I really really wanted to like San Antonio. It is one of the hot places Californians are moving to, and second hand reports are positive. We were looking forward to strolling down the River Walk and stopping in at a pub for a late lunch. At a Starbucks just short of San Antonio, I looked up the River Walk, and its own website saw it stretching several miles through the city. I selected Breckenridge Park as an attractive entry point for the park, and our GPS took us to the San Antonio Zoo, which was being heavily patronized by children in Halloween costumes. I was surprised to find out the zoo parking lot was free. I haven’t seen free parking for an attraction since the Exploratorium moved to downtown San Francisco.
But we didn’t see any River Walk nearby. We flagged down a mom, and she told us it wasn’t far — just 4 or 5 miles. I would like to note Texans have a fetish for huge things, and a resultant lack of proportion. Everything is oversized, including the huge Texas flags flying from the back of pick ups and the lane barriers, which are twice as big as those anywhere else in the country. And to all you Texans, we ex-Californians still think of things that are close as being within walking distance, not as within a day’s drive. We got back in the car and drove to the official River Walk, and found ourselves in the very sketch downtown. We might park for an hour or two and try to enjoy the River Walk, but it would almost certainly be marred with the likelihood that our car would be broken into during that time. So we left. On our way out, I noticed I guy with what I thought were strange looking eyes approached the intersection and opened his hand to show us he’d written “Give me $1” on his palm. On behalf of San Jose’s plentiful panhandlers, I was deeply offended. You can’t even find a scrap of cardboard on which to scrawl “HUNGRY ANYTHING HELPS” or “HELP ME GOD BLESS”. All you do is write $1 on your palm and you seriously expect people to give you money?
I called my friend Shelly Brisbin to tell her we were headed into Austin earlier than expected. She answered my call with “Which West Texas hellhole are you in now?” She has an abiding disdain for any Texan town west of Austin, and only a slightly higher opinion of Texas’ other large cities. I try to be more open minded, but so far, I think she’s right. Amarillo was amazingly boring, and Pecos’ main draw was a museum named after a 1946 move. For five hours this day, we had driven on roads where the most exciting thing to do was try to identify the roadkill.
Outside of San Antonio is a town called New Braunfells which is also the site of an amazing waterpark, Schlitterbahn, which was unfortunately closed — even though temperatures were still in the mid-80s. We saw signs for Buc-ees, Texas’ epic gas station/travel experience and pulled in. At first we couldn’t find it, because it was so big it looked like a mall. When we did get there, Kelly and I posed with the bronze beaver statue.
Austin has grown massively within the last 10 years, primarily because a lot of Californians just like us have moved there. Even though it was Saturday we were stuck in a highway 101 style traffic jam getting in to town. Our first stop was an Amazon locker to pick up some glasses Peter had ordered 2 days before. Being homeless is easier than ever; years before we had to prevail upon Shelly to accept packages for us, now we can just send them to a locker at any likely future destination.
Shelly had plans for the evening, but she directed us to a barbecue place called Stiles Switch. Had I been paying attention, I would have known it boded well that it was next to a liquor store and a strip club called The Yellow Rose. As we waited in line to place our order, Kelly asked me what was in a Frito Pie. I had no idea, other than it included, of course, Fritos. So I asked the man in front of me and he described a typical Frito pie, noting that here it was more likely to have barbecued brisket on it rather than chili. He highly recommended the sliced beef sandwich, which I went for, and Peter went for the diablo sandwich, which was beef, a spicy sausage, barbecue sauce and jalapenos. This is what a Frito Pie ala Stiles Switch looks like:
Stiles Switch also had a curious and unique game called Switch Pitch, which consisted of sets of huge washers which you could toss into holes. How you tossed them in, and from what distance, was not determined. I tried throwing some in like frisbees, which felt a little like frisbee golf. Peter and Kelly tossed them like balls.
After enjoying our dinner, which was extraordinarily good barbecue — though I expect we’ll find more such quality fare through the South, we went to Waterloo Records. This place not only has records, but music and other eclectica, and promotes local music acts. I knew some bands were pressing their music onto records, and now Waterloo has an entire room of vinyl, where this used to be out of style only a decade ago. But I was surprised to see some indie bands putting their music not onto CDs, which are cheap enough to press, but onto analog tape. Seriously? It was crap sound in the 1980s, and the only reason it is being used now is because these bands want to have an “analog” sound, the tapes are super cheap to make, and they have no idea how bad it sounds. I enjoyed browsing the store, but unlike as I did in 2014, I didn’t buy wildly, as I don’t have a home in which to enjoy or use or display anything I would get.
Then we went behind Waterloo for Amy’s Ice Cream, another iconoclastic Austin institution. It seemed like everyone I was running into was clearly an ex-Californian. The flavors seemed tamer than usual, but the pumpkin (unlike many other pumpkin flavored products) tasted like real pumpkin, and Java the Hutt — chocolate and creme de menthe — was particularly delicious, even though I normally hate mint chocolate.
I have become a creature of habit, so I booked into the Ramada downtown, which is the exact same hotel we have stayed in every other time we came to Austin. This time it was under construction. Shelly and her husband Frank came over to hang out with us for a while, and we made plans to see each other briefly the next day.