Sunday, May 12, 2013

Seeing highlights of Austin

May 5-8, 2013
Austin, Texas
Oak Forest RV Park

Our drive to Austin from Houston was a little shaky because of our concern over the possibility of losing our co-pilot side mirror as it was duck-taped to the arm. I am happy to report that it held steady even at 60 mph although the angle shifted a bit, so I had to tilt my head a few times to give Vic the go-ahead.

We chose to stay at this park for its relative proximity to downtown Austin, about 15 minutes away, and for its reasonable Passport America of $22 Sunday-Thursday. The park is in a quiet area of Austin out in the country away from traffic noise, but easy to access. They did something smart here and divided the long term resident area from the shorter term area where the sites are all roomy pull-throughs on concrete with full-hook-ups, cable, and picnic table. There is also a large fenced area for dogs and a swimming pool and spa for humans. They were also kind enough to accept a large package with our new mirror from Tiffin and we found a reasonable mobile RV service technician to replace the mirror for us right here in the park vs. driving to a dealer. So, life is on the up and up.

Whenever we first arrive somewhere new, we like to set up the motorhome and take a drive to get a sense of our surroundings. The day for doing this happened to be Sunday and Cinco de Mayo. We headed downtown in hopes of checking out the well-known 6th St.and Visitor’s Center there, but it turned out there was a two-day festival, the semi-annual Pecan Street Festival being held all along 6th St. Normally, we would have joined right in but we both felt a little tired after a somewhat stressful four-hour drive. After checking out the downtown area, we took a drive through the University of Texas campus and its surrounding business area on Guadalupe called “The Drag.” The university is just slightly north of downtown so most of the main attractions are in close proximity.

Neither of us had been to Austin before, but we had always heard it was the best place to live in Texas.  We were both surprised to see towering buildings in the city as we imagined it to be smaller and more yuppie-urban. Our drive from the campground took us through some pretty poor and run-down neighborhoods on the northeast side of Austin. And we saw very few retail centers as is typical in more affluent towns. (Maybe we just didn’t discover the Neiman Marcus side of Austin, but that was fine with us.) Overall, we liked the eclectic character of what we saw: the historic district with many bars on 6th St., the SoCo hippie-type district on South Congress, the small artist mecca on the East Side, and the liveliness of the University district on Guadalupe.

Since we were not able to get to the Visitor’s Center, I looked up things to do in Austin on Trip Advisor and also downloaded an Austin Citybot App.  I discovered that one of the number one things to do here is walk or bike the loop around Ladybird Lake (formerly Town Lake it is actually a reservoir on the Colorado River in Downtown Austin).

We decided to take the dogs in the morning before the heat of the day (daytime temps have been in the mid-80s, and slightly humid) and walk the five-mile loop of this trail. It turned out to be a very popular place with lots of bikers, runners, dog walkers, jogging strollers, etc. The trail was mostly gravel and very well-maintained with water fountains, wildflowers, rose gardens, and overhead trees in most places for shade.  It reminded us both of Portland, Oregon, with the bridges, river, and lush greenery.  Walking the trail with so many locals made us feel a part of the Austin vibe. 

There were many folks also taking advantage of the urban waterway by kayaking, canoeing, or paddle-boarding. In this sense, we were reminded of Bend, Oregon, where many outdoor enthusiasts paddle the Deschutes River as it flows through downtown. We talked about doing our own triathlon of Ladybird Lake: hike, bike, and kayak the trail, but it would have to be on different days. Totally doable, but we had a couple of excuses not to: my burst front tire on my bike and windy weather. Still a good idea for another time.

I didn’t see many birds on our walk except ducks on the river, so I was very surprised to come around a corner and see this swan. I don’t know the story behind it but it was sure a pleasant discovery.

On day two, we made a plan to go out for breakfast at the Magnolia CafĂ© in the SoCo district followed by a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library—something Vic, as a historian, wanted to do.  I read about Magnolia’s as a very popular place on the Austin App and as soon as I saw that one of their specialties was gingerbread pancakes, I knew I wanted to check it out. I am not normally much of a pancake eater, but gingerbread is one of my favorite indulgences and I also saw that they served real maple syrup—a necessary complement to any good pancakes. 

I forgot to take photos, but Magnolia’s was great. They are open 24 hours a day every day except Christmas and New Year’s and have quite a diverse menu. Other than the hard work, I would love to have restaurant like theirs with such good food in a super charming and casual atmosphere.  The gingerbread pancake also came with pecans or fresh fruit and it was delicious, especially washed down with Brazilian-Ethiopian coffee. Vic had another one of our favorites: heuvos rancheros. There were quite a few Mexican and Tex-Mex style offerings on the menu. One of their most popular items is breakfast tacos fixed all kind of ways. May have to return.

The LBJ Library turned out to be more interesting than I expected. I remember a fair amount of his presidency, including the darkest aspect regarding his decision to escalate the Vietnam War, but I hadn’t given much thought to the many beneficial things he accomplished in his plan for the Great Society. 

Just in terms of conservation efforts, 36 national parks and wildlife refuges were added under his presidency and he signed into legislation the Wild Rivers and Scenic River Act, Clean Air  Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, just to name a few.  In terms of alleviating poverty, he added Medicare to the Social Security System, created the government-backed student loan program, and initiated the Headstart program.

One of the most amazing things about Johnson, in my estimation, was his stance against racism as a Southerner. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as one of the important milestones of the 20th century American History.  I also learned he contributed greatly to the arts by starting the National Council for Endowment of the Arts which eventually spawned National Public Radio, which feeds one of my daily addictions. (Don’t ask about the others. . . .) I would be remiss not to mention Ladybird Johnson and her efforts to beautify America. There is a Ladybird Wildflower Park here that I would like to see also.

One of the more entertaining aspects of seeing the library was the nostalgic displays of the 60s.  Go-Go boots, Twister, Jefferson Airplane album covers, and the TV show Hazel sure takes you back to a much different pace and perspective of life. On the darker side, the assassination of Kennedy and haunting images of the Vietnam War triggered more disturbing memories.

Vic and I ended up spending about two and a half engaging hours at the library watching short clips, viewing original photos and artifacts, and reading about key aspects of the Johnson presidency.  This was my first time in a Presidential Library and I found it worthwhile enough to be motivated to see others—regardless of their political perspective.

Now, when most people think of Austin, they think of music city. I learned there are three distinct events or places associated with Austin City Limits. One if the annual Austin City Limits Festival that happens over two weekends in October. Another kind of event is the Austin City Limits live tapings at the Moody Theater of the concerts that are aired on PBS. The third concerts associated with Austin City Limits are simply the live shows at the Moody Theater. Tuesday was Dianna Krall, love her, but the only tickets for $49 were in the back row. The bars on 6th St. have nightly music but we found ourselves being homebodies at night. I think Louisiana took the party right out of us—for the time being.

Day three, we headed downtown again this time to just wander around. We did want to see the Driskill Hotel which is quite famous, so we made it our first stop. What a place. One of the hotel managers greeted us and even gave us a short tour explaining some of the history of Colonel Driskill, the cattle baron who built the hotel in the 1890s. He also took us to see the legendary gold-leaf, sterling silver, and crushed diamond mirrors estimated at over $13 million in the Maximilian room and pointed out the significance of the famous Tiffany dome in the main lobby.

Quite the place. They also, according to the manager, have the best pastry chefs in all of Austin—good to know! I loved the romantic feeling of the hotel’s colorful history and decadent luxury.

We walked around the central downtown area for a couple hours ducking in and out of a few stores and checking out the many, many bars along 6th St. From here, we tried to get the most famous BBQ, according to Southern Living, in Austin at Franklin BBQ but in true fashion they had already posted a hand-written sign on the front door that said, “Sold Out—Sorry” by 1:30 p.m.

Our next plan was to try Trudy’s, a place recommended by Ms. Heyduke, only to discover they are only opening in the evenings on weeknights. Fortunately, there was another good BBQ alternative near Trudy’s called Ruby’s. We each had a brisket sandwich (Texas is no place for vegans!) and were quite impressed with its smoky flavor (no sauce seems to be Texan way) and its amazing tenderness. I saw several awards and framed magazine articles on the wall as we were leaving, plus an impressive signed photograph of James Cotton having lunch there. Ruby’s was a winner.

This post is getting long and I still have to write about night watching the bats emerge from the Congress Street Bridge, our return to 6th St. in the evening, and our trip to Lockhart, the BBQ capital of Texas. Stay tuned for Part II of our taste of Austin tomorrow. Y’all come back now.


  1. Sorry about Trudy's but sounds like you had a super Austin experience. So happy you loved the brisket..(my favorite!). And the gingerbread pancakes description made me remember how yummy they are. Have fun!!

    1. We will definitely be back to try out your recommendations!

  2. Nice tour, definitely want to get to the LBJ library:)

  3. Your RV Park sounds perfect for visiting Austin. I always felt a bit sorry for LBJ to have gotten stuck with the Vietnam meaning legacy (not that he wasn't hugely responsible) over the other really fine things he did during his presidency. Thanks for the reminder. I'll be back for part 2.

  4. We have never been to Austin. What a nice tour you had...hope you got to Ladybird Wildlife Park! That is quite some hotel....the Tiffany dome is gorgeous!

    Looking forward to part 2!

  5. Glad to hear the mirror is safely affixed once again. Nice park ... Ive pinned it for reference. You put us to shame with all that you have done in Austin, but keep it up so that we know what to do when we get to Texas next winter.

  6. if you like Austintatious little joints that serve great gingerbread pancakes you must try the

  7. I remember the night he went onto TV to announce that he would not seek reelection. He looked so tired.


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