Houston – Last Day – Burns Original BBQ – Big Texas North…

So, this was November 1st…Halloween+1…my last day in Texas before slowly making my way back home to CT.  I only had two destinations…Burns Original BBQ for lunch (as seen on the Houston episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown)…and dancing at Big Texas – North, in Spring/north-Houston, less than 3 miles from my hotel, the sister country-western dance hall to Big Texas – South, in Webster/southeast-Houston, which was my first dance hall stop in Houston on this trip.

I honestly don’t remember doing anything else that day, which likely means I did laundry and took a nap at my hotel.  The next day was going to be the longest driving-day of the trip…Houston to Oxford, MS…nearly 600 miles…so, I know I was physically gearing up for that.

Houston is funny.  There is no zoning.  So, you can literally just turn a corner and find yourself suddenly in a different world.  I love that.  As with the Himalaya Restaurant and Little India, GPS had me driving on a typical Houston, very mainstream “Generica” frontage road, parallel to a highway…it told me to turn right, into a shopping center…and poof…the entire shopping center was comprised of Indian-owned businesses.  Very cool.

The route to Burns Original BBQ was very similar.  I remember that on the Parts Unknown episode, the filmmakers made a point of bringing the viewer into the segment by highlighting street views of the area it is located in.  It was a very modest, quiet, peaceful, predominantly African-American neighborhood, nicely shaded with a lot of trees.

So, GPS guided me out of a high-density, very commercial area into this suddenly very quiet, peaceful subdivision of modest homes, people working out in their yards, etc.  You don’t expect to find these sorts of peaceful enclaves in a city that seems dominated by tangles of highways and stacked highway interchanges.  I realize it may seem very “touristy” of me, but I found this very cool…very tranquil.

And Burns, itself, is sort of nestled in the middle of this quiet neighborhood.  There may be one or two other small businesses next to it, but that’s about all.  It’s not a commercial shopping area.  And Burns was busy.  It was midweek lunch hour.  Most of the customers seemed to be getting take-out.  There was a constant flow of cars leaving and arriving in the cozy parking area.  There was also a short, but constant, line at the counter.

I didn’t know what to order.  All I knew was that I’d have to be quick about it, judging by the pace at the walk-up counter.  I went with the 2-meat half-pound dinner…brisket and mild sausage…that included two sides, because I wanted a little variety.  This was the smallest meal you could order, next to the “Monster” stuffed potatoes, which are arguably just as big.

Here’s a snapshot of my lunch:

This was not a half-pound of meat.  I think it was much closer to a pound-and-a-half.  So, “generous portions” would be an understatement.  And it was delicious.  It’s no wonder that Burns has been around since 1973, and continues to thrive.

So, along with Himalaya Restaurant, my visit to Burns BBQ became part of what I’ll call the “Bourdain Effect” on my trip…seeking out a few of Mr. Bourdain’s stops in cities he visited that happen to either be on my route, or that I changed my route slightly, in order to try these places out.  And so…there is more to come.

My last stop in Houston was Big Texas – North, to see what country-western dancing I could find.  Big Texas – North is…big.  It has a nice, big, racetrack-style dance floor, with a bar and seating inside the racetrack.  It also has multiple bars and lots of seating outside the dance floor.  As with my night at Stetson’s, I apologize that I decided not to take any photos, because I really just wanted to find some dancing and try to meet a few people.

There was actually a pretty big crowd, early, at Big Texas, so that was refreshing.  I did take the beginner two-step class.  But, instead of taking the waltz class that followed, I headed over to the other side of the racetrack, where an intermediate two-step class was in progress.  It was the middle of the class, so I just watched from the sidelines.  The teaching in this class was a bit closer to what I am familiar with, so it was fun to watch.

When the open dancing started, I did manage to get a few two-steps in, and a west-coast, so that was nice.  But, I was really more on my own than at Stetson’s, despite this being a bigger crowd and just as nice.  I’d definitely head back to Big Texas in the future.  It might just take a little longer to meet and start chatting with some of the regulars, though I did chat a bit.

So, this was my last night in Houston…and in Texas…for now.

Houston – Halloween Continued – Houston’s Highways and Stetson’s Nightlife…

Okay…so…I learned that my car will survive the remainder of my trip. Major sigh of relief. Check.

I followed in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain at the amazing Himalaya Restaurant, including the honor of meeting and chatting with the chef/owner. Double-check.

As I mentioned, following my four sort of intensively-immersed days in the Texas Hill Country, my plans for the remainder of this little adventure were primarily little things. There were many days that I had very little planned, especially during the day. And my nights, while still in Texas, were mostly spent checking out country-western dance halls I had not previously visited.

Houston is huge. But, it is not so much built up, like New York City, as it is built out. For better or worse, Houston is the poster-child for urban sprawl. The road and highway systems in each of the Lone Star State’s major cities are insane…insane. If you look at a Google map of Houston, for example, and have never been there, you might be scratching your head, wondering what I’m talking about. On your computer screen…zoomed out…in two-dimensions…the highway system appears very simply and neatly laid out. Downtown is sort of in the center of two concentric highway loops, with highway spokes radiating out, more or less evenly distributed.

But, one of the features you don’t see…can’t see…from this bird’s eye view, and in only two-dimensions…are the highway interchanges. Zoom in on pretty much any highway interchange and you will begin to see what I mean. Zoomed-in, these interchanges start to take on the form of an artist’s rendering of a complex, braided, sailor’s knot.

And if you could see a three-dimensional view, you would see that some of the strands of this braided knot are actually two, three…up to five-level, high-flying, fly-over ramps, the highest in Houston (I just read) being 115-feet, the second highest in the U.S.

These fly-over ramps are everywhere…and you can see more under construction everywhere you go. Houston has this reputation of constantly changing…constantly evolving…and you see it everywhere.

I just found this cool video that explains, and takes you on, each level of the above 5-level “stacked” highway interchange. Buckle-up and take a ride:

So, this was actually one of the little personal challenges I gave myself for this trip. In my mind, all of these “little” destinations in the Lone Star state’s big cities would force me to get used to navigating these tangled, high-flying stacked highway interchanges, not to mention the constantly-shrinking and expanding number of lanes (fun fact: the above, 5-level stacked interchange is 27 lanes wide at its widest section. Read’em an’ weep.).

So, my little, harmless excursions served this dual-purpose of randomly exploring different areas and neighborhoods of a few of these major cities, as well as to begin to get more acclimated to navigating their highway systems’ quasi-M.C. Escher-esque feel.

Last night’s hotel was in Pearland…south/southeast Houston. Himalaya Restaurant was in West Houston, between I-610 (aka “The Loop”), and the Sam Houston Tollway, the next of these concentric highway loops.

Tonight’s and tomorrow’s hotel was in Cypress, a suburb of northwest Houston, where I headed after Himalaya, just to check in and unpack. Followed by a little excursion to two Cavender’s Boot City stores, one also in northwest Houston, and the other out in Katy, which is west of the Sam Houston Tollway (actually, I may have driven on a portion of the above stacked interchange on my way to this Cavender’s), and is where I found my second pair of western roper-style dance boots on this trip (pay-dirt, baby!).

You see, we don’t have western-wear stores in New England. Not really. There are a couple/few very small ones, which is great. But, once you’ve seen the selection at one of the big chains in Texas, or out West, you realize that you really need to go to these places if and when you have the chance. Western boots are just too difficult to attempt to buy online, without actually getting to try them on. The fit really has to be just-so.

My final destination for Halloween, was a night out at Stetson’s Nightlife Dance Hall, in Humble, a suburb of north/northeast Houston. See? I was intentionally sort of driving all over Houston. Houston was almost beginning to feel a little familiar to me…this, my fourth visit to the city.

My apologies, but I intentionally did not attempt to take any photos at Stetson’s. I really just wanted to see if I could get some dancing in, and meet some people. Stetson’s was really nice, but its dance floor was smaller than I’d imagined, judging from the photos on their website. But, it was a fairly light crowd (again…Astros/World Series-factor), so there was plenty of room to dance.

When I arrived, a lesson was in progress. As I ordered a bottle of water at the bar, I asked the barmaid if she knew what dance-style the lesson was. She said she didn’t know, but that I should ask the woman dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, seated with girlfriends across the room, and she’d likely know. So, as usual, I went with that, but I was honestly a little hesitant, thinking, “Oh, great. I am a new face. Now, I’m supposed to walk clear across this dance hall…passing plenty of other people…and ask this very attractive woman in a scanty Wonder Woman costume what dance style this lesson is? She is immediately going to think I’ve come over to hit on her. I’m sure this is going to go well.”

So, I was extra-cautious with what I said and my body-language as I approached Wonder Woman and her table of girlfriends, which was the right thing to do, because I could tell that she and her girlfriends were, in fact, a little on the cool-side, sizing me up, intention-wise, as we briefly talked.

Crisis averted, the lesson was a beginner Country Polka…all triple-steps…which I don’t know, but I could pick up beginner patterns. So, I joined the class, and as is customary, I introduced myself to each new follower, as we rotated partners. As I mentioned before, this is a great way to allow the regulars to also size you up to see if you are there to dance, or to try to pick up women. So, I am always very clear, in words and body-language, that I am just a nice guy who is purely there to dance.

Wonder Woman did also join the class at some point, so she and I were paired up at least once during the lesson. She was statuesque, and could easily have been cast as her costume’s character in a blockbuster movie. But, I think her mental jury was still out, regarding what my intentions at Stetson’s were, despite my not even attempting to chat with her during the lesson.

Nothing against Wonder Woman or her girlfriends. They all seemed very nice. But, I wondered…do I somehow…anywhere…remotely…come off as being any kind of a player? If I do, I don’t see it. I understand the concept, but I have no idea how I could possibly telegraph that impression. For me, it is already challenge-enough, simply to enter a new dance hall, eighteen-hundred miles from home, where I don’t know a soul, and eventually muster the courage to ask a woman to dance.

I sat out the second lesson, country waltz, because I knew I would only forget the little I learned in the Polka lesson, if I took the waltz. Once the open dancing started, I did ask one woman from the class up for a Polka, apologizing my way through it, but she said I was doing fine.

At some point, I got up the nerve to approach Wonder Woman for a two-step, I think, and we had a nice dance. Her name is Nancy, as it turned out, and I think she was beginning to see that I was only there to dance and that I was maybe a little nervous about it, being in a new place.

A Nightclub Two-Step came on, and I asked Nancy if she knew it. If you don’t know, Nightclub-2 is a slow, very graceful dance that tends to move around the floor quite a bit. Nancy said she knew the very basic step, but hoped to take more lessons at some point. She was game to try it out with me.

Well, by the end of this dance she could really tell, by not only the way I was leading, but by how focused I was on helping her to have a nice dance, that I was just a nice guy with good intentions and some good dance foundation. From then on, she actually started chatting with me, and we did at least one more Nightclub-2, which we basically had the entire floor for, because no one else was doing it.

Nancy also suggested that I ask a couple more specific women up to dance, friends of hers, who she said were really good followers. And so, I did ask one of those women up for a couple of dances, and we chatted, too.

Another woman from the class also approached me to chat at one point…Ro. She was very nice.

And a guy approached me to invite me in as part of a group birthday photo for one of the women. So you see, people will be watching you out on the dance floor, whether you are aware of it, or not. I think it’s only natural. And it’s one way to sort of size a person up. Is this a sleazy guy, or is he here to dance? Is he hitting on the women in our dance community, or is he a social-dancer, himself?

Nancy said she wanted to send me more detailed info re which nights of the week are best to head to each of the nine major country-western dance halls in Houston, so we exchanged contact info, and she did send me those details. She also suggested that I start using Face Book and Face Book Messenger, because that is how she and her friends communicate about when and where they are going out to dance…for whenever I’m planning a trip back to Houston. So, I still need to work on that.

This was all very innocent, and really nice to be sort of welcomed-in to the Houston dance community.

So, my night at Stetson’s turned out to be my third and final Houston Halloween treat.

Houston – Halloween and Himalaya Restaurant…

My second day in Houston happened to fall on Halloween.  Fortunately, I encountered no tricks…only treats.

My day started out at the Toyota dealer near my Pearland hotel, which is southeast Houston.  Roy, the service manager who was helping me out, was really great.  Even though these dealerships are already booked up for service work, they were able to make time to check out my trusty ’06, bruised and battered, Camry.

It took a few hours to get it in to get looked at, but they checked it all out and determined that it was actually the A/C condenser, that sits in front of the radiator, that took the brunt of the retread impact.  It was damaged and would need to be replaced.  The radiator, which sits just behind the condenser, and which was my biggest fear, was either bent slightly, or had a minor dent, but passed the crucial pressure test with flying colors.  Amazingly, there was no other mechanical damage to my car.

Roy said it would take at least a couple of days to get a new condenser, and that a replacement radiator was back-ordered at least a couple of weeks.  So, getting my car repaired in Texas really was not an option.  But, Roy said that since the radiator had passed the pressure test, I would be fine to drive my car all the way back to CT, where I could get it repaired at my convenience, and should not have any problems, other than possibly losing my A/C, which wasn’t an issue, since I would be heading into cooler weather, anyway.  I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet.  That was my first Halloween treat.

So, I was good to go.  Next stop…the Himalaya Restaurant in “Little India”.  In Anthony Bourdain’s Houston episode of “Parts Unknown”, he focuses on Houston’s ethnic diversity.  I believe he said that Houston is the most ethnically-diverse city in the U.S.  I thought that was very cool, and decided to try to stop at Himalaya as part of my trip.

It turned out that Himalaya is located in a small shopping area that appears to be entirely Indian businesses…very cool.  I have never been to a Little India and I love Indian culture.

Himalaya is not a big restaurant.  But, it looks like they do a huge take-out business on top of dining in.  There were literally stacks of huge take-out orders ready for pick-up.  And the walls?  They are covered with framed awards, magazine and newspaper reviews and other accolades.

I arrived toward the end of the lunch rush.  In my usual fashion, I volunteered to my waiter…a somewhat formal Indian gentleman who barely spoke any English, but was a really good guy…that I had seen Himalaya on Parts Unknown, but that I could use some help ordering.  He pointed at a rectangular, subdivided plate with a different dish in each compartment that nearly everyone at the next table had, so I said, “Sure!  That looks great!”

I had no idea what I had just ordered, but I was just going with it, like so many things on this trip.  This sort of sampler also came with amazing house-made round flatbread, similar to pita bread that you tear off pieces from to either stuff with the sampler dishes, or dip in the curries that the dishes were cooked in.  I didn’t know what I was eating, but everything was amazing.

And as I was enjoying this meal, I noticed an Indian gentleman, dressed very casually, chatting with a few of the customers.  He even had his photo taken with one of them.  So, I had a hunch that this was the owner.

At some point, I caught his eye and he came to my table.  Again, I explained that I had seen his restaurant on TV.  He introduced himself as Chef Lashkari, the owner.  How cool is that?

I explained that everything was delicious, but that I didn’t know what any of the dishes were.  So, he told me what each dish was.  Here’s a snapshot of my lunch.  I don’t remember exactly what each dish was, but starting from the bottom-left…a chicken curry…a lamb dish…a chick pea dish…Chef Lashkari’s own Indian take on Shepherd’s Pie…and finally, Biryani, a seasoned long-grain rice dish with meat:

While we were chatting, I noticed what looked like a package of some sort of fried dessert dough balls on a counter.  I asked Chef Lashkari if those were for sale.  He smiled and said, “I’ll give them to you.”  I tried to politely decline, saying I’d be happy to pay for them, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  I was thinking of getting them to go.  This was too funny.

I also asked Chef Lashkari if I could get a photo with him, and he was more than happy to.  So, my waiter came over and took a couple with my cellphone.

Then, Chef Lashkari really surprised me by asking if I could email him the photo.  He gave me his card, which had his email on it.  He is such a nice gentleman.  I was honored.

So, to top things off, after our conversation, my waiter came over with a serving of these fried dough balls.  They were soaked in syrup that reminded me of caramelized flan syrup.  They were so out of this world…you can’t even imagine.

When I got back in my car, I emailed the photo to Chef Lashkari with a nice thank-you note.  Himalaya…my waiter, who was so great…and Chef Lashkari, had already made my day.  So, that was my second Halloween treat.

Houston – McGonigel’s Mucky Duck…

Houston was the first major city in Texas that I stopped in at the beginning of this trip…and it was the last city I was stopping in, before sadly beginning to make my way home to CT.  I spent three nights in Houston on this leg of my trip…and I had a few plans.

First stop…the Open Mic at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Restaurant and Bar…a very cool, intimate live music venue that features up-and-coming and established musicians six nights a week.  The Mucky Duck also opens the stage and professional sound system to anyone who would like to perform a few songs on Monday nights.  I’ve performed here twice before and had a blast each time.

Tonight, I was meeting my friend, Joni’s, husband’s cousin, Cheryl, and Cheryl’s husband, Dave, at the Mucky Duck.  As it turned out, Cheryl and Dave also invited their friend, Chris (Christine), as well.  So, the musical performance pressure was on (not).

Joni had suggested that I try to get together with Cheryl and Dave, thinking that we’d probably hit it off, and Joni was right.  Cheryl and Dave and Chris and I were instantly chatting and cracking each other up, like old friends from the start.  Cheryl and Dave have twin sons who both just started college this fall…in New York City, and in England.  I believe Dave was born in England, but grew up in Australia.  So, we had plenty to talk about.

I happened to arrive at the Mucky Duck only a few  minutes before Cheryl, Dave and Chris, and had met Letitia, one of the performers who had signed up to play (we noticed each other’s guitar cases).  I briefly explained my road-trip to Letitia and asked if she’d mind if I took a few photos of her while she was performing.  She was happy to let me.  Letitia was on her way to Austin to begin a music career.

So, here are a few photos I took of Letitia during her set.  I sent these and others to her, just last night, actually, and she loved them:

At some point before my set, I asked Cheryl and Dave, which of them was the better photographer, and Dave elected Cheryl.  I already had my camera’s exposure and single auto-focus point set up from photographing Letitia, so I gave Cheryl a crash course in shooting with this set-up, so she could take a few photos of me during my set.  Shameless…I know.

Here are a few of our practice-photos, taken at our table.  Mind you…these are close close-ups…haha!  Unfortunately, in the process, we did not get a photo of Cheryl.  But, we did get Dave, Chris and yours truly:

During my musical set, I noticed Cheryl moving around the room…trying out different angles and perspectives as she shot photos of me.  It looked like she was having a great time.  I keep telling y’all that the lens is very addictive.  Cheryl got some great images.  Who thinks I look ready to go on tour?  Anybody???

Typically, Wayne, the open mic host, who is also the sound-tech, allows each performer to sing three songs.  But, as it turned out, it was a light night (maybe, again, something to do with the Astros being in the World Series?), with not enough performers to fill the evening, and I was the last performer on the list.  So, after my last song, Wayne invited me to sing a fourth…which I was more than happy to oblige.

By the way, I had met Wayne on both of my prior visits to the Mucky Duck.  Wayne is a really good guitarist, and helps accompany some of the performers, if they ask him.  On this night, Wayne also did a really great solo guitar instrumental version of “Over The Rainbow”.  That was a treat.

So, despite the episode with my car that took up much of the day, I was thrilled that it didn’t interfere with such a great night with live music and new Houston friends.

South Padre Island to Houston – There Ought To Be A Law…

First, allow me to say that I love Texas.  And that everything I’m about to tell you, comes from this place of deep appreciation and love of Texas and Texans.  That said…

I think there ought to be a Texas state statute that says, “If you are not from Texas…but your car gets attacked by one of our very aggressive, peeled off, tractor-trailer tire-retreads…that are so prevalent on our highways as to be ubiquitous…then, Texas will officially recognize you as a Texan.”  That’s fair, isn’t it?

From South Padre Island, my next destination was Pearland, a suburb of southeast Houston…roughly a 380-mile drive.   Fairly early in my drive, I was stopped by Texas (maybe it’s Federal?) border-security at a highway checkpoint (I was not pulled over.  Everyone had to stop).  When it was my turn in line, the only question I was asked by the no-nonsense trooper was, “Are you a U.S. citizen?”  This gives you an idea of how close to the Mexican border I had been on South Padre.  I was really piling up some miles on this trip.

A couple of hours later, still not even halfway to Houston, I was behind an SUV at highway speeds out in dead-flat farm country, when a couple/few very large, heavy strips of peeled-off tractor-trailer tire-retreads came shooting out from under the rear tires of the SUV, slamming into the front grille of my Camry, then sounding like they were violently pummeling the entire length of the underside of my car as I helplessly drove over them.

In that split-second I had before the initial impact, I remember making the conscious decision that, at highway speeds, it would be safer to face the retreads head-on, regardless of the potential damage to my car, than to attempt to suddenly swerve out of the way, risking rolling my car over.  So, that’s what I did.  In that instant, I simply braced myself and let the Camry absorb the full impact of the retreads.

As soon as the retreads cleared my car, I could tell something wasn’t right, so I turned off my music (which wasn’t loud to begin with), and could hear a constant scraping sound coming from somewhere underneath my car.  I saw an isolated gas station/convenience store just up ahead, so I pulled in.

By this point, I realized that I was actually pretty shaken, and wasn’t quite sure what to do.  I remember getting out of my car to see if I could see what was going on.  The first thing I saw was that the lower portion of my front grille was shattered…not a good start (Note: the specks are mostly the hundreds of bugs that met their end just on this trip.  I had washed and waxed my car shortly before I left CT.  But, the black streaks?  Those are from the retreads whipping against my bumper and grille).

Then, I lifted the hood and saw an open-hand-sized dent, or depression in what I initially thought was my radiator…really not good (Notice the long, tapered impression at the bottom of the photo).

And then, trying to look under the front of my car, I could see sections of the molded-plastic skid-plate that protects the radiator, oil pan and front-underside of the engine, were dragging on the pavement, essentially in tatters…really, really not good.

Fortunately, I have roadside assistance insurance, so that was reassuring.  I had no idea where I was, other than out in the middle of farm country, with virtually nothing around.  I went into the gas station’s convenience store and asked the woman at the counter where I was, and for the exact address, explaining what had just happened to my car.  She was very nice.

With that information, I called my insurance company and began getting my bearings, meanwhile keeping my car running, in part to stay cool, but also to determine if the car was leaking any fluids.

After about a half-hour of idling my car, I checked underneath.  To my huge relief, there was nothing leaking and the temperature gauge was reading normal…step one.  Then, I asked the insurance customer service rep on the phone, if she could look up the address of the nearest Toyota dealership to my next hotel, which was in Pearland, three-plus hours from where I had stopped.  I explained to the rep that it appeared that my car was not leaking, and the engine seemed to be running normally, so there was a good chance I could drive the rest of the way to Houston, versus getting towed to any nearby local shop.

She was very nice, not only locating the dealership, only a few miles from my next hotel, but calling the dealership to let them know what had happened and that I was on my way.  So, the situation was beginning to look not as grim.

And as it turned out, this entire time, there happened to be an HVAC repairman, with his van, at the gas station, working on the gas station’s A/C.  I thought that maybe, if he had a couple of spare zip-ties, I might be able to lash the dragging parts of my skid plate up and off the pavement.  But instead, this good-Samaritan kindly and generously got out of his van and went straight to work, zip-tying my skid plate together, himself, graciously declining my offer to help, and any gratuity for helping me out.  He was a really good guy.

I was honestly amazed and humbled at how, piece by piece, my initial feelings of helplessness at potentially becoming stranded, were getting allayed.

And so, off I went, with my bruised Camry, back on the highway toward Houston, watching and listening for any mechanical problems that might surface, but the old girl seemed to be running fine.

By this point, I had lost quite a bit of time, and knew I would lose even more at the Toyota dealer.  This was only a concern, because my Massachusetts friend, Joni, had days-before put me in touch with her husband’s cousin, Cheryl, and Cheryl’s husband, Dave, in Houston, and the three of us were planning on meeting at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck bar/restaurant that night, where I was hoping to perform a few songs at the Mucky Duck’s open mic.  So, the clock was ticking.

As it turned out, the dealership was extremely helpful, but did not have a loaner-car available, due to storm Harvey demands, and the affiliated car-rental office had already closed.  But, since my car was driving fine, we arranged for me to return, first thing the next morning, to get my car properly checked out.  This allowed me to keep my Mucky Duck plans with Cheryl and Dave.

So, somehow, despite my highway calamity, I was able to continue on with the next chapter of this trip, barely missing a beat.  I was feeling incredibly fortunate and relieved.

South Padre Island – Beach Day…

About three hours south of Corpus Christi you’ll find the beach community of South Padre Island, which is located at the southern end of Padre Island, the longest barrier-island in Texas.  According to Wikipedia, Padre Island also happens to be the longest barrier island in the world.  From the town of South Padre Island, you are only a stone’s throw from Mexico.

I had one afternoon and night on South Padre and my modest goals were to walk on the beach, dip my feet in the surf, and enjoy some fish tacos while sipping margaritas at a beach bar.  I won’t hold you in suspense.  Mission accomplished on all counts.

As far as I could tell, there is only one route to get to South Padre, which you can only enter from its southern end, and that route is surprisingly remote.  You really have to want to get to South Padre to get to South Padre.  But, it’s well worth the drive.

South Padre has a reputation as a major Spring Break destination.  Fortunately, I was there in the off-season, and possibly the nicest time of the year.  The weather and water were easily warm enough for swimming, and there were only a handful of people on the beaches.

My hotel was ocean-front…or Gulf-front.  My room wasn’t quite ready when I arrived, so I broke out the flip-flops from the trunk of my car and headed for the beach.  My hotel was near the end of the developed stretch.  So, this snapshot is looking south from the beach at my hotel.

Facing north, you could see much less development, so that’s the direction I walked, even though I basically had the beach to myself regardless of the direction I headed.

And of course I bumped into a few people who were more than happy to snap my picture, just so I could have tangible proof that I’m not making any of this up.

My room was ready by the time I finished my walk, so I unpacked, got settled in, and immediately headed out for dinner.  Laguna Bob’s is a beach bar/restaurant I had on my list.  It’s on the waterfront of Laguna Madre, the narrow body of water separating Padre Island from the mainland, so I headed there.

I sat at the bar of the outdoor deck, where there were also tables.  There were quite a few people at the tables, and only a few at the bar, but everybody was having a good time, joking around with each other and cajoling the barmaid as they ordered more rounds.   So, these were mostly regulars.

It wasn’t long after I started in on my fish tacos and first margarita before a woman a few seats down from me at the bar, who had been focused on the football game on the TV near her, started up a conversation with me.  She asked me about the French fry combo that came with my tacos…no joke.

A second woman sat down with the first, and before I knew it, I was having a great conversation with a retired librarian from the Dallas area, and her aunt, who lived about two hours west of South Padre, in McAllen (if I have that right).  As always, it seems I only need to mention this road-trip, and I make new friends.

Both of these women were great to chat with and volunteered a raft of information, both about Texas and about resources for finding all kinds of hidden gems of Texas.  In turn, I am going to share with you the two main sources among a list that they wrote on a scrap of paper for me:  the Texas Country Reporter, and the Texas Bucket List.

And you thought this post was going to be nothing, but self-indulgent fluff!  I knew I had a point in there, somewhere.  I just wasn’t sure how I was going to get to it.

So, everyone is having a great time out on the deck and they are keeping the two barmaids very busy…lots of cocktails and beer.  And it wasn’t long before another lively woman from one of the tables came over to the three of us…total strangers…and invited us over to her table of friends to chat, laugh and watch the sunset over the water.

Are we seeing another pattern?  This is just how so many nights went on this trip.

So, here’s a quick snapshot of the sun setting over Laguna Madre, from the deck of Laguna Bob’s…a fitting conclusion to my one night on South Padre.

San Antonio – Day In Old Mexico…

If you plan to visit San Antonio and have never been, or even if you have visited, but have not been to the following, these are a few things you should definitely make a point of seeing.  I did not go to these on this visit, but did on two prior visits in the last few years.  I told my family and some of my friends about these at the time, so this is more for anyone I haven’t told, or does not know me, but is following this blog.

You should definitely go to The Riverwalk and The Alamo, for starters.  These are arguably San Antonio’s best-known tourist attractions, but are still both very cool.  They are also only a couple of short walking blocks from each other, so that if you park near The Alamo, it’s an easy walk to The Riverwalk.

The other is the Day In Old Mexico, or any of the other handful of Charreada (traditional Mexican rodeo) events hosted by the San Antonio Charros Association throughout the year.  These are really hidden gems of San Antonio, and of Texas, itself, that I only found out about by accident on my first Texas road-trip in 2014.

During my Lost Maples hike on this current trip, I bumped into and hiked some of the ridge with a very nice group of about a half-dozen UT-Austin students, all from Texas, and at least a couple of whom were from San Antonio.  None of them had ever heard of these events.  And had there been a charreada event that coincided with this current visit to San Antonio, I would have been there in a heartbeat.  They are very special.

All of these events are held at the very cool, very rustic, San Antonio Charro Ranch (6126 Padre Drive, San Antonio), located on the outskirts of the south side of San Antonio.

In particular, the Day In Old Mexico events are held only twice a year, and are scheduled on two consecutive Sundays, typically in April (check the SA Charros Association’s Events Calendar for details) as part of the annual San Antonio Fiesta celebrations.

The outdoor arena at the Charro Ranch is designed for traditional Charreada events…consisting of a lane, where competitors enter or begin some competitions, that is about 40 feet wide, by 200 feet long, and opens up to a circular arena that is 130 feet in diameter.  The arena is enclosed by simple, covered grandstands.  The birds-eye view looks like a giant keyhole.

If you have a real camera, versus simply your cell-phone, you are permitted to hang out, view and photograph the demonstrations up-close-and-personal at dirt-level, in the curved open-corridor at ring-side…which, when I went, is exactly where I spent an entire afternoon, immersed in photo-op heaven.

The men’s, or charros’, events, are an alternating mix of great action and subtly-intricate riding and roping skills that differ dramatically from the purely high-octane events in American-style rodeos.  There are no SUV-sized bulls, for starters.

Absolutely nothing against American-style rodeos.  I have been to one, in Texas, loved it, and hope to see many more.  But, traditional Mexican Rodeo…at least the Day In Old Mexico…is a much quieter, more-subtle, affair.  It has the casual feel of a very large family reunion, versus pure-spectacle.  For one, the announcer introduces and explains each event, in the warm, familiar, friendly manner that a favorite uncle might introduce a potato-sack race at a reunion.  As a complete outsider, a Connecticut Yankee, I felt like I was being invited in, to be a part of this very large family.

Then, there are the young women’s events…the Escaramuza Charra.  Escaramuza are 8-member riding-teams of what appear to be high-school-aged girls, wearing formal sombreros and elaborate, colorful, traditional lacy dresses over layers of petticoats.  Escaramuza teams compete, in part, by executing a series of difficult, close-quarter, inter-lacing and intricately-synchronized horseback-riding patterns at moderately-high speeds…all while sitting elegantly side-saddle.

There is also one dramatic solo Escaramuza event, where a lone female rider on horseback, gallops headlong into the arena from the lane, bringing the horse to a sudden stop…churning up dirt and dust, essentially slamming on the horse’s brakes…while sitting side-saddle, and wearing one of these layered, lacy dresses.  I have no idea how these young women do this and avoid either getting hurled over the horse’s head, or flipping the horse backward onto themselves…all while remaining poised and in total control the entire time.  These girls are extremely brave and skilled.

So, if you ever plan a trip that includes San Antonio, I suggest trying to include one of the two April “Day in Old Mexico” events, or any of the other Charreada events, in your schedule.  They are not very well publicized, so I am letting you in on real insider info.  Mum’s the word…lol.