A TRAVELER’S HOME BAR ON A BUDGET – INFUSIONS

Back in Pittsburgh, we maintained an extensive liquor cabinet for our home bar. Any type of classic cocktail could be stirred or shaken to life. As we began to prepare for our adventure, budget became a concern, so we would often substitute a night out with a trip to our home bar. Very little tastes as good as a perfect cocktail from your personal liquor cabinet. You’re garnishing your drinks with thrift – mischief managed, capital concerns allayed. We had never really considered what the liquor stores would look like in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador. I had assumed scads of Pisco and wonderful new world wines. That is not what the liquor stores look like.

Local liquor chain, La Taberna
The soft glow of La Taberna beckoning us forth

Even in the state of Pennsylvania, where the state-run monopoly on liquor stores is demonstrably terrible, the vast stores are a comparative cornucopia of alcoholic delights. If money were no object, then shelling out more than double for some things I could find back in the United States would find our liquor cabinet reasonably well stocked, with the noted exception of Bourbon…and Rye…and Tequila…and Mezcal. However, I used to work with alcohol and make cocktails for money. What the stores do have in great supply is Cristal Aguardiente (translation: Clear Firewater), a spirit made locally from distilled sugar cane juice. Enter the infusion.

Still life of bottles of Cristal, mango, red pepper, ginger, strawberries, and basil
Cristal, Cuenca’s finest local firewater

Infusions Are a Trick of the Trade

If you enjoy having a drink or three at home but find yourself on a budget, there’s likely a local, cheap and clear liquor that’s just begging for an infusion.

Infusions are an ancient trick bartenders began using in earnest in the 1980s, and they’ve now become de riguer for cocktail programs and home cocktail enthusiasts alike. It’s an amazing and incredibly easy way to clean up some cheap alcohol (as some of the heavier oils and compounds will be absorbed by your infusion subject), or to simply elevate your favorite spirit or cocktail. I happen to love cane-based spirits, and Cristal is a solid product. It’s also well within our budget at 8 dollars a bottle.

Choosing Ingredients for Your Infusion

Cuenca has some amazing open-air markets, and we frequent the closest one, Feria Libre, every few days. For around 12 dollars we have enough produce for the week. For a few dollars more, we have subjects for infusions and a few bottles of Cristal. Because you’re working with fresh produce, there’s plenty of wiggle room to find the preferred flavor for your cocktail. Here’s a couple of quick and easy infusions that will elevate your home bar and cocktail game on a budget and work with any clear spirit, whether it’s vodka, gin, tequila, rum or sweet, sweet firewater.

Infusion Recipes

Strawberry-Ginger

A dozen strawberries
1″ of peeled ginger
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the tops from the strawberries then slice into quarters. Slice the ginger into thin strips. Place the ginger and strawberries into your jar or water bottle and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. Let sit for at least 24 hours. Strain, place back into the original bottle, and store in the refrigerator.

Even though the strawberries were a little under-ripe, the infusion came out great, leaving the alcohol a light pink color, and giving it a slightly spicy ginger bite. It goes great with two parts soda water or sparkling wine.

Basil

A generous handful of basil leaves
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the stems from the herbs, then gently cut them into large chunks. Place them into the jar, cover with the spirit, then seal and put into the refrigerator. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. The infusion time on herbs is always fairly short, and should never go longer than 12 hours. Letting an infusion go too long will give the alcohol time to break down the bitter components in the herbs, which you don’t want in your drink. Generally, 6 to 8 hours will do the trick.

Once you’re happy with the flavor, strain and pour back into the original bottle and store in the refrigerator. This makes a really clean and refreshing infusion that is a perfect addition to two parts juice or soda.

Bell Pepper and Mango

1 Red Bell Pepper
1 Mango
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Clean the bell pepper by removing the stem, cutting it in half, and removing the pith and seeds from the flesh. Cut into thin strips, then dice. Bell peppers generally have a more mild flavor than a fruit subject, so to keep it in balance, we’re giving the pepper more surface area to work with. Cut the mango into cubes or long strips, removing the skin. Place the pepper and mango into your water bottle or jar and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. After 24 hours, pull your infusion, strain and pour back into the original bottle. Store in the refrigerator.

If you want a more robust flavor profile in your infusion or your cocktail, lightly roasting the pepper will do the trick. This is delicious all on its own over ice, but would be great in any number of cocktails, which we will discuss in an upcoming post.

REMEMBERING THE ALAMO CITY

I could hear J talking with the man at the door over the sound of the running shower. The man sounded emotional, his voice undeniably urgent, though not angry, my attempts to make out their words through the water’s spray proving futile. After what seemed like a lengthy exchange, J shut the motel room door, and knocked on the one to the bathroom. The bedroom’s air conditioning flooded in as he peered around the door.

“That was one of the managers. The shower is leaking into the room underneath us. They’re moving us next door.”

Fuck. “Alright, well I’m not getting out until I finish rinsing my hair. It’ll be two minutes.”

“Yeah, I told him once you were out and dressed, then we’d move.”

We had arrived in San Antonio after dark the night before. I had wanted to browse some of Austin‘s celebrated vintage stores on our way out of the city, and J had wanted to introduce me to the devilry that is the Whataburger fast food chain. We drove into an industrial area just blocks from the center of downtown. In any other city, hotels in this proximity to the center would be fashionable and elegant. However, here there sat a row of small, dilapidated motels, unloved for what seemed like some time now. These buildings, teal and rust and avocado, had once been someone’s pride. Now they bore the logos of budget brands with name recognition.

“You’re both from Pennsylvania? What are you doing here?” J explained our road trip to the night attendant as she passed back our driver’s licenses. He enthusiastically recounted his previous trips to the city with obvious excitement to be back. “I’ve always liked Austin better than San Antonio,” she said. A glowing recommendation. “I’m from there, Austin. I moved here two years ago, but San Antonio’s alright.” Nice save.

They waded through the now well-tread territory of why and how we were doing what we were. J mentioned we’d be camping once we made it further West. “Camping, really? I mean you look…” she pointed at J. “But you,” then at me, “you do not look like the type who goes camping.” I suppose working as a night desk attendant at run-down motel affords one the opportunity to see a lot. People in hospitality often learn how to read others with astonishing precision. As a waiter, I would regularly compete in a game. When a new table of guests arrived we would all take bets as to what they were going to order before anyone had spoken with them. I was exceptional at it. I confessed her observation had been perceptive, and we shared a laugh over her keen insight.

On our way to our room we walked past some of the motel’s other guests, who were quietly smoking or finding privacy outside on their phones. Once inside the room, I looked at J, “People definitely live here.” I dropped onto the bed.

“Oh fuck yeah they do.”

One of the biggest luxuries on long road trips is staying in a place for multiple nights. You get to sleep in, you can leave out your toiletries. Now the novelty of the shitty motel was wearing thin as I hurriedly scrubbed conditioner out of my hair and packed my things for the haul a door down.

We slept harder than usual, likely because we actually gave ourselves time to do so. When you’re on a free-wheeling cross-country adventure, your boss is your lust for life, which sometimes makes you the idiot, if not a stooge to the raw power of the fun house you live in. While the play for sympathy is surely DOA, I would hope the sentiment hastens a trip to the record collection. While we hadn’t planned on lingering in our hotel room that long, it did set us up for the optimal time to go to The Esquire Tavern, my absolute favorite bar on the planet.

J in front of The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio
J and his happy place, The Esquire Tavern

I came across Esquire years ago on my first night in San Antonio, there for the San Antonio Cocktail Conference. If you haven’t been to SACC, it’s an incredible time, especially if you’re working behind the scenes to make it happen with a killer platoon of bartenders from around the country. A small group of said bartenders had just met for the first time and we were excited to have a bit of fun before we got to work in the coming days. We were led to the Esquire, where we came upon one of the more bizarre scenes I’ve encountered. Just down the street from the bar in the alcove in front of a hot dog shop that had clearly seen better days, let alone nights, two police officers were arguing over what was obviously a body under a sheet, quibbling like two children:

“No, you touch it.”

“No way, I touched the last one.”

This went on for few minutes or so, and after we had stretched our rubber necks long enough, we went inside to discuss and watch the eventual flash of ambulance lights in the front window. “Welcome to San Antonio” became the joke of the evening over some amazing drinks and burgeoning friendships. Over the next three years, Esquire became the spot I would enthusiastically start and emotionally end my time in San Antonio with, along with plenty of stops in between.

The weather was looking grim, but you couldn’t tell from J’s warm disposition. He spiritedly told stories while we crossed the square, pointing out buildings he had been in while working SACC, vividly recounting an epic party where a number of sloshed attendees stumbling in the street had almost gotten the whole event shut down. He noted the vivid and historic Aztec Theater, a(nother) Whataburger whose practice of being open all night facilitated some inebriated hijinks, and other places of note, all building up to his favorite bar, The Esquire Tavern.

As Y and I walked from the hotel, I gave a gibbering and nonsensical tour of the small corner of the city I would inhabit once a year. I had a refreshed appreciation for the city’s art-deco meets Latin architecture, and excitedly pointed out discoveries old and new to Y. I dribbled anecdotes, noted small changes and the lack of change, until we came upon Esquire from the Riverwalk side. Its corner lot neighbor had been brought down to rubble, and rounding the corner, the hot dog shop was long gone. Esquire itself, however, was of course blissfully intact. We had arrived an hour or so before the happy hour I’m always pleasantly surprised by, and well before any crowd developed. The fried bologna sandwich was also blissfully intact, which had been my aim since I knew San Antonio was on the trip. I was happy to soak the place in- just about every bartender worth their salt in San Antonio has worked at Esquire at one point, and everything about it represents an ideal of what I would try and build someday, were I still in the game, as the kids say.

House cocktail in front of a wall of mezcal at The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio
The Esquire Tavern’s stunning wall of mezcal

The Esquire’s bar is the longest in Texas, running from the front door to a back dining room which faces out onto the Riverwalk. It still being early afternoon, we were one of just a few guests there. J had been talking about their deviled eggs (with pickled pink peppercorns!) since the last time he came back from San Antonio, and his infatuation seemed appropriate once I was able to corroborate the evidence. I could pretend I ordered the Jalapeños Rellenitos because I hadn’t had breakfast and needed a base before going to town on the beautiful, mezcal-lined back wall, but truthfully, I am a monster who is powerless against even the cheapest bar’s frozen, store-bought jalapeño poppers. These were, obviously, far superior. We worked our way around a number of exquisite house cocktails. Ready for more substantial fare, I ordered a fried green tomato BLT. It arrived twice the anticipated size on gratuitously buttered Texas toast. I don’t usually suffer from an inability to finish my food. Having four younger siblings, my parents quickly lost their patience for finicky eaters, and clearing my plate is instilled in the very fiber of my being. However, halfway through I needed a breather. I attempted to spur on digestion with one of the aforementioned mezcal’s, but after an hour, I conceded I would have to tap out and begrudgingly gave up my plate. I’m looking forward to a rematch.

The Alamo in San Antonio
“And Pedro is working on an adobe. Can you say that with me?”

The movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure imbued people of my generation with a mythical draw to see the Alamo. J warned me that it was actually quite small, despite the proportions it had occupied in my childhood imagination. I was actually unaware that it was a mission, or that it was right smack in the middle of downtown. It sits peacefully amongst the newer buildings, stoic and handsome like the old stone church it is. We managed to refrain from asking to see the basement.

View of the San Antonio Riverwalk
The Riverwalk

Anyone who visits San Antonio will return home insisting you must see the Riverwalk. Trust that it’s more impressive than they have expressed. Set one story below street level, the stone walkway runs 15 miles along both banks of the San Antonio River. The water creates an oasis from the Texas heat, cooling the channel noticeably from the city mere feet above. The winding walkway is singular in its beauty, with each section incorporating distinct design elements. Colored tiles line stairways and create intricate mosaics. Public art installations abound. Ponds, gardens, and waterfalls give each stretch a secluded, personal feel. Uniquely fashioned alcoves and benches, a gazebo, and a grotto all provided seating, and promoted enjoyment of the scenery along the length we walked.

One of the many mosaics decorating the Riverwalk in San Antonio
One of the many mosaics decorating the Riverwalk

The rain went from undecided to considerable to torrential and we took cover under a bridge. Blue Box, another of J’s beloved spots in the restored Pearl complex, was just a half mile away. We attempted to wait out the worst of it, resisting boarding the uninhabited police boat docked nearby in an uncommon moment of maturity. Eventually we tired of waiting for the weather’s cooperation and went for it.

Looking out at a waterfall from the cover of a grotto on the San Antonio Riverwalk
Looking out at a waterfall from the cover of a grotto on the San Antonio Riverwalk

After an exceedingly indulgent meal, we set off down the river, despite the rain, enjoying the solitude and serenity of the Riverwalk. Thoroughly soaked, we eventually arrived at Blue Box, another favorite old haunt and one of the earliest bars in the Pearl, a well-executed redevelopment of the Pearl Brewery’s original footprint. We enjoyed more than a fair share of tequila and beer, doing a shot or two with the bartender. Even after years of drinking in bars and a decade working the stick, living in a small city where knowing the bartender is a dubious comfort and fact of life, there’s nothing quite so expressive and beautiful as a bartender quietly asking if you’d like to share a nip with them. Especially when they’ve never met you before, and definitely after they know they’ll never see you again. Bonus points for not outing us as service (or ex-service, as it were), because that type of shot is easy like the second Death Star destroying a Mon Calamari Cruiser at the Battle of Endor.

The Pearl in San Antonio
The Pearl

The Pearl gorgeously utilizes old buildings into a large shopping and dining compound, with Blue Box at its far end. We entered the bar, hair and clothes dripping, to find it was somehow still happy hour. We noticed the concurrent tequila shot specials and decided to add a few to our beers, just to warm up. Then grabbed another round just as happy hour was ending. Perhaps it was our bad example, perhaps it was the crowd’s behavior, but the bartender seemed inspired to have a shot of his own and asked us if we’d like to join him. Drinking alone is by no means anything to be ashamed of, but there’s something irrefutably celebratory about taking shots. They don’t need to be fussy or end in slamming glassware on the bar (in fact, they shouldn’t), but they’re always improved by company. After years of working in the service industry, the tradition of sharing a little nip to take the edge off is very much ingrained in us, and we were happy to oblige. As the crowd in the cocktail bar started shifting into aggravating bros ordering Lone Star Lights and vodka tonics, we knew it was time to move on. We gladly accepted one more tequila for the road and got an Uber back to the motel.

Sufficiently buzzed and unwilling to deal with the rain for round two, we called an Uber. Our driver informed us of the deep German, Czech and French roots of Texas towns, which explained the multitude of signs we had seen for Kolaches, a wonderful delicacy one expects in Chicago, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. He also explained the influence of Polka in Mexican music. Only a few days later, we would hear the very same unmistakable strains of Polka, heavily inflected with a Latin bent. As with many of our experiences in the South and Texas, our eyes were pried that much wider, and our world richer for it.

After some downtime at our hotel, which is a story unto itself, truth be told, we slithered out past the array of weird in the parking lot and down to Last Word for a nightcap. I was sad to not hit Brooklynite and way too many others, but the quiet enjoyment of a stellar bar was more than what we needed to close the night. While our night in San Antonio wasn’t expansive, it was fun and memorable, which is what the city will always be for me.

I woke early the next morning in an attempt to get some laundry done before setting off across the expanse of Texas wilderness, not knowing when we’d find the chance once we were in the country’s less inhabited parts. The cast of characters shuffling about the grounds at 8am was somehow even dodgier than the night crew had been. I returned to the laundry room to find a stocky man and his large dog, blocking the doorway with their imposing frames. “Is that your clothes in the washer, because I moved it,” he blustered. I assumed his ignorance at that being standard laundromat protocol was the result of being recently discharged from whatever relationship, facility, or relative’s house had been previously managing his laundry needs, and took pity on him. Realizing I had no intention of arguing about it, he softened and stepped aside. I moved the clothes to the dryer and walked back across the menagerie of characters to the room to finish packing.

We checked out and took a walk to get breakfast, stopping to admire the observatory of the Maverick-Carter house, a striking sight in the middle of downtown, built for real estate tycoon William H. Maverick’s much younger wife Aline. Inside Pharm Table, a vegan restaurant I had spotted walking around the previous afternoon, the atmosphere was tranquil, contradicting the motel lot in every way. We appreciated a meal that was actually nourishing, and after having our run of every flavor of housemade tea like a dieter requesting samples at an ice cream shop, went to see the San Antonio Missions.

Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio
Mission San Juan Capistrano

Our fuel for the next day was some rad vegan food from Pharm Table. Quinoa pizza is now a thing I now know exists and want more of. Before leaving San Antonio, we hit another National Park, this one devoted to the preservation of a clutch of Spanish Missions. The history behind the region at large and the role the Missions played was interesting and compelling, to say the least. The Spanish Empire’s method of assimilation was extremely effective- convert the desperate with the promise of a future. The enduring impact the buildings had now surrounds the memorialized edifices in the form of one of the largest cities in the country, where the layers of history and culture fuse into an altogether unique pattern.

Archways of Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose

Organized, disorganized, religion does not interest me. The Spaniards built these missions as a way to sell their conquest of the new world, convincing the people of Spain they needed to bring Catholicism to the heathens here, and courting the Coahuiltecan tribes they were intruding upon with the promise of safety. The missions weren’t just churches, they were forts. But it’s hard to deny the craft involved in erecting these buildings, or the beauty of their facades and grounds. The missions are part of the National Parks System and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The NPS does an exemplary job of highlighting their importance in historical context. Mission San Jose housed as many as 300 people, with homes lining the inner circumference of the fort wall. People congregated within the walls to build tools, to relax, to socialize. They were industrious, fashioning irrigation channels and a water mill. What is left out of so much of the retelling is that it was actually the Native Americans that built these structures, and while the Spaniards may have been the architects, the Native American influence is evident in the adornment throughout.

Interior Room with fireplace and Native American motif in Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Native American design elements in an interior room at Mission San Jose

Even during our strolls through the grounds of the Missions, the mythical drive through West Texas was nipping at our heels. The distance is one thing, but especially for two raised in the Eastern part of the country, it’s as if you’ve suddenly taken a plunge off the continental shelf of civilization, drifting out into the deep and empty wilds. As we left San Antonio, the terrain slowly changed; the rocks multiplied, the greens intermingled with grey and diminished. Then, as darkness fell, the sensation of nothingness pervaded, at least until a bizarre fog settled in. Van Horn, nestled in mist and the quiet, implicit terror of surrounding darkness was our stop for the night, just barely into a new time zone.

Texas is known for its vastness. It’s second only in size to Alaska among the 50 states and larger than every country in Europe. The thing is, its vast size isn’t the trouble. What makes driving across Texas feel ceaseless is traveling for hundreds of miles uninterrupted by a town. You’re on I-10, a legitimate interstate. Google Maps shows towns every forty miles or so. This is where I take issue. Personally, I believe in order to incorporate, a town should be forced to at least have a gas station. I had been napping when J mentioned the low tank. We watched as our GPS alerted us we were passing through “town” after “town” while surrounded by nothing. Finally, we were able to obtain enough cell service to locate a gas station 15 minutes away.

Growing up on the East coast, only teenagers and morons run out of gas. The only other time I have even come close to such a crises was on a road trip down California 101. We had gone through the Avenue of the Giants to view the redwoods, and were hugging the cliffs off the Pacific Ocean as we headed to a wedding in Oakland. We were in a Mazda Miata, a car with a 10 gallon tank. As the needle slowly dropped we watched Google Maps tell us that single-digit smatterings of mobile homes and sewage tanks were towns for about two hours before finally coming upon a general store with an ancient pump outside, which a stranger had been kind enough to instruct me how to operate.

I believe difficult predicaments are meant to equip you for future calamities. I spotted the old pump as J pulled the car into the station and was glad for the preparation. I told J to wait in the car, feeling his long hair might not be well received like some cliched scene in a movie. I entered the convenience store, immediately garnering the attention of the five men sitting around a table in their hunting gear, playing cards and eating sandwiches. After discerning I was no threat (and not in season), they went back to their game and conversation. I gave the clerk my card for the gas and asked to use the restroom. She pointed past the aisles lined with animal busts and camp gear to a surprisingly hospitable bathroom. On the way back to the pump, she stopped me, asking if I needed any help with the old machine. I thanked her, assuring her I had experience with such things. She confided people passing through often didn’t, and made sure I knew my way back to the interstate before letting me leave.

This new phase of the trip promised to be decidedly introspective and a little challenging at times. Hypothetical campsites loomed ahead, plans were looser, and the emergency lifeboat of Cleveland might as well be in another country. It’s barren and lonely and all of the Hollywood tropes ever unspooled about these roads hold true sway. To our eyes, this is still very much a desolately beautiful and terrifying frontier where shit can go wrong real quick. Those natural wonders, however, are not going to see themselves. We aim to do that, and with gusto, especially if the driving does not occur at night. That shit creepy.

Arched doorways in Mission San Jose in San Antonio
Mission San Jose
Two Traveling Texans

AUSTIN (PT II) – CONTEMPORARY ANTHROPOLOGY

Our plan for the next day was simple enough, but even the most optimistic forecast held true. We parked a car over at Barton Springs in the morning, and our host, her not-quite but totally squeeze Max, Y, and I all microdosed on mushrooms and set off for a glorious walk in the woods, with the Springs as our final destination. I haven’t really dabbled in mushrooms in a long while, not since an extremely bad trip. Back then, my team consisted of not so much a team as it was a handful of selfish dinks, and the goal was nil. An action lacking intentionality should be kept in one’s pants until there is firm rationale behind the act. Additionally, there’s a great deal to be said for trust, for friendship, and for knowing when those words are just words. There are people you would do drugs with, and there are people you would not. I’m very fortunate to have left the pretenders to the team well off in the dust of the rearview.

After a brief smudging ceremony and some cleansing bell chimes, we set off for the heart of Austin. Even before we started feeling it, the day was under some sort of enchantment – just the right amount of overcast with plenty of light sprinkling out from the clouds and down below the canopy of leaves. Early on in our journey, Beia introduced us to a local who had constructed a stonework throne and small pond under a bridge, where he sat poring over a large textbook. Austin is indeed weird, but so much of it is a comfort to those deviating from a standard march time signature.

The view of the Shoal Creek from the Shoal Creek Trail in Austin, Texas
The Shoal Creek Trail

With Beia off the next day, we decided to take some mushrooms, (a recurring amusement between us) and walk the few miles from her house to Barton Springs Pool. We parked a car at the pool to be available for us later, grabbed her friend, Max, and headed back to her place. After a short centering ceremony, we were off. Beia led us on a route she knew well, identifying points of interest along the way. Though we never strayed far from a major road, our path felt secluded and removed from the realities of the city. Beia shouted out toward a bridge and I turned to discover a man sitting in the water beneath it. We found he was a fixture of sorts on this trail. Beia and he had encountered each other previously, and she asked permission to bring us closer. Here, acceptably hidden by the bridges supports and high grasses, he had fashioned himself a throne of river stones. There he sat, cooly reading a university textbook. The encounter seemed less strange than one would expect from a meeting under a bridge and I left awed by his ingenuity, and his ability to keep a very expensive book dry.

A graffiti face under a bridge along the Shoal Creek Trail in Austin, Texas
Bridge Troll

As we walked the trail, color and sound and smell became bolder and our smiles and laughter became constant. Emerging briefly into the paved parts of the forest, we stopped for lunch at the Death Star of Whole Foods. The movement from a depository for foodstuffs and community lynchpin to a museum of potential edibles and lifestyle choice in supermarkets is one of my least favorite developments of the 21st century. The food, however, was exactly as advertised, and being smug about how one deals with a biological imperative is a wonderful condiment.

We stopped for a picnic at the original Whole Foods Market, enthralled by the urban fowl soliciting there. Aside from the common pigeons scavenging about was a bird which seemed to have learned to play maimed to garner sympathy scraps from patrons whose designs had been greater than their abilities. Everyone in our party being a member of the clean plate club, he went to spin his yarn by those with more anemic appetites.

Y hugging public art that looks like a large, blue mound on the streets of Austin, Texas
Austin is the shit.

We crossed over Ladybird Lake and paused to hit a bowl on the shore, watching the boats slip by, and nearly getting lost down a rabbit hole of conversation. The build-up of sweat we were wearing won out, and we continued on to Barton Springs. We could hear the drum circle before we could see the pool, the rhythm floating down the outflow stream along with the kayaks and floats occupied by happy, sun-drenched Austinites. Finally, we were there – a place I had drooled over in the wee hours of the night, dreaming of a new life. It’s an incredible sight to behold.

Graffiti of Pac-Man being chased by ghosts on bridge over Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas
“Computer games don’t affect kids, I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in darkened rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive music.”- Marcus Brigstocke

Beia graciously took care of our entrance fee, and after a quick trip to the changing areas, we were off to the races. We had been thoroughly warned that it was going to be cold, but that the water had a mysterious rejuvenating quality. The assessment was dead-on. The water was an icy stab from the depths at first, but felt marvelous after a few minutes. Y and I paddled into the shallow end to float and relax. I had felt so safe approaching the pool that I had left my glasses behind with our towels, something I haven’t done in a long while. I had forgotten how rewarding the experience of letting your other senses pick up the slack can be. Not being able to read faces or distinguish them gives one a weird freedom.

Beia and Max had repeatedly warned that despite the Texas sun pummeling down all afternoon, the water temperature would be bracing. I stood at the edge experimenting, dipping a toe in, and confirmed their assessment. Attempting to ease into the frigid water by degrees would require a discipline I do not possess. We jumped.

The cold hit us like a slap, seizing our breath. Winded, we bobbed up, laughing through our pants. After a few minutes of paddling, we began to acclimate. Neither J nor I being the strongest of swimmers, we decided to make our way towards shallower depths.

The sides of the pool have been carved out to create a fairly straight perimeter, the bottom has been left natural. In places the rock is gravelly, in others smooth. Algae cover the uneven limestone floor, making it slick. Dips and channels in the rock make depth unpredictable, and I was able to entertain J when startled by one such valley, I dramatically slipped below the surface with a choked cry.

We all eventually reconvened at our towel spot, the drum circle behind us still pounding away just past the crest of the hill. Everything looked and felt very primal, connected. We were, after all, enjoying the same leisure that had been enjoyed there for centuries.

As the sun crept down, Max and I overheard some bro mansplaining to reveal that ramen was a very new thing in this country. Thank god people like him exist, because if not for his piercing insight into society and all matters gastronomic and whatever else he’s assuredly an expert in, how would we know these things? Certainly not from chefs, professional or otherwise, those of Japanese heritage, Japanophiles or Maruchan Incorporated. In any case, ramen became a new topic of discussion for our little band, and it was decided we go find some of that good good. I managed to set my hair on fire attempting to hit a bong, but we’re leaving that detail out of the larger story arc.

The swim had woken a hunger in us, and after a quick pit stop to switch out of our suits, we headed to Ramen Tatsu-Ya, at Beia and Max’s urging. The line around the outside set some high expectations. J and I ordered the house’s version of a Michelada, made with Sapporo, kimchi, bonito, and a togarashi rim. I struggled with ordering a second, but refrained, determined to leave enough room to finish my ramen. The rare impulse control paying off, as we agreed the rich, unctuous broth was easily the best either of us had ever tried.

Graphic mural outside Ramen Tatsu-Yu in Austin, Texas
Ramen Tatsu-Ya

Ramen Tatsu-Ya was hands down the best ramen I’ve had, and throw in the Kimchi-lada with a togarashi salt rim, I felt like I had been canonized by my taste buds. Happy and full, we headed back to Beia’s house to chat over some beers, eventually succumbing to a content exhaustion around 1am.

While the day isn’t much on paper- breakfast, drugs, a walk, swimming, dinner, literally a very pedestrian sort of affair, it is by far my favorite single day of the trip thus far. I will always treasure it. Everything I love in this life was present in perfect amounts. The next morning saw me a little weed-groggy, which is normal for a square like me, but otherwise happy and blissfully anxiety-free.

Having the perfect weather for a pursuit is a luxury when traveling, so the next morning we headed off to Hamilton Pool Preserve despite the dove gray sky. The preserve includes a waterfall-fed natural pool created when the dome over an underground river collapsed. It is said to get crowded, and I hoped turning up on a Monday with unfavorable skies would allow us to have some space. We drove through gently rolling gray hills, feeling very far from the city we’d left. A “Don’t Mess With Texas” sign educated us as to the reason for the pristine preservation of the surrounding country. It warned of a maximum of $2000 in fines and 180 days in jail for a littering offense. Turns out everything really is bigger in Texas.

We planned on hitting the Hamilton Pool for some more swimming, and our serendipitous double date continued on as we drove out into Hill country. Hill country, if you’ve never been, is as magical and alluring as Kentucky, but the peaks of elevation are generally strikingly bald, aside from patches of brush, cypress, oak, and juniper. The scenic drive, at least for a moment, seemed just that, when due to a change in policy and some pretty elementary poor online-presence management, we weren’t allowed in without a reservation we didn’t know we needed to have. The age we live in.

As we turned into the preserve we were greeted by a park ranger holding a clipboard. She asked for the name on our reservation, a reservation we didn’t have. We attempted to feel out any sympathetic tendencies, but it became clear she was immune to our plight. Having myself found out about the pool through a Google search, I felt unqualified to lament the effects of industrialized tourism for too long. Beia suggested Pedernales Falls State Park a half hour away and we were off.

Beia, J, and Max exploring the limestone steps that make up the Pedernales Falls while the Pedernales River is low
Exploring the falls at Pedernales State Park

Signs at the entrance to the falls disclose their violence. They warn to remain attentive, listening for the sound of rushing water. To not turn one’s back on them. We walked through a thicket of knotty black trees encircled by a ghostly mist, the trail opening onto a vista overlooking the falls below. The river was low, the water collected in serene pools which burbled into the ones below. We went down to explore. A light rain was starting, and though it lasted just moments, it spurred a mass desertion amongst the park’s other patrons. We climbed the ridges solitarily, quietly inspecting the landscape. The slopes of smooth rock betrayed the river’s true nature, worn soft by years of force and pressure. A cast of hawks began circling above, agitated and growing in number. Another storm loomed overhead. As the fat drops began to fall we hastened for the car, retiring back to the house to relax before dinner.

J sitting on a rock watching the falls at Pedernales Falls State Park
J watching the falls cascading down the limestone steps at Pedernales Falls State Park.
Potholes in the bedrock of the falls at Pedernales Falls State Park
The river was low enough to explore the potholes in the bedrock at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Thankfully, Beia pulled a great backup plan out, and we headed to Pedernales Falls, one of Texas’ many state parks. The falls, much like the Falls of the Ohio, were markedly restrained and peaceful. We walked the smooth stone and examined the potholes, deep undercuts and slowly whirling eddies of the low-lying river, imagining the fierce wall of water it would become during the rainy season. We all made wishes on some river mollusk shells, tossed them back into the Pedernales and walked up the hill and through the deathly still juniper and cypress forest back to the car.

An eerie mist had settled among the forest at Pedernales Falls State Park.
An eerie mist had settled among the forest at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Solid downtime happened before getting ready for dinner at Uchiko. While Y and I had, for the most part, agreed that this was not a journey of gustatory delights, at least not expensive ones, we always planned for exceptions and having both Beia and Max’s seal of approval and enthusiasm for where they worked was more than enough to hook us. We could not have asked for a better meal, nor better people to share it with. The restaurant is doing everything on such an inspiring level, I even felt the tug of my most recent past life.

As someone hailing from a fairly ruined freshwater ecosystem, and an area that is largely landlocked, great sushi is a rare treat I have only experienced a few times. This was one of those times, made even more special by the menu’s unorthodox approach. For example, and without spoiling anything, I’ve never seen gruyere cheese on the menu at an Asian forward concept, let alone cheese that’s been gussied up and thrown through an iSi siphon. The meal was impressive, to say the least, with service on point from amazing aperitivo cocktails down to the rewarding dessert. To be clear, we rarely, if ever, order dessert. Full confession – yes, dessert is a thing we do, but it’s usually a nip of spirits or a round or three at a dive bar for the finishing move. It’s not that we don’t trust the pastry chef (I find them to be the most inspiring chefs in the kitchen, more often than not), it’s that when we dine out, we are focused replenishing our requisite parts, being salt and spirit. We may or may not already be as sweet as our body chemistry allows. In any case, it was to be an evening for the best of all worlds, including dessert, and our next stop was just as stellar as our meal.

The best way to experience a restaurant is with someone who works there. Living in Pittsburgh the last few years hadn’t exactly presented us with an array of sushi options, so when Beia and Max suggested we accompany them to Uchiko, we didn’t hesitate. Both elegant and casual, it’s a place that hits all the marks. The drinks were flawless, the space handsome and comfortable, the service knowledgeable and attentive. Though we heard a guest outside reductively refer to it as a sushi restaurant, it really is so much more than perfect sashimi. We tried a myriad of dishes, both hot and cold, and with each new bite we were filled with a profound respect for the technique apparent, the delicate layering of flavor, the impeccable use of texture. The restaurant deserves every accolade it’s garnered.

As we progressed through our meal, various staff members stopped by our table, each asking if we would be joining the post-work karaoke festivities. The inclusion in the shift afterparty at a restaurant you do not work at is a rarity, and not to be taken lightly. Being welcoming unconditionally for an uninterrupted eight hours is taxing work, and hospitality ends when the door shuts behind the last guest. These outings are a chance for everyone to trade battle stories, to commiserate, to get as drunk as finances will allow. Pleasantries are delightfully absent. I can only credit our host’s wit and charm with granting us with admittance. By the fifth query (and third glass of wine) we were fully committed to accepting their generous invitation.

During dinner, Max and I had briefly discussed the need for and nature of digestivos, and he decided on taking us to La La’s. While I had been told it was a Christmas bar, my soul was not prepared. It is an amazing bar, full stop. If I lived in Austin, I would crave sitting at that bar the same way I do Gooski’s, Kelly’s, and Harris Grill back in Pittsburgh. The fact that The Shining was playing certainly didn’t hurt. Fernet, whiskey, and beer we all kicked back before we took the staff of Uchiko up on their gracious invitation to join them at the local karaoke lounge for their post-service Monday ritual.

Sign saying 96 days until Christmas and replica of leg lamp from the movie A Christmas Story decorations at La La's Little Nugget in Austin, Texas
La La’s Little Nugget

Max suggested La La’s Little Nugget, a Christmas bar, as a place to throw back a few shots while we waited for staff to finish the business of breaking down. La La’s is kitschy, and clever, and absurd in the best way. It’s also incredibly welcoming. We hung at the bar, trading quips and shooting whiskey with the bartender, feeling like regulars. We received word that the Uchiko crew was off the clock and headed over to join the drunken revelry.

Despite the two of us walking in directions that lead away from what kept a roof over our heads for so long, restaurant people will always be our people. The free-wheeling generosity and never-ending pursuit of laughter is a common thread that binds us together. Any invitation to that sort of gathering is both a privilege and a challenge to pay it forward. We stayed long into the concert, truly a Party in the USA, and fell asleep quickly once home, hastened by the alcohol and good cheer still coursing through our veins.

The next morning was a battle against our rebelling bodies. Breakfast, preferably in taco form, being the best ammunition for such fights, Beia advocated for Veracruz, an awesome little taco truck located adjacent to Radio Coffee. J had lovingly decorated an Underberg wrapper with hearts and stars, and after throwing back that magical tonic, I felt well enough to be in public and we went to fulfill our tortilla-wrapped destiny. Once sustenance had been ordered, I went to get us coffee. However, inside I discovered the cafe was further improved by a bar. Put straight by the beer and eggs, the short drive to San Antonio felt once again like the manageable task it was. As is my habit, I picked Beia up in an embrace. It was time to go.

The Underberg bottle that J decorated with hearts and stars
Breakfast of Champions

The next day was a struggle, not only for BAC reasons, but because we were leaving Austin. Beia could not have been a more insightful and accommodating guide, and it’s a pleasure and an honor to add to the list of guests we hope to entertain in Cuenca. The city itself, while suffused with a self-awareness one finds in Portland or the now-precious portions of Brooklyn, still maintains a ruggedly individualistic streak of weird that Hunter S. Thompson would likely approve of, even in this age of coarsening cynicism. I look forward to the happy moments of the future I know will happen in Austin. What a fantastic town. I can’t wait to come home there, someday.

Yvette lifting Beia up in a goodbye embrace
I just can’t help myself.

 

AUSTIN (PT I) – RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE

When I was twenty-two and living in New Orleans I dodged a hurricane with a long weekend in Austin. I had been working at a restaurant on Magazine Street when we received word that it was going to make landfall. Staff was giddy. This was pre-Katrina. Every year you had five or so major hurricane warnings, and they always amounted to a bit of heavy rain and maybe some moderate flooding. You hit the grocery store (which is also the liquor store, bless you, Louisiana), park your car on the neutral ground (that grass-covered median in the center of the road), and have some friends over. Hurricane parties were de rigueur and often lasted a few days. The news was being typically hyperbolic in their presentation of the story and now the city was urging businesses to shutter for a couple. We’d all just been given a vacation.

I was headed out to join some of the staff for drinks when my friend Sarah approached asking if I’d be interested in making the 9 hour trip to Austin. A friend in the back of the house had some buddies there who would let us crash on their couch/floor. The two of them were going to leave town once he finished breaking down the kitchen from the night’s service. I went home to pack a bag and an hour later they were picking me up.

We got to the city as the day was starting, and set to taking it all in with the unlimited energy of early twenty-somethings. We day drank, saw the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, waded knee-deep at Barton Springs Pool (nobody had thought to bring a bathing suit), and ate all of the tacos. Saw something at the Alamo Draft House that none of us were sober enough to follow. The Doves happened to be playing so we went to a show. We didn’t sleep. Two days later we drove back towards New Orleans with just enough time to get our friend to his day shift. Austin had won me over.

When J and I were discussing leaving Pittsburgh, Austin had been a highly ranked prospect. Now I was excited to introduce him to the city I had been crushing on all these years. Excited to see how it had changed. Beia was just as eager to show us around. The last time I had seen her, weeks away from moving here, I had told her about my soft spot for the city. Now two years later, Austin had fully ingratiated itself to her, and she was persuading me to reconsider a move.

J flanked by pink dragonfruit margaritas and conversing at brunch at Picnik in Austin, Texas
Pink Dragonfruit Margaritas at Picnik

We three woke up and went to breakfast, which was awesome. If you had told me gluten-free pancakes were to give me a food coma, I would have said fuck you. One of my sisters, Alyssa, is celiac, in a strange turn of events which is, at least in the legendarium of my family, squarely upon my young nephew’s shoulders. Believe you me, little Bennett and I have had The Talk: “Once, young one, your mother could Pong beers with the best of them, but now tis only cider she sips. But seriously, you’ve said “hi” a dozen times already, and you should brush up on your vocabulary. This schtick of yours is going to stop impressing everyone in this family five minutes ago.” In any case, Tapioca flour banana pancakes – ain’t nothing wrong with that.

We started with a late breakfast at Picnik, which is exactly the grass-fed, organic, gluten-free, cold-brewing, ashwagandha adding cliché that Austin’s detractors bemoan. It’s bright and airy, servers are informed and gracious, there are hot pink dragonfruit margaritas, breakfast foodstuffs, the coffee is amazing. If you can hate on anything after a meal there, you’re the bad roommate. Beia went home to steel herself for an evening of being hospitable and we headed out to explore the town.

We chatted a bit more after breakfast before leaving Beia to a pre-shift nap, a tradition both revered and respected amongst our people. Y had found a really quaint and lovely park to take a short and relaxing walk through before hitting a small campaign’s worth of spots in the city. The short and relaxing walk, due to our shared unrelenting and stubborn nature, became anything but. We allowed ourselves to be painted into the corner of a long and angry walk through the underbrush because reasons.

Spanish Moss and creek at Mayfield Park and Preserve in Austin, Texas
Mayfield Park and Preserve

Mayfield Park and Preserve is a small, wooded park with a few short trails and a creek running through it. Twenty-three acres of nature tucked away in the middle of the city. However, its diminutive size was no help in preventing us from losing our way. Despite being a half hour hike, max, from the edge of the park in any direction, our arguments as to the best way out mimicked the day’s increasing barometer, eventually exploding into a blistering silence. We trudged our way through the brush, the lilting sounds of people actually enjoying one another’s company eventually piercing the stillness between us. We caught sight of a trail, made our way up a hill, and vacated the woods.

White Peacock at Mayfield Park and Preserve in Austin, Texas
Our second white peacock sighting, at Mayfield Park and Preserve.

A very long half hour later J and I had backed down enough to take a walk around the preserve’s ponds and garden. The appearance of two white peacocks among the muster felt like a sign to try to stop ruining each other’s day. With delicately balanced sensibilities, carefully chosen words, and the reckless optimism that neither party would shove the other over, we made our way up to the Mt. Bonnell Terrace to look down at the Colorado River cutting its way through the city.

As tempers cooled and boundaries were re-established or firmly demarcated, we managed to find a modicum of peace in the neighboring peacock gardens, where the universe reminded us we were on the trail with a few white peacocks. Which we wouldn’t really talk about for another few hours because we were still re-living our recent search for Dr. Livingstone, I presume, and way too cranky to talk metaphysics.

The skyline of Austin, Texas as viewed from the Mt. Bonnell Terrace in Covert Park
The view from Mt. Bonnell

Despite the latent crank factor, we still found enjoyment in both geographic and personal surroundings with a handful of hugs at the top of Covert Park (which is anything but, amiright) and the HOPE outdoor gallery, which is a sort of graffiti playground on an abandoned industrial lot. It was inspiring to see groups of kids sprint around with spray cans and wild, creative eyes, about to engage in some victimless crimes. I was reminded of Buddhist mandalas, watching the the layers of paint develop over masterpieces, and seeing the tell-tale traces of their eventual obliteration. There was an artist off to the side, engaged in surrendering a piece of themselves to the abyss, and we both wondered how long the hard work would stay unmolested before the winds of change blew it away like so many grains of sand.

Mr. Meeseeks graffiti mural at the Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, Texas
“Look at me!”

The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is a park which repurposes the foundation of a demolished structure as the canvas for large-scale graffiti murals. We arrived to swarms of young people running around, paint cans in hand. They tagged walls and expressed themselves amongst the wreckage in varying degrees of ability, but with a singular enthusiasm. It was a scene as vibrant and frenetic as the work itself and we wandered through its rubble alcoves, taking it in. The dynamic backdrop is especially photogenic and as the only space of its kind in the country, a general point of interest. A tour bus pulled up, regurgitating its contents of forty or so business-casual convention attendees onto the street. They obediently followed their guide to the park’s entrance. J and I were crestfallen at the thought of the group engulfing the park. However, the guide muttered a couple sentences about the HOPE’s history and herded his sheep back on to the bus. Off to the next sight.

Tempers more than sufficiently cooled by this point, we headed towards downtown and Commerce street to see the bat colony wake up and take flight. We parked and grabbed beers nearby, snacking on some fried green tomatoes before taking a slug of bourbon from our car bar and hoofing it up the road. The sight of the bats emerging was magnificent. Austin, more than any other major city I’ve been to, is in tune with and firmly married to nature. The hillsides are a solid and vibrant green, and the whole city is rife with native grasses, agave, and cacti. To observe a massive colony of bats take to the skies from the middle of a major American city is nothing short of pure magic, and something I never expected to see in my life.

We headed further South across the river to catch the twilight exodus of the Congress Avenue Bridge bat colony. With an hour to kill before dusk, we stopped for beers to smother any residual hostility. Then added a few shots of trunk bourbon for good measure. We followed the parade of people making their way toward the river to catch the spectacle. We waited. The bats emerged from the bridge amassed in wafting waves. They form a stream a million and a half strong, clouds of helpful little pest eradicators drifting miles in every direction. We watched for the better part of an hour until just a few floundering stragglers remained.

J using perspective to make it look as though he is holding one of the Austin, Texas Moonlight Towers in the palms of his hands
The Austin Moonlight Towers are the last light towers in the world. They stand 165 ft high and cast a glow that stretches out 1,500 ft.

Afterwards, we sought out one of the Moon Towers, an old throwback to an age where electrical illumination was an animal we humans were only just beginning to yoke. Our quota of silly pictures filled, we headed to Luke’s Inside Out for some sandwiches great enough to write about, let alone eat. Jesus, were they good.

Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and arguing done right is an exhausting endeavor. Both a bit spent, we made our way to Luke’s Inside Out to indulge in the restorative powers of beer and sandwiches. Luke’s is an unassuming food truck parked between a bar and a cafe. You can have your meal delivered to either bookending establishment. Its menu is small, specializing in sandwiches that are reworked versions of Italian and Asian classics. One could be forgiven for looking at the modest setup, the sriracha aioli listed as an ingredient, the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives logo decal affixed near the order window, heralding the seal-of-approval from American cheese enthusiast and recently electrified human troll doll, Guy Fieri* himself, and think you were about to be treated to Hawaiian barbecue dusted onion rings slathered in Donkey Sauce™. One would be very wrong. Despite the appearance of 2010’s trendiest condiment and a celebrity endorsement from the man responsible for Dragon’s Breath Chili, Luke’s is putting out some badass food. Their flavors are complex, the quality of ingredients elevated, the compositions seemingly ready to burst and yet somehow managing to retain their structural integrity. If I seem wistful, it’s because I am. I yearn for that sandwich.

Not understanding what we were signing on for, we turned down Rainey Street. Driving through the horde of pre-gaming singles stumbling into their next terrible decision only highlighted the fact that we were in no mood to have any part of that. We stopped to pick up some mead and a few beers for the house and went home to enjoy them peacefully, like the old people we are unapologetically becoming. After a bit of conversation, Beia’s roommate, Monster, decided J was worthy of catering to his head-scratching needs, and with J otherwise occupied I went to bed.

Beia's cat, Monster, begrudgingly wearing a strawberry crochet hat
Alright Monster, you’ll only wear it when Aunt Clara visits.

We headed back to base, Y falling out cold in fairly short order, and my anxiety still hovering like an Eldritch horror in the skies of my mind. We both know this sort of adventure, this pursuit of the happiest life, isn’t easy, intellectually, but that knowledge will never change the difficulties of the hard moments. With the two of us being especially attuned to our feelings, the dry comforts of intelligence crumble to dust in short order when faced with the hot winds of raw emotion.

A skull playing the saxophone graffiti mural at Hope Outdoor Gallery, Austin, Texas
“Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better-looking place.”- Banksy

*Descriptions of Guy Fieri that didn’t make it into this post:

1. An anthropomorphized Hawaiian shirt, laundered in Jägermeister, riding a crotch rocket

2. A Mountain Dew-stained albino grizzly rollerblading in a tutu

3. A bloated, brocean pufferfish

4. Your ex-roommate, Chad, who shows up after twenty years to embrace you with a tire swing full of nachos (and not the $200 he still owes you). Fucking Chad.

THE BEST LAID PLANS

I am an excellent packer. When I moved from a two bedroom apartment in New Orleans to share a one bedroom in Hell’s Kitchen with my boyfriend fourteen years ago, my roommate found me laid out on the hardwood floor, 72 hours into packing, exhausted and overwhelmed. He took pity on me that day. Nursed me back to sanity. Enlightened me on how to properly place books, clothes, dishes in boxes, wisdom which had somehow eluded me until then. Ever since, I have armed myself for moving with the knowledge that it is a campaign capable of being won. I pack thoughtfully, efficiently, considering what will first be necessary when I get to my destination. I buy supplies in advance. I’ve never lost a plate.

I use this same mindfulness when packing for a trip. I pick the color palette for my wardrobe, choose two pairs of shoes, and build my outfits from there. I have often traveled with nothing more than my large purse. A useful talent when storing your entire life away but for two suitcases, meant to take you from 110 degree dessert hikes to date night in December. And after helping J make the exact same decisions a month earlier I felt ready for the task.

A Large Brown Fluffy Cat phoning in an attempt to be smuggled in luggage.
“I can has adventure?”

People use all kinds of barometers to discern when a person becomes an adult. At 27 in Manhattan, I remember being horrified reading an article about a 26 year old woman’s death, and thinking I’d be wrongly referred to as a woman, should something happen to me. I have good credit, I have been responsible for people’s livelihoods, but I wasn’t to taste adulthood until the first time I hired movers.

That same move to New York, my boyfriend and I arrived in our 26 foot Uhaul to find the renovations to our apartment incomplete. Nobody had bothered to call to let us know. We spent 22 days on the floor of my father’s already cramped townhouse in Princeton, NJ before begging my family to help us move in while we double-parked the trailer on West 49th. It was a humbling experience. Insert uplifting learning from your mistakes quote here.

The true lesson about moving is that it’s always terrible. You will fight with people you love, skin your elbows, stub your toes, lose your keys, and realize what a disgusting person you are as you borrow a vacuum with the desperate hope of reclaiming some of your security deposit.That time in New York was just the first time I tried to move into an apartment that wasn’t ready for me. Once, I arrived while the tenants were still living there.

The first time you hire movers, they will be late, or early, or lose all the screws to a piece of furniture you inherited, and still it will prevent 90% of the drama you would have experienced had you bullied your friends into helping you with the pathetic bribe of pizza and beer. You will pay them what seems like an exorbitant amount of money. It will not be enough. You will put sheets on your bed, wash your face, have a drink, and realize had you not hired them you would still be dragging crap you didn’t even want your partner to keep up stairs right now, and you will never miss that money. My apartment in Pittsburgh was a converted basement, accessible through an outdoor corridor and down a flight of stairs. J and Moose had been living with me since his lease had ended a month earlier, and the walls were already lined high with the unleavable from his apartment. And so, I hired movers.

All this experience, foresight, shrewdness, all of it was to crumble under the weight of simple math. I had calculated how long it should take to pack, added four hours for optimism, and another two for tantrums and food. However, I had forgotten to add the packing for the next 6 months of your life. If packing for a week of vacation takes me 45 min, well, it’s probably better you do the math.

We had done our best to ruthlessly get rid of things we no longer needed and were taking the rest to a storage facility in Canfield, which was about halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. J’s family lives there, and so we had decided to make it our new home base in the states. The movers got there at 9am, had the truck packed by noon, and J and I kept finding one more thing to clean, pack, throw out for the next five hours. Moose was inconsolable and hid in the closet. We tried to convince him to take one last trip to the bathroom, as he can be fussy about where he goes, but figured we had to leave or risk missing the storage place closing before we could unpack it all.

The first steps began in fits and starts, even after the fits and starts fit comfortably and ended, respectively. The three of us, hunkered down in a two-vehicle caravan and armed with a pair of walkie-talkies I had from my teenage years, were ready for the day. Unfortunately, the day got away from us, and our timetable slipped into impossibility like a Dali clock. We rolled up onto the storage site well after they had closed, leaving us to find recourse in a hotel – an amazing call on Y’s part. Said amazing call turned into an incredibly scenic drive around the especially nowhere parts of PA when the trust in GPS apps rerouted us onto the turnpike. The fifteen minute trip became a fifty minute trip, and the sunset, while normally free, became a $30 dollar sunset, after all the fees and gas had been settled.

It really was a striking sunset, so much so that when we finally arrived in Cleveland the next day, my sister (Fourth) commiserated and shared the joy with us, as she had also been in an optimal location to view the solar wonder. Great minds. Great, stupid minds. When we arrived at the hotel (Red Roof Inn allows pets, which we had in hefty, brown and fuzzy supply), I realized we didn’t have a lock for all of our worldly bullshit in the truck and our soon-to-be-occupied storage locker, so it was off to Target for a lock, then off to Taco Bell for dinner. Because we classy.

An attractive and defiant woman driving a truck.
“This is Black Widow, what’s your 20?”

A month ago, I had offered to drive the 20 foot Uhaul that would be transporting all of our worldly belongings to their new home in Ohio. Mostly because I try to conquer irrational fears I have head on, but also, because I knew I’d hate it less than J. As moving day approached so did an uneasiness in my stomach, but I reasoned it was just an hour or so to the unit, and bought insurance. That night, with 36 hours under my belt and the sun setting in my face I tried to keep it together.

J and his cat-pilot, Moose, led in my massive SUV. I followed in the imposing truck behind. The vehicle was cumbersome and unwieldy, its hulking mass reluctantly lurching up hills, refusing to graduate gears, and careening wide on right turns. I struggled to keep up, cruised over a few curbs. J had suggested using walkie-talkies he had acquired during his days in the Boy Scouts to keep in touch on the drive. While initially, I had agreed merely to humor him, they proved a lot of fun. Like a teenager after a growth spurt, my lumbering awkwardness gave way, eventually finding sureness in my mammoth frame.

A large, brown fluffy cat riding shotgun in a car
Moose is ready to turn this car around.

We arrived at the storage facility, our exhaustion making us that much more eager to complete the unpacking and fast forward to a certain collapse into bed at J’s family home. It was not to be. Though the units were still accessible, the office had closed for the day, making renting one impossible. Driving the Uhaul to Cleveland, then back the next day, seemed an onerous proposition, and the gas and extra mileage would be expensive. I found a cheap motel nearby that allowed pets, booked it, and we drove off, renewed by the prospect of sleep dangling before us.

I am not one of those people who begrudge technology. When I moved to New York, I spent a good portion of time studying maps and subway routes before leaving the house to ensure I knew where I was going. The only thing worse than being lost in New York is looking like a tourist. The government may be tracking our movements through our space phones, but I’ll accept that dystopian premise in order to regularly circumvent traffic.

GPS is a wonder of modern technology, a fact I tried to recall as mine steered us increasingly further from our destination and the promise of sleep. Rerouted down toll roads in the wrong direction (the walkies, less enjoyable now), we frantically tried to reconfigure our convoy in alignment with our desired location. One spectacular sunset, fifty miles, and an hour later, we had made it to plan b. We made Moose comfortable, had some tequila, and I was cadaverous.

We watched Mad Max on the television over dinner, with Moose skulking around the twin Queen beds of the hotel room. The Taco Bell paired magnificently with the tequila we had stashed in a water bottle. Y had been feverishly packing and working like a champ for near 40 hours, and finally hit the mat after we ate. Moose and I communed while attempting to watch Rambo. A few more sips of tequila and I followed Y to bed.

The next morning I put Moose in his harness and took him for a walk. As with most cats, he’s not particularly fond of change, travel, or loud noises, and the combination had made him especially edgy. He hadn’t gone for hours and I was starting to worry about his health. He was still tense and agitated after a half hour, and we decided our best move was to commence with unpacking the truck so as to get him to J’s parents’ house, where he could be comfortable.

We relieved ourselves of our possessions, the Uhaul, and the irritable intensity that had been looming over us as we pushed through the last particulars of the move, excited to be finally headed towards Cleveland. There would be a pizza party celebrating the birth of J’s sister, Justine, already in progress by the time we arrived. Ravenous, I confided that J was going to have to cover for my appetite because I had no intention of politely declining food at any point throughout the evening. With Moose set up to conclude the cliffhanger of his gastro-intestinal episode, a set of showers for each of us, and a few more swigs of tequila, we were ready to join in the festivities.

We got a slow start to the next day and drove over to our storage site. Despite varying opinions on how Tetris was to be won, the day went by largely without incident, and after the load-in, we rejoined Moose in the car, dropped off the Uhaul and were finally off to Cleveland. We arrived just in time to see a community theater production of How I Saved Pizza Night starring my sister (LJ). It was a packed house, missing only my Father, a day out on a camping trip on the French River. We still had ten people, three dogs, five cats and way too many large personalities for one house. After a quick shower and some triage, I rattled off some pizza-aid and a massive pitcher of margaritas, which made the comedy of errors just a little more hilarious. After a shower, Y was back from the dead, and pizza, beer and tequila were on hand.

There were definitely private nips of water-bottle tequila, as the homefront was not nearly as serene as we had hoped, and moving, if you’ve never done it, sucks cocks in librarian hell, which is a special sort of hell where everything has to be organized just so then completely re-organized ad nauseum and it is absolutely the worst type of sweaty and musty boredom. Meanwhile, in the domestic animal kingdom, Moose was mostly just happy to take a shit, as he had been holding it (despite our efforts and encouragement to the contrary) for something like 27 hours. Y applauded his efforts, and I almost wish I could have been there. That’ll do, cat. That’ll do.

LJ left early in the evening with her husband to prepare for the early AM flight to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, where none of the Spanish I blasted her with would ever be needed. En realidad, era necesario. Para mi. Lo siento.

The remainder played a homebrew game my brother-in-law had brought into the household lexicon a few years back called Marbles, a sort of cross between Parcheesi and Sorry! with movement rules akin to the fine drinking game of Kings. My middle sister, Alyssa, the cocky little shit, soundly trounced us all again, even after Y had ground her ax into some whiskey. The two of us stayed up until 2 with Fourth and her boyfriend, rapping about the journey. Bespoke boyfriend and I reveled in the gift of gab together. Our respective partners’ eye rolls eventually muffled the conversation, and we slowly ventured to the quiet and heavy sleep of the gods. After a nip or two of tequila. The bedroom tequila came in handy over the next few days.

J’s family is a close-knit crew, with sizable temperments and laughs to match. Gatherings can get rowdy and games are played with an impassioned competitiveness. After somehow being decimated in Marbles (J’s sister, Aly, has a preternatural ability for the game) yet again, and the departure of the guest of honor for a trip to Mexico, things began to wind down a bit. The last of us stayed up drinking and softly chatting into the night until exhaustion consumed us once more.

A lily pond at the Holden Arboretum
Lily pond at Holden Arboretum

Home was more than the standard hectic, and beggars can’t be choosers. We spent the next few days planning, hiding, visiting parks and eating and drinking. There was a bomb-ass Dai cucumber salad and Rainbow Trout dinner we threw together, but we were mostly doing slug impressions. We dodged hangouts with my childhood Cleveland friends, because we simply weren’t up for it. It was all we could do to take deep metaphorical breaths and prepare for liftoff. The nasty flash cold I got didn’t help, either.

The pill of this adventure is something most people balk at to begin with let alone swallow, and my family, being more or less forced into the position of accomplices, have been as understanding and empathetic as they ever have been. Which is sometimes, seemingly, not at all. The magnitude of happenings in my parents’ household (my sister and her family are there temporarily while she and her husband lock down a house after a move from the south) helped us keep perspective. Neither of us really appreciate or even trust cheerleaders, and the genuine farewell embraces and well-wishes were icing on not overstaying a welcome.

We were infinitely happy to be on our way. It was a long series of struggle cuddles and tears saying goodbye to Moose, but as a family, we’re making the right call. The little furry bastard will be pleased as punch to live somewhere we can keep the windows open 365, maybe even as much as we will.

The next week was a swirling daze of solidifying plans and tying loose ends. We tried to soak up family time with large communal dinners and a trip to the Holden Arboretum. It would be Christmas before we saw everyone again, and with each visit we seemed to be watching J’s nephew evolving into an articulate little trouble-maker through time-lapse photography. We tried to encourage Moose’s exploratory instincts and by the end of the week, he was confidently throwing the full 18 pounds of his weight around. We accepted advice, well-wishes, and said our emotional goodbyes. Fortes fortuna adiuvat.

The view from the top of the Kalberer Emergent Tower at Holden Arboretum in Ohio
The view from the Kalberer Emergent Tower at Holden Arboretum is amazing, and only mildly terrifying. Mildly.

OUR STORY BEGINS IN PITTSBURGH

“If I were in Texas right now, I’d be buying a fifth at a gas station and riding a cowboy.”

I dragged my insufficiently-tractioned booties on the mat and shook snow from my recently purchased hood. Although I had lived in the Northeast for most of my life, my first winter in Pittsburgh was proving brutal. I have always considered myself tough, or at least, unlikely to whine, but Pittsburgh isn’t called the Steel City only for its manufacturing past. The people there are a tough breed. The first day it snowed I walked up to the bus stop in my winter coat and there was an old woman, knotty with age, with just an undone windbreaker, making light conversation with the stranger beside her. Now, after a week of below zero temperatures and dragging myself up the iced over hill to my apartment, pulling myself along my neighbor’s chain-link fence, I was regretting my decision to agree to Pittsburgh over Austin for an increasingly unsalvageable relationship.

The other thing about Pittsburgh is, the people have heart. So much so that if you show them your mettle, you become family. This is why, three years later, I was still in Pittsburgh, albeit with appropriate footwear. I was managing what I will not-at-all humbly refer to as the best cocktail bar in the city. The type of place where your staff is so good they can surprise even the most jaded “big city” manager with their empathy, creativity, and wit. Even still, a weekly 50 hours on my feet and another 20 at my desk, coupled with ever more increasing call-outs by support and kitchen staff was starting to take a toll, and worse, make me into the sloppy, corner-cutting boss I’d always hated. J and I had been hushedly whispering places we wanted to see some day in exhausted late night conversations since we had become partners a year earlier. And although I hadn’t been there in over 15 years, Austin kept rearing its head into our consciousness.

The south side of the 16th Street Bridge in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s 16th Street Bridge

It was a date night; we probably slept until 2 and then slowly emerged around 4 or so. We were always dead tired, and even going out for a drink was just so much work most of the time. We had tickets for Salome and plans for Bar Marco beforehand. After the opera we went to Pirata for some of the best pina coladas ever for dessert. I poked a joke or two at Y for missing the money shot of the opera due to (fucking) exhaustion, and we both laughed about walking to the wrong venue, wandering around the unlocked said venue then finally taking an Uber to the correct venue only a minute or two after the opera started. The sweet tiki delights we had defrosting in front of us were the aid to the sparse lemons of the evening.

The bar was empty except for two middle-aged white bros, wearing the ubiquitous indoor fucking ballcap, high-fiving to an election we were both trying to avoid paying attention to, at least for the evening. The world started to feel a little more dangerous, and we hopped a car back to my place in Polish Hill, and kicked on NPR’s election coverage. My roommate Sam, Y and I drank heavily, listening to the commentators become increasingly frantic before I turned it off and walked a skewed line into the kitchen for another drink.

“Well, fuck this country. Fuck Texas, fuck this country, fuck Trump, let’s move to Argentina.”

I tend to expect the worst. November 8 approached, and a sense of unease that refused to be suppressed permeated my thoughts, regardless of the magnitude of mezcal I consumed. Hungover from the attempted circumvention, I still managed to complete my civic duty. However, I was still surprised voting that day, as it was my first time experiencing a wait to cast my ballot (though only for the line that was constituted mostly of lower income apartment dwellers) at this polling place. In addition, I had to step out of the line because I felt faint due to the heat blasting on the unusually balmy November evening (a neighbor saw me looking peaked and offered to hold my place), before I could finalize my vote.

Women live on the defensive. Arguments could be made about voter suppression, scare tactics in marketing, and party dynamics, but the truth is, that night, as I sat on a barstool in a fashionable downtown restaurant in a Northern American metropolitan area, I watched two white men high five and loudly celebrate, publicly boasting that women were going to have to learn their place, as states were called red. That night my male friends seemed surprised by what women have often suspected, that our safety is dependent on the will of the men that surround us. An increasing problem for someone who has never had any interest in dulling her intelligence to make anyone more comfortable.

The North bank of the Allegheny River, with the lights of route 28
The muddy banks of the Allegheny River

A few months before, Y and I had one of The Talks people who love each other have, and we had agreed we were done with Pittsburgh, and that Texas is a beautiful place we both love and could easily find gainful employment in. In a previous life, I had plane and train tickets in my hot little hand, and I was inches away from traveling with the intent to select a neighborhood to live in during my mid-twenties, but those unused tickets just ended up being icing on a big ole failure cake. Everyone loves second chances.

With measured discourse giving way to martyrdom and histrionics at home, J and I looked south for our salvation. We both were initially drawn in by the glamour of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. However, the idea of Ecuador kept coming up – in articles in my inbox, in the clickbait titles of best of lists, and random anecdotes from convivial guests. When the universe keeps nudging an idea your way, I believe you should listen. I broached the idea with J, who, while open, was hesitant. My desire to do all of the things can sometimes result in me acting indecisive, and Buenos Aires had been always been the plan. As we talked it through, the cognizance of our limited Spanish proficiency and lack of support, financial or otherwise, made the move to South America’s New York feel daunting. J had a tarot reading coming up, at which time he wanted to discuss both options. With the cards’ decision aligning with a move to Ecuador, we were once again advancing with purpose.

Our leases were due to end in the coming summer, but beyond a toss-up between Austin and San Antonio, we hadn’t talked about it much, other than that we were committed to each other and a big change in the future. So the leap from Trump’s Amerikkka to another nation wasn’t Olympic by any stretch of the imagination. White people ruin everything.

Argentina was on the radar for me because of a raging priapism for South American literature I became afflicted with in college. For years I had been threatening anyone that would listen that I was going to teach English there someday, and, after a few particularly galling professional moments, I had become so fed up with bartending that I had made a formal request to my folks to house my ever stalwart companion, Moose Handsome Endress, Cat-at-Large (seriously, he’s like 18 pounds), in the eventuality of my departure.

Obviously, my parents, who love me very much I guess, said yes, but I’m sure rolled their eyes in the aftermath. But then, they probably do that a lot.

People who do not work in restaurants have an idea that people who do work in restaurants have a lot of freedom in their schedules. This (somewhat earned) allegory of the lazy waiter, who drinks until 2am, sleeps until noon, and is going to use that music degree and start up a band as soon as he finishes catching up on the last season of Modern Family and gets his car fixed. In reality, those of us who didn’t stop bartending after that one summer in college often drink until 4am, wake up an hour before our next shift, don’t waste money on cable, and yeah, our cars are garbage. These professionals put on a good face, give thoughtful recommendations, measure out the tempo of guests’ meals to ensure a seamless experience, deferentially answer questions, and do it all on their feet (often without a break) while working late nights, weekends, and holidays. This level of hospitality is an art form that takes years to master. If restaurant employment was unskilled, as many assume, Yelp wouldn’t exist. But being indispensable in the hospitality industry has its drawbacks. Good restaurants operate with small crews to ensure skilled labor gets paid livable wages, and that means vacation time needs to be covered by other staff members. Staff members who won’t accrue overtime by working the additional shift. And that vacation, it’s unpaid. So when the smart, innovative bar you work at closes, it’s important to take advantage of that newly amassed free time.

My dad is prone to grand gestures. Two days before New Year’s, in the midst of finalizing details for the restaurant’s New Year’s Eve service, he called to let me know he would be driving to Pittsburgh the next day to gift me the used car he had initially bought for my youngest sister ten years earlier when she was in college. I informed him that it was an exceptionally generous offer, one I wasn’t sure I needed, but begged him to wait a day so that I might procure a parking permit, insurance, and a driver’s license, before attempting to transfer the title. Forms were filed and fees paid and I had myself an exhausted looking car with 235,000 miles and two decades of experience under her belt. She broke down within two weeks. With everything else on my plate, fixing the non-essential vehicle wasn’t a priority, and it wasn’t until the bar’s last service had come and gone, months later, that I made the effort. Realizing that these repairs were merely expensive duct tape destined to tear was strangely liberating and gave me a plan. Instead of being precious about the car, why not take it out for a last trip? We could drive it into the ground, then sell it before moving. Recently I had been feeling an intense desire to visit Utah and Arizona. When I pitched the idea to J he said, “I’d like to see the Grand Canyon.”

The Roberto Clemente Bridge across the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh.
Roberto Clemente Bridge, aka 6th Street Bridge

In November of 2016, I was square in the middle of a year-long obligation to my post as Bar Director at Tender Bar + Kitchen, while Y was Generally Managing the same. Over the next 6 months, our planning evolved, shifted, and blossomed. It became a safe and secret garden we would hide in after being brutalized week after week by the uphill battle to keep a restaurant from failing. Spoiler alert, it failed. We certainly made the 4th quarter of the game go as long and look as good as was humanly possible, but the other three, well, we didn’t make those calls. Even when we caught the first hints of smoke and ash on the wind, our plans became a flame retardant stunt-suit to put on every time shit hit the fan, as it did with increasing regularity.

Around the New Year, Y’s father gifted her a car, and after pouring some money into it, Y felt confident in including it in our plans. I don’t know who came up with the idea to take the car cross-country, but the simple move to South America was suddenly supplemented with the cross-country journey I had never been cool enough to have. As the demise of the restaurant became closer to official, our plans had a new dimension to them. When it closed, we gladly walked out into the light at the end of the tunnel, albeit with a few tears and bittersweet moments: we were going on an Adventure. In June, a full month of warm and fuzzy post-service industry life gone by, I had my Tarot read (a birthday gift from my partner hearts hearts), and things became crystallized.

I am a huge advocate of Tarot readings, because they are a healthy and helpful method of unraveling your own intentions and they lend the perspective of someone who is a more or less neutral party. It’s therapy that makes sense, and an incredibly enjoyable act of mindful healing and introspection. Plus, those cards are badass.

My reader helped nudge me towards the realization that the original plan for Buenos Aires might be a little detrimental, but that Ecuador, something that had turned up here and there in our research, might be a more productive and nurturing environment. After a very brief discussion, we focused on Ecuador, eventually settling on Cuenca. For two acolyte speakers of Spanish in a new country, a city only slightly larger than Pittsburgh seemed a better fit than a Latin New York City sans lube. The loose plans we had been shrugging our way around in conversation with friends became the future.

With our grandiose plans in place, we were left wondering how to accommodate our house cat/land manatee, Moose. He is not as interested in new ventures as his species is portrayed to be, and taking a cat who refuses to eat a different brand of cat food on a road trip seemed quite an undertaking. We began taking him on rides. J would strap Moose into his harness and we would go on short trips. Moose would lay in J’s lap while I drove, protesting loudly at first, then more softly. Eventually, he began to take an interest in the scenery passing by. He would look out the windshield, paws boldly atop the glove compartment like a Captain looking out to sea. Then one particularly hot day in July, we went to the bank. The car’s rickety air conditioning system couldn’t match the intensity outside, and Moose’s constant pleas made it clear we couldn’t take him on a trip through the Southwest. We soberly made the decision to leave him with J’s parents, who are avid animal lovers, knowing he would be treated well until we could come claim him in a few months.

We spent the rest of our summer in Pittsburgh lining up ducks, crossing i’s, dotting t’s and filling buckets with lists. More talk of future plans and trips flowed naturally, and after more team meetings, Team Felicidad decided to pursue living the best life and manifesting the shit out of all the talk and the plans and especially the dreams. We’re keeping it all on the table. This first adventure is just the test-bed for the rest of our lives.

After a tearful (and temporary) farewell to Mr. Moose, we began our adventure in earnest.

Or Ohio. It all starts with the first step.

A view down a back alley in Pittsburgh's Strip District
Pittsburgh’s Strip District