On the one hand, it’s become a cliche of lazy travel writing to describe this or that city or neighborhood as “the Brooklyn of (fill in the blank).” You could even say it’s become a cliche of lazy travel writing to describe Brooklyn – sprawling and variegated home to more than 2.5 million people, not all of them youthful or rich or white or especially hip – as “Brooklyn.”
On the other hand, when a resident of Park Slope passes a sweater-wearing tree in Coyoacán, or a co-working space in Sevilla or just about anywhere in Portland, Maine, it’s hard to avoid a sensation of familiarity – appealing, boring, comforting and a little ridiculous, all at once – followed by an urge to walk faster, even flee, guilty by association. I wonder if the quality of “Brooklyn-ness” hasn’t become a planet-devouring blob, no less imperialist for its good intentions, no less homogenizing for its quirkiness. This decade’s Golden Arches, packed with probiotics and infused with CBD.
It was this on-the-one/on-the-other handedness that had kept me from visiting Austin until recently. We’d be planning a trip, idly weighing alternative destinations, Austin would come up, and one of us, usually me, would veto it as being “too much like Brooklyn.” Why travel across the country to drink craft beer, listen to indie bands and eat locavore, New American cuisine, when we can do all of that within a few blocks of our apartment? But Eric’s union convention was in San Antonio over Veterans’ Day weekend, putting Austin just an hour or so to the north – and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge just three hours or so to the south. A plan took shape. We’d spend a few days together in San Antonio, then I’d leave Eric to his conventioneering and bird my little heart out along the coast, before reuniting in San Antonio and heading up to Austin to see what all the fuss was about.
Two blue cities with great food and a swath of red countryside with great birds: a fine introduction to the Lonestar State for a conflicted Brooklynite.
And so, in San Antonio, I posed ironically in front of the Alamo (“hmmm, was there something I was supposed to remember?”), ran the River Walk (that lady inspecting the rusting undersides of each bridge? she would be me, looking for Cave Swallows – species #443 of 2019), and ate Tex-Mex food (some great, e.g., La Fonda; some pretty good, e.g., Rosario’s; some just OK, e.g., various interchangeable River Walk establishments). But mainly, I used the time to scour eBird lists and plot strategy for the weekend.
Birds, birds, birds
On Thursday I said good-bye to Eric and his union siblings and drove south and east – through a terrifying thunderstorm that brought blinding rain and flooded roads. Aransas County, which hugs the barrier islands and spits of land north of Corpus Christie, and Refugio County, on the mainland, might well be described as the anti-Brooklyn. People drive pickup trucks, wear camouflage unironically, and fire actual guns. Dining options in Lamar, where I was staying (in a cute and tidy cottage just outside Goose Island State Park), were limited to the taco bar at the 7/11 (pretty decent, actually) and Pop’s, a bar and grill with cheap beer, a pool table, and a mean flounder po’boy.
Stereotypes are made to be upended. At Pop’s, the Anglo locals at the table next to me were practicing their Spanish, sharing notes on someone’s upcoming international trip, and talking about politics in a way that led me to believe they were probably not all Trump supporters. I can’t count the number of times a pick-up truck slowed to pass me (on foot, soaking wet, wearing ass-hugging running tights, carrying binoculars), and after bracing myself for catcalls and insults, ended up exchanging friendly waves or discussing Whooping Cranes.
Because Whooping Cranes – aka “huppers” – are rock stars here. People await their arrival and follow their comings and goings, sharing reports the old-fashioned way – not through eBird, but by rolling down their car (or truck) windows and having a conversation.
Which is how I found out that the field along Lamar Beach Road, barely half a mile from were I was staying, is a Whooping Crane magnet. In Brooklyn, during spring migration, birders talk about “magic trees.” Well, this was a magic field. I discovered its magic for myself on my arrival day, when the sky was dark and the rain was pouring down but I was determined to see birds, goddammit, and so sat in my car on its edge . . . and saw that the grass was moving, except it wasn’t grass, but the heads of Blue-winged Teal. And look, there’s a Black-necked Stilt. And . . . those are definitely Western Sandpipers, and what are those? Long-billed Dowitchers?
I returned the next morning, which is when someone told me about the Whooping Cranes – someone else had seen them the day before – and I discovered on my own that the small pond and wetland in the corner of the field was a roost for herons and egrets. Hundreds upon hundreds flew in each evening, a dozen at a time, like knots of guests arriving at a club, oh-so-casually . . . and then, when the party was over and management turned up the lights, streamed out in one massive exodus. Get there a few minutes late, and you’d still see great birds, but you’d miss the full spectacle.
That first morning, I was a few minutes late. Ditto the second (though I did catch a Whooping Crane flyover). The third, my last, I finally got it right. At 6:25 am, all was quiet. At 6:30, lift-off: Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, Tri-colored Herons, White-faced Ibis by the dozen, by the score, by the hundred. Five minutes later, the show was over.
It was one of the greatest bird experiences of my life – and that was before seven Whooping Cranes landed in the field and proceeded to whoop it up.
If you’re a Whooping Crane, getting from Lamar Beach Road to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge involves a short flight across Saint Charles Bay. If you’re a visitor from Brooklyn, it involves pointing your rental car inland, toward Refugio County, where flat black earth stretches to the horizon in every direction, unbroken by trees or, for the most part, by buildings. Its flatness reminded me of the open ocean. It presented the same humbling vastness, the same disorienting featureless-ness, the same hypnotic power (but, fortunately, none of the attendant seasickness). And, like the ocean, it concealed a surprising amount of life. You would see nothing but nothingness, be prepared to write the landscape off as dead and empty, and then you’d realize how wrong you were when half a dozen meadowlarks erupted out of the fringe of grass along the road, or subtle movements in the furrowed dirt transformed into a flock of American Pipits.
I birded the National Wildlife Refuge itself, of course, and it was great – but my most indelible memories of Texas birding are of places I found along the way. That magic field in Lamar. Flat, oceanic expanses bisected by two-lane roads and patrolled by Crested Caracaras and White-tailed Hawks. A grassy field along the Guadalupe River so full of sparrows (and of lifer Sedge Wrens) that I gave up trying to count them and just surrendered to their rustling wings, their chip calls, their short bursts of flight, their essential sparrow-ness.
After returning to San Antonio for one last night, giddy with birds (and even giddier after a couple of margaritas), Eric and I headed out to Austin in the morning. Our first stop was, of course, Hornsby Bend . . . because who doesn’t begin their stay in a new city with a visit to the local water treatment plant?
This, I have to admit, was one of the smellier ones. It was also the scariest. High winds rocked our rental car as we drove along the narrow and rutted dirt levees that criss-cross the lagoons. Those same high winds led the ducks, Eared Grebes (a target), Ringed Kingfishers (an “oh my God, I want to see that bird” bird) and pretty much every other bird in town to hunker down, out of sight.
Eric, who really does deserve a medal for traveling with me, was very nice about this.
I paid a return visit early the next morning, and got my grebe, but the birding part of our trip was basically over. Bring on the beer, music and barbecue! Our AirBnb was was the former caretaker’s cottage of a 1920s mansion in the Travis Heights neighborhood, and what it lacked in insulation and effective heat, it made up for with (a) general charm and (b) proximity to South Congress . . . which, we had read, was the main drag of hipster Austin, akin to Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.
Except it was completely different. That was the great discovery of our Austin visit, how different it felt. Sure, there were common elements – like a fondness for old classroom clocks and Warby Parker glasses and look, there’s a Goorin Brothers hat store – but the overall feel of the place was distinctly, well, Austin. The most obvious difference was the lack of sidewalks (even the Motor City is more accommodating of pedestrians than Austin). It’s a driving town, which gave South Congress an odd feel – full of quirky shops and restaurants and bars, but short of people just strolling, unless the walk from one’s parking place to one’s intended destination counts as a stroll. Stumbling home from C-Boy’s on the shoulder of our sidewalk-less street after an evening of music and beer felt a little lonely.
How do these shops stay in business, I wondered, with so few pedestrians to pull in with their quirky window displays? With all these cars whizzing past, who exactly is this street art for? And yet, the shops do stay in business, and the street art is fantastic. Somehow, it seemed to work.
Besides, driving culture brings with it a culture of spaciousness, which these two Brooklynites luxuriated in. Do you want to hear a shameful confession? It was fun to drive the few blocks to our new favorite coffee shop, park directly in front, and enter a vast room with ample seating, where we could spread out and linger over za’atar “everything” focaccia, then wash the za’atar off our hands with basil-sea buckthorn soap in an all-gender bathroom approximately the size of the back bedroom/office in which I’m writing this.
If there was an organizing theme to our visit, it was brisket and LBJ. The brisket was easy: ask them to slice it from the fatty side (Eric always messes this part up), apply sauce in moderation, and enjoy. As good as it was at Black’s in the city, it was even better at Opie’s out on TX-71 heading toward the Hill Country.
LBJ was more complicated. I initially resisted going to the LBJ Library, muttering something about war-mongering grumble grumble kid-killing grumble grumble. But Eric loves history and I owed him for Hornsby Bend, so off to the LBJ Library we went. And I’m glad we did. The Library celebrates its subject overall, but it’s not completely uncritical. The most fascinating part, for me, was listening to some of its vast archive of recorded telephone conversations. There was LBJ talking to Walter Reuther, with Reuther barely getting a word in edgewise (quite a feat). There he was delving into the intricacies of Medicare legislation with Wilbur Cohen, demonstrating a grasp of policy detail that would be impressive under any circumstances, and today registers the depth of our political degradation. Can you imagine the incoherent, ranting, Cheeto-colored dimwit who now occupies the White House having a conversation like that?
No, you cannot.
We were on an LBJ roll now, no turning back, and so it was that from Austin, we pointed our car toward the Hill Country and LBJ’s boyhood home in Johnson City. There, an amiable docent who grew up in rural Minnesota in the 1940s spoke of life in rural Texas in the 1910s as though he’d lived it – which in a way, he had. I liked him a lot, and that – along with vague recollections of Robert Caro’s description of the lives of Hill Country women, of their domestic labors, of the “sad irons,” which we saw, and of Lyndon Baines Johnson as a young New Dealer determined to electrify the Texas countryside – made me like that bombastic, sly, ultimately tragic prick a little, too.
Mainly, though, it made me think of progress and decline, how much intelligence and work it takes to build, and how little to destroy. Which is a long way from the original framing of this post, but that – not feed stores converted into restaurants and other cliches of Austin as Lonestar Brooklyn – are what I keep thinking about when I think about Austin.