According to the Nielson Company, which invented the concept of “market research” some 80 years ago, the people of Austin read and contribute to blogs more than residents in any other U.S. city. An outfit called Scarborough Research seconds this, estimating that 15 percent of adults who live in Austin are bloggers.

That’s about 573,000 people. Blogging. In one city.

So when Jill and I rolled into Texas’ famously free-thinking state capital — a place referred to in less progressive Lone Star circles as “300 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality” and “the People’s Republic of Austin” — I turned to her and made a rebellious declaration: “We’re not going to blog about Austin.”

My rationale: Austin needs another blog post like it needs another burned-out hippie or boot-wearing state senator. Besides, after 37 cities and 10,000 miles, I figured Jill and I needed a break. I suggested we find a weekly rental, wander aimlessly around town, read books by the lake, catch a live band or two, and generally take a vacation from our vacation.

I wanted, too, to see Jill saunter down the sidewalk unburdened by her camera and the constant artistic demands that come with having it slung across her shoulder. Is it fair that she squints at our every destination through a viewfinder while I amble at her side hardly ever scribbling a note? The answer, Jill reminds me frequently, is no.

I must also admit to another, more selfish motive for my proposed blog boycott of Austin: I don’t really like blogging.

Maybe its Austin’s countercultural spirit that compels me to make this declaration. Or maybe I’m just copping out, threatened by the creative class of thirtysomethings who mill about the city carrying laptops in leather messenger bags. Surely their blog entries are cleverer than mine. I bet they shoot video and post daily and have advertisers. I hate them.

I am generally not a man who’s prone to self-consciousness, but Austin is one of those cities — not unlike Boulder, Colo., or Cambridge, Mass. — that tweaks my nose and makes me question my credentials. Austin is Lance Armstrong. Austin is South by Southwest. Austin is Dazed and Confused. Whole Foods is headquartered here. “Austin City Limits” is filmed here. Wes Anderson matriculated here. Austinites who aren’t smart are pretty: Tattooed girls sunbathe topless in Zilker Park, and Matthew McConaughey jogs shirtless around Lady Bird Lake.

I contributed to my own private unease by finding us accommodations in SoCo, a neighborhood sandwiching South Congress Avenue that is the steady-thumping heartbeat of all things cool in Austin. From our garage-top studio apartment we were within walking distance of the city’s hippest hotels, coffee shops, fashion boutiques and food carts.

Jill quickly became obsessed with the latter — old trailers, trucks and buses that have been converted into food stands that serve everything from fried avocado tacos to grilled quail to bacon doughnuts. (That’s right: bacon doughnuts.) It’s like being able to eat every day at a magical state fair where the concessions are operated by the Food Network.

Jill ate at Torchy’s Tacos three times in five days. Its trailer shares a graveled plot of picnic tables with two other food carts (Man Bites Dog and Holy Cacao) to constitute the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery. Jill also drooled over Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, where she ordered the grilled quail and I tried a pork-belly slider. I wasn’t crazy about the fancy food most of these trailers dish up, but the price was right, and I did enjoy being able to dine outdoors with the dogs.

When not filling her gullet with trailer food, Jill was stuffing her feet into cowboy boots. She had decided she would not leave Texas without buying a pair as a souvenir, and she tried on two-dozen varieties at Allens Boots. Pulling on and pulling off new boots ain’t easy, and Jill emerged from Allen’s with beads of sweat on her upper lip and blisters on the undersides of her index fingers. (She also emerged bootless. Her quest would have to continue at boot stores beyond SoCo.)

Congress Avenue is also home to the Continental Club, a live-music institution in the Live Music Capital of the World. The Continental Club began its life as a private supper club in 1957, when it hosted acts like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. It is purported to be the first place in Travis County to sell liquor by the glass. The Continental morphed into a burlesque club in the ’60s before returning to his musical roots a decade later, when Austin icons such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman played to audiences bathed in cigarette smoke and neon.

We were lucky enough to catch Dale Watson and his band on a Monday night at the Continental Club. Watson has the salt-and-pepper pompadour of aging greaser, the tattooed arms of an ex-con, and the gleaming horse teeth of a televangelist. His performance is pure SoCo: smooth, retro, satirical. Watson’s act would be considered campy on any other stage in any other city — listen to “Whiskey or God” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies” — but the guy was born to play the Continental Club in Austin.

Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros

Dale Watson provided the opening set for my and Jill’s near-nightly musical tour of Austin.

We saw Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros play at Saxon Pub and were treated to an amazing show by LuceroShooter Jennings, son of Waylon, opened — at Emo’s on 6th Street.

Really, if you can’t find good music in Austin, lean your face toward the nearest plane of glass and see if you fog it — you might be dead.

Maybe the only thing better than Austin’s food and music, in my book, is its walkability. In five days there we barely moved our car. Besides strolling around SoCo, we walked the length of Congress Avenue to the Texas State Capitol. This Italian Renaissance Revival marvel was the seventh-largest building in the world when it was completed in 1888, and it remains the biggest (if not tallest) state capitol building in the country. Its construction also prompted one of the largest barter transactions in U.S. history — the capitol’s principal builders were paid with tracts of land in the Texas panhandle. (The laborers who built the capitol weren’t compensated quite as well; most were convicts and migrant laborers who earned a pittance for six years of toiling.)

Even though Austin’s population is about the same as San Francisco’s, its downtown skyline is comparatively unremarkable. The state capitol is the reason for that. For decades, building restrictions prevented the construction of any skyscraper that would obscure views of the capitol from other parts of the city. Those restrictions have recently fallen by the wayside, however, and in their void have risen condo towers and a cloud-kissing W Hotel. Even in a progressive city like Austin, not everybody can agree this is progress.

Texas’ magnificent state capitol is responsible for one other thing, too: Jill finally finding the perfect pair of cowboy boots. During our meandering walk back toward SoCo from to the capitol grounds, she spotted a small downtown shop bearing the sign “Heritage Boots.” She went inside and fell in love with the first pair of boots she tried on.

So we left Austin feeling good. Miles of urban hiking had awakened our leg muscles, a new playlist of country songs rang through the car speakers, and Jill’s ideal souvenir sat upright in the back floorboard as if worn by an invisible cowgirl.

I have a feeling, though, that my shins are going to lament the purchase of those new boots when Jill — whom I implored not to carry her camera in Austin — finds out America’s most blog-crazy city has inspired me to write a 1,300-word post that is in desperate need of photographic accompaniment.

Oops.

—Scott

Our kingdom for a Winnebago

August 15, 2010

Rod and Amy Burkert might just be as crazy as we are. The only difference between them and us is they have paying jobs and a Winnebago.

The Burkerts are the creators of www.GoPetFriendly.com, an online resource for people, like us, who travel with their pets. The site lists pet-friendly hotels, B&Bs, campgrounds and RV parks throughout the U.S. and Canada. GoPetFriendly.com allows users to search for the best deals and make reservations, and it also includes a handy Roadtrip Planner.

To keep their website accurate and up-to-date, the Burkert’s have hit the road in a new Winnebago with their two dogs, Buster (a German Shepard rescue) and TY (a Shar-Pei).

Courtesy of GoPetFriendly.com

Rod and Amy launched GoPetFriendly.com in 2009, leaving behind their business-appraisal firm. Since then, they’ve spent 80 percent of their days on the road, researching and blogging.

Scott and I have a lot in common with the Burkerts: We, too, quit our jobs to hit the road and now live every waking moment together. And, like us, Amy and Rod acknowledge their dogs’ flaws. It’s nice to know other road-tripping dog owners struggle with mutts who bark, tug on their leashes and act like fools when meeting other dogs.

We “met” the Burkerts through our blog.  A mutual love of traveling and being with our dogs made us instant friends. Somehow, in our six months on the road, we’ve managed to travel on opposite sides of the country from the Burkerts, but we’re bound to cross paths eventually and meet face-to-face amid a cacophony of barking. Until then, we do our best to keep each other informed about worthwhile pet-friendly finds.

Rod and Amy know just about everybody in the dog-loving cyber community, so we were flattered when they invited us to be featured on their blog, Take Paws. Check out our Q&A.

—Jill

San Antonio, TX

August 12, 2010

Davy Crockett is the reason I’m at The Alamo. With his coonskin hat, leather hunting suit and long rifle, he embodies the fighting spirit. We Americans love that, and Scott especially loves it because, like Crockett, he is a native Tennessean. So while he abandoned me and the dogs to go read every historical marker and bronzed plaque commemorating Texas’ most romanticized battle, I took a few shots of The Alamo with my Holga. The old, stone mission seemed to call for it. It’s something to stand here, across the street from Fuddruckers and Ripley’s Believe or Not!, and imagine a 13-day siege between the Mexican army and a small band of soldiers led by William Travis, Jim Bowie and Crockett. As tourist attractions go, The Alamo is not a bad one. It spruces up history with a little myth, and gives proud Texans (and Tennesseans) plenty to get nostalgic about. You have to see it to remember it.

—Jill

This post is a farewell ode to a perfect bar in a crooked house in a Texas city.

The Liberty Bar, a San Antonio icon, is known as much for the building it occupied for 25 years as it is for generous pours and mouth-watering food. But as of June, Liberty doesn’t live in a crooked house anymore. The bar still serves great cocktails and cuisine — just in a new location three miles away.

Thankfully, Scott and I got to experience the charm of the original Liberty Bar a couple of months before the big move.

The Liberty Bar’s old shell lists like a drunk. Viewed from the front, it leans left at its middle and right at its roofline, sort of like the letter “S”. The house was built in the 1890s and later crippled by flood damage and slapdash additions. Its interior walls tilt forward and its floors roll like wooden waves. The house looks like something out of a nursery rhyme or Tim Burton movie.

Ironically, the Liberty Bar did not relocate because the old house is about to fall down, but because a new landlord raised the rent. That’s sad. I can’t imagine a better tenant for the place.

Located a stone’s throw from an I-35 freeway overpass, the old Liberty Bar was a regulars kind of joint. I’m sure it remains so. It is rumored to be a fave of Tommy Lee Jones. We found Liberty Bar thanks to a tip from Scott’s former boss, a native Texan who is a fan of fine local food and knows a thing or two about San Antonio. (We are forever in debt to travel-savvy friends who help transform our whirlwind itineraries into 24-hour masterpieces.)

The Liberty Bar we experienced had plenty of character. It creaked and groaned. While sitting at the bar, I felt like the place could come crumbling down on our heads at anytime. And this was after only two drinks. Who knows how much the walls might have swayed after another couple of rounds?

The bar was quiet on the Saturday we visited. The bartender found the emptiness curious but not troubling. He chatted with us about worthwhile places to visit in San Antonio, and, like most bartenders, he know the ins and outs of cheap dining and drinking. Behind us, tubes of neon light framed each large window, adding a rosy blush to the ornate wood of the bar and the liquor bottles arranged neatly behind it. The entire room glowed red.

It must be noted that Scott and I ordered only a couple rounds of whiskey and an appetizer, therefore I can’t begin to rave about the cuisine with any real authority. But I can only imagine the wild-boar sausage or quail with green mole would make anyone love the Liberty Bar. Just typing the names of those featured menu items makes me drool.

One bite of the goat cheese appetizer sucked me into the Liberty Bar fan club — and to think I almost passed on it in favor of the grilled poblanos. But good fortune seated me next to Steve Collins, a fine-art photographer who lives at the bar — literally. His apartment occupies the upstairs floor of the old building. (Brave man.) Collins is a Liberty Bar menu expert, and he wasn’t shy about second-guessing my order. I took his advice and thanked him profusely after the dish arrived.

Served on a small plate, it’s a generous portion of local Texas goat cheese whipped with cream cheese, garlic and chile morita (a smoked and dried red jalapeno pepper), and then formed into a cake. The magic lives in the sauce, which is made from melted piloncillo (Mexican dark brown sugar) and heavy whipping cream combined with three peppers: chile morita, chipotle and ancho. You spread the whole glorious mixture over grilled bread.

It is sweet and salty. It is spicy and creamy. It’s ridiculously rich. The dish isn’t beautiful, but its flavor might make you shed a tear of joy.

If you visit San Antonio, find Liberty Bar and give the goat cheese a try. Just don’t make the mistake of driving down Josephine looking for the lopsided building by the freeway. Instead, make your way to South Alamo Street and keep your eye out for a two-story former convent that’s boldly painted salmon pink. You can’t miss it.

The Liberty Bar might not be crooked anymore, but I suspect the food and drink are still straight-up awesome.

—Jill

Sounds better in the song

August 5, 2010

One of the beauties of unhurried road-tripping is that some days, when you don’t know where to go, you can spread out your atlas like a Ouija board and let the tip of your finger find its way to your next destination. Maybe you gravitate to a place because its name is strange or it exists in a polygon of shaded green on the map. Maybe you’re drawn to a city because it figured prominently in a book you’ve read, or you remember it as the hometown of a favorite athlete or actor.

Or, in the case of Luckenbach, Texas, maybe you pick your next stop because it is the title of a classic country song.

“Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” was a No. 1 hit for Waylon Jennings in the summer of 1977. It’s a song that slides easily into your mind and then, like a sleepy drunk at last call, refuses to leave. I began humming its chorus immediately after spotting Luckenbach on the map, a faint blip southwest of Fredericksburg and nearly smack-dab in the center of the Lone Star State.

We took our sweet Texas time driving to Luckenbach from Marfa. We stopped at a ramshackle roadside attraction in Fort Davis that claims (believably) to house the largest exhibit of live rattlesnakes in the world. And we checked out a spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park that’s 25 feet deep and has aquatic critters swimming in it. (The Balmorhea pool is yet one more fascinating attraction we’ve encountered that was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I’m thinking of ordering a bumper sticker that reads “God Bless the CCC.”)

By the time we pulled into the Armadillo Farm Campground in Luckenbach, the sun had set and our bellies were groaning. Gay, the friendly proprietor of Armadillo Farm, suggested a secluded campsite where the dogs could roam and told us the best bet for food at the late hour was the Luckenbach dance hall, just across the pasture.

Now is probably a good time to explain that Luckenbach isn’t actually a proper town. When Waylon Jennings sings, “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas,” what he’s referring to is the old dance hall. Little else exists in Luckenbach, other than a post office, general store and saloon — all three of which are housed in a small wooden building that looks like it was preserved from the set of Gunsmoke.

Local legend holds that a larger-than-life Texan (is that redundant?) named Hondo Crouch was thirsting for a beer while driving through Luckenbach in the early 1970s. He stopped for a drink at the saloon, but it was closed. It was also for sale — along with the general store and dancehall — and Crouch decided to buy the whole town. Another account suggests Crouch purchased Luckenbach after seeing an advertisement in an Austin newspaper that read “Town For Sale — Population 3.”

I don’t know how tall those tales are, but the Texas State Historical Association confirms that Crouch — a humorist, writer and All-American swimmer at the University of Texas — bought Luckenbach in 1971. He then proclaimed himself mayor and installed a single parking meter.

Crouch took advantage of the town’s status as a municipality to govern it as he saw fit. The historical association writes that Crouch “declared Luckenbach ‘a free state … of mind’ and successfully turned the small community into a foil of the nearby ‘Texas White House’ — Lyndon Johnson’s place down the Pedernales River at the LBJ Ranch.”

Crouch died in 1976, a year before Jennings’ hit song forever burned Luckenbach into popular music’s hide. But Texans who love outlaw country will tell you the place was put on the musical map in 1973, when Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his album Viva Terlingua at the dance hall. And Texans who love state history will tell you Luckenbach almost ascended to worldwide fame in 1865, when the local schoolmaster tested a flying machine 17 years before the Wright Brothers’ successful flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Alas, the schoolmaster crashed.

That schoolmaster might have been the first person to crash in Luckenbach, but he was definitely not the last. The Armadillo Farm Campground actually advertises itself as a “secure place to ‘sleep it off’ after over-indulging at the latest concert event over at the Luckenbach Town Dance Hall.” Thanks to Jerry Jeff and Waylon — and countless other country musicians cut from the same ragged cloth — the dance hall has a reputation for hard drinking and caterwauling. (If you read “dance hall” and envision a grand room with chandeliers, please take note that Texas dance halls are built for two-stepping and swigging beer. For a layman’s introduction to them, check out this NPR story.)

I must admit that Jill and I found our Friday-night visit to Luckenbach pretty tame. A middle-aged songstress performed a set of mostly covers, and the audience in the half-full hall applauded politely at the end of each number. A few folks two-stepped, but most simply sat at long tables drinking bottled beer and munching on snacks.

A hot dog and BBQ pork sandwich satisfied my and Jill’s hunger, but we were surprised to find the bar only served beer — no whiskey. Did Waylon and Willie and the boys really come down here and not drink whiskey? Say it ain’t so.

Underwhelmed, we walked the dogs back to the campground, where we noticed the communal campfire was ringed by several people — two of whom wore cowboy hats and held guitars across their laps. We were encouraged. I found a stump to sit on, and Jill fetched the flask.

Fittingly, the first campfire song we heard in full was “Luckenbach, Texas.” In the firelight it was hard to gauge the age of the fellow playing it, but his voice — raspy and fragile — suggested he was at least 70. We learned he lived just over the hill and was an Armadillo Farm regular. I suspect he had performed “Luckenbach, Texas” a thousand times since 1977, and the arrival of Jill and me prompted what was probably his third or fourth rendition of the night. His arrangement included changing the lyric “firm-feelin’ women” to “firm-breasted women.” I silently wondered how long it had been since he’d felt a firm breast. Probably years. But one can never underestimate the sex appeal of a six-string and a cowboy hat.

The other guitarist, who I’ll call Slim, was a bandy rooster of a man who sported the standard boot-scooting uniform: wide-brimmed hat, Wrangler jeans, pressed Western shirt, colossal belt buckle. He was 6 feet tall but couldn’t have weighed more than 140 pounds soaked in Shiner Bock. When he wasn’t singing, a grin never left his face, but you could only spot it in his eyes and facial creases due to the presence of a mustache that would make Sam Elliott blush.

Slim at first seemed fabulously drunk: He spoke and sang with a lisp, and when he rose from his seat he teetered forward and backward, as though his spindly legs could not support the weight of his hat and mustache. But in apologizing for the quality of his picking and singing, Slim revealed (with a grin) that he had recently recovered from his sixth stroke. He then began strumming the first chords to an old Mickey Newberry song called “Sweet Memories.”

I would like to tell you the campfire cowboys at Armadillo Farm were wonderful musicians and interesting company, and that Jill and I passed our flask and listened to their crooning deep into the night. I would like to tell you they knew the Townes Van Zandt song I requested and that I joined in during the chorus. I would like to tell you we weren’t sitting next to a guy wearing a plush flamingo hat who implored the cowboys to favor him with a rendition of “Margaritaville.”

But I’d be embellishing our Texas tale.

In truth, the guitar pickers weren’t very good and I kept waiting, in vain, for our Luckenbach experience to feel authentic. When the old fella broke into “Luckenbach, Texas” yet again, Jill and I said our polite goodbyes and walked the dogs toward camp. Still, we sang the chorus all the way back to the tent, and it danced in my head for hours as I lay on my back, sleeplessly staring at a Hill Country sky heavy with stars.

But that ain’t a bad thing. It really is a hell of a song.
      

      
— Scott