It was nearly 10PM on the dark Colorado River. Behind us lay the ultra-modern buildings of downtown Austin. Ahead of us lay pitch black. Somewhere on our right was the public dock where we launched our kayak from. There we were in the middle of the still river, with no one else around, tired, hungry, and ready to call it an evening.
And then Daniel said: “We’re like the only ones out here. This is kinda scary!”
My encouragement: “Well, at least no one’s going to mug us!”
Our trip to Austin began when we woke up at 5:30AM that morning. Aiming to leave the house by 6:30AM, we left at 6:50AM instead (a twenty-minute delay is pretty good by our family’s standards!) in my intrepid little Mazda 3 and arrived in Austin just after ten, stopping only in Georgetown so Daniel could buy a second breakfast at Chick-Fil-A. No, he doesn’t have furry feet.
Arriving in Austin, our hopes and dreams were dashed by the horrendous traffic. Being that it’s Austin, I expected some traffic, but thought that it would be greatly diminished since we were rolling in after rush hour. I was wrong and I should have known better, but I learned my first lesson of the trip—traffic in Austin is almost always bad.
Our first stop upon arriving was the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, which I hear some call “Graffiti Park” or the graffiti park. If you want to leave your mark on some concrete (at least until someone else leaves their mark over yours), practice some photography, or simply climb to the top for a great view of the city, this is the place. We didn’t bring any spray paint and opted not to buy any from the vendor there, so we simply took some photos and enjoyed the view.
While we were near downtown, Shoe Man Dan wanted to visit the Shoe Palace store on The Drag (Guadalupe St.), which is located right next to the infamous Tyler’s (where the “Keep Austin Weird” shirts are sold). Daniel looked at all the latest styles while I enjoyed the air conditioning, and then we decided on a whim to visit a turtle pond on the University of Texas campus.
What was once a serene pond of placid turtles is now a frothing sea of hungry reptiles, thanks in part to Daniel trying to get some action footage of the turtles with my NoPro. Sadly, the SD card is apparently corrupted and it remains to be seen whether the action footage will ever be seen.
Having driven off all the UT students looking for a quiet place to study, we decided it was time for lunch and headed off to Wild Bubba’s Wild Game Grill, which is quite a drive from downtown. Wild Bubba’s is located southeast of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack (another place worth visiting; our family toured it last year) and serves some of the best burgers I’ve ever had. I ate a yak burger and Daniel had a kangaroo one. Both were delicious, and I learned that yak is apparently one of the most nutritious meats you can eat, being 96-98% lean and containing vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Who says you can’t have your burger and eat it too?
After filling our bellies and the Mazda’s gas tank, we drove to Camp Mabry so we could visit the Texas Military Forces Museum located on the base. Unfortunately, we had only an hour before it closed, so we had to make the most of our time and skip over some things that we wanted to spend more time looking at. However, it is a fantastic museum dedicated to the history of Texas and the military, from the days of Texas Independence to the modern National Guard.
Our plan for the evening was to kayak down the Colorado River and watch the bats fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. Instead of paying out the nose to rent a kayak and do a group tour, we brought Daniel’s inflato-yak and found a public boat launch by Austin High School where we could put in. The bridge was only a mile or so southeast of our launch point, and we figured we could get down there with no sweat. After checking in at our AirBNB in southwest Austin, we grabbed dinner at Plucker’s and headed to the river.
We inflated and assembled the kayak on the road by the school, locked the car, and carried the ‘yak to the waterside. With our valuables stored in waterproof cases and carabiner-ed to our trunks, we boarded the vessel and began paddling down the river.
Actually, we found ourselves paddling up the river. The current was flowing against us. Most everyone else on the river at the time, including a rowing team, paddled the other way, with the current. “It’s okay,” I said to Daniel. “This means we’ll be paddling with the current when we come back.”
We pressed ahead, passing locals on paddleboards with their dogs happily sitting there with them. After thirty minutes, we were about to pass underneath a bridge, but not the right bridge. Daniel pulled out his phone while I kept motoring ahead, and determined (with my aid, since he’s not the best navigator) that we had to pass underneath two road bridges, a pedestrian bridge, and a train bridge before we made it to Congress Avenue. We also determined that our inflato-yak was likely the reason we weren’t moving very fast through the water, due to its less-than-rigid construction. We pressed on, needing to cover quite the distance before sundown because that was when the bats would come out.
We paddled hard, and barely made it. Right as we approached the bridge, bats began flying out in scores. Thousands of them, tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. They squeaked and fluttered as they formed a black trail through the sky, hunting for bugs. I think I heard one of the other people on the river (someone who paid to kayak, but probably had a better launch point) say that the number of bats that fly out every night is somewhere around 1.5 million. Wow.
I have no pictures of the bats, as I didn’t want to risk taking my DSLR out on the water. Daniel took plenty on his phone and shared them with all his friends, but not with me. I’m just his brother. Nevertheless, when in Austin, check the bats out!
And that brings us back to where this bro-trip report all started. After getting our fill of the bats getting their fill, we turned around and paddled back to the boat launch. The sun had set, and once we were past the lights of downtown and enclosed by trees on either side of the river, it got really dark, really fast. The current died down, too. So much for paddling with the current. We were paddling with no current.
Two lesser men might have given up, and tried to get off the river somewhere else, but not us. No, we stuck it out, despite darkness, tired shoulders, and Daniel’s complaints about the darkness and his tired shoulders. I’m happy to report that we did eventually make it back to the boat launch, but only after we passed it once and had to paddle back to it. We expeditiously took the kayak apart, haphazardly reloaded it into my car, and wearily drove to our accommodations for a much-needed night’s sleep.
The next morning, we got a slow start as we were still tired from the previous day’s adventure. After breakfast, we geared up for a more relaxing day hiking in Pedernales Falls State Park near Johnson City.
Though hot, the scenery was gorgeous. The Texas Hill Country has some beautiful and interesting geology. Plenty of people were there enjoying nature, some of whom were enjoying it a little too much by swimming where they weren’t supposed to.
We hiked and climbed over rocks, then went to where we could legally swim in the Pedernales River. In a moment of stupidity, I forgot my trunks and sandals in the car, so I sat the swim out. Daniel enjoyed hanging out in the water, however, and I enjoyed the shade.
Once we felt hiked out, we drove back to Austin for a very late lunch, and then spent the early evening exploring downtown some more. We drove down Congress Avenue towards the Texas State Capitol, and eventually found ourselves back on The Drag, where we decided to park and walk around. Daniel bought himself a shirt from Tyler’s, while I decided I didn’t need another shirt, pair of shoes, or any other souvenir to remember the trip by.
Austin is an interesting city. It’s weird, and there are plenty of “weird” people, but it’s also got its fair share of normal and “normal” people. (Though I think the “weird” Austinites thought that we two conservative Christian brothers were the weird ones!) I saw plenty of “Beto For Senate” signs and the hippie-dippie types, but also a decent number of trucks with conservative bumper stickers and even the occasional cowboy or rancher. Daniel and I both think that Austin is like part of California transplanted into the heart of Texas. That means you get both the natural and man-made beauty of San Francisco, but unfortunately you also get the liberals.
Still, the city has a strange charm that keeps drawing me back. This was the third weekend I’ve spent there, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back for more. Next time, though, we’re using real kayaks.