However, when I visited Big Thicket National Preserve, I got an entirely different view of Texas, which actually seems to capture the essence of the state. Driving through Texas, I learned that it is an incredibly biologically diverse land, and nowhere is this biological diversity more evident than in the Big Thicket. At the park I learned that the Big Thicket has an extremely unusual level of biological diversity, and actually represents almost all of the major North American geography types including swamps, forests, deserts, and plains. I was lucky enough to see some of the alligators that populate the park, but which are rarely seen by people. I also met some "hunters" who were at the preserve hoping to photograph some of the rarer wildlife in the park: black panthers. The problem is that the panther population is not large, and they are not seen reliably at any set location in the park. These photographers also hoped to catch sight of a black bear. Black bears once populated the area of the Big Thicket, but are not widely believed to live there in modern times. However, according to these photographers, they have heard rumors of existing black bears in the Big Thicket, and are hoping to get proof of them. Those photographers may not be correct, but if they are right and black bears have returned to the Big Thicket, such a sign would be tremendously hopeful and would demonstrate the power of good stewardship in nature conservation. http://www.nps.gov/bith
My next destination was San Antonio, which proved to be a tremendously interesting and diverse location. The first thing I noticed about San Antonio is that the city itself seemed to have multiple personalities. These personalities were evident as I drove into San Antonio. My approach included a portion of the Texas Hill Country, and my visit coincided with the end of wildflower season. Though they were fading and the state's legendary bluebonnets were no longer in evidence, I was overwhelmed by the immense fields of Indian Paintbrushes and buttercups that dotted the landscape. Closer to the city, I noticed patches of a more arid landscape, which spoke to me of west Texas and promised a hint of Mexico. These competing elements really helped introduce me to San Antonio, which really blended several cultures: American, Mexican, and the very distinct culture that is Texan. I had heard about San Antonio's famed river walk, and I chose to stay at a hotel which literally spanned part of the river. One thing I learned is that the Riverwalk was largely man-made; it is actually along a diversion from the river, so that it is fed by natural water, but is mostly a man-made waterway. I walked among the tourist area, enjoying the outdoor atmosphere and basking in some Texas hospitality. Walking along the area, browsing the stores, and taking a boat down the river, I could picture myself living in the city. I extended my stay in San Antonio to visit two other famous tourist attractions: Sea World and Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Like most amusement parks, these two lacked any actual local flair, and could have been anywhere. However, they were enjoyable. It was also interesting to be at a Six Flags park that was actually located in Texas, which has actually been under six flags: Spain, France, Mexico, Texas, United States, and the Confederacy. I also took the opportunity to visit the San Antonio missions, the most famous of which is the Alamo. The missions represented first the Spanish, then the Mexican efforts to convert Native Americans in Texas to Catholicism, as a means of exerting European and European-American influence over the region. As much history as I learned in Boston, I never realized that Americans had actually fought more than one revolution, and I was fascinated and galvanized to learn the story of the historic and heroic stand at the Alamo. http://www.flickr.com/photos//454480332/
From San Antonio, I traveled northwest towards New Mexico, where I visited two national parks in New Mexico: Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Monument. My first stop was Carlsbad Caverns. Prior to visiting them, I had been in some smaller underground caverns, but I was unprepared for the enormous caves that I encountered. Surprisingly, I learned that Carlsbad Cavern is actually only one of the caverns at the national park, which actually contains hundreds of caves of varying sizes. The first thing I did was tour the main part of the cavern, which is extremely accessible to the public. The various stalactite and stalagmite formations were incredible, both in size and in the fact that they had been forming for thousands of years. I was also overwhelmed by the sheer number of bats that lived in the caves and watched as they left in the evening. The most entertaining part of my trip may have been watching the bats' flight, because of a group of people that I met. I watched the bats with a family from Ohio, and the mother, Laura, was scared of the bats. She had promised the children that she would watch the flight, but she covered up her eyes. The kids and her husband were squealing and laughing at her, as Laura freaked out as the bats flew away. We were watching from a little bit of a distance, and the bats did not actually come near us, so she was in no real danger. The funny part came when the youngest child began to act up, and Laura immediately stopped her panic and put him in a time out. For the entire duration of his time out, Laura was calm, cool, and collected. As soon as his time-out was over, she once again lapsed into the panic.
At Carlsbad Caverns, I also decided to investigate some of the less-traveled parts of the park. I went on several of the guided tours, which included investigations of smaller caverns and hikes into the countryside. Feeling adventurous, I also decided to try going into some of the very small caves. I was fortunate to meet up with a group of experienced spelunkers, who took me into one of the easier to navigate small caves. It was fascinating to see the stalactites and stalagmites in the smaller caves, some of which looked like the large cave in miniature. It was even more amazing to see the teamwork that people engaged in to tackle an unknown.
The next place I visited was White Sands. When planning my road trip, I learned that White Sands contained an immense stretch of white sand. I honestly did not think it would be that impressive of a park, because it was simply a stretch of extremely light sand and desert. However, there is something very breathtaking and disorienting about a white sand desert; it seems to go on forever in each direction. It was also incredibly hot; the light sand reflected sunlight back from the grounds' surface, and I found myself imaging the horror and disorientation I would have felt if I had found myself in this desert 100 years ago. Of course, part of any visit to White Sands has to include the limited observation of the missile range. The White Sands missile range is a famous test location for army development of weapons. I had never been anywhere near a military testing facility and the level of security impressed me with the gravity of what they were doing at that facility.
The next city that I visited was Salt Lake City. It is impossible to visit Salt Lake City without mentioning its religious background, because religion continues to play a pivotal role in the modern city. Salt Lake City was founded by Brigham Young and a group of Mormon pioneers, who were escaping religious persecution. At the time, Salt Lake City was outside of the United States. The city has maintained a connection with the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Salt Lake City is the modern headquarters of the Church. Because of the strong connection between Salt Lake City and the LDS Church, I found the visit to Salt Lake City to be very similar to a visit to Vatican City. Of course, there were substantial differences; though the city was founded under Mormonism, it is a city in the modern United States and is not a separate national entity. Furthermore, I was surprised to find that the city was extremely liberal. Though I missed June's gay-pride parade, I was informed that Salt Lake City has a thriving homosexual community and has more accepting policies towards homosexuals than many cities thought of as more progressive. However, there was some tension in the city's political scene, which I learned about by reading the local paper. Mormons believed that the city's liberal politicians were biased against them and their more traditional ways. Non-Mormons alleged that the…