Texas Plains Trail
US 83 through Uvalde and the Texas Brush Country
Jenny Slaughter Briscoe Opera House_ Uvalde_ Texas
Janey Slaughter Briscoe Opera House,
Uvalde, Texas
Locals describe Uvalde as the place where the Texas hill country ends and South Texas begins. But they have plenty of claims to fame to carve out their own distinctive identity in the middle.

Live Oaks B_B_ Uvalde_ Texas
The pool house of the Live Oaks B&B is a great place for creativity -- or just relaxing.
I've begun my morning in Uvalde after a luxurious night's rest and a delicious breakfast at the Live Oaks B&B, where host Cara fields my questions as she poaches the eggs, grills the bacon, and serves up toast with a taste of the region's renowned huajillo honey, a dollop of translucent golden sunshine.

What do visitors like to do here? Well, there's the museum (with its political memorabilia from the eras of John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, VP to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dolph Briscoe, onetime governor of Texas; the Opera House is a popular draw; and there's lots of good shopping around the square. Hunting is big here, too. Still, I'm tempted to just lounge under the palms and oaks, you know, go glad am I to see the sun after leaving the icy and overcast days behind.

Pecan trees on Uvalde_s plaza
But the drive into town is enjoyable as well. Traffic is jumping on this Wednesday, the no-nonsense rumble of big oilfield trucks and equipment dominating US 83 but primarily the east-west US 90. Where those two major routes intersect stands the impressive courthouse and the plaza, shaded by numerous specimens of the Texas state tree. (Don't know what that is? Well, there are folks out this morning gathering its fruit from the ground by the sackful.)
I'm not able to linger, unfortunately, to take time for Uvalde's premier destinations, or to enjoy the path along the lazy Leona River. I have, however, set my cap for a visit to the celebrated lunch counter at the downtown Rexall drugstore. It appears the owners have not kept the place open past the two-year agreement they made in 2013; it's as empty as an upside-down fifty-five-gallon drum.

Uvalde Wall of Fame
Did you know these celebrities hailed from Uvalde?
Their likenesses in bronze are mounted on the wall of the opera house.

One interesting bit of road culture I learned from my hosts and their other guests: Just outside of Uvalde is the proving grounds for Continental Tire, a facility boasting an 8.5-mile main track and nine courses of test area, including wet courses for testing performance of tires on water-soaked roads. "With the state's year-round mild climate, the Uvalde Proving Grounds is ideal for the performance of on-vehicle testing," reads the company's website. "A rural location combined with high security also makes Uvalde an ideal site for the testing of top secret vehicles and components." My hosts tell me it's not unusual to spot road-testers in town or out on the curves of the hill country.

Love oak tree_ Uvalde_ Texas
Live oaks get the
right of way in Uvalde.
As I wrap up my tour of Uvalde along some of the city's gracious residential streets, I take note of one other driving hazard: its towering, leafy live oaks have been admirably preserved even in the face of encroachment by asphalt, and you'll have to watch carefully for the many instances where the trees are left to grow in the middle of the road.

Crystal City:
Lest we forget

Popeye statue_ Crystal City_ Texas
Popeye the Sailor Man still reminds children everywhere to eat their spinach -- and the Del Monte cannery in Crystal City, Texas, is happy to provide them with plenty of it.
Crystal City gets its name from the clear water once drawn from its artesian wells. This productive agricultural land was also long known for cultivation of winter vegetables -- by the 1930s, predominantly spinach, the vitamin-rich green made famous by a particular cartoon character. Crystal City capitalized on its instantly recognizable connection, explains Maria at the city's Spinach Festival offices, with a Spinach Festival in 1936 and a statue of Popeye the following year. The Festival tradition, resumed in 1982, draws thousands to town each November. Today, the Del Monte cannery manufactures spinach-can piggy banks for kids to save up their coins year-round -- to spend at the next year's festival!

Moument to the memory of Japanese prisoners of war detained at Crystal City during World War II
Moument to the memory of Japanese prisoners of war detained at Crystal City during World War II
The Farm Security Administration camp where immigrant farm workers lived during the Depression was transformed, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, into the site of a troubling chapter in America's history. Markers near the corner of 7th and Holland today commemorate the country's only internment camp for enemy aliens to house detainees and their families together. From 1942 to 1948, the Texas Historical Commission's website explains, 4,751 men, women, and children of Japanese, German, and Italian heritage were interned here (this included 153 people born in the camp). And, as Jan Jarboe Russell explains in her 2015 book The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, because prisoners of war were sworn to secrecy even after the war, the details of the prisoner exchange program, and the reality that those robbed of their freedom included American-born citizens of resident aliens, a full appreciation of the hysteria and prejudice of the times is only now coming to light.

Ruins of camp swimming pool_ Crystal City
Ruins of camp swimming pool_ Crystal City

The Texas Historical Commission conducted archeological work on the site in 2013 and erected a series of interpretive panels around what remains of the camp. Visitors today can make their way through the puddles and weeds to read the sobering story of life here. For me, the concrete rim of the swimming pool -- an irrigation pond for the camp's fruit orchard, really -- seems the most poignant reminder of lives lived in purported "humane" conditions -- but behind barbed wire.

And if you believe that wartime xenophobia couldn't spark such a response in a more enlightened era, a visit to the Crystal City Internment Camp site will make you think twice. "Crystal City stands today," says Russell in an interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, "as a real reminder of how easy it is to open an internment camp and how hard it is to close one."

Carrizo Springs: Crossroads for the Eagle Ford Shale
Lots of company on the road

Word on the street is that activity in the oil and gas fields of the Eagle Ford Shale is down from a year ago, a circumstance borne out by the more affordable prices I'm paying for fuel on this trip.

But if truck traffic used to be worse here, I really don't want to imagine it. The historic downtown provides a little respite from the constant motion and noise of the highway, but on the courthouse square a bulldozer works on a construction project, at the high school cars are constantly pulling in and out at the end of the school day, and even the water tower is ringed with a restless roost of buzzards.

I came to this part of the Texas brush country with a curiosity about its centuries of history --  the fluent borderlands of New Spain, the great ranches, the railroad. It's not easy to picture that story in the midst of such modern-day movement. But I'm glad to get a grasp of the landscape: the way the town sits on a bluff overlooking the highway, the way the arroyos cut through the mesquite and sage, the color of grass and ground. To appreciate this place's past in fiction, read Philipp Meyer's Pulitzer finalist The Son, a Texas saga that also ranges across themes of Comanche domination, the settlement of the frontier, and the oil industry.

Catarina Hotel
Catarina Hotel
Catarina and the Camino Real 
Not much glitz and glamour are left today in Catarina, a stop along the old Royal Road, then the railroad, and now Highway 83. But the hotel (or at least part of it) is open for business, at a bargain rate, at that. Signs advertise rooms to let, pool tables to play, and beverages to be imbibed. I didn't stop for any of those opportunities, since dusk is falling and I still have miles to make to Laredo.

But if you're inclined, when you pass that way, read Mike Cox's informative piece in Texas Escapes to learn about the community's history and the hotel's origins; Oh, and be sure to look out for the ghosts.

If the old stone marker piques your interest to know more about El Camino Real de los Tejas, two sources provide a wealth of information: the National Parks website, and the Trail Association website.

See you tomorrow, on the border.
Brush Country sunset_ US 83 south of Catarina
Brush Country sunset, US 83 south of Catarina
Barbara_s TrailBlazer Blog

Follow Barbara's TrailBlazer Blog throughout the next ten days of the Great US83 Whistle-Stop Tour. Looks like icy roads are expected to clear tomorrow, and I'll be heading out.

Barbara Brannon, PhD, Executive Director, Texas Plains Trail Region
Barbara@TexasPlainsTrail.com * Facebook * Twitter @TxPlainsTrail

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La Posada Hotel_ Laredo
La Posada Hotel, Laredo
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