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Saturday, January 26, 2008

San Antonio's Mission Trail

I drove on to the Mission San Jose Visitor’s Center off Military Drive…or so I thought. I was actually a bit further south of the center and parked near the Espada Dam where locals were parked and fishing off the murky green San Antonio River, which at this point resembles more a creek than a river. I was clearly in the more industrialized part of SA.

The Mission Espada is the most southern of the four missions south of the Alamo, and I proceeded to walk south on the trail. This way I knew I was getting a few miles worth of walking in.

And boy did I walk. The Hike and Bike Trail along the little San Antonio River was barren; the few pecan trees along the creek didn’t provide any shade. But what bothered me more was all the trash along the trail, a trail built along a levy. Stone bridges along the trail were covered in graffiti. Recent rains carried the plastic trash high into the low-lying trees.

A sharp-skinned hawk gawked for attention high above me in a dead pecan tree. It didn’t seem to be bothered by my presence as most raptors are, and seemingly looked right at me to let me know it was in charge.

I asked a young Hispanic couple pushing a stroller if the next mission on the trail was the Espada. The man said it was, so I proceeded. He was wrong. It was the San Juan Capistrano mission, built here in 1731. By 1762 it had 203 Indians doing all the hard work in the mission, from the granary to the masonry and the textile shop. Remnants of the irrigation ditches just outside the mission (acequias in Spanish) still linger, as well as remnants of the living quarters near the mission. The church part is still used as a parish and a priest lives next door in a fully-acclimated stone building.

This mission has a short trail leading to the original San Antonio River (a creek, really), the Yanaguana Trail. This was where the original mission occupants went to fish and hunt. It’s now a paved trail with benches.

From Mission San Juan I hiked further south, along the trail, and watched several Great Blue Herons, a few Little egrets and an ibis, stand rock-solid still along the creek banks. I walked underneath the I-410/281 overpass. More locals were fishing in the creek here.

My next mission was the Mission San Francisco de la Espada, a rather small but interesting mission as most of its outer wall was still intact. It, too was built here in 1731, and the only mission along the trail where bricks and tiles were made. Right outside the compound were private cottages with rustic garden ornaments outside.

I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like for the Indians, the Coahuitecans. The National Park Service guide says the Natives “embraced Christianity” but I highly doubt that. The Catholic Church was always a culture of inhumane treatment toward all non-believers, especially believers who did not have white skin. I rather imagine the Natives accepting Christianity in order to survive, and to be allowed to eat that which they hunted and grew. They “embraced” the Catholic religion not because they wanted to, but because they had to.

In 1826 a band of Commanche raided the site, probably because they were pissed that their hunting grounds were being taken, and after that the mission fell apart. Some of the 2-foot thick walls of stone lean precariously to one side, but they still stand, reinforced by a coating of concrete to prevent any more cracking in its walls. The three-bell-tower is reinforced in the back by metal frames.

By now I was worried about my van parked near a fishing hole. One of the park rangers here did not console me at all when I told him where I was parked. Several signs in the parking lots warned of thieves breaking into cars, and a fear I had was of my valuables inside the van getting stolen, which today meant both laptops and all my clothes. The Mission Trail is prey to tourists, and despite my Texas license plates I felt like a tourist.

“The missions are at least five miles apart” said the ranger but I did not believe him. I had walked the “five miles” in just under 45 minutes coming here, which is more like 2 to 2.5 miles tops. (I WAS walking fast) I beat feet back to my van and made it back in 40 minutes, noticing the Great Blue Herons and Little Egrets still standing on their turf and staring out toward the creek. Did any of those birds move at all in the hour since I last walked passed them?

Much to my relief my van was fully intact and the parking lot full. An eldery woman in the pick-up next to me was sitting behind the driving wheel writing in a journal. “Is that your travel journal?” I asked her.
“No, just a spiritual journal.”
Really, what’s the difference?

I drove to the next mission north, Mission San Jose de Aguayo, the prettiest and biggest of the four on the trail. I am glad I drove to this site, as by now I was getting tired and thirsty and it had been close to three hours on my feet at a brisk pace.

The Mission San Jose resembles a Baroque-style limestone church, built first in 1768. About 350 Indians lived in the mission compound, in 84 two-room “apartments” lining the compound. This was the prettiest and best-preserved mission compound as well because of the Live Oaks within the compound, and the pretty flowers and shrubs along the sidewalks. Upkeep at this mission is very obvious. The walls to the old cemetery were still there, and old stone ovens outside the apartments were in very good shape. This was also the largest of the mission compounds, and for good reason. The parking lot was large enough and safe enough to leave a vehicle unattended for a few hours.

I did my best photography here today, as the sun was lower in the sky and it cast pleasing shadows over the round arches of the mission.

This was also the most visited of the four missions. The parking lot was full. A Park ranger led a group through the main building and talked about life back in the days of the live mission. Even he told the visitors that converted Indians were safe within the mission walls…as long as they obeyed the Friars and paid heavily to the Catholic Church. (That part rarely makes it into history books).

In 1824 the mission was turned over to Chaplain Maynes and the mission Indians living there. In the 100 years that the mission was an active mission, over 2000 Indians were baptized, and most likely to save their lives from the raiding Lipan Apaches. I can’t imagine life for the Natives being very easy.

San Antonio is growing too fast for its own good. Just outside the mission compound is a Citgo Gas Station and several other modern-world conveniences. Vehicles speed by the mission. Private homes (most in disrepair) line the roads. I drove to the next mission north, the Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisma Concepcion, which was right up to even more squalid homes and blaring traffic. Architecture resembling the early 20th century took over as I drove toward downtown.

A wedding party was finishing up its photo-ops outside the chapel. The bridesmaids and helpers were all dressed in black. What a pretty place to hold a wedding. Several young children, no more than four years old, ran around the compound in they wedding finest. A school next door, built a good 100 years after the mission was built, stood next door.

I chatted with an elderly volunteer here, a Maggie Pelley, who originally hails from Minnesota, but moved to Wisconsin and was raised in Illinois. She’s here in Texas as a “Winter Texan” which means in the summer she moves back north in her RV with her husband. A small, round woman of about 60, she was very imformed of the history here, especially what concerned the Spanish influence here in the 18th century.

Maggie travels the southern states with her husband during the year, but comes to this part of Texas every winter. She knows her history.
“San Antonio is growing to its north and its west” she said. And she’s not pleased with the people in North San Antonio, the snobs in the suburbs that don’t even greet you when you walk down the street. “Here in south San Antonio you have the culture” and I have to agree with that.

But with the culture you also have the run-down Barrios with the trashy streets and bordered-up homes covered in graffiti. It’s not a place I’d want to stay at after dark.

I had to wonder as I left this mission, what would have happened if, in the early 1800s, this part of the continent had been taken by the French instead of the Spaniards? The French were more hospitable toward the Indians, as most were Huguenots and not Catholic. They embraced the local customs much better than the Spaniards. They preferred sleeping with the Natives instead of converting or killing them. Texans would have been under the French system and perhaps the history that followed would not have been so brutal. It’s certainly something to ponder these days.

Maggie gave me a city map that pointed me directly to the Blue Star Brewery, a brewpub I located on the internet a few days ago and my planned place to eat afterwards. I was hungry and thirsting for a good beer.

Maggie was right about San Antonio: it’s overgrown and in many places very seedy, and the Mission Trail is in a seedy neighborhood, with graffiti-stained houses and abandoned buildings. The Blue Star Brewery (1414 S Alamo; 210-212-5506) lays at the edge of the seedy barrio and right off South Alamo Road, along the canaled San Antonio river and an upscale neighborhood with lighted colonial porches. A cypress full of egrets and cormorants hung over the river’s banks.

I went inside and found a table next to an electric outlet in a corner and immediately began to write today’s events. Service was slow, but once I was waited on, got good service with three different beers (the House Golden, Pale and Stout, of which the Golden was my favorite) and a very satisfying grilled chicken sandwich and fries.

I stayed here almost two hours, way past sunset. My server, Drew, a hefty short young man with a tightly-cropped beard, was busy with tables upstairs and downstairs. I didn’t bother him much as I was busy writing today’s notes down. My bill, which contained three beers and a sandwich, came to $19.56.

The brewpub went from quiet to loud, as locals dressed in nice casual clothes strolled in for artichoke dip and what-not. I wore a red t-shirt with “I hiked the Grand Canyon 1996” and a torn set of jeans that I tore just today as I tripped over a metal wire while maneuvering the trail.

The brewpub is co-located with a bike shop. Bikes of various types, mostly of the Townie brand, hung from the two-floor building, next to the beer flasks. An artshop was next door. The arrangement was certainly nouveau. A college basketball game aired from the flatscreen TV, yet I was more interested in who won the South Carolina Democratic primary. Was it Clinton or Obama? CNN said it would be Obama. At 7pm I still had no clue…

I didn't know for another hour, driving down the neon-lighted streets of SA, filled with car dealerships, auto parts and car rental agencies. Senator Obama won more tha twice as many votes as Senator Clinton, with Senator Edwards barely making the third place. South Carolina is his home state; coming so far behind surely must be defeating.

I drove north on Padre Avenue, not sure where I was at this point. I passed the Market Quarry with its upscale strip malls and the bike cops who did a good job patrolling the dark streets of the city.

At 9:30pm, still not ready to sleep for the night, I went back downtown. I parked near Market Square, where people were dancing outside to a live Salsa band. Then I walked the Riverwalk and to see some of the sites at night. There is so much to see, up and down Congress and Donderosa Ave. There were plenty of cops on bikes and pedestrians walking to and fro; I felt safe.

By 11pm things started to calm down. Back at the van, I noticed the music had stopped and the dancers had gone home. It was now time to find a place for the night.

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