Friday, March 12, 2010

On the Road in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona

The wind up to tennis camp was sad but we had our next segment to enjoy which was a couple of days in San Antonio then collect a car and head off for Palm Springs -- we had 4 days to do this road trip.

We stayed in the centre of San Antonio at a Marriott Courtyard which abutted the River Walk so was really convenient.  The centre point of the city is the Alamo which coincidentally is a key point in the history of this part of the US.  Had the ultimately unsuccessful defence of the Alamo not taken place, it is quite feasible to presume that the entire SW of the USA would have not been redrawn to include Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and parts of Utah and Colorado.  Of course the simple story of the Alamo reflects the immense bravery of those 200 defenders but the sub-text goes deeper.  The Mexicans under Santa Anna won there and again at another nearby fort where the carnage was even greater.  They were then chasing the remaining "rebels" -- fewer than 1000 -- across Texas to the San Jacinto river (near present day Houston) when the Texans turned around and gave the chasing Mexicans such a hammering in 18 minutes that they totally gave up.  150+ years later, this all sounds unbelievable but the bare facts are as stated.  I cannot fathom how it came about but it did.  And with that came independence and 10 years later federation with the Union -- reluctantly apparently but forced due to huge war debts and a realistic appraisal of how indefensible Texas on its own was.  It is interesting how events cause unforeseen consequences and how that has been the case since time began.  Anyway I came away massively impressed how the volunteers keep up the Alamo and keep the history lessons vibrant and relevant even today.

We moved from San Antonio to El Paso on the I-10 and again was reminded just how large some countries are. We've just come from Australia and in particular Western Australia which is at least the size of Texas but has fewer than 2 million people in it: 1.6 million being in Perth, 250,000 south in the fertile areas with the remainder spread over land the size of Europe.  So we should have realised that maps do not tell the full story about how far and how long it takes to drive from A to B.  It took ages.  Fortunately we found Coopers Barbeque Restaurant along the way and had some amazing barbecue and I have to say here that I simply do not know how people can eat the portions served.  Vivien and I had an appetizer sampler between us and had meat headaches running into the evening.

We also learned another lesson when we hit El Paso which we thought we'd stay at.  Cities in the US are laid out differently.  In the US, it seems to me that only tourist activities, swanky hotels and ritzy restaurants are in the downtown areas with people living outside and existing on the service centres -- i.e. shopping malls, WalMart stores, restaurants, etc -- on the most convenient interstate highway.  In El Paso's case this is I-10.  I thought it odd that it seemed to be the case in San Antonio as well but now this is 2 Texan cities.

The drive to El Paso was nearly double what we needed to complete for our itinerary so we now had time which we spent in New Mexico visiting the Gila caves north of Silver City.  I liked the vibe from New Mexico and here I will give some ranking points for assisting tourists (like us) who hadn't bothered to do enough research before we arrived.

#1 -- New Mexico -- ranking 50-60% -- because near the border on the interstates they have tourist information offices that really do provide decent tourist information.

#99 -- Texas and Arizona -- ranking 0% -- these states do really little, bordering on zero, to help tourists with information.  We couldn't find information in Texas at all and in Arizona they are scattered meaninglessly in small towns miles off the interstates -- we persevered and once we found them, the folks inside tried really hard but it was tough finding them.

I don't understand why this should be as the US common to many countries has exported such a large portion of its manufacturing (and hence job creation) capability to lower cost jurisdictions that they now largely depend on service provision for economic activity.  Tourism is a BIG service industry and given the focus of downtown areas on tourism, what really is the problem in providing decent and convenient tourist information?

New Mexico is a wonderful state though.  The high plains in the south I presume are part of the 1854 purchase from Mexico but further north are simply wonderful rolling hills and mountains.  I liked the laid back vibe from the people, presumably because there's only 2 million residents.  However as I mentioned before it is a BIG state.  I had cheerfully thought we could do a short side trip up to check out the Gila caves and then rejoin I-10 and carry on and I suppose in the great scheme of things it was "short" but "short" actually meant an all day side trip through snow covered mountains.

The caves were very interesting but baffling as to why someone had gone to the enormous trouble to build them in this very remote area had simply walked away 20 years or 1 generation in those days later. The tourist guide at the caves suggested it was the bad drought and the cold as the tribe themselves came from further south.

We only had time to drive down to Silver City for the night and here I must list another gripe.  The tourist books say that Silver City is an eclectic ex-frontier town with an authentic old town.  If this was true -- and I suppose it must be -- it would surely be in the interests of the town and tourist industry to provide detailed sign posts for tourists.  We simply missed it so can say nothing about Silver City other than it appeared to be a town on the 180.  This was a shame as it snowed overnight and would I am sure have been a really nice place to properly visit.

And now time for a further gripe.  I am an ashamed cowboy fan.  I was brought up on the silver screen's rose tinted version of how the wild west was which to me is wooden buildings, a saloon with swinging doors, a sheriff's office and lock up, a blacksmith and livery stable with a general store nearby.  That's what I know about the wild west and therefore that's what I want to see when I visit the wild west.  I would love to go into a saloon, go up the stairs and stay in one of those rooms upstairs.  Why doesn't someone do this for all us cowboy fans?  Is there a cowboy theme park?  I would pay for this -- obviously with a decent bathroom attached -- and I am sure so would others.

So today we left Silver City in the snow and drove down to I-10 where it was sunny and 20 degrees warmer.  We found a ghost town called Steins but it was -- wait for it -- closed!  How can a ghost town be closed?  But closed it was.

We found an information centre and got a couple of ideas -- too late to visit Tombstone by this time so chose between the Sonora Desert Museum and the Aeroplane Museum just outside Tucson.  The Aeroplane museum came first and so we went there.  What a great place it is.  I just love planes largely because my dad was in the RAF during the war and flew commercially after.  I was disappointed I couldn't climb over the B-52s, the Migs, the Phantoms, the WWII aircraft but I could get really close -- so I did.  Fantastic.  Highlights for me were the old Stratocruiser which pre-dated the B52 and the C47 in D-Day flash markings signifying presumably that it dropped paratroopers.

I was surprised to see one of the old Doodlebugs that terrorized London in 1944-45.  It had been captured by the Canadians and ended up at the museum.  My dad told me that later on in the war after the Luftwaffe had all but been annihilated that many of the fighter pilots in the RAF converted to ground attack.  He himself moved from Spitfires to the Tempest which was quicker, less maneuverable but carried a huge weapons payload.  He was pulled out of France at the height of the Doodlebug attacks and was targeted to either shoot them down -- difficult as they were small and fast -- or to somehow place his wing beneath the wing of the Doodlebug and flip it upwards so that its gyroscopes would go blooey and it would fly off harmlessly.  It was a crazy order but being a mad Pole, he tried and told me he was 100% unsuccessful.  One of his comrades apparently got so annoyed on one occasion he tried to ram the Doodlebug but missed.

We decided to call a place called Gila Bend home for the night and will make it on to Palm Springs tomorrow.

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