A Plethora of Parks

Decision Time, Part I

We headed back to San Antonio over Spring Break to make a final decision on whether or not to move there, and hopefully to find a neighborhood we liked. This time the weather cooperated with our efforts – highs in the 70s and just enough clouds to keep things balmy.

We fell in love with the Riverwalk on our last visit, so that’s where we spent our first day. We left the car at the Pearl Brewery, which is as close as we could get to the Alamo from the north side without paying for parking.

Just as the City of Austin Power Plant is no longer a power plant, the Pearl Brewery is no longer a brewery. The lovely old buildings have been repurposed into shops, restaurants, hotels and apartments.

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Some structures have kept their original names: the Can Plant is now resident apartments, the Bottling Department is a food hall. The stable that once housed horses to pull the beer wagons is now an upscale venue for formal events:

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There are still rails in the ground in places, but they’re no longer in use.

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The San Antonio river was the old brewery’s source of fresh water, so the Pearl sits right on its bank. This is where the Riverwalk begins, though the river itself continues upstream for another four miles to its spring-fed origins.

A river shuttle carries passengers back and forth between the Pearl and the downstream end of the Riverwalk, about five miles each way.

Our plan was to walk the river at least as far as Hemisfair Park and explore whatever caught our interest along the way, then catch a Rio Shuttle back to the Pearl when we were ready to call it a night.

I love the art installations along the river. The first one we came to was “The Grotto,” a cave-like formation that also serves as access to the the Riverwalk from street level via the mouth of a stone jaguar.

Next we came to the school of glass fish that hangs beneath the I-35 overpass.

At night each fish is illuminated from within. Absolutely gorgeous.

On the grounds of the Museum of Art, a mariachi band was performing for a family party.

Hispanic culture is deep in this city’s roots. San Antonio was founded in 1718 as a Spanish mission, 58 years before the American colonies drafted their Declaration of Independence and 127 years before Texas first joined the United States. This is an old, old city by American standards.

We reached the boat locks and dam just as one of the rio shuttles arrived, so we stopped to watch it go through.

In at the top, out at the bottom.

Stairway portals, architectural flourishes and lush landscaping provide visual interest along the route.

Local directories are posted at regular intervals. When we passed near the Central Library, we headed up to check it out.

San Antonio’s Central Library is an interesting mix of colorful and industrial, artistic and utilitarian.

Luke found an ample selection of books in his interest range (mostly politics and history), but he deemed the ambiance to be uninviting almost to the point of oppressiveness. I reminded him that even in Fort Worth the big central library has security guards posted on every floor, but I did see his point. This is not really a cozy library.

We returned to the Riverwalk and continued on. We had planned to tour the Alamo, but the whole area was packed with tourists visiting for Spring Break and we didn’t feel like standing in line for an hour.

We walked around the Alamo grounds for a bit and then continued on to Hemisfair Park and the Tower of the Americas.

The Tower was built for the 1968 World’s Fair. It is 750 feet high and provides a commanding 360-degree view of the city from observation decks at the top.

The views are expansive, but my emotional response bordered on claustrophobia. This city just goes on forever in all directions.

13-year-old me would have delighted in the idea of living in that close-packed warren of humanity, but 48-year-old me wants easy access to wild green spaces and a sunny yard for a kitchen garden. Even the city parks seem few and far between here.

I had to remind myself that we just need to find the right neighborhood, and then the urban sprawl won’t feel closed-in. As Fortune Red once wisely told me,”It’s the company what makes the feast.”  And even from the heart of San Antonio, the wild spaces around the edges are an easy half-hour drive away.

We had timed our visit to the Tower to coincide with sunset, because I had wanted to see the city in daylight and Luke had wanted to see it at night. We got through the lines a bit earlier than we had expected, so after I got my daylight views we came back down and killed some time in the park. There is a nice play area there with lots of climby stuff.

When the sun set, we returned to the Tower for Luke’s nighttime view.

The city really does go on forever in all directions.

When we had seen our fill, we returned to the Riverwalk.

We were ready to catch a rio shuttle back to the Pearl, but alas, we just missed the last boat. We decided to walk back to the car on surface streets to shave off some distance. But we wanted to see the illuminated fish, so we cut back to the Riverwalk just before the I-35 underpass.

The fish are gorgeous at night, but challenging to photograph well. I really need to spend some time learning how to get clear, distortion-free photos of bright objects at night. These images don’t do the scene justice.

We got back to the car, checked into a nearby hotel, had a quick meal of sandwiches that we’d brought with us and then went to sleep.

Day One verdict: the Riverwalk and downtown are as beautiful as we remembered, but the idea of living in such a densely populated area is mildly intimidating. The suburbs are a strong option.

Read Part II here

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Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Music, Road trip, Travel, Uncategorized, Weather | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Secret Garden

Cooler temps and falling leaves have come to the Metroplex. The kids and I all had the same day free, so we decided to check out a new park and put a few miles on our hiking shoes.

This post technically falls into the “Plethora of Parks” category, but I’m not going to name the park this time. We wandered off the beaten path and discovered something sorta cool and eerie, and I’m not sure if it’s something that everyone knows about or if it’s meant to be a secret. I’d rather err on the side of caution. If you recognize the scenes in the photos, could you leave a comment letting me know what it was we found?

A narrow trail on the park’s edge lured us away from the main path and toward a steep hill that was almost a cliff. Of course we had to climb it.

A depression has been worn into this stone from so many people stepping on the same exact spot to climb up.

At the top, some of the rocks and trees are painted in bright colors and psychedelic-ish patterns. There are several circles like this one:

The Puerto Rican flag is the only one I feel comfortable posting, because the others have arcane-looking symbols that I didn’t recognize and I feel like maybe they aren’t intended for public view. No idea what they are.

The graffiti on this rock says, “Not all who wander are lost.”

Once the sun set we headed back to familiar ground, but that brief, strange detour was definitely the highlight of our hike.

In other news, Black Friday is almost upon us. Christmas used to be my favorite thing ever before I worked in retail; now I just try to survive it.

See you on the other side!

 

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, environment, Family, kids, Life, trees, Weather | Leave a comment

Cedar Ridge and Thanks-Giving Square

We recently discovered one of the nicest parks in DFW for a longish, moderately challenging hike.

Cedar Ridge Preserve in southwest Dallas offers woodsy paths and a sweeping view from the crest of the Cattail Pond Trail.

The elevation only goes up to 750 feet (this is DFW after all) but the cedar thickets and general ambiance are reminiscent of more mountainy states.

I enjoyed it a lot. Luke thought the day was too hot for hiking. He’s more into urban exploration these days, so after a pause for lunch at a local Cheddars, our next stop was Thanks-Giving Square in downtown Dallas.

We parked next to this building, which was being cleaned by window-washers. I’d never really thought about it before, but now I can’t decide if that would be a terrible job or an awesome job to have.

The same boy who was too exhausted to take another step on the trails of Cedar Ridge was miraculously restored to full energy levels once he was back on pavement.

We had come to Thanks-Giving Square to see the chapel, specifically its ceiling. But the Square itself was a pleasant surprise.

When you stand in the gold ring and speak, it amplifies your voice. Pretty cool.

The chapel is small and unassuming…

…but its stained-glass-spiral ceiling is magical.

Just inside the door is a braille description of the ceiling and a raised image of it, so that blind people can “see” what it looks like. I love that.

Thanks-Giving Square is also the entry point to the Dallas Pedestrian Network, a system of tunnel and bridges connecting 36 blocks of downtown. It’s still in use, but it’s kind of a failed experiment. We walked a little of it and saw mostly empty corridors and abandoned shopfronts.

We left the tunnels by a different exit and explored the downtown area a bit. Just to look at and walk around in, Dallas is actually one of our favorite cities. Aesthetically speaking, we like it better than downtown Austin or downtown Fort Worth. I’d never want to live in Dallas though, it’s the most unabashedly materialistic, classist and soulless culture I’ve ever experienced.

It’s hard to capture the visual appeal of Dallas in photographs. You can’t really do it from the middle distance.

You have to reveal it one close-up at a time, little snapshots of urban beauty.

Note to self: remind Elizabeth to take off the supply pack once we’re off the trails.

Ever get the feeling you was bein’ watched?

I really wanted to get a good shot of this building, which is clearly either haunted or infested by vampires, but the street was too narrow.

Best I could do:

Luke wanted to hang around and see the city at night. Since it was still fairly early in the day, and the Dallas Botanical Garden has $1 admittance in August, we decided to kill a few hours there.

As soon as Luke’s feet were back on grass, he remembered that he was too hot and tired to walk around. I was able to keep him moving for a while…

…but pretty soon he found a shady bench to nap on and said to come find him when we were ready to go.

Elizabeth and I wandered for a bit…

…and then she gave out on me too. Kids these days, no stamina just because it’s like 150 degrees out. I explored on my own for a little longer, and found some areas I’d missed on our last visit.

Always nice to find unexpected Johnny in the wild.

When I’d seen everything I wanted to see I found the kids again, but we were still a few hours away from sunset. We decided to kill time in a nice air-conditioned movie theater. Luke hadn’t seen “Baby Driver” yet since he was in Anza when Elizabeth and I went to see it, so we found a local showing. Luke loved it as much as we did.

It was still not dark yet, so when we pulled around the shopping center that the theater was in and saw an electronics store, Luke said he wanted to go in and look for something.

It was one of the oddest stores I have ever been in.

It did not have the parts Luke was looking for, but by the time he was done looking the sun was setting, so we headed back toward downtown. I don’t have many good pics from after dark, because I didn’t bring a tripod, but it was a pretty walk.

Thus ended our day in the city. As I write this, five weeks later, the heatwave has ended and the weather is turning to fall. Harvey had just submerged huge swaths of south Texas and Irma is currently plowing through Puerto Rico on her way to Florida. Most of the northwest is on fire. Interesting times.

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Travelling to the South, Part III

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

When you love to see new places but work in retail, you get pretty good at traveling on a shoestring budget. Most of what we eat and drink on our road trips is brought with us in a big cooler. But if someone recommends a particular shop or restaurant, we’ll usually include it as part of the general experience. A friend recommended a place in Austin called “Juan in a Million” for breakfast tacos.

Tangent: on last year’s road trip we fell head over heels in love with San Antonio. It’s still at the top of our list of potential places to move to after Luke turns 18. Shortly after we returned home from that trip, I went to r/SanAntonio and asked the locals what they loved or hated about living there. The responses immediately degenerated into a heated argument about where to get the best breakfast tacos. I’ve since learned that there’s a semi-friendly rivalry between Austin and San Antonio regarding which city has the best breakfast tacos. Breakfast tacos are apparently Serious Business in south Texas.

Driving from our hotel to Juan in a Million brought us through parts of the city that took some of the shine off of Luke’s wide-eyed wonder. They looked fine to me, but I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years in downtown Riverside CA in the 1980s, which people tell me was a rough and dangerous time and place to be. To Luke’s eyes, the urban outskirts of downtown Austin looked slummy and unattractive. When we reached the charming Hispanic neighborhood where Juan in a Million is located and Luke said it looked “low-income and run-down,” I realized that my next duty as a parent is to broaden my kids’ horizons in a new direction. I’ve been so focused on trying to show them the shining best of what humanity can accomplish, I’ve neglected to teach them about the pleasures and realities of average inner-city life.

Juan in a Million is great. We were seated in a breezy screened patio that had been built onto the surrounding structures in a way that retained the outdoor vibe. Food and service were wonderful.

After breakfast we drove back to Zilker Park to pick up the trail loop where we had left off on Monday night. The drive took us through more areas of the city that Luke found lacking. I guess the “weird” aspects of Austin aren’t for everyone.

We parked near Barton Springs and walked downstream to connect with the hike-and-bike trail loop where Barton Creek flows into Lady Bird Lake.

Before long we came to Lou Neff Point with its pretty stone overlook.

We continued up the hike-and-bike trail, which gets less parky and more woodsy as you go.

You know those old prison movies where the rebellious hero inevitably ends up roasting in a metal box out in the hot sun? That’s what these metal restrooms reminded me of:

The trail crosses the river/lake at MoPac Expwy and circles back along the other bank.

We had planned to follow the trail at least back to Congress Ave before looping back to the car, but we got as far as the pedestrian bridge next to Lamar and kind of all decided at once that we had walked enough. It was getting hot again.

On the city side, the pedestrian bridge offers stairs for pedestrians and a spiral ramp for bicyclers. Of course we walked up the spiral.

The “power plant” fascinated Luke. He could tell at a glance that it didn’t seem to be in operation, and he wondered what sort of power it was generating and how.

As I write this blog post, I have googled info on the building and found that it is in fact no longer in operation as a power plant, that it is now a historical site and a multi-use structure. There you go, Luke.

The pedestrian bridge is lovely. The view from the top:

We crossed back over and returned to the car.

At that point we had to make a decision about whether to start the journey home ahead of commuter traffic, or commit to remaining in Austin until after the rush. We decided to stay.

Luke “collects” libraries, and the biggest one in Austin is at the University of Texas, so that was our next stop. Views of the University from the top of the parking garage…

…and the infamous clock tower viewed from near the library.

We were stopped at the entrance of the LBJ Presidential Library and told that it is only accessible by appointment and costs $10 per adult. Wtf? We asked if there were other, more visitor-friendly locations on campus and were directed to a small Texas history museum next door. If I had done more research before the trip, I would have learned that there are like a hundred libraries on that campus and almost all are free and open to the public. Thanks, unhelpful door guy! I’m going to be honest here, the few people we interacted with in Austin did not make a good first impression. The exception to that was some workers at Zilker Park who cheerfully called out to us as we were about to put money in the parking meters and told us that parking there is free on weekdays. I paid the good deed forward by stopping three other people from putting money in the park meters over the course of our three-day stay. In general, though, Austin seemed to be seriously lacking in the Texas friendliness that I’ve always liked so much.

Anyway, we wandered through the tiny museum and then gave up on the University and headed over to the flagship Whole Foods on Lamar. This is the original Whole Foods location, with corporate headquarters occupying the upper floors, a full-service restaurant inside the store and lots of special extras. I liked the living tapestry:

We wanted to explore the rooftop patio area, but the day was getting oppressively hot. It seemed like a good time to try that mochi stuff we’ve been seeing around lately. If you haven’t seen it, mochi is a Japanese dessert, basically balls of ice cream wrapped in a sweet rice dough. We picked out a bunch of different flavors and took them up to the roof.

My verdict: the ice cream is delicious, but I’m not a fan of the rice dough. It tastes raw and gluey to me. Loved the patio, though.

We still wanted to add an Austin library to Luke’s collection, so we googled “best library in Austin” and drove to the branch that was highest on most of the lists without being prohibitively far away.

All I can say is that this branch either paid to top those lists, or it offers services that go far beyond what is visible to the eye, or the reviewers are trolling en masse. It is a tiny, dreary, uninspiring library. Elizabeth found a place to sit with her laptop in the children’s section while Luke explored what little there was to see. She was immediately asked to leave the children’t section for being “too old to be in there.” Seriously, wtf?

No longer trusting reviews, we decided that the main central branch might be a safer bet. By then the commuter traffic was starting to get problematic, so we got to the central library as quickly as we could and settled in for the duration.

The central branch was…better, but that’s a low bar. Luke liked it because it’s four stories high and the third story is full of the informative non-fiction that he’s into. I found the decor (or lack thereof) to be depressingly drab and industrial. We all agreed that for whatever reason, Austinites do not love their public libraries and put no effort into making them cheerful or inviting.

We started the trek home when the library closed at 8pm. Getting home took over an hour longer than the drive down, because all of the traffic horror stories we had heard were rolled into one long stop-and-slow clusterfuck on I35 N.

We loved our visit to Austin, but ultimately decided that San Antonio is probably a better fit for us. Deciding factors include cost of living, traffic issues, a rather unfriendly social vibe and a straight up depressing library system.

Awesome breakfast tacos, though.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, food, frugality, Humor, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Traveling to the South, Part II

The first destination on Tuesday’s itinerary was Mt. Bonnell. We weren’t sure what to expect from “the highest point in Austin,” we really just wanted something to climb and a nice view from the top.

We got up early and drove to Covert Park in the relative cool-ish of the morning.We found a strip of parking spots and a stone staircase leading up a hillside.

There are about 100 steps, and when you’ve reached the top of the stairs, you’ve reached the top of Mt Bonnell.

There are shaded seating areas at the peak. This is a very domesticated “mountain.”

It wasn’t quite the climb we were expecting, but the views are great.

Luke said, “I think I can see Toad Hall from here.”

We found a trail at the top that runs along the crest and down the sides, curving around at both ends to emerge on either side of the parking lot. Once we had walked the full length of that, we felt like we had seen everything that Mt. Bonnel had to offer. We decided to just drive around for a while and see what there was to find.

We hadn’t driven far when we saw the entrance to Mayfield Park. A friend had mentioned that there are peacocks wandering around that park, so we pulled in. Can confirm: there are peacocks, and they wail in the trees like cats in heat.

We walked a nice little loop trail through the park and then continued our exploration.

Next we found the Contemporary Austin Sculpture Park. That was interesting.

After that we came to the Zilker Park Botanical Gardens.

I was honestly surprised by how little effort seemed to be put into this.

It’s like they had a few spare acres they didn’t know what to do with, so they decided to put in some stone terracing and a few pools and some koi and call it the Botanical Gardens.

The Botanical Gardens in Fort Worth and Dallas and hell, even Grapevine are nicer than the ones in Zilker Park, which was a genuine surprise to me. I don’t mean to sound complainy, it was still pretty and we enjoyed it. It just didn’t seem that different from any other park in Austin.

I have no idea why we’re standing so awkwardly far apart in this pic. I think it’s because I set the camera timer and ran over to join the kids and they just stayed where they were instead of scooching in.

I did like the dinosaur.

And there was a fun temporary exhibit of fairy houses made by local families and organizations. That was probably my favorite part.

It’s a hop, skip and a jump from the Botanical Gardens to Zilker Metropolitan Park, so that was our next stop. We wanted to see Barton Springs Pool and decide whether we wanted to go swimming there. On our way to the pool, we found a little miniature railroad that gives 25-minute rides around the park. We bought tickets. While we waited for the train, we checked out the pool and the adjacent creek swimming area and then had some snacks from a food truck. We were hungry enough for a full meal, but we had a 1pm lunch date with an old friend and didn’t want to spoil our appetites.

The train ride was fun and pretty.

We passed a kayak rental place and decided to come back and rent some kayaks after lunch. We passed Lou Neff Point and recognized the stone overlook as the place where we had decided to turn back on our hike the night before. In the distance we saw a big random heap of rocks in the middle of a field of grass, and of course we knew immediately that they must be climbed.

When the train ride ended, we made a beeline for the rocks. I have no idea why we love climbing stuff so much, but it’s a call that must be answered.

At 12:30 we headed off in search of a Whataburger. Now, I realize that visiting Austin and eating at Whataburger is like visiting NYC and eating at the Olive Garden in Times Square. But here’s the story for those who don’t know it: years ago, when play-by-email rpgs were my drug of choice, I played in a game called Austin After Dark. A key scene in that game was set in a Whataburger off of S Lamar. When I was planning the Austin trip, I messaged a fellow AAD player who lives in the area, told her that I would be in the city and asked her if she’d like to meet up at a certain Whataburger off of S Lamar to raise an iced-tea toast to our old characters and their adventures. She said that she would love to meet up, but that that particular Whataburger had closed down. However, there is another Whataburger off of S Lamar that would do just as well. So we met up there and had a really nice visit. I had only met her in person once before, on the 2007 road trip that launched this blog, but we have a gaming history that dates back to a Star Trek pbem I joined in 2002. (As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Luke commented, “I have no memory of that person, but that was a nice conversation.”)

After lunch, we headed back to Zilker park and rented three kayaks.

 

Elizabeth wanted to paddle all the way to the Congress Ave Bridge to see the bats underneath. I told her that the kayaks were rented out by the hour and that there was no way we could get to Congress Ave and back in an hour. She was very determined to try. So I told her we could make the attempt, as long as she agreed to pay for the second hour. She agreed to that, and we headed down the river.

Turns out you can’t actually see the bats in the daytime. You can hear them squeaking, but I guess parts of the bridge are hollow and they live inside. We chilled for a while and listened to their shrill little bat-voices.

Elizabeth got this shot with her phone camera. Swans!

My life’s philosophy in a nutshell:

Our expedition to the bridge and back took about an hour and twenty minutes. But the rental place only charged us for an hour, so Elizabeth was off the hook for her share.

Barton Springs Pool is fenced in and it costs money to swim there.

We decided that it would be more fun to swim in the adjacent creek area.

That would have been a good call if we had thought to bring pool shoes. The bottom of the creek is very rocky and slippery. And the spring-fed creek is COLD! We swam for less than an hour. Brr!

Our original plan had been to spend two days in Austin, but halfway through Day 2 we knew we wanted to stay for a third day. We didn’t want to stay at the same motel, though. We had only picked it because it was cheap and all we wanted was a place to sleep. But when we checked in they had added a bunch of bullshit extra fees (per-person charges in addition to the cost of the room? Really? AND you’re charging me per device for wifi?) that made it not-so-cheap. For the second night we stayed at a hotel next to the motel where we’d spent the first night. It was nicer and didn’t cost any more than the “cheap” motel had, since wifi was free and no weird fees were tacked onto the room cost.

Luke wanted to wait until dark and then walk around downtown to see the city lights close-up. I did not have the energy for another hike. We compromised: I napped at the hotel until dark and then we drove around downtown. That was pretty magical, and everything Luke hoped it would be.

Then we returned to the hotel and I slept like the dead for so long that we barely made it out of the room by the 11am checkout time.

Next: Day 3!

Read Part I here

Read Part III here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, Austin After Dark, environment, Family, food, Friends, Gaming, Humor, kids, Life, Road trip, Role-Playing Games, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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