Yep, totally under the spell of The Lone Star State, we are! Who knew?!
I like to think of our time in Texas, all 9 1/2 weeks of it, as a story that slowly unfolded, and the more it did, the more it became a captivating tale to us.
There is so much to cover and show you that I thought it best to convert our epic stay in three separate blog posts.
- Introduction, El Paso and San Antonio
- Texas Gulf Coast
- Austin and Livingston
It’s now time to tell all, y’all!
But first, some useful stats. By size, Texas is second only to Alaska; by population at 25 million, second only to California. The Dallas-Fort Worth area alone has more than 7.5 million while the Houston metro area is nearing 7 million, with both cities and others in Texas like Austin and San Antonio in expansion mode. Massive infrastructure road projects were at times ‘painfully felt’ as we drove our coach and tow car through narrowed lanes caused by the road work. True to form, Texas isn’t waiting for infrastructure money to come from Washington!
Fortunately, vast parts of Texas show none of this urban progress and indeed count more cattle heads than humans! But if you’re like me… not entirely familiar with the regions of Texas, here’s a simple map that should help as I describe the places we’ve been.
Mark and I had never been to Texas. We were excited to go, but man!… where to begin, what sort of itinerary should be planned knowing full well that we couldn’t ‘do it all’ in one visit. There are several ‘trip planning’ software programs out there, specifically for RV traveling, but understanding the geography of Texas first is a wise start. Descriptions mentioned in many tourism articles often refer to areas such as the “Hill Country”, or the “Texas Panhandle”, the former a land of rolling, hilly grasslands to the latter where thunderstorms and tornados are a constant threat in the Spring time (especially this Spring 2019).
We each had a preferred list of things to see & do. Mark wanted to stop in San Antonio, and I had Big Bend National Park on my bucket list. We both wanted to spend time in Austin and on the Texas Gulf Coast (Thanks to Glen Campbell’s song, we had a pre-crush on “Galveston”!). We weren’t particularly interested in hitting the Dallas Fort Worth or Houston areas as we wanted to stay away from mega urban cities. That changed a tiny bit, but that’s why we never like to plan to the last detail.
With that in mind, we ended up with a somewhat convoluted itinerary (see below), arriving in El Paso in West Texas on March 27 to Livingston, in East Texas on May 31. Yes, a total of 1,595 miles (3,482 km) in 9 ½ weeks.
There’s a lot to cover so let’s begin with our first port of call, El Paso.
EL PASO (West Texas)
El Paso is a city right on the border with Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez. With five university/collegiate campuses across town—University of Texas in El Paso among them—it is a vibrant, youthful and very diverse urban centre. It’s also the only large city in Texas to be in Mountain Time zone, the rest of Texas is on Central Time. El Paso is unlike anywhere else in Texas–its reputation slowly changing from “armpit” (not my word) to a city with its own cultural signatures. There is a dynamic vibe in El Paso… attention to architecture and design can be seen in landmark buildings that have had their original art deco style revamped.
And room for contemporary or trendy stuff too!
El Paso residents–especially students–love their homeboy Beto O’Rourke! There are “Beto for 2020” on car bumpers everywhere!
El Paso’s geographic positioning favours influx of cultural influences between New Mexico, its neighbour to the west and the country of Mexico. Go up Scenic Drive in the Franklin Mountains and you can gaze into Ciudad Juarez, on the other side of the Rio Grande and literally observe life from another country. But unless you drive by one of the four border crossings—one of which is the Bridge of the Americas—a busy bridge with congestion on both sides–evidence of the Trump drastic immigration rules are not ‘seen’ within the city, though they are certainly felt.
Mexico’s influence is very strong of course, in the food and the colors of El Paso. At a local deli restaurant where we stopped for lunch, customers were chatting to each other and to the staff in English and Spanish while waiting in line—effortlessly and simultaneously. It reminds me of my hometown in Montreal, where similar exchanges take place in English and in French, effortlessly and simultaneously. The pride in El Paso’s Spanish and Mexican heritage is everywhere but none more evident than its pristine reputation as handmade cowboy hat & boot making capital (49 bootmakers in the El Paso region!).
Between fresh quesadillas, pad thai and BBQ steak, the street art, and the budding micro-breweries, our time in El Paso was way more fun than we anticipated.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our experience with the West Texas winds, especially present in March and April (so we were told). On our last night in El Paso, the winds were quite strong (30-35 mph)—which doesn’t seem high, but believe you me, just the sound was unsettling enough. As they say back home in Quebec… « un vent pour décorner les bœufs » (if you insist on a tranlation, it goes like this… « a wind that would blow off the horns of the bulls!… » Fortunately, in a desert setting, only sand will sweep by the rig. It makes for a dusty interior (it gets everywhere!), but better this than a large tree branch cutting through the motorhome!
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK and ALPINE
Next, we headed straight for Big Bend National Park, via Alpine. Our time in this amazing part of Texas is the subject of a separate previous blog (007), Beautiful, Dusty Big Bend and West Texas]. I do recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.
SAN ANTONIO (South Texas)
After a dozen days on the road in the West Texas countryside—and somewhat isolated—we were looking forward to getting back to an urban setting again. As lifetime urban dwellers, Mark and I feel completely at ease exploring large cities… it’s our kind of jungle!
You don’t have to be too familiar with San Antonio to know about its famous Riverwalk.
I had the privilege of visiting San Antonio a few years back during an annual meeting of the American Translators Association. The conference hotel was right on the Riverwalk. While the Riverwalk is unique and very quaint to North American eyes, it gets so very crowded on sidewalks and restaurants to the point when it becomes unbearable! This time around, I was curious to step outside the bounderies of San Antonio’s Riverwalk and give this history-rich city a wider berth.
And this we did, I’m happy to report.
Some stats first: San Antonio is the 7th most populous city in the US and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. One can certainly gather this by the unending road construction along Highway 35 and the slow traffic that seems to bleed from everywhere. But hey, nothing that people in Toronto or Seattle aren’t familiar with, unfortunately – the hallmarks of a growing metropolis!
Soon after its founding in 1718, San Antonio became the largest Spanish settlement in the state. San Antonio de Valero Mission (now the Alamo) began as a way to reassert Spain’s dominance over Texas from the French in Louisiana.The Alamo site is where the Battle of the Alamo took place in 1836, in which outnumbered Texan forces were defeated and the Alamo defenders were killed. It remains today, a major point of interest for visitors.
Main entrance of The Alamo — photobombed by a duck!
We paid our respects to Riverwalk and The Alamo, and looked for other venues and points of interest. We were not disappointed. Here are two of our favourites spots.
The Pearl Brewery District
We were most fortunate to be in San Antonio in mid-April, during Fiesta Week, ten days of citywide, multicultural, family-oriented celebration.
The very colourful world of Fiesta Week at the Pearl Brewery District
We caught up with Fiesta activities at the Pearl Brewery District – named after the Pearl Beer Brewing company.
The architects and city planners behind San Antonio’s Pearl District restoration have organized an entire neighbourhood in and around a brewery! My dear husband, who loves discovering interesting architectural buildings, didn’t know where to look or what to photograph next!
The Pearl Brewery main plaza
The former home of Pearl Brewery—which operated from 1883 to 2001—was for years an undesirable area, an empty stretch of land and unoccupied buildings north of downtown. Like many cities around the world have done with their ugly or neglected industrial sites—The Distillery in Toronto or The Warehouse District in New Orleans come to mind—the Pearl plant has been cleverly repurposed into a vibrant micro district. Many original structures remain; the bottling plant is now a food hall, for example, and vintage equipment is strewn around public spaces. Brewery and ammonia tanks are now rainwater collectors and herb-garden containers (full of giant mustard greens and swiss chards, my fave veggies!)
There is a boutique hotel (Hotel Emma), lots of chef-owned restaurants, independent shops and cool cocktail bars, all situated in a compact, 22-acre site by the San Antonio River. It’s obvious that Pearl has now become a most desirable place to stay and play! It’s great people-watching as locals and tourists happily mingle, and during Fiesta Week where everyone was sporting colorful attires, there was no telling which was which!
Hotel Emma, Lobby and Bar Lounge areas inside the old Pearl Brewery
GRUENE (HILL COUNTRY)
German settlers came to the Hill Country in the 1840s, to farm, and prosper they did. As a result, several towns have German-sounding names in the Hill Country… Perhaps the most popular of these towns, Fredericksburg, is known for its wineries and for putting on display its German heritage. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Fredericksburg but we’ll be sure to put it on the itinerary for next time. We did, however, visit Gruene!
The town of Gruene (pronounce “Greene”)–located within the city limits of New Braunfels, about an hour drive north of San Antonio—is bona fide Texas for tourists. Much of its mid-nineteenth century buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Once a significant cotton-producing community along the Guadelupe River, this once sleepy town was re-discovered in the 1970s and its economy is now supported mainly by tourism. Gruene is home to famous Gruene Hall, a 6,000 sq.ft open-air dance hall—the oldest continuing operating dance hall in Texas—to this day hosts live country, Americana & Blues musicians; it has been a virtual magnet and a starting point for many performers…. from Bo Diddley to Willie Nelson to Little Richard all the way to Hootie & the Blowfish and Ziggy Marley. Check out the list here. http://gruenehall.com/famous-artists/
Getting a better handle on driving Mr. Bond
Our time in San Antonio was not all about sightseeing. We had to attend to a couple of RV-related issues. First, replace a chipped-then-cracked windshield. The large piece of glass was delivered and installed right at the RV campground where we were staying. (From the installer’s truck, I think they were angels!) No matter, it was amazing to watch these guys work and replace this enormous piece of glass!
Then we were off to a private lesson about RV safety and driving. RV Driving School Instructor, Duane Kunze, was our capable instructor! Mark gained more confidence in how to handle the rig in various situations, while I lost a little bit of my newbie fear of driving this behemoth (it still feels big but I’m getting there!). It was money & time well spent!