They say 110 people move to Austin every day and 108 of them want to drive a food truck and the other two just want to eat at a food truck. R, Coconut, J, and I arrived on Thursday at the Pecan Grove RV park near downtown. Someone on the Vanagon Facebook group mentioned this park when R requested recommendations for places to stay and we were happy to get one of the few daily rental spots. The park is unique in that we could be in this large city with a population of over 700,000 people, staying in Wesley, and be walking distance from the one thing we planned to do - swim at Barton Spring in Zilker Park. The city does have one other tourist attraction besides the Spring, live music, food, and keep Austin weird vibe – bats! Since 1982 when the Congress Avenue Bridge was widened, it has been the migratory home to the largest urban population of Mexican free-tailed bats. Every evening at dusk -whenever that is, the bats get to decide - millions of bats make for the sky to feed in a black cloud reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds" and large enough to blip on the Doppler radar. J and I witnessed the bats in flight on Thursday because we ignored our thirst and hunger to hang around for two hours until the bats decided to make their appearance while Coconut and R more sensibly opted to eat and drink and see the bats during Bat Fest, which was on Saturday and involves food trucks, music, $15 wristbands, and bats.
We arrived at Bat Fest after an afternoon of swimming, described below, at what we thought was dusk, only to have dusk turn into night, without the bats appearing. Then when the crowd started to thin out, we found out the bats did appear, but we couldn’t see them because it was too dark. So R and Coconut missed out on seeing the bats but I don't think Coconut will be in any hurry to return to Austin for this unique event because as we weaved our way through the crowds on the way out she asked, "What was so cool about that?"
About the swimming; Barton Spring has been a public attraction since sometime in the 1800’s when an enterprising Texan named A.J. Barton decided he could charge people to swim in it. Due to some geologic circumstance I read about but can’t remember, the Spring waters remain a consistent, chilly, 68 degrees, and are home to the endangered blind Austin salamander.
The 68 degree temperature might be fine on one of the 40 or so days when temperatures in Austin exceed 100 degrees, but the day we chose to visit the pond it was rainy and only in the mid-80’s – hardly ideal for a swim. Nevertheless, being the intrepid adventurers that we are, and also because we uncharacteristically paid to swim in the enclosed area rather than brave the waters of the free “dog park” area just outside the fences, we all donned our swim suits and succumbed to the numbing cold waters. How it is that allowing people to pay three dollars and swim in the spring benefits the salamander habitat is not stated anywhere, but J and I did get reprimanded by one of the lifeguards for picking up rocks from the bottom of the pond and throwing them back in to watch them sink, so I guess that, at least, is forbidden.
After the numbness left our bodies we felt hunger, so we walked the short distance to one of the many food truck parking lots we'd seen and sampled what Austin has to offer – which at this spot was BBQ, tacos, and hamburgers. R also had some sort of salad with Kimchi, which is a Korean cabbage which many cowboys used to eat on the trail once they found out horse meat wasn’t all that healthy.
To be true, Austin is apparently a change purse of liberalism inside the larger pocket of Texas conservatism, which explains the availability of Kimchi. It’s the headquarters of that yuppie hipster feeding trough called Whole Foods, and we saw more long hair, tattoos, and running shoes than we did cowboy hats, boots, and horses.
Since we arrived in Texas on Monday, we’ve had pretty good weather. Most days have been overcast and fairly mild temperatures for the season with the exception of Tuesday when we were chased out of Wesley by the heat and into a movie theater and hotel room. Even with hot days, the nights have cooled off enough to make sleeping in Wesley with the slider and hatch doors open quite comfortable.
When we arrived in Austin on Thursday we brought rain with us, something Austin hadn’t seen in forty odd days according to Bob, the guy who runs the RV Park and who has lived there for 18 years. Back in the days of the old West, when people relied on growing their own crops and raising livestock to get themselves through the winter rather than hitching up the wagon and rolling out to the local farmers market for supplies, we could have posed as rain makers and charged people for sticking around town with the promise we would make it rain again. As it turned out though, nobody cared that we brought the rain and milder temperatures, and since the RV park fills up on weekends and we only were able to stay at all because someone had cancelled the first days of their visit, we got kicked out and had to go looking for a place to stay on Saturday night.
Before we came into town, R put out a call on one of her VW camper van forums for a good tire place because we wanted to get Wesley some new wheels before we hit the bumpy tarmac in old Mexico. One of the folks who responded also offered us his driveway if we needed a place to stay and I am currently sitting in my underwear in said driveway at 3:43 on Sunday morning typing this because it is too dang hot to sleep – although, R, Coconut, and J don’t seem to be having any problems.
Coconut and J are just probably plum wore out from the days events and R can sleep on a highway overpass, and that’s without the ear plugs and eye mask which she is currently hiding behind and which are perhaps her most cherished piece of gear she brought for herself on this trip.
Because Saturday was about 100 degrees, we decided the best way to spend it would be to get back to our bargain-way roots and enjoy some free Barton Spring water at the dog park. This turned out to be a great idea because Coconut and J really had a bang up time playing together in the water fall and rapids and with some friends that J made by impressing them with his daredevil ways of sliding down the algae-slick rock and throwing himself headfirst into the waters – something he noticed a twenty-something year old guy doing and soon had perfected himself.
R and I have noticed over the last few days that the kids really are getting along – and Coconut is the catalyst for this. She can react to J’s overtures to play or converse in two ways – she can ignore him, which is the path she often chooses at home in Alexandria – or she can respond to him and engage him. For whatever reason, lately she has chosen to engage him and it’s sweet to see them holding hands while trying to help each other through the churning water to the dam overflow or laughing together when the water pushes them back.
My own attempts to play in the water ended up with me crashing to the algae-slick rocks on my elbow, stubbing my big toe on some strategically placed underwater concrete slabs, and cutting my knees while trying to drag myself, half-drowned, back to land. It was a hell of a time – I wouldn’t have missed it.
In the morning, our hosts Nathan, Tina, and 2-year old Liam put out a spread of breakfast tacos and fruit, provided showers and WiFi, and lots of information on where to visit in Mexico. With all the responsibilities of making camp, packing camp, changing clothes, and finding something to eat and drink, R and I have been deficient on actually making plans beyond what we are going to do the next day so talking with Nathan who spent three months living in Mexico with his family when he was fourteen and has been back several times since was especially helpful.
We had hard time pulling ourselves away from the hospitality, and didn't hit the road for San Antonio until four p.m.. We quickly questioned our decision to leave when about twenty miles into our 150 mile trip the engine started to overheat, which isn't a problem according to the owners manual unless the radiator light starts blinking, which is what drew my attention to the overheating problem in the first place. We pulled over, ate some breakfast burritos, and hoped the problem would resolve itself with some rest in the shade - at this point, we were all overheating. However, once we were back on the road the light started to flash even more insistently than before. I, of course, blamed the technician who had given Wesley an oil change on Saturday morning and who had thoughtfully topped off the coolant levels. R, being a more practical person than me, pulled up a forum thread that suggested a couple of explanations for the frantically blinking red light that did not involve the tech. So while R and the kids enjoyed smoothies in the convenience store of the gas station, I read the thread and actually figured out that a sensor to the overflow coolant tank did not have a good connection and the wire was rubbing against the engine block. I deftly took a wire brush from my tool box to the important parts, used electrical tape on the wire where it was slightly chafed, and put the thing back together. When a test run up the highway did not trigger any flashing warning, I deduced that I was correct after all - our good-hearted oil man had loosened the wire so as to cause the short while he was topping off our coolant level. Of course, I give R all the credit for finding the explanation that proved me right.