Semi-secretly, I had been very much looking forward to bringing the family to Austin.
Austin and I have a bit of a history. When I was stationed in Corpus Christi, TX for flight training, I didn’t enjoy it much. There were several reasons for this, not all of which were Corpus Christi’s fault. Primarily, my good friend and roommate there got into some completely preposterous trouble that wouldn’t have been out of place in the pages of Catch-22. That’s a hopelessly convoluted and miserable story that I won’t tell here, but the upshot was that he was confined to the base for a month of our Corpus time, after which he was unexpectedly railroaded out of the Naval Aviation training program, though he was kept around for several months doing busywork while that process worked its way through the system. It was a time of much frustration, punctuated by the helplessness of railing against a massive bureaucratic organization to which you are ultimately insignificant. With hindsight it worked out extremely well for him, but of course none of us knew that at the time.
On top of that, I didn’t like my living situation (bland apartment complex) and found Corpus itself, well… unpleasant. Coming from my house directly situated on the whitest sand beach I had ever seen with close friends who owned a jet ski and a catamaran, respectively, Corpus may have never had a fighting chance, but still I had to work hard to find the bright sides, which I never quite did. What I remember first was the brutal weather. I had acclimatized to heat and humidity in Florida, but Corpus upped that a notch by throwing in both a steady 20-knot-plus wind, and a vast and very shallow bay over which that wind blew, picking up the stink of the rotting algae and seaweed along the way. It wasn’t a refreshing wind, it was a wet, sticky, foul-smelling wind. And then there was the beach near where I lived, which I had heard was great because you could drive on it. Excellent in theory. In practice, you could drive on it because the sand was concrete-hard, and when I drove out there to check it out I was surprised to see the beachgoers laying out not on the sand, but on the hoods of their cars, contorting themselves and squinting against the wind, which was blowing up bits of the chopped up seaweed and brownish seafoam that lay everywhere. Nahhh.
To be fair, Corpus has/had some nice parts, I just didn’t make a strong enough effort to seek them out and given the situation with my friend, didn’t feel especially inclined to.
What we did instead (once he was out of his base-confinement month) was look northwest to Austin, where his newly minted fiancée was working on her Doctorate in English at the University of Texas. We escaped Corpus pretty much every weekend and crashed at her apartment. In my mind Austin was everything Corpus wasn’t – the heat was palatable and not sticky, there was an unparalleled music scene, the food was excellent, a river ran right through town, and of course there was the college and all that entailed. It felt like a laid-back oasis to me.
I had been back a few times in the 25+ years since (what?!?) on airline layovers, and had found that vibe largely intact each time, even while what I appreciated about the city morphed with my age. The foodie scene is alive and well there, the hills to the west are scattered with high quality breweries, and still there’s a feeling of everyone relaxing and doing whatever they want to do. It’s very live-and-let-live. Several cities have adopted similar mottoes, but I believe Austin was the first to use “Keep Austin Weird.” I’ve heard it said that Austin is a very non-Texan city in the middle of Texas due to the diversity and the “weirdness,” but I don’t think it’s non-Texan at all. In my mind Texas at its most ideal is all about individuality and personal freedom, and it seems to me that Austin personifies that.
And then there’s the Hill Country, which most people will say is the most beautiful region of the state. And with the possible exception of Big Bend National Park (which I haven’t seen), I have to agree. Rolling hills, green grass, spring-fed rivers, swimming holes, waterfalls over limestone formations, ranches…
It’s not that I thought my family would necessarily want to move there, as I didn’t either, but it was something I was looking forward to sharing with them, as I hoped it would be as pleasant a surprise for them as it had been for me when I first started spending time there.
Here was our drive (including the aforementioned pre-dawn, future dystopian slog through oil country). It was a long one, made somewhat more interesting by the transition from the very brown, solidly arid western half of Texas to the steadily greener east/central region of the state. Transiting the region in the Spring probably helped as well, but by the time we departed I-10 and entered the outskirts of the Hill Country it was all grass, wildflowers, and trees, many of them evergreen.
Pedernales Falls State Park was our initial destination, at which I had only managed to book one day. Though it’s still a reasonably long drive to downtown Austin from there, I had seen pictures of the waterfall after which the park is named, and it looked like the kind of place you could easily spend a few lazy days hiking, biking, and swimming.
Our campsite there was a mixed bag. It was a bit farther from the river than I had hoped, and we watched as our cell signal dropped from a solid four bars at the check-in station to a grainy one bar in the site. I wish I didn’t care about this, but I do. Between wanting to be reachable due to our home sale situation, wanting to be able to research and set up future legs of our trip, and knowing the extra stress that not having a signal puts on the kids (ok, really just Keeper), it makes a difference. On the up side, it was spacious and gorgeous, with several lanky junipers from which we were able to hang the hammocks. Though the staff informed us soon after our check-in that we would be welcome to stay a few more days due to some cancellations, I opted to stick with the original plan and move us to a private campground near Lake Travis to the north.
Though it wasn’t quite swimming hole warm outside, we took an afternoon hike down to the river to check it out. We discovered that the actual falls were significantly upstream of us and would require a car ride to reach, but the area we were able to walk down to had a somewhat sandy beach and opportunities for wading.
Keeper and I noticed the small fish darting around near our feet and decided we would see if they would participate in creating our own free spa experience – the kind where you put your feet in a pool with a bunch of tiny, hungry fish and they nibble on the dead skin. It took them a little time to warm to the idea, but they came around! Mmmm, dead foot skin.
Originally I proceeded directly from the previous paragraph into one about really good food, and upon re-reading, that struck me as a horrible idea. So I’m adding a filler paragraph here to get your mind moving toward more savory images. Clear streams, trout, salmon, campfires… sometimes I’ll even cook salmon over a campfire before making s’mores! Ok, there.
Nurturing my foodie soul was one of the aspects of our Austin visit that I was most eagerly anticipating. Unfortunately, a few weeks earlier we determined that Tacco would need to fly back to DC for a few days during this part of our journey, making activity and eatery planning a bit trickier. I had a few places I had wanted to take everyone to experience, but needed to be more choosy and deliberate. Which brings me to barbeque…
Under no definition of the word can I claim BBQ aficionado status. It is not something I would seek out normally. What I do have is a great appreciation for BBQ as a cooking style and as a uniquely American element of cuisine. I love how hyper-regional it is, and how each region finds the others’ style downright heretical. And I greatly respect the commitment involved in crafting quality BBQ. We are very much a slow food family, not a fast food family, and the idea of a food specialty that takes 8, 10, 12, 16 hours to prepare it right holds great appeal. I have two college friends from San Francisco who cash in marital/significant-other chips to do sporadic (possibly annual?) weekend long BBQ pilgrimages to various cities / regions. They research the best places and then drive around and eat nothing but BBQ for a weekend. If I remember correctly, they’ve done North Carolina, Austin, Kansas City, and Memphis to date. Though I’ve never been fortunate enough to participate, I greatly respect that kind of passion and commitment. As tasting local foods is both integral to a sense of place and part of what we’re attempting to do with this journey, I figured the least we could do in Austin was seek out some decent brisket; Texas BBQ means beef, and brisket is of course the cut of choice.
While I’m pretty sure The Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX generally won’t break into any serious BBQ fan’s top ten list, it held a soft spot in my memory as a place I had visited Back in the Day and been blown away by. It had actually been my first foray into the Hill Country, and what I remembered, though hazily, was a massive, grassy hilltop on a hot, lazy afternoon with picnic tables scattered widely around a central smokehouse. It was BYOB, and the Texans seemed to take that instruction seriously, up to and including kegs. The smell of the smoking meat was of course divine and permeated everything, and we dug in for at least a few hours of chilled-out eating, drinking, and laughing. I had the impression everyone else was doing the same.
At Pedernales Falls we were as close to the original Salt Lick as we would be during our Austin foray, so I talked the family into making the drive down to Driftwood. Keeper made a point to inform us that he’s not a fan of BBQ, but I did my best to convince him that this was more about the experience than the actual food, and if he wasn’t convinced, he at least played along, though he refused to order brisket. Fair enough.
I will say that it was very little like I remember. Whether my memories or progress and development in the intervening 25 years are to blame, it struck me as much more of a “restaurant” this time than a wide open, come grab some of our food, then spread out and do what you like kind of place. There’s even a winery right across the street. Pretty certain that wasn’t there before. Our dinner was enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. But not epic. Our choices for brisket preparation were “moist, lean, or burnt,” and I wasn’t prepared for that. We got a mixture, but heavy on the “moist,” as that sounded the most appetizing. That turned out to be backwards, at least according to my palate (and Tacco’s). The “moist” turned out to be just a bit too chewy for me, whereas the “burnt” tasted delicious. Ah well, next time.
In the morning we took Tacco to the airport, stopped for some breakfast and “local kombucha” (which turned out to be delicious) at a little store just back into the Hill Country on the way back, then broke camp and made the drive to our next campground. Though not a particularly long drive, this one turned out to be quite scenic and more than a bit sporty, given our rig length and weight. I made the potential mistake of following Google Maps’ advice on the most efficient routing, and that turned out to be small two-lane roads through the hills. The first thing I noticed was that we crossed many, many stream beds. The second was that in almost every one of these stream beds there is a flood gauge next to the road at the low point. Evidently flash floods are very much a thing in Hill Country, and they arise quickly. Though there were indeed a few apparent rain clouds scattered in the distance, I calculated the probability of their producing floodwaters as low and chalked it up to adventure. Still though, when you see something like this out your windshield, you probably hope you’re in a 4 wheel drive truck and not a 32’ motorhome towing a car.
We made it of course, and the kiddos were thrilled when we pulled into a fully stocked (read: pool, playground, wi-fi, full-strength LTE signal) campground. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was comfortable. That evening we drove down a short distance down the road to another restaurant that I hadn’t heard of, but looked to be heavy on Texan charm with a view of Lake Travis to boot. It was called Lucy’s Fried Chicken, and it far exceeded both my expectations and its name’s implied lack of ambition. Gorgeous deck, stunning views, outstanding food (I opted for a smoked trout / roasted beet / spinach salad, and the hunk of trout I got looked more like a salmon and nearly overflowed the plate)… and oh by the way, inexpensive and with a huge playground for the girls within sight of the outdoor eating area which overlooked the lake. We arrived right at sunset and were treated to the breathtaking sight of active thunderstorms marching across the sky in the north. Perfect.
Sixth Street is Austin’s main downtown artery and center for live music and associated fun. I can remember strolling its length on an afternoon in which they had closed it to vehicular traffic (again, Back in the Day), stopping for a beer at a rooftop bar, and looking down to see a band playing, only to discover that it was Big Head Todd and the Monsters. And this was not before they were popular. They just happened to be playing in the street, or so it seemed. I was hoping to introduce the family to some facsimile of this experience / vibe, but wasn’t sure if it would be possible, or even advisable given the kids’ ages. It is a college town after all. I also remember riding a mechanical bull in one of the bars. I wasn’t as keen to introduce them to that.
I opted instead to take them to Rainey Street, another food/drink centric mini-neighborhood where a restaurant I particularly like sits among the dozens of lively bars and eateries converted from old houses, as well as Portland-style food trucks. It’s called Bangers, and it specializes in upscale sausages and has some solid beer-geek cred due to its extensive and eclectic tap list, not to mention a massive outdoor eating area with industrial sized fans to attempt to cool off the clientele. Though we didn’t need the fans (it was no more than 60 degrees, probably less in the shade where we found ourselves), the kids dug it and we stopped at food truck for some mini doughnuts for dessert after walking the crowded street for a bit.
Though we drove down Sixth and across the Congress St Bridge, which is famous for the bats who live underneath it and swarm out at dusk on summer evenings, neither was able to display their uniqueness and charm especially well to the heads-in-their-screens passengers of my car. No worries, another time.
We relocated Davista one last time to McKinney Falls State Park right near the airport just south of town, and picked up Tacco that evening.
Prior to that, however, we were able to take another hike to see the falls and get a little exercise. I was struck once again by how much I enjoy hiking with the family and how it has become the backdrop for our best conversations. We need to keep that going.
Returning to foodie-ville, we opted to do another iconic BBQ experience the morning after Tacco arrived. Unlike the Salt Lick, Franklin BBQ in downtown Austin does land at or near the top of any respectable BBQ freak’s all-time-best list. It has the line outside to prove it, too. It opens at 11AM and closes when they’re out of food (generally 2-3 hours later), and people start lining up at about 7. I was told that if you’re not in line by 8-8:30, don’t count on getting any food. My previously mentioned BBQ loving friends wrote briefly and in superlatives about their visit to Franklin, and honestly, I was skeptical. I just could not imagine how one place could do brisket so noticeably better than anyone else. But they were adamant and they know their food. So we packed up our homeschooling materials, a couple blankets, and some chairs, and headed into town at 8AM to stake our claim in the line.
Before I get to the food, I’d like to address the waiting experience. It’s likely a popular view that there simply is no food worth waiting four hours for. That’s reasonable, and I get it. I’m here to tell you, though, that even had the food been so-so, there are far worse ways to spend a morning than hanging out in line at Franklin. Essentially we had the choice of doing homeschooling in the RV or doing it outside, picnic style, in line with a couple hundred people sociably killing time. We had a blast, and met all our neighbors. We made friends. Some set up game tables and played cards, others brought coolers full of beer (yes, at 9AM). It was a scene, and if I found myself with a morning to kill in Austin, I would absolutely, positively do it again.
Now the food. A whole new level, is all I can say. My friends were absolutely correct; this is by far the best brisket I’ve ever tasted. Not only was both the flavor and texture downright perfect, but it somehow managed to be impossibly tender while holding itself together. I don’t know how it does this. We tried ribs, brisket (of course), and the girls got pulled pork. While that’s probably heresy, they’re 8 and 6 and cute so they get a pass. And it was really good too. But the brisket! Our choices this time were “lean or fatty.” Remembering our Salt Lick experience I asked for lean, but the server, God bless him, said “let me just give you a few extra pieces of fatty too, just so you can try it.” Unbelievable. I mean, both types were, but the fatty one wasn’t the least bit chewy. It was as if the meat was marbled with butter. Meat flavored butter. Even Keeper liked it. And he had put up resistance to this entire evolution, with an adamant “OK Dad, have I not been clear in saying that I don’t like BBQ??” I informed him that he had in fact been crystal clear but that this was supposedly the best on the planet, and if he didn’t like this then he could legitimately, for the rest of his life, confidently proclaim his dislike for brisket. I also tried to sell him on the lore and culture aspect, but his eyes glazed over for that part. No matter though, after the meal it got the coveted Keeper thumbs up.
I was asked later whether, after waiting all that time for lunch, we had bought some brisket to go as well. We did not, and for the life of me I don’t know why we didn’t think of that, but in hindsight I’m ok with it. The experience was exactly right, and any attempt to add to it might have somehow backfired.
After this it was my turn to depart for a few days for work, so I missed another couple days of Austin, but we did manage to visit Barton Springs just before I departed. The Colorado River, or I guess I should say “a” Colorado River since this Colorado River bears no relation to the much larger one which flows from the Rockies to the Gulf of California, flows through the middle of town and is another center of activity in Austin. It’s known as Town Lake in the middle of Austin (and does resemble a narrow lake more than it does a river) and is dammed upstream of Austin, forming Lake Travis. It also has some spring-fed tributaries, of which Barton Creek, which happens to sit right in the middle of town, is one. They’ve erected a small dam of sorts that turns the spring area into a large, urban swimming hole. The water is clear and cool year round, and it’s a fantastic place to swim, particularly in the 100+ degree summers. In the 72ish degree spring it’s more shocking and eye-opening than refreshing, but we did get to do some swimming, and Keeper even stepped up to use their meter diving board a few times.
So, did I succeed? Did the family “get” Austin the way I hoped they would? Yes and no I think. No one was blown away. The kids enjoyed themselves quite a bit but there was no talk of its surpassing Bend in future living situation desirability, nor did I expect or want that. Yet I think it planted seeds in them, the type that will make them one day have a hazy memory of a great meal or a good time or a fun vibe, and they’ll want to come back. Much like I did. Tacco was a tougher nut to crack, as I just don’t think Texas is her place. And that’s fine. Yet several times she let on that she was pleasantly surprised by what she was seeing and experiencing. I haven’t grilled her on it as, well, first of all it’s not particularly important, but secondly I think it will take some distance before she’ll be able to fully articulate her views on Austin, but I suspect she was softened some by how pleasant and expectation-defying it was. Ultimately it didn’t matter to me whether anyone in my family adopted my “I really dig this place” views on Austin, but I did want them to understand why I feel that way. And in that sense I think I did succeed.
So let’s go to Houston.