Hello once again from Austin, where I promise our relative lack of posting isn’t the result of general sleepiness from eating too much barbecue – not to say this isn’t a problem. We’ve been quite busy over the last two weeks – surviving a winter storm, a dayslong citywide boil water advisory, and the effects of plentiful Tex-Mex and barbecue on our digestive tracts.
Lots of Austin seems to involve eating, drinking, and wandering, and I kicked off our second week here doing just that, through 6th Street in East Austin. It was here it became apparent that roughly 2 out of every three businesses in Austin serves tacos, barbecue, coffee, craft beer, or most likely, some combination of the four.
Out of all the places we’ve been to so far, Austin has been among the easiest cities to work in for me. This is almost assuredly because of the extremely high number of these places. And again, I’m not talking about a bar that has an hours-old pot of drip coffee sitting in the back or a coffee shop with a few pitiful cans of craft beer in a refrigerator next to some sad sandwiches. There’s simply no place better than The Buzzmill, a 24-hour coffee and booze spot just a few minutes’ stroll from our apartment. On nice days, I’ve rarely had a better office than their outdoor patio. Particularly high marks also go to Cuvee Coffee and Lazarus Brewing Company.
The wandering continued on Tuesday, this time along the gorgeous trail along Lady Bird Lake. Aside from highway underpasses and my persistent DC-base fear of being run over by a speeding biker, it’s among the best city walks I could imagine – far better than New Orleans’ rundown industrial warehouses, Charleston’s ultra-fancy private homes, or even Savannah’s touristy River Street.
My destination was the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, near Austin’s Zilker Park. Filled with a variety of work from sculptor Charles Umlauf, it’s set on the property of his former home. It’s a pretty peaceful place to wander for a while – or in my case, sit, as I’d already walked about four miles to get there.
That night, we went about a mile down the road to Bishop Cidercade, along the same path I walked earlier that day. Think of a Dave and Buster’s, but with housemade ciders and a much better value proposition. For a $10 entry fee, we got to play unlimited games, from pinball to shooters to classic arcade games and air hockey. Best yet, there were very few other people there on a Tuesday night, meaning we got our money’s worth. Morgan shredded at Ms. Pac-Man as usual, and I played weird games I had no idea how to play simply because I could. This has only strengthened my resolve for Morgan and me to get a Pac-Man/Galaga arcade console and/or pinball machine for our eventual home (future housewarming gift buyers, take note!)
When booking our time here in Austin, I was a little fearful of the potential for bad weather. After all, the entire region’s power grid was essentially crippled for days last year after an ice storm. As much as I figured we probably wouldn’t get that unlucky, it became apparent by the beginning of the week that something wintry was coming. People here are clearly traumatized by the experience last year because rarely have I seen a citywide freakout quite like the way Austin anticipated what appeared to be a minor inconvenience – and I lived in DC for more than a decade, a city known for its undue weather meltdowns.
On Wednesday, the weather started to turn cold and rainy as I trekked to north Austin to grab lunch at Top Notch, a longtime local favorite drive-in style burger joint.
However, non-Austinites may also recognize Top Notch as well.
Yes, the drive-in from Dazed and Confused, an Austin classic. To paraphrase Matthew McConaughey, the food was alright, alright, alright. But they did have gluten-free buns, and it was a fun trip on a cold and increasingly wet day, which squashed my follow-up plans to check out the Texas State Cemetery. So, in typical Austin fashion, I went to a coffee shop/bar and had a latte and a beer and did some writing.
The storm did, in fact, arrive on Thursday. But it was certainly nothing to write home about or barely even write on the blog about. However, it was hellaciously cold, with wind chills in the 20s and teens. Somehow, we had found our coldest temperatures yet in one of our southernmost destinations. We stayed in for the day, getting in some extra work and relaxation, binge-watching True Blood, and generally enjoying a rare complete day off.
As I say, this is rare, at least for me. My goal is to spend a little time getting out in the city doing something or exploring a new area every day. So I was ready to go on Friday, which, while cold, was sunny and clear, with the ice and slush already mostly melted by mid-morning. This gave me what I thought was a brilliant idea – sneak over to Franklin Barbecue to try to take advantage of this famous barbecue without getting in line at 7 a.m. But naturally, Franklin was closed due to the weather, a decision I strongly questioned as I walked through comfortable 40-degree temperatures to their worthy rival, La Barbecue. Naturally, it was incredible, even if my eyes bulged out of my head cartoon-style when I saw brisket was $30 per pound.
Our whole barbecue experience in Texas so far has basically been an experience in avoiding the hype. Franklin Barbecue is famous for its half-day long waits. Terry Black’s Barbecue in Austin had what looked to be at least two hundred people in line during our (attempted) visit, while a mile away, Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que served us within minutes. Frankly, it makes no sense to me. Yes, you can say you’ve been to that barbecue spot – but is your food really twenty times better for the twenty times longer wait? I submit that it simply can’t be – and Cooper’s proved that in very vivid fashion days later.
Franklin Barbecue wasn’t the only bizarre weather-related closure. Friday night, we attempted a trip to the Broken Spoke, one of the city’s most famous honky tonks. Morgan put on her cowgirl best, and I even prepared myself to consider learning to two-step, but when we arrived, it was naturally closed, 36 hours after the precipitation had ended.
Undaunted, we headed to another of Austin’s main nightlife corridors, charmingly referred to as “Dirty 6th.” The details of the rest of the evening are mostly redacted for blog purposes, but suffice to say, it was the first time I’d seen Morgan end up on top of a bar. A good time was had by all.
I love a lot of things about Texas. The geographic diversity, the mix of cultures, the food, the cowboy heritage. What I do not like about Texas is its apparent inability to provide necessary services, like, say, clean water. You know how hundreds of years ago, people drank wine and beer because they had less bacteria than water? Replace wine with coffee, and that may be the case here in Austin. On Saturday, we were hit with a citywide boil water advisory, supposedly the result of human error at the treatment plant.
In the sense that we’re trying to live like the locals, I suppose it made sense that we should experience an infrastructure failure here in Texas. This is Austin’s third citywide boil water notice in four years, in a city of nearly a million people, roughly the 10th largest in the nation. This one lasted more than three full days, from Saturday through late Tuesday night. I’m not sure what to say beyond the fact that, while it was extremely bothersome, we were lucky enough to have plenty of bottled water for our drinking, cooking, teeth-brushing, and Linus-hydrating needs.
We took the undrinkability of our water as a sign we should hit the road for some adventuring on Sunday. San Antonio is roughly 80 miles to the south of Austin, and a city I have pretty fond memories of as the starting point of my border road trip back in 2018. We started with a visit to The Pearl, a massive former brewery complex that’s now a mix of apartments, restaurants, local shops, a food hall, and on Sundays, a fantastic farmer’s market.
We grabbed some snacks and strolled, enjoying the warmer temperatures and drinkable water. With our stomachs full and probably too many souvenirs purchased, we headed to the star of the show in the city – the Alamo.
I had, of course, been before, but I find the place strangely powerful – despite the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not location across the street. On my last visit, I was fascinated by the guided tour telling the story of the battle, showing you where the first shots were fired and where the final Texans made their last stand. Unfortunately, the tour that I took in 2018 for roughly $10 has since ballooned to $40 per person. So instead, I did my best retelling of the history of Texas independence and the Alamo for Morgan, who I think potentially left more confused than when she started. For such an impactful event in Texas history, it’s pretty surprising how difficult they make it to learn how it all played out.
I continued my half-hearted retelling of Texas history as we wandered from the Alamo down to the River Walk, one of the best uses of waterfront I could imagine in any city – even better than my newly beloved Lady Bird Lake trail. It’s just gorgeous – stone pathways, beautiful landscaping, and dozens of restaurants and shops set along the real-life equivalent of a waterpark lazy river, the San Antonio River. It winds through some of the busiest parts of downtown San Antonio, but sunken below ground level, it stays peaceful and serene. Oh, and it’s another open container-friendly spot, a list we continue to accidentally check off with alarming frequency.
We grabbed some frozen drinks and hopped on a boat tour, kicking back and relaxing as we floated quietly and listened to a rapid-fire series of dad jokes from our boat tour guide.
Our final stop in the Mission City was at the Tower of the Americas, which we were shocked to find is actually the second-tallest observation tower in the country – taller than even the Space Needle! Despite a stomach-churning elevator ride to the top, the views are incredible.
Speaking of incredible views, back in Austin, I decided Monday would be a good day to climb a mountain. Well, perhaps mountain is too strong. But it is called Mount Bonnell, though it is decidedly more of a hill than anything else. The highest point in Austin, it’s located along the Colorado River northwest of downtown. Climb roughly 100 steps, and you’ll be treated to some panoramic views of Austin, the Hill Country to the west, and the absurdly posh homes located along the river below.
No, really – most of them have boat garages, or guest houses, or other rich people stuff we could only dream of.
In any case, it’s a great place to take a stroll and enjoy lunch, as I did with the excellent gluten-free sandwich from Snarf’s. On the way home, I figured I’d check out the nearby Mayfield Park and Preserve. It’s a normal enough park, with gorgeous walking trails and a landscaped pavilion, except for one thing – dozens of occasionally screaming peacocks. This was something I was aware of, but it doesn’t make it any less jarring to hear as you enter the parking lot; for a moment, I was worried I’d run over someone.
Austin has a reputation as a live music city, deservedly, I think. We’d been here more than two weeks before we got to see any. Still, our first one was a doozy, catching some outlaw country and honky-tonk from Dale Watson at a late-night show at The Continental Club. In between roughly seven shots and Lone Stars (the best beer in the world, as he repeatedly advised us), he played a long set of country classics and originals that had the Monday night crowd on its feet. Frankly, we were surprised how late the mostly-older crowd was partying, as the two-stepping showed no sign of stopping when we left after 1 a.m.
Despite our late night, I was out early the next day for another field trip, as you might say. This time, the destination was Bastrop, a small town about 35 miles east of Austin that calls itself “the most historic city in Texas,” due to the number of restored or preserved buildings throughout downtown. It didn’t take us long on this trip to learn that every small town claims some carefully worded superlative honor, but Bastrop really does deliver. To put it simply, I was charmed; this is the kind of small town I’d love to call home someday. It’s got a Main Street lined with restaurants, record shops, independent bookstores, breweries, and the town’s interesting museum and visitor center. There’s even an opera house, one of my favorite oddities you’ll find in a surprising number of small Texas towns with no business having them.
I had first heard about Bastrop as the home of The Painted Porch bookstore, run by author Ryan Holiday, of whom I’m a fan. After once again breaking my trip rule by buying several physical books, I grabbed some lunch and strolled along the Colorado River before checking out Bastrop’s other main attraction, Bastrop State Park. Essentially the entire area was devastated by a massive 2011 wildfire, so the park is still in an obvious state of renewal. Still, seeing the remains of the fire was fascinating, as was the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps buildings and infrastructure that had been lost until the fire burned through and uncovered them.
We’ve been rather busy lately. Not just in Austin – over the past four and a half months since leaving DC. For most of that time, it’s just been Morgan and me. And on the day after Valentine’s Day, I feel very lucky to be doing this with potentially the only person with whom I could imagine spending this much time. But while it’s been very nice to see our family as much as we have recently, we have missed our friends back in DC and the northeast quite a bit. Last weekend, we were lucky enough to play host to our first friends meeting us along the road. But that’s a story for another week.
Here’s to the Lone Star State and Lone Star beer,
Nick and Morgan