Greetings from Austin (as the mural says), where we are experiencing our first snow day in what feels like quite a while in Texas, of all places.
I’ve been looking forward to coming back to Texas since I visited in late 2018 and road-tripped along the border and through Big Bend. We’ve already been in Austin more than twice as long as I was in Texas last time, but I think it’s important to clarify something. We’re in Austin. It feels like Texas, but only peripherally – it mostly just feels like something different, like Austin. To say this city has some unique vibes would be an understatement.
I wrote last week about how delightful our trip from Port St. Joe to Mobile was. Our journey to Texas…not so much. I suppose that had something to do with the fact that it was two and a half times longer than our previous drive. I thought we’d mostly be fine. But consider the impact on morale of Morgan driving two hours through Alabama and Mississippi, then me driving three hours through Louisiana, and switching again on the Texas border, realizing we still have basically half the trip left to go. But! We had finally arrived in Texas.
As you might expect, east Texas doesn’t look much different from most of Louisiana. That is, plenty of regrettable-looking communities, clinging to the side of a highway, next to gigantic fuel tanks and refineries. This was followed by Houston, which, as far as Morgan and I can tell, is the country’s only all-freeway city. And then, suddenly, we were in the middle of nowhere, along a pitch-black, two-lane highway passing through little towns like La Grange and Bastrop. According to the GPS, we were less than 20 minutes from our Airbnb – but it was still a dark, empty road. There wasn’t even any sky glow! At this point, after roughly nine and a half hours in the car, I began to consider the possibility that maybe Austin didn’t even exist. But sure enough, it did, and we arrived at our apartment on the shore of Lady Bird Lake with enough time to catch the final few minutes of the Bills and Chiefs game before collapsing for the night.
While Morgan got to work (from an actual desk this time!), I started the week with a visit to the Texas State Capitol. As you may have figured out by now, I’m a walker by preference, so I set out on foot, despite a chilly, misty day. In our exhausted haze, we didn’t realize quite how close we were to the water. It’s right there, with a very pleasant boardwalk that runs around the area, part of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. Even in the rainy, foggy conditions, downtown Austin was pretty beautiful – but much more so the next night when we took a sunset stroll along the same area.
As for the Capitol itself, it’s a pretty incredible building, despite some of the things that go on there.
If you find yourself thinking, hey, that looks familiar! You’d be right – perhaps in more ways than one. The architect, Elijah Myers, pretty much just aped the design for the US Capitol – which is basically what he also did for the Michigan State Capitol and the Colorado State Capitol, both of which kind of look like poor quality souvenirs from one of those tourist shops down by the National Mall. In typically Texan fashion, the one here in Austin is the tallest, even nearly 15 feet taller than the one in Washington. The grounds are also pretty impressive, with various monuments commemorating various aspects of Texas history, including yet another unfortunately worded Confederate memorial.
The tour of the interior was equally impressive, given by a very kindly older Texan woman. It’s easy to see how much care was put into the place, down to the doorknobs and hardware. Surprisingly enough, you’re pretty much allowed to wander around unfettered through what at the time was a pretty empty Capitol.
But it was Monday night, our first night, when we decided to start our visit with some extremely Austin activities – buying cowboy boots and eating tacos. For the former, we drove over to Allens Boots on South Congress, probably the most famous of the city’s many boot sellers. Even if you have absolutely zero interest in ever owning boots (though I can’t understand or endorse this position), it’s worth a visit if you’re in town, simply for the unbelievable smell the second you walk in the door.
Literally thousands of pairs of boots in every conceivable color, style, and material – cowhide, ostrich, alligator, snake, even elephant leather. One could easily spend a paycheck on a pair of them (an actual paycheck, not a writer’s paycheck.) We shopped for Morgan first, who, through the guidance of some incredibly helpful employees, tried on a few and selected a very cool embroidered pair of lambskin boots – incidentally, the very first pair that caught her eye. I, on the other hand, had a bit more difficulty. Without fail, every boot I pulled off the shelf was $800, $1,000, $1,200. I believe in treating myself, especially for high-quality things I’ll be able to use for the long term. Still, I sadly resigned myself to the fact that I’ll have to wait for a more financially stable period in my life before buying those gator skin boots. So instead, I opted for some much more reasonably priced goatskin roper-style casual boots.
I like to think we both look pretty sharp, even if I need to use a trick involving a plastic bag to get mine on until they fully break in – something that makes me feel distinctly un-cowboy.
And what better way to reward ourselves for arriving in our new temporary home than with some of its most iconic food? We got our first tacos at Torchy’s, also on South Congress. This one-time food truck-turned-Austin food institution did not disappoint. With barbacoa, green chile pork, jerk chicken, blackened salmon, and fried avocado, our running taco count started at 6 in 24 hours. At this rate, we were on pace to consume more than 80 tacos each during our visit – a pace, I am sad to report, we have not kept up.
Both Allens Boots and Torchy’s were located in the South Congress neighborhood, a few miles south of downtown. I came back later in the week to take a look around in the daytime and found a ton of interesting shops and restaurants, not to mention a ton of Austin’s most famous street art.
Nearby South 1st Street is a lot of similar stuff, albeit less densely packed. I parked over here and grabbed a cup of coffee and a baked good. I had yet to realize it, but I was in the midst of a ridiculous stretch of bakeries, cafes, and food trucks. Truly, I could have stopped at just about every corner and gotten some delicious local coffee, a (gluten-free!) treat, or some taco or gyro.
And grab some tacos I did, from the local drive-thru chain El Tacorrido. Running count: 8 (carnitas, and carne guisada.)
If it seems like I’m talking a lot about food here, you’re correct, and I don’t anticipate that changing while we’re here. There’s just too much to eat. Without even really looking, we discovered some of the best gluten-free pizza I’ve ever had (and non-gluten-free for Morgan) at Via 313 Pizza. They really have a thing for Detroit-style pizza down here. Much like the Moon Pies in Mobile, I’ve learned not to ask questions and just enjoy it. Still, it was so good I found myself questioning whether it was genuinely gluten-free and whether I’d end up sick a few hours later. But I trusted them, and this was the kind of pizza worth the risk.
I don’t want to give you the impression that all we’ve done so far down here is stuff our faces, though that is certainly something you could do for a week straight here. I got a double dose of Texas history this week, first at the LBJ Presidential Library, followed by the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
The building on the University of Texas campus is extremely impressive – even if, as you learn when you get inside, it’s mostly hollow. Much like I did at the Florida Constitution Museum in Port St. Joe, I spent a decent amount of time wandering this museum, muttering that that can’t possibly be right – there’s simply no way one president did all that, especially in just five years. I enjoyed the just slightly perceptibly smaller model of Johnson’s Oval Office, which, oddly enough, made me miss DC for the first time in a while.
A few days later, I headed over to the Bullock Texas State History Museum. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and presumably, this applies to museums as well. I wandered from the exhibits on early explorers (including a freeze-dried salvaged ship) to Native American heritage to Texas independence and the Civil War – and realized I’d been there more than two hours and still had an entire third of the museum to go. It’s worth it, though, especially the exhibit on the long-running Austin City Limits, showing the incredible list of artists who’ve played the show, along with clips of performances.
In between these two, I went to another incredibly Austin museum, but one that could hardly have been more different from a presidential library – the Museum of the Weird. The first thing that leaps to mind when you look at these pictures might be Ripley’s Believe It or Not. And you wouldn’t be 100% wrong to think this. I would describe the Museum of the Weird as that, but on steroids, or psychedelics, or both.
It may start as wax figures and novelty taxidermy, but I’ll admit I did get a bit creeped out at the (real) shrunken heads – especially the process of how they’re made. I’ll spare you the details, but feel free to google it if you have a strong stomach. There was also an exhibit on Bigfoot, a creature that seems to have followed us since Helen. Morgan and I can never remember anything like this in any of our other travels before leaving DC – perhaps we’ve just spent our time exclusively in Bigfoot Country over the past few months.
Upstairs, there was also a horror movie history wax museum, a small but pretty fun exhibit to browse. As you can see, the gang’s all here.
Our first night out in Austin came on Friday when we grabbed an Uber across the river to Rainey Street. It’s an unusual place to go out – it’s only about a half-mile long, and many of the bars are set up in what look like they were once little bungalow houses. These days, they’re surrounded by jarringly large apartment buildings that loom over the whole street, which is also filled with more food trucks than we could count. It’s a pretty cool scene – in most ways. At other times, I felt distinctly 31 here, surrounded by college students raging and doing shots. Morgan, on the other hand, had a great time dancing the night away. In the picture below, she was about to go down a slide at the bar; my job was to go around and get a photo of her coming out. Unfortunately, navigating a sea of drunk bros delayed me enough that she beat me to the bottom by quite a while.
Meantime, we dragged our slightly hungover selves out of bed on Saturday morning for a trip out of town. Our destination was Lockhart, a small town about 30 miles from Austin. It had a kind of quaint, kind of hip downtown that looked in a lot of ways like a lot of small-town Texas – a square of historic buildings surrounding a preposterously ornate courthouse. So why did we come here? I can assure you it was not the Southwest Museum of Clocks & Watches, as charming as it seemed.
But the real reason we came to Lockhart was also what put this town on the map – barbecue. You could smell it almost from the time you entered town, and the incredible, smoky scent didn’t disappear until we left. It was a tough decision between the town’s three iconic barbecue spots. We ultimately opted for Black’s, for the simple reasons that:
A. It’s the oldest barbecue joint in Texas still operated by the same family, all the way back to 1932
B. Our other top choice, Kreuz Market, does not offer sauce or forks.
Sauce, I understand. Barbecue is regional, and we’re not in a saucy-friendly region. But forks? As Morgan can confirm, I’m a messy enough eater with utensils, and we both preferred to eat our meals rather than wear them.
We both got some of the brisket (exceptional, as expected), and I also got some fall-off-the-bone tender pork ribs. This was a last-second change, as I’d initially planned on getting “dinosaur” beef ribs at $24.99 per pound. But upon learning that they’re 1-2 pounds each (and reflecting on the idea of buying a single, $50 rib), I reconsidered.
Our original plan for the day was, perhaps, a bit ambitious. Originally, we had figured we’d sample one or two barbecue restaurants in Lockhart and then head to Gruene, near New Braunfels, for a little more exploring and some country music at one of the oldest country dancehalls in the country. But whether it was the hefty amount of barbecue or the partying on Rainey Street the night before, we were both ready for a nap and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to head back to Austin instead. Nevertheless, Gruene and New Braunfels are still surely on our list – so stay tuned for more small-town Texas adventures, probably also involving barbecue.
From deep in the heart of Texas (kind of),
Nick and Morgan