Not a "Lone-Star" state

I won’t lie – I was not eagerly anticipating a trip to San Antonio.  My previous experiences in our nation’s 28th state haven’t been terribly positive: a frigid night in the Houston airport, a bad case of food poisoning in Dallas and a frightening run-in with some locals at a Ft. Worth restaurant.  Needless to say, my thoughts upon boarding the plane this weekend were a constant refrain of “I wonder what’s going to happen this time.”

Well, what happened was something totally unexpected – I had a grand time.  San Antonio is a great town, with incredibly friendly people – and as this correspondent grows ever older, finding people who’ll treat a meager tourist with a little respect and politeness becomes harder.  Finding a place that’s seemingly populated entirely with friendly people is like opening an oyster and finding a whole strand of pearls – a rare and unique treasure.

Now, it wasn’t all wonder and enjoyment.  San Antonio’s weather would remind one of our own weather here in the midstate – capricious, to say the least.  San Antonio’s also one of the largest (in terms of sheer landmass) cities in America, so getting around outside of the downtown areas is almost impossible without a car.

But why on Earth would one want to leave downtown?  In two days and one morning, I managed to eat two of the five best meals I’ve ever had, learned a little Spanish, heard both the best mariachi band and the best three-piece jazz combo I’ve ever heard, and – to top the sundae with a big, historical cherry – was laid low with the sheer gravity of a visit to the Alamo.  And all of that was within five blocks of my hotel.

My stated purpose for this trip was to participate in a conference of educators and students, discussing students’ transitions from their high-school days to the rigors of higher education.  The conference was informative and even fun, but the real experiences happened outside of the meeting rooms and banquet halls of the convention center – the real experiences happened out in the real world, with the people who make up this surprisingly-large town with a surprisingly-small-town feel.

The food in San Antonio is amazing.  I’m no restaurant critic, but I know what I like, and I like Mexican food – and I’ve never had it like this before.  Nearly everything in San Antonio has a distinct Mexican flair – even the hotel sushi bar was serving “Chili con carne” rolls alongside the typical spicy tuna and avocado.  (Note: Yes, the Chili con carne roll is delicious).  And if the people of San Antonio do Mexican fusion so well, imagine what they can do with straight-up, no-frills, Mexican food.  One establishment, “Casa Rio,” is the oldest establishment on San Antonio’s Riverwalk, and has been serving customers since the 1940’s.  It was there that I learned a little Spanish (we learned to sing “Happy Birthday” – not to a patron, but to one of the waitstaff, who’s been serving there since 1982), heard an incredible mariachi band blow the doors off the place with a mariachi cover of “All Along the Watchtower” and ate hands-down, the best Mexican food I’ve ever had in my life.  The chili con carne was tender and just spicy enough to warrant another cold drink, the enchiladas were fresh and flavorful, and the salsa?  Well, let’s just say that I can’t buy the stuff in a jar any more – I’ve been spoiled.

Food and music aside, however, the best part of the trip was my short but incredibly powerful visit to the Alamo.  Even if you’re not a history buff, the Alamo is an amazing slice of American history.

In 1836, Mexican forces under the command of President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna laid siege to the mission-turned-fortress, where less than 300 Texian troops held off their attackers for a full 13 days before the fortress fell.  Only two of the Texian defenders escaped with their lives.

Whether you are fascinated by the story of the Alamo or repulsed by it, you can’t put aside the feeling – when you walk through the stout wooden doors – that this was an important event in the history of our nation. 

The first thing that strikes you about the Alamo, when you walk up to it, is its size.  Not it’s massiveness – quite the opposite.  Sitting on just a couple of city blocks, surrounded by modern high-rises and the marble edifices of San Antonio’s federal buildings, the entirety of the present-day Alamo complex would easily fit inside the University Center here on campus, and probably wouldn’t even encroach upon the basketball arena.  (The site has decreased in size over the years, but even in 1836, the fort didn’t cover a huge amount of real estate.)  It was in this tiny space that almost 300 men worked and fought and slept and ate while their invaders made camp just outside.

You can still trace the outlines of pock-marks on the stone walls of the mission church where musket balls ricocheted ineffectively back towards the attackers.  In the courtyard behind, mounted cannon demonstrate the firepower that was brought to bear against the Alamo: huge two, four and 10 pound guns that rained shell and shot on the defenders for the duration of the siege.  The fact that the building stood up to the barrage speaks volumes as to its strength. The façade of the church seems to stare outwards with a  defiance more int
ense than even that of Texian commander William B. Travis: “I shall never surrender or retreat!”

But it’s when you walk inside, out of the Texas sun, and look around at the flags – dozens of them – representing the states and nations who sent men to the defense of the Alamo.  At first, it seems like a basic hall of flags – and then you notice the small red ribbons draped over each flag, each one imprinted with a single number: the number of that state or nation’s sons who died during those 13 days.

Whether you’re a warrior or a pacifist, there’s something sacred about the site.  When I considered those days, when I put myself in the place of the young men who had to know what was about to happen to them, that’s when it hit.  The power, the sheer force of the 176 intervening years, was too much – I had to sit on a nearby bench and let a few tears come.  In a world of increasing cynicism, when heroics are dismissed as self-aggrandizement, feeling such an emotional impact from a stack of stone blocks was not a wholly-unwelcome surprise.

I suppose, then, that the preceding 1,100 words are but preface to this simple piece of advice: keep your mind and your eyes open.  Whether it’s an emotional turning-point in your life or just a really good plate of tacos – there are still amazing things in this world.