At the start of my drive, I stopped at a deserted town in California that I had visited years earlier, a town on what was Rt 66 that Interstate 40 had killed.
While walking around, I encountered a biker from British Columbia, and I made the remark that “the best trips are those of which you don’t know where you will end up at the end of the day“.
He smiled knowingly, and said that when he is on the road, he didn’t even take a map.
I won’t say I don’t carry a map, but while I do have an idea of things and places I want to see along the way, other than any “return by” date, I have no schedule to keep. I’ve toured continents in this manner, but also realize that there are some places for which a guided tour is better.
So anyway, recently after a few years I had an opportunity of taking a coupla weeks off and go wherever I wanted to go.
I had a curiosity of seeing Marfa, Texas. That was the sight of many movies, but Giant was what interested me. Giant * was one of those 50’s movie epics at 3+ hours, about a Texas Rancher (Rock Hudson), and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor), and a ranch hand (James Dean).
Wanted to see the Alamo in San Antonio, and the Texas Hill Country. Wanted to drive up the Texas coast from Corpus Christi, and see another deserted town that Rt 66 killed on the Texas-NM border The town actually straddled the border! The bar was on the NM side, the Texas county being dry at the time.
Beyond that, I wanted to see whatever beckoned me on the road.
And there was plenty.
And as a rule, unless I had to get from “A” to “B” in a hurry, Interstates were to be avoided.
After visiting the ghost town of Amboy (which a family is resurrecting to cash in on the Rt 66 craze), the night’s stop was Tucson. And while there, I encountered a first in all my years of road trips.
Started to get a sore throat and headed to the pharmacy to get some NyQuil and DayQuil. And I wondered what to do? Head home? It’d be one thing to have someone else to share the driving duties, but it was just moi. And I thought what would I do if I had gotten the flu? Most likely pay a hotel for a week and miserably tough it out. Would tell the manager that after a week I’d either check out or they could call the coroner.
I decided to press on regardless.
The cold is still with me today anyway. Still coughing.
While on the road out of Tucson, I saw an exit sign for the Pima Air Museum.
First quick diversion!
I could have spent days there. Depending on who you talk to, it is either #2 (after the Smithsonian Air & Space in DC), or #3 (after the Air Force’s Wright Patterson).
All I know is that just to see the outdoor display – that had everything from 3 Air Force 1s used by Presidents to Boeing’s 787 Prototype that until recently was flying, to a B-36, B-58, on and on… I decided to hop on a little tram and take a tour guided by a docent.
In the case of the 787, we were told that with so many tests the plane went through with stress on the fuselage, the FAA told Boeing that it could not be used for passengers, so Boeing just donated it to the museum.
Having been to the Smithsonian multiple times (That is #1 – the engine display alone at the Annex at Dulles is worth the trip!) – it takes a lot to impress me at an aerospace museum, and the Pima is definitely worth a stop. I only went through one of the indoor hangers, and there were 2 or 3 more.
And I wanted to see “The Boneyard” at Davis Monthan, but post 9-11 the rules for entry have become a lot more restrictive.
Tickets are through the Pima, but they need, for one, 2 weeks advance notice to have you go through a security check.
But, they told me just to drive down Kolb Road and you will see some of them.
I never saw so many C-130s in my life – must have been easily a couple of hundred of them all parked in neat rows and columns. Some had the rudders missing.
Back onto I-10 towards Texas.
I hardly recognized El Paso. Mile after mile of overpasses. One thing I was reacquainted with – on one section of I10 on the western side of El Paso you can see all of the Mexican shanties on the outskirts of Juarez just a few 100 yards from the Interstate. And surprise number 2: On the weekends it is very hard to get a motel room. A lot of Juarez citizens come to El Paso to shop on the weekends.
I was stationed at Ft Bliss in El Paso for 3 months or so, getting advanced training. I came overnight from Ft Ord on the Monterey coast, and suffice it to say, it was a culture shock seeing miles of empty sand.
But I grew to like the isolation.
I can remember standing in formation at oh-dark-thirty in the cold desert and our Puerto Rican drill sgt would say, “All right you damn clowns! You get in trouble in Juarez the Army can’t do nuthin’ for you!”
And he was right.
With the drug cartels I think it would be pretty foolish going there now.
But I can remember going down the main street, Avenida del Revolucion, and seeing all of these small shops with the main product being black velvet Elvis paintings. The shopkeepers would look at me and say , “You GI?“. And I thought ,”What gave you the idea? My 1/2 inch haircut?“.
I kept that to myself 😉
A friend showed me one of those velvet Elvis paintings he “bargained” for down to $20 or so, as proud as can be. Didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d see pallet loads of those things in the alleyways.
The El Paso that I knew had to have been easily 5x smaller in physical size – with an old town square with a fountain as I recall, and a tram that went up to the top of Mt Franklin, which is right through the city.
I got a couple of divergent opinions as to whether the tram was still operating.
To see the El Paso I knew I think the movie The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, would show you. It was filmed about the same time.
Then I learned after decades, the Army moved its air defense school to Ft Sill, OK.
Times change and we are all getting older. Heck, for that matter even Ft Ord is long gone. I can just imagine what Lex would have written upon learning his ship, The Constellation, was being scrapped. A part of you dies with it.
From there, it was on to Van Horn, Texas and then Highway 90 to Marfa. When I got to the turnoff for Hwy 90, I saw an interesting hotel. Turns out a builder and architect built 5 of these, with others in El Paso and Carlsbad NM, in addition to this one and the one in Marfa. I forget where the 5th one was.
I ended up staying at the Hotel Capitan here on the way back, in addition to The Hotel Paisano in Marfa. These were all built around 1930, which I thought interesting, with the country entering the Great Depression. One family owns both of these and they poured in a lot of money restoring them to their 1930s grandeur.
I enjoyed Texas speed limits – 80 mph on I-10 and 75 on Highway 90, which was a 2 laned secondary highway.
At Marfa while at the Paisano, I heard the Elizabeth Taylor story. Before I left, the manager said that at the dining room, after the girl’s rejection, director George Stevens told Taylor to give that girl her autograph.
My mother worked for Bullocks-Wilshire – which was a premier department store in Los Angeles, when she came out west in the late 1940s. She remembers them closing a floor to allow the stars to shop in peace and meeting a young Elizabeth Taylor.
She said that you never forgot her eyes – a violet color. Anyway, having studied a bit of classic Hollywood I feel a bit sorry for Elizabeth, who never really had a childhood. I believe that is why she had the strange friendship with Michael Jackson, who also knew nothing but show business.
I wanted to see 2 things in Marfa – the Marfa lights and the remnants of the set of Giant. Amazingly the set for the huge “ranch house” sat for decades – Warner Brothers shipped out the “house” where it was assembled.
I was told that it sits on private ranch land and today only a pole or something similar is visible.
But here’s a video of some who returned in 2005…
And if you want to see where Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor and James Dean stayed at the Paisano here it is. You might be surprised that international stars or not, they stayed in little hotel rooms like the rest of us.
Didn’t see the Marfa Lights or the set of Giant, but it was still fun.
From Marfa, it was further down 90 to see what I could see.
Just a few miles south on 90 was the turnoff for Big Bend National Park.
Think Texas is just flat? Going into Big Bend you would see desert peaks over 6000′.
And in my travels, I saw about 1/2 dozen of some “heavy duty” German RVs. I thought they looked pretty strange and a bit of overkill – unless you wanted to go up the Amazon River in Brazil. I thought the truck was a Mercedes Unimog, but it was something different. The wheels on this thing had to have been over 4′ in diameter! A Lexican thought that it was based on a military truck, and I think he is right.
In any event, I told the ranger that I thought this thing could go anywhere, and he laughed.
“They think so, but they are top-heavy“, he said. About 6 months ago apparently one tipped over, and a tow service with air bags to lift it up had to come from San Antonio at a cost of many 1000s of dollars (not to mention any repair costs!). Which I am sure would involve a long wait for parts as this truck is not sold in North America.
Anyway I dubbed this “Der Panzerwagen“.
Meandering further down Highway 90, I spotted a sign saying I was entering the town of Langtry, and the Judge Roy Bean Museum was that-a-way.
I had always had the impression that Judge Bean was a “hanging judge”, but the curator of the little museum, a woman from the Texas Visitor’s Center, said that wasn’t the case, although there was a “hanging judge” in Alabama.
Judge Roy Bean had some unorthodox sentences, such as tying a drunk to a tree until he sobered up. And that is why he was tolerated in this lawless land.
I went into his very “courtroom”, where “hard liquor and hard justice was dispensed“.
The judge named the town for his heroine, the English-American actress Lilly Langtry.
Before I reached Del Rio, where Hwy 90 made a turn east towards San Antonio, I had yet another first at night. A car going the other way, he 75 and me 75, managed to fling a rock at my windshield. It was a perfect pitch. From the sound of the impact I didn’t even have to look for the damage.
I wanted to get that fixed in Del Rio, so I asked someone who was also getting gas at the Chevron station where the best windshield place was.
He looked at his contacts on his iPhone, and gave me a place in a residential neighborhood.
I met Miguel, who told he his grandfather started the business and they are now **the** place in Del Rio for windshields. And from the look of the cars they were working on, he was right. They were fast, economical and with a good conversation.
For me, many times it is the unexpected diversions with people that can make a trip memorable. I’ve had that happen repeatedly.
I read this post today on travel, and #10 hit me:
10. It’s those little human moments that stick with you forever, the random acts of kindness.”
At Del Rio, I turned east and hacked and wheezed (me, not the car) to San Antonio.
Always had a curiosity to see the Alamo and the River Walk.
I was surprised to learn that the Alamo was built by the Franciscan monks, the same order who built the California missions. The docent called them “The Builders”.
At the Alamo, I signed up for a tour, and the docent was a non-stop talker. Which I suppose is good unless you had some questions. I felt like I was trying to interrupt an auctioneer.
But a lot of misconceptions were corrected.
For one, I always thought that it was a 12 day siege, with the defenders holding out. The docent said that the actual battle lasted only 30-60 minutes. And everyone looks at the church thinking the battle was there but it was behind the fortified walls, just to the left of the church (facing it). And the walls were only 8′ high or so. But they had cannons, and the guide pointed to the lawn in front and said that they think up to 1,000 soldiers are buried there.
I interjected and said that they must have used grapeshot and the docent agreed. The cannons were very large shotguns that mowed down the Mexican soldiers.
It was a short but very bloody battle.
The Mexican general, Santa Anna, originally offered the defenders safe passage out if they would just surrender, but they answered with a cannon volley. From that, Santa Anna decreed that all the defenders, save the women and children, would be killed.
A few years ago, it was debated whether Davy Crockett and 6 others were executed after the battle, but now it is accepted as historical fact. When the women and children were allowed to leave the chapel after the battle, they were told to close their eyes so as not to see the horrible carnage but one kept her eyes open, and saw Crockett. Even going through the Net one seems to get various accounts, but this seems to be the official one at the Alamo:
Women, children, and slaves who were captured at the Alamo were spared. Susanna Dickinson, the wife of one of the slain Texans, was among them. She never wrote down her eyewitness account but was interviewed many times over the course of her life. She said that after the battle, she saw Crockett’s body between the chapel and the barracks (which roughly corroborates Ruiz’ account). Santa Anna’s silence on the subject is also relevant: he never claimed to have captured and executed Crockett.
After my Alamo tour, a Lexican suggested that I visit the Menger Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt came (to the bar) to recruit the Rough Riders.
What a grand and beautiful hotel! It is on the Alamo Plaza (and close to the River Walk) and the prices don’t seem stratospheric. I believe that will be my stop next time.
Before I finished my brief San Antonio tour, I had to have a lunch on the river walk. What a beautiful setting! As the temperature was rather cool, I was one of 2 within sight
foolish enough adventuresome enough to sit outside by the river (I gave the waitress a generous tip), but I could sit in a restaurant anytime, and this was my opportunity to sit along the River Walk.
I would like to emphasize that all 3 of these destinations was within easy walking distance – a small “triangle”.
From here, I wanted to drive up to the Texas Hill Country. Now, if you are under the impression that this was a Texas-sized distance (upon entering Texas I saw a sign somewhere indicating Beaumont was 836 miles), this drive was all of 50 miles (north) away.
Two things had my curiosity here – well, 3. I was curious about an area of road that was supposed to be haunted, I was curious about both the Lyndon Johnson Ranch (The Texas White House), and the German settlement of Fredricksburg.
An Internet acquaintance, Celia Hayes, is a California Transplant to Texas and loves Texas history, which is very rich. Among the books she wrote was an historical novel of the German settlement in Texas, all before Texas became a state. Reading her books gave me quite an appreciation for Texas history.
So the Hill Country was next on the destinations. I read that there was a scenic loop, called the Devil’s Backbone, connecting Blanco and Wimberly.
Well, I have to tell you, while it was a scenic drive, I did not see one ghost. Which reminded me of the time I stayed in Nevada’s Oldest Hotel, while taking my car club to Virginia City.
I stayed in what was billed as their “haunted room”, but not one ghost came to visit.
All I can say is that they must not be interested in me.
I will say that the loop wasn’t a total loss. I did see some scenic country and learned when seeking a restaurant and seeing 15-20 pickup trucks in the lot is a good sign. This was a good place, had plenty of pickups in front, and it was in an old house.
The Hill Country reminded me of my own California Sierra Foothills, where so many gold rush towns reside.
From here, I went to the LBJ Ranch. It was near closing time, and I have to say it was a special experience. There was only 10 or so people visiting, and we had the run of the place. We parked on the former taxiway where LBJ’s Lockheed Jetstar would taxi in behind the house. The blue taxi lights were right in front of my car.
I was walking around the house and could just imagine Lady Bird opening the back door and beckoning me for some lemon aid. The “Friendship Stones” held a special interest for me, seeing the inscriptions of many famous people.
What I thought a bit amusing was the fact that Air Force One would land the Presidential entourage at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, then he would take a Lockheed Jetstar, which he called “Air Force 1/2”, to fly the 50 miles or so to his ranch. I was told that sometimes he took a helicopter.
A Presidential benefit.
I really enjoyed seeing the things I remember being in pictures in international media. Things like his Amphicar, which he would use to surprise guests driving into the Perdenales River, his white Lincoln Continental convertibles (he had 2 – a 66 and a 67), and the grounds in general. The church he attended, the school he attended as a boy, and the house where he was born were all in a 2-3 mile radius.
Coming of age during Vietnam is what I remember him for mostly, but a Ranger told me that because he grew up with so many poor people, he sponsored many social programs such as Medicare.
And the reason you see so few billboards along our national Interstates is due to the efforts of the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson.
I mention the former Western White House, but there is a nearby Johnson state park (2 miles away?) that has a lot of exhibits, too.
By this time I was starting to feel a deadline (getting home by Christmas Eve), but there were still places in Texas that beckoned me, such as Fredricksburg. And since I discovered I just can’t knock out miles like I used to (my record for the Fool’s Trophy was 1,200 miles from Denver to St Louis on my way to Virginia in 1972; don’t recommend trying that), I felt the need to start back. I used to think nothing of knocking out 500-800 miles in a day. Now I just drive until I don’t feel like it 🙂
Fredricksburg (and nearby New Braunfels), interested me because of the huge German settlement. German immigrants played a huge role in making Texas, all before it achieved statehood. In fact, Fredricksburg was the home of Adm. Chester Nimitz.
There was a time when German was the predominate language here, but it has been dying out as fewer and fewer parents have been teaching their children. In fact, like the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (really Deutsch), German linguists have made the pilgrimage to both places to study the unique Texas and (for the Pennsylvania “Dutch”) 16th century strain of German that they speak).
But, I got a chuckle when seeing the sign for Fredricksburg with a “Wilkommen” (Welcome) underneath it.
And then I saw a sign for the “Marktplatz (market place), and I knew that their German hadn’t died completely.
And as you can see from the second location on the sign, on the advice of a Lexican this was not to be missed.
And I am glad that I stopped here. Simply put, it is the most comprehensive museum I have seen that details the reasons and the battles of the war in the Pacific.
I didn’t expect to find the Japanese midget sub that washed ashore at Pearl Harbor, or the incredible memorabilia of many of the historical figures.
There is so much memorabilia on display as to be mind boggling: The flight jacket worn by Ensign George Gay at Midway, the telegram the mother of the Sullivan Brothers received notifying her of their deaths on the Juneau, a door from the Arizona, Japanese battle flags, on and on.
It alone is worth a trip, and you could spend a couple of days there.
I realized that I would have to make another trip to see more of Texas.
One funny thing, I wanted to try some Texas chili but no restaurant I attended had any. Had to get it at one of my favorite stops in Gallop, NM. Don’t know how the serve it in Texas but in NM it came with 2 tortillas, which had to be eaten along with the incendiary chili.
But then the El Rancho didn’t serve sopapillas, which can only be had in NM.
Maybe I can get them in Texas next time 😉
I stayed in the room Katharine Hepburn had when making a movie out there.
Another stop at the Painted Desert National Park – amazing that the Petrified wood was petrified during the time of Tyrannosaurus rex – then it was home.
I’m ready for the next trip.
*Despite all my talking about the movie Giant, I thought it was so-so. It was one of those 3 hour+ epics Hollywood produced from time to time through the 1950s (starting with Gone With The Wind in 1939). Even with good screenwriting and acting, if it is over 3 hours my rear end starts complaining and it takes precedence over Liz Taylor.
GWTW, Giant, Ben Hur, The Robe, et al all could have been better had they had them shorter IMO…