Bro-Trip Report: Austin, TX

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!”

HOPE Outdoor Gallery.

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.

Lots of development downtown. Daniel gets credit for this photo, which includes the spacious Texas sky.

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.

Daniel disturbing the peace.

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.

The Texas Military Forces Museum had some really cool dioramas, including this one depicting the American 36th Infantry fighting the German Army in Italy.
A fine quote from a fine general.
The flag says it all.

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.

The distance we kayaked, starting near Austin High School to the northwest and down to the Congress Avenue Bridge to the southeast. I estimate it was 1.5 miles one-way.

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.

Some of the rocks at Pedernales Falls State Park.

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.

Daniel “mav-ing up” with both hands.

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.

Trip Report: Waco, TX

On a whim, I decided to take a Friday trip down to Waco. Having passed through the city many times en route to other destinations, I’d never stopped there for more than a bite to eat. I wanted to get away for the day, and since Waco is slightly over a one-hour drive from home, it made perfect sense as my destination.

The two biggest attractions in Waco, from what know, are Baylor University and Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia. However, my biggest attraction to Waco was the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, something I had seen the signs for every time I passed through yet never visited. (That’s the law enforcement agency, not the baseball team. Chuck Norris, not Nolan Ryan.) In researching other things to do in Waco, I discovered the Waco Mammoth National Monument, an archaeological site with in situ remains of Columbian mammoths that is operated by the National Park Service. With those two items on the itinerary, plus a lunch at Captain Billy Whizzbang’s Hamburgers, the day looked to be a good one.

Camera in tow, I left home at 6:45AM and made a quick stop to top off my gas tank. I also checked my oil, something good to do before any road trip. All that done, I hit the road.

The drive to Waco early in the morning is pretty uneventful. One of my dad’s road-trip philosophies is to find a semi driving about the speed you want to travel and follow behind him. This strategy is good for two reasons: one, the semi cuts through the wind, allowing cars behind to travel in a slipstream (i.e., reduced drag on my car); and two, it takes some pressure off the driver of the car, since not much is going to happen between the semi trailer and the car’s front bumper. If something happens, it’s going to happen in front of the semi, and if worse comes to worst, he’ll take the brunt of it. I was able to “link up” with a southbound truck from Oklahoma and follow him all the way into the city. For anyone who doesn’t think much about this tip, ride in an older car like mine that has some rattles, clanks, and wind noise, and you’ll notice that the trip behind a semi is a whole lot smoother and quieter than it would be otherwise.

I arrived in Waco just after 8:00AM and made a stop at WalMart to use the restroom and buy a Rand McNally road atlas (“The Book of Dreams,” as Neil Peart would call it—and I would agree), something I’d been meaning to acquire as a backup to GPS and in preparation for future road trips. That done, I drove to the Ranger museum and hung out at the adjacent city visitor center until the museum’s doors opened at 9:00AM. A tip: stop at the visitor’s center to receive a coupon brochure with discounts for many attractions and restaurants.

The Ranger museum did not disappoint. In fact, it contained a whole lot more than I thought it would. I spent over three hours there admiring displays of firearms, equipment, and other memorabilia. The 45-minute film they show is a bit dated, a History Channel documentary on VHS, but still very informative in that it provided me a starting point from which to interpret and appreciate everything else the museum had to offer. For $8 ($7 with the coupon), it was money well-spent.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I had my camera on the wrong setting (I’m still learning how to use a DSLR!), so most of my pictures either came out really bad or not at all. Still, here are three of the best that showcase just a fraction of what the museum has to offer.

A display case of Colt revolvers. There were more Colts at this museum than you could shake a stick at. There were also interactive exhibits where you could try your hand at “reloading” a Colt Paterson and even hold the 5 lb. revolver for yourself.
A closeup of some Colt Single Action Army revolvers. The SSA is known as the “gun that won the west” and is highly valued today. I’ve been blessed to actually hold one that still fires!
Among the firearms and other Ranger relics on display are various stunning Western art pieces.

Following my museum visit, I drove across town to Captain Billy Whizzbang’s for a hamburger lunch. I think I had seen a billboard for this place as well, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon the old magazine Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang and was reading about it that I made the connection with the restaurant. Anyway, after driving through Beverly Hills (not California, but with almost as much traffic), I arrived and ordered a hamburger with their famous WhizPigg patty (half ground beef and half bacon) and tater tots on the side. It was delicious and I could have gone for another one, but decided that was probably enough cholesterol for one day.

Back in the car, I drove alongside Lake Waco to get to the mammoth park, which is located far enough outside the main city of Waco that it’s surrounded by farmland. I paid $5 for a guided tour with a U.S. park ranger, and didn’t have to wait too long in the heat for the tour to begin.

I call the place a park because there are trails and picnic tables available free of charge and open to the public. The park ranger explained that before it was run by the National Park Service, it used to be a dairy farm. Two boys were playing in the woods one day and came upon a large bone, which they took to Baylor just down the road and had identified as a mammoth femur. Forty or so years later, and excavations have uncovered several fossils of Columbian mammoths, which are quite larger than either wooly mammoths or African elephants. Our park ranger explained that they could be as tall as twenty feet at the shoulder, and that humans way back then were crazy enough to hunt something that big. (I’m sure we still are, if there were something that big to hunt!)

Various skulls from other extinct species.
Closeup of the saber-tooth cat skull.
An artist’s rendition of what a Columbian mammoth might look like. Note that this rendition is still smaller than the animal would be real life; the light fixture over the mammoth’s shoulders was there first and set the height limit for the picture.
The remains of an adult male mammoth in the foreground, a juvenile mammoth to the left, and a camel (yes, a camel) in the background.

A building had been built around the main mammoth dig site in order to preserve the specimens and allow visitors to view them in situ. Our park ranger guide pointed out a knot on the adult male’s ribcage that was evidently the result of a sparring match with another male (over a female mammoth, of course). One thing I thought was very interesting was that there was a camel found among the mammoths. Our guide explained that, some 65,000 years ago, there was a breed of camel that probably looked more like a llama or alpaca and that lived with the mammoths as a sort of watchdog against predators, since the mammoths likely had poor eyesight. He also showed us the different strata and how the mammoths found in that one dig site died thousands of years apart, and likely in different ways.

The tour complete, I walked the trail back to my car and headed for home. It was another uneventful drive, albeit on a busier highway later in the day. I couldn’t find one semi to hang with, so wound up jumping from semi to semi (always passing safely in the left lane). At least that segment of I-35 isn’t under construction!

Final thoughts: I would definitely visit the Ranger museum again, as there’s a lot that I know I didn’t fully appreciate. I plan to read some books on the Rangers so I have a larger knowledge base for my next visit, whenever that may be. Captain Billy Whizzbang’s was pretty good, and I’d go back for another burger and tots, although it’s pretty far off the highway and, thus, most everything else there is to do in Waco. I’m glad I visited the mammoth monument and I learned a lot there, too, but I’m not sure I’d go back again. The price was reasonable enough, and I’m happy to support their efforts in digging up more fossils, but there’s not much else to see or do there.

Thus ends the day-trip to Waco, hopefully the first of many similar day-trips and weekend trips to come. Next up: Fort Griffin?