Deep in the heart of Texas

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We have continued on our journey south into the Texan hearts of Genny and Murray Joyce, our good friends of many years’ standing.

The last major stop before Austin was Dallas, and we approached the city through busy traffic. We tuned in for traffic information and I was more than a little disconcerted to hear the commentator refer to an intersection called the “mixmaster”. Nevertheless we managed to negotiate the maze and reached the downtown area mid-morning Monday in time to visit the infamous Dealey Plaza and walk on the grassy knolls.

We also took time to get some brunch and see the new city trams called the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system.

By mid-afternoon, we arrived and were warmly greeted at Genny and Murray’s very clean house. Murray assured us he had been busily cleaning in preparation for our visit. Well, it looked wonderful. Their great-grandson Jake was there so we were pleased to have the chance to meet him. We have followed his story over his almost five years from Genny and Murray’s letters.

Genny and Murray are both multi-talented and we enjoyed looking at Genny’s quilts, crafts and interesting collections, and Murray’s paintings, carvings, and writings. They had prepared a hectic itinerary for our stay with them, and we spent some time looking at all the printed information they had gathered about each place we were to visit. For dinner, Murray prepared the most delicious prime rib fillets and baked potatoes, with bolilos (small rolls). Genny prepared a salad.

Next morning we packed smaller bags and the four of us headed off for a three-day jaunt, starting with San Antonio. This is a beautiful city, its architecture revealing a heavy Spanish influence, with lots of stucco and brightly coloured ceramic tile trim. There we visited the Alamo, a mission established by the Spanish in 1718, and which was the scene of the famous battle in 1836 where 189 Texan volunteers valiantly fought a Mexican army of thousands. The defenders were eventually all killed after resisting the siege for 13 days. Some of the legendary heroes killed at the Alamo included Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.

We then wandered along the beautiful River Walk which meanders through the city and is flanked by hotels, colourful eateries and cafes. I should note that Genny had knee surgery about two weeks before our arrival and it was amazing that she could even walk, let alone keep up with the cracking pace of our small group of adventurers. Steps presented the greatest challenge to her, so we tried to limit our climbing as much as possible. We had lunch of split pea soup and rye bread at Schilo’s, a German cafĂ©, and then headed for the small town of Castroville.

Castroville has no link with the Cuban Castro, but was named for Henri Castro, an immigrant from the Alsace region of France who settled the area in the 1840s. Beautiful French style cottages and a large town square make this town distinctively different and charming. Murray and Genny recommended the Alsatian Restaurant, so we settled in there for some very delicious, freshly-baked desserts. We finished our tour of the town by visiting the Church of St Louis which headed the square.

Onwards to Mexico! The vegetation in southern Texas was largely a mulga-like bush called mesquite, with some cactus and yucca plants to add variety. We drove through several miles of this, passing through some small towns, eventually reaching the city of Laredo, where we crossed the Rio Grande, through the border patrol and entered the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo. Immediately, the streets became narrower, the traffic more frenetic, the footpaths more colourful and crowded.

Luckily Murray was experienced in driving in this city, having visited many times before (although the last time was about 10 years ago), but even he was nearly cleaned up at one intersection. The main traffic law seemed to be “survival of the fittest or fastest”.

We were most impressed when Murray drove almost directly to our hotel for the night, the “Tres Caminos” (Three Roads). We unpacked and went across to the hotel bar to have pre-dinner drinks.

Genny and I ordered margaritas and the men had beers. Ours were so generously laced with tequila that we were unable to finish them (and still be able to walk). We took them across to our rooms to have later and prepared to go out for dinner at a wonderful restaurant called “El Rincon del Viejo”.

Our hosts recommend we try the house specialty – cabrito (goat meat) and beans. Cabrito and carne (beef) were served on a hot brazier from which we served ourselves. We also had guacamole and gorditas (fat tortillas), tortillas and salsa picante.

I tried to speak as much Spanish as I could, but more often said “merci, monsieur!” and once even said “danke”. I think the tequila was limiting my language skills somewhat. After an interesting and enjoyable meal, we drove back to the hotel and sat and chatted beside the pool for a short while before retiring for the night.

Next morning, M and G tried to find another of their favourite restaurants so we could have breakfast there. After driving around for a while, they learned that the hotel and restaurant had been levelled to make way for a large supermarket complex. Undaunted, we headed on into town.

Our first port of call was a very lavish up-market shop which caters to rich Americans. Everything there was of the finest quality and one day when I am a rich American, I will return there to buy some of their beautiful clothes, jewellery, pottery and furniture pieces.

We then went down to the market area. We found a bakery which sold some delicious pastries and buns which made breakfast for Peter and me, and later Murray found some machacados con huevos (eggs with beef) and chili sauce for Genny and himself. We spent some time at the market and I made a few small purchases. The pottery, rugs, and paper mache products were colourful and inviting. There were lots of gaily decorated pinatas, which I could not possibly transport home, and long strings of garlic which I suspected we may not even be able to take across the border.

Genny and I bought a bag containing 8 dozen cascarones – egg shells which are decorated and filled with confetti as Easter decorations. I will give some of these to my friends in Lafayette on our return.

Most of the areas we had seen were in the poorer part of town so we then drove around the richer areas to see the contrast. We visited a local supermarket and made a few interesting purchases there.

I even tried a piece of Nopales (cactus) which some guys were preparing for sale. After our brief but exciting taste of a very small part of Mexican culture we then crossed back over the border and had lunch in the up market hotel in Laredo, “La Posada”.

Our trip back north took us on a different path through more of the same mesquite covered country that we had crossed the day before. We saw many large birds of prey including black and white birds called carocaros and buzzards. Out in the dead of the desert, the monotony of the landscape was suddenly broken by an array of over a hundred hand painted signs which covered fences and posts set up for the purpose. The writer obviously had many things to say, so we decided we should at least stop to read them. After several minutes reading many of the urgent calls to action of one sort or another, we still really had no idea what he believed in or didn’t believe in. There is no doubt however, that he believes in what ever it is with great passion.

We drove on and spent the night at a small town called Goliad. Murray had done many miles driving, and Genny had done a lot of walking and even more sitting in the car (neither of which was comfortable for her knee), so we had burgers at Whatabuger for dinner and had an early night.

Next morning we wandered across for Whatabreakfast and then visited the local historical site of the Mission Nuestra Senora del Espiritu Santo, another Spanish mission set up by Spanish Franciscan priests to convert the natives to Christianity.

We then headed towards Schulenberg to visit the area’s famous painted churches. We got directions at the local visitors’ bureau to four churches which were established by German and Czech Catholics. Our tour of the churches at Praha, High Hill, Dubina and Ammansville was most interesting and took us through some charming countryside and across an old steel girder bridge.

The decorations in the churches are obviously a source of great pride to the parishioners who keep them well maintained and all but one church was open for public viewing. Vandalism at the Dubina church had forced them to erect a barricade which prevented entry into the main body of the church although a good view of the elaborate artwork was still available. The churches’ interiors are all made of timber but have been hand decorated with a number of faux finishes such as marbling, stippling, and stencilling to create a much more ornate look such as would have been found in the churches in their home countries. We then continued our drive home to Austin to relax and check our emails.

Friday morning, Genny had an appointment at the physiotherapist, so I took her along to that (with my laptop so I could respond to some of my accumulated emails), while Peter and Murray collected food from local stores to take to the Children’s shelter. We went to a Mexican restaurant for a delicious Tex-Mex lunch, and as I had requested a visit to the large quilt supply shop to pick up a couple of small pieces of fabric, we went there before going to the Austin Guild Quilt Show on display at the Memorial Museum which is part of the University of Texas campus. There was a vast diversity of quilts on display and our time there was most enjoyable. We also spent some time looking at the natural history and other displays at the museum. In a special display case outside, we saw some giant dinosaur foot tracks that we thought Joel would have been interested to see.

In the evening, we were greeted by a number of friends and neighbours whom Genny and Murray had invited to share our last evening there. We had a wonderful time renewing acquaintances with Johnny and Colleen Marceau, Ruth, who with her husband had taken us to Mass on our last visit to Austin, and Stephanie, Jerry and Jake. We were also pleased to meet Helen, one of Genny’s quilting friends and neighbours.

Next morning we reluctantly packed our bags and said goodbye to two wonderful friends. Genny had packed a bag of goodies and treats for our next few days’ journey, and gave gifts for us and our family. Our back seat was covered and our boot was full, but our hearts were even fuller with the warmth of the generous hospitality we found deep in the heart of Texas. I look forward to our next visit.

Pat, Robert and Stephen all correctly identified Bill Clinton as the answer to my last quiz. Bill’s childhood home was Hot Springs and he was governor in Little Rock before becoming president. Robert provided the additional information that he was born in a town called Hope.

Judith, this one’s for you. I told you earlier in this long email that Davy Crockett died at the Alamo. Can you tell me what state he was born in? Extra points will be awarded for knowing the town (it doesn’t mention it in the song).