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A Capital Time

Destination: Austin

Travel time from:
Brownsville – 5 hours
Dallas – 3 hours
Houston – 2.75 hours
San Antonio – 1.25 hours
Lubbock – 6 hours
El Paso – 8.25 hours

Divided by a fun-filled waterway, Austin is steeped in Texas history.

By Dyanne Fry Cortez

Like most Texans, I love to travel and see the sights. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it isn’t always necessary to hit the road to have a great little vacation.

Take our capital city of Austin, for example. It’s a place steeped in history and blessed with natural beauty. It’s a city everyone should visit now and then — even folks like me, who live here. So I’ve set aside a few days to be a tourist in my hometown.

Day 1, 11th Street & Congress Avenue

I’ve heard there are people who live in San Antonio and never have visited the Alamo. Maybe there are people in Austin who never have been to the Capitol. If so, I’m not one of them. I’ve been inside that massive domed building plenty of times, dating back to school and family outings when I was a kid growing up in Burnet County. My recent visits have been associated with the Texas Book Festival, which occupies the Capitol and its 22-acre lawn for a weekend every fall.

Speaking of Burnet County, the rock to build this edifice came from the Granite Mountain quarry in Marble Falls. It’s been our statehouse since 1888, surviving 125 years of rowdy Texas politics.

Capitol

The voices of government echo in the hallways of the Capitol in Austin.

I stroll through the south foyer, giving a nod to the statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin created by Austin sculptor Elisabet Ney at the turn of the 20th century. I pass through the Renaissance Revival arches into the Rotunda, plant myself on the terrazzo seal and gaze up at the dome. I visit the Senate Chamber on the second floor. It’s unoccupied at the moment, but I can almost hear echoes of the many voices that have debated legislation over the decades. I wander to the fourth floor of the Rotunda, perusing portraits of past governors. There are elevators, but I don’t use them. I love going up and down the wide staircases with their polished-wood banisters.

Some things have changed since I was a kid. There’s an airport-style security screening station at each public entrance. I vaguely recall a time when you could, if you were brave enough, take a guided tour to the top of the dome; today, visitors aren’t allowed above the fourth floor. A two-story extension, all underground, was added to the north side of the building in 1993. Banks of skylights give it an open feel, and there’s an open-air rotunda where a person can step outside and check the weather. After the extension opened, the State Preser­vation Board oversaw a restoration of the original building, shoring up the structure and returning many interior spaces to their pre-1915 décor and condition. You could say the Capitol is both older and newer than it was when I first saw it. I hope it survives for generations to come.

Day 2, Congress Avenue & Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum looks like a young cousin of the Capitol with a stubby granite dome and a mini-rotunda in the lobby. Open since 2001, the museum tells the “Story of Texas” in three floors of walk-through exhibits, many with interactive features. There are artifacts from the 17th-century wreck of La Salle’s ship La Belle, letters and diaries from soldiers and settlers and a full-size windmill looming from a second-floor balcony. Six themed theaters offer audiovisual presentations. My favorites are the Comanche tepee downstairs and the oil tank theater on the third floor, where seats are made from oil drums and the walls are hung with vintage signs.

Bullock

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum tells the “Story of Texas.”

Leaving the main exhibit space, I find a new gallery on the top floor of the rotunda with a display about the Civilian Conservation Corps and its work building Texas state parks in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s there through June 30; after that, another temporary display will be installed.

My spouse agrees to meet me for dinner at nearby Scholz Garten. This, too, is a historic site; in fact, it’s older than the current incarnation of the Capitol. August Scholz, a German immigrant and veteran of the Civil War, opened the bar and restaurant in 1866. Since 1908, it’s been owned by the Saengerrunde, a German singing society that bills itself as the oldest ethnic organization in Austin.

We walk through the laid-back biergarten with its huge shade trees and find a booth in the front dining room. My partner orders wiener schnitzel with tangy German potato salad. I opt for a corned-beef-and-Swiss sandwich on rye. The menu also offers barbecue, chicken-fried steak, jambalaya and 15 brands of draft beer.

With state government and the University of Texas within easy walking distance, generations of Texans have gathered here to unwind, celebrate, watch football games and presidential inaugurations, and argue the issues of the day. Scholz Garten, or a place very much like it, is featured in The Gay Place, Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 novel about Texas politics. I finish my meal with an apple strudel, two layers of not-too-sweet filling in a crisp braided crust.

Day 3, Watery Wonders

On the final day, I meet up with Ron Smith, a co-worker at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who has offered to show me a section of the TPWD paddling trail on Lady Bird Lake.

This 460-acre reservoir sits downstream from the Highland Lakes chain on the Colorado River. It was called Town Lake until 2007, when the Austin City Council renamed it in honor of the late Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady, who played a key role in the beautification of the lake shore and construction of the hike-and-bike trail that runs along its shores.

We unload Smith’s canoe at the Cesar Chavez Street launch behind Austin High School. I watch the gear while he parks the truck. The hike-and-bike trail crosses at the top of the gently sloping ramp. A couple of joggers go by, then two women walking with baby strollers. A sculling team appears on the lake, barely rippling the water with synchronized strokes.

Smith is a member of the TPWD paddling trails team, which worked with local partners to launch this paddling trail in 2009. It’s a loop trail, actually a series of connected loops with eight public access points around the lake. Today, we plan to explore the Barton Springs Loop.

We paddle up past the Austin Rowing Center, one of several places on the route that offer boats for rent. Motorboats aren’t allowed on this lake, but it’s open to human-powered craft of all types. Smith explains the traffic rules: when heading upstream or downstream, paddlers like us are expected to keep to the right, leaving the center lanes for rowboats.

As we approach the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) highway bridge, he steers us into a couple of quiet coves, hidden behind a wall of trees and brush. I’ve crossed that bridge hundreds of times and had no idea these secret spots were here. A great egret stands in the shallow water, apparently undisturbed by our approach.

Back in the main channel, a snowy egret watches from a tree limb on the bank. We ease within 10 feet before it spreads its wings and takes off, coasting low over the water.

We cross the lake and head downstream along the south bank, skirting a huge bald cypress that stands several feet out in the water. Turning right at Lou Neff Point, we go up Barton Creek, cutting through a flock of coots. A family with small children is watching the birds from the bank, tossing out tidbits of food. We paddle under a footbridge, then the wider bridge of Barton Springs Road. The water turns clear and blue-green. On the south bank, a cascade from the Old Mill Spring tumbles into the creek. We keep going until we see the outflow from Barton Springs Pool, which I plan to visit later today.

Back at our launch point, Smith checks his GPS unit and says we’ve traveled 3.35 miles. The complete paddling trail runs about 11 miles.

Barton Springs

The cool, clear waters of Barton Springs attract swimmers and serve as a home for salamanders.

No weekend in Austin would be complete without a visit to Zilker Metropolitan Park. It’s a place of many traditions. The Hillside Theater hosts a free musical each summer, dating back to 1959. A big kite festival takes place the first Sunday in March; that’s been going on for 85 years. I’m here for the oldest tradition of all: a dip in the artesian water of Barton Springs.

Fed by the fourth-largest spring system in Texas, this urban oasis has been called “the soul of the city.” The main spring, gushing up from the Edwards Aquifer, sends out some 30 million gallons per day. It’s always about 68 degrees — breathtakingly cold on a summer day; warmer than the air on chill winter mornings. The swimming pool was built in the 1920s, but Austinites — and others — came to this spot for recreation and renewal long before that. Archaeologists have found evidence of human activity dating back 10,000 years.

We’ve learned that the springs are not indestructible. In the 1990s, as population expanded into the surrounding Hill Country, scientists found that chemicals dumped on lawns and parking lots upstream can wash into the aquifer, polluting the water that emerges at the springs. Around the same time, the three-inch salamanders sometimes seen in the pool were determined to be a distinct species found only in this spring system. The Barton Springs salamander is on the federal endangered species list, which means the city must have a conservation plan and a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue operating the pool.

We still have a lot to learn about those salamanders, how aquifers work and how to protect these resources for future generations. A kid-friendly exhibit in the pool bathhouse shares some of what we know. The Barton Springs salamander is a “neotenous” species, which means it hangs onto juvenile characteristics. Like all amphibians, they start their life cycle in water; unlike frogs, they don’t fully metamorphose into air-breathing land animals. If something goes wrong with their habitat, they can’t just hop away and find a new place to lay their eggs.

I descend the steps to the pool and dive in. As always, the icy water is a shock, and I have to do some vigorous swimming to get my body working again. I keep thinking about those salamanders that live, reproduce and die without ever really growing up.

Floating on my back, I survey the fellow travelers here with me. I see older Austinites who’ve been swimming laps for decades, college students reading books on the grassy bank, young parents at the shallow end teaching their babies to love water and fifth-graders wearing looks of wonder because they’ve just found the spot where the spring gushes out of the rocks.

I’m so happy that the salamanders share their habitat with us. And I suspect growing up is overrated.

Details

• Texas Capitol & State Preservation Board, www.tspb.state.tx.us/spb/capitol/texcap.htm
• Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, www.thestoryoftexas.com
• Scholz Garten, www.scholzgarten.net
• Lady Bird Lake Paddling Trail, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/boat/paddlingtrails/inland/lady_bird_lake
• Zilker Park, www.austintexas.gov/department/zilker-metropolitan-park
• Zilker Theatre Productions, www.zilker.org
• Salamander facts, www.austintexas.gov/department/salamanders

 


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