Tag Archives: Texas

This is my town

This is my town

Travel is almost entirely self-indulgent (we’ve seen a few friends along the way, and I hope they got something out of that!), and rationally there’s no real difference between taking a tour to Alcatraz or what we did in Texas, but it does feel different: this feels like the most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done, and that’s from someone who quit a good job to travel at least twice.

Me under a road sign that says Bagwell

In Texas, we went to see my town. There’s a small town called Bagwell in Texas, and I’ve wanted to go see it since my uncle told me about it a decade ago. K’s current fascination with cowboys and the Wild West gave me a great excuse to get us to Texas, and once in Texas it was an easy drive to Bagwell.

Well, I say ‘easy drive’. It was easy from the passenger seat. Did I mention that K did all the driving in Texas? Well, he did, and was a star. There were all kinds of crazy things to deal with, too. For instance, we eventually saw some wildlife that wasn’t road kill – he had to drive around a frog, a giant spider (bigger than the frog), an armadillo and a tortoise, all in one day. This is our second tortoise, which was almost under the road sign pictured above.

Tortoise by the side of the road

Although ‘Bagwell’ sounds like a typical British surname, it’s actually fairly rare. I’ve only seen my surname unexpectedly twice in my life: once in a museum in Devon, and once in Castle. Having a whole town named for me (clearly that’s what’s happened, right?) is PRETTY COOL.

Standing by the Bagwell Community Center sign

Bagwell is a tiny town, a couple of hours outside of Dallas. It seems quite rural, with few businesses and not much going on, but that could just be because we arrived at something like 9am on a Tuesday. 

Abandoned pick up truck with vegetation growing through and around it

To be even handed, we also visited K’s town. His is in Oklahoma, so it’s clearly smaller (everything’s bigger in Texas).

K standing by a street sign that says Kendrick

The sat nav took us there along a dirt track, which was quite pleasing, and over bridges the same colour as the earth and water in the river underneath.

Rusty red bridge over a rusty red river

Spent my evening down at the drive in

Spent my evening down at the drive in

I’ve heard Summer of ’69 about five times in the US, and it seems so apt. It just oozes American summer for me, and that’s what we’ve been enjoying. I haven’t heard Boys of Summer yet, but that’s really an end-of-season song. Maybe on the way to the airport.

Anyway, the point is: we went to a drive in and it was awesome. (K gives a brief review here.)

White drive-in movie screen seen against a cloudy dusk blue sky

Drive-ins are an American icon. They’re kind of baffling and pleasing to me (and probably other Europeans) in a way that I doubt Americans will understand. There’s something retro-cool about them, but something a little space-age as well. See, in Europe, particularly in Switzerland or the UK, if you want to go to the cinema you either drive into town (and pay about as much for parking as for the ticket) or drive to the bleak middle of nowhere and hide in a dark room wasting the few precious hours of sun that make up a UK summer.

Driving to the middle of nowhere (as we did) on a sunny summer evening (which it was) to sit outside, getting to enjoy both sunset and a film was bliss. Plus, it was super cheap. As you can see, the screen is the side of a barn or something similar. The ticket price was $10 for 2 adults for 2 films (Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past). Sadly, we (well, K) still had a couple of hours of driving to do, so we couldn’t stop for Godzilla. A shame, really, as it seems like such an appropriate film to watch at the drive-in.

Texas sky at dusk, silhouettes of trees and puffy clouds

Anyway, I enjoyed it immensely, hardly got bitten by bugs at all (unlike everywhere else we’ve been, seriously, why am I suddenly so tasty?) and didn’t even have to try to sneak our snacks in. Kind of wished we had a cooler, beer and a pickup truck like our neighbours….

The only downside was that the film started while it was still light, and X-Men starts off really dark – literally dark, as in, I think they’re actually in a cave. And actually, considering the weather on the drive to San Antonio in the morning, these puffy little clouds (and the lightning we saw later) were a good outcome. We started with this: 

Rain on the motorway so fierce you can't see the truck ahead

I don’t know if you can tell, but it was raining so hard that visibility wasn’t really a thing. Everyone else stuck at 70 mph, which give sensible drivers a difficult choice: slow down and risk being rammed from behind, stay up and risk sliding off the road or pull into Taco Bell.

You know how sometimes the radio coincidentally plays something really apt? Well, we’ve had that a few times on this trip. When I was worrying about the lightning, I switched the radio on. I was half expecting it to be a sign of tornadoes or the end of days or something (it wasn’t! we’re fine!) but instead of the weather report, I got a girl singing about the weatherman not predicting rain, when her life sucked. In a bar in SF we heard If You’re Going to San Francisco, which was great, but the best one happened in Texas/Oklahoma. As we headed for cowboy country, we got the most cowboy song ever – something about the shotgun he got from his pa, and how he was going to give it to his son but in the meantime horses and cheatin’ women and probably baked beans and the deep dark midnight sky. It was brilliant.

San Antonio: a walkable city by car

San Antonio: a walkable city by car

We decided to drive across Texas, as the trains weren’t terribly cooperative, so we’ve had the freedom to go where we like and book things last minute. The downside is that we’ve really been booking things last minute. It’s worked out surprisingly well, but we’ve been round in circles a few times. We’re getting more organised though.

San Antonio was one of our mistakes. We really meant to stop on the way to Austin, but ran out of time. So we came back, instead, adding at least 3h of driving to a long day.

So! San Antonio. It seems like a pleasant, walkable city. But we had a car, which we had to park, tend and drive a few hundred kilometers before bed, so we really only saw the Alamo. We had wanted to do a couple other things, including visiting the Institute of Texas Cultures, but they were shut. Mondays, eh?

K and I standing in front of the Alamo building on a sunny day

The Alamo is a shrine. It says so as you walk in. The central building is (or at least was) a church, too. I don’t think there’s a dress code, but you do need to take your hat off. There’s also a museum, and that gives a pretty thorough overview of why people remember the Alamo. Both parts are free and well worth a visit, if you’re in the area, which we weren’t exactly.

The Alamo is a shrine because it’s a memorial, and it’s a memorial to a Famous Last Stand. In the early 19th century, the territory that is now the state of Texas was part of Mexico. After a certain point, the Texians (as they were apparently known) decided they no longer supported the government that ruled them. Several battles were fought. The Battle of the Alamo was one the Texians lost: all the soldiers and fighting men were killed. We saw estimates of 100-300 deaths on the Texian side; I don’t recall the deaths among the Mexican army. Non-combatants, including the wives and children of several officers, were unharmed.

The Alamo memorial at the Alamo, a large white statue

The Battle of the Alamo became a rallying point for Texian Independence, and they eventually triumphed. Texas was an independent nation from 1836. Did you catch that? Texas was a country. It didn’t last very long though: in 1845 they decided to join the United States – many of the movers and shakers of the Texas Revolution had come from other American states, and relations with Mexico continued to be tense, so apparently it made sense at the time. Having absolutely no stake in a decision made almost 200 years ago, I think it’s a shame. I also find it a little odd that the people we’ve met in museums and such have still been very keen on Texan independence, even though they’re, well, not.

And thus endeth the lesson for today.

K has written up his post about San Antonio here.

Austin: natural urban wonders

Austin: natural urban wonders

One of Austin’s slogans is ‘Keep Austin weird’. It’s known as a hip, liberal, arty enclave in conservative Texas. It was certainly a fun place to visit, and in a couple days we managed find indie restaurants, pleasant shopping streets and live music. We discovered K’s favourite cinema ever (the Drafthouse chain feeds you at your seats, vg) and an absolutely excellent place to swim, so if it wasn’t for the visa issues, the heat and the fact we have a life in Europe, I think we’d be happy to live here.

Barton Springs (first things first!) is an absolutely gorgeous swimming hole. A natural spring has been shaped and molded to create a 200+m long swimming space, most of which is 5 feet deep or less (I know I’m mixing my measurements, but this is how the lifeguard gave the info out!).

Barton Springs pool, still water in the sunshine

Interestingly, people use it like the did the hotpots in Iceland. Most people seemed to be in a group of friends, and loads of people came down just to stand about in the water and chat. No food, alcohol or pets are allowed in the Barton Springs bit, so the water just downstream is where all the people with those things congregate. It’s a bit of a party.

Crowd of people hanging out in the water near Barton Springs

I love swimming and being in or by the water, so we actually went twice! It was free the first day ($5 for parking) and the parking was free the second day ($8 for two entries) so a bit of a bargain, I think.

Driving meant that we saw more individual things, and could eat at restaurants that were recommended, but it was harder to get a feel for the city. We had to park the car, make sure it wasn’t going to get towed or scraped or what have you, and then get back to it before the meter ran out. It’s daft, but that was quite a bit of hassle. That said, the places we went were miles apart, so I don’t know what the alternative would have been as we didn’t see many buses.

The other awesome thing we saw in Austin was the flying of the bats. Austin’s Congress Bridge is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. There are around 1.5 million bats living in the bridge, and they all fly out at dusk to go and hunt bugs. It’s absolutely amazing. Unsurprisingly, there were a few other people there to watch:

Crowd waiting to see the Austin bats

It took over half an hour for the stream of bats to die down. It was astonishing, and I’m so glad to have seen it. As the sky was dark, the swarm was subtle. When it started, people began to move towards the river, trying to make out the bats in the darkness. The flood picked up and went on and on, thousands of bats just streaming out, doing their own thing.

Blurry picture of bats

This crappy picture is the best I have. Sorry!

Natural wonders aside, Austin is home to some pretty cool, slightly weird, stuff. The University of Texas has is apparently one of the richest in the world, thanks to oil. As a result, its collection of documents is large and varied. On permanent display at the Harry Ransom Center are the world’s first photograph (very cool) and a Gutenberg Bible (also very cool). We also ambled round a WWI exhibition which was good (lots of primary sources) but disjointed (no real narrative). I would have preferred either a local focus (since I’ve seen similar displays in about 5 countries now) or some other tighter theme (graphic design, nurses, war literature, letters home…) that would have tied it all together.

Austin is the Texas State Capital, and it’s capitol building is, yep, slightly weird. It’s in the classic vein (columns, cupola, stone, statues…) but it’s pink. This is not a sunset effect. It’s just pink.

Austin's pink capitol building

We stayed with Airbnb hosts in Austin, who turned out to be a lovely local family. They recommended a couple of great places to eat, and we found others using the TripAdvisor app (free!). They also suggested running routes, fed us breakfast and were generally great all round. So far, Airbnb has worked out really well for us, we’re loving it.

My face and a Gutenberg Bible are included in K’s blog post about Austin.

Houston, we have a space centre

Houston, we have a space centre

One of K’s ‘must-sees’ in Texas was the Houston Space Center. It is officially named after LBJ, which confused me. I thought it was just ‘Houston’, like in all the dispatches, but no: it’s the Johnson Space Center. How did I find that out? NASA Gangam Style of course.

(Seriously, watch this video. It’s funny and clever and actually a pretty good tour of the site.)

Once you’ve paid to get in, there’s a free tram tour of the facility, with stops at the SVMF, Mission Control and Rocket Park.

The Space Vehicle Mockup Facility is a dull name for an exciting place. It’s used for real, live astronaut training of real, live astronauts, as well as testing equipment and vehicles for use in space. It has a life-size replica of parts of the International Space Station and lots of neat things, apparently just lying around. Engineers seem to be the same everywhere though, as K and I thought the desks and clutters of cables looked very familiar from working with hardware guys in other jobs.

The SVMF with training replica of the ISS

Mission Control looks just like it does in shots from the moon landings. The room shown on the tour was in use from the ’60s to 1992. When the first set of equipment was stripped out and upgraded, it was stored at the Smithsonian. The active mission control room moved in the 1990s, and the original one was restored. You can go inside and sit in the chairs, but that tour cost extra.

Mission Control center at Nasa Johnson

Rocket Park is where NASA have parked a bunch of rockets, including a Saturn V. It’s the size of a battleship. It’s a lot bigger than Mayflower II, which is an odd thought. Two different sets of pioneers in two very different eras, each with a total individual personal space approximately equal to, well, a person.

Front of the Saturn V at Nasa Johnson

Fun fact: Did you know that ‘Houston’ was both the first and last word spoken on the moon? (source: Command Center tour)

Back of Saturn V

Another fun fact: 1 meter cubed of lunar soil contains enough of the right elements to make a cheeseburger, an order of fries and a soda (source: poster at Rocket Park)

Oh, you wanted to know how big those exhausts are? Sure, no problem.

Saturn V engine with person for scale

They’re really freakin’ big, y’all. As the NASA Johnson website says: “Even outer space is bigger in Texas”!

Astonishingly, this rocket doesn’t belong to NASA. It’s owned by the Smithsonian, as part of the Air and Space collection. It’s on loan back to Johnson Space Center. Even more astonishingly, it sat outside the centre for 23 years, slowly rusting and being gnawed on by animals. In 2000, funding was found to preserve it, and build it its own giant shed. I’m so glad!

Houston – skyscrapers and boutiques

Houston – skyscrapers and boutiques

We arrived in Texas on Monday evening, and it was still gloriously sunny and bone-bakingly hot. This hot in fact:

Houston skyline, skyscrapers against a blue sky

People have been really friendly, and our accents mark us out as travellers. On the train, we’d met some local expats who had suggested several delicious veggie-friendly places to try. We were psyched to try them, but were sadly thwarted by the scale of the city. Everything is bigger in Texas, y’all.

Houston from the Chase tower, a sprawl of skyscrapers, houses and trees to the horizon

If you don’t mind walking several km in the baking heat, there’s a lot you can do in Houston for free, just hopping around on the metrol ($1.25 pp each way). We took the lift to the 60th floor of the Chase tower, the ‘Sky Lobby’. It was a brilliant way to see the city and it was fun to actually go in a skyscraper.

We tried to go to the free and apparently excellent Menil collection and the nearby Houston Center for Photography, but both were shut on Tuesdays. The Rotko Chapel was open and…interesting. Not what I’d pictured.

The free one-room museum at Sam Houston Park, and looked at the city’s collection of old buildings. Both were open, and good fun. There’s a reconstructed general store in the museum, which is great to amble around. This is the oldest building on the lot, dating from 1823.

The oldest building in Houston, a wooden cabin dating from 1823.

I love these collections of old buildings. We’ve visited several now – Arbaer in Iceland, Skansen in Stockholm, Plimoth Plantation (reconstructions) near Boston. They’re always fun… and I haven’t blogged about any of them. Oops!

At the park, I learned that Texas was an independent country for about 10 years. I did not know that – it made me really wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t joined up with the rest of the United States. I may have to look out some alternate history, there must be some.

I had a pre-conception of Houston that was really inaccurate. I’d expected the glass and big cars, but I hadn’t pictured all the quirky little shops, local pizza places and craft beer bars tucked between them. Yes, there are loads of chain stores and fast food restaurants, but there are also lots of really interesting places to shop, to eat, to drink. We only really had a day to explore before picking up the hire car and heading to NASA, but I’d be happy to spend more time here.

Galveston and the Gulf Coast

Galveston and the Gulf Coast

What do you do when you’re being baked alive by the weather? Head for the sea, of course. From Houston, the easy, pretty, popular bit of sea to go to is Galveston. It’s an older city, but has been completely flattened by hurricanes a couple of times. In fact, Houston got its start because people wanted to move away from Galveston’s dangerous weather.

Galveston reminds me a lot of Torquay. Now, particularly if you know Torquay, you might be wondering what a holiday resort in Devon has in common with the Texas Gulf Coast. True, the weather is significantly warmer in Galveston – about as warm as they pretend Torquay is, in fact – and the sea front is so long you need a car to get about, but the entertainment is the same: arcades, fast food, beach and mini-golf. Just bigger.

K taking a crazy golf shot that goes through a cannon

Like Torquay, the houses are painted in bright colours, and there are plenty of imported palm trees about. They look a bit less forlorn here though, and the houses are often on stilts. They’re so close to the water, even a high tide would come up to the steps so it makes sense. We saw this style in a lot of the new (or re-) builds in New Orleans, too.

Houses on stilts by the water at Matagorda

Even the seagulls have the same thuggish attitude. These little nippy ones had a good go at swarming a family that made the mistake of pulling out a picnic.

Seagulls mob a family on the beach at Galveston

I think one of the kids fed the gulls, which triggered this chaos. They looked pretty innocent afterwards.

Grey and white seagull on a post

A couple hours from Galveston is Matagorda, which is advertised as ’10 miles of unspoilt white sand beach’. For $10 you can get a permit to drive your car along it, so you can pick your mile and spend the day, effectively on a private beach. As our hire car is not remotely an off-road vehicle, we didn’t do that. We actually found the beach a little disappointing, as the waterline is about a foot deep in rotting seaweed at the moment. It’s the same at Galveston. It’s a bit like swimming in miso soup.

K and I on the beach at Matagorda. There's white sand and brown seaweed making up the shore in approximately equal quantities.

We decided to pretend we’d come for a nature walk, not a swim, and the area is absolutely beautiful.

Sand dunes covered with sea grass at Matagorda

I’m really enjoying seeing all the different birds. I’m sure these pelicans are really common around here, but I was thrilled. We saw alligators out the window of the train, plenty of birds and a few lizards, but otherwise it’s like in Europe: most of the wildlife you spot day-to-day is roadkill.

Pelicans on the beach at Matagorda

You can read K’s thoughts on the Gulf Coast and see more photos here.