Thursday, June 24, 2010

Back in the Saddle in Austin

I expected to have a horrible time in Austin.  I was in a foul mood when we  arrived, and expected to spend lots of time sitting around waiting to go home, stewing the whole time.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  We had an incredible week, with hardly a minute of down time.

We had two sets of wonderful hosts who put us up and put up with us while we were in Austin.  Phyllis is an old friend of Adam's mother, and we stored our bikes and gear at her house.  Phyllis and her husband, Arlie, cooked us several delicious meals and we spent a good deal of time at their place.  She told us when we arrived that she had bought a lot of extra food in anticipation of our arrival, so Adam and I did the thoughtful thing and ate as much of their food as possible so that none would go bad.

One of Adam's friends from the Army lives in Austin, and he was generous enough to loan us his car and his wife for most our stay.  Joe had an extra car to get him to work and back, and his wife Marlena had the free time to show us around the areas she knew, and play tourist with us, as both she and Joe are recent arrivals in Austin.  We also spent our nights at Joe's house, as they are closer in age to us, and less likely to be upset with our late night departures and arrivals.   

Over the course of the week, Adam and I began to get used to automobile life again, although we still managed to get out on our bikes quite a bit.  We figured out a much better route between Phyllis's house and downtown Austin, and we rode there and back several days.  We even took a day trip out to Pedernales Falls State Park for one more day of country riding.  But the distances between Joe's house, Phyllis's house and downtown were just too great, and we slowly developed a dependency on the car again.  We got stuck in traffic jams for the first time in two months, and the delay was more unpleasant than usual, as we had almost forgotten what it was like.

During his time living in Japan, Adam developed a taste for two-stepping at honkey tonks.  We decided we needed to visit a honkey-tonk while in Texas, and several locals had told us that the Broken Spoke, south of downtown, was the only authentic honkey-tonk around.  Marlena was free to join us for the evening, so we got her a cowboy hat, jumped in the car, and headed out.

The broken spoke has been in Austin for nearly half a century.  Willie Nelson played there before he had a beard. Vintage cars and buses dotted the lot, permanent decorations that match the aesthetic of the place perfectly.  As we walked up to the door, it called to mind nothing more than "Porky's Place".  After paying our cover and making our way past the small dining room at the front, we passed the bouncer and entered "the last real music hall in Texas".  A long, low room with wooden plank floorboards was flanked down either side by sitting areas filled with wooden picnic tables.  At the far end was a low stage, upon which a band was playing.  The lead singer of this band had hair like a comic book character.  Black and waxed, it looked almost like a helmet, coiffed to an immense height.

The entire center of the hall was crammed with couples two-stepping to the music.  Most of the men were in the cowboy uniform - boots, hat, jeans, button-down shirt and a belt buckle large enough to serve as weapon.  The ladies' outfits were more varied, but many wore the traditional boots, long, loose skirt with a sleeveless blouse and cowgirl hat.

We watched for the rest of the dance, and immediately we were schooled in the etiquette of  country dance halls.  Marlena, a not unattractive young lady, was sniped immediately from our side.  In Texas honkey-tonks, everyone still follows old fashioned customs, men asking women to dance when a song starts up, paying no heed to age differences or lack of familiarity with potential partners.  Marlena did not sit another dance out for the remainder of the evening, except the few times she had to leave the floor to rest.

After watching this, Adam and I took another couple of songs to try to figure out the dance steps, and we plunged right in.  The first young lady I asked to dance had on Converse Chucks, just like I did, and I figured she might not be too offended by my two-stepping skills.  She wasn't - she turned out to be from NC herself, a UNCW grad, and we had a great time mangling the steps, careening around the floor and laughing ourselves silly.  

We then proceeded to dance the night away, with a different partner for me each time.  I even got asked to dance by a cute Mexican girl!  A couple of the girls I danced with were kind of disappointed by my dance skills, but I got better as the night went on (hindered by Corona Especial) and by the end of the evening I could handle the two-step and their corrupted version of a waltz.

Adam scored a dance with a particularly popular young lady, and she danced with him to the exclusion of everyone else for the rest of the evening.  I caught a couple of resentful glances shot his way as he and his new friend, Jodi, would stand together at the end of a song waiting to start the next dance, without giving any hint that they would allow anyone else to intrude.  Resentful they might have been, but they were all careful not to let Adam see their feelings.  No matter how much beer was being consumed that night, it was not enough to convince anyone to confront Adam.

We danced until the lights came on and the band packed up.  I hadn't closed down a bar in a long, long time.  Marlena doesn't drink and was generous enough to drive her half-drunk, half-dazed charges back home.  We had only driven ten minutes or so before I realized that my credit card was at the bar, with my tab.  We got back just in time to retrieve it before the staff left, and good thing too, as they were going to be closed for the next few days, and I would have been eating on Adam's generosity.

We carried that good feeling with us for the rest of our time in Austin.  Like I said previously, we had hardly a down minute.  Adam's new friend, Jodi, is a silversmith jewelry maker, and we spent some time with her, looking at her shop, visiting her neighborhood and finding good places to eat.  We ran with the Hash Club downtown, visited the University of Texas at Austin Natural History Museum, and the UT observatory, where we got to show off the knowledge we got at McDonald Observatory.  One of Adam's Army friends, now a PhD candidate at UT got us into the rare and old book repository, where we got to view 500 year old manuscripts written by John Smith, among others.  We spent a day sailing on Lake Travis west of Austin with Adam's unlce.  Actually, only part of the day was spent sailing; most of the day was spent leaning over the side of the boat, paddling across the glassy water.

We stayed well fed, and drank too much.  The time flew by, and before we knew it, we were loading up the UHaul for the trip home.  Our last morning in Austin, I was to meet Adam at Phyllis' house to pack our final bags and head out.  I arrived a bit before him, having been separated the night before.  I got all my gear loaded, and hopped on the bike one last time.

I cruised up and down the streets of Phyllis' neighborhood, letting the memories of the past two months wash over me.  It had been so wonderful, and I don't know if I will ever get the chance to do something so grand ever again.  The bright green sprouts of spring filled the yards of the houses I passed, and flowers were blooming everywhere.  It was warm with a slight breeze blowing the flower's fragrant scent across the road as I pedaled.

It was finally over.  No more miles to make, to more camp to set up or break down, truly the end of the road.  We had miles and miles yet to cover, but interstate miles are all the same, and nothing to look forward to. I couldn't quite wrap my head around it.  It was a strange feeling, but not totally bitter.  I was looking forward to seeing my pregnant wife, who had begun to show in my absence.  Now that my thought were bent towards home, I began to miss other things as well, things I had not thought about in weeks.  My family, my bed, my dog.  I looked forward to seeing my friends at Tai Chi class and riding my bike (it's different at home -I missed my usual rides!).  It had been two whole months since I had been on my mountain bike!

Thus our departure was bittersweet.  I never wanted the trip to end, but everything has to end, and Austin was about as good an ending as I could have hoped for.  We said our last goodbyes, crammed ourselves into the cramped, uncomfortable cab of the truck, pointed the wheels east, and drove.