Spring’s the time to head South.
In south Texas, winter’s halcyon days lean against spring like a pair of snuggling ballroom dancers. Winter is a textbook theory – an attitude – and spring, a color.
But together they form a warm conspiracy, marshaling militant natural forces to create a phenomenon called the March of Flowers. The flowers sweep north through Texas’s middle, foraging on sunshine and rains, nudged along by amiable winds. Bluebonnets – the state flower, a delicate stalk puffed with blue petals – are the advance guard. Behind are troops of bachelor’s buttons and the red sage called Indian fire, camp-followers like the blue gilia, yellow buttercups and Helianthus annuus, the ebony-eyed sunflower.
You may, and many do, clock the marching flower army. It moves up the spine of Texas at a speed of about 15 miles each day, smearing fields and pastures and the Coastal Plain with unending colors. And in good time, as soldiers have for almost 300 years, the blooming army comes to San Antonio.
Everyone comes to San Antonio. It is a natural geographical and historical crossroads. As a steppingstone village for Spanish exploration, a footnote for western expansion in America’s program of Manifest Destiny, a starting gate for cattle trails reaching to Midwest beef markets, San Antonio always has owned a reputation as a city to visit, to live in, to be part of.
John Gunther thought San Antonio the equal of New Orleans, Boston and San Francisco as a unique experience. I cannot quarrel with that comparison. The simple truth is that San Antonio is Texas’ most comfortable, complete town. If you are a rich Texan, you make your money in less sensitive markets like Houston or Dallas/Fort Worth, but you lavish it on San Antonio. We common Texans come for the change of pace, the city’s casualness and for the river. Always the river.
San Antonio, the city, and San Antonio, the river, are inseparable, welded by time and circumstance. The river caused the city; it was the first sweet water Spanish conquistadors found in 1691 when they emerged from the mogotes– brush thickets – of the northern Mexican desert.
The river is the city’s backbone, and its soul, and in midtown San Antonio, where the stream coils and curls like a lariat thrown carelessly on the ground, it is a piece of outdoor sculpture formed with flagstones and exotic plantings – a city park called Paseo del Rio. the “River Walk.”
You can escape neither the river nor two other essential elements, history and the Spanish heart of the city. These three are almost seamless in their control of San Antonio, so perfectly woven into its personality that they flow by effortlessly “as memories whispering down the current.” It was in this manner that Georgia poet Sidney Lanier wrote of the city and river he came to visit in his last consumptive days.
Another kind of poet, the star-crossed Jimmie Rodgers, said San Antonio calmed his “gypsyfooting,” his “restless heels, soaring wings.” The singer came to San Antonio in 1924 with a single dollar and an ominous cough and until his death never left for very long.
Will Rogers just came for the chili, which San Antonio claims to have invented. Jimmy Gause, a consummate San Antonian, says chili is as good a reason as any to visit San Antonio. “Let’s go get a bowl,” he urged, and we went to the river, to Casa Rio, a Mexican restaurant in an outdoor setting.
The river is countersunk in midtown, and we stepped down to the rock walkway shadowed by cottonwood, bald cypress, willows, wild olive and palms. Oriental jasmine scented the air, mixed with the aromas of roses and new purple sage.
Jimmy ordered chili with enchiladas, tacos, refried beans and tortillas. The river was busy. A wedding party filled a passing barge, and a water taxi – a cha-lupa – skimmed by. Paddleboats thrashed the water.
“Aztecs cooked the corn tortilla like this,” Jimmy told me, “but San Antonio invented the flour tortilla. And chili, of course. And the ice-cream soda. Less than 100 feet from here, at the Harnisch and Baer ice-cream parlor, the world’s first ice-cream soda was made and sold in 1868. It was called a Dolly Varden after a famous opera star.
“San Antonio has five Spanish missions, four plazas, more military bases than any city, a dozen colleges and univérsities. There are more Spanish-speaking, Spanish-surnamed people – 300,000 plus – in San Antonio than in Veracruz, Puebla or San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Four radio stations and one TV station broadcast fully in Spanish. In San Antonio you can hire a mariachi band as easily as anything.”
Jimmy is correct. No American city is more Spanish than San Antonio. In all ways. The Yellow Pages still shows a category for midwifery. And in Market Square, one of those four ancient plazas, you may visit an herb doctor- the curan-dero – for potions of ground deer horn – cuerno de venado – and concoctions of sunflower seeds and kidney weed and creosote bush.
Market Square is named for the fruit and vegetable stalls that fill its center. The produce is trucked in from the Rio Grande Valley for housewives, who elbow among the fresh grapes and avocados, chili peppers and gardenias, mixing with tourists shopping for Mexican imports in El Mercado, a new structure with stalls full of souvenirs.
The square does not hold the history of its uptown mates – Main, Military and Alamo – but it is still a working plaza. The others are more solitary, more formal, more emotional. All can be walked in and to because San Antonio is a strolling town. Its streets are too narrow and indecisive for common-sense traffic patterns and would more fittingly accommodate oxcarts and horses, for which they were built, than autos. Many streets follow paths of old water ditches – the acequias – which nourished early mission families.
So you walk, and you begin at the Alamo because San Antonio, quite simply, begins and ends at the old mission’s scarred doors. The Alamo is legend; everyone knows that. It is a shrine for 187 men who died on the 13th day of a siege by the Mexican Army, led by Santa Ana. Texans revere the Alamo, but it has universal appeal, probably because its heroes came from varied backgrounds. Only six had been in Texas as long as five months. Thirty-six were English. There were Scots, Irish, two Germans and a Dane. The men were from 18 American states. Five were from Philadelphia. There were a blacksmith, a hatter and a house painter. At least one half could not have read the Texas Declaration of Independence for which they died.
One historian believed that until the last, the men never really thought they would die. William Travis, co-commander with Jim Bowie, was not “oriented toward martyrism,” he said. But Travis’ letter containing the words I am besieged . . . I shall never surrender or retreat is one of the great documents of history.
Alamo Plaza today is busy. One half is faced with a row of shops, and afternoon traffic clogs its narrow openings. It’s only after dark that the plaza’s mystique returns, recalling a time when withered old women in black mantillas hawked boutonnieres and thin Mexican candies, and German burghers sought a favorite beer garden.
Beside the Alamo stands the Menger Hotel, which has arrived in the 20th century with modern conveniences and internal luxury, all carefully hidden behind an aged patina. Inside its century-old lobby, the marble floors have been paced by Buffalo Bill and Sam Houston, Generals Lee and Grant, Patton, Pershing. Zachary Taylor, Tecumseh Sherman, writers Bret Harte and Oscar Wilde.
In a lobby corner before a giant fireplace, William Sydney Porter scratched out short stories on long yellow pads. Only after he left San Antonio and served a jail term would he become famous as O. Henry. Oscar Wilde, dressed in yellow silk waistcoat, blue tie, green cape and black breeches, fed raw meat to alligators living in a patio pool. Wilde, especially, was pleased with the Menger’s European-trained staff which served him Grouse Farci au.x Truffes. Richard King, founder of the King Ranch, and his pal “Shanghai” Pierce of Goliad preferred more local fare, like buffalo hump roast, wild turkey and turtle steak.
The Menger’s lobby at one time served as a recruiting station for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders – the Spanish-American War’s First Regiment of U.S. Cavalry Volunteers. Each recruit signed a sworn statement that he was “entirely sober when enlisted.”
Main Plaza – Plaza Principal de Bex-ar – should be seen at dawn when light first strikes the spires of San Fernando Cathedral, and its bells fill the small square. The cathedral is the plaza’s masterpiece and it has stood there, in several forms, for 235 years.
In front of San Fernando, in 1813, North America’s first declaration of independence from Spain was made. Davy Crockett mounted a wooden box to speak in his backwoodsy, mesmeric style to men who would die at the Alamo. On the second floor of a hotel, a young Robert E. Lee paced away the night worrying with personal loyalties. By sunrise he had decided to join the Confederacy.
And in 1749 Apaches came to settle a peace with Spain. The treaty – soon broken, naturally – was consummated with the burial of a live horse, a tomahawk, a lance and six arrows. Those peace tokens are still there, now under a small green park.
Almost next door, Military Plaza is fronted with the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the only existing example in Texas of a regal Spanish home. The square, at first, was a soldiers’ compound and later an outdoor market where citizens bargained for live hens, mockingbirds in wooden cages and buffalo hides. They also had their teeth pulled, their pockets picked and their necks stretched by vigilantes, but all was overshadowed by a single historical event in 1876.
John Gates, 21, appeared with a roll of strange wire which he strung onto posts and dared cowmen to drive their cattle through. The ranchers tried; nevertheless, the cattle shied from the wire’s barbs.
“This is the finest fencing in the world,” Gates shouted. “Light as air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dirt, all steel and a yard wide.”
Texas cattlemen were convinced. They bought the new barbed wire, ending forever open ranges in the West and setting the scene for farmers to homestead. Barbed wire, more than any single invention of its time, tamed the West and made possible its settlement.
Ranching began here in Texas, created with the longhorn steer, that Model T of cattle. The longhorn was born in the mogotes, evolved from strayed, mixed-blood Spanish and Moorish cows. In the brush, the longhorn developed a lean belly, race-horse legs, high shoulders and a genius for survival.
On clear days (there are few smoggy ones; a recent government study showed San Antonio had the cleanest city air in America) you can see into the brush country from the observation deck of Tower of the Americas, a 750-foot-high concrete column rising out of HemisFair Plaza. The plaza is the remaining park of HemisFair ’68, first and only world’s fair with a pun in its name.
From the tower, San Antonio gives the impression of a kind of earthen tripod, each leg of which has a distinct geophysical personality. South and east is the rolling countryside of the Coastal Plain. To the north, there is the Edwards Plateau with wooded, creased hills, lakes and creeks. It brims with deer and wild turkey.
South and west, behind the skyline, are nub ends of the Sonoran and Chihua-huan deserts, one flowing into Texas from Mexico, the other running to the sunset. It is a barbarous Eden with, as J. Frank Dobie characterized, “the stench of rattlesnakes.” It is jumbled with coma, a plant with dirk-like thorns, and the terrible-clawed guajilla (Mexicans call the bush “Wait-a-minute”), thickets of mes-quite, bright green cedar and hedge walls of prickly pear cactus, which to O. Henry seemed as “fat bristly hands.”
There the longhorn was spawned, and across that land came the first settlers of Texas and San Antonio. Their arrival is traced uniquely in the Institute of Texan Cultures, a handsome museum in HemisFair Plaza. The museum, in fact, shows the movements and society of 25 major ethnic groups in Texas, using artifacts and pictures, movies and film slides.
And always, for San Antonio, the Spanish dominate, but it is a curious kind of control. The Spanish came, settled in the valley, built the five missions and colonized San Antonio. How they lived still can be seen in the restored missions, especially Mission San Jose, a national historic site and magnificent architectural psalm of stone and mortar. The mission was begun in 1720, and today’s reconstructed walls still show marks of the poor Indian peons who first built the compound, then lived inside. A granary and mill and box-like rooms all have been restored, and the church with its famous Rose Window is still in use.
Missions San Juan Capistrano, Con-cepción and San Francisco de la Espada are strung along the river outside the downtown area and are pointed out by a well-marked missions trail.
From these missions grew San Antonio, a city with a Spanish glow. Evidence of the bilingual population is everywhere. A drugstore sign announces “Acceptamos Pesos.” A rickety clapboard stand advertises “Raspa con Nievo” – a cone with snow. “Libreria Espanola; Surtido General de Libros” lures potential customers into a bookstore.
Behind the Spanish came all others, and those nationalities have both retained their heritages and blended into the original. The 50-voice Beethoven Maenner-chor has been singing classical German music for more than 100 years. The Greeks stage an annual fair and the Lebanese, a festival. Each Sunday the services of the Chinese-Baptist Church are said in two languages, English and Mandarin. In the spring, San Antonio’s massive city-wide “Fiesta” (April 14-23), a week of parades, pageantry and pomp, brings these ethnic groups into a common cause – the grand celebration of being San Antonians.
Though a couple of centuries of living together seems to have mixed the people of San Antonio into a kind of community stew, the “Fiesta” works so well that at least a million spectators come for the fun. This stew always has a Spanish flavor, and what newcomers find are families named O’Brien whose forefathers lived in the Canary Islands, blond-haired Garzas and a Gonzales clan with relatives from Glasgow.
Their city, their river.
Where To Stay In Downtown San Antonio
Hilton Palacio Del Rio: A high-rise beauty of a Hilton, but un-Hiltony. Most centrally-located of all river-site hotels. Balconies look right down on the river. Box 2711, San Antonio, 78206. 512/222-2481. 491 rooms, from $36 single to $48 double.
La Mansion: The Spanish decor blends in nicely with the river, which laps at this hotel’s back stoop. Very intimate rooms, richly furnished, beamed ceilings, enclosed central courtyard holds a large swimming pool. 112 College St., San Antonio, 78206. 512/225-2581. 200 rooms, from $32 single to $48 double.
Menger: Historic, comfortable, elegant. New modern section carefully hidden behind the original. Huge lobby (the pool and alligators have been removed). Old bar as it was when Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders. Next door to the Alamo. Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 78295. 512/223-4361. 350 rooms, from $22 single to $40 double.
St. Anthony. Once Texas’ best hotel,still a Grande Dame with Auntie Mamestyle. String quartets no longer play afternoon tea concerts in the lobby, but the feeling of grandeur remains. Modernizedrooms retain their high-ceilinged luxury.300 E. Travis, San Antonio, 78298. 512/227-4392. 431 rooms, from $30 single to $45 double.
Spring’s the time to head South.