Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Unlike Austin’s Commuter Rail, This Train Actually Runs, And On Time

The big controversy around Austin these days involves Capital Metro’s new commuter train. The opening of the 32-mile rail for commuter traffic from Leander to Austin’s city center has been plagued with a lot of whatnots and whatevers.

Originally supposed to be ready in early 2008, the latest estimate is now early 2010. And with all the broken earlier projections, who really knows?

But train lovers, and I count myself one, do not despair. There is one train in the hill country which actually runs, and on time. It’s a train run by the Austin Steam Train Association out of Cedar Park, Texas.

A number of wonderful trips, most on Saturday and Sunday, are available courtesy of the association’s diesel-electric locomotive (the steam engine is currently undergoing repairs). The locomotive pulls a variety of historic coaches, and riders have their choice of open-window coach, climate-controlled coach, or first class Pullman.

My wife and I decided to take the Hill Country Flyer trip to Burnet. We booked a private compartment, and, quite frankly, we were immediately sorry we did once getting on board. Or, as my wife would say if she was writing this blog, “he” booked the reservation and “I” was immediately sorry that “he” did. Privacy we had, but most of the fun was out in the coach cars and concession car. We’ll know better next time. We spent the better part of the trip walking through the other cars.

The trip to Burnet through the hill country was relaxing and scenic, and the train’s slower speed really allows you to take in the views, and get some nice photographs.

Upon arrival in Burnet, we had enough of a layover for lunch and a walk about the town square. We went on a Sunday, so, unfortunately, everything was pretty much closed around the immediate area except for an antique store and a couple of places to eat. We ate fast food. Make a note to yourself please, do not let me make your train reservations, but please take my advice. Coach seating and a Saturday trip is preferable. And, it's best to get reservations in advance.

The association also offers a number of specialty trips during various seasons, including, Halloween rides, Murder Mystery rides, North Pole and New Year’s Eve rides. Prices are reasonable, and if you love trains, I am quite sure you will enjoy whatever trip you take. The volunteers who run the train, including the engineer, are a friendly and outgoing crew.

But the best part is not the friendly crew, the scenery, or the ride in historic coach cars, it’s the fact that this train actually runs, and it runs on time.

All Aboard!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Decoding Texas Road Signs

Texas, it seems, always has to be a little different.

Everywhere else, state highway signs usually have the state route number inside of an outline of the state, or, simply the route number with a state name. That’s always been easy enough. But here in Texas, things are a bit more complicated. Here, the state highway signs are coded with an FM or RM. Visitors to Texas always want to know what the letters mean.

Apparently, it was important when the rural state roads were established to give them a nomenclature that would have some meaning. While the meaning may be less important today than it was at one time, the signs represent a visible piece of Texas history for today’s motorists.

Let’s decode the signs:

FM: Farm to Market
RM: Ranch to Market

And while we’re on the subject of Texas road sign codes, there are two more you may see from time to time. CR, which means County Road, and RR, which means Ranch Road.

Now then, from now on, there is no excuse for us not finding our way to the market from either a farm or a ranch. FM means Farm to Market and RM means Ranch to Market. But what road do we take if we are not going to the market from a farm or ranch? Or, how do we get back to the farm, ranch, or some place else from the market? There don't seem to be any codes for those situations, and that's a problem.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Dry" Or Drive-Thru Liquor?

There are plenty of “dry” or partially “dry” counties in Texas. But I’m not referring to the current drought.

Our state has the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). Other states have an Alcoholic Beverage Commission as well. I can understand an "Alcohol" Beverage Commission, but an "Alcoholic" Beverage Commission? Who is minding things? The prior name in Texas was the Texas Liquor Control Board. Someone must have figured that the name sounded too authoritarian and too controlling. That's probably not a good thing in Texas. In typical Texas fashion it was decided to let loose, have a drink or two and change the name. Of course, I'm just kidding.

Anyway, the TABC states that out of the 254 counties in Texas, there are 32 completely dry counties, 42 completely wet counties, and the rest are a combination. You know, you can’t just be all one way or another on this stuff. There’s partially wet, or perhaps it’s partially dry. Beer only, beer and wine only, part of the county wet and part of the county dry. It all seems very confusing to me.

The point to all of this is, where it’s dry, it's bone dry. But, where it's wet, it can be really wet. There are quite a few states with drive-thru beer and wine, but only a few, like Texas, that go all the way with drive-thru liquor.

It is now possible, in some Texas counties, to pick up food at the local fast food drive-thru, get your mixers and ice at another drive-thru, obtain your favorite booze at the liquor drive-thru, and pull up to the pharmacy drive-thru the next morning to get something for the hangover. What a crazy drive-thru world Texas is.

And remember, as you pull into the drive-thru, please pay attention to the sign cautioning you to be careful pulling your boat or truck and trailer through the building while picking up your fifth of liquor. We can't be too careful now, can we?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Parking Lot Food

Most places around the country, you park your car in the parking lot, and walk inside a restaurant to get food. In the hill country, you can also get your food in the parking lot.

Austin and the hill country are populated with trailers, smokers, and cooking stations of all kinds serving up whatever you can imagine. There are Tacos of course, and barbecue, but also a lot more. How about Asian sandwiches? What about subs? Would anyone like crepes?

I love the fact that when I’m hungry I can drive to a parking lot and find food. Yesterday was no exception. I drove to the parking lot of the local grocery store, and took away one heck of a barbecue pork sandwich. Wow, was it good. The meat was spilling out of the bun, and I’ve never tasted a moister, smokier pork sandwich. I want to offer my compliments to the chef, or whoever that cowboy was. There is no “please wait to be seated” or “please seat yourself.” Parking lot food is pretty much, “what ya got? OK, let me have one of those.” And, the cooks are always the friendliest people in the world. It’s easy to understand. This is their food, they love cooking it, and they are darn proud of it.

See y'all in the parking lot. I’ll be the one with barbecue sauce dripping down my shirt.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


The Texas Hill Country is home to a number of festivals and fun events during the fall, and things got underway today at Lago Vista’s Lagopalooza. The event, held in Lago Vista’s Bar-K Park on the Lake Travis lakeshore, was raising money for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association’s effort to get a kidney transplant for Joshua Tarvin.

Live music was provided by various individual musicians and bands, and the food was supplied by Dee Dee’s Tacos and the Lago Vista Lion’s Club. Games, hourly raffles, and a silent auction were all part of the fun.

Local vendors had set up tents and tables to offer interesting items for sale, and although I did not purchase anything today (well, OK, maybe some barbecue), I did enjoy walking from booth to booth and browsing the wares. The food and music were great, and it made for an enjoyable afternoon in the sun. Best of all, it was for a great cause.

The event, and all the fun, continued until 11:00 p.m.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Getting To The North Shore Of Lake Travis Has Never Been Easier

The north shore of Lake Travis has always gotten a bad rap it seems. For years some people have complained about the time it takes to get to the north shore of the lake from Austin. This explains, in part, why there is more residential and commercial development on the south shore in places like Lakeway.

With the relatively recent opening of the 183A Toll Road, the straightening of RM 1431’s dangerous curves between Cedar Park and Jonestown, and the resurfacing of all four 1431 lanes through Lago Vista, some of the old complaints should begin to subside. Hopefully, this is good news to the communities on the north shore like Jonestown, Lago Vista, and Point Venture.

There is a lot to offer on the north shore in the way of lifestyle, recreation, and potential new development. Once the economy gets a little better, this is an area sure to experience a boom.

New homes in the village of Point Venture, across the lake from Lakeway, are always under construction it seems. There are also new residential and condo developments underway as you travel up the peninsula on Lohman Ford Road toward Lago Vista’s city center. The north shore communities provide wonderful hill country and lake views, lake access, great golf, good local food and live music. The communities are also minutes away from Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Flat Creek Estate Vineyard and Winery, and Marble Falls. Vacation lodging is plentiful in Jonestown, Lago Vista, and Point Venture all year around, whether it be for summer weekend vacationers or "winter Texans" coming down to stay during the cold months up north.

Now that the road access to the north shore has improved greatly, there is no reason not to give the area a closer look.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chocolate Covered Bacon And Internet Radio

It’s been raining on and off for three days now, and it has certainly cooled things off. The last several days the temperatures have been in the 60’s. With cool snaps like this, it is easy to identify the native Texans from transplants from the north. I’m a transplant. I was in shorts and a t-shirt today. The native Texans were bundled up in jackets and long pants. Back into the 90’s by the weekend though. Everyone will be back to dressing like me.

Given the wet cooler day, I decided to drive into Austin and run a few errands.

First stop, the Big Top Candy Shop on South Congress Avenue. I have a friend in Ohio; let’s just refer to him by his initials, CB, who for some reason is enamored with bacon. He is not alone. They are out there in force you know, at least based on the number of bacon-related websites. These sites demonstrate all the things you can do with bacon before eating it. Some things are creative, some things look pretty good, and other things are just plain disgusting.

Anyway, I learned that the Big Top Candy Shop sold chocolate covered bacon. I told CB about it, and promised that I would head down to the Big Top and try it out someday. Today was the day.

It’s a neat place, the kind of place you remember from your childhood if you have any years on you. Located in an old building, every kind of candy you can imagine is present, including things, which, at least I have not seen for years. When, for example, was the last time you saw (now, politically incorrect) bubble gum/candy cigarettes?

After standing behind a man who bought over $300.00 worth of individual pieces of candy (I’m not kidding), I plunked down 3 bucks and change for a single piece of chocolate covered bacon and left. It was actually better than I expected. The chocolate mixed well with the salty bacon. It’s not something I want to eat every day, but, it was worth the trip. It was darn good CB. Come to think of it, your initials just might stand for Chocolate Bacon.

Speaking of friends in Ohio, the old Oxford, Ohio radio station, WOXR, 97.7 FM, which later evolved into WOXY (97X), and eventually into the internet-only,, has just relocated to Austin. It is also located on South Congress Avenue, so after my stop at the Big Top Candy Shop, I checked out the new digs. Undeniably, the music scene here in the "Live Music Capital of the World” is better than that of southwestern Ohio. I wish the station well. As Dustin Hoffman said in the movie, Rain Man, “97X – Bam – The Future of Rock and Roll.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Distinction Without A Difference

The springs in Austin, Texas, known as Barton Springs, have been important to people for centuries. Long before the springs were dammed to create the recreational Barton Springs Pool, Native Americans and Spanish explorers alike made good use of the spring water.

In more recent times, Barton Springs has served as one of the top recreation spots in Austin, where people can swim in the pool built around the springs. It has long been asserted that the water temperature was a constant 68 degrees year round, and this had quite an appeal, especially during Austin’s extremely hot summers. But apparently, this assertion is not true.

The Austin American-Statesman recently reported that the 68 degree temperature was a “myth.” Based on the findings of a local hydrogeologist, the temperature is not 68 degrees, but 70.9. The hydrogeologist said he has been on a “personal crusade” to change the public’s perception about the water temperature.

With all the things to worry about in this world, it is remarkable that a man is on a “personal crusade” to change the “public’s mind” over a couple degrees. This is water temperature of one Texas spring we are talking about, not the warming of our planet. But, to each his own.

When all is said and done, anyone who has jumped into the pool on a hot August day or during a cooler day in January will say that the water is chilly to cold in either case. A couple of degrees one way or another makes absolutely no never mind to a swimmer who can’t tell the difference anyway. The distinction the hydrogeologist is making is clearly a distinction without a difference.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Texas Hill Country Comfort Food

We all have tough days, and on difficult days when I lived in the Midwest, I could always count on getting my mind back in the game by dropping by the nearest Frisch’s ® restaurant for the Super Big Boy ® Platter. The platter meant devouring an extra large double-decker cheeseburger with the choice of any two sides. And hey, if you need “comfort,” there is nothing wrong with making both sides macaroni and cheese.

When I moved to Texas, I faced a problem. There are no Frisch’s, and I did not discover anything that approximates the platter. I needed to find a replacement, a Texas replacement.

Finding great food is not hard in the Texas Hill Country. You’ve got barbecue beef brisket, chicken, sausage, catfish, kolaches and all kinds of Tex-Mex, to name just a few. But, great food is one thing, comfort food is another.

It wasn’t long before I found what I was looking for. As it turns out, my new comfort food is a staple in hill country: chicken fried steak. A round steak hammered paper thin, coated in seasoned batter and fried, then covered in white gravy. Normally offered in two portions, 4 ounce or 8 ounce, it’s found nearly everywhere, and it always fills the bill. If you’re not in the mood for beef, chicken fried chicken is a great substitute.

And what sides will go with that? Why, two sides of macaroni and cheese, of course. It works every time.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Burnet, Texas Knew Johnny Ringo Before He Became A Hollywood Star

Mention Johnny Ringo today, and people think of Tombstone, Arizona, and Ringo’s participation in the Clanton gang’s troubles with the Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday in the 1880’s. Or, more accurately, people think of the long string of Hollywood actors who have portrayed Ringo on TV and in films, in many cases, inaccurately.
The real Johnny Ringo was less of a gunfighter than he has been portrayed in Hollywood. On the other hand, he wasn’t a pleasant man, did commit some very serious crimes, and certainly was a part of the history and lore of the American West.

Johnny was born in Indiana and traveled to California as a child. By the time he was in his 20’s, he had killed a man in Texas during the so-called “Hoodoo War” between German settlers and local residents of Mason County. Ringo committed other crimes in Texas, for which he spent time, including in the jail in Austin.

The early 1880’s found Ringo in Arizona with a string of crimes following him. He once shot a man he had offered a drink of whiskey because the man said he preferred beer. He was accused of robbing a stage coach along with other brushes with the law. Siding alongside the Clanton/McLaury faction in the feud with the Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday in Tombstone, he did not take part in the famous gunfight near the O.K. Corral.

In 1882, Ringo, after days of heavy drinking, was found dead leaning against a tree along West Turkey Creek in Arizona with a gunshot wound to his head. Most likely a suicide, some have speculated he was killed by Wyatt Earp, “Doc” Holliday, or others with a grudge against him.

By this point, some of you may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with the Texas hill country town of Burnet, best known today for being the terminal point for the tourist train, Hill Country Flyer, out of Cedar Park? Well, Johnny Ringo actually began his criminal career in Burnet, Texas. Ringo’s first documented run in with the law took place in December 1874 when he fired his pistol around Burnet’s town square and was charged with disturbing the peace. As a result, Burnet, Texas knew Johnny Ringo before he became a Hollywood star.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Some Things Folks Just Have To Learn For Themselves

It was last Thanksgiving when it all started, and at least for this one time, I can blame my wife.

My wife, I suspect, is one of the few people that swim in Lake Travis all year long. I’m sure there are others, but I don’t see them. Anyway, as is her custom, she gets up early and heads down to the lake. As the drought deepened last year, and the “sometimes peninsula” where we live grew, she would drive her car further out and closer to the water to park before her daily swims. This all came to an abrupt end on Thanksgiving Day 2008.

I was enjoying sleeping in on that holiday morning when my phone rang. It was my wife. Matter-of –factly mentioning that her car was stuck in the mud; she calmly asked me to come down and help push it out. Knowing my wife’s propensity to understate the gravity of a situation from time to time, I woke up my two boys, home for the holiday, as insurance.

When we got down there, it was immediately apparent that all the pushing in the world would not dislodge a car up to its hood in mud. My sons were laughing, but I was not amused. This was a job for AAA.

Surprisingly, despite being a holiday, the call for help was answered promptly and soon a truck was out on the sand with us. After nearly getting stuck himself, the driver finally got the car pulled out, and after giving the car a bath, we enjoyed the rest of the day. We all learned a lesson that day about staying well away from the water’s edge with any type of vehicle. The trend my wife started that morning, however, would live on.

It seems that our family lesson had to be learned repeatedly by others. Since that holiday morning last year, we have watched with increasing amusement as hundreds of golf carts, cars, police cars, trucks, tow trucks and jeeps have been stuck. We’ve seen it all. Golf carts, for reasons unknown, driving straight into the lake. Trucks pulling trucks pulling other trucks getting stuck. We’ve learned to predict the vehicles which will get stuck with uncanny ability. Most amazing, are the “repeat offenders” who for some reason continually drive to the same place and expect a different result. You would think after nearly a year of watching people digging out, folks in our small community would start putting two and two together and stay out of the mud. Nope. It is now just a couple months shy of a year since my wife started it all, and the mud and sand claimed two more victims today. Some things folks just have to learn for themselves.

A month or two ago, my wife had to call AAA again for some car trouble. The AAA driver got out of his truck took one look at her and said, “You’re the lady who got the car stuck in Lake Travis last Thanksgiving.”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Curious Fame Of Mr. Sam Bass

Nearly everything in the town of Round Rock, Texas, is named after a certain Sam Bass. There’s the Sam Bass Road, Sam Bass Youth Baseball Association, Sam Bass Community Theatre, Sam Bass Music Store, Sam Bass Fire Department, Sam Bass Video Services, Sam Bass Trails, and the Sam Bass Market Center.

Mr. Sam Bass must seem, to a visitor passing through town, to have been someone very important to the Round Rock community for all the things that are named after him. Surely he must have been a local politician or some type of community leader.

Sam Bass was not an upstanding member of the Round Rock community, but was an outlaw in the 19th century. Born in Indiana, he eventually formed a gang and began robbing trains. July of 1878 found him in Round Rock where he was preparing to rob a bank. While he was casing the town, one thing led to another and a shoot-out occurred. Deputy Sheriff Grimes was killed, as was a member of the Bass gang. Sam himself was severely wounded but managed to escape to the edge of town where he spent an unpleasant night of suffering. Found the next day, he died soon thereafter.

It seems hard to believe, at least in this day and age, that a man with no local ties to Round Rock, and having spent only a few violent days in the town, would be revered after killing a deputy sheriff. But that was a different time.

Sam is buried in Round Rock Cemetery. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: “A brave man reposes in death here. Why was he not true?” That I cannot answer. What is true, however, is that 131 years after his death, Mr. Sam Bass still remains a very famous, visible and well-known figure in Round Rock, Texas.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Lake Travis Time Machine

H.G. Wells has nothing on Lake Travis. One of the few benefits of the extremely low lake level this year is the ability to literally travel back in time. As Lake Travis has shrunk, shorelines retreated, and the “sometimes islands” have appeared, it is possible to walk on the historical ground that used to be land along the Colorado River prior to the lake’s creation in 1941.

Thousands of tree stumps and remnants of old buildings have been basking in the oppressive Texas heat, after being submerged for so many years under water. Unfortunately, other historical “treasures” have surfaced as well. Cars, motorcycles, tires, rusty beer cans, bottles, batteries, gloves, bricks, barrels and old ropes have all been given up by the lake. While each and every one of the items “coming to the surface” has a history, it is an unpleasant history of carelessness and neglect.

Last Sunday, the annual Lake Travis Underwater and Shoreline Cleanup took place. Each year, volunteers remove huge amounts of this “historical” trash from the lake, and this year was no exception.

Soon, hopefully, the rains will begin anew. The past and its historical treasures, both good and bad, will once again disappear as the water begins to rise.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The End Of A Long Hot And Dry Summer?

Summer 2009 was particularly hot in the hill country. Austin recorded 68 days with temperatures at or above 100 degrees fahrenheit. This is one day short of the record set back in the 1920's.

With the rains last week, temperatures have cooled off considerably back into the mid 80's. The hill country, in the midst of a two-year drought, needed the rain. Everyone was excited when the dark clouds rolled in and the skies opened up. But we need so much more. Lake Travis is currently just a tad over 631 feet above mean sea level, which is nearly 50 feet below a full lake pool. The "old-timers" who have experienced many droughts over the years say when the rains finally come, the lake will fill quickly. With the coming El Nino, the hill country is expected to experience a wet fall and winter.

Despite the drought, and the lower lake level, there is still a lot of recreation on the lake. Boats, although fewer than normal, are still plying the waters. And my evening swims in the lake attest to the fact that there is still plenty of water for whatever activity one enjoys. So, despite some of the rumors, the lake is not "gone" and it hasn't been closed. It's still here, albeit smaller, providing lots of fun and enjoyment.