Here to return to
TEXAS AND ARIZONA
IN OLD SAN ANTONIO
AFTER three days and four nights in a sleeping-car it is good to breathe air again. Not that I mean to speak ill of the modern necessity known in railway offices as a “sleeper”; it has done me too many a service; but, for all that, — though it is a bridge that has carried me over, — well, as I said, it is a luxury to breathe air again.
So I thought this January afternoon as I sat upon the top rail (a pretty thin board) of a tall fence at the summit of what I take to be one of the highest elevations (it would be exceeding the truth, perhaps, to call it a hill) in the immediate neighborhood of this venerable but young and vigorous Texas city, known in geographies and gazetteers as San Antonio, but among railroad men, with whom time and breath are precious, as “San Antone.”
The city itself lay all before me, and an excellent showing it made, with its many stately and handsome buildings and its general air of prosperity; but for the most part my eyes traveled beyond it, or in other directions. The landscape was wide, whichever way I turned, and the transparency of the atmosphere, of a kind never enjoyed in New England except on some half-dozen days in a year, made it the wider and more alluring. It surprised me to see imposing public buildings scattered about over the country. The nearest must have been several miles from the town, and each, so far as I could see, stood entirely by itself. Here and there, also, miles apart, were fine dwelling-houses, with outbuildings and windmills; each, like the public institutions just mentioned, standing alone, as if its proprietor were also the proprietor of the entire tract of country roundabout. Rich men’s ranches, they should perhaps be called. All these, or most of them, would have been invisible from my fence-rail perch, but for the fact, which really made the strangeness of the whole spectacle to a New England man’s eyes, that the rolling land is all unwooded — a broad landscape, stretching away and away, north, south, east, and west, and no forest! The slopes look, at a little distance, — just as the one on which I was now sitting had looked to me half a mile back, — as if they might be planted with young peach orchards. They are really covered loosely with wild shrubs ten or fifteen feet high, now budded and in pale green leaf (Huisache, I understand their Mexican name to be,1 though I may err in the spelling), with lower shrubs of different sorts, mostly thorny, scattered loosely among them, the whole constituting (or so I suppose) what is known in this part of the world as chaparral; which is very like what in our Northern country we speak of, less respectfully, as “scrub.”
It is a godsend to a man on my errand, that chaparral, as it grows about San Antonio, at all events, is not a dense thicket. It can be walked through or ridden through in all directions with perfect ease, though one cannot keep a straight course for more than a rod or two together.
I had been strolling over exactly such a hill half an hour before, circling one cluster of shrubs after another, opera-glass in hand, on the alert for any bird that might show itself (it was likely as not to be a stranger), when all at once — how it came about I shall never be able to tell — there, just before me on the ground, twenty or thirty feet away, stood one of the birds that I had most desired to see in this novel Southwestern world — a road-runner. I have found some puzzles since my arrival at San Antonio, three days ago, but this was not one of them. As our good common saying is, the fellow looked “as natural as life.” Mr. Fuertes’s drawing had stepped out of the book. I could have shouted with pleasure.
The bird was true to his name. There was no road, to be sure, but he knew what was expected of him, and started off at once at a lively trot; then, within ten or fifteen feet, he stopped short, lifted his ridiculously long tail till it stood at right angles with his body, — the white “thumb-marks” at the ends of the feathers making a brave show, in spite of the almost indecent absurdity of his attitude, — and after a moment started on again. Two or three times he repeated these manoeuvres; and then, without my knowing how he did it, he escaped me altogether, although the bit of shrubbery into which he had vanished was only a few feet in diameter. “Never mind,” I thought, “I have seen him.” And he was every whit as oddly behaved a piece as my fancy had painted him.
The road-runner, it should be said, is an overgrown member of the cuckoo family. Its length from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail is about two feet. It wears what may be described as a frightened-looking crest, its plumage is conspicuously mottled, and, what gives it its special character, its tail is a foot long. As Mrs. Bailey well says, it is “one of the most original and entertaining of Western birds. The newcomer is amazed when the long-tailed creature darts out of the brush and races the horses down the road, easily keeping ahead as they trot, and when tired turns out into the brush and throws his tail over his back to stop himself.”
My bird’s performance was less theatrical than that, perhaps because I was on foot, perhaps because the day was Sunday, perhaps because of the absence of a thoroughfare; but I was well pleased.
It is noticeable how birds, not less than men, tend to become specialists. To accomplish one thing supremely well, — that is certainly the way to make one’s self famous. And that is what the road-runner does. He has chosen a hobby, and he rides it. His legs are proportionally no longer than other birds’, but that does not matter. Such as they are, he will make the most of them.
He is like a certain Maine farmer of whom I have heard, a plain tiller of the soil, who feels, nevertheless, that he was born for better things; not for a cart-horse, if you please, but for a racehorse. He may be working on his farm, at the plough, we will say; suddenly the impulse comes upon him, as inspiration is said to come upon a poet; there is nothing for it but he must start and run; and so he does. Once every summer he travels from Maine to Mount Washington, for the great event of the year. When he appears at the Summit House, every one knows what is to happen. So-and-so is going to run down the mountain. The daily newspaper chronicles his arrival and announces the hour of the annual event. Then, at the minute agreed upon, all hands gather before the door, a man appointed for the purpose holds the watch and gives the signal, and down the steep road starts the farmer, his invariable “tall hat” on his head, and his coat-tails flying. At the Half-Way House, and again at the base, his time is taken. If it is shorter than last year’s, so much the more glory. If it is longer, — well, he has run; and presumably, like Cincinnatus before him, he goes back to his plough contented.
The road-runner, I suspect (the running cuckoo!), is subject to the same irresistible ambulatory impulses, and by a curious coincidence he, too, wears what we may term a “tall hat.” I should like to see him racing down the Mount Washington road, putting on the brakes now and then, at the sharper turns, by a sudden cocking of his tail!
The temperature here — for temperature must always be mentioned in writing of one’s travels — has thus far been pretty comfortable for a walker, though not without something of the contradictoriness which seems to belong to weather conditions everywhere and always: roses in all the gardens, and steam in the radiators; children, black and white, paddling about in the mud barefooted and barelegged, and gentlemen with heavy overcoats on, and, not unlikely, collars turned up. Concerning such things, here in “San Antone,” you take your choice. For myself I have compromised the matter, keeping my boots on and wearing, except when the sun has been more than commonly persuasive, the lightest of spring overcoats.
The great drawback to a walking man’s comfort, and just now the most impressive “feature” of the city, — more impressive by far than the old Spanish missions, the most famous of which, the Alamo, is directly at my door, — has been the mud; deep and black, and more adhesive than glue. If you go outside the city your shoes gather it as a rolling snowball gathers snow (“to him that hath shall be given,” you repeat to yourself), and it is like one of the labors of Hercules to get it off. I walk about, scuffing and kicking, with pounds of it on either overshoe, like a dark fringe, and fancy I know how it feels to drag a ball and chain. However, conditions are bettering in this respect, and in any case, things might easily be worse. Yesterday morning, seeing the sky clouded, I remarked to the elevator boy on my way down to breakfast, that I believed it was going to rain; and I added, sententiously, “More rain, more mud.” “Yes,” said the boy, quick to resent an imputation upon the climate of Texas, “and the more rain, the better crops.” The State, it appears, has suffered greatly from drought for the past few seasons, and no doubt its people can well afford to play the mud-lark for a week now and then in winter. It makes a difference whether you are a selfish, pleasure-seeking tourist, thinking only of to-day’s comfort, or a man with his living to make out of a cotton plantation or a market garden.
For the present, if the tourist wishes, as I do, to walk in the country, he may do worse than betake himself to one of the numerous railroad tracks.2 These have carried me into good places and shown me many interesting birds; but they would be more convenient if they were not walled in, mile after mile, except as a highway or a plantation road crosses them, by an excessively high and close barbed-wire fence. Yet even this hateful obstruction has served me one slight good turn.
A man of something like my own age and build was trudging along the track in front of me, a day or two ago (by his gait and general appearance he was used to trudging), when I saw him approach the fence as if he meant in some way to force a passage. “You’ll never do it,” I thought. Really, there seemed not to be space enough between the wires, even if they had not been barbed, for a human body to squeeze through; but to my astonishment the fellow slipped between them without the slightest fumbling or hesitation, and without so much as a barb’s touching him. He must have been a specialist, I am sure. I could not have followed suit without tearing my clothing to tatters, if all the wealth of the East, “barbaric pearl and gold,” had been spread out before my itching fingers on the farther side. I have not yet ceased wondering at the rogue’s address. Such practice as he must have had! I hope he was never in jail. It was like the neatest of Japanese jugglery, or the famous passage through the eye of a needle. Behold, said I, the compensations of poverty. No rich man could have done it.
The greater part of the passengers that one meets in such out-of-the-way places are short, swarthy Mexicans. Usually they are able to bid you “good-morning,” or to ask how you “do,” but now and then you will hear a “buenos dias.”
In the city one finds them at every corner selling peculiar-looking confections. Whether one likes their wares or not, — and for myself, I must confess that “my own particular lip” has not yet made up its mind to try the experiment, — their presence gives one an agreeable sense of being far from home. Two days ago I was wandering about San Pedro Park at noon, and noticed for the first time a few butterflies on the wing. Most of them were much like our common yellow one, — evidently some species of Colias, — but by and by I noticed a dark one, showing a touch of red as it flew. I took chase, and came up with it just as it dropped to rest directly in front of two Mexicans seated upon the grass. I stepped near to see it (a common red admiral, for aught I could discover), and perceiving that the men were inquisitive, I pointed to it with my finger. One of them imitated the gesture, as much as to say “That, do you mean?” I nodded, and he said, with a smile, “Mariposa.” “Yes,” said I, “a butterfly.” That was beyond him, and he repeated his incomparably prettier word, “mariposa.” “Very good,” said I to myself, “I am glad to find that I understand Spanish when I hear it spoken!” A solitary traveler, of all men, should know how to amuse himself with trifles.
1 Vachellia Farnesiana, sparingly naturalized in Florida, where it goes by the name of Opopanax.
2 Since this letter was first printed I have been warned more than once that walking upon railroad tracks, in the Southwestern country, at least, is an unsafe proceeding, for a man alone and unarmed; and I think it right to pass along the caution.