Duck tours and bats
It is Sunday morning. I’ve set my alarm for the obscenely early hour of 7 am because I have a task – run 8 miles!!! As part of my half-marathon training (I am hoping to complete the San Diego rock-and-roll half marathon in early June), I am building up to the 13.1-mile distance over a series of long runs, each one a couple of miles longer than the other. Sunday’s long run was to be 8 miles long.
Running in unfamiliar places is usually not a problem, if the run is relatively short. An 8 mile run, however, can hardly be comfortably completed in an unfamiliar urban setting wrought with traffic lights. Luckily, Austin had a solution – a hike and bike trail along a portion of the Colorado River that the city controls via a dam. That reservoir is known as Lady Bird Lake after Lady Bird Johnson, wife of former US president Lyndon Johnson. She was instrumental in the beautification of what was then known as Town Lake. Under her leadership, the banks of the river were transformed into the Hike and Bike trail that has become the exercise spot for many Austinites. The trail covers both the North and South banks of the river, and a series of pedestrian bridges allow for access to both. At 10 miles long, this trail was the perfect setting for my long run and it had an added bonus of being a dirt path – my legs could use a break from the concrete I normally run on. Although my first mile through downtown Austin was pretty desolate, the rest of my run was the opposite. It seemed that every person who exercises in Austin was out on the trail, with many runners sporting half-marathon and marathon shirts. Although it was still pretty early in the morning, the air was heavy with humidity and it didn’t take me long to remember why I never ran while living in the South. I huffed and puffed my way up to 6 miles, after which I had to take a few walk breaks but alas, I logged 8 miles in the end!
After breakfast, Marina and I went back to the airport to drop off our rental car and caught a cab back to the hotel. Our cabbie was a woman – one of 20 among 900 taxi drivers in Austin. She said she got bored sitting at home after retirement, so she started driving. I imagined she had a few crazy stories worth telling, so I asked her to share one with us. She went on to recall an occasion where a young couple got into her cab on the way to a party. The guy called his friends to let them know he was on the way and that he was bringing a really hot date. Subsequently, after some kissing and fondling in the back city, the guy came to the realization that his date was, in fact, also a guy!!! Apparently, he freaked out and asked our lady driver to pull over immediately, which she could not do because she was on the interstate. After finally finding a suitable place to pull over, she witnessed the “hot date” being literally kicked out of the cab, after which the guy completely broke down in tears because “he had been made a fool of.” Oh how gentle a man’s ego is, our cabbie lamented. Another story involved a drunk lady who tried to cover up the fact that she didn’t remember her address by saying “oh hi, you brought me home the other day, didn’t you?”, and another lady who did know her address but was desperately looking for her bra. I was starting to see why this city’s slogan was “Keep Austin Weird.”
After we got back to the hotel, we walked down to the famous Austin Sixth Street, where all the bars and live music joints in the city are. However, it was not alcohol or live music we were after. We had reservations for a duck tour – we were about to embark on a tour of Austin on one of those contraptions who go both on land and on water. The 75-minute tour took us by some of the most noteworthy buildings downtown, among which were the Driskill Hotel, the Littlefield building, Paramount Theater and several others. Our tour guide kept pointing out the fact that the Texas state flag is flown at the same height as the US Flag. “Do you know why we do that?”, he asked. “Because we can.” He continued on and on about this every time we passed a building that flew both flags. If I can trust wikipedia, it’s all an urban legend. There is nothing in the US flag code about that. The rule is simple, and it applies to ALL states – if the state flag is flown on a separate pole, it can be at the same height as the US Flag. If the state flag is flown on the same pole as the US flag, then the US flag is on top. So, next time someone tells you this is a privilege strictly reserved for the state of Texas, don’t believe them!
After being on land for about 45 minutes, we headed for Lake Austin – the portion of the Colorado river above the dam (as opposed to Lady Bird Lake, which is below it). We got to see the Longhorn Dam itself but that was the highlight of this portion of the tour. We made our way back to Sixth Street, where we disembarked and decided to go to the Capitol and check out the inside of it. We entered through the South entrance, which features statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin (both important figures in the history of Texas). We then entered the rotunda of the Capitol, which features portraits of every person who has served as president of the Republic of Texas (Texas was an independent nation from 1836 to 1845, when it joined the USA as the 28th state) or a governor of Texas. We also visited the Texas Senate Chamber, which has been left largely untouched and unchanged since it was first built.
By the time we were done, it was time to head back to the hotel, register for our conference and attend the Welcome reception. But we were not done sight-seeing. There was one more Austin attraction that we had to see before the conference started full-swing – the Congress Street Bridge bats.
Every year from March to November, 750,000 bats(the largest urban bat colony in the world) make the bridge their home. By August, the population swells to 1.5 million as many of the bats have bat babies. Every night around sunset, the bats emerge on the East side of the bridge to go feed on insects. We were determined to see the bats, so off we went to the Congress Street bridge. We got there early, which was good because we enjoyed beautiful views of downtown as the sun set. It got darker and darker and the bats were nowhere to be seen. When they finally came out, it was almost completely dark. We didn’t see them at first but we heard the excited screams of the people who had set up shop below the bridge. We finally spotted them, all coming out directly under us. Clouds of them were also visible above the tree lines against the darkening sky and against some of the more brightly lit downtown buildings. But even if we couldn’t see them very well, the flutter of wings and an unmistakable odor made their presence very well known.
After that, we walked back downtown to our dinner spot – a Brazilian steakhouse called Fogo de Chao. Brazilian steakhouses are quite the experience – you sit and relax as various cuts of delectable fire roasted meats that are brought to your table, sliced, and served by the gaucho chefs. In this case, we had a choice of 16 different meats – from pork ribs to lamb shanks and fillet mignon. Needless to say, we were quite full by the end of the meal!!!
It was a busy day sight-seeing and were tired and sleepy but I was happy that I got to see all the attractions I intended to, as the next couple of days were full-on conference days. It was time to get down to business!