Saturday, 12 December 2009

Day 938 - San Antonio

I made my out of Del Rio, it was warming up nicely, nicely enough to eventually peel off down to shorts and t-shirt, that's more like it. I was heading away from the Mexican border but surprised to find that the Border Patrol were still out in considerable force. They were driving along the wide tacks at the side of the road towing tyres behind them to smooth the surface so that they could detect when the tracks had been crossed, so it was limiting the chances of an undisturbed night. A little further on I approached another border patrol station where the vehicles queued up waiting to be given the once over by sniffer dogs. My turn arrived, the dogs came nowhere near me, they could smell my sock from that far off, impressive. The guys checked my passport and visa, said "You're nuts" and let me carry on. I made another stop in Brackettville and talked to a couple from North Dakota. Now it gets mighty cold up there so they here for the winter, known locally as Winter Texans rather than the more commonly used term of Snow Birds.

The following day was forecast for another cold front, but whilst I packed up miserable, drizzly, yucky stuff was coming towards me from the direction I had to go in. By the time I was on the road it was drizzling and set in for the day. I called in to the impressively big library in the small town of Uvalde, so impressively big they were having financial trouble keeping it going. I went for a coffee in McDonalds, anything to try and stay dry as long as possible in the hope that it would pass. A young lad showed remarkable interest in where I was cycling, his father had trouble dragging him away. I left just after them, just in time to see them reverse into a car coming into the car park...ooops! If they hadn't talked to me for so long it wouldn't have happened. I carried on through Knippa and right before my eyes things were changing dramatically, brown was giving way to green, cactus to ploughed fields, shrubs to trees, dry to even wetter, quiet roads to busy roads. I was suddenly leaving the desert southwest and I didnít like what was happening. After so long it will probably take two or three days to adjust to what is around me, my first thought was that it was the end of easy to find camping spots. I refilled on coffee in Sabinal, there was still no let up in the weather, I was in for a damp night. It was time to start looking for a spot to camp, when suddenly in front of me was large open fields, I couldnít see any more trees at all through the murky gloom, things were not looking good. At the end of the trees on my left was a track, it really offered my only chance of somewhere to camp so I made my way along it. The trees came to an end and I was surprised to see a farm house there so I turned around. A vehicle was coming towards me so I flagged them down "Any chance of putting up my tent beside your track?" I asked the girl, Emily was her name, "I will have to ask my parents" she replied, so I followed her back to the house. Stephanie arrived ìWell you can camp if you like. We are building a house at the back which isnít finished but does have a bed and blankets, you could stay there if you likeî. Well on a gloomy evening it was music to my ears, I wasn't going to say no, that's for sure and with my answer of "Well if you are sure you don't mind" I was welcomed with open arms. Stephanie was delighted to hear I was English "Wow great" she said "Would you like a Gin and Tonic, nobody around here will drink G&T with me", but I wasn't sure if she was serious or not so being typically English I replied with "I would rather not, but I would love a cup of tea". We sat on the veranda chatting enthusiastically, the dogs were pretty enthusiastic too, "Are they friendly?" I asked "They are ok, but just let that one sniff you and she will be fine". It was the sort of dog that looked as though it was about to rip your arm off, but the pink t-shirt she was wearing did nothing for her macho image. "How many cats have you got?" there were a few coming and going "Oh, we have a bunch of cats" which I later discovered meant about 20 on this occasion. We went inside as it got dark, they were all so nice and friendly, I felt comfortable and at home straight away. Kenneth arrived home, the main farmer of the 3,000 acres they farm, looked at me a bit suspiciously and said "I don't do accents very well, I probably wont be able to understand you", but we quickly got on well. I eventually got around to one of my favourite subjects and asked "So do you have a gun in the house?" I asked "Oh yes, lots" but I had rather guessed that already judging by the large Elk head hanging on the wall acting as a hat stand, "They are all over the house, we need them here, different guns for different purposes, guns for shooting snakes that come too near the house, we shoot the wild boars that destroy the land, we also hunt the deer, though most of the time we don't shoot them, only when the numbers get too high". When I mentioned the Elk Stephanie said "Oh I had forgotten about that" to which Kenneth added "Great, does that mean we can have another one? I killed that one with a bow and arrow from 60 yards. We also keep guns handy as you never know who will turn up during the night being as we are so close to the Mexican border. The Mexican used to come passing by looking for work so we used to give them food and drink and then they used to move on, but things have all changed now since they have tightened up the border, people canít find the work so that it has all changed to drug smuggling, people are dying all the time because of the drug dealers. We thought you might be one, but you don't see many Mexicans here on bicycles." It was all an education for me. Whilst we talked Stephanie cooked a wonderful dinner, I could hardly believe my luck, I was warm, clean having had a shower, had a plate of food in front of me and good company all around me. I keep saying that I am being looked after and as yet I have seen nothing to make me think otherwise, I really consider that I am a very fortunate person. Every now and then I would stop talking, Kenneth would look at me and say "No, I didn't understand a word of that!" We covered all sort of subjects including difficult subjects to talk about. They had lost their son Kyle a couple of years ago in a motorcycle accident, the pain was clearly still there to see, but have since adopted a teenage boy and girl from a cousin that had also died. They have faced incredible challenges in their lives as well as running a 3,000 acre farm and bringing up a family and left me thinking what an easy life I have had. They were a delightful family, I could have hugged them all. I went to bed in the house at the back, it was cold but not as cold as the tent and once in bed I was soon snug and warm. There was a knock on the window. Kaleb had been to collect Julie from work at the Dairy Queen and had brought me back an ice-cream so we stood around and chatted longer as I got colder.

With no tent to pack away in the morning I was ready to leave earlier than usual, but I don't normally have anybody to talk to for two hours before I set off, the dreary day outside hardly making it any easier to set off. We could have talked a lot longer, but I had about 100km to go to San Antonio so I was eventually on the road at about 9:45. I neednít have worried about time, the road was flat, there was no real wind to slow me down so I made quick progress, it was effortless with an average speed way higher than normal. I guessed it would suddenly hit me and I would be back to normal
speed, but it never happened, I felt great and the kilometres ticked past at an alarming rate. I felt great, I had a whole bunch of energy, I was on top of the world. I kept trying to work out why I was going so well, there was no tailwind, it wasnít downhill, so the only reason I could come up with was that last night had really lifted my spirits, I just felt at one with the world, life felt good. I was going so well that I would arrive very early at my next Couch Surfing hosts, so I called in at a cafe and drank coffee, now thatís unusual isn't it. I sat there until I felt old. It wasnít that I was there for a long time, it is just that it was next to a school which had just finished for the day and the place was full of young teenagers doing a bunch of things that teenagers do. When I arrived at the house I was greeted by Andreas and we were soon discussing everything, politics was reached even sooner than normal. The rest of the family arrived, Niko then Rachael and finally Jana. You could say they enjoy music. They have more guitars than the average household, probably even the average street, may be more than an average neighbourhood, they have 45! There are about 17 in my room along with drums, keyboards and a bunch of other kit. They all play in a band, The Laven Family, but at Rachael and Niko grew up they decided it was a bit cheesy and they are now just The Lavens and have already recorded three CDs. They write and play their own music, Rachel has been writing songs since she was ten. How did somebody like me end up staying with a family of talented musicians? I guess that is the beauty of Couch Surfing, you get to choose interesting people. I have already decided to stay an extra night so that I can go and see them playing on Friday night. I was taken for a tour of the very exclusive neighbourhoods and to see the Christmas lights in the city centre, then on to see their friend Butch Morgan playing, another singer songwriter. It was fabulous stuff, all very Texan with great songs including one called "God drives pick-up truck".

The Lavens are another cat family, though there are only four in their bunch of cats. One, Monkey, slept on my bed most of the night, then returned in the morning, sat on my chest and pushed his face into my nose. It was all very friendly, a lovely cat, though I drew the line when he started dribbling snot over me. I am not that much of a cat lover. I went off to buy a tent. I had located a place in San Antonio that had four I wanted to check out. It was a great place, I set them all up, spent about 3-4 hours there, then came away empty handed. Clearly this trip has done nothing to enhance my decision making skills, I told them I need to scratch my head for a while and would come back in a couple of days. I looked at new sleeping bags too and was offered a good discount if I bought a tent and a sleeping bag. It made me realise just how thin my sleeping bag has become, more of a sleeping sheet. I have a feeling I will be too hot in a new one, even if it does go below freezing.

I have received an email from Emily whose family I stayed with on the farm, here is a little exert.. "I am so glad that you decided to turn down my parents' driveway yesterday.........It is so nice to be reminded that, as a whole, humanity is good and that strangers don't have to be as long as we are willing to open ourselves up to them. Thank you for showing up and reminding me of that". I can assure it the feeling was mutual and it is these unexpected meetings with people that make travel and life so good. They took me in, gave me a shower, fed me, offered to do my washing, I guess they could smell my socks too, entertained and educated me and what did I do in return? Nothing really, I just sat there and just had to be myself. I guess it is hardly surprising that I rode into San Antonio on a high.

I took the bus for the short trip to downtown San Antonio, I quiet little city centre with a little central tourist zone focusing unexpectedly on the scene of the Alamo. Davy Crockett, William Travis and James Bowie are the three main Texan heroes who lost their lives as the place came under siege from Mexican general Santa Anna and his 1500 strong army for 13 days in 1836. The church at the front of the complex (photo) is now a shrine to the fallen, through there remains are said to be in the cathedral nearby (photo). I visited the old and the new, the old in the form of the King William Historic district with his wonderful early 20th Century mansions (photo), and the new in the Rivercentre Mall complete with outside entertainment area by the river basin. There was also a fabulous riverside walk, a little below the main street level, a tranquil place with riverside cafes, all empty in the cold of winter. The evening for me was the real highlight of my stay here though. At the bottom of the garden the Lavens have their own little recording studio where they are currently working on their fourth CD and I was able to sit in and watch them work on one of the tracks. It was fascinating stuff, I heard the same track over and over again, written and lead vocals by Andreas, it quickly grew on me, I loved it. I now understand why they all wear headphones while they are recording as each instrument is recorded separately, without the headphones you only hear the one instrument, it sounds really strange. Later in the evening we went out to hear some Irish music, familiar sounds and familiar tastes as I listened and watched with a Guinness in my hand.

I spent the following days sorting out a few things, then once done watched a film that until the previous day I never even knew existed, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Jana arrived back from work and watched the last half an hour or so, I could hear her sobbing away, handy that, it helped me disguise my sniffles. Then it was straight out to The Cove where the Lavens were playing. Itís a large bar/restaurant that instantly reminded me of a scene from the Blues Brothers. Do you remember the scene where they stole somebody else's act at a Country and Western venue, then started playing their Blues music until the crowd were in uproar and threw bottles at them, well it was just like that but without the bottles being thrown. It wasn't the ideal way for me to listen to them as people kept coming up and talking to me, but it made for a wonderful social evening. There were lots of Couch Surfers there too as Jana had told the local surfers we would be there. I got talking to Kenny, a Native American though you would never really know he was. Whilst we were talking he told me his lucky number was 7. Occasionally whilst I have been in America people have offered me money, I always refuse, as I have said before it is my choice to be here in this manner, but on this occasion Kenny gave me $7, how could I refuse. I donít know what I will do with it, I will try a do something special with it. When I do I will let you know.

Today is another cold and wet day, the transition from permanently dry to permanently wet has been alarmingly quick. People keep telling me "This is unseasonably cold and wet for this time of year", but I don't see it changing for the better. Don't worry, I expect no sympathy from y'all at home, it is typical British winter's weather. So what do you do on a typically crappy winter's day in Britain? You stay at home of course, so that is what I am doing today, hanging out and giving it one more day and just hoping it will be better tomorrow.


caff said...

Stay at home on a day with crappy winter weather? No chance! I'm a golfer! I'm out on the golf course on a day off - rain or shine. Even more incentive now after my Hole in One!! :-)

jac said...

That's a whole bunch of great blogging! ;-)
You really are meeting some amazing people on your trip through the deep south. It's bringing me a whole new view of the US.
I didn't know that Five People you meet in Heaven was a film - must track that down - the book is great.
Good roads.

Tony said...

Hi John, I'm just thanking you for the immense quantity of good reading which I have to catch up on! Plus ongoing immense congrats on the traveling, riding, writing and pictures.

dad said...

Comments on the comments! Those were the days Caff when I could drive, not so easy now with public transport although btter when winter has gone home. I agree with Jac the book he mentions was very good. I read it when it first came out before I needed Large print. Haven't read your posting yet but will look at it later.

caff said...

I agree with Emily's comments that strangers can turn out to be really special. Whilst you are lucky to be travelling to discover that we have to remember that there are some really special strangers on our own doorstep if we are just willing to give people a chance. It is nice to hear of all the lovely people you are meeting :-)

Ms. Frances Morantes said...

Hey John,Hello from San Antonio Texas.So you made it here before I did.This is Ms. Frances Morantes I met you in Sanderson Texas the day of the great Snow Fall for Folks here in Texas as it hardly ever snows in the south.I have been reading up on your quest and have found it to be very interesting. That day at Sanderson I wanted so badly to extend my hand to you and ask you if you needed to rest or even take a bath ,but I guess I was reluctant not because of you but because I thought you might not trust us enough to accept our offer.I apologize for that.I want to thank you for letting us take a pic together.I knew you were on a mission when I first saw you ride into Sanderson.I knew I had to have a chat with you and I am glad I did.I would like for you to include us in your notes even tho we didn't offer any help,just as a favor to me.That would make my day,lol.I will be praying for you to complete you journey to New York.I will be Checking in your comments to see where you are at and making sure you are alright.Take care and may God Bless You.Ms. Frances Lozano Morantes and Daughter's.

John Harwood said...

Hi Frances,

Thanks for you lovely long comment. It was good to speak to you all in Sanderson, but there is no need to apologise for not offering a place to rest, but thanks very much for the thoughts. I am still really encouraged by all the people I meet along the way, it makes for such a pleasurable journey, especially in bad weather such as we hd that day. I assume you trip to Alpine was ok, I heard they generally have more snow being a little higher up. Thanks again and take care,


Ms. Frances Morantes said...

Hey John nice hearing from you.It was nice that you stopped in my hometown of San Antonio and spend a day or so,hope you liked it.I Have no clue as to where you are at now but I have a daughter in Duson Louisiana,it is a small town before Lafayette Louisiana.I talked to her about you and she said she was going to read up on your web page tomorrow.I'm glad you wrote because i wanted to warn you of the Bears and alligator in the wilderness of Louisiana. Please do be careful.Stay safe and God Bless You.

JanaLaven said...

Hi John,
Just reading back on your travels. Andreas and I will keep up with you on your future endeavors.
I need to send you phone numbers for John McGarvey in NYC and Steve Bratland in Mt. Rainier near DC. I will do this through CS.
Niko will be in Nashville AFTER the New Year as Steve Durr got too busy to record this weekend. Rachel will have to record here and send it in over the internet--amazing thing digital recording.
I always get a little sad watching visitors leave but you left so slow.
Andreas and I stood and watched you make your way up to Blanco with a bit of a tear. Hope we can see you again if we get a tour in Europe. Safe travels and happy times to you.

Ms. Frances Morantes said...

Hello John just a few lines to wish you a nice day.So you left Austin and I guess You will be taking the northern States before you reach your destination.Well do keep everyone posted as you can see us Texan are a friendly Bunch,LOL.I want to take the opportunity before Christmas gets here and you are caught between cities and won't be able to post again until after Christmas.So I want to wish you A very Merry Christmas and a Happy NEW Year.I'll be checking in to see when you post your next poat,they are always good reading material,Have you thought about writing a Book? That would really be nice! Take Care! Frances

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Ms. Frances Morantes said...
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Ms. Frances Morantes said...
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Ms. Frances Morantes said...

Hello John,just got back from seeing my daughter and her family in Duson,LA.I have caught up on my missed chapters of your journey,threw Tx and New Orleans La. I guess you won't write again for a few more days since you are going to be doing a lots of cycling,just wanted to wish you a safe trip and try to stay warm.Ms. Frances Morantes

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