Family Get-togethers

Whilst walking in the park recently, I heard a rustling noise in the scrub and saw something scurry away. I hurried along the pathway and then saw, through a gap in the bushes, the long, narrow face of a coyote looking at me, his pale face harmonising well with the wintry colours of the landscape. By wintry, I mean that the shrubs that line the park’s pathways and that in summer are full of tiny white blossom, are now bare and their tangled mass of thin branches appear a fawnish haze in the bright morning sun. Also at this time of year, the prickly pear cactuses take on a softer, blue-green hue.

Not long ago we all celebrated Thanksgiving and this year it was with Mike’s youngest daughter, her husband and two little ones who had come to stay with us for a few days. On the special day itself we eschewed the traditional turkey and Mike cooked beef fajitas over charcoal of mesquite; we ate them with wheat and corn tortillas, several delicious types of salsa, black beans, guacamole and salad, followed by fruit pie and a chocolate-pumpkin cake. Little Teddy, Mike’s six year-old grandson, helped me make the guacamole and he was rather concerned at first that I had put too much lime juice into it. I hadn’t but I did add more serrano chili pepper than I had intended, making it rather hot; consequently, poor Teddy had to drink copious amounts of water in between demolishing large dollops of the bright-green mush on blue-corn tortilla chips.

Just before Thanksgiving, Mattie and I travelled to far west Texas for a few days. En route we first visited the wild underground caves at Kickapoo Caverns State Park, in the middle of nowhere. Not only were the caves fascinating but a real workout too as we climbed up and down rocks whilst hanging onto our flashlights. Our tour group consisted primarily of boy scouts and looking back, I was probably the oldest one there. It was interesting to see inscriptions, dating from the 1880s on some of the huge stalactites and other formations, which had been engraved by soldiers out on daytrips from nearby Fort Clark.

The following morning, after spending the night at Comstock, a tiny ‘one motel, one restaurant’ town just this side of the Rio Grande river (I would call it a village but they don’t say that here), we later joined a tour with another group of boy scouts to see the rock art of prehistoric Indians at nearby Seminole Canyon State Park (The boy scouts’ leader, it turned out, was none other than Michael’s dentist from back home in San Antonio). After a picnic lunch, Mattie and I travelled two hours to our final destination of the Gage Hotel in another tiny town, Marathon. Whilst Mattie skyped a friend on her ipod, I cycled the mile or so to Iron Mountain Ranch. Scores of quail in the fields scattered here and there as I rode by, a jackrabbit bounded through the scrub and several handsome horses and a large bull looked on as I approached the ranch gates. I was surrounded on all sides by mountain and hill ranges, the sky was a cloudless clear blue and there was complete silence. It was idyllic.

During the next two days, Mattie and I enjoyed hikes in Big Bend National Park and also a few hours’ pottering around nearby Alpine and Marfa. I had an excellent margarita and Mattie a ginger ale in the bar of Marfa’s historic Paisano hotel; the film ‘Giant’, starring Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean runs for 24 hours non-stop in the hotel lobby – the cast stayed at the hotel when the film was shot on location nearby. It was dusk when we later drove back towards Marathon. There was a huge, full moon in the violet sky and we thrilled at the sight of a family of javelinas crossing the wide, empty road.

Generals and Cardinals

Recently, I attended a parents’ breakfast meeting at the Robert E Lee High School that Mattie now attends. Only a few mums and dads attended, the 7am start time probably putting many off; I have to admit, I had been partly lured by the promise of a light breakfast which consisted of delicious (and anything but light) pastries and cake, a large plate of fruit and copious amounts of steaming coffee. The meeting had been called by the head of the school district mainly to introduce, and gain support for, a new bond issue that will result in improvements for a number of schools in this part of San Antonio. During a subsequent Q&A session, an African American parent seated behind me enquired as to the latest status regarding the school’s name.

When, more than three years ago, Mattie and I arrived in San Antonio, I knew little of the American Civil War though I did know that Robert E Lee (of whom there is a rather handsome large statue outside her school) was a revered general of the Confederacy, which stood for the right to own slaves, the use of which formed the economic backbone of the south’s economy at the time. But after the recent Charleston church mass shooting, many African Americans, and others, too, have become more sensitive to the names of certain public buildings in the southern states.

At the breakfast meeting, the African American parent articulated his views for several minutes but the other parents remained silent on the issue; it was like the elephant in the room. The head of school district’s final response was that opinions swing both ways and until there exists sufficient support for a formal vote, the school’s name remains. As only a small percentage of African Americans lives in San Antonio (much larger populations live in the north and east of Texas) I imagine that a vote, at least in the near future, is unlikely, though I like to think that Robert E Lee (decent man as he was in many ways), were he to rise from his grave today, would say, ‘Time to move on.’

After the meeting ended, I drove to Guadalupe River State Park, about 40 minutes’ drive north-east of San Antonio. The beautiful cypress-lined river that runs through the park is again deep enough to swim in since the May floods, and after a short hike I took a picnic and book, cushion and blanket to the river bank and spent a lovely couple of hours swimming and reading, the silence only punctuated by bird song and the buzzing of royal blue dragonflies. A pair of majestic, black-headed vultures looked down haughtily from a tall tree and tiny grey fish swam at the river’s edge.

On the northern side of the river, beyond a handsome limestone bluff, stands an old farmstead with a rusting tin roof that once belonged to early German settlers. What a marvellous location for a house, I thought, though of course the new immigrants would have had to contend with the Comanches and Apaches that roamed the area and used this very river. My previous visit to the state park had been in winter when most of the trees were bare and there was a stunning flash of scarlet every now and then as northern cardinals swooped amongst the trees.

Signs of Fall

The other day in our front yard two tall, lime green stems appeared out of the ground. At first I was unsure as to what these plants were. Then, soon after, vivid scarlet spikes appeared on top and I recalled the handful of Oxblood Lily bulbs that a lady at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens had given me a while ago. This particular variety, known as Hill Country Red, sports blooms the colour of a matador’s cape. Originating in Argentina, they were introduced to this state by a German Texan at the start of the last century.

Lilies aside, there is another sign that fall is here: Mattie has commenced her first year of high school! After successfully auditioning for a major in creative writing, she is attending what is known here as a magnet school, for children gifted in the arts.

On the first morning of her new school, Mattie came into my study early, whilst I was editing my second book, and said, ‘Mummy, I feel nervous.’ After some words of reassurance, I said, ‘That’s what you said on your first day of ‘big school’ when you were four…Do you want me to read you that bit in Dear Mummy, Welcome?’ Mattie nodded yes and Mike joined us as I read out the respective page. For a moment I felt as though we were back in my old study in Sussex, with its view of the Downs and our cat chasing the tom next door.

Ten years later, at her high school in Texas, Mattie seems to be having a ball, making new friends, receiving lots of invitations – oh, and doing some homework in between. It was both touching and amusing, the other day, to see Mike check over a piece of creative writing homework – actually, a rather beautiful piece, in which she writes to her late foster mother – and I thought of all those times Mike similarly helped me.

I look back very fondly on the ten weeks of Mattie’s summer holidays: Taking her and her friend, Destiny, camping in the Hill Country. Then dropping Mattie off each day for her 2-week black & white photography course at art school; Mike’s brother had sent her a beautiful old Canon SLR for the course and she took it, along with several reels of b/w film, on our subsequent road trip a deux to Far West Texas. (I have just taken the films to be developed and we can’t wait to see the results). Later in the holidays, Mike, Mattie and I travelled to New Mexico – as charming and evocative a place as ever.

On our return to Texas, we had just enough time to clean and tidy up before my sister, Molly, brother-in-law, Tom, and nieces, Mei and Poppy came to stay. We all missed them when they left and I think of them often, particularly our wonderful day at the coast on my birthday; swimming in the river at Gruene, a little German town in the Hill country; eating on our patio before a late swim in the pool; our farewell dinner, serenaded by Mariachi singers, on the patio of La Margarita restaurant in the Mexican quarter. What we all loved, too, was the fact that although Mattie and Mei had not seen each other (other than on Skype) for a year, they hit it off immediately and they appeared to be just as close as since the first day they met at nursery school when they lifted each other up like two little Sumo wrestlers. Then Mei was only three, and much shorter than Mattie; now the athletic 13 year-old tops her older cousin by four inches at least…

The White Place

Recently, in the basement shop of San Antonio Central Library, I bought for $5 a beautiful, oversized hardback book containing 100 or so colour plates of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings (a few plates had been torn out). Both the paintings and the accompanying text by the artist I found inspiring. So during a road trip that Mike, Mattie and I made to New Mexico, when I learned that the artist’s old house was open to the public, I was most interested.

‘It’ll take just over an hour to get to Abiquiu from Taos, if you take the cross-country route,’ the lady on the other end of the telephone advised. ‘Can you make it by 1pm?’
‘I’m sure we can’, I replied, glancing at my watch: we had well over 2 hours to get there.
Mike, who unfortunately had some urgent business to attend to that day was unable to join me and Mattie. He kindly filled the coolbox with ice and I did a quick check of our picnic goodies and then we were off. We drove out of town the wrong way but my mistake did allow us a glimpse of the Ranchos de Taos church, plates of which I recalled from my gorgeous book. We turned around and then drove west on scenic Highway 64 to the Rio Grande gorge, traversing the river via a rather splendid bridge. Mattie was now napping so I parked and left her for a few minutes whilst I took a photo. I felt a little dizzy gazing into the depths.

Half a mile beyond the gorge bridge, we turned south and drove along a long, empty road until I spotted the river again in the distance and I made a slight detour to get a different view of it. The Rio Grande was even more beautiful here than at the gorge bridge, and void of tourists, too. With a glance at the time I hopped back in the car and a little later we were heading south-west along one of those roads that on the map looks as though you’ll only be on it for a few minutes but which goes on forever and I began to feel a little anxious, wondering if I had missed some turnoff along the way. At this point Mattie awoke and reminded me that we had to get to Abiquiu by 1pm, as though I wasn’t aware of it! Eventually, we approached another junction, I checked my map and yes, we were on the right road but, I calculated, we had about another half-hour to go and it was now 12.30pm. The landscape had become gently lovely: I recall pink and cream rocks punctuated with dark green shrubs. ‘Did Georgia O’Keefe ever come along this route?’ I wondered aloud to Mattie who then joyously spotted a sign for the New Inn at Abiquiu. We turned at the next junction and roared up the road a mile or two until the inn and the booking office came into view. It was a minute before 1pm. There we were asked to leave our cameras and bags in a locker before we were bundled, along with half a dozen other visitors, into a minibus and immediately left for the old village of Abiquiu, located a mile or so up a nearby hill. The driver (the grandson of Georgia O’Keefe’s former gardener) brought the minibus to a halt outside a long adobe wall which, we were told, formed the boundary of the artist’s property. (It was only on coming to visit New Mexico that I understood why O’Keefe so often painted adobe walls: their colours, shadows and curves made me instinctively want to reach out and stroke them.)

When Georgia O’Keefe bought the house in 1945, Abiquiu village consisted mainly of shepherd and farming families and she was viewed as an outsider. After the house was renovated she spent more and more time there, often entertaining friends and visiting artists. She was forced to leave the house, due to ill health, in 1984 and since then it had been largely untouched. Through a ‘window’ or, rather, a hole in an adobe wall, we peered into her living room. Sadly inaccessible due to the fragile state of its mud floor, the room was minimalist in décor yet looked cosy and comfortable; its beige, brown and grey colours imitated the large, smooth pebbles that had once been collected by the artist and arranged around the room. ‘There’s your book!’ Mattie exclaimed suddenly and there, leaning against a mid-century armchair, was a copy of the book that I had purchased in the library sale. ‘That was Georgia O’Keefe’s own copy,’ the guide said. I looked closer: it was almost identical to mine except that the sky on ‘her’ front cover appeared to be cobalt blue whereas on mine it is turquoise.

Mattie was writing notes in her little journal as we entered the open portion of the house by way of a courtyard. There was a well, an ancient juniper tree and, near the doorway, a skull of an elk with antlers, suspended on a wall: was that the same skull that appeared on the front cover of my book, I wondered? Mattie found it amusing to hear that O’Keefe’s gardener had written his initials on the elk’s antlers, the well and other structures. When I later asked Mattie what her main impression was of the visit, she answered, ‘The way the gardener left his mark by putting his initials on everything.’
We then entered an ancient, restored pueblo cooking room, which in turn led into a ‘modern’ kitchen where the artist, we heard, loved to cook. I imagined her standing there at the stove in her customary long, black dress. The kitchen still contained all her spice jars, food packets and electrical gadgets from the 1980s and even some of her original potted succulents. A kitchen table and chairs stood before a large window that gave out onto pinkish-red hills and cottonwood trees.

On exiting the kitchen we crossed another courtyard to a separate structure that housed O’Keefe’s studio and adjoining bedroom. Both rooms were painted white, unlike the rest of the house which was a soft mud-brown. I imagined the artist painting under the fluorescent studio lights to the strains of her favourite Monteverdi and Bach. On a shelf lay a couple of hand-rolled pots that she created in her later years when failing eyesight made painting difficult. A row of small, thick notebooks that contained her painting notes covered the top of a wide cupboard next to a large window which looked out onto the Chama River valley. Mattie turned to me and said, ‘The view would inspire anyone to be creative!’ I was thrilled that she seemed so invigorated. For me, the experience was magical. The guide then passed around a selection of O’Keefe prints; one, The White Place, depicted a pale rock formation in soft hues. ‘The White Place is not far from here, you can get details of its location from the booking office,’ the guide informed us. On exiting the house, we were told to help ourselves to apricots and apples that had fallen from nearby trees.

‘I must go back and take photos,’ I told Mattie later as we got in our car. We drove up the hill and although Georgia O’Keefe’s house was now out of bounds to us we had a closer look at the empty village square, including the building that once had been Bode’s, the grocery shop that the artist had patronized, and at the top of the small hill stood an ancient church with three large crosses planted in its grounds. We gathered some fallen apricots for our picnic and then followed the directions to the White Place. We followed an unpaved road along the Chama river, handsomely lined with cottonwoods and then turned east and the terrain became more and more uneven and I began to wonder, again, if we were on the right tracks when, out of the blue, a set of white limestone rocks appeared before us. ‘What a wonderful place for a picnic,’ I exclaimed. We stopped and laid out our picnic blanket, quite alone in this wilderness. Later, as Mattie wrote in her journal, I went for a short stroll, all the while imagining the artist wandering around the area, looking for a favourite painting spot. (Back in San Antonio I checked my book and was pleased to see that it contained a plate of the area: The White Place In Shadow.)

Later that afternoon, colours of white, cream and pink rock changed to deep red and ochre as we left the White Place and moved north, headed for Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keefe had owned another small house and studio. ‘She spent fifty summers here,’ announced the guide who greeted us on arrival. We didn’t have time for a tour of Ghost Ranch and it was a lot more touristy than Abiquiu, but we did get a glimpse of the surrounding red and purple cliffs and in the small gift shop I purchased a card called Cottonwoods Near Abiquiu that recalled our picnic drive. ‘There’s a thunderstorm on the way,’ the guide then announced, looking upwards. The sky had become dark purple, streaked with lightening so Mattie and I hurriedly took to the road again. We just missed the storm as we continued northwards to Highway 64. Soon we had climbed to over 9,000 feet and the high meadows were full of wildflowers, including tall, floppy orange daisies that I hadn’t seen before, and I was particularly struck by some huge craggy rocks emerging through the mist that recalled a Caspar David Friedrich painting. As we began our descent, Taos soon came into view and Mattie rang Mike to let him know we would be back soon for dinner. Mike told us to be careful, as it had been raining hard in Taos all afternoon. As we entered the damp town, we were thrilled to see a double rainbow in the sky…

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…