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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

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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

Crystal Canyon, and Back to Bob Jones

Our most recent park discovery is Crystal Canyon Natural Area in Arlington.

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This is a smallish park with a single half-mile soft-surface trail loop.

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It packs a lot of appeal into a tiny package, thanks to the woodsy setting and some interesting geographical features. The creek is fantastic, but you have to go off-trail to explore it.

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The “canyon” part is what lured us to this park. We miss the mountains of California and were looking forward to a bit of climbing, so we were kind of disappointed by the overall flatness of the loop trail.

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But near the end, a smaller “desire path” branches off from the main trail and heads straight up the canyon wall. It’s not exactly rock-climbing, or even particularly steep, but it’s a nice little workout and offers a rewarding view from the top.

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In the end we gave Crystal Canyon three thumbs up, but mostly for the creek and the hill-climbing detour.

In other news, the Texas mud has finally killed my 19-year-old Ariat riding boots.

My new Ariats are waterproof. Let’s see if they’re a better match for the Texas climate.

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The day after my new boots arrived, I got to try them out at Bob Jones Park, which was just as awesome the second time around.

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This time I used my Professional’s Choice saddle pad, which puts a solid inch and a half of high-density foam between the treeless saddle (and my butt) and Mahogany’s spine and withers. It also has a cut-out over her withers, so there is no pressure on them.  It was very comfortable for both of us, but almost comically oversized for the saddle. Here is a picture of me taking a picture of sailboats on Grapevine Lake, in which you can see the pad and the saddle .

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On a related tangent, every time I see a photo of myself on a trail ride, I am jarred by how much my camera case disrupts the lines of my clothing. I’ve decided to buy a small tactical pack to hang on my saddle that will hold everything that I carry on rides: camera, phone, keys, etc. I much prefer having that stuff on me rather than my horse, because if we get separated only one of us knows how to use the phone. I think vanity is going to win this one, though. Also my keys jingle-jangle distractingly when I hang them from my belt loop, and my phone tends to work its way out of my pocket at the trot. So I guess the pack will solve three issues at once.

Anyway, beautiful park. I can’t wait to see it in the summertime.

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I have a future post brewing about all of the benefits, problems and solutions involved in transitioning to a treeless saddle. Stay tuned!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, Friends, Horses, kids, Life, trail rides, treeless saddle, Winter | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Winter Woods

The stars and my schedule finally aligned enough to let me join a few other members of my riding club for a trail ride at Bob Jones Park in Southlake.

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I have mentioned before how bleak and dreary the Metroplex looks in winter, but even in the off-season this is a beautiful park.

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Mahogany and I are absolutely loving the treeless saddle. She’s like a different horse now, so relaxed and agreeable. It’s killing me to realize how much of our past trouble was caused by something as easy to fix as an ill-fitting saddle.

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I will admit that about two hours into the ride, my butt was missing the nice comfy seat of my Circle Y saddle. But I think I can resolve that issue (and a couple of others) with the right saddle pad.

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The equestrian trails at Bob Jones Park lie along the southwestern shore of Grapevine Lake.

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Mahogany was a surprisingly good sport about venturing out into the lake, as long as her buddy Kokomo went too.

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This is such a great place to ride! I can’t wait to go back.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Friends, Horses, Life, trail rides, trees, Weather, Winter | Tags: | Leave a comment

Deep in the Heart of Texas (Road Trip, Part I)

I like my job, but retail is a harsh mistress. When my supervisor mentioned that I should use my accrued personal time soon, before things started picking up for the holidays, I did not argue. Luke had a birthday coming up on the 16th, and school doesn’t start here until the 22nd. Clearly it was time for a large-scale outing.

At the planning stage, we were in the middle of a brutal heatwave that had been dragging mercilessly on for weeks. Where, I pondered, can one escape both heat and the galling harness of civilization? In a cave, naturally. The cool, sprawling caverns of south Texas. Luke was immediately on board with this.

The original plan was pretty simple. Drive down to Natural Bridge Caverns, check out the famed San Antonio Riverwalk while we were down there, maybe poke around in Austin on our way through. Nearly everyone I mentioned this plan to told me about something they particularly enjoyed in that neck of the woods, and said I should check it out. In the spirit of exploration and adventure, I wrote down all of these suggestions and added them to our itinerary. Some of them ended up being highlights of the trip.

We rolled out of DFW via Fort Worth a little after 8 am on Monday morning, with a light rain adding to the sense of adventure and some heavy commuter traffic whetting our appetite for freedom on the open road. Around 10 am we pulled into the small town of West and made our first stop of the day.

So, kolaches. I’d never even heard of them before we moved out here, but Texans freaking love them. The fruit version is basically what Californians call “Danish pastry” or just “Danish.” Texans like them with sausage instead of fruit. My impression of West, TX, is that it was originally settled by Czechs who took their native love of kolaches to a new level and created a whole local industry around them. We were barely on the outskirts when the billboards started advertising about kolaches at this or that bakery. I’d say we drove past at least four Czech-style bakeries with the word KOLACHES emblazoned on their exteriors just in the half-mile between our exit and the particular bakery that had been suggested to us.

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To be fair, kolaches are pretty tasty. We bought an assorted dozen of link sausage, ground sausage, fruit and even mocha-espresso-and-cream-cheese kolaches, and the nice lady even added three chocolate chip cookies for free and wished us happy and safe travels. Texans are a lovely people.

Another friend had said that the Inner Space caverns in Georgetown are a must-see, so that was our next stop. By then the sprinkles had become a downpour, and we were feeling grateful that our travel plans hadn’t relied on sunny weather.

Luke is going through a phase where he does not smile in photographs. Apparently he agrees with Mark Twain’s philosophy that “a photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.” He enjoyed the road trip as much as Elizabeth and I did, but you would never know it to look at the photos. All of his “foolish smiles” vanished as soon as the camera came out.

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The Inner Space caverns were pretty spectacular. This formation looks to me like an ancient throne room where everyone was turned to stone by some evil curse:

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As beautiful as the caverns are, the guided-tour format felt a bit too much like civilization. The faux cave-paintings at the bottom are a good example of this. I enjoyed them, but they added to the impression that we were at some sort of “Prehistoric Land” theme park instead of exploring a cave. And the pathways were all very Structured and Safe.

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We decided that someday soon, maybe over spring break, we will seek out some untamed caves in the wild. They won’t be as fancy as the “show caverns,” but I think we’ll have more fun exploring them.

The rain was coming down in sheets by the time we got to Austin, so our plans to check out the trails around Lady Bird Lake were rescheduled for the return trip. The San Antonio Riverwalk wasn’t looking too promising at that point either. Around 4:30 pm we checked into a hotel in San Marcos to wait out the worst of the rain and see if the weather would clear.

The kids fell asleep pretty much the instant we got into the hotel room. I walked to a nearby McDonalds to score some free wifi and check the weather reports. (I had originally planned to pay for motel wifi, but I was so astonished by the fact that they wanted to charge me per device that I just told them never mind.) Anyway, according to San Antonio’s weather forecast, the downpour was expected to lighten to scattered showers that evening, and then more thunderstorms would roll in the next day. I let the kids nap for about two hours, and then we got back on the road.

By the time we got to New Braunfels, I was realizing the folly of getting a hotel in San Marcos instead of closer to San Antonio. We did a lot of unnecessary backtracking over the next 18 hours. What can I say, the distances looked a lot shorter on the map.

The rain petered out to on-and-off sprinkles just as we found a place to park near the Riverwalk. Sweet!

The San Antonio Riverwalk was easily my favorite part of the whole trip. It looks like what would happen if Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride were relocated to Riverside’s Mission District. But even cooler than that. It’s actually built a full story below street level; here’s the view from where we parked just above it.

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Sorry about the weird filter, I wasn’t paying attention to my camera settings. Anyway, you access the Riverwalk via staircases at every street crossing. Once you’re down there, everything is magical.

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When the sun set, we headed over to get a look at the Alamo, which is within easy walking distance of the Riverwalk. Just based on what people had told us, we were pretty much expecting to see a crumbling ruin huddled in between a 7-11 and a Denny’s. Our expectations were wildly exceeded. The whole downtown area is completely gorgeous.

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We had one more stop to make before we left San Antonio. I had lamented in the past that I miss California-style Mexican food, and that Tex Mex is much too spicy-hot for the kids and I to endure, much less enjoy. So a friend told me to check out Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia, which she thought we would like.

My method of navigation in unfamiliar places is to drive toward the nearest freeway (never far away in Texas cities), pull into the first McDonald’s or Starbucks I see (also never far away), and use their wifi to chart a course on my iPad. When I did this to search for Mi Tierra, I realized that we could have walked from downtown to the restaurant, if it weren’t after dark in a strange city. We could have walked there from the McDonald’s, for that matter, but the rain was starting to pick up again.

We cruised around the restaurant looking for a parking spot, and found a line of parking meters near this pretty mural:

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I was just about to drop some money when I noticed that the operating hours ended at 6pm. Just to be on the safe side, I walked over to a police car parked nearby and asked one of the officers if I needed to feed the meter.

“It’s free,” she said cheerfully.”Catch all the Pokemon you can!”

Mi Tierra is located within a “Little Mexico” type mercado, a festive marketplace. Disappointingly, the shops were closed by the time we got there. But the restaurant itself is open 24/7, and it is wonderful.

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My friend was right about the food. It tasted like home.

I don’t have words for how much I loved the visit to San Antonio. It made my artist’s soul happy in a way that nothing else has since my last Christmas in California. I am thinking about moving down there after Luke graduates. Not even joking. I want to be a part of that city.

We drove back to the hotel in a happy haze, and passed out as soon as we got to our beds.

Day 2 in the next post!

Categories: Birthdays, Celebrations, Family, food, Friends, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | 1 Comment

Spring Break, Part II

Luke, Elizabeth and I had planned out Tuesday’s itinerary long before Emma stepped off the plane. The rest of the week was left to the whims of fortune until Wednesday morning rolled around and we still had nothing planned for my Thursday off. I instructed the three of them to come up with a detailed flight plan by the time I got home from work that night. They did not disappoint.

So our first destination on Thursday morning was the Ripley’s Believe or Not Odditorium.

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The shiny silver dinosaurs outside the building are constructed entirely of chrome car bumpers. The blue dino and the adorable gorilla are made from random machine parts.

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Once inside, our first stop was Louis Tussaud’s Palace of Wax.

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Bear with me, I’m still getting the hang of my camera’s indoor settings. My last camera really struggled in low-light areas, so now I habitually overcompensate. Working on that.

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After the Palace of Wax, we braved the Enchanted Mirror Maze.

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I wouldn’t describe it as “enchanting” so much as “disorienting as fuck.”

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It was fun, but kind of short. We probably would have spent more time in there if we hadn’t used the classic “right turns only” method to prevent aimless wandering.

Next up was the Odditorium itself.

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The shadow wall is really cool. You stand against the wall, a bright light flashes and your silhouette is “saved” as a slowly-fading shadow. Unfortunately, I only got one good photo of this effect.

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After the first one I remembered to turn on my camera’s flash, and it turns out that the flash completely washes out the shadow effect, thusly:

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Bummer. But the Odditorium was full of awesome, bizarre stuff. For example, horses and cows get made into handbags all the time. But some enterprising artist decided to turn a bunch of handbags back into a horse-cow.

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Actually, “things made out of other things” describes like 80% of the Odditorium.

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Plus some cool movie props.

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We goofed around in the activity room for a while.

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The video wall was fun. We’re the four silhouettes on the left.

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Exit through the gift shop.

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By then we were pretty hungry, so we headed over to the Mellow Mushroom in Arlington. Their pizza is amazing, unlike my potato-quality iPad selfie:

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Took a better pic outside.

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On the way home we drove past River Legacy and impulsively decided to pull in.

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This is one of our favorite local parks. Entry sign photo to make it an official addition to the collection:

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River Legacy has some magnificent trails along the Trinity River, but after all of our adventuring none of us were really up for a hike. A frolic on the playground was totally doable, though.

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From there it was an easy walk next door to the Science Center.

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The warm sunshine felt like heaven to a heat-lover like me.

On Saturday morning, we begrudgingly fed Emma to the sky gods at Love Field Airport.

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It was so much fun having her out for Spring Break! Hopefully we’ll be able to do that again.

And now I need to sit down and read my camera’s user manual cover to cover, because the number of wasted shots I ended up deleting last week made me die a little inside. It’s time to learn how to use this thing.

Happy spring!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, Artwork, environment, Family, food, Friends, Holidays, kids, Life, Love | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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