We left New Orleans at 6.30 a.m for the over five-hour trip westwards along the I-10. I passed the time listening to music, reading, dozing and counting the number of drivers texting single-handed on their cellphones whilst driving (I counted 23). In some states it’s only illegal if you’re under 18, in others it’s quite legal. How very confusing for people crossing state lines.
Our breakfast/comfort stop was at a Love’s Travel Stop – a bog-standard service station on the Interstate, not unlike the motorway service stations in England. Mooching round their huge store which sold everything from tacky souvenirs to motor oil and somewhat greasy chicken nugget-type foodstuffs (I didn’t look too closely) I was not a little surprised to see a good selection of fresh fruit for sale. So with a handbag bulging with my five-a- day, we continued on our way and before too long we rolled up at the NASA Johnson Space Centre in Houston.
I was slightly taken aback. On my last visit in 1999 there was strict airport-style security and we had to leave bags and cameras in lockers before being admitted. Now all you need do is buy a ticket and line up for a while to be shown onto a Disney-like motor-tram. In the queue I met a group of lovely but crazy guys. They hail from all over the States and Canada and know each other through their online gamer group. Their annual meet-up is at a different venue each year. The 2018 meet-up happened to be in Houston and so once the convention was over, they headed on over to the Space Centre. Despite their weird and very geeky appearance they were really friendly and informative. Somehow Walter, the bald one with the beard (centre) and I began a conversation about the Battle of San Jacinto (1836) which took place in the Texas/Mexican war. I went to visit the battle site in 1999 and Walter knew a heap of stuff that he was going to send me but I’ve mislaid his email address so will never know what it was.
Back at the Space Centre we visited Mission Control from where all the Apollo flights including the moon landings were controlled. It’s also the place where the International Space Station flights are monitored today.
Since my last visit NASA have been restoring the control room ready for the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing (next year). Fifty years! That made me feel very old as I remember the excitement of staying up all night to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon’s surface. Sadly the space race has lost its momentum and with it, the excitement I felt in my teens.
After a tour of the rest of the space centre, we set off again for our hotel at nearby Clear Lake, a lovely spot where I imbibed much Prosecco and enjoyed an early night.
Friday, 12th October – San Antonio
Another early start with breakfast watching the sun rise over Clear Lake.
The journey west, from Houston to San Antonio took over three hours with a stop for coffee -Texas is a vast state. I used my time well, boning up on the story of the Alamo. I was trying not to get too excited having been told over and over that it was tiny and had been swallowed up by the modern-day city. Almost as soon as we set off, the theme tune to the John Wayne film about The Alamo – The Green Leaves of Summer – began going around and around in my head.
I was also looking forward to seeing our hotel, The Menger- it’s been a hotel since 1859, just 23 years after the fall of the Alamo and is right next door. When we arrived in San Antonio I dutifully visited Riverwalk, a city park and network of prettily landscaped walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River. It’s lined by bars, shops, restaurants, and public artwork. When people told me The Alamo was inconsequential and that the go-to place to see in San Antonio was the Riverwalk, I said I’d go.
I did. It was okay (when you’re talking about shops and bars lining waterways there’s nowhere more incredible than Venice) – so I was a little underwhelmed and it was over hyped. It’s a nice place to grab lunch but I didn’t have time. With my curiosity about Riverwalk satisfied, I rushed off to a place I have wanted to see since childhood – the Alamo.
In December 1835, in the early stages of Texas’ war for independence from Mexico, a group of Texan volunteers overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo (a former Franciscan mission) and captured the fort, seizing control of San Antonio.
On February 23, 1836, a huge Mexican force (allegedly 7,000 soldiers) led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began a siege of the fort. The Alamo’s defenders, commanded by James Bowie (famous for the Bowie knife) and William Travis, included the famous frontiersman and member of the House of Representatives, David (Davy) Crockett. In total they numbered about 200 but they managed to courageously hold out for 13 days before being overpowered by the Mexican troops.
For Texans, the Battle of the Alamo became an enduring symbol of their resistance to oppression and their struggle for independence. Their subsequent rallying cry ‘Remember the Alamo’ rang out at the Battle of San Jacinto which they won in April of 1836, bringing to an end the war and giving Texans their independence. Of course this is an abridged version of events but the facts are that the Alamo was occupied by a very small number of courageous men, women and children. By that day’s end most of the women and children were escorted to safety. All the men died.
Back at the hotel, we decided to eat at The Menger, in the Colonial Room. It was indeed a beautiful hotel and the food had a great reputation too. We weren’t disappointed.
Over several glasses of a rich, smooth, Merlot, our head waiter told us about the ghosts that inhabited the hotel. (I will admit that after checking in, while looking for my room, I did fancy I saw a set of twin girls standing together at the end of my floor’s very long corridor staring right at me. Stephen King has a lot to answer for!)
The waiter showed us a photograph of the magnificent Victorian Lobby (next to the Colonial Room). This is the original 1859 lobby of the Menger and has two beautiful galleries with gilded wrought-iron balustrades. In his photo the ethereal figure of a young girl, wearing old fashion costume was leaning over the top balustrade and staring down to the ground floor – the photo was taken last year.
When the photograph was checked by an expert it hadn’t been tampered with in any way. Unfortunately the ghostly girl clearly didn’t want to appear in my photograph.
After the creepy tales we had a dish of the magnificent mango ice cream (a legend at the hotel for over 100 years) and then decided to take a breath of air to visit the Alamo by night.
It was very atmospheric. As I stood there I could almost hear the shouts of the soldiers, the noise of the cannon firing and the smell of gunpowder.
Walking back through the now deserted lobby of the Menger that night, I asked one of my friends to escort me back to my room. I was too freaked out to walk down that corridor alone.
Saturday, 13th October – Dallas
I was sad to leave San Antonio and the weather clearly came out in sympathy; it rained for almost the entire 5 hour drive. Clearly now accustomed to the long journeys, as we headed north I hardly saw the countryside flying past my window. I did notice Waco, Texas, forever notorious for a siege in 1993, as we passed through. A weird sect called the Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh were, allegedly, holed up on their ranch with an arsenal of weapons. The FBI eventually mounted an attack on the place and the resulting inferno killed 76 people. It’s one of those places that always brings up dreadful connotations of death and destruction. Like Dallas.
We arrived in Dealey Plaza around midday, by now the rain was falling in sheets and our destination, the Texas School Book Depository fairly steamed with wet clothing. The building, the place from where Lee Harvey Oswald (allegedly) shot and killed President John F. Kennedy, is now a museum. It brought back in vivid detail that day – Friday, 22nd November 1963. I was a child watching television when a grave voice announced the assassination of the President of the United States in Dallas, Texas. I was heartbroken. To me President Kennedy was a superstar and the USA a land of wonders. Although I’m an old cynic now and know a lot of things I didn’t then, I still love this country for its vastness, its landscapes, its diverse cultures and its incredibly friendly people. (I refuse to mention the T word here.)
The museum is impressive. Through a series of videos, posters and exhibits, it faithfully recreates that day. I stood by replica boxes, which Oswald had erected as a screen to hide behind with his shotgun, and saw the President’s motorcade route spread before me, as he did – it was unnerving.
Like the Lorraine Motel, it is a location that is imprinted on the memory bringing back with vivid horror the dreadful events associated with it. On the road just where the motorcade was hit are two crosses, to show where the first bullet struck the President and then the fatal bullet – a bit further along. I got talking to a very nice Marine. He told me the shot would have been an easy one for Oswald as I had thought it too far to be accurate. ‘Maam,’ he told me, ‘we’re trained to shoot to kill targets over three times as far away as that cross on the road. I’m not proud to say it but Oswald was a Marine before he defected to the Soviets’.
From the museum I braved the rain and walked just outside the building to the infamous ‘grassy knoll’. It is just a patch of grass – very soggy when I was there – that some believe the fatal shot was fired from. There are memorials and markers by the pergola on the knoll. This place can never be associated with anything other than the events of 22nd November, 1963.
I didn’t expect to be so affected. I have been to Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC and stood by President Kennedy’s grave but somehow, standing on the grassy knoll in the pouring rain brought back the feelings of utter hopelessness I felt as a child. The dream of Camelot was over, it was the beginning of adulthood.
We left Dallas for our final destination- the Forth Worth Stockyards. To be honest, I was still feeling in a sombre mood and wasn’t much interested in seeing a faux cattle roundup before the evening rodeo. Nevertheless you couldn’t help but be affected by the enthusiasm of the crowds, clearly this is a Saturday night outing for many families who enjoy horsemanship and all things cowboy.
I had the opportunity of going to the rodeo but passed on that – somehow watching cattle frantically trying to rid themselves of the humans stuck on their backs, just doesn’t appeal.
Our flight back to Atlanta from Dallas-Fort Worth was uneventful and thankfully tailwinds whisked us speedily back to London courtesy of Virgin Atlantic. The resulting jet-lag was brutal and so it took over a week for me to begin my blog. The joy of blogging is to relive in detail the absolute pleasure this trip brought me. I had begun the tour trying to limit expectations in case of disappointment. I needn’t have worried.