Austin, Texas – It took six days to bike from Dallas to Austin, Texas. I headed direct south and was smacked in the face each morning with a consistent 20-mile-per-hour wind.
Roads in central Texas have been relatively flat; early-morning blue-gray skies are accompanied by furnace-like temperatures in the 90s; by 3 p.m. the intense heat makes your skin feel crisp.
My stay in Austin has been made simple by friends Deb and her husband Robin.
The couple are revamping a second home and it’s the perfect stay for the next few days while exploring a city with the slogan, ‘Austin – keep it weird.‘
‘Weird’ isn’t negative or intimidating – it’s like wearing your favorite iron-on t-shirt, accessorizing with a rub-on tattoo, throwing a little rat terrier in your bike basket next to a Wham-o Frisbee and some sunscreen you’re off to mix with the cutting-edge music scene, and a genuine love of life – ‘Run, sleep, live, repeat’ is the message on one runner’s t-shirt.
The word ‘sit’ is in not in the Austin vocabulary; as townies and tourists alike are constantly taking advantage of the rivers, trails, parks, and activities the city has to offer.
PLACES TO GO – THINGS TO DO..
Bicycles tend to rule the road in Austin. It’s like a convention came to town and stayed.
The women are as serious about biking as the men. A quote from Dropout, a bicycling book for women, notes, “female bikers in Austin think about whether or not shorts would work underneath that dress before they buy it.”
There are specific bicycling lanes in Austin, bridges, paths, and a bike store or six – every few blocks.
Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop at 4th and Nueces is owned by Tour de France champ and Austin native Lance Armstrong.
Full of gear, posters and a series of Armstrong’s actual racing bikes; there’s also an attached coffee shop, Juan Pelota Cafe.
The name translates to ‘one ball’ – a sharp stick-in-the-eye reference from Armstrong to the testicular cancer that tried to take him down.
Independent businesses like The Spider House Cafe (think The Safehouse in Milwaukee) keep kitchy alive in the community.
The interior of the downtown establishment is lit with strings of colorful Christmas lights surrounded by old-school paintings of Jesus, cherubic statues, and old tin toys that include a train and Ferris wheel with a comical face in the center circle.
The Saturday downtown Farmer’s Market takes over the entire Republic Square Park.
Ripe peaches and raspberries overflow containers and fight for space on tables weighed down with bountiful vegetables including large spears of leeks, radishes the size of ping-pong balls, and ripe red tomatoes.
Farmers in straw cowboys hats market Austin organics; and homemade products like gluten-free peach cobbler.
A sold-out sign hangs by the Thai omelet tacos and a crowd is forming around a booth touting an upcoming program, ‘Anyone can cook – not everyone should.’
In the evening, the bats at the Congress Avenue Bridge draw a regular crowd.
Just after dusk about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats fan out from under the bridge in waves to take part in a nightly feast.
It’s like waiting for the fireworks on the Fourth of July, only the bats fly unbelievably close. They swarm in packs and leave the stage quickly, like spoiled rock n’ roll stars.
Below the Congress Avenue Bridge runs Lady Bird Lake. Hundreds of people take advantage of the $15 an hour rentals of kayaks, boats and paddle boards.
Up the road is the Texas State Capitol which features a wide array of Texas history including a pair of paintings by H.A. McArdle.
The paintings feature a graphic account of Dawn at the Alamo on March 6, 1836 and The Triumph of Texas Independence in April 1836.
Interesting to me were the chandeliers in the Senate chambers that spelled out the word “Texas” in lights.
Also eye opening was the question from a 20-something in our tour group who asked about the life-size portrait of conservative political commentator Bill O’Reilly.
It was President Lyndon B. Johnson; but yeah, there was some resemblance.
LBJ PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY…
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library Museum on the University of Texas campus is incredible.
Three floors of photos, memorabilia and history from Johnson’s birth through his presidential career.
One interesting narrative focuses on Johnson’s second campaign for U.S. Senate, where he would fly into a community and throw his hat from a helicopter as it banked over the crowd.
His staff would be required to retrieve the straw hat – even if it meant prying it away from a 10-year-old boy.
The museum highlights LBJ’s election in 1960 as John F. Kennedy’s running mate and then Nov. 22, 1963 when he was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States and shouldered with the task of leading a grieving nation and world.
Lady Bird Johnson said of her husband, “An exciting man to live with and an exhausting man to keep up with.”
During the Johnson administration 3,018 public and private laws were enacted by Congress and signed by the President. Of these, 207 were fundamental law which changed the way the nation lives.
Johnson wanted to be known as the education president but wound up with war instead.
Johnson deemed 1968 The Nightmare Year and said it was, “..one of the most agonizing years as president ever spent in the White House.”
Despite his accomplishments, Johnson’s term included the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and fallout from the Vietnam War.
In a fit of spontaneity, I rode shotgun with Deb and Robin to their home in San Antonio.
The quick day trip allowed me to bike San Antonio, check out the famed River Walk and tour the Alamo.
Yes, I asked to see the basement at the Mission.
Docent Bob was less than impressed and said he’s heard the comment more times than he can count.
“It’s incredible what an influence Pee Wee Herman had on multiple generations,” he said.
Despite all the attractions in San Antonio, I was fascinated by Robin’s 83-year-old aunt Norma who lived with the family.
Norma was 5-feet-tall, light red hair, a spitfire with a strong Cuban accent; imagine if Edith Bunker channeled Ricky Ricardo.
“Whut chew doin’ – biking?” she asked rolling her eyes and whispering ‘loco’ under her breath.
Although Norma’s face was drawn by age, she maintained a meticulous appearance with well-coiffed hair and a matching robin’s-egg blue outfit.
Her jewelry was sparse except for a silver bracelet of butterflies and fish that jangled from her wrist as she patted the belly of her small black dog.
“My baby so good,” she cooed.
Norma never married; she spent her life taking care of her mother.
She said she dated a bit, remembering the Cuban tradition of how she had to have chaperones.
These days, she has eyes for just one man.
“I likes Vin Diesel,” she said bluntly, casting a distracted gaze over my shoulder.
Norma spent a good part of her day engrossed in hard-core action movies.
I was evidently in the way of the 65-inch television where she was caught up in the high-volume thriller xXx, starring her he-man Diesel and Samuel L. Jackson.
Silently, Norma sat locked in on the action, a bit of a smile on her face as the bloody violence played out on the big screen with Vin Diesel mowing down a team of ragtag assassins.
It was deceptive to initially see Norma with a Wheel-of-Fortune demeanor and then find she had tiger blood in her veins.
The feisty Cuban could talk smack and recite lines from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As the movie credits rolled Norma packed up her chair pillow and called it a night stating there was only going to be “panky panky on the telebision” the rest of the night.
Spent an evening at my first banked-track roller derby watching the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls.
Friends of my hosts in Austin stopped with tickets and invited me along.
Roller derby is a mix of glitter, glam and World-Wrestling-Federation-style entertainment.
Participants are a motley mix dressed in ripped fishnet stockings, leopard-skin skirts, and low-cut shirts tagged with names meant to intimidate including Maya Mayhem, Honey Homicide and Dawna Destruction.
The evening’s program featured The Cherry Bombs against Putas Del Fuego.
This was not a competition for sissies.
“You skate at your own risk,” said Glitterotica A.K.A. Julie Hunter, co-captain of The Hell Cats.
At 31, Hunter had been skating roller derby for five seasons.
“The sport instills confidence; there’s a bit of sex appeal but it’s hard-knock competition so you’d better have good insurance,” she said.
Accessories in roller derby include helmets, elbow and knee pads; the post-event six pack often times substitutes as an ice pack for bruises, better known as derby kisses.
“You can get your aggression out,” said The Freakin Irican, a 10-year-old on the Sparkling City Roller Dollz from Corpus Christi, Texas.
The Dollz are rink rats who don’t play with Barbies – if they do, it’s only to practice hip checking them across the room.
The Roller Dollz made the trip to Austin to watch the big girls play.
“It’s fun if you love to skate and it’s better if you like to hit,” said Kay – Krusher, a 16-year-old on the Dollz.
Body checks, shoulder blocks, random elbows and an intentional shove are all part of roller derby.
Dollz coach Angie Gonzalez said it’s a good sport that keeps the girls off the streets.
“And away from the boys,” she said. “The girls love it; they never miss practice.”
Gonzalez said the Drew Barrymore movie Whip It starring Ellen Page had a big influence on the popularity of roller derby.
“The sport is still growing – but look at this crowd,” she said.
Roller derby in Austin used to draw 700 but the Saturday-night venue at the Palmer Events Center saw attendance top 3,500.
Questioned whether there’s any crying in roller derby, Gonzalez said definitely not; only to be quickly contradicted.
“But coach I cried all day at practice – look at these bruises,” said one girl lifting her shorts to show off a purple and yellow bruise about as big as a baby’s head.
“I cried, too,” said another.
“It’s something we’re still working on,” said Gonzalez with chagrin.
If I had a roller derby team, we’d be The Norma’s, striking terror in teams including the famed Anne Richard’s Girls.
Norma would be my wingman and the enforcer – dressed in a spiked dog collar and a bloody teardrop running down her face.
The back of her jersey would read The Vin-dicator.
She’d jump the rope and circle the rink with a pocket dog stuffed in her bodice, grab the mic and scream, “Are jew wearing socks? Because dare about to be knocked off!’
With my bucket-list trip accomplished, I’m leaving Austin for home. I think I’ll bike back.