Monday, February 25, 2008

The stars at night, are big and bright...

Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Deep in the heart of Texas!

OK, so Austin, Texas, might not have the same mystique as, say, Easter Island or McLeod Ganj, but since it's been slightly over a year since we departed on our original journey, I figured that our trip to Austin last weekend would be a good opportunity to dust of Ye Olde Strange & Benevolent and do our first post-RTW travel entry. So, from here on out pretend that the subhead above reads:

"Chronicling Sarah and Tyler's 2007 Round the World Adventure ...and beyond!"

Sarah actually went to the University of Texas in Austin for her undergraduate degree, so for her this was a bit of a homecoming. But, when she had to travel down there last week for business, we decided it would be a good opportunity for me to join her for the weekend, so she could show me her old college town.

This seemed only fair since she's been drug up to Bellingham once or twice since meeting me, so that I can show her to such scenic locales at the Ranch Room and the Beaver.

Anyhow, when my flight got into Austin on Thursday night, it was actually the same night that the Democratic debates were being held there, which just reinforced the idea that you see emblazoned on T-shirts across the city: "Austin - A small island of blue in a sea of red." Futhermore, after securing a rental car and making my way to the the Hyatt where Sarah was staying at, it turned out that the Democratic after-party was being held at that very hotel. So, reunited with Sarah, she led me passed milling, half-drunk Texan Democrats to our room. I was starved from the flight down and not having eaten since before noon, but our mutual fatigue won out and -after a snack pack of cheese and crackers- we crashed into bed.

The view from our room at the Hyatt... yep! That's Austin! Bats apparently fly out from under the bridge on the right, but it wasn't the right time of year to see it.

Then next morning, Sarah had one last business meeting to attend to, so she got up early and headed out, while I wandered around the room, enjoyed the view and pondered lunch. After she got back, we checked out of the Hyatt, hopped into our rental car and were off. First off: Tacos!

El Chilito was a great place to satisfy my hunger with loads of cheap, delicious tacos. Sarah often raves about how Mexican food is just better in Texas, and after three tacos here, I was ready to believe her. I'm not sure if its the most authetic mexican food, but while eating the fresh tortillas and sucking down my giant horchata I was happy.

Sarah sips her horchata at El Chilito. Yum!

(Remind me to never use the phrase "sucking down my giant horchata" again.)

After lunch, Sarah took me on a tour of her old college neighborhoods and the UT campus. Sadly, there is so much development going on there that even Sarah often seemed lost. But, while one of her old dorms was apparently knocked down, she was able to point out one of her old houses, and we spent a good deal of time walking around the campus just soaking in the afternoon.

UT's clock tower, which sadly became imfamous in 1966 when a student barricaded himself inside it and killed 14 people by shooting the with a rifle from the top of it.

Probably the coolest thing about the campus.... the turtle pond!

When you think of of a "turtle pond" (which, admit it, you often do) you're probably thinking of one or two turtles swimming around in a large pond. But, that's not the case here, the pond is literally silly with turtles. And we enjoyed relaxing and watching them clamber over each other trying to find the best sunning spot.

Turtles! (I took, like, ten pictures of the turtles.)

In addition, to the turtles though, we also saw a couple of things of interest, namely The LBJ Presidential Library (the first Presidential Library I've ever seen), a copy of the Guttenburg Bible (one of only six complete copies in the US) and the first photograph. Ever. It's just amazing to see the first photograph that was ever taken. Crazy.

Stuff like that just knocks me over. That, and turtles.

After that, we checked into our new hotel, the Habitat Suites. The Habitat Suites bill themselves as a cutting edge green hotel, and while their heart is in the right place, and they are making a good effort, let's just also say that there was a large painting of a fairy behind the check-in counter. Still, their rooms were downright palatial in comparison to 90% of the places we stayed over the last year, so I wasn't complaining... especially as we accidently treked red paint from their newly painted sidewalks all over the rooms new white carpets. (Sorry Habitat Suites!)

Checked in at our new room, we headed out to meet Sarah's friend, Amy, for dinner and drinks. But, not before stopping at the Waterloo Icehouse for some chips, salsa and beer. With salsa and beer in our guts, we wound our way through downtown marveling at the flocks of black birds that must have been migrating through, and were perched on nearly every flat surface and powerline.

Mysterious black bird filled the skies of Austin during sunset on our way to meet Amy.

After meeting up with Amy, and checking out her new condo she was in the process of moving into, we headed out for, suitably, BBQ. Artz BBQ which several people had recommended to us and wasn't too far from Amy's place. Sadly, I left my camera in our car (we took Amy's) because Artz -like pretty much every place we visited that night- would have made for some great photo opportunities. As far as the food itself went, we all agreed that while the sides left something to be desired, the plentiful meat was both tasty and left us so full it was diffcult to think straight.

After dinner, Amy and Sarah decided it was time I saw Austin's famous nightlife. First off was magaritas at another taco place with outdoor seating (under heat lamps as the night had gotten cold), where we listened to a giant woman sing bluesy rock, and watched big haired women talk to their biker boys.

Then, it was off to what was probably my favorite bar of the evening: The Mean Eyed Cat. The Mean Eyed Cat was a small shack on a dirt lot wedged between the river and a highly trafficed street. It was a Johnny Cash themed bar with spicy wasabi peanuts that cleared our collective sinuses.

Wandering on, we walked a couple blocks down from the Mean Eyed Cat to another bar that seemed to be a restuarant that had grown cancerously from an abandoned boxcar. Inside, elderly Texans danced to a live band while young college students flirted and bummed smokes off each other on the front deck. A surreal scene to say the least.

Finally, we stopped for some late night ice cream at Amy's (no relationship to our guide for the evening), where we watched our server toss scoops of ice cream over his shoulder and catch them in a paper cup. After that, tired, half drunk and still full from our ribs, we called it a night.

The next morning, unsurprisingly, we slept in a bit. Eventually we got up and Sarah drove us out to the edge of the city to check out the view from a bluff next to Austin's 360 Bridge. The giant iron bridge spans a section of the Colorado River, and a short "hike" (Texans use the word liberally to describe anything that involves getting out of the car, I believe) allows you an impressive view of the surrounding area.

Me standing in front of the 360 Bridge just outside of Austin.

Next, we followed a winding road to Mt. Bonnell. "Mountain" is another word that Texans use loosely. I'm not exactly what constitutes a "mountain" in Texas, but as near as I can tell its everything that exceeds the altitude gain of a large speedbump.

Mt. Bonnell towers 776 feet above sea level.

Still, a quick "hike" takes you to several amazing view points of the river, where you can peer down on mindboggling ginormous mansions which appear to almost float on the waters edge. Plus, it also bears mentioning that the road itself is quite scenic.

Below Mt. Bonnell you can see a number of small, rustic bungalows. How quaint!

After that, we grabbed sub sandwiches at Thunderbolt Subs and then headed back to the room to meet up with Sarah's dad, Bob, and stepmom, Dixie, who had come into town. Both sides of Sarah's family live just outside of Dallas, and both were planning on meeting us this weekend, first Bob and Dixie on Saturday afternoon, and then later Sarah's mom, Cindy, and stepdad, Don, that evening.

Meeting up with Bob and Dixie, they suggested that we go out to Pedernales Falls State Park, about 30 miles outside of Austin. Pedernales Falls is a chain of pools connected by shallow, broad falls that rather reminded me of naturally made waterslides... though I personally wouldn't be eager to try sliding down them. While the trail out to falls was pretty much on par with the other "hikes" we'd done that day, scrabbling around the falls and over the dried river bed terrain proved to be a solid workout. Not to mention leaping across a narrow patch of rapids... that looked narrower than it apparently was.

A view of the Pendernales Falls... though falls doesn't seem to be quite the right word for them, "tumbles" maybe.

So, yeah, this narrow stretch is a little wider than it seems. And, it seems wider still when you don't quite make the jump across and nearly topple into them. And it seems EVEN wider still, when you watch your wife almost do the same thing.

A little more sweaty and exausted, we all piled back into the car, and headed back to Austin, the day was getting on, but we still made it back into town with enough time to check out the capital building. Texas' capital building is an enormous and imposing building (even if its, well, pink). Because of it's unique status when it entered the union, there are a number of things that make it unusual. For one, its the only State Capital which is taller than the National Capital. And the only one who's statue of the lady liberty faces away from the national capital.

The Texas State Capital, a massive "sunset red" building made of the local granite.

Inside, we explored the massive halls, experienced the unique echo of the domed center room, and followed a tour group into the rooms where Texas' State Legislature meets. After having wandered its halls and explored the Capitals grounds a bit, we then needed some dinner.

Dinner was more meat... and good meat too. We stopped at a favorite steakhouse where Sarah and I each had excellently prepared steaks, the best I'd had in a long time. After that, Bob and Dixie dropped us off at our hotel, where we met up with Sarah's mom and stepdad.

After running around all day, Sarah and I were more than happy to relax a bit, sip wine and get caught up with Cindy and Don. Eventually, though, Don suggested that we go CD shopping. Don's recently gotten into music collecting, and was eager to check out Austin's CD stores; and I was excited to second his suggestion. Even though I understand the advantages of digital music, there's part of my that still finds flipping through used CD racks sort of meditative and relaxing.

So, an hour or so later, we all emerged from the Waterloo Music Store (right next door to the Waterloo Icehouse) with handfuls of new, used CDs. Then Don noticed the Amy's icecream shop we'd been to the previous night, so we ended the night with another round of ice cream.

The following morning, Sarah and I arose early and made our way over to Cindy and Don's hotel room for a breakfast of eggs, bacon and coffee. Then, we said farewell to Sarah's mom and Don and they headed back to Rockwall, as we set out to get in some last minute sightseeing before heading home.

First off, Sarah took me to the Oasis, a large restaurant perched above Lake Travis. There we had a drink, enjoyed the sun (we had to get it while we could, its still cold and cloudy most of the time here in Seattle), and chatted about how the old Oasis had burnt to the ground and only been recently rebuilt... in stone this time.

The view from the deck of the Oasis. My brother, Travis Hill, said "Hey Ty, you should come visit!" And I got lost and somehow ended up on Lake Travis, in Hill Country. Go figure. (Hey Trav, don't worry, we plan to visit soon!)

After that, we headed to South Congress Street to do some window shopping. When Sarah had lived in Austin before, there apparently wasn't a lot to see and do on South Congress Street, but recently a number of quirky antique shops and boutiques featuring work by local artists have cropped up. Also, the had "Hey Cupcake!" an airstream trailer which sold delicious cupcakes. A tasty way to end our mini-vacation.

When you think of Texas, you think of cupcakes, right? Well you should!

After we headed back to the airport to drop off our car, and catch our flights, Sarah commented on all the things I still needed to see, and how we could have easily spent a week in Austin sightseeing. And, I had to agree. But, isn't that the thing with travel, there is never enough time.

On a final note, I thought I'd mention some of the posts I've made recently over on my "other blog," General Admission, if only because in some ways, they almost feel like they could have been posted here. First off, I did a list of my Top Ten Favorite Cities, which include a number of the places Sarah and I visited on our trip last year. In addition, I've been doing an ongoing project I've dubbed Commuter Cam. As a way to keep myself looking at life with a "Traveller's Eye," I've been occasionally taking my camera with me on my commute to work, and taking pictures of the things I see along the way (and encounraging others to do the same). Again, it might not be the Taj Mahal, but it's been interesting looking at my home city of Seattle through the viewfinder of a camera.

EDIT: You can see all our photo here.


eddybles said...

It's so good to see that you're writing at Strange and Benevolent again. Austin might not seem as exotic to you as many of the other far flung places you've visited recently but just think what someone from Easter Island or Tibet would think of it. Happy to see that the adventure continues... And I am loving all the flickr pics!

The General said...

Thanks Jody!

We hope to still keep doing Strange and Benevolent entries, even though our Big Trip™ is over (for now, at least). With Spring just around the corner, we'll be hiking and camping soon, I'm hoping to also do entries detailing those adventures. We shall see!