Artwork

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

Merry Christmas!

The secret to getting hand-drawn Christmas cards designed, assembled and mailed out on time when you work in retail is to start them around June and have them finished and ready to mail by Thanksgiving. I think I need to start doing my gift shopping/making that way too.

Merry Christmas!

Categories: Animals, Artwork, Celebrations, Christmas, Holidays, Life, Uncategorized, Wildlife, Winter | 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.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, Family, kids, Life | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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

Travelling to the South, Part I

In March a fortune cookie told me it was time for another road trip:

So this week I cashed in some vacation time and we headed down to Austin. The trip was part recreation, part research. Once Luke turns 18 we’ll be free to relocate to wherever we please, so we’re checking out our options. There’s a lot to like about DFW, but we had never planned to grow old and die here.

We headed out bright and early on a Monday morning…and a warning light appeared on my dash display as soon as we pulled out of our parking lot.

My gallant Saturn, may she rest in peace, died a sudden and unjust death last fall when another car ran her out of her freeway lane and into the concrete divider. My new car has more bells and whistles than I’m used to, so I didn’t recognize the ominous-looking caliper-and-exclamation-point icon. Not going to lie, I was imagining the worst. But I stopped to get ice for the cooler as planned while Elizabeth googled warning light symbols for my car. Turned out it was just a low-tire-pressure warning. Whew!

The next stop was our favorite local donut shop, The Donut Wheel in Hurst. We have become indoctrinated in the Texas way of the kolache and needed a dozen sausage for the road. I recently read that the sausage ones aren’t really kolaches at all, they are klobasniki, but I’ve never actually heard anyone call them that.

Once properly provisioned, we headed to a nearby Firestone to put air in the tires. The warning light went out, and as an added bonus I’ve noticed a big improvement in gas mileage.

Of course we stopped in West, the kolache capital of Texas, to resupply. We went to a different bakery this time, because I’d heard good things about their cinnamon rolls.

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Check out the nice scuff on my shiny new bumper. Just a few months after I replaced the Saturn, I got rear-ended by an uninsured driver. Their front end was all crumpled in, though, so I guess my little scuff could have been a lot worse.

Anyway, the cinnamon rolls turned out to be intimidatingly enormous, so we got a dozen fruit and cheese kolaches instead. They were yummy.

I was expecting traffic to start being awful somewhere around Temple and stay awful the whole time we were in Austin. Surprisingly, traffic wasn’t an issue at all, even within Austin proper, until our return drive.

When I first started planning the trip, it was all about the outdoor activities. But then the forecast showed temps above 100º both days, so we started thinking of ways to stay cool and still have fun. I asked Luke if he’d like to tour the State Capitol Building, and he gave me an enthusiastic yes. That was our first stop as soon as we rolled into the city.

It is gorgeous, every inch of it.

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I found a self-tour booklet for Luke and let him lead the way, since he’s the political/history wonk in the family.

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I loved all the little architectural details.

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Even the door hinges are lovely!

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In the early 1990s, an expansion was added beneath (or sunk into, I guess) the north plaza of the original building.

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I wanted to explore the whole grounds, but once we were outside the heat made Luke cranky. I took a quick tour while he waited on a shady bench. I mostly saw tributes to Confederate soldiers and Texas’ role in the Civil War…

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…but my favorite sculpture was a large scene honoring the pioneers that settled Texas.

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It really was too sweltering to spend much time outside. We found a nearby motel and the kids napped through the hottest hours of the afternoon. I woke them up when it was almost time for the bats to emerge from the Congress Ave Bridge.

We wanted to explore the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake, so I parked down by the softball park near Longhorn Dam and we walked up the boardwalk side of the bank toward Congress Ave as dusk gathered.

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The unbearable crowds we’d been warned about never really materialized either. We saw people out and about, jogging or walking their dogs or just enjoying the parks and trails along the river, but we never felt crowded at all.

Luke and Elizabeth were mildly taken aback by Austin’s very casual dress code. In the Metroplex, at least in the areas we frequent, you would never see guys walking around in nothing but shorts and sneakers, or women wearing just sports bras and spandex shorts, the way you do in Austin. As Elizabeth put it, “DFW is King’s Landing and Austin is Highgarden.”

Another thing we noticed was an inexplicable absence of mosquitoes. Walking along a woodsy river at twilight in July, we should have been eaten alive. I don’t think I got a single mosquito bite the entire time we were in Austin.

I was expecting big crowds around the bat-bridge at least, but there was plenty of room for everyone. We decided to watch the show from up on the bridge itself. We got to the top just as the bats began to emerge.

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I had imagined a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it event that lasts less than a minute, but it’s nothing like that. The bats just keep on coming. Suddenly the lack of mosquitoes made sense.

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When the bat-exodus finally ended, we continued up the trail with the intention of hiking the entire loop around the lake.

We saw Stevie Ray Vaughn…

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And got some sweet views of the Austin skyline lighting up.

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Eventually we realized that we would not have time to complete the loop before the trail closed at 10pm. Since a series of bridges crosses the river/lake, we decided to cross the next bridge we came to and head back toward the car.

But somehow, even after we had crossed the next bridge and headed “back,” the city lights were still getting farther and farther away.

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Finally we decided to just stop, turn around and backtrack to the car.

If it had been daytime, we would have easily seen the problem. But it was completely dark out by then and we were unfamiliar with the area. We were about halfway back to the car before I realized that the bridge we had crossed must have been the one spanning the Barton Creek tributary rather than the river itself. That’s not a mistake we could have made in the daylight.

We didn’t make it back to the car until around 10:30, but no one bothered us. The illuminated buildings provided some nice scenery along the way.

The most noticeable change after the 10pm curfew was that the joggers and dog-walkers were replaced by homeless people settling into the corners for the night.

I had been in so much of a hurry to see the bats that I completely missed the belts the first time across the boardwalk, but I looked for them on the way back. They are all along the railings: little sculpted metal belts with bits of song lyrics engraved onto them. You can barely see the letters in the glare of my camera flash, but this one says, “In dreams I walk with you.”

Our car was right where we left it, and we were all ready for a good night’s sleep.

Thus ended our first day in Austin. Much more to follow!

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Artwork, environment, Family, food, Humor, kids, Life, Love, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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