Many Missions

A week or two ago, I discussed the Alamo (and camels!). It started life as a mission (Mission San Antonio de Valero)–long before it became a fortress, army outpost, or museum. And it wasn’t the only one built, used (worshipped in), abandoned or passed by, and then rediscovered or reconsecrated at a later date. There are many throughout the Southwest. Indeed, there are many around San Antonio. I’ve enjoyed incorporating references to them in a recent Twisting the Border story (probably set for release in December).

The National Park Service keeps a number of San Antonio missions open for visitation and exploration.

There’s Mission Concepción, (more formally known as Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña)–largely unrestored but boasting not one but two bell towers.

Or Mission San José, the “Queen of Missions, which shows something of the scale of churches as communities. It has a round bell tower stair which makes a brief appearance in my story. I wanted to have my viewpoint character climb it, but she declined. Sigh.

Then Mission San Juan Capistrano, which supported an active agricultural community in the 1700s.

And one of the oldest Texas missions: Mission Espada (Mission San Francisco de la Espada). According to the NPS, it has the most complete & original acequia system (and these are cool!)

I knew a little about the missions beforehand, but at some point in the past year or two, I also picked up a lovely book of photographs and supporting texts: A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest. Three of the San Antonio missions linked above appear in it. I’ve seen it listed with at least two different covers, so there are probably multiple editions. If you can’t get out to see some of the missions themselves (depending on where you live, etc) then consider picking up a copy or borrowing one through a library. Just a thought (after all, if you’ve wound up here there’s a fair chance you like some elements of history …)

Crossing Texas: Fort McKavett

After the California Gold Rush began, various speculators and other travelers from the eastern United States began to trek west across California. Those who took the southern route through San Antonio had two main choices to get to El Paso at the far end of Texas — the “upper” route and the “lower” route.

Fort McKavett sits on the “upper” route. It’s a couple hours drive or so these days, and not that far off a main highway. In earlier times, of course, the journey there would take much longer.

There are beautiful, long views. I visited four forts when traveling from San Antonio back to New Mexico a couple of years ago. In truth, I prefer the vistas around Fort Lancaster (really dramatic, winding hill roads with wonderful views–I’ll post about it down the road), but Fort McKavett is in better shape overall.

To say Fort McKavett is in better shape is not to imply it’s all been restored. As these photos show, there are a number of buildings which haven’t been.

That said, there’s a nice little store (about the only place around with air conditioning or at least a fan!) and a number of buildings showing the kinds of furnishings and facilities people living at the fort would have had.

For instance . . . the Dead House, complete with coffins (untenanted, I hope–I admit I didn’t check, but I also didn’t smell anything rotting so …)

The dead house included a room for the still living, and a display of surgical instruments (ouch) and potions/pills/other medical paraphernalia of the time. (Sage advice: if you ever do go back in time, try not to get sick or injured until you return to current times!)

Or the sinks (which I’m guessing were latrines?), divided of course class (i.e. enlisted versus officer). For some reason, one could view the enlisted but not the officer. I decided to keep a respectable distance from both.

And then there are the barracks for the enlisted folks — how many can one cram in? Depends on whether or not there are bunk beds, of course.

The officers quarters were slightly more off-limits, but here are a few views. They were better than enlisted quarters–but not necessarily less crowded. And the Army practices at the time meant quarters were strictly rank-based. So whenever a high-ranking officer came to visit or stay, the next highest-ranked officer beneath him was turfed out along with family and would promptly turf out the next highest ranking officer and family and so on until the last one in line might have to go live in a chicken coop, if that was all that was available.

So that’s a taste of Fort McKavett. I did visit a couple of other forts in Texas, with pictures, so stay tuned down the line for Lancaster and Davis. (I also stopped in Fort Stockton, but didn’t take much in the way of photos for various reasons.)

For something a bit different . . .

Today, we’re taking a brief step way from historical sites. Instead — how about bike races? For several years, I lived in Silver City, New Mexico, which hosts the Tour of the Gila every spring. The long races mostly start in town and head out. Ah, but on Saturday all of the racing is in-town. The criterion takes place around a rectangle stretching just over 1 mile with some wicked turns and hills.

And oh was it fun to walk the reverse direction from the criterion and see the bikes whipping over the hills and around corners! These photos don’t capture the whole–but they give at least a little idea of the spectator experience.


On the outskirts of Albuquerque lies Petroglyph National Monument. Petroglyphs are created by carving off top layers of rock to use contrasting colors to make a selected form. Pictographs are painted on.

A rock with three possibly separate images on it.

The Petroglyph National Monument features 25,000 or more spread across 17 miles–it’s one of the largest sites of Native American and Spanish rock art that is generally known. I use that phrasing because it is possible there are other, larger sites which are not generally known. It’s my understanding that many tribes don’t share locations with rock art–because Western cultures tend not to respect them. (And that’s putting it mildly.)

This site, however, is generally known and part of the National Park Service. I stopped by while passing through Albuquerque. It was a hot summer day and I didn’t have anywhere near as much time as the site deserved. Nevertheless, I took a short hike up and around a hill with hundreds of images. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!

Camels and The Alamo

While in San Antonio for a convention, I visited several historic sites, although nowhere near as many as I had originally planned. (Then again, my visit got cut short so I could fly off to interview for the job I’m currently in, so things worked out just different than planned.) And, of course, I visited the Alamo.

Front view of the Alamo with people in the distance.

I didn’t spend that long there (see above for why I was short on time) — but what time I had I spent soaking up atmosphere and looking for elements to use in story-writing. Well, I’ve got to the point where I’m writing a story (for the Twisting the Border sequence) set in San Antonio at the Alamo . . . sort of. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

But now, I have to take the photos and think back. To draw on period descriptions (remember my post about primary sources?) and imagine the Alamo as it might have been in the 1850s, long before it became a historical park. Back when it was, among other things, a supply depot for the US Army. And here I will admit to departing, at least a little bit, from history. You see, in the mid-late 1850s the US Army used camels for supply runs to/from the Alamo as part of the relatively short-lived Camel Corps. The camels arrived in our world after my story starts–but how can I resist shifting things just enough for the camels to be present and maybe even some will accompany the expedition westward? Along with their handlers (because mule-handlers don’t necessarily know how to deal with camels)? We’ll see.

In the meantime, here are a few more photos as I was scouting for where my characters might pass the time in their San Antonio, their Alamo (with camels!)

Cherokee National Museum

I visited this a couple of years back. It was a bus tour down from Tulsa, one of many optional side trips during a conference I attended, and we wound up having only about 2 hours there. Sigh. I hope to get back sometime, as it’s definitely worth spending much more time.

Statue of a Cherokee playing a game of stickball

There are three parts to the Museum, as far as I could tell — a replica of an early village (pre-1830s at least) and a replica of a village circa the 1830s (i.e. right before the Cherokee Trails of Tears), both of which were outdoors, plus the indoor Museum (and gift shop).

We had a tour of the pre-1830s village (in no small part because we all studied early American literature and/or history), so most of my photos are from there. I’ve tried to only include photos where the people were aware and accepted being photographed.

(As an aside, one of the reasons we had limited time is that drivers in Oklahoma seem to have an aversion to zipper merging. Both going and coming, we wound up in really long single lanes on an interstate before reaching construction. I.e. there seemed to be a mile or more of empty lane where people could have condensed traffic. I understand why the bus didn’t, but lets just say I’m an advocate for zipper merging).

In plain view?

One never knows what may show up around a corner. Is it easier to notice things in a familiar place or a strange one? In the familiar, any new additions may jump out (sooner or later) because they’re different from what we expect to see . . . that is assuming we don’t impose our memories over reality. On the other hand, because a new place is so new we may be too busy taking in the whole to notice every constituent element.

All of which is to say, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to slow down and look at what’s in front of us. Take the photos below, for instance. On my first visit to Tucson, I was a bit overwhelmed (I find driving around places I don’t know in heavy traffic to be enervating). Nevertheless, I went out for a walk that evening and spotted a wall with tiles on it. Now, this is not uncommon in the southwest. Lots of people decorate walls with tiles and murals. At first, I thought it was just another set of decorative tiles–then I looked closer.

The tiles reflect incidents from a very famous tale — Don Quixote. I nearly overlooked them, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

It was a lesson to me (sadly one I need repeated now and then when I get too caught up in tunnel-vision) to look up, out, and around and see what’s actually in front of my eyes.


For the most part, my Tuesday posts focus on particular historical sites many of which I’ve visited in person. (I’ve got a nice backlog of sites yet to post, plus plan on visiting a number in the next months, so I won’t run out of the I’ve-visited anytime soon). Today, however, the topic is a place.

Sedona’s got a number of reputations. I can’t speak to all, or even most, of them, but one thing it does have in spades is atmosphere. And that, of course, is a wonderful thing for inspiration.

So here are a variety of photos of the red rocks, hills, and mountains from my visit. These barely scratch the surface, but may give at least a taste.

And I’ll take inspiration from them as I go off to write a story that isn’t set in Sedona, but is in a similarly atmospheric locale.

Valles Caldera

Valles Caldera is a National Preserve — and the most recent (as of this writing). It includes a lovely 13 mile bowl circled by higher lands, courtesy of an eruption a very long time ago. It’s dormant, but there are signs of activity now and then.

I visited briefly while in the area. Alas, most of my visit was during a drenching rainstorm (seriously heavy rain, and this from someone who’s lived through some torrential downpours). There was a break long enough to stop by the visitors center and to walk around a bit.

Here’s a photo of part of the caldera, complete with the resurgent dome.

Mountain in the distance with a smaller domed peak rising from the floor of the caldera, surrounded by fields
Valles Caldera

The image also captures the mistiness of the day, and the re-impending storm. Someday I’d like to go back during better weather to hike around!

Serpent Mound

This is one of many earthworks in the eastern and central parts of the United States. For a long time, white historians and antiquarians believed these the work of a vanished people, “the Moundbuilders,” separate from the various indigenous peoples living in the areas. The white historians and antiquarians were wrong, and now the historical establishment agrees with the indigenous that these were the work of their ancestors. Sadly, too many were destroyed as Europeans built their own works across the land. Some survive, such as this. Ohio History Connection currently runs it as a museum.

Shows several loops of mounded earth
Most, but not all, of the Serpent Mount, as seen 2/3 up the viewing station

I visited there last summer, on (then) lovely day (it rained later. A lot. Plus thunder and lightning, which made my mother’s dog, traveling with us, very unhappy). At that time, the museum operators were keeping the mound mowed. I’ve heard since that they’re reconsidering this–but have yet to get back.

There’s a viewing station from which one can see most/all of the earthwork. It helps if you don’t mind heights or see-through stairs. There’s a walk around, but folks are (understandably) requested to keep off the actual mound.

It’s not clear just how old it is, but other mounds nearby date to 800 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. so it’s probably from somewhere in that range.

Here are a few more photos from my visit, closer up to various portions of the serpent.