A Travellerspoint blog

January 2013

San Antonio and north

sunny 2 °C

Driving into San Antonio in the early evening just as dark was falling, I was struck by the narrowness of the streets and the apparent elegance of the tall buildings which hedged them in (not so great in the daytime, unfortunately).


Of course, in San Antonio what you see is not what you get as there is a whole underground world going on: a river runs through the city beneath the level of the street. It has been channelled, paths built and many bars, restaurants and shops are on this riverside walk. Once I had found somewhere to stay, it was very pleasant wandering this path although I have to say that all of the bars and restaurants, although they ostensibly had different styles, featured food which was very similar - steaks, burgers, sandwiches and the occasional Mexican treat. Maybe it was because I wasn't feeling 100% but none of it appealed: I ended up driving around until I found an old-skool cafe called Lulu's (famous for being on a TV programme called Man v Food) and tried my luck with fried catfish.

For the first time on the trip, I was confronted with heavy rain the next day which kind of suited me: being at the halfway point, I felt like resting up so, apart from dashing out to a coffee place I'd read about that didn't actually sell coffee but gave me a huge pot of watery tea instead and a mighty fine piece of raspberry and white chocolate cake, I didn't leave my motel. The rain did clear up the next morning so I was finally able to get out for some photos. In the daylight, the riverwalk didn't look quite as interesting and the bars etc were all deserted.

I started on the edge of town and walked into the centre


Of course, in San Antonio, the big deal is the Alamo, a former Mission house turned military barracks, taken by Texans from the Mexicans but then on 23 February 1836, the Mexicans came to take it back. The Texans were determined they were not to have it, as they saw it as symbolic of the success of the Texan Revolution. Unfortunately, after a 13 day siege, the Mexican forces were simply too strong for the 200 odd men inside and they took it back. Oddly enough, of those 200 men, two names remain famous but not really for the Alamo: Davie Crockett and Jim Bowie (of Bowie knife fame). I have to say, I was quite surprised at how small the place was:


The surrounding street was interesting: it is old San Anatonio so the buildings are quite gracious, but tourists flock here, so the occupants are less than gracious - fast food joints mainly.


To the south of the centre is an area formerly occupied by German settlers, who apparently were not short of a dollar. For several blocks in an area called King William, the city is made up of tree-lined streets and grand old houses


Heading north, I debated whether there was any point in going to Lockhart, as I was not going to be there until after 3:00 - too late for lunch and too early for dinner. I did go, and very much liked the use of brick in the town's construction and the flamboyant gestures of the city hall in particular, but to a lesser extent the library.


Now, the point of going to Lockhart is that it is the barbecue capital of the world: I had this weird notion that it was a small place with its four barbecue places all within spitting distance of each other. As it happens, I only found one of those places, and as it happens, I didn't like it: the meat was very tasty but so dry I couldn't eat it. I suppose I could have smothered it in sauce but that would have defeated the purpose of getting barbecue. So I left quite disappointed and hightailed it to Austin, where I became very lost - mainly because I knew exactly where I was going from spending a week here a few years ago. Because of that week, I decided to just stay the night and move on. Even so, I only made it as far as Abilene the next night, which is only 220 miles up the road and another stay the night and move on sort of place - I liked the library and not much else. Oh, and a surprisingly good meal in a Chinese restaurant, which is either in the best 100 in the USA or is actually the best in the USA: I've seen both claims made. It was pretty good, but I couldn't possibly comment on its national ranking.

My route took me through Lubbock at around midday, so I stopped to see what it had done to honour Buddy Holly. The first thing I noticed as I drove around its bumpy streets (who makes their streets out of brick??) was Buddy Holly Drive, the most prominent occupants of which were the various courts and a detention centre. But there is a Buddy Holly Center, which is not on Buddy Holly Drive or anywhere near it but is on Crickets Avenue. It is in a building which used to be a railway depot, although it has been quite dramatically altered and expanded, to the point I had no clue as to its origins. It is now used to celebrate Buddy Holly himself, West Texas music generally and also has a wee art gallery.

The lady selling me a ticket either did me a kindness or insulted me: she charged me the seniors rate. The collection was a bit odd, to be honest. There were lots of bits and pieces with typewritten notes I couldn't read. It turns out that some of those bits and pieces included homework he did as a kid, his leatherworking set and a few things he made. There were quite a few old letters, but I found them hard to read so don't really know what their significance was. I do know that the guitar he was playing just before he died is here, and there are various quotes from other musicians (notably the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John (who started wearing unnecessary glasses to honour Holly) to indicate that but for Holly and the Crickets, they may never have started. It really is quite amazing that he had 25 hit records, all before his death at 23. I'd done pretty much nothing by the time I was 23 except go to uni and get a job. They weren't the only ones who thought he was special: while in New York, he met a girl called Maria, and they became engaged the same day and were married within a couple of months. I even have a photo of the wedding


There are various murmurings on the internet which suggest that the collection might have been better if his widow was more co-operative and that there is a better rock'n'roll focussed collection in Clovis (which is where Holly actually did his early recording).

Lubbock itself is a very unappealing place, so I decided to just hit the road and see how far I got: quite accidentally, I got as far as an old Route 66 town in New Mexico called Santa Rosa, where I stayed in an old motel which had been built to serve the needs of the Route 66 travelers. It had much smaller rooms than I have grown accustomed to but was spotless.

I had another day on the road with little to excite me the next day. I did pop in to Las Vegas, New Mexico, out of interest - I doubt it shares many features with its more famous namesake. I went in to check out the historical centre,


and was sold the worst cappucino I have ever had (so Dargaville is now off the hook): I don't think the hot drink I was given had either coffee (it tasted of barley and caramel) or milk (it was yellow) but it certainly had a lot of sweetener. It came out of an automated machine, not the proper esperesso machine I was expecting her to use.

I was very surprised, walking down a rather nondescript looking street,


to find a rather good bookshop, although the name is a bit cheesey: Tome on the Range. They had a really good, eclectic range of books, books I would have been happy to sit down and read (if only there was a decent coffee shop nearby in which to do so).

My destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico: I'd read enough about it to make me think I'd like to spend two or three nights there - it has a huge artistic community, lots of museums and great writers such as George RR Martin and Cormack McCarthy live there. I drove over the crest of a hill and had the place laid out before me, but was confused: against the brown of the earth, I could see light reflected off windows but could barely see any buildings. That's because the city has an ordinance (dating back to 1912 and passed to stop Santa Fe being Anywhere USA) which requires all buildings to be in pueblo style and to be painted in earth tones: it was quite a remarkable effect but once I started driving among the buildings, it seemed enormously contrived and too many of the buildings seemed to be made out of shit-brown plasticene.


So while Santa Fe has a long history (it has been occupied for more than a thousand years and is the third oldest European settlement in the country) and has an important Cathedral,


I really felt a strong need to get out of the place, which I did after about three hours. Sorry Santa Fe.

Posted by NZBarry 23:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)


overcast 5 °C

Utopia is a tiny town in the Texas Hills area, with a population of 227. It could probably fit all its businesses in one or two blocks, but it cheats a bit by having its bank, its Post Office and its library in separate blocks all by themselves. Several years ago, Karen Valby, a writer for Entertainment Weekly spent a few days there, drawn by the thought that it was a town somewhat removed from popular culture. Her article made her rather unpopular with the locals, as they thought she had just picked out a few people and features and not given a balanced view of the town. Instead of just going "meh" and leaving things be, she moved there for a year, got right under the skin of the town, and wrote a fantastic book as a result: Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town. When I decided to come to America for my holidays (inspired by a cheap fare to Honolulu and a bit of a booking cockup which led me to carry on to the mainland), I decided to go all the way, connect with my previous road-trip here and check out Utopia.

My first visit was on a Sunday evening: I drove up through the tree-lined roads from Sabinal


This is its approach


Utopia was quite welcoming


and has a very modest main street.


I just HAD to visit the Lost Maples Cafe,


which is central to the community and, of course, to the book. A handful of tables were occupied, with lots of cross-talk between tables: as any new people came in, they would greet everyone in the room (including me): clearly coming here for Sunday dinner is a long-standing habit for these people. I'm pretty sure that if they were all wearing labels saying "Hi, I'm..." I would have known most of them, which was an odd feeling. As for the two waitresses on duty, not so much: they were both too young to have been waitressing in the book. Dinner was mainly fried stuff, so I settled for a burger and fries. There is nowhere cheap to stay in Utopia, so I had to go back down the road to Sabinal for my motel.

I was back the next morning to poke about. Of course, another compulsory visit was to the Utopia General Store, which did not look as I imagined it


Karen spent a lot of time in this store, which is a little surprising: a group of old men sit in the back of a morning and discuss the world. It sounds like a very closed and very male group, and yet she managed to spend many a morning with them, sitting in these seats


The store itself was much better stocked than I expected


Another surprise was the new business the owner of the store had started: reading the book, I had thought he was opening a somewhat fancy place for townies to buy country related outfits, but Utopia Ranch Outpost was much more focussed on the needs of its community, selling to ranchers


I don't know where I got the idea that the school was a wee bit removed from town, but it was right in the centre, closer than the Post Office and library, a pretty raw looking place


and right next to the church


I spent some time in the library, using its internet and poking about the collection but they closed at noon so the librarian could have lunch


I wasn't real hungry, but thought I should go back to the Lost Maples. This time I was served by a real star of the book, Kathy Weikamp, a surprisingly youthful looking grandmother who really worked the room and obviously knew her customers well. The cafe is bigger than I expected, with two wings


I just had some apple pie and carried on looking about the side streets of Utopia, which were not particularly flash.


About two blocks back from the main street, there's an entrance to a ranch


Right on the main street, opposite the General Store, there is a wee park, which I don't recall being mentioned at all


There is also competition to the Lost Maples, the Fiddlestix Gathering Place (I believe it is quite new) but it doesn't open Mondays, so I couldn't check it out


Java Joes, where I had hoped to get some proper coffee, is no more. One of the biggest surprises for me was how new and large the Post Office is (but it closes for lunch as well)


I went north out of town


and drove about the Texas Hills for a bit


Towns up here have a reputation for being foodie destinations, but I didn't get the right towns as I saw little to make me stop. I did get out and walk around a town called Bandera which fancies itself as the cowboy capital. My favourite buildings were its city hall and library


Somewhere along the way, I found myself behind a car transporter: as I got closer, I was intrigued to see it was carrying two Chevrolet utes which looked to be from the 1950's


My last adventure for the day was to go look at Lake Medina, a big blue shape on my map. The reality was completely different: it is a dam which the local newspaper says may well have to shut down completely if there is no significant rain shortly. No wonder I had heard so much talk of whether the possibility of rain would turn into actual rain.


Posted by NZBarry 13:30 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Bisbee to Sabinal, Texas

snow 0 °C

It seems that although I thought I had left Bisbee, it wasn't quite ready to let me out of its clutches. I stopped to take a photo of the mine, and noticed that there seemed to be a good vantage point at the south end. It turned out that a hole in the ground looks pretty much the same whichever end you take the photo from,


but something appeared to be a bit odd about the street behind me (this was the main street of Lowell, a suburb of Bisbee established to house mineworkers). I still don't quite know how or who is responsible, but the main street of Lowell is set up as if the past few decades simply did not happen. I don't know what it is about the Scenicruiser, but I have always wanted to travel in one


But it wasn't just the old bus, the whole street (it was only a block long) was stuck in a timewarp


With all the excitement, I decided I might as well have breakfast (one of the joys of travel is that you can make such decisions at 2:30 in the afternoon) and as luck would have it the Bisbee Breakfast Club is in Lowell. I tried a chicken fried steak (not a fan - it tasted a bit like sausage meat and I didn't like the gravy but the hashbrown was great)


There was still one more treat in store - the Shady Dell RV park, set up in 1927 and stocked with caravans from the 1950's - if I'd done some research before stumbling into Bisbee, I may well have stayed here)


Up above the park, I saw the remnants of the mythical Great Wall of Arizona


It is a total of 27 miles from Bisbee to Douglas: somehow it was practically dark when I finally got to Douglas. I'm quite glad I hadn't made it important to come here and skip Bisbee - it really didn't have much going on. I just stayed in the Motel6 and went to the fancy hotel (the Gadsden) for dinner - the menu was curiously un-fancy, I ended up with roast beef, and dined in splendid near isolation


There were actually a pair of corpulent gentlemen dining silently on their steaks off to my left, and of course the pretty but very dim waitress was wandering about. I fared much better the next day for lunch: freshly fried tacos were an absolute revelation to me. I'm glad I had that high point, because things turned a bit rough almost immediately. I was about 5 miles out of town when it began to snow: I had to decide whether to turn back, press on on my original route (a small country road through the bottom corner of New Mexico) or cut up to the Interstate. Turning back was never really an option, and taking the remote country road turned out to be the right choice: the Interstate had a few problems with closed lanes, crashes and lengthy delays.


The cheapest car in America built up quite a collection of ice on his sills and underbody on this part of the trip, which took about 24 hours to fall off. When I finally hit the end of my road, I could see El Paso in the distance: luckily I fell into the right road to take me towards town (there were no signs at all). I was pretty tired so I crawled into the first decent and cheap looking motel with a pile of Popeyes chicken and hid from the snow. I did get out and about in the morning to check out downtown for a few hours, and was confused for most of them. When I was last in the States, I came across by train and I had the idea that I had had a couple of hours to wander El Paso. Certainly, some of what I saw was familiar


but there was much which was not, such as this prison in the middle of downtown


It wasn't until I had got myself sat down in a coffee shop with a coffee when I finally had confirmation that I have been here before: I had visited the same coffee shop. I didn't really warm to El Paso but liked these buildings


I was standing outside this building


when a fellow stopped and muttered "Hollywood Cafe". Turns out that it used to have curtained booths, and this fellow's grandfather used to secrete himself behind one, hiding in particular from his family. There is still a cafe in the building, but a terrible looking Chinese-Mexican abomination. I did like Starr's Western Wear, although I didn't find anything I wanted


I left El Paso on the Interstate: the speed limit in Texas is 80 miles an hour and that's pretty much a minimum: the poor old cheapest car in America really didn't like this part of the trip. He had a reprieve: I still don't know if it was snow related or Border Control related, but at one point all traffic was halted. A Border Control bloke shone a torch in my eyes and allowed me to leave the Interstate and take the express route, past miles of stopped traffic.


The next couple of days were just dull days of driving, eating crap food, watching too much TV (reruns of Friends is still common, less so Seinfeld, and they seem to delight in playing up to three hours at once of the Big Bang Theory and George Lopez). I ended up feeling a little bit crook, wondering about the merits of the whole trip, and a little bit out of it - to the point I jumped a red light right in front of a policeman: he was very courteous and let me off with a warning.

I had taken the long way, because I had been reading about Big Bend National Park, its isolation and wonderful landscapes and, of course, the legendary Rio Grande which separates Mexico from America. It turned out to be a big waste of time. As for the isolation - because it is a National Park, I saw more people there than I had seen for a couple of days. The landscape was not much different from what I had seen and the poor old Rio Grande, well it has seen better days


I'd rather not have seen it than see it so depleted (mind you, America is in the midst of a long-standing drought, so that wouldn't have helped). I nearly stopped in Marfa for the night, even though I was there at about 11:00 in the morning, simply because of this sign


Way back in San Diego, I came across the infamous Judge Bean (he broke out of the prison there). I was bumbling along and came across a tiny place called Langtry where I thought I might be able to get something to drink. No such luck, but it turned out to be where the good Judge had dispensed justice, from premises which were combined billiard room, bar and Courthouse (he apparently did most of his judging work on the porch)


There are two stories as to how Langtry got its name: one one account, Langtry was a railwayman who had surveyed the area. On another version, the Judge had named the town Langtry because he was slightly obsessed with Lillie Langtry and thought naming the town after her might bring her to it. Whatever version is true, it is true that the Judge gave his home a rather grandiose title in the hope she would be willing to visit


No - it isn't any sort of Opera House, just his residence. Oh, and if you're wondering what the Pecos is, its a river I crossed shortly after leaving Langtry


Eventually, I was passing through a town called Sabinal and noted a turn off to Utopia, so stopped immediately and checked into a motel.

Posted by NZBarry 09:18 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Bisbee, Arizona

sunny 10 °C

I had no plans to stop at Bisbee, had no idea it existed even: my mind was set on heading south and staying in a grand old hotel in Douglas for the New Year.


But I drove down through a ravine and saw a collection of well-maintained brick buildings, somewhat like those in Butte Montana, and had to explore.


Now I want to live in Bisbee. My first impressions of the good folk of Bisbee were not that great: I was gingerly making my way down some iced up steps when I was accosted by a heavily made up woman of a certain age, who was looking for a cigarette. No sooner had I hit firm ground and some fellow is wanting me to give him money. But then I got talking to a taxi driver, trying to find out what it might cost to stay in the nearby Bisbee Inn, and she very kindly got out her smartphone and started checking places out. Another fellow saw my camera and suggested some good places to get some shots: from him I learnt that Bisbee had just had the heaviest snowfall since they started keeping records.

Like Butte, and like Globe and Miami, Bisbee is a mining town: unlike any of those places, when the mining stopped brining in money and a reason to live in Bisbee, the place was taken over by artists and musicians, which means it has good places to get coffee, a local brewery and good places to eat. Geography also helped to make Bisbee interesting: imagine paper which has been screwed up, leaving all sorts of ridges and canyons, and you get a sense of the Bisbee landscape. It provided certain challenges for getting roads around the place


It also meant that the town operated on various levels


and used various passages and steps to allow its citizens to get around (they actually have an annual race called the Bisbee 1000 which requires participants to run up a defined group of steps adding up to 1000 steps - not for me!)


Those last steps take you into the library, a space I loved


That's it at the bottom of the main street. Here are some other views of the main street


As I wandered around town, I was impressed at the bright colours used by some residents


There were also some things that struck me as just a bit odd, including a Smart Car with a trailer!


One of the problems with the change in population is that Bisbee has very few school age children, meaning that first one school was closed and reborn as a County office and then a second one was turned into a community art space


I stayed in the Bisbee Inn, mainly because there was a wee sign inviting me to go in and wander about, which I did: it has very traditional bedrooms, wonderful bathrooms, a dining and social area out the back and beautiful wood panelling, with a brick exterior


There were lots of other good looking places to stay, such as the Copper Queen, the Bisbee Grand and the old jail


but I mentioned there was a brewery: it was not a million miles from the Bisbee Inn and had very good beer (I managed two visits)


I spent some of the morning checking out the museum, which was largely about the mining history of the area, and the extravagant means they used to obtain financial backing from New York investors


My last pictures are just of a couple of different streets and of the way the town lives on the edge of the hills


Posted by NZBarry 19:03 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Tucson to Tombstone

sunny 18 °C

I really wanted to see the Boneyard: it is a storage facility in which several thousand ex-military aircraft are all lined up, taking advantage of the dry Arizona climate. They're all obsolete so I'm not sure what the point is. But it was New Year's Day and the bus trip through the Boneyard wasn't being offered. There was only a very limited ability to get shots from the road.


Ah well, at least the Pima Air and Space Museum was open, although most of the aircraft were military. There was a big outdoor section but I didn't find it all that great


This included a former Air Force One (used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson)


As for the Space part of the collection, their pride and joy was an X-15


They couldn't carry enough gas to do anything very useful (about two minutes worth in total) so they were taken aloft by B-52 bombers, like this one


and from that vantage point, could use their fuel to move further upwards, then glide to the earth.

There were also quite a few interesting planes, such as this wee Starr Bumblebee, built solely to take the record for the smallest aircraft (he kept the record for seven months)


The Bede BD-5 was a kitset aeroplane which apparently was a challenge to build and to fly! Then they made a jet powered version (it is the world's smallest jet aircraft)


Going even smaller, we have the Hoppicopter: again, there is a very dry comment to the effect that the major downside of these machines was their reliance on the pilot's legs as landing gear, as if they stumbled, the blades would get them: it was not an idea that lasted long.


Moving up to bigger planes, there was a F4 Phantom II


the incredibly strange and ugly Columbia XJL-1


and the two planes I found quite oppressive in their size: the Martin Mariner and the Lockheed Blackbird (which is an enormous plane given that it carries just one person)


It is south of Tucson that being on US 80 really pays off, as it takes you straight through Tombstone. I doubt that this place would be very important today, or even exist, if it wasn't for the showdown between the lawmen and the outlaws which took place near the OK Corral (actually a feedlot in the middle of town) on 26 October 1881. There is a long account of the background events and the actual shootout on Wikipedia. Now Tombstone bills itself as the town that refuses to die: while many of the buildings are original, they have been re-purposed to cash in on the tourists who flock here.


I did find three buildings more interesting than others: the Courthouse, which has been given over to use as a museum, not just about the gunfight, but about the broader Tombstone community


Another was the office of the Epitaph, a newspaper which favoured the lawmen's side. Inside, they had set up plenty of artifacts from the old days of printing, such as boxes of type and then pages set up ready to print.


The third was the old Birdcage theatre


It is a pretty disorganised sort of place, with the main area filled up with random old stuff, but it was interesting to be in such a historic place and to see where Doc Holliday and co had set up their poker game. Like most theatres, this one had private boxes


but in this particular theatre, this is where the "ladies" would sit in the hope that a "gentleman" would want entertaining, in which case they would retire discreetly behind the curtain. There were also a couple of bedrooms down in the basement for more private activities.

Of course, there were gunfights to be seen. I probably should have gone to the one in the actual OK Corral, but I got caught up in another one: they had various gunfighters patrolling the street, offering a spectacular bank robbery and gunfight. It, unfortunately, was a bit shit: they played the whole thing for jokes, hassling the audience, hassling each other and not actually getting into the business until about 5 minutes before the end. I would have left, but they had kind of locked us in.

Posted by NZBarry 09:54 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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