THE HAPPY WANDERER – AUSTIN


Austin is awesome Texas town
Contra Costa Times 4/11/2008

I’ve got four cowboy hats and a pair of Tony Lama boots that still have rodeo dirt on them. I guess that makes me a country girl — and it’s probably what draws me to Austin.

Not that you have to be country to like the eclectic capitol of Texas. In fact, locals call it the place where hippies meet techies and believe me, there are plenty of both.

But like most Texas towns, there’s a strong influence of cowboys and cattle — so much so that the University of Texas mascot is the Longhorns.

“Look how fast I can flash it,” bragged my college-bound daughter, who’d just been admitted to UT. She was practicing her “hook em’ horns” hand sign so she would be ready.

I can’t believe she actually used it; not once but dozens of times as we flashed “horns” to folks all over Austin. It was like a secret handshake that opened doors for us — even getting us into a couple of clubs on 6th Street, Austin’s famed music row. Not unlike Nashville, bar after bar hosts live music on 6th Street with everything from hard rock to blues. And while most places require you to be 21, there are a few 18 and over clubs on the strip that cater to students.

There’s also a four diamond hotel on 6th Street, which caters to the upper crust crowd with the fat wallet. The Driscoll is one of those places that you just stare at in envy, wishing you could take some of your kid’s college fund and spend the week there. Built by a cattle baron in 1886, the Grand Lady stands stately across a full city block, with her marble floors, gilded ceilings and warm wood and leather. Just having breakfast in the lobby café (The 1886 Café and Bakery is known for its fresh pastries and iron skillet meals) allows you to dream about what it would take to amass that kind of wealth.Then reality hits. “These are the free speech steps,” our chatty tour guide points out, as we follow the herd of new students on a tour of the University of Texas. “Y’all may be offended by what some folks say,” she smiles innocently, “but on these steps, they have a right to say it.” No one sounded off that day, at least not while we were there, but a man across campus was giving an outdoor lecture on Bible prophecies with a small but supportive crowd around him.

My daughter and I walked across the street and grabbed the Armadillo (the city’s free small bus and trolley system) to our hotel. Mass transit is everywhere in Austin, with the “Dillo” and a vast fleet of buses that get you around town for a buck or less.

And while Austin isn’t a big town, it’s big enough to have 11 La Quinta Inns. We stayed at the one near the Capitol, and it proved to be central to many of the city’s hot spots. I also liked the fact that La Quinta had a big heart in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, hosting hundreds of homeless families for weeks at a time. Their hospitality even extends to bats, after one of the winged creatures was found sleeping in the manager’s office. The little guy now has his own bat house on the property outside.

It’s not that far fetched, considering perhaps millions of bats live under the Congress Avenue Bridge nearby. It’s an amazing site to see them fly in formation at dusk, looking for bugs. Squadrons of pregnant bats shoot out of the underpinnings and darken the sky, creating an eerie, if not completely awesome sight. Austin even has a bat hot line between March and October, which you can call to get updates on projected bat fly times.

Bats aren’t the only colorful creatures that call Austin home. Politicians descend on Austin in odd years (no pun intended) and the state capitol is within walking distance of the university. It’s an architecturally stunning building and free tours are offered on a regular basis. Nearby is another free must-see attraction, The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. It’s the only free presidential library and museum in the country, as stipulated by Johnson, himself, before he died.

That’s it in a pecan shell — a roundup of one of my favorite Texas towns. The buzz on Austin is true, as far as I can tell, and I’m just beginning to get to know her.

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