All about an extraordinary road trip from New Jersey to San Antonio, and back again.

Archive for March, 2008

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

2008-03-19-007.jpgToday was our last day on the road, highlighted by a stop at Gettysburg before heading into Jersey.

We had managed to stay ahead of the rain for most of the morning, but it caught up with there, and would keep us company all the rest of the way. We declined taking a battlefield tour because of the weather, but did enjoy seeing all of the exhibits in the museum. They’re currently relocating the museum to another location, so many of the relics were not on display, but those that were available were very interesting to see.

Shenandoah Valley

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

2008-03-18-148.jpgHeading further into the Shenandoah Valley, we decided that a more interesting and scenic route was in order after the travel doldrums of the last couple of days, so we turned east to catch the Blue Ridge Parkway and to change our point of view. The day was overcast, but the views were impressive nonetheless.

One of the goals for the day was a visit to far-off Britts Mountain, my family’s ancestral home, near Charlottesville. We decided the day was ripe for high adventure, so we threw caution to the wind and reconfigured the GPS to guide us along the shortest route to that location from atop the Blue Ridge Mountains. Winding our way along barely discernible and unnamed state forest roads, we stopped often to take in the local landscape. Some roads were narrow, others were steep, many were both. Our breath caught once when we crested a hill and saw only sky, trusting that the road continued beneath us as we drove onward. (It did.)

One of the day’s unexpected gifts was Crabtree Falls, a waterfall with three cascades that began barely discernable through the trees at the mountain peak hundreds of feet above, falling down into a cataract below us. The roar of the water was exhilarating.

The mountain roads eventually gave way to wider avenues, and we made our way to Britts Mountain. There wasn’t any road that ascended the mountain, so we satisfied ourselves with a more distant view, and headed back into the Shenandoah valley, proceeding north to Luray Caverns.

If you’ve never visited the caverns, be sure to go some day. A mile-long tour brings you to beautiful and strange cave formations. The guide gives insight into the caverns’ discovery, and offers a deeper understanding of the geological processes that gave birth to them. As an added bonus, there’s a museum of old cars in a building adjoining the entrance to the caverns.

Toora Loura Loural

Monday, March 17th, 2008

shamrock.jpgHappy St. Patrick’s Day! We didn’t do much in the way of sight-seeing yesterday and today, but did enjoy lunch with friends in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (Tom, Pam, it was great to see you both!) The city has changed a lot since we’ve last been there.

Afterward, we pushed on, stopping south of Birmingham, Alabama, then taking to the road again early this morning, racing ahead of the rain through Tennessee, and ending the day near Roanoke, Virginia.

On the Road Again

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

2008-03-15-020.jpgWe set out Saturday morning towards Louisiana. Our route took us along the gulf coast and through the Sabine Wildlife Refuge in southern Louisiana, and on to the Creole Nature Trail. While there were a few egrets that I didn’t manage to photograph, we also didn’t see any alligators for Ollie to wrestle. She had assured me she’d wrestle the first one we saw, and while I believe her, it didn’t come to pass. I had hoped for some good views of the ocean, but these were largely spoiled by oil production. I guess we have to take the good with the bad.

To be fair to the region, though, there were lots of folks who were obviously enjoying a good day of fishing, or crabbing in some cases. There were also many birding trails and such that we didn’t take advantage of, so it might likely be a case of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.

Mission Tour

Friday, March 14th, 2008

Mission San JoseSan Antonio is home to five missions, built in the mid 1700s, with an aim to converting the local native peoples, the Coahuiltecans, to Christianity. The Alamo is the most famous of these, although more for its other historical connections. Missions Concepcion, San Juan, San Jose and Espada stand along a nine mile route that comprises the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.

Following the self-guided driving tour, we stopped first at nearby Mission Concepcion. The best preserved of the missions, Concepcion has vivid original frescoes painted in black and yellow and red. Rooms throughout the mission hold exhibits that illustrate Mission life and examples of period furnishings. The other missions along the tour were more elaborately restored, with walls and outbuildings. Mission San Jose even had an operational water-powered mill. Some of the missions are active churches and hold worship services regularly.

The Riverwalk

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

2008-03-13-054.jpgJust a short walk South of The Alamo, stairs descend to The Riverwalk, a row of shops and restaurants that stretches for a mile or more along a winding waterway built in the 1930s.

Here, the San Antonio river flows through an elaborate flood-control system beneath 35 arching and unique bridges, some dating from the 19th century. Boat cruise tours motor up and down The Riverwalk, while the knowledgeable guides offer insight into the architecture and local history. Although the water appears dark because of the green sloping concrete banks of the river, one guide demonstrated that the water is actually crystal clear. He wouldn’t drink it, though, because the San Antonio Zoo is upriver, not far away.

We had a late lunch at Schilo’s, a very popular German deli on East Commerce street. They make some great potato pancakes, a very formidable reuben sandwich, and the root beer (rüt bier?) was exceptional. We walked the length of The Riverwalk and stopped for a lingering Irish Coffee at a pub before heading back to the hotel for a swim.

The Alamo

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

alamo.jpgGiven our penchant for hitting the road early, it wasn’t easy to linger in the hotel this morning fighting the impulse to head out for The Alamo at 6:00. We opted for breakfast, instead. The coffee was good and the waffles were shaped like Texas. Considering that The Alamo, one of Americas most popular historic sites is here in San Antonio, Texas pride is not uncommon. We waited until the sun broke through the morning mists with the promise of a pleasant day, and headed downtown to the culmination of our journey westward.

Parking was convenient, and signs posted midway on every block pointed the way to the most popular downtown attractions, ensuring that we didn’t get ourselves turned around and wind up in Nebraska. Don’t laugh, it could happen. Minutes later, we were walking into Alamo Plaza. There was a towering monument alongside the mission that depicted the heroes of the Alamo, and gave testimony to their sacrifice there.

“They chose never to surrender nor retreat; these brave hearts, with flag still proudly waving, perished in the flames of immortality that their high sacrifice might lead to the founding of this Texas”

We walked about the gardens for a while, which were beautiful, taking in the antiquity of the site and in consideration of the many monuments, dedications and historical exhibits that bring a deeper appreciation for the sacrifice made by these brave people. 172 years ago this month, the defenders of The Alamo refused to surrender to Santa Anna and his insurmountable army, knowing they did so at the cost of their lives, in order to allow Texas time to prepare. Without their sacrifice, Texas would have surely been overrun, and would not have won independence.

Inside the Chapel, which is The Alamo shrine to the fallen (no hats, no photos, please) exhibits show in detail all of the aspects of the 13 day siege and final battle. There are artifacts belonging to those who died there, including Crockett and Bowie, and a full accounting of the name of every defender that researchers have been able place at the battle. It’s a wonder and a joy that this site was reclaimed, as it had been turned into a warehouse in the late 1800′s. It’s heartwarming to see the respect and reverence with which The Alamo and the memory of the heroes who fell here are regarded. It was truly worth the trip.

Texas Hill Country

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

2008-03-12-080.jpgWe drove through Texas Hill Country today, coming into San Antonio by a round-about route instead of driving straight in via 35 from Austin.

We traveled a variety of Texas “Ranch Roads”, passing through a series of small towns: Dripping Springs (gateway to Hill Country), Henly, Fredericksburg, Comfort, Medina, Vanderpoole, Utopia, Sabinal, Hondo. Each had its own character and charms. The roads that connected them offered spectacular views of rolling Texas hills and scrub, and dozens of active ranches.

We had lunch in Medina, in a little patio cafe, famous for its apple pie. The people were friendly and the food was great.

It was a beautiful ride, but a long one, stretching the 90 miles between Austin and San Antonio into almost 300 by circuitous route. We arrived in San Antonio about 3:00, and settled into our hotel. Within minutes we were in the hotel’s indoor pool and hot tub. I suspect we may have gotten spoiled in Hot Springs :)

Welcome to Texas!

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

2008-03-11-115.jpgWe hit the road early today, hoping to catch a scenic sunrise over southwest Arkansas, but the morning was foggy and remained so until almost 10:00. We had hoped the sun would burn it off early, but the fog proved as stubborn as it was thick. Visibility was reduced to about 100 yards or so. Oncoming cars were shimmering spheres of light, and all along the highway there were gnarled and twisted tree-silhouettes back-lit in the fog. It was all very eerie and kind of surreal.

By mid-morning, the fog burned off and revealed an expansive and scenic view. We opted for a Texas farm-route in favor of the (faster) highway, and enjoyed what is probably the biggest sky I ever remember seeing. It was vibrant and blue, and was dotted with hundreds of white fluffy clouds. I couldn’t get over the trees, either. I have to check the Audobon book when I get back home, but they looked to me like very twisty oak trees. I found them to be very impressive.

About lunch time, we stopped at Little Mexico for cheese enchiladas. Taking to the road again afterward, the beautiful sights kept us company all the way to Austin and the end of our day…

Valley of the Vapors

Monday, March 10th, 2008

buckstaff.jpgLeaving Nashville and all that snow behind us, we continued southwest along route 40 through Memphis, Tennessee into Arkansas. In the zig-zag mountains*, about 55 miles southwest of Little Rock, we arrived in Hot Springs National Park, our destination for the day, and a place unlike any either of us have ever seen before.

Hot Springs grew up more than a century ago around 47 geothermal springs that flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain. Rainfall seeps down through layers and layers of rock, heating 4 degrees (F) for every 300 feet of descent into the Earth’s crust. Scientists have determined that the waters of the hot springs fell as rain more than 4000 years ago, but the waters take only a few minutes to reemerge on the surface with an average temperature of 143 degrees F (62 degrees C). Throughout this process, the waters dissolve minerals out of the rock, and are renown for their therapeutic qualities.

During the “Golden Age of Bathing” in the early 1920′s, Hot Springs and its world-famous Bathhouse Row were a popular destination. Today, many of the historic buildings still stand but are undergoing renovation. Our first stop in Hot Springs after we checked into our hotel was The Buckstaff, an operational bathhouse where we each received “The Treatment”: a 100-degree-plus 20 minute whirlpool bath, steam cabinet, hot towel wraps and needle-shower. Ladies upstairs, Gents to the left. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable, and guided us through the process gracefully (and modestly). Ollie says, “I had a great bath at Hot Springs. I loved it!”

Afterward, when we left refreshed and rejuvenated, we went up the street to The Fordyce, a historic bathhouse that reopened in 1989 as the park visitor center. Fountains outside smoked and steamed with the spring water. Inside, there were exhibits that showed all of the elaborate customs and practices of the bathhouses in their hey-day. Fascinating stuff. We were just in time to catch an informational movie in the bookstore, which rounded out the visit nicely.

We popped across the street and went through Madame Toussade’s Wax Museum. Creepy, but fun. To round out the day we picked up some self-sealing jugs and filled them up with spring water at the public faucets provided for that purpose. Hey, water’s free here! We also discovered that it’s very hot, and made a somewhat formidable and in retrospect, comical, challenge to carry it back to the car. We both tried to be kind of stoic, but I wound up threading three on my belt and slinging it over my shoulder. Ollie carried the fourth while I held my britches up with my free hand.

*really :)