After a grotesque week of a FBI director being sacked and yet more Trump twitter rants, it is delightful to hear the sweet tweets of cardinals and scissor-tailed flycatchers as I cycle in the vicinity of Espada Mission. This Mission (one of five in San Antonio) is my favourite for its simplicity. It is, I also suspect, the least visited; I can eat my sandwich on a bench under an old oak in almost solitary splendour and gaze at the small adobe building with its ancient bell, or the many pots of flowering plants on the surrounding lawn. On this particular occasion as I sit under the shady tree, I also think of my father who is ailing.
As I then get on my bike and cross the nearby San Antonio river, I hear the sound of a goods train on its way to Brownsville on the Mexican border. Here, Queen Anne’s lace and sunflowers line the river bank, turtles bask on rocks, herons fish. On the other side of the river, I forego the newer cycle path and instead follow an old route that runs slightly inland and crosses through a number of fields. A great white heron and two large, plump ducks stand on the edge of an irrigation ditch, quite undeterred by my presence as I stop and gaze. The land around here is full of these irrigation ditches which are fed by a nearby acequia (acqueduct) built by Franciscan monks and American Indians in the early 18th century.
A little further along I see a group of female labourers dressed in bright colours, hoeing a field of maize and I have an immediate flashback to a trip to south-west China some years ago when I witnessed similar scenes. I continue to cycle along the old road, lined with mesquites, palms and huge pecan trees, until I arrive at Mission San Juan. Here I cross back over the river and a little off the beaten track I find the old Espada dam built on Six-Mile Creek. A small park surrounds the dam and nearby a photographer is taking photos of a newly wedded couple. As I walk my bike along the creek I am thrilled to see a male wood duck with its red eyes and green head on a small island in the middle of the water. On the other side of the creek I see the San Juan cemetery. Next to that, though hidden by trees, is Stinson Airfield. The airfield was opened in 1915 by three young siblings of the Stinson family and was used to train pilots during the first and second world wars. Now it offers helicopter tours.
I follow the cycle path back along the San Antonio River towards my starting point. On the way I make a short diversion over a bridge where hundreds of purple martins swoop and dive, then through a field stuffed with Indian Blanket wildflowers, to the aforementioned acequia that feeds all the irrigation ditches. This old limestone structure is the only remaining Spanish acqueduct in the US.
Just before I return to the grounds of the Espada Mission, I follow a road lined with tall sabal palms and dotted with tiny houses with tin roofs. In one of the gardens there is a large nativity scene surrounded by light bulbs. Other gardens are filled with enormous Weber cactuses and century plants. There is a field of black cows and ginger goats. A stray dog comes up and barks at my bike. Birds tweet.