- All the President’s cars & cows at the LBJ Ranch
- Saving the world, one sip of beer at a time
- Fine art and the crappiest game of bingo ever
Looking back at the photo of the forlorn armadillo, maybe there was a hint of pleading in his rusty brown eyes. “Free me,” he seemed to say from behind the bars of the metalwork shop.
My partner Bob isn’t one to welcome regional knick-knackery into the home with open arms. But two weeks later we were back in Austin, TX. Bob’s wingspan wrapped around the 11-foot long iron armadillo we’d already named “Baines,” hustling him into a U-haul headed to Minneapolis, MN. And that’s how we spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2017. With an armadillo, two wiener dogs and and an unexpected return trip to Austin.
It started with a visit in early December. From an Airbnb near “Home Slice Pizza,” Bob and I walked, shopped and sipped our way along South Congress Ave. Gotta pose with the mural of Willie Nelson, he’s the unofficial mayor and official spiritual leader of Austin. For lunch, a neon sign siren of fried bird called us to Lucy’s Fried Chicken, a joint we just can’t quit. There’s a location off Congress at 2218 College Ave., plus two others in the Austin area. The cash-only Dry Creek Cafe is a friendly, rickety dive bar by the Colorado River serving cold local brews. Sometimes a BBQ is going outside. Multi-million dollar mansions are creeping up on it, so here’s hoping this bit of old-school Austin never changes. Find this joint tucked into the trees at 4812 Mt. Bonnell Rd.
The Blanton Museum of Art is on the University of Texas campus, at 200 E. MLK Blvd. Artist Teresita Fernandez sets the stage when you walk in and feel the cool, calm blue of her “Stacked Waters” lobby mosaic. The Blanton has one of the biggest art collections in central Texas and is always worth a visit.
For music in a music town, check out the Continental Club on South Congress or a roadhouse like the Little Longhorn Saloon. In a town awash with tech bros and craft things, the Longhorn hoses off pretensions with chicken shit bingo. It’s exactly what it sounds like. I think of it as a Texas version of a Minnesota meat raffle. The prizes pack more protein in a meat raffle, but it’s hard to beat the live gaming action of betting on the butt end of birds.
The hill country west of Austin is where the American southwest begins, as do great side trips. It’s home to cute towns like Fredericksburg, endless rolling hills and Pedernales Falls State Park . The stunning scenery of Pedernales Falls was featured in the first season of HBO’s “The Leftovers.” Apparently, when the script calls for a portal to the otherworldly, this is where you go. Just miles away from Pedernales, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Stonewall is some living history. LBJ’s childhood home became the “Texas White House” while he was in office. He received heads of state and conducted some of the nation’s business out here, deep in the heart of Texas, where a tall guy could presumably clear his head under wide open skies. The tour inside the modest ranch house is a time warp; everything is exactly as it was when Lady Bird died (her wardrobe is fabulous), and everything was gifted to the park service. LBJ stipulated that the ranch had to remain working after his death, and today the park is home to part of the official Texas State Longhorn herd. There are also fuzzy Herefords, descendants of LBJ’s cattle. Look closely and you can see the “LBJ” brand on their horns.
A separate garage houses some of the President’s vehicle collection, including his rare Amphicar. An amphibious, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang sort of deal. See it in action in the above video from the LBJ Library. He apparently loved to scare his guests by ending joyrides with a drive straight into open water. Total Dad joke.
On the way back to Austin, we stopped in Johnson City for libations and here is the crux of the story. There, at the only stoplight in town, Bob spotted the armadillo. At Black Spur Coffee Shop and Emporium, home to a sprawling menagerie of metal art animals and an arboretum of welded cacti. Bob snapped a fateful photo of the armadillo as we pulled out of town. And then…he thunk and thunk on that chunk of metal for weeks afterwards. Bob just had to have it for our backyard. And that’s how we returned to Texas two weeks later, this time driving with our dogs Franz and Enzo, prepared to tow “Baines” (as in Lyndon BAINES Johnson) the armadillo home behind us.
The hours on the road driving to Austin from Minneapolis were not particularly enjoyable in December. You can count hawks on highway light posts for only so long. I’d love to revisit the Gypsum Hills of south Kansas when it’s not zero degrees and the tires are losing air pressure. Road knowledge was gained: La Quinta hotels tend to be a good bet for dog-friendly accommodations. But finally, back in temperate Austin, it was time to stretch our legs. All 12 of them. Bob played the Roy G. Guerrero Disc Golf Course on the south bank of the Colorado River. I walked the boys under the Ann W. Richards Congress Ave. bridge and learned about the bats there. Well, not at the moment, it was winter. But a colony of more than a million bats returns to this spot each spring. People gather to watch them stream out from under the bridge to hunt insects at dusk. Fun fact: When the bridge was reconstructed in 1980, folks had no idea the crevices under the span just happened to be the ideal roosting situation for these Mexican free-tailed bats. I vow to put up with the Texas heat some August when bat viewing is supposed to be optimal.
From Austin, Bob and I retraced our path to Johnson City, this time in a van with a U-haul and ropes. With Baines securely behind us, we stopped for one last local beer in the hill country.
We found a Marble Falls brewery that gives as good as it tastes. “Save the World” is a 100% philanthropic enterprise, set on a glorious, well, piece of Eden. It rotates charities as often as taps. A BBQ master was setting up shop outside for the day and handing out samples. The taste of the Belgian ale and the Q left a very good taste of Texas in our mouths as we started the Element and headed home.
ALL THE STOPS ALONG THE WAY: