Travel

Austin: Texas with a Twist

You may have seen those T-shirts that say, “Keep Austin Weird.” That alone would have been enough to pique my interest in visiting. Anyplace that is proud of itself deserves visitors, right? But as it happened, I was headed to the area for a spa trip, so adding on a few days to ‘do Austin’ made total sense. That way, I could see for myself just how weird and wonderful this place really is.

Now, I have children in San Francisco, so my weird bar is set very high. After a couple of days, I concluded that Austin is weird only by Texas standards. It’s a ‘red state’ anomaly, a liberal college town in a state of Ford pickups and 30-foot flagpoles. But the city’s attraction transcends labels: It’s got the proverbial ‘something for everyone,’ from a noholds-barred nightlife on Sixth Street to the LBJ Presidential Library a few blocks away.

The state capital, Austin has history out the wazoo, plus all the bonuses of being home to a major university (the University of Texas): food trucks, an enviable music scene, great Tex-Mex restaurants and the mothership of Whole Foods markets (the grocer started here in 1980). It’s also about an hour’s drive to the Texas White House, otherwise known as the LBJ ranch, where former President Lyndon B. Johnson held court a full quarter of the time while he served our nation’s highest office.

First things first, which meant a stop for barbecue at the Azteca Food Trailer Park—Austin is the food trailer capital of the world, with more than 1,000 of the funky-named spots, from Ms. P’s Electric Cock to Hey … You Gonna Eat or What?. Most are not food trucks but stationary rattletraps that aren’t going anywhere. Resembling nothing so much as a dilapidated junkyard, these trailer parks become more concentrated the closer you get to downtown and the UT campus. But you have to keep your eyes peeled. They are tucked into random blocks, most with no visible signage—you just have to know they’re there.

Unfortunately, everyone apparently knew about the one we went to, La Barbecue (1906 E. Cesar Chavez St.), since the line for its smoked ribs and brisket snaked about 45 diners long, which translated to a two-hour wait. Was it worth it? Well, the meat was tender and tasty, and having been smoked that hour inside an adjacent trailer, as fresh as it gets.

All that waiting called for a reward, which was a tour of the state capitol building about a mile away. Weird or not, those Texans are mighty proud of their history, and this building was a showpiece of that pride. Ingrained into the terrazzo floors of the rotunda were the flags of each nation that had flown over Texas: Mexico, Spain, France, the U.S., the Confederate States of America and the Republic of Texas. Lining its walls are portraits of every governor. And maybe the most memorable sight for me: the Texas capitol police officer guarding the door with a long, loaded automatic weapon—don’t mess with Texas!

Another short drive takes you to the UT campus, where you will not want to miss the LBJ Presidential Library. An imposing structure on the outside, its trove of memorabilia reveals the turbulence of Johnson’s presidency and gives you new respect for the challenges he faced. Did you know he enacted more legislation than any president before or since? Including landmark programs like Head Start, the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act and Medicare. You’ll also see the Southern elegance of Lady Bird’s St. John knits, Chanel suits and knee-high boots.

I can’t believe we thought of eating again that day after downing a half-slab of ribs and a pile of smoked brisket, but there was no way I was leaving Austin before tasting official Tex-Mex fare. So off I went to Maudie’s, an Austin institution that started as a dive downtown, and now has four locations.

Day two in Austin meant only one thing: the LBJ ranch. There is something thrilling about following the footsteps of our 36th president and renowned advisors like John McNamara, Robert Kennedy and Dean Rusk, who drove down those same country roads to the Texas White House. First, we had to get there. The 75-mile drive revealed a little bit about Texas—the un-weird parts, where just about every home displays three flags: country, state and Longhorns (UT athletics), not necessarily in that order. As we left Austin in the rearview mirror, we set out first for Johnson City, LBJ’s birthplace. His boyhood home, now a memorial, is in a pastoral little outpost.

Lunchtime was at Pecan Street Brewing in Johnson City, where a sign in the window reads: Ammunition, Tackle, Beer. The menu specialty is Honey Pecan-Fried Chicken, and when in Rome … It was as tasty as it sounds, and it was served with greens and mashed potatoes. On to the ranch where you first check into the visitors center and should buy a CD to guide you through the free, self-driving tour. As you snake your way to the main attraction—the ranch and LBJ’s private plane hangar— you’ll pass the one-room schoolhouse he attended, the Johnson family cemetery, and the scenic Pedernales River, which runs along the ranch’s southern border. Be prepared to stop for cows crossing the road—lots of them. This is a working ranch, even though the home was donated to the nation by Lady Bird Johnson and is administered by the National Park Service.

Visitors enter the ranch house through LBJ’s office, and it is immediately apparent this is where important business was conducted. There is a large burled desk flanked by three other desks, each with its own phone. Our tour guide points out the signature three TVs, a fixture in just about every room of the ranch. LBJ watched all three major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) simultaneously, following coverage of civil rights and anti-Vietnam War unrest. You can picture the tension that must have filled these rooms when news came to the president about the Tet offensive, the Mai Le massacre and country-wide anti-war protests. You can’t help but feel the suffering of those times: painful for the country, painful for the president. Johnson died in 1973 at age 64 just four years after leaving office.

So was Austin weird and wonderful? Yes, weird in its devotion to barbecue, food trailers and UT sports; wonderful in a colorful history that unfolded under the flags of six nations. “Texas is a blend of valor and swagger,” said poet Carl Sandburg. Make that outsized valor and swagger.

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