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Tuesday, September 22, 2015 : Langtry, San Antonio


The weather is really fine, this morning, as we are getting ready to leave Big Bend National Park. Of course, we can't know yet, but the few drops of rain we had last night were the last ones on this trip. What a change from New York City, two years ago, which we flew out from under a pouring rain !


I can somehow talk to my mother from the terrace, but the line is blatantly unstable. After breakfast, we load the car and we hit the road heading due north.


Our program today has few visits :


  • Langtry, where Judge Roy Bean made a name for himself,
  • San Antonio, a very interesting city, to more than one extent,
  • And a tad over 400 miles to drive.


It is our second to last day till we drive back to Dallas.


We first drive across the northern end of Big Bend National Park and the eastern part of Chihuahuan Desert. There are very few villages, and even less gas stations. I refill the car in Sanderson, along US Route 90. Since our last refill in Van Horn, we have been driving about 430 miles. The extended gas mileage of the Camaro is undoubtedly one of the great surprises of this trip.


Judge Roy Bean's saloon, Langtry, TX

Judge Roy Bean's saloon, Langtry


Langtry (pronounced "lang-tree") is a small village along Rio Grande, just north of the Mexican border. It can safely be said it has known better days. It was first erected in 1882 as a training camp for Southern Pacific Railroad, which was then building the railroad between San Antonio and El Paso. Later on, the company, realizing there was a dire need to enforce law where there was none, did everything it could to have a judge appointed in Langtry. It was the less-than-rigorous Roy Bean.


Born into a very poor family, Roy Bean had left his native Kentucky at age 16. After a less-than-stable life (shopkeeper, teamster, saloon owner, and other not-so-palatable activities), he ended up settling in a place where many railroad workers lived, where he opened a saloon. He later became a Justice of the Peace. Although he was defeated in 1896 (Justices of the Peace are elected, in the United States), he went on handling cases until his death in 1903.


We understand that Roy Bean was absolutely not a judge by trade, nor was he ever trained to the best practices of the judiciary world, except thru his own experience as an offender. He only ever used one law book, an 1879 version of the Revised Statutes of Texas. When the State Administration sent him more recent books, he would, according to the legend, use them to light the fire. Since Langtry did not have a jail, most trials were settled by fines. The legend of Roy Bean, the Hanging Judge, is therefore untrue. Several traces testify that, in 20 years, he only ever sentenced two men to hang, including one who escaped.


It has been said and written that Langtry, the name of the village, comes from Lily Langtry, an actress from Jersey, who had settled in London, where she belonged to the good society, and later moved to the United States, where she purchased a winery in California. Roy Bean had desperately fallen in love with Lily, but that always remained a totally platonic relationship. Indeed, the actress first visited Langtry long after the judge's death. This legend is as false as all other ones. The name of Langtry actually comes from George Langtry, an engineer and supervisor with the Southern Pacific Railroad traning camp, who had absolutely no relationship whatsoever with the actress.


Eventually, the legends about Roy Bean, including a great deal fabricated by the judge himself, did a lot more for his fame than his judicial work, way more folksy than rigorous, the work of an otherwise obscure Justice of the Peace in a little village in the middle of nowhere in southern Texas. It is those legends that breed tourism in Langtry, providing the only significant source of income in the village.


Judge Roy Bean's saloon, opera house and seat of justice, Langtry, TX

Judge Roy Bean's saloon, opera house and seat of justice

The previous picture showed Roy Bean's original saloon, made of wood. Following a fire, a larger saloon, shown on the picture above, was rebuilt. The one of the previous picture is therefore a reconstruction. Both can be freely visited.


Both buildings are built according to a common pattern. In the front, a large room is used as the main saloon, with the counter in the back. Behind is the judge's apartment, not exactly a luxury dwelling, even for its time.


It may sound quite odd to handle misdemeanors, including a high portion of drunken behavior, in the very place where those offenses had taken place. Well, Judge Roy Bean was not exactly shy about that. He held trials in the main saloon room, or outside under the porch. At times, having to wait for the defendant to get sober again, he would have him handcuffed around a tree while he was having a nap.


There is a picture that shows Roy Bean holding a trial outside, under the porch, while sitting on a barrel. The defendant, charged with cattle theft, is sitting on a horse, wrists handcuffed behind his back. Oddly, the judges is turning his back on him. The scene looks more like a game of cards among friends than justice being conducted.


Eventually, the most surprising is that verdicts issued by Roy Bean, although at times they might have seemed quite peculiar, were perfectly valid in legal terms, and were not more appealed or overturned than any other ones.


Law west of the Pecos, Langtry, TX

Law west of the Pecos


The symbolic value of Roy Bean's work is best summed up in very few words : Law West of the Pecos. At a time when fighting, cattle theft, drinking excesses and other acts of violence were prevalent, there was no court between San Antonio and Fort Stockton, which is more than 300 miles where law enforcement was spotty at best. Even if the way it was enforced looked highly questionable, at the very least Law West of the Pecos was in existence.


I must have been 10 or 12 when I first read about Judge Roy Bean, in Lucky Luke's (a very popular Western-themed comic strip in France) thirteenth album, precisely titled "The Judge", loosely inspired from his biography. At the time, I was convinced he was a purely fictional character. Hell no ! Although the legend surrounding him has been inflated to tremendous proportions, the judge actually existed. Without being an historian's work, which they absolutely never claimed, the story created by Morris (cartoonist) and Goscinny (writer) sticks to the basic truth. Indeed, it even features Joe, the pet bear that would always follow Roy Bean, and was often used to try and impress the most easily influenced convicts.


The land on which both saloons are located also features a visitor center, where we actually started our visit. It has air conditioning, which is great in the early afternoon searing heat of the desert. Managed for some odd reason by TxDOT, Texas Department of Transportation, it offers a quite detailed exhibition about Roy Bean's life and judicial work, as well as a documentary movie. There are also restrooms and, of course, a shop.


Rest under the shade of the canopy in the botanical garden, Langtry, TX

Rest under the shade of the canopy in the botanical garden

After the visitor center and the two saloons, and before we take the road again to San Antonio, we wander across the small botanical garden. This visit no longer has anything to do with Roy Bean. However, the garden displays many local plant species from the Chihuahuan Desert : yucca, cacti, and so on. Since I am not a specialist in plant life, this is very educative.


The covered bench on the picture is the only protection from sunshine, falling almost vertically. After all, Langtry is roughly at the same latitude as Gizeh Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt.


After visiting the garden, we take US Route 90 again, towards the East.


Pecos River near Langtry, TX

Pecos River near Langtry


We do not drive very long. Less than 20 mi. after Langtry, we stop for a while next to the bridge that crosses the famous Pecos River, one of the most significant tributaries of Rio Grande. We had already been passing close to Pecos River in Carlsbad, NM, without actually seeing it. This time, we can enjoy the viewpoint.


This picture, taken facing North, gives the impression that this is a wide river, with water at a high level. This is misleading. Another picture, taken facing south, towards the confluence with Rio Grande, shows the truth : water is actually very shallow, with many sandbars obstructing the course of the river. Well, let's remember that we are at the end of summer, in a desert region, and water withdrawals upstream do not make things any better.


We are very far from the Colorado rapids, on which we rafted less than three weeks ago !


After this pause, we take US Route 90 again, which we do not leave until San Antonio.


The further East we drive, the denser vegetation becomes. We are leaving Chihuahuan Desert. We are undoubtedly back into civilization.


Bexar County courthouse, San Antonio, TX

Bexar County courthouse, San Antonio

We make it to San Antonio by the end of the afternoon, roughly at the end of office hours, hence kind of stuck in traffic. It is the first time since we left Dallas almost four weeks ago that real urban life sends us such a wake-up call.


San Antonio is the largest city in southern Texas and, with 1.4 million residents, the second largest in the State and the seventh in the country by order of population. It is a major economic center, as well as a military, cultural and artistic metropolis of the first magnitude. It is also an historical city, and it is this heritage that attracted us here.


San Antonio River was discovered in 1691 by Spanish missionaries, who, following basic common sense, gave it the name of the day's Saint, Saint Anthony of Padua. The city was founded later, in 1718, around a mission.


We go straight to our hotel to drop our bags and leave the car. We voluntarily chose a place close to the city center to discover the city on foot, without any parking issues.


We walk back out just with our phones, camera and city map, just in case. Our intention is to wander around, discovering the local historical heritage.


Our first stop is in front of Bexar County Courthouse, the nice red brick building in the picture above.


This is the end of the day. It is still quite warm, but not as sweltering as early in the afternoon. It is a nice temperature.


San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio, TX

San Fernando Cathedral


Just across Dolorosa from the courthouse, we stop for a while at San Fernando Cathedral.


A first church was erected between 1738 and 1750 by the Spaniards, named in honor of Spanish King Ferdinand III of Castile, who ruled in the 13th century. The present cathedral dates back to 1868, but its sanctuary was built on the old walls of the original parish church. This is what allows it to claim the unofficial title of oldest cathedral in Texas. It is the seat of San Antonio Archdiocese.


Main Plaza, the large square in front of the cathedral, is a pedestrian area. At this time, it is still sparsely populated. We will see what happens when we are back in a few hours.


San Antonio Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX

San Antonio Riverwalk

Just after Main Plaza, we walk down to the rim of San Antonio River, which crosses the whole city. The banks of the river and one of its branches have been repurposed as pedestrian walkways, forming the San Antonio Riverwalk. This is a very pleasant promenade, especially in the sweetly falling night. It is also the main local tourist attraction, and a thick crowd is wandering on those not so wide pavements.


As in any first-rate tourist attraction, this is the place where restaurants, bars and other eating and drinking places are found aplenty, offering all cuisines available in Texas, which for all practical purposes means from the whole world.


Some hotels and luxury shops have not only a normal entrance at street level, but also another entrance, below, straight to the Riverwalk.


We take all our time to stroll along this nice green oasis in the heart of the city.


As can be seen on the picture, boat tours are offered, which allows San Antonio to claim the honorary title of "Little Venice of Texas".


San Antonio Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX

San Antonio Riverwalk


Following a disastrous flood in 1921 which claimed 50 lives, the Riverwalk was born in the 1930s from the desire of the City that such a catastrophe would never happen again. A dam was built upstream and the banks were rebuilt. Soon enough, the obvious tourist attraction justified the restoration of quite a number of heritage houses along the banks. As a consequence, the 1.6 mi. Riverwalk is now lined with both large steel-and-glass luxury hotels and traditional houses, like the one on the picture.


San Antonio Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX

San Antonio Riverwalk

During our stroll along the Riverwalk, we discover many features like this fountain.


We now have to make a decision about dinner. Although it is late September, all restaurants along the Riverwalk are packed, and everywhere, we are greeted with a 45-minute wait time. We finally choose a part-pub, part-texan restaurant house, Texas Land and Cattle, located in the basement of a luxury hotel, just along the Riverwalk. Though kind of put off by the wait time, we eat more than decently


It is a fact that people usually have dinner very early in the United States. When we sat at our table, the place was absolutely packed. When leaving, we are almost the last customers.


Sound and light show, San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio, TX

Sound and light show, San Fernando Cathedral


We leave the Riverwalk and walk back to our hotel, crossing Main Plaza again. In the meantime, night has completely fallen, and the sound-and-light show projected on San Fernando Cathedral is running. The audience is rather sparse, and Marie tries her best at taking pictures and doing some video. But taking a picture of a moving image projected on the front of a church is by no means an easy feat.


By absolute chance, I took the picture above with my phone.


After the show, which was really great, we just have a few blocks to walk to our hotel close by.


In the meantime, Marie's sciatic has returned. This is not too good a sign for tomorrow's visit.

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