SAN ANTONIO. On the seventy-mile ride from Austin to San Antonio I tried to remember: Had I ever met anyone who didn't like San Antonio? No one comes to mind, not in fifteen years. A friend, a former Methodist minister who grew up in the area but never lived in San Antonio itself says, "San Antonio is my emotional childhood home even though I never lived there."

He's not alone. San Antonio is a feel good place.

Just as Dallas and Fort Worth are geographically close but psychologically distant, San Antonio and Austin have different hearts that are increasingly joined by proximity, dense traffic, and roadside development.

Both are on I-35, the road to Laredo, the highway to Mexico. Route NAFTA. San Antonio, however, is the last stop before everything changes, a city that still connects with every other city in America by a degree of urban homogenization and connectivity. One immediate sign: this is a city of meetings and conventions, bringing people together from all over the country. Today, in the lobby of the historic Menger Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders in the bar, a less historic sign informs employees of Nortel Networks of routes and meetings. Tomorrow there will be another sign and another meeting.

Some of this can be read in the big statistics. San Antonio is a core American city. It is large enough to be on every executive list and intimately connected to our long economic boom. It has an unemployment rate of only 3 percent. It has also enjoyed brisk population growth. From 1990 to 1997 population grew by 14.1 percent. That's nearly double the national average of 7.6 percent but it trails the 16.0 percent for Dallas and the 26.6 percent for Austin. Unlike the work holism of Dallas and Austin, where as many people work as possible, San Antonio is normal, with a 67 percent labor force participation rate. For San Antonio, this amounts to an ace up the sleeve. If Austin and Dallas need more workers, they will have to be imported. In San Antonio, more people can go to work.

If the Texas Workforce Commission has its projections right, more people in San Antonio will go to work because San Antonio will be one of the four areas in Texas with the greatest job growth to the year 2006. (The others are Dallas, Austin, and Laredo.)

And what will that work be?

One sign appears on East Crockett Street, across from the Menger Hotel. A brass plaque on an archway at the side of the Alamo reads:

The Alamo

Hours:     weekdays 9-5:30                          Sundays 10-5:30

It's an odd notion--- that the scene of a great historic battle could have visiting hours. But it's a clue about the future and something that might be called The Experience Economy. At one level we could call the constant stream of visitors tourists. San Antonio is the top tourist destination in Texas.

There is, however, another level. To the left of the original Menger Hotel entrance there is a shop that sells authentic tin soldiers. Want to duplicate the Battle of the Alamo? That's a specialty. You can also collect soldiers from the World Wars, British Regiments in India, and Minutemen from the original Revolution.

Significantly, another shop across the plaza offers similar soldiers and, only two doors down, another shop sells memorabilia for fighter pilots. Walk a short block and you're at the entrance to a special effects show that will allow you to experience the Alamo while still another location will let you experience the battle of the Alamo in an IMAX theater.

Along the Riverwalk there is now a Harley Davidson shop and, just like the one in Las Vegas, it has no motorcycles. Like the nearby Hard Rock Café and Fat Tuesdays, it sells the idea of an experience, manifest as a T-shirt.   Beyond the Riverwalk, in the highway rings that surround the city, you can visit three theme parks, a botanical garden, and a museum of history and science.

Critics of popular culture wring their hands over this. They wonder about the lines between real and virtual experience and where branding displaces reality. Well, let them worry. I see people having a good time in a world that is demanding and confusing. I also see a new economy, something way beyond the early extractive economy of minerals and agriculture.

Ironically, the Experience Economy--- trade in real experience, images, and symbols--- is connected to the old economy by something worrisome and unalterably real.

  In San Antonio it is called the Edwards Aquifer, the source of the cities drinking water. Recent and forecasted weather patterns don't auger well for the areas' water supply.   The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a weather movement that could bring drought measured in decades, not years, may replace it. It could reduce rainfall and water tables from here to California with resulting havoc for farmers, crops, and cattle in the Rio Grande Valley to the South.

Leaving, I look in the window of the toy soldier shop once more and remember the old lines:

"For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe, the horse was lost, For want of a horse, the rider was lost, For want of a rider, the battle was lost…"

Now, 350 miles of concrete unites the place I've called DalAntonio, one of the largest urbanizations in America. It's a place that supports millions of people and virtually all of us are oblivious to where we get our food, water, and energy.