Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of The Hill Country, Texas, Y’all

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Three days after getting home from Prague, Czech Republic, it was time to leave again; however, this trip was for a vacation, to Austin, Texas, and the area to the west and south known as the Hill Country. Jenny's school system had a week off for Spring Break, and we'd decided to head south to warmer climes. It had been 20-odd years since I was last in Austin, and Jenny had never been. [Our home state of South Australia and Texas were both founded in 1836. They are sister states, and their capitals, Adelaide and Austin, are sister cities. While South Australia became a new state of Australia in 1836, Texas became an independent country after the war with Mexico. Texas joined the U.S. as a state in 1845.] I cashed in some of my Frequent Flyer miles, so the total cost of the two airline tickets was about $10.

[Diary] It rained quite heavily in the morning and the skies were dark; however, by lunchtime, it was very nice out, and the trees by our house were in full bloom with white and pink flowers. It was early April.

Jenny came home early from school, around 3:15 pm, just as I was winding up work for the day. We packed a few things and had a late lunch. At 5 pm, friend Cathy picked us up and drove us to Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).

The overnight flights to Europe and non-stop flights to the west coast had departed, so the airport was very quiet. We checked-in, went through security, and were in United Airlines' Red Carpet Club in double-quick time. There, we read newspapers, snacked, and phoned friends. Our flight was due to depart at 7:05 pm, but a delay was announced until 7:20 and then again to 7:55. As it happened, there was bad weather in the northeast and our in-bound plane was delayed.

As we waited at Gate 26, I chatted with the flight crew, which was led by a young woman captain. Finally, we boarded flight UA7281, a 67-seat jet. It was a full flight. Jenny and I had aisle seats opposite each other. The young woman sitting next to me had started out in India, flown to Frankfurt, then to IAD, and, finally, to Austin. She had had a very long day! Finally, at 8:30 pm, we raced down the runway and headed west and south.

The flight took 3½ hours, during which we were served drinks. We both napped at least a little. We landed at Austin (AUS) at 11 pm, quite some distance from the terminal, so it took a while for us to taxi there. We must have been one of the last flights in for the night, as the terminal was almost closed down.

Our luggage arrived in minutes and we made our way across the street to the express car rental desks in the parking garage. The young lady there tried to "do me a favor" by upgrading me for free to a large Sports Utility Vehicle, but I knew it would be a gas guzzler, so I politely insisted on the mid-size sedan I'd reserved. She produced a bright red VW Jetta, which, although it was a little tight for one so tall, was adequate.

We headed out to the freeway and it was a straight 20-minute run to our hotel on the northwest side of town. Having been a frequent guest with Marriott Hotels over the years, I cashed in some points and got a free room for the one night. We checked in about 11:45 pm, and got a room on the top floor. It had a full kitchen and all the comforts of home. Breakfast was included as was high-speed internet access.

As I had gone back to working part-time, I planned to travel more on personal trips. I needed to be in-touch with business associates on a regular basis, but my large laptop and gear was too big and heavy to carry around on vacation, especially if I was using a backpack. So, I'd recently bought a netbook, a small computer with a 10" screen that folded into the size of a large hardback novel. It was able to run everything my business desktop could do, just at a slower pace. I christened it Mini-Me, from the Austin Powers movies. I hooked it up to the hotel system, and, voila, it worked perfectly, which meant I'd be able to send and receive email and use my internet phone. I had also recorded a number of my favorite music CDs onto it, so I had music on demand.

[Diary] We were both awake at 7:30 am, at least an hour short of sleep. After hot showers, we went down to the front desk area to get the complimentary breakfast supplies of juice, bagels, cream cheese, blueberry and banana muffins, and energy bars. Back in our room, we ate and drank hot tea while listening to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons"; not your typical Texas breakfast, I'm sure.

Jenny lay on the bed for a bit, and was soon fast asleep. I worked on this diary and then looked over her plans for our time in Austin, and used Mini-Me to get information from the internet and directions to our host. After an hour's sleep, Jenny awoke, and we packed and compared notes. I phoned the host family where we were to stay for the next two nights. It turned out they lived only 15 minutes from our hotel, so, after we checked out at noon, we drove to their house.

Karen was 40 and a Doctoral student in some sort of Russian studies/education field. (She spoke Russian, Czech, French, and Spanish.) John was a 55-year-old retired U.S.��Air Force pilot who had flown B52 and B1B bombers. One of his hobbies was model railways. They had a daughter, Kathryn, who was seven, and two cats, both with Russian names. We spent 90 minutes getting acquainted and making a plan for the two days we were to spend with them.

Around 2 pm, Jenny and I drove to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Gardens, a project she started in the 1980s. (She was U.S. First Lady when her husband, Lyndon, was President, from 1963–1969.) It was 90 degrees F when we arrived, and we'd neglected to take sun screen. Fortunately, there was plenty of shade and water, and we took our time wandering around the exhibits. It was very interesting and we took a walk along a trail through the brush and cactus. Quite a few flowers were in bloom, including the state flower of Texas, the bluebonnet.

[Diary] Around 10 am, we drove south to the downtown area to the University of Texas campus. Housed there in its own building was President Lyndon Johnson's library. We started with an orientation film that was most informative. Then, for the next three hours, we wandered through the exhibits reading, listening and watching. Although many people remember him primarily for the Vietnam War, he did a lot of good things for the country during his five years in office, which he assumed when President Kennedy was assassinated.

From there, we drove closer to the center of the city where we visited the State Capitol. We had a tour and then wondered around on our own for some time. We saw both the house and senate chambers. I was pleasantly surprised that there was no security check to get in the building. (I did chat with a Texas State Trooper on duty there. Officially, the troopers are part of the State Department of Public Safety, and the Texas Rangers are the detectives for that branch.) On the marble floor of the Capitol under the dome were depictions of the six flags that have flown over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, Texas as an independent country (1836–1845), the United States of America (1846–1861), the Confederated States of America (1861–1869), and, again, the United States of America. We walked across the grounds to the Visitor's Center where we looked at some interesting exhibits and chatted with one of the guides.

Late afternoon, we headed back to our hosts, stopping off to buy them a bottle of Australian wine. John BBQed chicken and Karen made salad and hot vegetables. Karen's parents lived right next door, and they joined us for some good food and conversation. They were both retired Protestant preachers who had lived most of their lives in Wisconsin in the northern part of the mid-west.

At 7:15 pm, John joined Jenny and me on a trip downtown. About 30 years ago, major renovations were done on the Congress Street Bridge over the Colorado River. In the months that followed, Mexican free-tailed bats, which migrate to the area each season, discovered the gaps between all the concrete supports, and moved in to all those dark and dank spaces. Since then, they had become a major tourist attraction from March until September each year. It is estimated that 750,000 bats fly up from Mexico with most of them pregnant. They have one pup each, so there are more than a million when they fly south for the winter. We arrived around dusk to see the colony start to come out from under the bridge and to fly east. Each night, they consume vast quantities of insects that would otherwise eat the commercial crops in the area.

[Diary] We had a light breakfast while chatting with John and, later, Karen. John had already taken Kathryn to school, and Karen left to teach at the university around 9 am. We packed our bags and headed off at 9:30. It had been a great visit, like the vast majority we'd had with Servas International hosts.

Although the speed limit was 65 mph, I set the car on cruise control at 55, and kept in the slow lane letting the world race by. It was sunny, but quite cool, so much so, that I had the heater on. We drove west an hour before arriving in Johnson City, the place where President Johnson's ancestors settled. There, we toured a Visitor Center and watched a 30-minute video on Lady Bird Johnson. 30 minutes to the west, we came to the LBJ Ranch, which was handed over to the National Park Service on the death of the President in 1973, provided they pledged not to charge admission and to keep the property a working ranch. Lady Bird lived there until her death in 2007, after which the President's "Western White House" office was opened to tours.

After a look around the visitor center, we toured a working farm that operated on the old-time principles of self-sufficiency. From there, we went on a self-guided driving tour of the ranch using the audio CD we'd borrowed from the Visitor's Center. The ranch had its own concrete airstrip. The hangar had been converted into an orientation center. From there, we had a guided tour of the President's office. In his five years in office, he spent nearly 25% of the time working from the ranch, so senior staff, cabinet members, military advisors, and foreign dignitaries came and went on a regular basis.

From there, we headed further west to the town of Fredericksburg, where we arrived at 4:45 pm. We settled on a newly built hotel, which came with microwave, fridge, and wireless internet connection. There, we rested up, watched some TV news, and I worked on this diary.

Fredericksburg was settled by Germans in the 1840s, about the same time the German-speaking Lutherans settled South Australia. And there was still a strong German theme throughout the town. We went to a restaurant that served a number of German dishes. And although the food was good, the servings were enough for at least two meals.

[Diary] We had a substantial breakfast in our room using the leftovers from dinner the night before, accompanied by cups of boiling hot tea. We ventured out at 11 am.

Fredericksburg was the birthplace of U.S. Navy Admiral of the Fleet Chester Nimitz, who was a major player in the Pacific theater during WWII. As a result, a large museum complex had been built around the old Nimitz hotel his grandfather had run. And 40,000 square feet of new exhibition space was under construction. We spent three hours looking, listening, reading many of the exhibits, and touring the Japanese peace garden. One outdoor exhibit honored the U.S. Presidents who had served in the military from WWII on. From there, we went a few blocks to another part of the museum to a recreation of a battlefield on a small island in the Pacific. (Several times a year, there are re-enactments.) Our volunteer tour guide was a WWII veteran who had served in Europe.

We walked in the nice afternoon sun up and down the main street for several blocks. Back in our room, we rested up. (Being a tourist can be hard work!) I had some work to do, so I spent several hours on that.

At 7:30 pm, we went to a little restaurant, "The Buffalo Nickel", we'd discovered on a side street, and had a light meal. For me it was a bowl of fiery chili with pieces of bison meat. For Jenny, it was a burger. We both had tall glasses of lemonade. Built-in to the top of the bar were quite a lot of Buffalo Nickels, the 5-cent coin issued up until the mid-1930s. For dessert, we shared a very nice serving of bread pudding and vanilla ice cream.

[Diary] My 5:55 am alarm woke me from a deep sleep. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) Although I was on vacation, the sun never sets on the Microsoft Empire, and I had a 2-hour business teleconference to attend. So as not to wake Jenny, I set up my laptop in the bathroom and shut the door, then connected to the meeting by phone and video link using my computer. Then I sat (reasonably comfortably) on "the throne" while using my mouse on a mouse pad on the bottom of an up-turned trash bin. (Let's just say I've had worse improvised offices.) The meeting only ran for 1:15 hours, and I thought I was wide-awake, but, as I lay on the bed, I discovered I still had some sleep left in me, so back to bed I went until 9:30.

We took our time packing, and I got my last email fix. We checked out at 10:45, and were soon at the Denny's restaurant a few blocks away. We ordered our food and read the national newspaper while we waited for our meal. Soon, side orders of bacon, sausage, English muffin, and biscuits and sausage gravy arrived, and we "dug in". It was a relatively light meal designed to tide us over until our early afternoon snack break.

We headed south out of town on Highway 87 towards the town of Comfort. We had decided not to go on to San Antonio. We'd been there before to see the famous site "The Alamo", and were ready to have a rest day. We drove in the slow lane watching the countryside go by at a leisurely pace. In Comfort, we stopped by the Visitor's Center and chatted with the ladies volunteering there, and got information about places to stay and eat, and things to do. The town was a major stopping-off point for early settlers heading west, and had more than 100 buildings built before 1900. Now, it was sleepy with a lot of antique shops.

We settled on the "Meyer Bed and Breakfast" establishment high up on the bank of Cypress Creek. It was a complex of 30-odd cabins, cottages and rooms spread over several acres with swimming pool, hot tub, hammocks in the shade, picnic areas, and all kinds of gardens, and two resident cats. In the pasture next door some cattle grazed. We looked at a cottage and several separate rooms, settling on a room with an old-style metal four-poster king-size bed with a small sitting room and bathroom. The cost was $110 plus tax, and included breakfast. Outside the office, a pair of swallows flitted about and three hummingbirds competed for sugar water at a feeder. A very red cardinal flew off as I walked up.

Jenny got comfortable in a chair on the porch in the shade while I moved to a screened-in porch on the end of our building. There, I found a table just right for my computer, and a wicker chair on which I piled cushions so I could reach the keyboard. Each time I looked up from working on this diary, I had a 270-degree view around the garden down to the creek. About all I could hear was the sound of birds calling. We had wanted a little bit of Paradise for our rest day, and we'd surely found it. And it even came with free wireless internet access. No sooner had I set up my computer than I received mail from our rental property manager regarding a major plumbing problem. The joys of home ownership and being connected while on holiday!

Late in the afternoon, we went for a walk down by the creek. A small road had been cut out going down on both sides, and a number of large stones had been placed in the water, so we could get across. Up the other side was a strange contraption that contained corn kernels, with the whole thing hanging down from tall metal poles. Underneath was a device that when turned would eject kernels out the bottom. I figured it would be activated by large animals (such as deer) using their noses. The 25 acres of land on that side of the creek also belonged to the B&B, and supported quite a few pecan trees. (Can you say "pecan pie"?)

I started a Cold-War spy novel, and soon got into that. About 7:30 pm, we drove around the town looking for somewhere to eat. There were few choices, and, finally, we stumbled on a place that looked the least likely. It was made of rusty corrugated iron sheets and odd bits of flotsam and jetsam, and was called "Guenther's Biergarten-Grill". As the waitress said, it was quirky. Anyway, the menu was adequate and they made me some fresh-squeezed lemonade. I had a small salad and some quesadillas (tortillas filled with cheese and hot peppers). Jenny had fried catfish and coleslaw. By the time we got back to our B&B, it was well after dusk; however, we could make out three deer grazing down by the creek.

[Diary] It was a beautiful morning and I stopped to chat with a number of retired couples who were having a reunion over a few days stay. Some 20 deer were gathered near the corn feeder across the creek. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a mechanical noise, some corn was ejected and a squirrel went racing down the bank. I thought the squirrel had been trying to get at the corn and had triggered the device. As it happened, it was battery powered (the feeder, not the squirrel), and at 8 am each morning, it "went off", and scared the squirrel in the process. As soon as the deer heard the noise they raced over; I counted about 30 in all.

About 8:20 am, I went into the group dining room and made a cup of hot tea, and chatted with other guests. A buffet breakfast was served at 8:30 am, and we found a table in the sun overlooking the creek. We got chatting with a couple and invited them to join us. Rachel was Irish and James was American, and they lived in Ireland. Their three children were staying with grandparents in Texas while the parents had a holiday. Shane, the owner of the property joined us for a chat. We ate and talked until 10 am, at which time, we went to the office to extend our stay another night. Instead of one rest day, we'd have two. (Don't you just love that when that happens!)

I read a few chapters of my novel, but started to fade, so I found a spot in the shade by the creek and tried to nap. There were chirping birds of various species. That didn't work out, so I went up the hill to a large hammock. I heard the town fire siren announce 12 noon before getting 45 minutes' sleep. Then it was on to more reading and some snacking.

Around 4 pm, I set up my laptop computer on a large picnic table under a tree 25 yards from our room. From there, I worked on this diary, handled some email, and made some phone calls, reminding friends that I was holidaying in Texas and they weren't! Meanwhile, Jenny went in search of a Post Office, and to look around the shops.

The hot day quickly gave way to a cool evening as I sat on the verandah reading until late, by which time it was almost cold. After dusk, several deer ventured over to our side of the river and grazed 40 yards from where I sat.

[Diary] It was another beautiful morning, cool and fresh. We had breakfast in a different room of the dining cottage, and there seemed to be quite a few new guests. Once again, the owner, Shane, dropped by to chat and to thank us for staying an extra night. As checkout wasn't until 11 am and we had no place to be, we took our time packing, and sat and read our novels for a while.

We headed out of town around 10:45 am taking the back roads to the northeast in the general direction of Austin. We found a gas station on a main highway and filled up, and then went back to the local ranch roads. We stopped in a large town, Wimberly, which had a lot of artsy shops, and there we walked the streets. We also drove some distance following a very rocky creek.

Back on a ranch road, we were driving at only 40 mph and a Sheriff's Deputy came up behind us. Unfortunately, no passing was allowed for some distance, so, after a bit, I pulled over to let him and another car pass. Instead, he pulled over behind us with his lights flashing. He was very polite and asked if we were lost. After a short conversation, he was satisfied we weren't a threat to the security of Texas or the U.S. and he headed off to catch some real criminals.

We found a shady spot off the road in a tiny village, so we pulled up and read for a good while. Then, it was on towards Austin and the real world of freeways and traffic. After stopping at several hotels to get prices, we finished up at a Super 8. It was obviously a new facility, but I hadn't stayed in one for many years, and, back then, they were cheap and basic. We took a room there and, to our surprise, it was quite up-scale, and had a microwave, fridge, free hi-speed internet, and we were given a bag of snacks and drinks on arrival. And, the TV had a built-in video tape and disk player. Many movies were available on DVD at the front desk, all without charge.

Soon after 4 pm, we settled down to our first movie, "Charlie Wilson's War", starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Then came the WWII epic "Australia" with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Both films were decent.

[Diary] By 8:30 am, we were in the breakfast room having a decent meal that was included in the room rate. On TV, CNN blared out a constant stream of mostly bad news, something I hadn't missed for the week I'd gone without TV. By the way, the waffle maker made waffles in the shape of the state of Texas, no doubt as God intended!

At the airport, our CRJ 67-seat jet arrived, and we boarded, on time, at 11:35 am. Flight UA7436 took off to the north and I had a nice view of the downtown area of Austin. The flight home was uneventful except for five seconds in which we hit some turbulence and the whole plane twisted violently and dropped some altitude. That certainly got everyone's attention and wishing they had listened to the earlier safety demonstration.

We touched down at IAD just after 4 pm, local time, after turning our clocks forward an hour. The skies were clear, but it was way cooler (mid-50s) and there was water on the ground from a recent shower. As we had flown some distance north of Texas, it was not surprising that spring was not quite so advanced. It took quite a while for our luggage to arrive, but, as soon as it did, we caught a taxi and headed home.

Conclusion

We thoroughly enjoyed the break, the home stay, the historical places and the civics lessons, and the unexpected stay at the B&B in Comfort. Of course, Texas is a very large state, and we'd only sampled a small piece of it.

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