Each time we visit a new place, I try to read about it – not necessarily to develop a sweeping, broad-base knowledge. Sometimes, as in the case of our month in Austin, I focus on a point in time and a very specific place. On this trip, I picked the Alamo fully realizing it was in San Antonio and not Austin. Simultaneous to starting the books, I reserved a hotel wedged between the Alamo and the Riverwalk for a long weekend.
While I thought of the Alamo as a fort and a battle, it originated as a mission; The Mission San Antonio de Valero. This area of the United States still has visible roots as a Spanish territory within Mexico. The Franciscan led missions integrated (indoctrinated?) the native American population into the Spanish culture thus expanding the reach of the Spanish crown. They taught skilled crafts, Spanish, and the Catholic religion and provided a safe haven from the perils lurking outside the mission walls. Peace imploded at the Alamo as the emerging American influence collided with an enormous Mexican army. “Remember the Alamo” became the tag line of the mission’s final days and the Americans’ slaughter.
In addition to the Alamo, four other missions have dotted the shores of the San Antonio River since the early 1700s. They stretch south for eight miles beyond the southern most reaches of the city limits. All four missions still operate as churches but are integrated into the United States National Parks Service system. On one beautiful, sunny spring Sunday as we biked from our downtown hotel, each mission was attended by both a ranger and a priest and in their own way, each helped illustrate the mission story.
Our hotel recommended that we use the “B cycle” city bike service. For ten dollars each, we rented two bikes at one of the ubiquitous stations in the southern part of the downtown to avoid biking through the morass of the inner city. The only challenge was finding the mission trail, but we managed to stumble upon it by following Saint Mary’s street south to its end, turning right at the light, and shouting out to a jogging couple, “Hey is that the mission trail?” Without breaking stride they hollered back, “We hope so.” The hardest part of the trip was over, we found it.
In a few miles, we arrived at the first mission, Concepción. The hulking, gray facade reminded me of an unadorned Notre Dame.
We tip toed to the front door and peaked into the church with no intention of disrupting the service of the gathering parishioners. Yet the usher would have none of that. He insisted we join him, gave us on a brief tour, and introduced us to the priest. People stood from the pews to shake our hands. Before leaving the usher insisted I stand at the alter while Pat snapped one final picture. “Take your photo at the alter. You being here is
what makes it special!” As we pedaled away, we caught site of the fully robed priest pacing the courtyard while thumbing through his iPhone. With one flick, he dashed all visions of 18th century mission life.
Before starting off, we entered the US Parks Service station at the entrance of Concepción and spoke with the ranger. At this point, I was concerned about my ability to pedal the half tank/half bike rental (these are short-haul, city bikes) the entire twenty mile roundtrip. The ranger assured us the trail was largely flat, but the topography would change drastically from the first two missions – which are urban, to the remaining two which are far more rural. “If you have the time, I highly recommend you see all four missions. They are each very different.” Pedaling away from Mission Concepción, we agreed to go for it.
To best manage our bicycle time, and avoid a long pedal from the last mission back to town, we elected to pass the next two missions and continue to the end of the trail. The bike service requires us to lock the bike into a station every 30 minutes to avoid incremental charges. Nearing the 30 minute mark, we stopped at a station near a picnic table and docked our bikes while we rested and drank our water. A lone egret stood completely still, watching us from a nearby stream. The water cascading over rocks replaced the earlier hum of cars, and the entire ambiance transitioned, as promised, to a beautiful, increasingly remote and peaceful, bird sanctuary.
Well before our next 30 minute time expired, we pulled into the furthest mission, Espada. A tiny church overflowed with parishioners. A cluster of small, modern cottages, more like shacks but immaculately maintained, surrounded the grounds along with an open-air, community kitchen. The out buildings of the old mission have been reduced through time to nothing more than rubble. Yet something compelled me to love this tiny mission more than the others. Standing here, I felt transported back nearly 300 years to the mission hey day when, like today, a group of families with Mexican lineage would celebrate their mass in Spanish.
From here, the ranger recommended we bike an alternate loop through centuries old Spanish colonial farms which are in the process of reverting to community farmland. The trail in this area was made of a crushed stone – harder to pedal but not very long. The trail led to Mission San Juan where we stopped very briefly. Behind closed church doors, mass was in session. This was the only mission that appeared to be inhabited, yet the only one where we didn’t encounter a sole. My best guess, the entire community was celebrating mass behind the massive, closed doors.
We didn’t dally, rather setting off for the last, largest and most preserved mission, San Jose. This is the site of the main National
Park Service building where you can watch a film about the history of the missions. If you know nothing about the missions, this is the place to start. For us, San Jose was the end. The church, as in each of the prior missions, was packed, but in this case, for a wedding. While San Jose was beautiful, for me it lacked the soul of the two rural missions. We agreed that seeing all four made sense.
Since it was getting late and we wanted to eat before catching our bus back to Austin, we walked out to the major road behind the mission and grabbed a city bus back into downtown, buying our ticket on board. We left our bike in the B station in the San Jose parking lot. The B bikes can be picked up and left at any station in the system. Walking to the bus, for the first time, I felt exhausted. “Today, let’s have the homemade guacamole and chips, Pat, we earned it.”
Back at the restaurant on the Riverwalk our waitress commented, “I’m surprised you ever heard of the mission trail. I love it, but it’s not well advertised.” I smiled. A great big, incredibly smug smile (“Did you hear that, Pat?”). It all started with a book followed by a bit of google research, and it ended as one of our most purely pleasurable days of our time in Texas.
Below are the two books I read before our trip to San Antonio:
Three Roads to the Alamo, by William C. Davis – A biography of the lives of William Travis, James Bowie, and David Crockett and their eventual meeting, and demise, at the Alamo. This book sets the stage of US expansionism, the political climate of the early 1800s, and how this all collided with a slaughter at Alamo.
Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan – A historical fiction which focuses on life in the immediate vicinity of the Alamo, the transition of this part of Mexico to an independent Texas, and the conflict between the American, native American, and Mexican populations.
The books complemented each other. And of course, led me to the Mission trail. Once there, they put everything in context.
A big shout out to my husband. These photos make lugging his camera equipment around the world all worthwhile.
Categories: The United States