The Alamo

The Alamo was a battle that epitomizes much of what is good about America. In honor of that, here are some little known facts about the battle along with a few pictures from our visits there.

Sunday, March 6, 1836. 5:00 AM. The storming of the Alamo by the 5,000 man army of Santa Anna begins. After waiting since February 23 for reinforcements that never arrived, the 185 defenders have to fight alone. They have less than 90 minutes to live.  Many Mexican soldiers have less than that. The Texans exact a fearsome toll on their attackers – estimates range from a few hundred to over a thousand. We’ll never know.

Painting of the Alamo

“For God and Texas” by Richard Luce

Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans at the Alamo. The artist has captured an accurate snapshot of the early part of the battle. It’s still dark. Unlike the movies, the chapel is in the correct place. Crockett’s men are shown behind a low, makeshift palisade which was the weakest part of perimeter. Smoke fills the air. Men are frantically loading weapons. You can almost feel the chaos and intensity.

● The structure dates back to 1724 when it was called Misión San Antonio de Valero. It housed Christian missionaries and their converts. The source of the name Alamo has two theories. Some say it comes from the Spanish word for cottonwood tree – El Alamo. Others say it was named by Spanish troops who garrisoned the post in earlier days. They were from a town called Alamo.

● The crown that figures prominently across the front of the chapel wasn’t there during the battle. It was constructed in 1847.

● It was bitter cold that morning and much of the fighting was in darkness. It was all over by 6:30 AM.

● The defenders were taken by surprise. Santa Anna had shelled the Alamo non-stop for days. It stopped at 10:00 PM the night before and the defenders collapsed into an exhausted sleep. They had little if any time to ready for the actual assault. They rushed to their positions in the dark and the fight was on.

Alamo View

The front of the chapel from across the plaza where the perimeter would have been. This peaceful scene was the middle of the battle area. Fighting swirled in every direction from here. The chapel was in the defenders’ left rear. Davy Crockett and his men would have been on the right side of the photo where the trees now stand.

● Contrary to many movie and artist accounts, the chapel wasn’t at the front of the action. It was actually in the defenders’ left rear of the post, making up the southeast corner of the perimeter. Troops and cannon fought from the roof. A large perimeter, some of it makeshift, was manned by the defenders. This perimeter extended across present day Alamo Plaza and the stores beyond. Since there weren’t enough defenders to man the whole perimeter, they fought from strongpoints along the wall.

● The attack came from every direction, although the main effort was directed at the north wall. Defenders fought back two assault waves but were overwhelmed by the third. Once the perimeter was breached, the courtyard became a caldron. They did a fighting retreat across the courtyard into the chapel and barracks for their last stand.

● The defenders used artillery with deadly effectiveness. They loaded their cannons with nails, door hinges, horse shoes and anything else they could find, turning the cannon into giant shotguns that ripped huge gaps in the attacking ranks. However, they got pushed off their guns so fast, they didn’t spike them. The attackers turned the guns around and used them to blast away inside the compound.

Alamo Courtyard

The courtyard as it looks today. The chapel is behind you. By 6:00 AM, there was ferocious fighting here, much of it hand-to-hand with swords, bayonets, tomahawks and knives. The defenders fortified and barricaded every room inside the compound and exacted a fearsome price from the attackers, who had to fight for every square inch. Notice the office building in the top right of the picture.

● The defenders fortified and barricaded almost every square inch of the buildings with the exception of the chapel. Fighting positions were dug in the floors of the rooms. Obstacles were placed in doorways and windows. Holes were chopped between rooms to allow movement inside. With the walls breached, room to room fighting commenced. At first, the attackers paid dearly in the dark, close quarters fighting. It didn’t take long for the captured cannons to be brought to bear. Santa Anna’s soldiers wheeled them down to the rooms and blasted away at point blank range before entering and clearing.

● Davy Crockett and his Tennessee volunteers defended the weakest point of the perimeter – a low wooden palisade just in front and to the left of the chapel on the south wall. They felled trees with the branches towards the enemy as an obstacle to the attackers. They were the last ones to be pushed off the perimeter.

● The fate of the Alamo’s most famous defender is a mystery. Some reports have Crockett killed on the north wall, indicating he had moved there to reinforce the crumbling defenses against the main attack. Other reports from Mexican soldiers say he survived and was executed afterwards.

● Colonel Travis died early in the battle. He was shot in the head while leaning over the north wall to fire his shotgun down on the attackers.

● Jim Bowie was bedridden from illness and killed where he lay.

● The women and children hid in the center of the chapel and survived. Santa Anna spared them.

● Other mysteries surround the Alamo. Did any defenders escape or survive? Some say they did. Witnesses after the battle report seeing several defenders being brought before Santa Anna and summarily executed. One of them may have been Davy Crockett.

● The bodies of the defenders were burned in a mass funeral pyre. A year later, ashes from that pyre were gathered and interred at the San Fernando Chapel in San Antonio. These ashes represent the symbolic remains of Crockett, Bowie and Travis. They remain there still.

The Alamo is highlight of a visit to San Antonio. There are both guided and self-guided tours available. The structures you see are the original ones that have survived. Many have not. A modern urban environment surrounds the Alamo and encroaches into the actual battle area. Remember that when you are standing in the plaza in front of the Alamo, you are in the middle of where the fighting took place. This is hallowed ground, much like Gettysburg. If you go, no pictures inside the chapel. It is also customary for men to remove their hats in respect.

Six weeks later and 200 miles east, on April 21, 1836, Santa Anna’s army was decisively defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto, which lasted 18 minutes. Fought in the bayous of what is now the Houston Ship Channel, they were slaughtered by the hundreds. Another 1,000 were captured, including Santa Anna himself. Sam Houston’s force had nine killed.

San_Jacinto_Monument

The monument at the San Jacinto Battlefield near La Porte, TX. At 567 feet, it is the tallest memorial column in the world – 12 feet higher than the Washington Monument.

The price of freedom for Santa Anna was to leave Texas and give up all attempts to put down the rebellion. The delay at the Alamo had cost him dearly and gave Sam Houston the time he needed to get ready. Texas won its independence in no small part to the sacrifice at the Alamo.

Remember the Alamo … Boris and Natasha

KD’s Bar-B-Q, Midland, TX

During our travels and adventures, we are always on the lookout for some good eating. We try to stay away from chains (with the exception of In-n-Out Burger) in favor of local diners, dives and cafes. We struck culinary gold while driving across Texas on I-20. Just off Exit 138 in Midland, TX is KD’s Bar-B-Q. You can see it from the highway and we headed straight for it. The place was full of families, truckers and oil workers and with good reason. It was some of the best BBQ eating we’ve ever had – maybe even the best. Check out the pictures. This was our kind of place.

Front of KD's BBQ

Years ago, KD’s was a feed store. It still has that ambiance.

They’ve added a few modern conveniences, like ceiling fans. In the adjoining saloon, there are three big screen TV’s with NASCAR and Fox News. You won’t see MSNBC, Wimbledon or The View here. I reckon you might catch a Cowboys game in season.

Inside KD's BBQ

Here’s that feed store ambiance. Wood floors, metal tables, tin ceiling, exposed pipes and duct work. Everybody was super friendly, as they always are in rural Texas. The free fixins bar is in the center. It features plenty of the usual meat and potato add ons, along with hot sauce with names like Nuclear Waste. Be careful what you wish for.

Now to the important stuff – how to get the food. You enter through the smokehouse door, grab a tray and put a big piece of wax paper on it. Step up to the pit and tell ’em what you want. They slap it on the tray. Next, over to the line for sides, drinks and desserts. Pay at the end of the line then top off at the fixins bar. Staff cruise the floor constantly, picking up trays and cleaning tables. If it’s crowded, just sit down with some strangers.

Food at KD's

Now we’re talkin’. Brisket, ham, turkey, chicken, sausages, pulled pork and more. Then it’s off to the counter for your sides and then to the fixins bar.

The only downside of KD’s is that it’s a bit pricey. Plan on about $20 a person. Everything on the grill is priced at $14 a pound with an $8 minimum. No use taking just a little. Sides are priced individually. One other problem we ran into was that we were so full when we walked out, we skipped looking for a couple of geocaches that were close by, including one in the parking lot.

Trust me – that doesn’t happen very often.

Bon appetit … Boris and Natasha

Balanced Rock Geocache – Big Bend NP

Another adventure in Big Bend. In the northwest quadrant of the park, not far from the Panther Junction Visitor Center, lie the Grapevine Hills. Here you will see rock formations unlike any others in the park. This is igneous rock formed by cooling lava. The word igneous comes from the Latin word for fire – ignis. When solid material cools it shrinks, tearing itself apart. The result is a valley full of huge boulders that have been exposed to erosion and weathering for millions of years. Now it is a barren landscape with fantastic rock formations that look almost impossible to create.

The Grapevine Trail

This is the view looking back down the Grapevine Hills Trail from Balanced Rock.

The most famous of these is “Balanced Rock”. Located in a saddle about a mile and a half from the trailhead, it is exactly what it says – a huge boulder precariously perched between two others. In addition to a hike through the valley, some basic bouldering is required at the end. This area got its name from grapevines that used to grow here on the valley floor. The entire Big Bend area was once much more livable than it is now, with good grass, clean water, trees and crops. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle killed the grasslands and all the trees were cut down for firewood and construction. I guess they call that progress.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock and Ground Zero for the cache. Now all we have to do is get a picture with one of us in the window.

This is a back country desert hike, not recommended in the summer. Take water, sun screen and a hat. We hiked out in the early morning and, once again, had the place to ourselves. In the picture, Natasha is getting us credit for the virtual cache located here.

Balanced Rock Geocache

Natasha at Ground Zero getting us credit for the cache.

Photography is a challenge at Big Bend. It’s all bright light and dark shadows. I’m not much with filters and all that but I’m pretty good with Picasa and Photoshop. Both came in handy on this trip.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hot Springs – Big Bend National Park

Hot Springs - Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is full of surprises and this is one of them. In the far southeast corner of the park, a geothermal spring bubbles up from the bottom of the Rio Grande River. A relic of the area’s ancient volcanic past, it is crystal clear, laden with healthy minerals and is a constant 105 degrees – about the same temp as a hot tub. In 1909, an entrepeneur named J.O. Langford built a bathhouse to corral the springs and opened a health resort. Besides the bath house, it had a store, a cafe, a post office and cabins that rented for $1.25 a night. People came from all over the world to soak in its healing waters and there are all kinds of stories of people being made well from just about everything. In 1916, Langford had to abandon his operation because of the Pancho Villa raids. After 10 years of border violence, Langford returned in 1927 and started over, making things bigger and better. He sold the operation to the state of Texas in 1942, which donated it to the National Park Service. The NPS ran the resort as a concession until 1952, when it was abandoned for good. However, the springs and the foundation of the bath house are still open to the public. You can soak in it all you want (although you can’t do it naked like the old days). If you get hot, you can hop into the Rio Grande to cool off, then climb back in. It is the most popular destination in the park. In addition to the springs, you can explore the ruins of the old resort facilities. There’s also a geocache there, so how could we resist? The yellow arrow points to the spring. The water in the enclosure is all spring water. It flows into the river over the outside wall.

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

Santa Elena Canyon at Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is just amazing. This enormous crevice is Santa Elena Canyon. The orange dot in the foreground is the lovely Natasha getting us credit for the virtual geocache located here. The canyon is contained in an escarpment that rises 1500 feet and was once the bottom of a primordial inland sea. The Rio Grande River carved out this channel millions of years later. Texas is on the right; Mexico on the left. Santa Elena Canyon runs to the northwest about eight miles. You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but this section of the Rio Grande, which is flowing towards you, wasn’t navigated successfully until 1885, when the Texas Rangers pulled it off. All that showed up from previous attempts were planks and splinters. You can hike about 3/4 of a mile into the canyon. At the end of that, the walls go completely vertical right out of the water and the canyon is only 30 feet wide. We made the hike and were not disappointed. And much to our surprise, we had the place to ourselves.

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

We found a cool little town named Albany about 30 miles north of Abilene, TX. Had a bite to eat at this 1907 drug store and soda fountain that’s still going strong. Very cool place and very nice people working there. It’s right on Main St. You can’t miss it. There are a dozen geocaches in town and lots more in the surrounding area. Once again, geocaching took us to a place we never would have seen otherwise.