Austin, Texas (the city)
First, let me get this out of the way. We did not name our son directly after the city of Austin in Texas. His father picked the name, and yes, it happens to be a name that easily retrofits into both of our homelands. I come from Austin County, the birthplace of Texas, where Stephen F. Austin formed his colony of 300 hardy Texans in what was still under Spanish controlled Mexico. Mark is from Australia, where they like to nickname everything. Everything. So if our little Austin ever wants to be called Aussie, it’s there waiting for him. For clarity’s sake, for the rest of this entry, when I say Austin, I mean the city, and if I’m referring to my son, I’ll call him by a description other than his name.
With that out of the way, Austin does hold a special place in my heart. It’s a fiercely independent little enclave of weirdness (read: originality), natural beauty, appreciation for life, and resolute acceptance that everyone can be just who they want to be, no matter how wacky that might be. Austin is the state capitol, a university town, is known for it’s fantastic live music culture, home of SXSW and Austin City Limits, Torchy’s Tacos and the Hula Hut. It’s a city that embraces its stunning landscape of hills, lakes and rivers, and is pretty darn gorgeous as well. It’s also home to a handful of my cousins, the majority of my college girlfriends (despite us attending the rival university 90 miles away), and is home to my BFF, Beverley.
Bats – millions of bats
Full disclosure, I’m about to tell you about a business that Beverley and her husband Casey own, Live Love Paddle. So yes, I’m biased, but my opinions in this matter are legitimate. If I didn’t have nice things to say about these guys and our experience, then I just simply wouldn’t have written about it.
Austin has a lovely lake (or maybe it’s a river) running right past downtown. It has been renamed after our most famous first lady of the state, Lady Bird Johnson (wife of Lyndon, and of the same initials). Lady Bird Johnson did a lot to help beautify the state (because that’s the sort of thing first ladies did in the 1960’s). Her most lasting gift was in creating a permanent endowment to seed the verges alongside the highways with native wildflowers — forever. Lady Bird’s legacy lives on in the wildflowers that paint the Texas landscape in the Spring with their blues, reds, yellows and pinks.
Along Lady Bird Lake (formerly known as Town Lake) are biking and running trails that are heavily used by Austinites of all varieties. High above the lake are hotels and restaurants, and with the kayaks, canoes, SUP and even a paddle boat swan or two, the lake itself is a playground for the city. The fiery orange sunset reflected on the shiny buildings over downtown is stunning, but what really draws people to this area at dusk is the bats.
More than 10 million Mexican Free Tailed bats make the spaces under the Congress Avenue Bridge their migratory home during the summer months, and it’s believed to be a nursery primarily filled with mothers and their young (did you know bats feed their babies milk from their actual teats?)
On spring and summer evenings, they all fly out together in a spectacular stream, starting the journey of hundreds of nightly miles to eat up to 30,000 pounds of insects every single night before returning to their nests before dawn.
Crowds gather on the bridge and along the shoreline every evening to witness this amazing sight, and I’d seen it several times from land before. But Bev and Casey discovered something when they first opened their kayak guiding and rental business nearly 10 years ago. The view of the bats from the water is other-worldly, and people have to see it from this perspective to really experience the awesomeness of this nightly phenomena.
You paddle out in single or double kayaks from the LLP dock up the lake to the Congress Avenue bridge, which takes about 20 peaceful minutes – all the while enjoying the beautiful views of the Texas sunset reflecting off the buildings of downtown. We paddled with three kids age 6 and under – two of them in their own single kayaks – tied behind ours. My son loved it so much he declared that if he lived in Austin, he would paddle on the lake every single day for his exercise!
Once you get to the bridge, you stay in your boat, and gather around for some mind blowing bat facts. Your guide tells you everything you need to know and more about the bat migration, and what to expect over the next hour.
Then the bats start flying – first one or two at a time — and then they start streaming out en masse, creating a river of black that twists and turns and bends and flows against the bright orange Texas sky. It is an elegant choreography that shifts and twists and floats, changing shape – a million and a half bats flying from one place, in perfect unison.
At one point there were four separate streams of bats flying out from the bridge, joining up into a single group over our heads. It was absolutely brilliant!
Seeing the bats from the water is definitely one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in Austin — and let me say, I’ve had a few! It was great with the kids, and a super way to cool off at the end of a hot day in the Texas summertime swelter.
Keeping Austin Weird
Those who know Austin, know what a fantastic playground it is. From the cool waters of Barton Springs to the dusty trails in the mountains around the city, there is something for everyone — at least everyone who loves living. Whether you go for live music, barbecue, tacos, cold beer, margaritas, Texas Mules, the great outdoors, or to visit a small slice of Texas History — nothing big happened here, but the state capitol is bigger than the White House (naturally) — just go. There is no way that Austin will disappoint. It is a colourful, funky, vibrant city that feels much smaller than it really is…and that’s what makes it so very…real.
I’d heard of Moscow Mules before, but I’ve never had one. On a blistering hot August afternoon, Austin and I joined some friends at the Houstonian, a private members club in the heart of Houston, to cool off in the resort style pool. On arrival, Austin immediately jumped in the pool, and I was handed an ice cold drink in a sweaty copper mug in a warm display of Texas hospitality. Drink first, hug and kiss later. That’s what it’s all about.
“What is this?”, I asked as I took a tentative sip and then promptly drank down the citrusy, spicy, slightly fizzy icy concoction. The lime hit me first, then the grassy Jalapeño, and then…omg…is that Ginger Beer? “Yes! It’s a Texas mule”, my friend told me. “What is a Texas mule, and can I please have another??” We had far too many of these wonderful (I mean, really wonderful) drinks that afternoon. They went down smooth and so very refreshing in the 103F heat.
Texas Mules reveal themselves one flavour at a time. Tangy, followed by a sharp green hit from the perfectly sliced jalapeño floating on top that gave them just enough bite to have a personality, and then finally a cooling burn (really) from the ginger beer.
Over the course of the month in Texas I had one Texas Mule after another (after another), culminating in an embarrassment of mules in Austin for Beverley’s birthday. They’re like a less sweet, grown up margarita (no neon green syrupy mix in sight), but with a kick of personality that will make you say Howdy!
I’ve posted a recipe below and credited the author with the link here. Bev showed me how she’s infusing her own vodka with jalapeños, and I only wish that was even remotely practical to carry around with us while we travel.
Ice. Lots of ice.
1/2oz lime juice
2 oz Vodka
4- 6 oz ginger beer
Squeeze lime into mug and drop in rinds, muddle
Add ice then vodka.
Top off with ginger beer
Garnish with a fresh green jalapeño slice and get to drinkin’!