Deep in the heart of Texas: Natural Bridge Caverns

 

 

I’ll conclude this series of occasional postings about places I’ve visited in Texas with an account of one that’s literally deep in the heart of the Lone Star State.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns was developed as a tourist attraction after a group of college students discovered some breath-taking underground passages there at the beginning of the 1960s.  Today, up top, it features a visitor’s centre, a souvenir shop (‘the Discovery Village Trading Post’), a confectionery and snack shop (‘Big Daddy’s Sweets, Treats and Brew’), a spot where kids can ‘pan for gems’ and a pair of high platforms between which you can zipline across and above the whole site.  In spite of the commercialisation it’s an attractive place, landscaped with rustic stone walls, lawns, flowers, ferns and plenty of trees and shade; though I would’ve enjoyed it more if they’d turned down the insipid country-and-western music that was pouring out of the PA system, courtesy of a radio show called Prime Country.

 

We had time to go on two tours during our visit and firstly we opted for the longest-established one, the Discovery Tour, which takes you 180 feet below ground and through half-a-mile of what is described as “the largest and most spectacular show cavern in Texas”.  The entrance to this was through a giant sinkhole behind the visitor’s centre, easily accessible because it involved going down a gently-descending tarmacked path at the hole’s side.  We also received a pep-talk beforehand where we were told not to touch the caverns’ rock formations because our skins, like the skins of all mammals, secrete oils that damage the formations and stop them developing in the first place.  Later, inside the caverns, the guide shone his torch onto the roof and showed us some large ‘bald’ patches, totally free of stalactites, that centuries earlier had been home to thousands of roosting (and oil-secreting) bats.

 

One good thing about how the caverns are presented to visitors is the lighting system.  The rigs of bulbs and cables are mostly well-hidden.  The lights shining on the caverns’ paths are concealed behind rocks.  Particularly striking formations on the caverns’ walls are illuminated by unseen spotlights.  Our guide would sometimes switch these on and off by remote control so that behind or ahead of us whole sections of the walls, with their fantastically-shaped tableaux, would dramatically leap in and out of view.

 

 

One small light illuminated a tiny clump of ferns growing on a rock slope far below ground.  Presumably the ferns arrived at this spot thanks to a spore being carried down on the clothes of a human or fur of an animal.  Apart from a few streaks of mould here and there, these were the only plant or fungoid life I saw in the caverns.

 

So – what can I say about the spectacles provided by the caverns’ rock formations?  Well, they were amazing.  To give an idea of the vast and phantasmagorical range of structures there, I’ll refer to the notebook I brought with me and list all the things that different ones reminded me of.  These were: icicles; strings of spaghetti; fangs; molars; needles; turnips; parsnips; carrots; stockings hung up for Santa Claus; candles; Japanese sake bottles; spiralling seashells; dangling entrails; toadstools; cacti; ginseng roots; ice cream cones; rats’ tails; elephants’ trunks; warts; pimples; beehives; broomsticks; Greek columns; church-organ pipes; soda straws; spires; plasticine figures, animals and buildings; giant protoplasm; hanging bats’ wings; stacks of bacon slices; molten toffee; dollops of manure; jellyfish; Portuguese man o’ wars; baleen from a whale’s mouth; Aztec carvings; eroded effigies inside ruined Asian temples; gargoyles; malformed gnomes; foetuses; Gollum from The Lord of the Rings; the face of Cthulhu; hands giving you the middle-finger; hands making a Vulcan salute; totem poles; and, frankly, penises.

 

 

Parts of the caverns looked as huge and grand as the interiors of cathedrals.  Though with the rock formations confronting us on all sides with bizarre, grotesque and sinister shapes, they didn’t particularly look like Christian cathedrals – more like ones erected in honour of H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.

 

The second tour we went on was the Hidden Passages one, which takes visitors through some caverns that were discovered, opened and developed more recently.  The entrance to this was beneath a gazebo-like building a little way past the Discovery Tour’s sinkhole and again we were given a pep-talk warning us not to touch anything.

 

The Hidden Passages’ caverns were found when a vertical shaft, a couple of feet across, was bored down from the surface and had a camera lowered through it.  The camera took four photographs, being turned 90 degrees between each shot.  One photograph revealed a cave wall.  The other three showed only darkness.  The three dark photographs told the investigators that they’d located a substantial cavern – there were no walls close by on three sides of the camera for the light of its flash to bounce back from.  During the tour, the guide pointed out the bottom end of the shaft, puncturing the cavern roof beside one of its walls.  If the shaft had been drilled a few feet away from that position, it would’ve missed the cavern entirely.

 

Looking up at the shaft-end, I heard a dribble of falling soil and then some dirt-particles and two big beetles dropped out of it and onto the rocks below.  The beetles promptly scuttled away.  Welcome to your new home, guys.

 

 

At the tour’s furthest point were a group of benches where the guide had us sit down.  He then turned off all the cavern-lights so that for a minute we could enjoy – if that’s the word – the sensation of sitting in darkness: absolute darkness, a darkness so dense that couldn’t see your hand an inch, or a centimetre, or a millimetre, in front of your face.  This, explained the guide in a now eerily-disembodied voice, enabled us to experience how life was for the organisms, such as bugs and spiders, which inhabit the caverns at these depths.  They’re wholly blind and, thanks to the absence of light, wholly transparent too.  Their other senses are heightened, however, and indeed, after sitting in that darkness for a moment, it seemed that my own hearing had become sharper.

 

I also have to say that, sitting there, I found myself thinking uncomfortably about a weird short story called The End of a Summer’s Day, by the English writer Ramsey Campbell, which has an insecure woman and her fiancé going on a cave tour and undergoing a similar experience when the guide turns off the lights.  However, when the lights come on again, the woman discovers that, somehow, the man now holding her hand isn’t the man who was holding it before.  Thankfully, when the lights returned in Natural Bridge Caverns’ Hidden Passages Tour, my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, had undergone no such metamorphosis.

 

 

Back on the surface and before we departed, I decided to make a first-ever attempt at ziplining.  This went smoothly until I was a few yards short of the destination platform.  Then, having whizzed across most of the site, I unexpectedly stopped and was left dangling from the line.  The guy on the platform had to throw out a rope and tow me in.  I was grateful this hadn’t happened while I was further away from the platform and beyond reach of the rope.  Stranded out there, I would’ve resembled former London mayor and general Tory buffoon Boris Johnson during his famous ziplining mishap at the 2012 London Olympics.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns impressed me not just because of the sights offered by the subterranean tours, but also because of the care and effort that obviously goes into keeping the cave systems pristine and undamaged by human visitors.  I have a sad suspicion that in other parts of the world where there are similar caves, local entrepreneurs are less bothered about supervising the tourists traipsing in and out of them; and the delicate formations and ecosystems inside the caves suffer as a result.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery

 

 

When I was a wee boy at Christmas-time, when the Christmas tree in our house had been fully decked out with tinsel, baubles and fairy-lights, I would look up at it and indulge in a fantasy.  I fantasised that I’d shrunk to the size of one of the tiny snowmen, fairies and Santa Clauses hanging from the ends of its branches and I was living in the centre of it in an equally miniature treehouse.  So that all around me were those shiny, shimmering, glittering Christmas-tree decorations, now fantastically big and a thousand times more spectacular.

 

Having lunch one day at the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery brought back memories of that childhood yuletide fantasy.   This famous eatery does business in El Mercado in the Texan city of San Antonio.  It celebrated its 75th anniversary in October this year and is as much a restaurant and bar as a café and bakery.  And it’s so elaborately decorated that its dining experience is like having a meal at the heart of a gigantic Christmas tree.

 

Covering the ceilings are dangling constellations of big multi-coloured stars and floating galaxies of glinting fairy lights.  The columns supporting those ceilings are wrapped in artificial greenery, which itself is so wrapped in coloured lights and tinselly decorations that it’s impossible to tell what the greenery is meant to be – pine, ivy, whatever.  Adding to the phantasmagorical effect of the café’s interior are golden orbs, glittery ribbons, baubles shaped like hot-air balloons, miniature piñata, little snowman and angel dolls, sparkly-winged butterflies and squares of shiny coloured foil.

 

 

At one end of the premises is a drinking establishment called the Mariachi Bar, about which I scribbled in my trusty notebook at the time: “…rather less glitzy and, dare I say it, less chintzy…  Its comparatively sparse decorations include a cello, mounted at a skewed angle on the wall, and a big wooden eagle raising its wings dramatically before the central mirror of the gantry.”  However, this photo I took of the bar-sign hardly suggests sparseness and a lack of glitz and chintz.

 

 

At the café’s opposite end is a room containing a remarkable mural that folds around two walls.  It depicts an array of Hispanic celebrities and political heavy hitters who’ve achieved prominence over the years, especially in the United States.  I have to ashamedly confess that I recognised very few of them – only a handful whose fame has crossed the Atlantic like guitarist Carlos Santana, director Robert Rodriguez, actor Edward James Olmos and the dog whisperer himself, Cesar Millan.

 

I’m told that the mural includes the San Antonio-born Henry Gonzalez, who served as a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives for nearly 40 years and who was in Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on that fateful November day in 1963; the civil rights activist and labour leader Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association; and the surrealist and folk artist Frida Kahlo, whose feminism-inflected work was once described by Andre Gide as being like a ‘ribbon around a bomb’.  The mural began life in the 1970s, has gradually expanded since then and today incorporates over a hundred people.

 

 

Meanwhile, another corner of the same room houses a shrine dedicated to Selina (Quintanilla-Perez), the Mexican-American ‘Queen of Tejano Music’ who was murdered in 1995 by a former friend and employee.  Since then her adulation by the Hispanic community has reached Elvis-like proportions; to the point where George W. Bush, when he was the Governor of Texas, was moved to designate her birthday ‘Selina Day’.  The shrine is topped by a big framed picture of her singing on stage, the picture sounded by a purplish mane of tinsel, fake flowers and artificial birds.  Smaller framed photos of her from various stages in her life crowd around the shrine’s base.  There’s also a figurine of the Virgin Mary, enveloped in a halo of light, standing guard over the shrine on one side; and a statue of a girlish-looking angel acting as a sentry on its other side.

 

 

When I was there, the entrance area was dominated by an additional shrine.  This was a Dia de los Muertos – Mexican Day of the Dead – shrine dedicated to deceased members of the family who’ve run the café for three-quarters of a century, most notably Pedro and Cruz Cortez, who in 1941 founded it as an early-morning breakfast place for market-workers.  Back then it contained all of three tables.

 

A green-robed angel stood at the shrine’s summit, with a somewhat H.R. Giger-esque arrangement of horn-like spikes forming a vague halo behind her.  There were also dolls, flowers, candles, papier-mâché skulls with cartoonishly-drawn features and the inevitable clutter of framed photos.  I visited the café shortly before Dia de los Meurtos, which takes place from October 31st from November 2nd, and I don’t know if this shrine was a temporary one erected especially for the holiday or if it’s a permanent feature there.

 

 

During my visit, I was so busy making notes about the décor that I forgot to record anything about the Mexican food I ate.  All I can say is that I don’t recall having any complaints about it.  Actually, if you’re likely to be in San Antonio in the future and fancy trying the place out, here’s a link to its menu:

 

http://www.mitierracafe.com/menu

 

By the way, the Mariachi Bar has a Happy Hour every weekday evening from five to seven o’clock.  However, if there’s a Christmas-loving wee kid inside you, any hour spent inside the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery is an enchantingly happy hour.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum

 

 

This may look like a sedate and unremarkable, if pretty, house in a leafy neighbourhood in the Texan city of San Antonio.  However, two features suggest there might be more to it than initially meets the eye.  One is a hand-painted sign half-hidden in the foliage outside, announcing the existence of a museum.  The other hints at something stranger – a toilet bowl and cistern parked in its back garden, used as a big porcelain plant-pot, green blades poking out over the bowl’s rim.

 

 

In fact, this is the home of San Antonio’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, created and run by the wonderful Barney Smith who, when a couple of friends and myself visited him a while ago, was 94 years young.  He keeps his museum-collection in a corrugated iron garage.  It’s a big collection and he has a small garage, but Barney has managed to cram the former into the latter in Tardis-like fashion.  

 

When we telephoned him to say we’d arrived – we’d made an appointment to view the museum a few days earlier – Barney crossed his back garden with the aid of a Zimmer frame, unlocked the big garage door, swung it back and propped it with a stob.  And then it seemed that Aladdin’s Cave had opened, an Aladdin’s Cave of toilet seats.

 

 

Now I should clarify something.  This is not a museum of toilet seats per se, not one of antique toilet seats, or exotic toilet seats, or unusual toilet seats.  What Barney has done over many years is take a huge number of toilet seats, or more precisely, toilet-seat lids, and decorate them according to different themes.  The theme might be a country, city or state, or a profession, or an organisation, or a special occasion, or a newsworthy event.  And he works on each seat with the artistry of a medieval craftsman engraving, gilding, inlaying, embossing and enameling the front of a medieval shield.

 

 

At the time of our visit, he mentioned that he was currently working on six new toilet seats to add to his collection.  I can’t quite remember how many seats he said he’d already completed, though for some reason the number ‘1172’ is lodged in my memory.

 

The interior of the garage is absolutely dense with the things: lining the walls, propped along the floor, dangling from the roof, suspended along rails in tightly-packed rows.  Entering it is like venturing into a congested pocket of rainforest, one where the leaves are all big, solid and shaped like loo-covers.  When he leads his visitors inside, such is the clutter that Barney has to swap his Zimmer frame for a walking stick, which handily doubles as a pointer when he’s indicating the more notable items in his collection.

 

 

Despite the sheer number of exhibits, each one seems to have its own identity – largely due to the bewildering range of bric-a-brac Barney has used in decorating them.  I saw seats adorned with action figures, badges, baubles, beads, buttons, cards, car number-plates, CDs, chains, cell-phones, cocktail sticks, coins, corkscrews, computer keyboards, coral, crosses, dolls, electronic circuitry, feathers, keyrings, keys, Lego, marbles, medallions, medals, miniature flags, neckties, notes of money, pebbles, penknives, pennants, photographs, rocks, rosettes, scent bottles, sections of plumbing, sew-on patches, shells, smokers’ pipes, spectacles, stained glass, stationery, stones, surgical instruments, taps, toy cars, toy trains and watches.

 

Barney is also an accomplished artist and calligrapher and many of the seats, in part or in their entirety, are emblazoned with his drawings and / or inscribed with his handwriting.  Indeed, such is the aesthetic effect that you soon forget that what you’re looking at are, essentially, the top parts of latrines.

 

 

About the only exhibit I remember seeing that had a connection with an actual toilet was one bearing a souvenir that a visitor, an American soldier back from service in Iraq, had given Barney one day: a chunk of porcelain allegedly salvaged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s personal ‘khazi’.

 

In his time Barney has worked as a plumber, electrician and fireman.  Looking at the exhibits here, and thinking of the many skills that were necessary in fashioning them, I’m sure there are a dozen other professions he could’ve successfully turned his hand to.  He’s also a bit of a publicity hound – clearly, he keeps an eye open for any opportunity to promote himself and the museum.  Thus, the garage comes equipped with a television set and an old VCR, on which he plays footage of his appearances on TV over the years, on programmes like the Tonight Show, Offbeat America and the BBC’s All Over the Place.  As a thank-you for the coverage, those shows have been honoured with their own toilet seats in the collection.

 

 

While I didn’t go to the Toilet Seat Art Museum with the intention of scoffing, I expected to have a good chuckle about it.  Where I come from, at least, toilets are supposed to be funny – hence the expression, ‘toilet humour’.  Yet I went away feeling impressed and oddly inspired.  This was partly because of the time spent in Barney Smith’s company.  Despite his advanced years he seemed as alert, vivacious and energetic as a man a third of his age.  Why, the following week, he told us, he was planning to pop up to Tennessee and visit Dollywood, the theme park devoted to the mighty Ms Dolly Parton.

 

 

And the sheer variety of things displayed in his garage made me admire his curiosity and enthusiasm for the whole rich tapestry of life.  I particularly admired the way his work showed respect for and gratitude towards those many groups of citizens who keep society ticking over and glued together – all those many professions, services, institutions, associations, sports clubs, social clubs, faith groups, youth groups and so on.  You name them, he’s got a toilet seat dedicated to them.

 

 

Tellingly, at a time when the bile, bombast and general ghastliness of the Trump-Clinton race for the presidency have acted as the worst possible advertisement for America, it strikes me that Barney and his eccentric but charming little museum are an advertisement for the very opposite, for America at its best.  Both the man and his creations seem to embody the virtues of a nobler America, virtues such as neighbourliness, civility, loyalty, positivity and all-round decency.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Alamo

 

 

Originally a Roman Catholic mission, later a military fort and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alamo is found in the Texan city of San Antonio.  Today much of the site is parkland where long-trunked deciduous trees cast dappled shadows and provide shelter from the unrelenting Texan sun.  The atmosphere there is infinitely pleasanter than it was between February 23rd and March 6th, 1836, when, amid a ruckus of cannonballs, rifle-shot, bayonets, flames, smoke and blood, a hundred Texan defenders held out against a besieging Mexican force of 1500.  The siege ended with the deaths of the Texans – who were then known as ‘Texians’ and whose number included such personages as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis – but it had an important legacy, inspiring many to join the Texian army and hasten the success of the Texas Revolution and the formation of the Republic of Texas.    

 

 

The few buildings there, such as the chapel and barracks, seem to be kept in pristine condition.  But I have to admit that on the day I was there, I made a mistake common among many visitors.

 

What happened was, I wandered into the Alamo gift shop, housed in a historical-looking building that, according to www.thealamo.org, was “built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial Museums honouring the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence.  Dedicated in 1938 the Alamo Museum held historical artefacts until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas decided to also use the space to sell souvenirs in order to raise money for care of the mission.”  And as the website notes, this building is “often mistaken as part of the original Alamo compound.”  That’s certainly what I thought.  I went into the eighty-year-old gift-shop building and assumed I was somewhere that’d seen heavy-duty action back in 1836.

 

 

Confronting me at the entrance was a sign that urged me to “shop and support”, in order to “preserve the Alamo and its legacy for future generations”.  Fair enough, I thought, but it seemed a bit tough that such stout-hearted defenders of Texan, or Texian, liberty as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis had to depend on hard-core capitalist retailing for the memory of their sacrifice, and the scene of it, to survive into the 21st century.

 

As I wandered among the wares on sale inside – flags, T-shirts, Davy Crockett-style raccoonskin hats, cuddly-toy eagles, lots of things emblazoned with the defiant old Texian slogan ‘Come and take it’ (which, when you think about it, is actually what the Mexicans did) – I still mistakenly believed that the building containing this shop had existed during the 1836 siege and Texians and Mexicans had really died here.  I got a bit cynical about it.  I found myself thinking sourly: “Here’s where William Travis went down, bravely battling to prevent the Mexicans from taking the Alamo’s supplies of fried-egg shapers…  And here’s where Davy Crockett heroically gave his life whilst holding off the Mexicans from the Alamo’s stock of hoodies…  And over here is where Jim Bowie was bayonetted to death as he tried and failed to stop the Mexicans from getting their hands on those boxes of delicious Alamo fudge.”

 

 

Anyway, I later discovered I was wrong.  So while you’re spending money in the Alamo gift shop, don’t feel you’re desecrating a site of the fallen.  The only thing that fell there was the occasional Alamo souvenir, falling off a rack.

 

 

In the centre of the shop is big glass case containing a model of the 1836 Alamo and a depiction of the siege with toy soldiers, horses and cannons.  Mind you, the siege is much better represented by a diorama that’s featured in San Antonio’s Briscoe Western Art Museum.  There’s also a selection of Alamo-related DVDs on sale, including films like 2004’s The Alamo with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson, and 1960’s The Alamo with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey and Frankie Avalon, and the mid-1950s Disney TV mini-series Davy Crockett with Fess Parker as the raccoonskin-wearing frontiersman.  No sign, though, of the 1969 comedy Viva Max!, in which a rogue Mexican general played by Peter Ustinov leads a small company of Mexican soldiers into present-day Texas and retakes the Alamo.  The original plan was to shoot some of Viva Max! in the real Alamo but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, its then caretakers, were so outraged that instead it had to be filmed at a replica Alamo elsewhere.

 

 

Outside, the most interesting feature for me – being something of a Japan-o-phile – was an inscribed stone from Japan that commemorated the medieval soldier Suneemon Torii.  He’s sometimes known as the ‘Bonham of Japan’, after James Bonham, an Alamo defender who was sent out to get military aid for the garrison, only to have his requests for help turned down.  Bonham finally returned to the Alamo three days before the culmination of the siege, even though in doing so he doomed himself to the same fate as his comrades.  Suneemon Torii performed a similar feat of heroism / martyrdom at the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575, which has been dubbed ‘the Alamo of Japan’.

 

I also saw the name ‘Bonham’ sculpted into one side of a square, stone fountain.  As I walked around the fountain, I saw that three more names were sculpted into its three other sides: “Travis… Crockett… Bowie.”  I have to confess that, as a Led Zeppelin lover, I would have been pleasantly surprised if instead the names had read: “Bonham… Page… Plant… Jones.”

 

From www.musiclipse.com