rediscovering the lone star state (trip report, part 2)

texas and i go way back. i have a few dirty little secrets, and one of them is that i spent ‘the best years of my life’ (aka high school, also not the best years of my life to date) in west texas (aka bush country). actually, lubbock (or low-buck as i sometimes like to call it) was not all bad, in that i came away with some very good friends and a full cultural immersion in the ways of texas. there is also good music there.

to be fair, texas runs in my blood. my grandfather was born in a tiny east texas village called groveton. in the 2000 census, groveton had a population of 1,107, so one can only imagine what it was like in the 1930s, when at the age of 16, my granddad walked in overalls and bare feet, to the nearest “big” town, lufkin (a thriving metropolis of just over 35k in 2000), and eventually got work on the then-thriving oil fields of east texas.

JW Eaves
my grandad – j.w. eaves – in his ubiquitous cowboy hat

i believe it’s precisely because of my grandfather, who fed me barbecue ribs and cornbread and deep-fried catfish growing up, never lost his drawl and always wore a twelve-gallon stetson, that i’ve always felt strangely at home in texas.

this year’s stop in texas was to be a brief but brimming one. a short flight on my favourite american carrier, southwest airlines, brought me from albuquerque to houston, where i picked up a car hire and battled insane houston traffic (always insane) and a random monsoon downpour before retrieving bill, who’d spent the week working at his company’s houston office.

downtown houston traffic & storm
downtown houston traffic and impending storm.

i’ll have to be honest here in saying houston is not my favourite place. i have spent a fair bit of time there – although never as a resident – and to me, it’s the epitome of a big, ugly american sprawling city. it’s polluted, traffic-heavy and full of concrete flyovers and ugly, late-century architecture. but, i have a couple of houstonian friends that’d be quick to defend their city. it is gaining a reputation as a foodie destination (lots of african and southeast asian immigrants equals stellar eats) and bill had a great number of delicious craft brews at cute beer bars, so it can’t be all bad. nonetheless, i was glad to get on the road to austin with houston in the rearview.

it just so happened that my dad, a brilliant musician who now lives in new zealand, had been touring around the southwest for a few weeks with singer-songwriter donna dean and would be in austin that very night whilst attending a folk music conference.

we had booked in to the habitat suites, an eco-friendly hotel located in a converted apartment complex next to a dead mall in north austin. it sounds bad but it was outstanding. the rooms are all suites with a living area, kitchenette and huge beds. there was a complimentary hot breakfast every morning (with one of my favourite southern staples: biscuits and gravy. for the brits in the audience, this is like a savoury, fluffy scone covered in a cream-based sauce made from sausage drippings. a delightful heart attack on a plate.), and the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. it’s also a stone’s throw to austin’s new light rail – convenient for getting downtown to see live music and have dinner.

biscuits and gravy
biscuits and gravy with heart-healthy turkey sausages.

we met my dad in the car park (he was staying at a motel on the other side of the dead mall) and, being the rock stars we are, opted to grab a taxi downtown for dinner and live music.

in an effort to sample as many american classics as possible on this trip, i wanted barbecue for dinner, so we made for stubb’s, a legendary barbecue joint and music club. the food here is super southern – we were heaped with plates of barbecue ribs and brisket, fried okra, macaroni and cheese and fried green tomatoes, all washed down with some serious local austin ales. stuffed to the gills, we toddled outside and – this being austin – straight into a street festival with – literally – live music tents on every corner along the legendary nightlife strip, 6th street. oh, and all for free.

austin is said to have more live music venues per capita than any other city in the u.s. and, walking around here, it’s not a difficult statistic to believe. from each passing door or bar pours a different genre of music almost every night of the week.

downtown austin at night
downtown austin at night

our speed was a little slower, so we ducked into the chicago house, a craft beer bar just off 6th street that opened earlier this year. like almost everywhere in the u.s., the craft beer scene has exploded here and i was surprised at the number of texas-produced beers on the menu. the place was fairly dead, especially for a saturday evening, but i imagine if the festival hadn’t been going on outside it would’ve been bumper-to-bumper (in a good way).

having said a bittersweet goodbye to my dad, the next morning we made for the texas state capitol – something i wanted to take the chance to revisit (and photograph) while we had the chance. built with local red granite that gives it a groovy pinkish hue, at the time of its construction in 1885, it was said to be the 7th largest building in the world. whether or not that’s true, it is an impressive structure, especially the central atrium and dome, and it’s free to visit.

texas state capitol
texas state capitol – a rosé affair

after a quick scoff at the george w. bush portrait and a refuel at my favourite austin coffeehouse – mozart’s – which has a huge deck overlooking lake austin – we were back on the road to houston, where we’d return our car and hop a plane to boston.

the thing is, no matter how well travelled you are, if your information is 10 years old, it may not be the most reliable. my memory said that it was a 2.5-hour drive from austin to houston. i’d done the drive a million times (not really a million). and, sure, we’d hit rain and traffic on the way over, so it’d be quick enough. no problem to have a lunch pitstop. a few pictures of a passing oil tanker train? why not!

needless to say, this is not a tactic i’d recommend. an hour and a half before our departure time, we were still in the car on the houston freeway. houston freeways are long, and no matter that i was driving like a bat out of hell, we were simply not going to make this flight.

this astoundingly artistic photo of an oil tanker train (not pictured) could've cost us our flight.
this artistic photo of an oil tanker train (not pictured) almost cost us our flight.

an hour before the departure time, we barrelled into the avis return centre and came to a screeching halt in front of a man with a clipboard who took one look at us and knew. ‘how late are you?’ was the first thing he said to us.

‘our flight’s in less than an hour,’ we panted, watching the terminal shuttle pull away as we scrambled to get our suitcases out of the back.

‘hop in, i’ll drive you.’ so, he drove us straight up to the departure terminal (we tipped him heartily) in that brave little ford fiesta that did most of the work to get us there in the first place. when we finally got to the gate – sweaty and out of breath – we were told the plane had been delayed. hashtag typical.

if you are out there, kind avis employee, i swear, you saved us about $400 in change fees. we owe you a drink.

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