Sunday, August 14, 2011

Austin: Good food, bad weather

As we were getting ready to go to Austin for the weekend, our friends invariably compared it to Denver: "It's like a grown-up Denver," "It's hipper than Denver," "It's sort of like Denver, but not as pretty," etc. All I really knew about the place was "worst" barbecue, SXSW, and Mellow Johnny's. Oh, and Slacker.

And that's not a good way to visit a place - you haven't even gotten there and you're comparing it to your home. When we went to Edmonton a summer or two ago, we didn't go there expecting Denver of the north, and we were pleasantly surprised by the interesting melange of European-city/oil town/tundra zone/white-nights fun. And yes, it's sort of like Denver of the north.

Luckily, we didn't have to even think about comparing Austin to Denver because our son ran around looking at everything and comparing it to home. He would splash in the Barton Springs Pool and say, "Oooh! This is colder than our pool in Denver, Colorado!" Then we'd go to eat and he'd say, "This place has better noodles than Denver, Colorado!" And so on.

But what he really didn't like about Austin, and what made Austin an inferior city, was the heat. It was hot - over 100 degrees each day - and he didn't like it one bit. He commented on the heat, frowned at the heat, and asked us if the heat would go away. He announced that he wanted to go back home a few times. And when we did get home, it was in the 90's, and he asked if we were still in Austin.

We've spent a fair amount of time in hot places - Thailand comes to mind - and I spent a few years running around the Mojave - but the Austin heat was just nasty. It's one thing to say, "Oh, and it was 105." I've been in Las Vegas when it's 105, and it can be a purifying, almost cathartic, heat. And I've been in the jungle when it's 105, and again it can be an interesting (okay, I'll just say "wet") experience. And I used to live in Davis, CA, where getting up to 105 just made people sleepy slow and would spawn pleasant downpours every week or so.

But in Austin we'd walk outside and immediately feel like something was wrong. Will-J kept trying to smell the air, frowning like it was old milk. It was muggy and the low gray clouds made everything look flat. And it would just linger - I went out to move the car at 11:00 PM, and it was still 87. Muggy gripping hot. Which made spending time in the pleasant Barton Springs Pool all the better. We couldn't figure out why all of Austin doesn't pack in there on Sunday.

Indeed, the food is better. Much better. Which given our Cow Town experience, isn't saying a lot. But still. When I go to other cities, I don't want to try the nicest place in town. According to people we talked to, the best place in Austin is Uchi. And I'm sure Uchi is awesome - in fact, I'd be pretty mad if it wasn't considering the prices. No, I want to see how the locals are eating and see what's going on (or at least that's what I tell myself because I can't afford Uchi). And so we wandered into a place called Madam Mam's, ordered a few Thai noodle staples, and they were fantastic. Awesome. Better than anything in Denver - even U.S. Thai. And Madam Mam's isn't the best Thai in Austin.

That was our weekend. We'd stop off for a snack someplace, and it would be really good. So Austin has it going on for food.

And you get used to the heat. At first, I was amazed to see people on road bikes and running in the heat, but by this morning I was ready to go for a jog. Will-J - not so much. He was happy to get on the plane and head to his sweet home native city a mile high. A good trip, even though I ended up having to work quite a bit over the weekend.


-Will-J has quietly grown into an intrepid traveler. I'm calling him the Travel Tank now. I pick him up from school, head to the airport, and he marches along with his backpack. Grab a burger, catch some news on the airport monitors, and he's ready to fly. This morning, we had a 6:30 AM flight. No problem - grab a scone, hop on the plane and time for a power nap:

-We showed up at the rental lot and they said, "It's slow - just take any car." So Will-J pointed out a sleek black Volkswagon CC, and off we went. It's the nicest rental I've ever had, and added quite a bit in terms of style-factor to our trip. Here's Will-J profiling in front of his ride:

(no that's not where we stayed) It's an interesting car - in my mind very VW in the same way as our old (unreliable) Jetta. It looks great, presents fine fit and finish, and has a trunk larger than many apartments. What's not to like? Plenty. The CC has an overwhelming plethora of controls, so much so that I never figured out what all the buttons and switches were for. It had an awful automatic transmission that lagged acceleration. It has no apparent market, i.e. a under-powered sports sedan with the handling of a Lincoln Town Car, but good looking and sort of expensive. But it had a cool touch-screen navigation thingie:

-We stayed right in the heart of the club district, and while Denver tries tries to be sort of like L.A., Austin tries tries to be sort of like Miami Beach. I don't know why - maybe it's the excessive heat.

-Barton Springs Pool is great:

But those in the know visit the free overflow area right outside the fence. It's clearly marked "no swimming," but that doesn't seem to bother anyone:

(that dog also doesn't seem to have a leash - did I mention I'm a lawyer?) Also, there's an endangered salamander that lives in the pool. I found this interesting: "Hey, everyone, there's an endangered animal in the pool, so please leave it alone the best you can." Meanwhile kids are reaching under rocks trying to find a pet salamander. I don't get how that works - critical habitat somewhere else? Not designated yet? Other?

-Mellow Johnny's is just okay. Besides all the cool historical bikes, it's just a Trek store with a coffee shop and a nice locker room/shower set up. I'd take Wheat Ridge Cyclery over Mellow Johnny's, actually.

-Speaking of Slacker, where do you go these days if you're a budding early-20's hipster? It seems like the field is increasingly occupied and/or gentrifying. Slacker was 1991, and certainly Austin circa that time looks like far more suitable hipster habitat than the slick "consultant"-land I observed this weekend. So if Austin/Boulder/Portland/etc. are out, what's in? My guess is that now that I'm middle-aged, I'll never know, and the young folks are happily riding their fixies off to whatever interesting place they've found to avoid people like me. My other guess is that the hipsters are colonizing ever smaller towns in search of a better (cheaper) life - as long as said towns have T-1 or faster internet, of course.

What's scary for an oldster like me is that at this point my memory of cool places is becoming sort of like Slacker, i.e. a time capsule memory of those places before they were taken over by nu-urban infill, "consultants," and of course the "ugly duplex." This really hit me a few years ago when I was walking through Missoula with a friend. We were walking along, and we just passed by a yoga studio. Not a hippie yoga studio, or "serious yoga," just a random fitness-yoga studio with people inside taking a class. Neither of us said anything about it. Then a week later, I realized, "I was walking down the street in Missoula, Montana, saw a yoga studio, and didn't think anything of it. What the hell happened to Montana?"

I can only imagine what has happened to some of the cities of my memory. When I was hanging around Portland, Maine, it was just starting to wake up from the demise of shipbuilding. When I lived in Davis, some of the old places were just starting to turn over. What now? Well, they're probably somewhat like Austin/Boulder/Portland/etc.

What I'm getting at is that in some places, I missed the odd-in-retrospect cheap-money nu-urbanism (Click on that and isn't that the beat from Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind"? Indeed, it is.), and so when I go there, it's sort of like every other rebuilt mid-sized city downtown. In other places, I haven't been back since that transformation took place, and now they don't recognize the cities of my memories (Chicago is the big one). In other words, I missed the 2000's.

Really, it's only Denver where I'm watching the transformation take place in real time. And it's surprising. And it doesn't always seem like a good thing. I went for a few evening rides in the old west part of Five Points, new "Ballpark Neighborhood." It's amazing - when I moved here if you visited between Blake and Lawrence and Broadway and Downing, it was warehouses, meat packing, and some not-so-nice places to live. A few years later it's becoming some kind of 20-something paradise (?) of gyms, clubs, condos, scooter dealerships, etc. I'm not saying it's a bad thing (and in this case I'm not even sure it will stick), but if you came to visit Denver for the first time this weekend (see LoDo, for example), you'd definitely get a different perspective than if you visited in 1991.

All I can really say in terms of value judgment about this change is it does homogenize cities. I recognized downtown Austin as sort of like LoDo. People tend to get tired of homogenization, and so it may be a good thing to encourage/allow these areas to fly their own flag, so to speak. Or maybe I'm wrong and this is all good for business, progress, tax base, etc. - I don't have a specific prediction here, except that historically speaking, our world has trended towards suburbanization/exurbanization.

-Bats! Every summer night about a million bats fly out from under the Congress Ave. Bridge. The spectacle exceeded my expectations - it's really impressive. Will-J liked it too, but after the big waves of bats he got hot and wanted to go. Like I said, it was hot in Austin.

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