Sunday, January 28, 2018

Discovering the Alamo

On a chilly Wednesday morning, we made our way to what is touted as America's foremost tourist attraction, The Alamo. This ex-mission turned improvised fortress has a storied part in the tale of Texas independence.

We explored the square in front of the Alamo before beginning our guided tour, and examined the enormous memorial in front of the long barracks.

Every confirmed defender who died defending this ground has their name engraved on it in alphabetical order. You can't really help but be drawn to the truly legendary ones though: Commander William Travis is really only known because of the Alamo, but ex-Congressman and frontiersman Davey Crockett and renowned knife fighter Jim Bowie had larger-than-life reputations well before meeting their end here.

Should you ever visit, take the tour. Our guide was a font of information, and passionate about sharing her Alamo lore. She explained how the Alamo was more or less the middle of the Texas Revolution, and how it had kicked off when the small town of Gonzales dared General Santa Anna to follow through on his threat to reclaim the cannon left there to defend against raiders. Their taunting flag, echoing the sentiment of the Spartans at Thermopylae, is displayed in many yards in Gonzales to this day.

It seems unlikely anyone would have chosen the Alamo as the place to fight such a signature battle, but they did.

You can't take pictures inside the buildings, but there is lots to see, including a plethora of original artifacts donated by none other than Genesis frontman Phil Collins! Apparently the 1950s tv show about Davey Crockett made quite an impact on him as a boy, and since his children don't share his degree of interest, he is donating them back, on the condition they are adequately displayed.

The flags of six different countries have flown over Texas in its turbulent history, from Spain and Mexico, and even five years under France before returning to Mexico prior to becoming an independent republic. The Confederate States of America and United States of America round out the field.

Even our brief visit was enough to give us a little better understanding as to why our southern neighbours, and most especially Texans, can seem to get so hung up on the notion of liberty; it's because throughout most of their history, they've had to fight for it. People with no real stake in the game had to come to the Alamo from as far away as Tennessee in order to help a fledgling nation maintain its freedom. Inside the church, numbered ribbons attached to flags solemnly tell how many volunteers came from each state (and some other countries too) to die at the Alamo.

The Battle of the Alamo is a fascinating if tragic tale, with roots that touch upon how Spain used the Catholic church to advance it's cause around the globe and into the new world; the rise of Napoleon and the deposing of the Spanish king; the resulting independence of most of Central and South America; and carrying through to modern Texas as the only state in the union which was once an independent republic.

Anyone intrigued by history or sacrifice would do well to stop in on this piece of the past so diligently maintained in the middle of downtown San Antonio.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Venturing Undergound

Near the end of our time in Texas, we took a trip to San Antonio, and our first stop there were the Natural Bridge Caverns, north of the city proper.

Like most lads raised on a diet of adventure fiction and Dungeons & Dragons, I find caves both intriguing and intimidating. Caves are mysterious entrances into the bowels of the earth, and liable to hold either smugglers (according to the Hardy Boys), hostile insect men (Module S2, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth), riches and dwarfs (Tolkien, Wagner, et al), or a gas which will put one to sleep while simultaneously enabling you to have awesome adventures on Mars (John Carter).

Sadly, I never entered into a cave as a child, and have only done so twice as an adult, so I was happy for the girls to experience an underground structure such as this one found in Texas.

The caverns are named after a natural bridge above them which predates the discovery of the caves below by a considerable number of years. The cave system was not found and explored until 1960 by students from St. Mary's University. A considerable tourist attraction has evolved around the caves since, but the scale and majesty of this underground marvel cannot be overstated.

Stalactites and stalagmites abound, as do a number of columns that reach from the top to the bottom of some fairly immense caverns.

The trail they've built into the caves gives tremendously good footing, and handrails where needed. This is good, because the caves are warm and moist (21 degrees Celsius and an astonishing 99% humidity!) year-round, which I feared would make things dangerously slippery.

Ah, how many underground lakes like this populated the vistas of my childhood... no blind cave sifh, though, as near as I was able to determine.

Some passages were a little tight, but others were absolutely immense.

The largest room, The Hall of the Mountain Kings, is the size of a football field!

Primitive stone arrowheads and bones from a cave bear have been found in the caves, making it likely they were used for shelter in the distant past at least. Still with so much of the cave unexplored, it is easy to imagine finding such a place too unsettling to stay in for long.

The underground has always captivated our imagination though: Tartarus, Gehenna, Moria, Menzobarranzan, the Underdark, Pellucidar; even Alice in Wonderland was originally entitled Alice's Adventures under Ground. I was grateful for an opportunity to see some amazing geological features and to share my underworld wonder with Audrey and the girls.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Happy Zoo Year

Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo... so for our second tourist outing in Houston (not actually on New Year's Day or even New Year's Eve, but I was stuck for a title), we went to their Texas-sized and quite impressive zoo.

The zoo is just off downtown Houston, at the center of the immense Hermann Park. It was a little cool again, but that probably worked in our favour, keeping the holiday crowds down to a manageable level. It also helped keep us from overheating as we bustled through the many exhibits. (The best pictures are Glory's!)

 All right, we get it, Texas longhorns are bigger than regular cows, but - oh, wait, Ankore cattle are from Africa?


This is just after my Mum told us that she thinks giraffes have a sexy walk. "So elegant!" she says.
Is it weird I think she might be right? (Don't answer that.)

Jaguar cubs at play, under the watchful eyes of a parent, some 4o feet higher up. In my mind, he is picking our choice cuts from the crowd, ready to pounce the instant that the fence drops, and since we didn't know he was there for several minutes, we are most likely appetizers in this scenario.

The shoulders on this siamang were absolutely immense.

 Just in time for feeding time at the lemur cage! Watching them bound to the fence (they don't walk anywhere, it turns out) brought back memories of watching Zoboomafoo with a much younger Fenya.

Yes, many cool birds, including the world's fanciest pigeon, but how about something a bit more dangerous?

Better, but no bald eagle has ever killed a human; what else ya got?

Whoa, a cassowary? Hey, that's more like it! Sure, their rep is a bit overstated, with only one documented kill, but you have to love a hairy-feathered bird that's essentially a cross between a wild turkey and a velociraptor. 

Truly, the face of the Devil's chicken.

Plenty of cool creepy crawlies in the bug house, including the largest walking sticks I'd ever seen and some very ambitious ants. 

 And lots of colour in the Reptile House as well.


Elephants are just generally cool, and one of two matriarchies we experienced (the lemurs were the other).

We had lunch almost immediately after seeing this laid back chimp (or chill-panzee, if you will), but I think it was coincidental.

Glory loves rhinocerii; "They are just fat unicorns."

The big cats are still fascinating to watch, but I won't lie, those habitats feel a little snug, which adds a caste of sadness to the whole affair.

Primates are great mates, one of who had a fake martial art named after him in a D&D campaign some thirty years back. (Iron Mandrill,if you must know.)

Speaking of D&D, is this guy from the 1st ed. Monster Manual?

No, wait, maybe this guy, he's pretty ominous in flight.

That look is kind of familiar; pretty sure this owl is drunk.

Ugh, you are nothing like the cartoon, roadrunner!

 I love this otter's expression though - perturbed bemusement?

These flamingos are kept on hand for establishing shots that make Houston look like Miami - they don't get as much work these days.

Like I said, it made for a pretty cool day...

...but that's to be expected when you run with a cool crowd.