Thursday, October 22, 2009

Austin, Texas

Austin, capital of Texas

In November 2008 I traveled to Austin for a conference. I was anxious to see the city, having heard so many reports of how Boulderish it was. Like most pre-conceived notions, my mental image of Austin was shattered the moment we arrived.

Stalled Saturday traffic taken through the tinted window of my hotel

Austin is not small like Boulder and its party strip (6th Street) is more like Bourbon Street than Pearl Street. Being a larger city, it suffers from all of the typical woes, large traffic jams, a large homeless population, and vandalism.

The Texas State Capital was completed 1888 and its style is classified as Renaissance Revival, which is characterized by classical orders, round arches and symmetrical composition. The structural exterior is red granite, quarried just 50 miles from the site.

The same crests on the floor are on the exterior of the building.

The capital positively glows at sunset.

We had a bird’s eye view of the traffic because our hotel room overlooked the main freeway through town. We were amazed to see on a Saturday that it was at a dead stop. A local friend told us that weekends could be worse than weekdays because folks north of the city road trip south to San Antonio and these hordes have to pass through Austin.

The floor of the state capital showing all of countries that have at one time or another controlled the territory.

The large homeless population was not surprising given the climate, but was a detractor none-the-less. I was staying at the Sheraton near the Capital, but my conference was at the convention center. It was a 9 or so block walk between them. The route passed right by a very large homeless shelter and across 6th Street. Not a terribly scenic walk and one I did not like taking at night alone. If you visit the city, I would suggest staying south of 6th Street. There are more restaurants there and the area is just nicer.

Looking up into the capital dome

A few months before our arrival, someone tried to torch the governor’s mansion. Apparently, this was just pure mayhem and not so much a political statement. It is sad indeed to live in an era where such things are possible and probably condoned by a large number of people.

Exterior of the National Museum of the Pacific War. This side of it is Admiral Nimitz's childhood home.

Despite these revelations about Austin, we did have a great time. We took a road trip to Fredericksburg and the National Museum of the Pacific War, ate fantastic BBQ at the Salt Lick, and spent time in the LBJ Presidential Library on the University of Texas campus. We also dined at the Four Seasons and had fantastic “slap your mama” steak in an elegant atmosphere.

Tail end of the midget submarine. There is no way to photograph the entire thing. The display behind and under the submarine is that of a normal sized sub, so you can see the difference.

I had wanted to visit Fredericksburg because it is in the center of the hill country and I had heard that the region was both picturesque and filled with wineries. Toss in a premier WWII museum and you have the makings of a great side trip.
The exterior had monuments like this to all the Presidents who served in WWII

The drive through the hill country was very pleasant and once again very different from what I expected. I had been told it was comprised of rolling hills and trees. This is true, but one must recalibrate one’s idea of trees. I had pictured tall deciduous trees when in reality; the trees were short scrub oaks. I liked them very much because they reminded me of my hometown in California. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a famed longhorn on the drive but instead kept spotting exotic animals. Apparently, the ranches in the hill country are known for raising exotics. At one point I was gazing out the window when a camel flashed before my eyes. I yelled out, “Holy F…, I just saw a Camel.” My two travel companions quickly looked as well and committed equally unpublishable verbal peccadilloes.

Plaques placed in the walls dedicated to ships and individuals

The town of Fredericksburg was nothing remarkable. It has a few shops that one can traverse in 10 minutes or so and only one winery in the downtown area. This winery happened to be a chain, which was very disappointing. Because we had a date with a side of pork, we did not have time to wander the countryside in search of tasting rooms. Instead, we focused on the Museum.

The garden, dedicated to the dead was the home of many creatures, oblivious to the deeper meaning of their habitat.

The National Museum of the Pacific War is a treasure not to be missed. It started out as a small museum dedicated to native son Admiral Nimitz but has grown extensively through the patronage of former President, and Naval hero, George Bush Sr. There is a large garden with plaques imbedded in the concrete commemorating ships and sailors, a Japanese peace garden, and a main building that provides a historical narrative for every single battle of the Pacific War. You need two days just to read all this material. In two of the larger bays, are an authentic Japanese midget submarine dredged up from the bottom of Pearl Harbor, and a bomber plane. Off site is another annex filled with larger planes. You cannot tour this additional facility on your own, but must go with a tour guide. We were out of time, unfortunately, and had to miss this part. It was on to the Salt Lick and our side of pork.

A propeller from a WWII ship made into a fountain.

I was really looking forward to sampling the many varieties of Texas BBQ. There were so many places to choose from the decision was not easy. Our local guide however indicated that the Salt Lick was THE place to try. We had quite a wait on the weekend but enjoyed listening to the outdoor music on the oak en-canopied patio. The Salt Lick does not serve alcohol, so it is BYOB. It is also “out in the sticks”, so purchase your beer before you leave Austin. I was impressed by the tenderness of the meat and the portions of all the sides. I was not too hot on the sauce. Every BBQ joint in Texas has a proprietary sauce. I am not sure I could describe this one very well except that it was pink. The interior of the place is dark and somewhat smokey from the large pit by the entrance. All the tables are family style so be emotionally prepared to sit neck and jowl with 20 of your closest friends. Despite the sauce, I would eat there again in a heartbeat.

The bushes around Fredricksburg were filled with butterflies

My final thing to say about this trip is a brief description of the LBJ Presidential Library. Presidential Libraries are actually archives and museums. There are 13 of them in existence but this was my first visit to one. I was born in 1965 so many of the events during LBJ’s term in office I have seen only in the pages of books. The museum presents his life chronologically and he was of course the President during the bulk of the Vietnam War. The parallels to modern day were quite striking. At one place in the chronology, you see a large picture of him with his head in his hands and a quote saying something like, “I know I shall be reviled for all I have done…at the time I saw no other solution, nor did I know how to get out of it”. They have taken his oval office and recreated on an upper floor. That was interesting to see, particularly the 60’s communications technology. On the top floor is a gallery of paintings of all the Presidents and a separate one for First Ladies. It was amusing to see Hillary Clinton in the one group and not the other! The museum is located on the University of Texas campus, which was very close to where we were staying and a nice place to walk around.

The waiting area for the Salt Lick. Much beer was being consumed.

The dark interior of the restaurant. I have no idea who the people were sitting next to us. Everyone was concentrating on the feast. If you go, I suggest not eating for about 3 days.

The fire pit of the Salt Lick. Those are ribs.

This was a great trip to see someplace new. If you are a live music fan, you will get more out of the city than I. I turn into a pumpkin by 10PM and most music venues are not even started by then. Still, Austin stylizes itself as the live music capital of the world, so please check it out. Every red-blooded American should visit Texas at least once in their life. It is a unique place with great people, great food, and wide-open vistas.

The LBJ Presidential Library on the University of Texas campus

1 comment:

PurestGreen said...

Beautiful photos, especially the sunset on the capital building. My boyfriend would love to eat at a place called "the salt lick" - it just screams "America."

Thanks for the great advice on my blog. I am taking it a little slower. Not that I want to, but I must.