ROSWELL’S THAT ENDS WELL

I drew open the curtains to the second story room of the Super 8, relatively luxurious compared to the stronghold of despair that had been our San Antonio motel. The Eagle Mountains stood in the near distance. The previous night’s drive from San Antonio had been one of quiet solitude. Our headlights and those of the occasional comrade the only disruption in the intense darkness on this desolate stretch of I-10. Having arrived late into the night, we had all but collapsed the moment we got to the room. Now, with the landscape illuminated, we could see we had crossed into big sky country, just 40 miles Northeast of Mexico.

Van Horn would be our last night in Texas for who knows how long, and that experience is about the sum of the town. The drive across the 2nd largest state was smooth and beautiful, and felt like a major accomplishment. The road cut down a valley, with green mountains nosing into the cloud deck on our left, easing into a floor covered in vegetation. To our right stretched terrain that looked sparse and dry by comparison, more yellows and browns than green, and far off in the distance, we could see the deep blue outline of a range of mountains. The scenery seemed to wall us in, turning the vanishing point of the road into the end of a long hallway. Aside from the car and its stereo, it was quiet, and the tiny space we occupied felt all the more inconsequential. This territory seemed poised to eat us alive. It felt hungry, but like a true opportunist, it had learned to subsist on the scraps civilization had let fall between the cracks. The houses here seemed more like interlopers than places to hang a hat.

An overcast day in a West Texas valley alongside Texas 54
Don’t pick up hitchhikers

We turned onto Texas 54, a road whose sole purpose was to connect the satellite city of Van Horn to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and New Mexico beyond. No towns or turn-offs lay between Van Horn and the park and within two miles all signs of humanity had been erased. A roadrunner watched us pass from the safety of the shoulder.

Texas’s 85mph speed limit seems a clear indicator that they could not care less if people crash out here, as long as no one is inconvenienced by the possibility of having to rescue survivors. Pushing a full 100mph, we cut through the landscape swiftly, but the expanse of the vista distorted our perception, making the drive feel serene. The road curved around the Beach Mountains on our left, and the temperature dropped. The glorious morning we had enjoyed a few miles back replaced by smoke gray skies. The Baylor Mountains ahead to our right had created a valley between the two ranges which maintained its own weather system. We pulled off the road, watching dark clouds break over the Beach Mountains in waves that came crashing down the side toward the dale below.

We broke from the ranges, but a new one loomed before us, its towering peak obscured by clouds. Vegetation thinned, morphing from lush, sage greens to soft tans as the road followed the rim of a salt flat. Despite the sun’s efforts to break through the cloud cover, a light rain began to fall.

The road climbed the peak, rising above the rain, and we became enveloped by dense mist. We entered the lot of the park’s visitor’s center and were greeted by a scene reminiscent of a horror movie, empty, unwelcoming, and cloaked in heavy fog. Inside we weaved through taxidermied fauna displayed to impart the variety of life inhabiting the mountains. We accepted a trail map from a very bored looking ranger (caretaker?) and followed the walkway around the visitor’s center to the adjacent Pinery Trail.

Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The short trail cut a path through white gypsum that stretched out on either side. Juniper trees, grey and craggy, cut fingers through the thick mist. Markers pointed out soaptree yucca and a Mexican orange bush on the way to the ruins of a Butterfield Stagecoach Station. One had a quote from celebrated Pittsburgh author and environmentalist Rachel Carson, and it felt like providence seeing her words as we began our journey into untamed lands. Red-tailed hawks swooped low overhead, barely visible through opaque fog. Our hair and clothes collected tiny droplets. The worsening weather ensured we were not going to be hiking up any peaks.

“Whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of our spiritual growth.” – Rachel Carson
A bare juniper tree in a fog-covered portion of Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The fog was substantial, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We traveled to Guadalupe National Park, ascending to the edge of the clouds. The park was wreathed in mist, notching another rare moment we just happened to be right on time for. The grounds were spooky, to put it simply, compounded by the lack of fellow visitors. We took a walk to the ruins of a stagecoach mail depot, the first overland connection on the continent before being replaced by rail. It was surreal to see the hawks silently swoop in and out of the haze overhead and watch the juniper branches tremble under the light drizzle. We drove down to another part of the park and walked the floor of McKittrick Canyon for a mile or so. Here, the fog made the canyon’s ridges look as if we had been transported to the Highlands of Scotland, provided one didn’t look too hard at the flora. We were falling in love with the land, and our walk out of the gorge saw us roughing out a future trip

McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We hoped the McKittrick Canyon trail would drop us below the layer of fog. Birds circled the jutting cliffs above, their screeches echoing off the canyon walls. We descended layered stone steps into a dry creek bed where a jackrabbit was scrounging. The diversity of plant life was striking against the jutting stone backdrop. Affected by the landscape’s particular beauty, we vowed to come back to explore it more fully.

Desperately hungry, we stopped outside Carlsbad for some truly tragic burritos (why would anyone place the fillings on the outside?), and a good dose of tacky administered in the form bar stools that morphed the sitter’s ass into that of a horse’s, then headed to the caves for their nightly Bat Flight program. We made our way down sloping ramps to the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave. A ranger was dutifully employing bat facts to entertain the small crowd that had resiliently assembled in the rain (Their 1200 species make up 20% of the world’s classified mammals!). She finished her presentation, warning everyone to speak in whispers and step softly. Indeed, the amphitheater magnified even the softest sounds. They began exiting the cave in choreographed movements, forming a pod as they circled the mouth, increasing in number. Then they would swoop up in a single mass and fly off into one direction or the next, while another cloud began the process at the mouth below.

A bar stool made to look like the rear of a horse
The Cactus Cafe’s most redeeming attribute

The drive down and out of the fog took us into New Mexico in short order, where we arrived at Carlsbad National Park. We were too late for the cavern, but had already consigned that for the future trip we had just discussed, so we were more than happy to watch our second bat colony emergence of the trip. The bats emerged in seemingly endless waves from the mouth of the cavern into the wet, grey, early dusk, flapping off towards the Pecos River in search of food. It is difficult for me to conceive approaching these things in such an exuberant and curious manner, let alone doing them, were it not for a partner at least as game as I. Rather than counting my pipe dreams for yet another year in Pittsburgh, I am continually fortunate to relay the Kurt Vonnegut adage to Y: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

We watched until the cold and an unattended, stomping child got the better of us, making it to the car just as the sky let loose. The rain became torrential, pummeling the car in waves. A truck came up fast behind us on the unlit road, barely making us out in time to swerve into the next lane. Shaken by the close call, we stopped for provisions. Russell’s Reserve whiskey was insolently on sale and we grabbed a six-pack of white spiced ale from an outfit in Albuquerque. A local behind us in line voiced his approval of our beer selection, then immediately negated it by suggesting we visit the local Buffalo Wild Wings. We headed to the motel, eager to warm up with a little aid from American hero Jim Russell.

The foul weather had scrapped our plans for camping for the night, so we took advantage of the opportunity to tackle some writing rather than be hunched and defeated, cornered in a tent in soggy wilderness. I enjoy camping and the outdoors, but given the option to avoid precipitation, it’s only the more lunatic fringe of the outdoor type that will relish pulling out their rain gear. We happily booked two nights in Roswell and celebrated life just a hair too hard that evening, aided by some whiskey and delicious beer from the Marble Brewery.

I awoke to a confidently smiling Y and the smell of Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers, which effectively kickstarted my hungover ass. We drove into downtown Roswell, the main drag festooned with aliens of every shape and shade; even the streetlights are made to look like the heads of the infamous Greys (or Greens, depending on how deep your rabbit hole goes). The International UFO Museum was the perfect cross-section of conspiracy theories and history, along with a hefty dose of self-aware, grade-A American camp. Worth every penny of the $5 a head. While I don’t wholly ascribe to the vast array of sinister plots and theories that circle Roswell like tired, ancient buzzards, it’s fairly obvious the government covered something up and continues to do so today. If you believe the government of this United States of America hasn’t ever lied to its people, you’re an absolute nincompoop.

Public Art Commemorating Elizabeth Garrett in Roswell, New Mexico
“Okay, it’s to the tune of “Smoke on the Water”, on three…”

Given our similar threshold for consumption, I assumed J wouldn’t be faring well when I woke unable to string a thought together. A persistent throbbing made sleep implausible and I went to procure some food. JBCs working hard to right our wrongs, we were able to get it together enough to head downtown to indulge in some kitsch at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The front windows had been painted to commemorate its 70th Anniversary. One window had been painted with “1947-2017”, the years of its occupancy, the other touted its “25 years of continued success.” I guess the first 45 didn’t go so well.

A diorama of an alien in a stasis chamber at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
Exposing the great tanning bed conspiracy in Roswell, International UFO Museum and Research Center

There were scale models of aliens being experimented on and a flying saucer that lit up and spun. However, there was also surprisingly thorough coverage of sightings throughout history and the events of 1947 Roswell. I’ve never been much of a believer in little green men (though it seems undeniable that somewhere in this vast universe, other life exists), and the museum didn’t wholly convert me. However, the US government initially stated that they were in possession of a crashed alien aircraft. Then they rescinded the statement, and forced the farmer who discovered the site to do the same. Then they insisted they had found debris from a crashed weather balloon that nobody claimed to be missing. As years passed and witness accounts came out suggesting bodies had been present at the crash site, the government changed its story once more, implying they had actually seen dummies used to test paratrooper equipment. Dummies that weren’t even manufactured until two years later in 1949. I’m not definitively saying there are three aliens below ground in the CIA’s high-security facility hidden in the hills outside Roswell, but I might be more convinced there weren’t if the military lied better than a third grader without his homework.

A wood carving replica of the ancient Mayan carving purported to be an ancient astronaut at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
“Oh, no. No. No, I’m a Rocket Man. Rocket Man,” International UFO Museum and Research Center

A little research into the nearby Roswell Space Center didn’t uncover much about the vague attraction other than it cost $2. Online reviews heralded it as having “lots of room to walk around” and was “near a Subway,” (both true). We threw caution to the wind and decided to forfeit the $4. What is Roswell if not a place to embrace the unknown?

We walked up the ramp covered in alien footprints into what was, in truth, a gift shop. The admission price is for entrance to the Spacewalk. It’s a black-light masterpiece, showcasing surprisingly masterful murals and dioramas. Some are of moments in Roswell’s history, some are just general space scenes. Regardless, it was cool and entirely worth $2.

A black light painting depicting a person break dancing in the vast expanse of space
A black light experience cooler than your weird Uncle’s velvet paintings, Roswell Space Center

We walked around downtown for a bit, reveling in the absurdity of the main drag. Streetlamps are designed with black “eyes” to resemble aliens, there are life-size alien statues, storefronts hawking stuffed alien dolls, and others decorated with alien figures playing poker. J pointed out a mural adorning the window of a hairdresser’s shop in which, ironically, the aliens all had terrible hair. The female aliens had been painted a bit heavyset, and I leaned in towards J, “If they can manage interspace travel, I’m pretty sure they’ve gotten adult obesity under control.”

Green and pink aliens painted onto a window with horrible haircuts and diet issues
Diabetic footwear fashion that’s truly out of this world

We crossed the street and headed to the Roswell Space Center, which is everything a black-light laden, $2 tourist trap could ever hope to be. We obviously loved it. Ravenous from traversing the cold black of outer space, we went to Chef Todzilla’s. As usual, Y exhibited her preternatural ability to suss out great food where most would lamely drive to the nearest McDonald’s (although Roswell’s boasts an extensively done-up UFO theme). We stopped at a bar next door to wash down the delicious burgers and to plan out our camping trip to White Sands National Monument before heading back to the hotel for more writing. Roswell is a lovely place to visit, but the town is full of tragically hilarious reminders that on a Saturday night, efforts to impress on first, second or third dates were being made at places like Buffalo Wild Wings or Tia Juana’s, all but promising a steep downward trend.

We stopped for another round of burgers, because having burgers twice in a day is not a reason to pass up a place called Chef Todzilla’s Gourmet Burgers and Mobile Cuisine. It was the recently erected brick and mortar outpost of a popular food truck, and Todzilla had come by the title Chef honestly. We wondered aloud how we were the only ones there on a weekend night. After a couple of drinks, we went to take pictures in front of the famous UFO-shaped McDonald’s. We got there and saw that McDonald’s had completely diluted its interstellar weirdness by marring its spaceship edifice with the addition of a playplace. I took solace in the fact that if the kids of Roswell were going to ruin an ostentatious tourist trap with something so trivial as a playground, at least they would be enjoying it from a vantage point where they would be forced to witness the pitiful meatmarket that was the B-Dubs parking lot on a Saturday night.

We had a quick and unceremonious breakfast at the UFO McDonald’s before heading off for Monjeau Point, topping off a summit over 9000 feet tall. The drive up was more than a little nerve-wracking, being on a narrow dirt road peppered with the sort of bumps and dips that make you appreciate the greedy pull gravity has on your top-heavy behemoth of a vehicle. Lulled into slightly less white-knuckle status by the sounds of Blur and the lamentations of Damon Albarn, we made it to the top, affirming that the view was indeed worth it, and we had yet to scale the tower steps. Climbing another job well done by the CCC, we nearly lost our breath in the gusting wind. The scars of previous forest blazes seemed amplified by the lush blue sky, and we scanned the horizon in all directions until the chill of elevation set in.

The Monjeau Point Fire Lookout Tower in Lincoln National Forest
The Fire Lookout Tower, Monjeau Point

The next morning we embarked on scaling Monjeau Point. Narrow, winding back roads devolved into a mix of dirt and gravel for the last 7 miles to the summit. We looked forward to utilizing the Suburban’s V8 engine, but the car slipped on the rugged road, and gravel sharply pelted its impractically low undercarriage. It seems the Chevy Suburban is neither suited for city driving nor rigorous terrain, and is merely a minivan labeled as an SUV to coddle the egos of suburbanites too insecure to stomach having lost their edge. J carefully advanced, which was made more difficult anytime a car approached on the narrow road, forcing us right to the edge of the cliff as it squeezed by. I tried to remain calm, and not to look down.

We pulled into a lot near the peak and took a moment to gather ourselves. The fire lookout tower sits 9,641ft up, at the tip of the mountain. After a quick pause to stare down a youth who had thrown a plastic bottle on the ground, we began our ascent. We stepped onto the landing, which afforded spectacular views of the Lincoln National Forest below. The sky was the majestic blue of a photo filter, and we stood planted against buffeting winds that seemed capable of pushing us over the ledge, beholding the valley’s beauty amidst the voracity of nature.

A view of Lincoln National Forest from atop Monjeau Pont's Fire Lookout Tower
A truly natural high, Monjeau Point
Two Traveling Texans

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.

PETULANCE, PERSEVERANCE, AND POSSUMS OF UNUSUAL SIZE

When my parents were still young enough to delude themselves as to their levels of patience and exhaustion, they would take us camping. For a week beforehand, the house was chaotic with preparations. The day before was spent restlessly packing our gear into our bags and our bags into the car. The morning of we were somehow always running late, still cramming coolers full of food when we should have been halfway to the campground. Then they would load us five girls in the car between the supplies and we’d make our way to the Poconos to Otter Lake. Jen and myself, being the eldest, were required to help set up camp. Our tent was a three-room behemoth with twenty or so specifically shaped poles better suited to inciting frustrated expletives from my parents then providing a framework for our temporary homestead. You held up what you were told to and kept your head down.

Neither of my parents being particularly outdoorsy, it was less of a campsite and more of an outdoor resort. Sites had electricity and running water. We gathered twigs for fun but bought firewood at the camp store. Communal bathrooms had showers with hot water. We slept on air mattresses with real bedding. There were all manner of activities to keep one entertained: a beach, racquetball courts, canoes for rent, movie nights, paint-your-own pottery classes. The grounds had pet peacocks.

Even still, I dreaded it. I enjoyed the activities of course, running off unsupervised, building a fire, but my bag was always the heaviest, packed with books I’d rather be reading. I hated the hours spent securing the site and breaking it down, waking up cold having to walk to use a bathroom which had inevitably been run over by insects in the night, returning home to a week’s worth of dirty dishes and laundry. I could never understand why anyone deemed all that work worth it. As a teenager I camped once, our site mostly functioning as an adult-free place to drink. As an adult, I went on a trip a friend organized where we were picked up from the MetroNorth station in Beacon and deposited at the woods to hike into a site which had been prepared for us, food and all. That morning I had secured the cheapest sleeping bag available for the endeavor, my first, from the midtown Manhattan Kmart. So while the practically made decision to forego expensive lodging in the four corners region in favor of camping had been mine, I was less than enthusiastic about the realities of the ordeal. Two nights in Cooper Lake State Park were meant to be both a trial run for the impending, more primitive camping ahead, and an attempt at breaking up a long drive to Austin. With said sleeping bag in tow, we left Hope, literally, and crossed another state line.

However, being hit with temperatures in the upper nineties before the day had even settled in caused for some amending in our plan. We found a movie theater along the way, with a screening of It that would allow us to shelter ourselves during the worst of the afternoon’s heat. Exiting the theater with chills still running through us, we realized our choice in movie may have been a misguided one, being just a few hours from spending the night in a tent.

The drive to the campsite Y had picked was a leisurely affair, with a stop for lunch featuring brisket pizza (bless you, Texas), and another for a $5 matinee. As huge fans of horror movies, we were excited to see It. After, we were not so excited about what the night’s sleep almost assuredly promised. We continued on, eventually driving down the aptly named Farm to Market Road to Cooper Lake to set up camp.

My Father is a very well-spoken man, and given to finely crafted turns of phrase, humor and often extraneous or otherwise undesired wit. One of my favorite lessons he has distilled into verbal coinage was thus: “There are two types of people in this world. Those you would camp with, and those you would not.” I was raised to respect and enjoy the outdoors, and while those I camped with in my youth have slid into the latter category, the yearning to engage in the simple act of pitching a tent in the woods and sleeping on the ground has always stayed in the same lane. Given all of this, I was excited to share something I love with my partner, who by definition is someone I would camp with. Conversely, knowing my partner on a variety of specific and intimate levels, I found myself electrified by a vast field of trepidation. We might very well kill each other before the tent goes up, I thought to myself.

We arrived at the park as the visitor’s center was closing for the day, and having procured a map and firewood, made our way to the campgrounds to pick out our site. It being midweek in September, we had our choice, and selected one right on the lake. Smoke from the controlled burn being conducted by the rangers wafted over, and after a few attempts (and some knowledge bombs from my own personal Eagle Scout), our fire was doing just as well. With tent pitched and dinner percolating, we went to work recounting our day in our journals.

A Stick Bug climbing a wall at Cooper Lake State Park in Texas
A Stick Bug, stickin’ around.

By the time we had finished eating, the sun had set, leaving us with the undesirable task of cleaning up in the dark. Both a little annoyed by the cumbersome task, I fought through my agitation and the steady sting of mosquito bites, determined to be a good sport and accept J’s proposal of a walk. We were enveloped in a darkness so deep it was unnerving. Eventually the magnitude of the visible stars shook our salty attitudes clear, and J illustrated how to tell a star from a planet. Feeling confident in my newfound ability, I pointed out what I proclaimed to be Mars and Venus, and we grabbed my binoculars to get a better view. We retired to the tent, J passing out fairly quickly. I stayed up reading for a few hours, hoping to distract myself from the still oppressive heat and the audible movement of creatures nearby.

While there were no death-blows exchanged, the learning curve for both of us is a little complicated. The early camping trip had been planned as a sort of dry run for a later leg of the trip, and I know we’re both grateful for the practice, as it gave us the opportunity to work some of the kinks out. It also gave us the opportunity to examine the fact that both of us are composed of a great deal of interwoven kinks, many of which are stubborn and quite comfortable where they are. The official camping leg of the journey will not be the easiest part, but we’re both certainly more prepared now. As with any trial or tribulation, strength comes from passing through adversity. Like apologizing for being a dick, which feels adverse as hell.

A Bridge on Coyote Run Trail in Cooper Lake State Park in Texas
Coyote Run Trail

We woke the next morning feeling a little less ornery, if not entirely well rested, and decided to start the day with a hike on the Coyote Run Trail. Pondering on whether coyotes even lived around here, we scanned the trail for clues. We had both wrongfully assumed there would be a fountain near the trailhead, which was next to a picnic area, and had left our water bottles back at the site. As the sun and temperature rose, nervousness about succumbing to dehydration in the middle of the woods welled up in me. With the terrain proving a bit monotonous I asked to turn back, irritating J once more. A swim in the lake cooled us down, both figuratively and literally. With the entire beach empty but for us, the hawks and herons were cocksure, hovering nearby. We waded in the cool water watching quietly. With no one around, I indulged in a liberating nude outdoor shower and then a turn on the swings (in which I definitively swung higher than J) before returning to camp.

We made a humble lunch and J went to take a nap while I wrote, though our neighbors’ rambunctious canine seemed determined to make both difficult. J gave up the premise and rejoined me outside. We started dinner early, learning from the previous night’s mistake. With cleanup completed, J suggested going to watch the sunset at the beach, but when we got there the angle was all wrong, our view obstructed by the woods. However, we did come across a parking lot with three smallish deer scavenging its contents. Nose deep in a Kind Bar wrapper (how’s that for irony?) their presence eased my concerns about the large animals I’d heard rustling nearby the night before.

We arrived back at the site, still too early for stars, and scrambled to get what we needed from the car before being assailed by mosquitos attracted by the car’s interior light and our status as universal donors. The stillness was interrupted by stirring, and I whirled around, instantly on alert scanning the tree line. A duck quacking nearby was enough to convince J I was overreacting. I reminded him that ducks don’t go rustling through the woods, and the quacking was clearly coming from further away, at the lake’s edge. As he closed the trunk, I saw two eyes shining in the distance. “There!” I pointed. It was hard to make out, but slowly the creature was advancing toward us. J focused his flashlight and caught the mammoth possum in its beam. We moved forward, eager to get inside the tent, but the possum turned to continue his trajectory toward us. J ran at him, yelling, and he sauntered away, seeming more ruffled by the necessary change in route than afraid. Once safely inside the tent, we cracked open a bottle of peppermint vodka, the mint flavor feeling cool in the dense, sticky night. Between swigs, J informed me that despite an appearance that seemed to communicate otherwise, possums do not contract rabies.

The weather was hot and sticky, but perfect for the low-impact sport of writing. We ate simply and well, cooking over small wood fires. It felt good to build a fire, it always does. It felt even better to watch Y become more confident in manipulating the fire. The park was mostly deserted, and we had the entirety of the lake to ourselves aside from some herons and hawks when we went for a swim. At night, massive and shockingly brave opossums trolled our campsite, and in the distance, we could hear a band of coyotes sing to the stars.

We wrote a bit more, our thoughts occasionally disturbed by the melancholy howls of coyotes too distant to solve our yappy dog issue, answering our earlier question. Eventually the vodka made going to the bathroom inevitable, and I forced J to join me to keep watch. The effects of the alcohol and necessity for flashlights made the affair a decidedly ungraceful one, which we were to repeat twice more before the night was over.

We awoke the next morning to a massive spider hanging directly over the fire pit, having woven its web between trees on opposite sides of our site. Careful to duck under the silky entanglement, I went to shower as J broke down the tent. The persistent heat had ensured I never woke needing to brave the cold to use the bathroom. Showering now, noticing the dried scorpion husks trapped in the bathroom’s fluorescent lighting above me, I mused at how some things don’t change. I moved quickly and within the hour we were headed to Austin by way of Dallas.

Scorpions in fluorescent light fixtures at Cooper Lake State Park in Texas
Bet having scorpions in the bathroom does wonders for water conservation.

After two nights’ stay, it was time to pack up and move on to Austin, a stop we had gleefully planned since the infancy of this enterprise. Dallas, however, was on the way, and Y had found a few things there to help break up the long day’s drive. Getting into and around Dallas proved to be the beginning of slow-burning anxiety attack for me. The traffic, the roads, the Mad Max extras behind the wheel and the profusion of construction would be bad enough, but Dallas is less a city that makes sense than it is the deranged vision of a 12-year old pretending to be a city planner, mapping the bloated metropolitan area out with a schizophrenic vision-board collage of skewed crayon lines and incongruous magazine clippings and photographs. Fuck. Dallas.

Graffiti of three-eyed Abraham Lincoln on dollar bill, on wall of Dallas, Texas graffiti park
Dallas graffiti

I’ve never thought much of Dallas, a dislike for its airport being my only real opinion of it, however it was well positioned to break for lunch and it has a number of exceptional museums I was interested in examining. Once inside the city limits, we were funneled through drunkenly poured swirls of asphalt and warped streets that don’t quite match up. Navigating the melee was making me almost as prickly as J was directing me through it.

Stepping into the Nasher Sculpture Garden would have felt like entering an oasis, even without having just traversed the formidable concrete desert around it. I was unfamiliar with Tom Sachs, whose work and influences the museum was prominently displaying in the majority of its galleries. A docent alerted us to the screening times for the two Sachs films they were airing. In the interim, we toured an excellent exhibit entitled “2D/3D” which compared two works in contrasting mediums from a number of artists. The first film, entitled “Ten Bullets,” was a training manual for prospective studio assistants and showed the artist’s irreverence, humor, and left me wondering how someone of my exacting inclinations had failed to mindfully adopt knolling. The second was a reconstruction of the delicate traditions of the Japanese tea ceremony in which the customary implements were replaced with the artist’s collage-like constructs utilizing everyday objects. Many of these were displayed in the main gallery as part of Sach’s rendering of a chashitsu and its surrounding garden, complete with koi pond. The outdoor sculpture garden was an eclectic mix of modern masters, set in alcoves uniquely landscaped to best present each piece. Sach’s work was again featured. The final gallery was a selection of works from the museum’s collection favored by Sachs for their inspiration. Here the artist’s wry humor was once again illustrated in a marker exposing his reasons for electing to include five small de Kooning sculptures. Upon first seeing them, he felt so impressed that de Kooning would have the conviction to take these lumpy little shapes and proudly cast them in bronze that he couldn’t help but have respect for the man.

The Nasher Sculpture Center Garden
The Nasher Sculpture Center Garden

The cultural offerings of the city go a long way towards redeeming the irredeemable, and The Nasher Sculpture Museum is an absolute jewel – an entire city block, a large portion of it given over to a gorgeous outdoor sculpture garden. We relished our stroll among the shadows of massive Cor-ten steel sculpture and the shade of willow trees along the burbling of fountains. The museum was featuring Tom Sachs in both the role of curator and that of an auteur. His Tea Ceremony installation was precise and mischievous, sometimes dipping more than a toe into Dada, a bricolage-laden remix of the vaunted Japanese tradition. The Sachs-curated gallery adjacent provided wonderful context to the artist and his process. Two short films, one on the Tea Ceremony, and the other, a tongue-in-cheek Employee Orientation for his studio called Ten Bullets, helped firmly affix Sachs in our minds as a new favorite.

Y standing in "My Curves Are Not Mad", Richard Serra, 1987 at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas
“My Curves Are Not Mad”, Richard Serra, 1987.

We crossed the street to view the Asian artifacts in the Crow Collection. There was a particularly impressive sculpture of a Cambodian flower, enormous in scale, fashioned of woven metal and bamboo. I saw a friend had posted a picture of a museum down the street, and after a few texts it became clear she and her husband were also in town. She agreed to take time away from teaching her 9 year old nephew how to improve upon his UNO smack talk and meet us for a beer. Over coconut beers we discussed our plans for the trip, our days at the museum, and her family, still unreachable by phone in Puerto Rico. We laughed at the idea of me camping. It was an all too brief encounter, but I was glad she got to meet J.

"Rang Phnom Flower", Sopheap Pich, 2015 at the Crow Collection for Asian Antiquities
“Rang Phnom Flower”, Sopheap Pich, 2015.

With some time to kill before taking advantage of the discovery that one of Y’s friends was in town for the day, we crossed the street and explored the Crow Collection of Asian Antiquities, a free museum that offered mostly Japanese and Indian artifacts, sculpture and paintings. Our imaginations sufficiently fueled and stoked, we headed across town to have a quick beer to say hello and give a now well-rehearsed synopsis of our plans. It was nice to put a name to a face, as Y’s friends are all scattered across the country.

With the sun already setting on the day, we set off on the three hour drive to Austin, where we’d be staying with my friend, Beia. I had met Beia years ago in New York, where we had been servers at the same restaurant. Our mutual appreciation for Italian wine and commiseration over our temperamental boss developed into an intimate friendship, despite infrequent visits. I was as excited for J to meet her as I was to be reunited. We arrived to her warm welcome, doing our best to ingratiate ourselves to cat of the house, Monster. Agreeing we were all starving, we walked to Hopfield’s, an adorably cozy spot where you can still order a real dinner at 11pm. When I was waiting tables in New York, I treasured places like this, where you could go out after a shift and have an actual date. We took a meandering path home, Beia taking the opportunity to walk us past lawn dragons, a cult compound, and the rest of her neighborhood eagerly embracing Austin‘s reputation for individuality. Finally, we came upon her own bungalow and the comfort of an indoor bed.

Sunset at Cooper Lake State Park, Texas
Cooper Lake State Park, Texas

We rolled into Austin a few hours after dark, where I was able to attach the name Beia to the face of our wonderful host. We grabbed a late dinner, then walked her beautiful neighborhood, bouncing from topic to topic before eventually arriving back at her house. Monster, her cat, has personality in spades, and would prove to be another animal fix for me on this journey. Not having Moose around accentuates precisely how deep the sickness goes. While I doubt I’ll ever ascend to the level of my Granma, who exclusively preferred the ugliest of cats from breeders and consistently put NPR on so her pedigreed felines would not become lonely, I do find myself realizing that not only am I repeatedly just shy of starting a conversation with my cat, but that my cat is several hundred miles away. This, of course, leads me to doubt his abilities as a mascot for Team Felicidad as well as his commitment, which is a conversation we’ll be having come December. Such a serious talk will likely occur after a lengthy effort to catch his nihilistic fuzzy ass up on all of the things in all likelihood he seriously, like, definitely just cannot even be bothered with. He’s got a lot of shit going on, obvi.

Moose the cat splayed like the land manatee he is
“No, you go on ahead. I’m done for.”

I miss our fucking cat, and I will not be judged for it.