Bigger than the Alamo
Willie Nelson’s tour bus is taller than the Alamo.
At least I’m fairly certain it is. I walked past Willie Nelson’s tour bus at 8:56 a.m. and at 9:03 I walked past the Alamo. From my point of view, the latter definitely seemed higher than the former.
I drove all the way from Big Bend to San Antonio (Eight. Hours. Sigh.) just to see the Alamo, which is not simply an old Spanish mission-cum-revolutionary fortress where famous battle was fought back in 1836, during which a couple of hundred good guys (Texans) were killed by more than fifteen hundred bad guys (Mexicans) which inspired the rest of Texas to rise up and fight even more vehemently for their independence—but also a standard of liberty, a stony symbol of resistance and resilience against all oppression, as well as a requisite field trip and/or subject matter for all impressionable schoolchildren in the Lone Star State.
Even I, as a native-born Texan raised in exile up north, was entertained as a child with bedtime tales of the Alamo and Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. These stories extolled morality, manliness, and bravery and instilled a concrete belief that there were certain things worth dying for—such as freedom.
And thus it was with great determination and excitement that I strolled along the breezy San Antonio Riverwalk on my way to this children’s book ideal of the Alamo, lost in the anticipatory thrill that comes right before seeing some lifelong icon in real life.
But the light was all wrong: there was the Alamo, humble and worn, its silhouette matching the cartoon depictions from my children’s books, the Spanish façade all white and resplendent with the morning sun rising up from behind the West-facing door. As happy as I was to see it, my camera saw only the overexposed skies and underexposed Alamo.
Not only was the light all wrong, but a line of tourists stretched the length of the courtyard and around the block. About half the visitors represented a Texas high school band, all in matching red T-shirts. I asked one of the Texas Ranger guards when the line would diminish and he replied that it would not.
“It’s spring break,” he snuffed, nodding to the hordes of children and families exiting the Alamo gift shop and running for the parade of unrelated attractions across the street, from the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not “Museum” to ice cream shops, wax museums and the five-and-dime that sell mainstream first names emblazoned on miniature plastic Texas license plates.
I escaped the madness by pedaling fiercely on a rented B-Cycle, San Antonio’s bicycle share service that lets you pick up and drop off a bike throughout the city. Paths and signs led me down the famous Mission Trail and back in time to one of the oldest settlements in Texas. Just four miles from the Alamo carnival, I found myself gawking at the sandy shapes of Mission San José, whose church tower and arched stone arcades stick out from the forest of fast food and gas station signs like a strange and gorgeous anachronism.
San Antonio de Bexar was founded in 1691—exactly one full century before the “federal city” of Washington, D.C., had even been designed. The Texas missions followed shortly after, and while the church at San José rose up from the 1750’s, the yellow edifice shows off classic Mediterranean features: Roman arches, stony arcades and pointed Gothic windows.
As an American, I was surprised to find something so old and authentically European standing on my native soil. This was not a reproduction, nor was it moved stone by stone by some eccentric immigrant with an idea of turning into a hotel. Mission San José was built and remains a working Catholic parish, deep in the heart of Texas.
The difference from the Alamo was startling: the chapel still holds services (including a mariachi Mass) and though many families visited with their children, they maintained a quiet reverence in among the mission’s well-preserved ruins. Veladoras burned softly, lighting up the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and it struck me that this was her territory—a Mexican icon of the 16th century that never left Texas, even after Texas left Mexico.
San Antonio’s Mission Trail consists of four original Spanish missions (five including the Alamo) and even though the Tejanos (original Spanish settlers to Texas) and Texians (later European settlers to Texas, including Anglo-Texans) swore allegiance to the Spanish crown, their sentiments changed after Mexico’s independence in 1821.
Fifteen years later, Texas would defeat the Mexicans when Sam Houston surprised and rushed General Santa Anna’s army on the swampy banks of the San Jacinto. In less than twenty minutes, 630 Mexican soldiers were killed and the remainder captured, versus only nine Texans lost.
And yet for all the Texas pride attached to the memory of San Jacinto—the defining moment in Texas independence—that pride is overshadowed by the darker memory of the Goliad Massacre and the Battle of the Alamo.
All the Texans at the Alamo were killed—around two hundred men who were not professional uniformed soldiers, but a ragtag frontier collective of settlers from all walks of life and even different races. Though they held the fort for thirteen days and inflicted massive casualties on the Mexicans, in the end, they paid with their lives.
And thus, it’s with difficulty that I returned to the Alamo and saw the line had grown even longer with hundreds of visitors, who like me, felt compelled to step inside this blood-stained piece of Texas history. I waited an hour and a half to enter the memorial hall which was dark and noisy and confusing. There were tidbits of memorabilia, lots of flags and a scale model of the Alamo during the battle, but there was no narrative. Instead, the inertia of tourists pushed me back out into the light before I had a chance to imagine the sounds of the battle from inside that dark mission church.
The line goes straight to the gift shop, where you can buy anything from Alamo pickled cauliflower to Alamo sweet potato butter, Alamo barbecue sauce and Alamo fudge, “Remember the Alamo” aprons, armadillo T-shirts, coonskin caps, “authentic reproductions” of parchment documents and bowie knives in varying degrees of seriousness/deadliness.
The pioneer frontiersman and early American politician Davy Crockett, after losing re-election in Tennessee, famously said, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas” but today, the Alamo gift shop is hell—and an ill tribute to the men who died in that spot, including Davy Crockett himself.
So I was bummed by the Alamo. I should know better than to visit such an iconic place with such high expectations, and yet, somehow, I wanted the Alamo to be more of a memorial and less of a shopping mall.
For the rest of my time in San Antonio, I behaved like a good tourist—I ate spectacular Mexican food and when the chili burn in my mouth became too strong, I walked the historic streets sucking Bluebell ice cream. I rode the boat along the San Antonio River and laughed out loud at all the tour guide’s corny jokes and when night fell, I envied the young ladies riding in the horse-drawn Cinderella carriage, glowing like a golden white fairy-lit electric pumpkin.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
San Antonio is a very fun city, and at the height of spring break, the laughter rose up from the streets to my hotel balcony overlooking the Riverwalk. Though it was late and I was ready to call it a day, I pushed myself back out on the street, camera in hand, wandering through the images of the night.
And then, at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of March, I saw Willie Nelson.
In the dim streetlights of the back alley, the greatest living singer in all Texas looked like a vague flash of some sleepy hallucination, though the moment was quite real. The man (who turns 80 next month) stepped from the unlabelled door at the back of San Antonio’s Majestic Theater and three seconds later, he was gone, stowed safely away in his bio-diesel tour bus decorated with a lone Indian on a psychedelic airbrushed prairie.
Without any photographic evidence, I am left only with my eyewitness report that Willie Nelson resembles Gandalf—with slightly shorter silvery white hair and no less magic than a fictional wizard. As a native-born Texan riding the road to rediscovery of my home state, I was wishing desperately that Willie would deliver some lyrical wisdom to me—some poetic and life-changing phrase that he would throw out to me like a shiny silver dollar thrown to a beggar.
But no—that is not the story as it happened. Though fate dropped me within a few yards of the greatest Texan of the twentieth century, fate also kept enough pavement between the two of us to prevent me from ever saying that I had “met” Mister Willie Nelson: singer, songwriter, legend, and fellow Texan.
Instead, I spent the late evening with Willie Nelson’s entourage, the male contingent of which resemble Amish pirates who chain smoke, and the ladies who were so delightfully highlighted and tanktopped and honey-voiced, I wanted to hand them a newspaper to read aloud—or even better, my authentic reproduction of the Travis letter from the Alamo.
Instead, in the cold alleyway, we all talked about Texas and Willie Nelson’s family gave me a verbal guidebook of recommendations about the state they know best.
I left San Antonio the next morning, but not before stopping for breakfast at Lulu’s Café, whose fame lies firmly in their gigantic three-pound cinnamon rolls. Never in my life had I encountered such a gargantuan bun, and now, every time some silly Texan reminds me how, “Everything is bigger than Texas,” I will think of that preposterous pastry—I will think of the Alamo, too and then I will think of Willie Nelson’s very big tour bus, pulling away from the curb on its way to Austin.