The Great Texas Death March and Armadillo Tour

UNDER THE TEXAS SKY

UNDER THE TEXAS SKY (Photo credit: ANVAR – RUSSIANTEXAN ©)

(Note: Jeff and I went on this trip together almost six years ago. Recently we decided to each write about it, from our own perspective, and post the stories without seeing each other’s versions first. I had a great time showing off a bit of my native country, and got to know some great people better. One of the most fun things I’ve done. That’s what friends are about. This piece is a bit long, but we did a lot in four days.

Jeff is getting married this weekend, right after the Conference of Curiosity, so it may be a while before his follow-up!  This is a bit longer than my usual posts.)

Several years ago, I caught my friend Jeff once again trash-talking Texas in the IRC room we frequent. (Note: The IRC room is a private chat that’s an online salon, where a group of friends from around the world can hang out any time of day and talk. Many of the regulars are quite close friends, even though we live around the globe.)

Explaining to Jeff and Terry that there is no vegan food in Texas. Except pickles. Photo by Steve Rider

I challenged him: what do you really know about Texans? The only thing he had seen in Texas was the view from his windshield,  driving between the airports in Dallas and in Houston along Interstate 45. Which, as he correctly pointed out, has long sections of car dealers and strip centers in some areas. I offered to show him some ‘real Texas’ if he would dare to visit.

As it turned out, a mutual friend was sponsoring a birthday party near Dallas, that was mostly people from our IRC room. Jeff took me up on my offer! At that time, I knew Jeff from only two meetings in person (on a JREF-sponsored cruise which he had conceived and coordinated, and at TAM). So, I also invited a couple other new friends, Terry and Steve, also attending the party, to come along.

So this is how I ended up hosting a three-night cross-country trip across a bit of Texas with three guys: one from Vermont who owned a “I hate Texas” shirt and two Southern California dudes (one with a British accent). Also, Jeff is the kind of person who takes care of everyone around him, so my secondary goal was that they had nothing to do but pack and climb into my car. I didn’t even tell them where we were headed!

My constraints? They had booked flights out of Houston, and Terry and Steve are vegan. I had to get them the airport, show them a quick glimpse of Texas, and not let them starve to death in this land of beef brisket and pork tamales.  Ever been to a Texas barbecue joint? A real one? The sides are coleslaw (mayo), potato salad (ditto), beans (bacon). Sometimes fries or okra. Authentic flour tortillas have a bit of lard in them.

“You know that the only thing there is for you to eat in Texas, will be white bread and pickles?”

Also, Steve has celiac, so no white bread.

Depression era Texas Rangers

The Texas Ranger Museum is dedicated to the history of the famed Texas Rangers, originally formed in 1823 to protect pioneers in the Wild West frontier, and who still existing today.  Terry picked up a stuffed armadillo in the gift shop, which became a theme for the rest of the trip. Among famous fake Rangers? The Lone Ranger and Chuck Norris.

After the Rangers (“Hi-yo Silver! Away!”), we headed for the Dr Pepper Museum. Invented in Waco in 1885, it’s the world’s oldest soft drink. We took the museum tour, had a hand-mixed Dr Pepper, and fed Jeff some Blue Bell Peaches & Cream. (Take that, you Ben-and-Jerry’s hippie Vermonter, you!) We also had lunch at my favorite place in Waco, Dock’s River Front. You can sit on the deck and look over the beautiful Brazos River. This day, it was swollen with the flooding, and the crest barely cleared the bridge on I-35. (Note: It appears that Dock’s may have closed since this trip. Sigh.)

Dock’s River Front in Waco. I enjoy eating on the deck, where you can watch ducks and huge turtles clustering below, waiting for crumbs

Our final waypoint for this evening was Austin, but I didn’t want to take the Interstate. How can you really see anything on an interstate? We headed southwest to skirt the edge of the Hill Country and still make reasonable time. But, when the boys saw a sign for Crawford, Texas, we had to divert. George W was president! We stopped for snacks at the only store in Crawford, turned into a mini-museum full of kitsch. While taking some souvenir pics, a Texas Highway Patrol car pulled up behind us and the big Texas officer questioned us. Taking pictures of the city limit signs? Parking on the side of the road? Personally, I think it was the white socks and sandals, as that’s a dead give-away y’all are not from around here!

Damn tourists.

My goal was to arrive in Austin in time to find a good place to view the bats living under the Congress Avenue bridge. We scored a table at the hotel bar patio right on the Guadalupe River, adjacent to the bridge itself. However, the million-plus bats that live under the bridge apparently don’t swarm at dusk when it’s raining, so the bats were a bust. Did I mention there had been flooding in Texas? Tropical storms had pelted the area for days, and every river in the eastern and central parts of the state had crested. There had been 11 drowning deaths. So Jeff, the intrepid explorer, climbed the rails and walked down to the edge of the river, in the dark, to get up close and personal with the bats. Terry, Steve, and I sensibly stayed at the lounge and kept our drinks from getting warm. We found a South American restaurant for dinner, and checked into our hotel for the evening.

The next day, the Capitol!

Hinges found through the Capitol. Photo by Steve Rider

Our full day included visiting the Capitol building and the lovely area around it, and then the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, featuring three full floors of the glory that is Texas. The museum’s lower levels start with the multiple Native American tribes that lives in the Texas region, and the time of the Spanish conquistadors. As you move upward, you travel through the history of the state, including the years as a colony of Mexico, the Texas War of Independence, the Wild West, and then to the 20th century booms of oil and space exploration. I’d studied all this in my Texas history classes in school, of course, but I admit I got a bit of a thrill seeing actual letters from Sam Houston and other historical documents.

Catching refreshments at the old water fountains

The Capitol grounds are lovely, with old live oaks and pathways. The legislature was not in session (which is great, considering Teh Crazy that sometimes comes out of the Lege), so we had free access to visit the Senate and House chambers, and to were able to wander the rotunda. The only change from my first visit years ago is the security lines up front. The visitor’s cafe on site served us lunch, and our waiter was very kind to talk to the cooks and find out which dishes might contain ingredients that would cause Steve’s condition some distress. In Austin, we also stopped at the original Amy’s Ice Cream, an iconic parlor that helps Austin keep its motto “Keep Austin Weird.” I believe that employment requirements include facial piercing, dreadlocks, or tattoos. Maybe all three. Steve and Terry were able to enjoy some vegan ice cream frozen confection as well.

Next stop, San Antonio. I have been to the Alamo many times over the years, always in the spring. This was my first time there during  a summer holiday. I was appalled by the crowds I found, and embarrassed that my friends would see a place that is usually somewhat reverent and quiet, full of loud people snapping pictures and waiting 10-deep in the nearby gift shop. There were so many people that the museum staff had a line going through the chapel area, single file, whereas on less-crowded days, you might be one of a handful of people, free to wander and linger. I did enjoy wandering around the grounds, seeing the restored barracks, and resting in the shade of the 200-year-old live oaks. We also took the city bus to the Mercado (a collection of shops, museums, and a large Latino flea market), and had lunch at a place where Jeff got to try cabritos. (The cut of meat was rather strange-looking, and today we still talk about the ‘goat pouch’.) Terry bought another armadillo.

I had booked rooms for us at the historic Menger Hotel near the Alamo, which is the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi. This served my purpose on two fronts. The history of the hotel includes a beautiful old bar and furniture, hand-carved, where Teddy Roosevelt came to recruit his Rough Riders. And, for Jeff, it has plenty of ghost stories and haunting legends. Along the River Walk that night, we found a Mexican restaurant that included several vegan options, and Jeff and I shared a bottle of Monkey Boy wine. (Yes, I know it says “Monkey Bay”. It was dark. And I mentioned we shared the bottle? This is my story.)

Taking a quiet moment under the trees at the Alamo. Photo by Steve Rider.

Early the next morning, we headed into Houston. BUT WAIT! On I-10, we passed a sign! Luling, Texas! Another experience for the boys. City Market Barbeque. In a land of brisket, this barbecue reaches transcendence. The barbecue is smoked in the back of what was once the only grocery in town. Your meat, which you order by weight, is served on brown butcher paper. The brick oven walls are black from decades of smoke, and the fingers of the chefs are calloused from years of opening the hot, heavy doors, and wrestling the huge briskets from its mysterious dark interior. I recommended Jeff get a brisket sandwich, and we share a section of hot link. Steve got a pickle. I’m not joking, that’s all they had for him. Fortunately, across the street, an huge old black woman sat in a fruit stand, selling fresh picked Fredricksburg peaches and locally-famous watermelon. (Luling is home of the annual Watermelon Thump. Sorry, you’ve already missed it this year. Oh, and the entire little town smells like petroleum, as this is the center of a very old oil field, first drilled in 1922 and at one time producing a million barrels per month.) She was very friendly, and told us about how bags of water stapled to the posts around the stand kept flies away. Her niece, helping to ring up our purchases, rolled her eyes. “I don’t think they really work, but my aunt does,” she confided. Did I mention that Michael Dorn was born in Luling? If you don’t know who he is, I’m sorry. Go away.

Hot links coming up! Photo by Steve Rider

Refreshed with that bit of heaven, we headed to Houston. The big surprise was coming.

Although there are dozens, if not hundreds, of things to do in Houston, we spent the entire day at one place: The Johnson Space Center at NASA. And we didn’t just buy a ticket and wander around the exhibits and crawl through the space shuttle mock-up. I scored four tickets to the Level Nine Tour (or as I like to refer to it, the Sooper Seekrit Plan Nine from Outer Space Backstage Tour). This reservation-only (and NOT cheap) tour gives ticket holders a unique experience to see some of the workings of NASA from the back side. A retired engineer, who had been a space buff her entire life, led our party of ten. We had our own van, and went to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where we spent 30 minutes listening and watching some astronauts train on mock-ups of the shuttle arms.

I believe this is gonna be our finest lunch hour.

When you buy a standard ticket, you get to sit in the visitor’s gallery behind the old Mission Control from the Apollo era, which anyone who watched the Apollo program or saw the movie Apollo 13 would recognize. It is now preserved as a historic site. On the Seekrit Tour, you get to sit in the actual chairs and listen to a flight director talk about the old equipment. And sit where Gene Kranz sat. To me, this was worth the price of admission.

Terry at the helm. Photo by Steve Rider

In addition to the original Mission Control, we went to the mission control room for the International Space Station, and watched and listened live to the ground crews interacting with the astronauts. For the geeky engineer parts of us (Terry has a degree in aeronautical engineering), we also toured the environmental testing areas, where equipment is subjected to similar vacuum and cycles of heat and cold  as the equipment in space. After lunch in the employee cafeteria, we visited the outdoor displays. Terry beamed later: “I got to touch a Saturn V rocket”. Judging from the number of photographs, I think this was Steve’s favorite stop as well.

The environmental chamber. In space… Photo by Steve Rider

That’s it. We left NASA and dropped Jeff at the airport, after which Terry, Steve, and I had a nice Indian meal, and then I dropped them for their flight back to sunny California. Four days, three nights, 600 miles in a car, food, history, a tiny glimpse of Texas, conversation. And armadillos.



Categories: Food, Friends, History, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. I love the idea of two blog posts by two people about the same thing – really fun concept!

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