerized by all the peregrine falcons, red and white tailed hawks, and merlins (I think) that looked down haughtily from the telephone posts. In the back of the car, our little bird, Mattie, was mesmerized by her Ipod…

Three Thanksgivings

During Thanksgiving week, Mike, Mattie and I spent a few days in Louisiana. We stayed in Lafayette, in the heart of the Cajun country, about 130 miles west of New Orleans. At this time of year, Louisiana, with its pine and cypress lined bayous, sports lovely fall colour.

A day or two before we departed for Louisiana, I had been walking in a local park and noted how unusually warm and humid it was for late November. I also noted the lack of birdsong. Then, all of a sudden, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, a great gust of wind came up and leaves, like golden snowflakes, began to fall. Within seconds, or so it seemed to me, the temperature dropped 10 degrees and a raindrop or two fell. Quickening my pace, two white-tailed deer scooted into the bushes and a red-shouldered hawk swooped past, its gingery-red plumage recalling maple trees in fall.

There is, as far as I am aware, only one spot in Texas where one can enjoy maple trees and the reds and russets of their fall colours. Lost Maples State Park is situated 80 miles, or 1½ hours’ drive west of San Antonio along almost empty roads, cypress lined rivers and soft green meadows (it has rained a fair amount recently). One day whilst Mike was working, I visited the park for the first time and delighted in its autumn colours, craggy limestone bluffs and a three-mile hilltop hike.

In contrast to Lost Maples, the fall colours in Louisiana are shades of orange and apricot, and just as lovely. As a school girl, I vaguely remember our history teacher, Dr Tucker, telling us about the European colonisation of the US, but I had forgotten that the word ‘Cajun’ is a derivation of ‘Arcadian’ and that the Arcadians had been expelled by the British in the 1750s, partly for being Catholic and partly for fear they would side against them in the French and Indian war. Several thousand Arcadians came to this part of Louisiana (others were forcibly resettled in New England, Maryland and Virginia) and today the names of the first settlers appear on many business and shop fronts in Lafayette. During this visit I quickly learned that French – both Cajun and Creole versions – are still spoken in Louisiana; we heard Cajun French in the French bakery, around the corner to our hotel, where delicious beignets (French doughnuts), croissants and strong coffee made a fitting start to our first day. And later, that afternoon, we much enjoyed Cajun musicians speaking Cajun and Creole French between ancient folk tunes performed on the accordion, fiddle and guitar.

South of Lafayette, along the Bayou Teche, we next visited several small towns whose main streets are lined with a mix of antebellum homes – including the odd splendid plantation manor house – Creole cottages and late 19th century dwellings in the Queen Anne style. Despite it being Thanksgiving Day the sugar cane was being harvested and an old sugar processing plant billowed plumes of white vapour into the blue sky. Earlier in the day, we had visited Avery Island, famous for the production of Mclhenny’s tabasco sauce. Sadly, the factory was closed but we were still delighted by the island (named after the aviary McIlhenny built to save the snowy egret from extinction). Louisiana bald cypress trees and huge southern live oaks, draped in Spanish moss, grow around the bayous and there are holly and blossoming camellia groves, too. During warmer months, alligators are active in the bayous and far more birds would have been in evidence – all I spotted were a few snowy egrets, a blue heron, waders with long orange beaks and a red-headed turkey vulture hogging the chimney of McIlhenny’s old house.

With most restaurants closed for Thanksgiving Day, Mike, Mattie and I had enjoyed our special meal the evening before, in a smart restaurant called Jolie. We savoured a fine potato soup, shrimp grits and redfish, followed by beignets (of course) topped with hot chocolate sauce; all was washed down with some excellent pinot noir, local beer and delicious coffee.

‘I’ve had three Thanksgivings in America, haven’t I?’ Mattie asked over dinner and we recalled that her first Thanksgiving had been in Galveston, the second in Port Aransas and now the third in Louisiana. Wearing a serious expression, she then said, ‘I think of all the places we’ve visited in America, San Antonio is the only place I want to live…At the age I am now.’

Ten Birthdays

In the entrance hall of Macey’s middle school are two framed photographs that often catch my eye. The first is of the school when it was first built, in the early 1970s. It then was surrounded by fields, palm trees dotted the grounds, there was hardly a car on the street outside, and only two brightly-coloured, classic American cars stood in the school car park. These days, those fields have become low-rise apartment blocks, live oaks and mountain laurels have replaced the palms, the road heaves with traffic and the multitude of cars in the car park look mostly no different to those you would see on European roads.

The second photograph is entitled ‘The Hansen Quads’ and this one I find particularly interesting because it features four identical, blond, curly haired sisters who attended school there in the mid-1980s. In those days, the majority of pupils would have been white. Nowadays, the majority, like the City of San Antonio itself, is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

I thought back to that photograph of the Hansen quads on Monday, when I attended the school’s band concert. I looked around the audience and was struck, not for the first time, by the number of enrapt, little brown-skinned brothers and sisters, all beautifully behaved, and the expressions of their proud parents as their older children performed. I also observed several white and Hispanic children, chatting and laughing together during the intervals, and I wished I could have frozen that moment of obvious harmony in time, so that none of the children would ever be confronted by racism.

As another proud parent, I watched Macey, with her flute, during the performance of Star Spangled Banner, and I have to say that tears came to my eyes as I thought of her having just celebrated her 14th birthday – her 10th with me. I then noticed her feet tapping to the beat, and I recalled that minutes before the concert, Madam had informed me that she had no black dress shoes to wear. ‘Why don’t you think in advance?’ I had admonished her, ‘I could have picked you up a pair today! ‘I’ll wear my navy Converse,’ she said, ‘They’ll be OK.’ I then shifted my gaze to all the other tapping feet and noted that only one other child was wearing Converse.

During the subsequent playing of America The Beautiful, it was the band director’s, Mr Rios’, shoes that interested me. At last year’s performance, this hugely popular, and recently promoted, music teacher came up to me, as I sat on the front row, and joked that he did not have any black shoes and consequently had had to borrow a pair. I recall chuckling to myself as he then shuffled, in his huge shoes, to the rostrum. This year, happily, Mr Rios was wearing shiny black, brand new loafers – and they fitted him to a tee…

Jelly Cats And Pink Bear

Hard to believe that Mattie has been back in school for more than a month!

The start of a new school year has never been the easiest of time for Mattie but I get the feeling this time round, entering 8th grade, that she has settled a little better that in previous years. One reason for my thinking thus was the difference in Mattie’s reaction to the new 6th graders. Last year, she had arrived home on her first day and, with a look of disgust on her face, said, ‘Mummy, the new sixth graders are so small – one of them only comes up to here!’ (she had pointed to her waist). This year, Mattie arrived home and said, ‘Mum, those new sixth graders are so cute!’

Last week a bug was doing the rounds of the local schools and one morning the school nurse rang to say that Mattie was feeling a little queasy and needed to be picked up. As soon as Mike brought her home she promptly fetched her favourite throw and pillow from her bedroom, along with several cuddly toys, and settled down very happily on the sofa to watch morning TV. I did not think Mattie seemed particularly unwell but I nevertheless made her a hot water bottle which is something of a tradition at such times. Later that day, I sat near her on the sofa as she picked up each cuddly toy (all of them ‘jelly cats’) and reminded me who had given her each one. The oldest was a pale-grey cat given to her by my brother, Lloyd, shortly after her adoption. The second oldest, a buttermilk-coloured rabbit, had come from Mike. Then came a shaggy rabbit from her Aunty Molly and Mattie reminded me that Molly had bought her cousin Mei an identical one. The fourth ‘jelly cat’ was a fluffy fawn-coloured rabbit from her Aunty Caryl – ‘This one has especially soft pads,’ Mattie said, fingering the rabbit’s feet. We then came to the last ‘jelly cat’, a pale-brown rabbit. I scratched my head for a moment until Mattie began to grin and I then remembered buying her this cuddly toy in Oregon, during our recent road trip. ‘I bought it because you forgot to bring a cuddly toy along,’ I said. It was the first time she had failed to do so and I had been surprised.

Mike, who had been listening to our conversation, smiled and said, ‘So are you going to take all your cuddly toys to college with you later on?’ Mattie promptly replied, ‘No, only Pink Bear, he will always be my favourite.’ Mike had bought Pink Bear during our first Christmas visit to Texas when Mattie was five. Whilst the two reminisced, I thought of the English homework that Mattie had been assigned to read and answer questions on earlier that week. Entitled The Middle School Conundrum it pointed out that although adolescents in middle school (ages 11-14 here) sometimes act like 15 year-olds, underneath they are are much like the 9 and 10 year-olds who have not long left elementary school behind; and because teachers do not always pay heed to how emotionally close the middle schooler is to the elementary schooler, they miss the chance to teach the whole person – the child who is leaving childhood behind as well as the young adult looking to be more independent.

The paper, combined with the picture before me of Mattie, lying on the sofa with her hot water bottle and surrounded by her cuddly toys, seemed to me to be a reminder to we parents, too…

Are We There Yet?

According to last Sunday’s New York Times, the heyday of the family roadtrip was in the 1950s and 1960s as the expanding system of interstate highways resulted in quicker driving times across the country. Long summer car trips remain a rite of passage in the US and during the July 4th weekend, when Mike, Mattie and I embarked on our own road trip, over 30 million American families did likewise (although the average 730 miles clocked up was somewhat less than the 6000 we undertook…)

We began our journey on Texas Highway 90, driving westwards from San Antonio through a landscape of scrub and mesquite interspersed for miles with the glorious pink-purple blossom of Texas sage. At the Mexican border we then drove through part of Texas that is flat, empty and quite otherworldly; at Seminole Canyon State Park, an area first inhabited 12,000 years ago and where we stopped for a picnic, we were the sole visitors in the July heat, the only sound that of the wind which kept blowing our picnic cups and plates away. We continued north-westwards on Highway 90, briefly stopping at the tiny town of Langtry, by the Rio Grande, where the infamous Judge Roy Bean practised law at the end of the 19th century (he named the small town after his favourite actress, Lily); and late afternoon at the splendid Gage Hotel in Marathon where a white buffalo head adorns the bar. Marathon, once the cradle of the west Texas cattle business, lies in rolling prairie land, at the foot of the Davis Mountains, where antelope roam. ‘I feel as though I’ve had a holiday’s worth already,’ I told Mike as the three of us sat in the hotel bar. ‘Wait till you see the rest of it,’ he chuckled.

The following morning, after overnighting in El Paso, we crossed the border via New Mexico into Arizona and on our approach to Tucson, in the Sonoran desert, the landscape became filled with ocotillo trees, organ pipe and saguaro cacti. Tucson, the second largest city in Arizona, is most gloriously surrounded by five mountain ranges; at the foot of one is the cactus-filled Tucson Mountain Park and after lunch in the old quarter we had a stroll around the park before our onward journey to Flagstaff, gateway to the Grand Canyon. The altitude became higher and the terrain gradually changed to mountains covered in pine forest (though it was dark by that time, and stormy, and only when flashes of lightening illuminated the sky were the pines visible).
The morning of our second wedding anniversary was spent at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. What must the native Americans, and the first settlers, thought when they first saw the Canyon? I wondered. Its impact was even more striking when we left the tourists and drove along the eastern end of the Canyon. We then continued further into northern Arizona on a fabulously beautiful road which skirted the edge of the Navajo Indian Reservation and gave onto breathtaking vistas of the aptly named Vermillion cliffs. The landscape was just as breathtaking all the way to Utah.

Our first night in Utah was spent in an adobe hotel in the town of Kanab, and in a nearby restaurant we enjoyed smoked Idaho trout and Mike and I, a glass of fine Washington State wine. The following morning, at the supermarket, where we replenished our picnic supplies of turkey, bread and fruit, Mattie was fascinated to see several women from a Mormon sect, all sporting long Victorian-like dresses and Sarah Palin-like hair. On our onward journey, we stopped at a German bakery for some delicious croissants and a loaf of rye bread stuffed with olives, then drove for a couple of hours through lovely, gently undulating farmland pasture. This changed abruptly as we entered the Red Canyon, in Dixie National Forest, an arid desertscape of red sandstone pinnacles. Just 30 or so miles further on was the Bryce Canyon National Park, an isolated area which contains thousands of fantastically shaped, pinkish-red carved spires and pinnacles (or hoodoos). Violet-green swallows and ravens flew in and out of the canyon as we walked around, taking photos, and Mattie was particularly thrilled to spot a couple of chipmunks. We spent the night in northern Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, and following her sighting of the Mormon women in Kanab, Mattie was looking forward to visiting the Mormon Temple the next morning. After a brief (and somewhat underwhelming for Mattie) viewing we picnicked at a pretty lakeside beach and bird reserve and worked out the route to take through Idaho.

I had no preconceptions of Idaho. ‘It’ll be very pretty,’ Mike said. In fact, it was truly gorgeous – not flashy like Arizona and Utah with their stunning shades of reds and pinks: Idaho is more subtly beautiful, a land of blue-greys and soft purples. On first entering the state we drove through a vast, quite awe-inspiring plain, which we learned was the birthplace of the nuclear navy and site of many nuclear reactor experiments. The plain is 900 square miles in total, completely flat, and so open that at one point the wind pushed our (rather large) vehicle rather frighteningly into the opposite lane. The scenery and colours changed as we left the plain and began our drive through the Salmon River mountain range, stopping in the early evening for a picnic at an idyllic lakeside setting with a sandy beach; several people there were fishing. On our approach to the hamlet of Challis, where we were to spend the night, the sun was setting and we were thrilled to spot a mountain lion cross the road before us. Later that evening we enjoyed the motel’s outdoors jacuzzi that gave onto the mountain range, and the next morning a delicious country breakfast of poached eggs, locally made sausage and hash browns. Invigorated, we drove on through northern Idaho, tracing the canyons of the Salmon River, and during one photo stop marveled at the sight of two golden eagles on a low branch of a tree. By early afternoon we had crossed the border into Montana, our destination Missoula, a university town where Mike’s eldest daughter, husband and two grandchildren live.

The afternoon of our arrival in Missoula, we enjoyed catching up over fish tacos and quesadillas, a walk on the nearby mountainside that can be seen from Courtney and Andrew’s kitchen window, and later, a gin and tonic, watching the sun set from their balcony. Mattie loved spending time with her two small step nieces. During our stay, we decided on a trip to the Glacier National Park, situated in the Northern Rocky Mountains, just south of the Canadian border. The Park consists of more than a million acres of forest, alpine meadows, lakes, rugged peaks, glacial-carved valleys, mountain lodges (which reminded me of Switzerland) and lots of grizzly bears (unfortunately we didn’t see one). In 1850 the park had 150 glaciers but now, sadly, there are only 25 active ones. Looking back, our visit to Glacier Park must come close to the top of all the highlights of our road trip, though Mike, who insisted on doing most of the driving, including along the hairpin bends with sheer drops, would probably disagree – especially as we had miscalculated the distance and it took five hours to get back to Missoula after departing the east end of the Park. Eek! Even so, the scenery was gorgeous every mile of the way and as I looked over the vast plains to the south of Glacier Park, I imagined them full of buffalo and Indians on horseback. After arriving back at midnight, whilst everyone went to bed, Mike I shared a glass of wine and had a chuckle about our epic trip.

On departing Montana and re-entering Idaho for a while, we drove through the Bitterroot and Clearwater mountain ranges, an area where, in 1877, the Nez Perce Chief Looking Glass and his tribe had camped on their way to seek refuge with Sitting Bull across the Canadian border. (Looking Glass was shortly thereafter killed by a Cheyenne army scout). Later, we briefly crossed into Washington State, where rolling hills were covered literally from top to bottom with golden wheat, then across the border into eastern Oregon, spending the night in Pendleton, famous for its woollen mills founded in the late 1800s and as a maker of fine Indian trading blankets. The following morning we bought some handsome cushions and a saddle blanket for our sofa back in San Antonio then drove along the beautiful Colombia River, which separates Oregon from Washington State. Turning southwards, I spotted, to the west, the huge snow-capped peak of Mount Jefferson, one of the major volcanos in the Cascade mountain range.

Eastern Oregon is desert like, shades of yellow and pink, quite lovely, again quite empty and there always seemed to be a snow-capped volcano on the horizon. After a late patio lunch in the hip central Oregon town of Bend, where a film festival was in progress, we had a pleasant drive around the Cascade Lakes, which are surrounded by thick forests – mostly fir trees – and enjoyed lakeside views of further volcanos and marshland sprinkled with wildflowers and geese. At 7.30pm Mike became worried that we might find it difficult to find a hotel room in this much visited part of the state and we were indeed lucky to get the last room in the only hotel in the next town. After an hour in the hotel jacuzzi and a restful night’s sleep we headed the following morning for Crater Lake National Park. The glorious Crater Lake lies inside a volcanic basin and is the deepest lake in the US, filled almost entirely by snowfall, and when I look back at my photos, the lake’s colour (a bright blue with emerald tinges) and clarity are surreal. We then forged on to Ashland, to stay a couple of nights with my old friends Jim and Neil. (Those of you who have read ‘Dear Mummy Welcome’ will recall that Jim and Neil indirectly introduced me to Mike in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico). Ashland is a small town noted for its annual Shakespeare festival, and people flock there from around the US. It was fun to catch up in Jim and Neil’s lovely arts & crafts home and when we drank margaritas on their patio I was reminded of the last time we did so, all of ten years ago, in Mexico.

From Ashland we headed straight for the Californian coast, emerging at the small town of Crescent City which was disappointingly enveloped in sea fog. Luckily, the sea fog mostly cleared as we drove southwards along this rugged coastline where cliff tops and cliff sides are almost completely covered with wildflowers in shades of scarlet, cream, yellow, lavendar, pink and orange. The beaches, too, are covered in part with blossoming dark pink and yellow succulents and orange poppies, and many birds are flocked on the craggy rocks. Some of the coastal towns sport quite lovely Victorian buildings in pristine condition. And not to mention those magnificent redwoods preserved in the many State Parks up and down the northern Californian coast…Our first night in California was spent in the Victorian town of Fort Bragg, which was in fact founded as a military garrison, not a fort, prior to the Civil War. The next day we followed the coast as far as the lighthouse at Point Arena, then turned inland, through countryside roads lined with eucalyptus trees and blossoming wild fennel, and fields dotted with old wooden farmsteads, Jersey cows and the odd herd of elk. We then hooked into Highway 101, towards San Francisco, arriving there exactly two weeks after our departure from San Antonio.

Our time in San Francisco, in the home of Michael’s youngest daughter and family, was all too short but we did enjoy a few hours in the quite un-touristy coastal town of Pacifica, just a few miles to the south of the city. In the evening we ate at an excellent Italian restaurant on Potrero Hill where one can enjoy wonderful views of the San Francisco bay area and city skyline. Mattie again loved having time with her little step nephew and niece. On our day of departure, after a late Mexican breakfast in a local café in the Mission district, we said our goodbyes, yet again packed up the car and continued southwards along the Californian coast to Big Sur. We luckily hit the tourist traffic just right because there was hardly a car in sight as soon as we left Carmel, at the start of Big Sur. The scenery was simply breathtaking especially as the sun was gradually sinking in the sky, at times disappearing behind a low band of cloud, so that the coastline looked quite different each time we turned a bend. At around 8pm we had nowhere booked for the night and were getting quite anxious as there was hardly a sign of habitation. Then, around another bend, appeared the hamlet of Gorda (“fat” in Spanish) and the ‘Vacancy’ sign was happily illuminated. That evening, from our balcony, we watched the sun finally disappear into the Pacific Ocean whilst hearing sea lions bark on nearby rocks. It was all quite enchanting. The next morning I noted a well outside the inn and learned that the fresh springs in Gorda were once used by native American tribes; that the first white settlers arrived in 1878 when a stagecoach stop was built and that the place further expanded with the gold rush of the 1880s – interesting that such a tiny place, now sporting only a few gas pumps and a small inn, was once such a hive of activity.

The following morning we set out with the plan to follow the coast as far as San Luis Obispo – one of California’s oldest communities and about 200 miles north of Los Angeles – and then turn eastwards, towards Texas. We enjoyed a brief glimpse of Hearst Castle at San Simeon where, in the 1920s and 1930s, William Randolph Hearst entertained the Hollywood and political elite, including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. We also visited the nearby Hearst Memorial Beach where a poster warned visitors not to remove whale bones from the beach. A little further down the coast, at a small seaside town called Cayucos (“Canoes”) we ate an excellent lunch of halibut and chips (as good as any fish and chips that I have had in the UK!), washed down with a glass of fine Californian wine. Turning eastwards, we took a cross-country route for a couple of hundred miles through a quite forbidding craggy landscape where almost the only sign of life was a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The terrain later flattened out and became alternately lined with oil derricks, cotton fields, orange groves and vineyards. Early evening we joined Interstate 40, spent the night at Needles, just across the border from Arizona, and the following morning continued on the same interstate, driving through Kingman, Arizona, once a famous stopping point on Route 66. We later enjoyed a picnic lunch at Walnut Canyon National Monument where we learned that the very impressive and well preserved cave dwellings there were constructed during the 12 and 13th centures by Sinagua Indians. We crossed the border into New Mexico late afternoon, enjoying beautiful, typically New Mexican, scenery all the way to Albuquerque where we enjoyed an excellent dinner in a wine bar, and spent the night. We were now just a couple of days from San Antonio…

From Albuquerque we drove south-east through some impressive, though unusually (for New Mexico) flat countryside, passing through small towns like Artesia, known for its artesian wells and dotted with oil derricks. We enjoyed a surprisingly good Mexican lunch in the infamous town of Roswell and visited its international UFO museum and research centre: in 1947, during a severe thunderstorm, an airborne object crashed on a nearby ranch and although residents were adamant that it was a spacecraft containing extraterrestrial life, the military denied it and the incident has been subject to conspiracy theories ever since…

We crossed the border into west Texas during the early evening, spending the night at Fort Stockton. Interesting that, apart from parts of California, the approach to Fort Stockton was the only time during our road trip we experienced traffic problems – this time, due to the oil trucks and pickups going home after a day’s ‘fracking’. Fort Stockton was established in 1859 to protect the San Antonio-San Diego mail route from the Comanches and I recalled that we had passed through the town during our first ever road trip with Mattie, when she was just five…

Three weeks after leaving Texas, we arrived back in San Antonio. We all slept very well, and very late, the next several days…

Highways and Alleyways

Let me tell you a little about the neighbourhood where we live. Colonial Hills is situated a few miles north-west of Downtown, San Antonio and most of the houses were built in the 1960s, so it is called a mid-century neighbourhood. Our neighbourhood is ‘in transition’ – the original owners have either passed on or moved away and their old houses are being renovated (or ‘remodeled’ as they say here) by younger incumbents.

A small dry creek marks the south end of Colonial Hills, about half a mile from our house. Only when it rains hard does this creek fill up; it is usually dry again within days. I am sure there must be some interesting wildlife at the creek though all I have seen are the flattened remains of a bull frog. The creek is at its prettiest in spring and summer when it fills with wildflowers and obscures the litter that is sometimes thrown carelessly into it. To the south of the creek is a freeway that leads to Downtown San Antonio – reachable within 15 minutes by car or an hour by the bus that stops close to our home. Just to the west runs the Interstate 10 which will take you as far as Santa Monica in the west and Jackson, Florida in the east.

Our house is rare in this neighbourhood because it is has two stories. Its peachy-beige brick looks very pretty in the evening sun. Our front garden (or ‘yard’ as they say here) contains two great live oak trees that stretch over the wide boulevard-like street. On the other side of the street, deer visit our neighbours’ front yards from time to time; these white-tailed deer live near a pond which is also enjoyed by skunks, opossum and a coyote or two.

Each morning, it is common to see neighbours doing their regular circuit of Colonial Hills – about 1½ miles in the round; one can take a longer walk by including the alleyways between the back yards. Unlike the front yards, which tend to be uniformly manicured, the back yards reveal far more about the people who live here. I can see swimming pools in their yards, swing chairs, tree houses, bird boxes, basketball stands, barbecue grills, slides, beach towels flung over lawn chairs, chickens, a goat or two, and a birdcage which contains what turned out to be a stuffed parakeet – I spent a minute or two studying it before realising that it was artificial. The back yards also contain an interesting variety of dog life. When walking by I get yapped at by numerous Chihuahuas, a couple of lazy-looking Labradors, a world-weary Alsation, not to mention an assortment of mongrels, most of them rescued from the nearby dog home. The dogs bark so loudly when I walk by that I must surely be the most interesting event of their day. (In those back yards that carry a ‘Beware the Dog’ sign I have never seen a sign of dog life at all…)

If I am the main source of excitement for the back yard dog population then in late summer the ripe fig and pomegranates growing on neighbours’ trees are the main source of excitement for me (we have recently planted our own trees and I am pleased to see that they both are bearing fruit). Some back yards sport banana trees, too, but these only fruit after a mild winter (last winter was so cold here that our own banana trees froze completely back). Another common fruit tree in this neighbourhood is the Loquat (or ‘Japanese plum’) tree which has a rather lush, tropical look and bears apricot-like fruit around May. I also enjoy the blossoming foliage that lines the alleyways: clear blue Plumbago, deep yellow Esperanza, orange-scarlet Pride of Barbados – not to mention the pink and lemon blossoms that adorn the cholla and pricky pear cactuses. It should all look a mess but somehow it works. The trees and the power lines above the alleys are also worth viewing, for the squirrels doing their trapeze acts, as well as a large variety of noisy birdlife – the ubiquitous grackle, white-tailed doves, wrens, woodpeckers, scarlet cardinals, mocking birds, blue jays, and the occasional vulture – a neighbour’s prize hen was recently plucked out of its hutch by one…