Greetings from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a whirlwind of visits, day trips, hikes, border crossings, and roughly 1,500 miles of driving have unfortunately delayed this dispatch quite a bit longer than I’d hoped for.
Then again, I don’t think even our most dedicated readers (Hi Mom and Dad, and Danny and Daphne) were anxious refreshing the site, wondering why they haven’t been able to enjoy my can’t-put-it-down prose.
When we last left you, we were preparing to host the first friend visit of our journey, our dear friends Joe McGrann and Morgan Yarnoff. (Yes, both myself and one of my oldest friends ended up in long-term relationships with women named Morgan, who themselves are good friends. You’re just going to have to use context clues here.)
Joe and Morgan arrived Thursday afternoon, when I made the surprisingly short and easy trip out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for what Joe compared to the Seinfeld airport pickup. More than a month after seeing the last friend or family member, it was great to see a friendly face. We caught up on the drive back to our apartment, where they said hello to the still-hard-at-work Morgan before heading out into Austin.
I typically find the role of tour guide equal parts stressful and enjoyable. In DC, people sort of expect you to know everything to do and how to do it when you’ve lived there for 13 years. Therefore, I felt a lot of pressure to steer people in the right direction. But the pressure is decidedly off when you’ve only been in a city for three weeks. On top of this, I was extra excited to show around Joe, who, despite traveling to exotic locales like Moldova and Djibouti (and that’s just the last few months!), had never been to Texas.
There are plenty of people who are much more well-traveled than I, especially internationally, and that will remain so. But I do feel a growing pride for Morgan and I, who I think are getting to know our gigantic, diverse, ridiculous country in a way most people never come close to. On the other hand, Texas is essentially its own country anyway, so I kind of consider it international travel.
If I don’t have many or any pictures of something, it’s safe to assume it was either so boring that I couldn’t be bothered, or so fun and enjoyable that I couldn’t be bothered. Our afternoon on Rainey Street was the latter. We grabbed some of the dozens of beers on tap at Bangers, where Morgan and I equally gushed and commiserated about SEO writing and our relatively newfound places in it, and Joe regaled me with stories of life in the capital city of Djibouti (also named Djibouti.)
Our Morgan caught up with us after work, and joined in the fun. We kicked off the weekend-long barbecue and taco crawl with some monstrous beef ribs and sausage at Iron Works. But after a few drinks on 6th Street, we were all fairly exhausted from a day of travel and called it a night. After all, we had a long weekend ahead, which started with some breakfast Tex-Mex and shopping on South Congress Avenue. Don’t forget the Grow a Cowboy (like I did later.)
Afterward, on what turned out to be a gorgeous Texas February day, we took an extended walk along the river, including the somewhat cult-ish Doug Sahm Hill, named for the country music legend but now used for human sacrifices (or so we assumed.)
With Morgan sprung from her desk and the weekend still ahead of us, we hopped in the car Friday evening for the half-hour trip to Lake Travis, northwest of Austin. Our destination was The Oasis on Lake Travis, a sprawling restaurant/brewpub/shopping plaza high on the hills overlooking the lake.
This is one of the things about Hill Country – you will have no clear idea of your elevation, when suddenly you’ll round a curve or the trees will disappear and you’ll realize you’ve gradually climbed several hundred feet and can see for miles around. That’s exactly what happens here, where walking into Oasis presents a fairly jaw-dropping view, particularly at sunset. This is exactly why we were there, and despite a drink line and technical issues that nearly made us miss the sunset, it was certainly worth the trip.
Back in Austin, we grabbed some food at Polvo, a local favorite that serves some preposterously large portions of Mexican food. Morgan ended up with six tacos somehow, and Joe and I each received fajita portions that weighed roughly equal to a small toddler.
Our crawl across Austin continued with another stop at the Cidercade we mentioned last week. Unsurprisingly, it’s tougher to play every game on a Friday as opposed to a Tuesday like our last trip. But we enjoyed some games and some ciders nonetheless, as the rolling party continued.
We took it relatively easy on Saturday morning, heading out for a relaxing brunch before we took Joe and Morgan to the Museum of the Weird, which I mentioned in one of our earlier dispatches. Frankly, you need to get at least a little weird on a visit to Austin, right? It was also Morgan’s first visit, and I used my return to spend more time trying to size up the Iceman, which admittedly creeped me out too much to look long on my first visit.
That night, we figured it was one last chance to share some of the unbelievable barbecue of the city with our friends, and we decided (foolishly, in retrospect) to try out Terry Black’s Barbecue, operated by one of Texas’ most renowned barbecue families. Naturally, it was a Saturday night, which meant trendy places like this had a line roughly 200 people long. This was simply not going to work, so we grabbed another Uber and headed downtown to Cooper’s Old Time Pit BBQ, where the line was…one person.
Folks, when I say you need to avoid the hype in Texas barbecue, I mean it. Cooper’s truly had some of the best smoked meats I’ve had in Texas or elsewhere, and we waited a sum total of about 10 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down, unveiling our far-too-large-but-that’s-OK order:
Simply on a logical basis, there’s no way Terry Black’s, or Franklin, or any other could be 10 times as good to justify the 10 times longer wait. Against all odds, the gargantuan amount of barbecue did not send us directly to bed – we had a town to paint red! We wandered down South Congress back toward the Continental Club. Joe and Morgan were interested in checking out Austin’s live music scene, so where better than the city’s most iconic venue? Tonight, the band was Money Chicha, which describes itself as a “latin-psych and cumbia band.” I heard some funk, surf rock, and jam band in there too, but you can decided for yourself.
We enjoyed the music, we met new friends, and drank many Lone Stars and Shiner Bocks. In other words, the perfect Austin evening.
By Sunday morning, we were all a little worse for wear. It had been an incredibly fun few days, but even Morgan and I weren’t used to this level of activity – much less socializing with actual people other than each other. We wrapped up the visit with some strong coffee from my favorite spot The Buzzmill and some final tacos from Rosita’s Al Pastor, a preposterously good food truck basically across the street from our apartment that we’d still yet to visit. Frankly, I’ve never had a better combination of taste and price than these four al pastor tacos for just $6.
Afterward, we drove Joe and Morgan to the airport, said our goodbyes, and then promptly collapsed into bed. I was told there was a Super Bowl that night, and I am fairly sure I even watched it! But we may never know for sure.
We took it fairly easy for the next few days, but a look at the calendar made it clear that our time in central Texas was dwindling. This spurred me to take a bit of a longer excursion out into the Hill Country. So I packed a bag and headed west to Fredericksburg, a historic German town that’s now one of the bigger cities in the Hill Country. It’s a very welcoming place. So welcoming, in fact, that the first letters of the streets of the town spell out “A-L-L-W-E-L-C-O-M-E” as you approach from the east, and “C-O-M-E-B-A-C-K” as you depart westward.
It’s also known as the birthplace of Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz, who commanded the U.S. Pacific fleet in World War II. This is the reason the otherwise unassuming town is also home to The National Museum of the Pacific War. The combination of my schedule and the museum’s reservation system prevented me from making a visit myself, but based on the half-day and full-day itineraries on its website, it’s a fairly expansive place.
Instead, I opted for the Fredericksburg Pioneer Museum, which tells the story of exactly why the heck so many Germans decided to travel halfway around the world to a fairly random spot in the middle of Texas. In short, a bunch of rich Germans wanted to start a German colony in Texas in the 1840s. They bought a gigantic swath of land in northwestern Texas, known as the Fisher-Miller Land Grant. Since none of them (and few others) had ever been there, the Germans didn’t know it was a) incredibly difficult to get to from the coast, b) terrible for farming, and c) absolutely packed with extremely hostile Comanches who had no intention of sharing their land.
Still, before this was found out definitively, tens of thousands of Germans had already begun the two to five month trip from Europe to the Texas gulf coast. The company founded by these rich Germans needed somewhere to put all of these people, and Fredericksburg (between the somewhat-established New Braunfels and the doomed land grant) was founded.
Today, Fredericksburg has some nice shopping, distinctive architecture, and more wineries than I could count, of which I visited none. Wine tasting by yourself just isn’t the same, unfortunately.
After a delicious German dinner, I called it a night fairly early to rest up for my adventures the next morning.
I had heard nothing but good things about Enchanted Rock but had initially resigned myself to it being too far and not having enough time. But my spontaneous decision to overnight in Fredericksburg changed this calculus, and I was very excited to head out there the next morning.
Enchanted Rock is essentially a gigantic piece of pink granite sticking out above the foothills and plains north of Fredericksburg. Think Ayers Rock, but in Texas, and you’re pretty close.
I was aware the climb was a bit steep. I wasn’t aware, however, that there’s really no trail for 90% of the route – you just have to sort of climb this quite steep face of smooth rock however you can.
I was able to handle it decently, but anyone with bad knees, uncertain balance, or a fear of heights may want to reconsider before setting out for the summit. The real trick is going down, as I learned watching a middle-aged woman scoot down the entire face of the rock on her butt. Butt sliding descent or not, the climb was incredibly worth it. You can see for dozens of miles in every direction, and I mentally oriented myself first toward Austin, and then turned almost a 180 to look out toward West Texas, our next stop.
It’s an incredible environment up there, with holes carved by erosion gradually filling up with water, then microscopic plant and animal life drifting on the wind, and finally, filling in entirely with vegetation. You can even peek in and see some of the tiny fairy shrimp swimming around.
My still relatively young knees carried me down Enchanted Rock without issue, and I returned to Austin via the scenic route through Hill Country. Suddenly, our final weekend in the city was upon us, and it struck us that we hadn’t done one crucial Texas activity yet – honky tonkin’. Thankfully, the Broken Spoke was there for us. You may remember this bar from our failed attempt to visit earlier in the month. Lucky for us, it was open this time, and things were hopping. We ordered some barbecue and hamburger steak for dinner, grabbed some Shiner Bocks, and headed in to enjoy the band – but not before a stop at the Spoke’s mini country music hall of fame.
They take music and dancing seriously here. They even host nightly two-step lessons, which Morgan and I unfortunately missed. Do not stand around on the dance floor, and absolutely no line dancing, as the sign says. We kept our tired feet off the dance floor, and enjoyed some excellent music and even better people-watching. There’s nothing quite like watching a brown-suited, ten-gallon-hat-wearing cowboy dance with a half-dozen random women, as a man in a full-length, fringed, black leather jacket and red vest extremely intensely dances with his wife.
Our sweep through the Hill Country concluded on Saturday, with one final mini-road trip. This time, we headed south to New Braunfels, another historically German town set between San Antonio and Austin. Like just about every central Texas small town, it’s got a beautiful historic main street, filled with tons of antique stores, bakeries, and restaurants. We grabbed lunch and browsed an absurdly large number of antiques, but our real business in New Braunfels was outside the city center.
The Nick and Morgan Texas Honky Tonk Tour 2022 wrapped up that afternoon in Gruene (pronounced “green,” for some reason.) Gruene was once a distinct community, known for cotton. It became a ghost town in the mid-20th century and has since been swallowed up by New Braunfels’ expansion. Today, it’s a historic district that’s basically just a few stores around an intersection, along with the main attraction – Gruene Hall, the oldest continually operated dance hall in Texas.
As I find is the case in a lot of situations where I come in with no expectations about the music, the band playing the free afternoon show blew me away. We enjoyed a Shiner Bock and took in a half-hour of country and blues from Guy Forsyth, who has an incredibly powerful voice and a very solid backing band. But with the sun going down and the effects of a long few days and weeks settling in, we hopped back on I-35 and headed back to Austin early in the evening.
And just like that, our time in Austin came to a close. Out of all of our stops, I found the four weeks here went the fastest – perhaps because we lost half a week to crappy weather and the resulting Citywide Freakout. Without a doubt, we loved Austin. The combination of barbecue and Mexican food is unparalleled. It’s got an excellent live music scene. It’s funky and weird, but also the home of the state government. It’s made incredible use of its waterfront.
But in a lot of ways, it’s also the first city we’ve stayed in that reminds me why we left DC. Austin is not an affordable place to live, and only getting less so. Traffic can be and often is a nightmare – and driving is a requirement. And in a lot of ways, it hasn’t done a very good job at managing the ridiculous growth of the past decade. It also doesn’t necessarily feel like Texas – it feels like Austin, as if it’s one of those tiny landlocked countries completely encircled by a larger, more powerful one.
The good news? There are few less Austin-y places in the world than Big Bend and West Texas. But that’s a story for next time.
From the Land of Enchantment,
Nick and Morgan