Sunday, January 23, 2011

Remembering The Texas Hill Country’s Favorite Son

Thirty-eight years ago yesterday, on January 22, 1973, Lyndon Baines Johnson, suffered a heart attack and died at his ranch in the Texas Hill Country. His life is so intertwined with his beloved Hill Country that it is impossible to consider his life, his accomplishments, and his failures, without understanding the impact the hill country had upon him. During his lifetime, Johnson left his historical mark on the United States, and the world, but to a very real extent, he never really left the hill country, nor, did the things he experienced in the hill country, ever leave him. As a result, he enjoyed great political triumphs, but, also, tragedy and failure.

Born along the banks of the Pedernales River, Johnson rose from a poor and humble beginning, to become one of the most powerful men in American politics, first as a United States Senator, then Senate Majority Leader, later Vice-President, and finally, as President of the United States. Growing up in the hill country, he learned to respect both the land, and its people. He once said, that the Texas Hill Country was a place “where they know when you’re sick and they care when you die.” The people Johnson was referring to knew and cared, because the hill country can be a difficult place to live. The weather is temperamental, and vacillates between bringing extreme drought and a widespread flooding. The people who have historically lived in the hill country have been a tough lot, learning how to adapt and prosper in the difficult environment, despite many hardships. They’ve always believed that with the proper focus, hard work, and cooperation with their neighbors, there was no problem which could not be solved. This belief was fundamental to the person Lyndon Johnson became as an adult, and how he viewed the entire world for most of the rest of his life.

As Johnson’s career progressed, he used his increasing political power to solve real problems, and this only reinforced his view, that all problems, given the right attention, could be resolved. Early in his career, Johnson was responsible for bringing both electricity and flood control to the hill country, and in so doing, eliminated a lot of suffering among his constituents. Later, as President, he used his strong personality and political power to get legislation passed which became the foundation of his “Great Society.” Most notably, among the many pieces of legislation, was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many of the laws Johnson spearheaded as President are still controversial today among some people, but they remain an important part of who we are. The implementation of the Great Society emanates from what Johnson learned in the hill country. That being that any problem can be solved, despite its complexity, through personal attention, hard work, and cooperation with one’s neighbors, in this case, the U.S. Congress. The Great Society was Johnson’s greatest political success, and has left a lasting positive impression on the United States.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the Great Society are often forgotten, especially among many members of my generation, because of the war in Vietnam. The tragedy of Vietnam was perpetuated, in large part, because Johnson failed to understand that the things he learned in the hill country about problem solving, did not work with respect to Vietnam. Johnson found out, albeit painfully, that giving his personal attention, and micromanagement to domestic legislation, was a far different matter than micromanaging a foreign war. When Johnson personally selected bombing targets in Vietnam, he deprived his commanders on the ground of their natural prerogative to do so. As a result, with the war being managed by Washington, a schism developed between those who were fighting the war in Vietnam, and those who were controlling it. Likewise, the United States had few military allies, and little international support during the war, so, cooperation with any “neighbors” to help Johnson “win” the war was never a real possibility.

As the war dragged on, Johnson only applied more of what he had learned about problem solving during his youth, and, as a result, the dying was prolonged and the United States was torn apart by civil unrest. The Vietnam War became Johnson’s greatest tragedy, and his biggest failure. Thirty-eight years ago, on this very day, January 23, 1973, a peace agreement was announced, but it came one day too late for Johnson, who had died the previous day.

Johnson once said, “I hope it may be said a hundred years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just, more just for all its people, as well as to insure and guarantee the blessings of liberty for all of our posterity. That is what I hope. But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried.”

The places where Lyndon Johnson was born, first attended school, learned about life, implemented historic legislation, directed the war, died, and is buried are all within walking distance of one other on a relatively small strip of land along the banks of the hill country’s Pedernales River. Whatever anyone thinks of what he did, or, how he did it, there is no denying that he left his mark on the world, and also, that he is without a doubt, the Texas Hill Country’s favorite son.

Friday, January 7, 2011

With Respect To Mexican Food, I’m Fickle

First of all, I'm in love with Mexican food, but I’m fickle. The problem isn’t that I like it but don’t want to eat it all that often. I’d eat it every day if it was possible and practicable for me to do so. Also, I’m not one of those who like some of it, but not all of it. I like it all. My problem is that I can’t decide which Mexican restaurant in the Texas Hill Country I like best. Well, that’s not true. I can decide, and I do decide, but I change my mind nearly every day. That’s where my fickleness with respect to Mexican food comes into play. It’s not exactly true, but it seems that the “best” Mexican restaurant for me nearly always seems to be the last one I visited.

Given its relatively close proximity to Mexico, and the important influence that Mexican-Americans play in the region, the fact is that there are really no disappointing Mexican restaurants in the hill country. On the contrary, and, in my opinion, they are all very authentic, and all very good. Of course, I’m not Mexican-American, so my credibility to judge what authentic Mexican food is or isn’t may be questioned, but I do the best I can. Given the sheer number of places serving up Mexican food, it would be impossible to for me to actually visit them all, let alone do any kind of subjective or objective rating. So, I won’t try, and neither should you. You’ll just have to take my word for which one is best, and, continue to take my word for which one is best in the future. But, as I’ve already warned you, I change my mind from time to time. We’ll, that is not exactly true either. I change my mind very frequently.

My latest favorite place has been hiding from me in plain sight for years, and is just over in Leander, Texas. As in the past, my wife had to steer me away from my natural inclination to return to the haunts of previous “best” places, and try something new. Quite some time ago, a friend of my wife had told her about this great Mexican restaurant in Leander, but my wife didn’t remember what the name of the place was, or, just where it was located in Leander. That part didn’t bother me too much, because Leander isn’t all that big, and I’m fairly good with finding my way around places. And, like most men, I pride myself in doing it without asking anyone for directions, and I can’t be bothered with GPS devices.

Later, after driving around Leander for a half hour or so, and, after heeding my wife’s advice, I pulled the vehicle over and asked someone for directions to a Mexican restaurant whose name I didn’t know. Apparently, everyone in the hill country knows about this place but me, because even after giving a half-assed and extremely vague description of it, I got clear directions, and we quickly found the place. In my defense, I’m quite sure that within another 45 minutes, I would have located it without needing the assistance of others. We might not have been there in time for lunch, but we surely would have arrived for dinner. And, let me remind you that I’m only writing here about Mexican food, not what meal of the day I’d be eating it.

The restaurant at the end of our search, or as Texans say, at the end of our trail, is a place called Jardin Del Rey. Conveniently located (I can say that now that I found it) on Highway 183 in Leander, right by the Post Office (see, I’ve done all the hard work for you), it sits back off the road a bit, but is clearly marked by a huge multi-colored road sign right on the highway which clearly states, “Jardin Del Rey Mexican Restaurant.” I can’t believe I missed it after driving by it 3 or 4 times. I must have been distracted by my wife telling me to stop somewhere and ask for directions. Yes, I’m quite sure that was the issue now that I’ve had time to reflect upon it all.

Jardin Del Rey, is impressive, and at least for now, is clearly my favorite. Starting with lots of parking in the front , back, and side of the building, there is no doubt that friendly, prompt, and courteous service dictates the whole experience from the time you pull off the highway coming in until the time you pull onto the highway going back out.

The interior of the restaurant was clean, colorful, and festive, with a lot of booths. Booths seem to be an important seating choice in all restaurants these days. It’s a little strange when you think about it. People want to go out and eat among others, in a public place, but would prefer a booth where they are somewhat hidden and separated from the other people eating there, but, I’m getting a little bit off target.

After requesting our booth, we were quickly seated. Immediately thereafter, warm chips and salsa were placed in front of us. The salsa was spicier than at most places, but not overly so, and it was freshened with the taste of fresh chopped cilantro. During the course of our meal, my wife and I went through two servings of chips and salsa, which should tell you that we liked it quite a bit. Normally we hold back on a second serving, so as to have enough room for the meal. But on this occasion, we made an exception to our “hold back” rule and made that second round of chips and salsa disappear in a hurry.

Jardin Del Rey’s menu offers a lot of food choices, and those choices are inexpensive. There are breakfast plates, lunch specials, and a wide selection of appetizers, enchiladas, platters, plates, caldos y ensaladas, and especialidades. As with most Mexican restaurants, many side orders are available at Jardin Del Rey, and include Mexican rice, Chile con queso, frijoles charros, refried beans, as well as other selections.

Passing up on any appetizers, we ordered our lunch while munching on the chips and salsa. My wife ordered the Soft Taco Mexican Plate, and went with the beef tacos instead of the chicken. They were served with pico de gallo, sour cream, and rice and beans. I opted for the Chile Rellano, which is always a gamble depending upon the restaurant where they are served. In a lot of places around the rest of the country, this food order would have resulted in a small, shriveled, and miserly stuffed Chile pepper being served up. Not so at Jardin Del Rey, where I got an unbelievably large Poblano pepper with the stem still attached, generously stuffed with beef and cheese, and served with guacamole, pico de gallo, rice and beans, and an order of soft warm tortillas. I have to tell you, if you like cheese like I do, you really need to visit this place. The cheese was hot and melted, and literally poured out of the pepper along with the beef when I cut into it with my fork. And, to top it all off, the pepper was covered with a liberal amount of cheese, and salsa.

With the great food and outstanding service at Jardin Del Rey’s in Leander, Texas, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the best Mexican restaurant in the Texas Hill Country. Well, at least it is until the next time I head out in search of Mexican food.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

An Annual Austin Tradition: Splashing In The New Year At Barton Springs

One year ago on this very day, I posted a blog entitled, “Splashing In The New Year.” The posting was met with such a complete silence and incredible resounding indifference, that I decided to press my luck, and once again write about the same topic. Some people never learn (that would be me) I guess, but I figure that 2011 has to be better than 2010? If you don’t agree with that statement, you need to stop reading blogs altogether, including mine, and head down to your local community college to take a course on current events, or, whatever else you want to study.

Every year, on New Year’s Day, the Save Our Springs Alliance, in Austin, Texas, hosts the annual Polar Bear Splash at Barton Springs in Zilker Park. From quite early in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, Alliance members greet the “Polar Bears,” who faithfully migrate to Barton Springs from all over the Texas Hill Country, to splash around in the spring’s ever constant 68 degree temperature. Last year I had the distinct honor and high privilege of just being an observer and photographer, but this year, my sweet, considerate, and loving wife got my lazy butt out of a warm bed and insisted I throw on a pair of “Hawaii” swim trunks and accompany her to Barton Springs at some ungodly hour of the morning.

The Save Our Springs Alliance, the host of the “Splash,” is dedicated to protecting the hill country’s Edward’s Aquifer, as well as related waterways, and the natural and cultural heritage of the hill country, including Barton Springs. It’s a noble and worthwhile goal, which I fully support, and the organization makes the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Splash a lot of fun. People of all ages dress up in all sorts of ridiculous outfits and bathing attire to jump in the springs, including me, who stripped off a silly Hawaiian shirt, to expose an even sillier mismatched Hawaiian bathing suit, before I took the plunge. Others had pirate masks on, wore Hawaiian hula skirts, or tiaras with the words “Happy New Year,” emblazoned on the front. Like every year it seems, the people bundled up in jackets and taking photographs vastly outnumbered the swimmers. One tradition for those who actually venture out into the springs is that you don’t say “Happy New Year” to anyone until you actually dip your head beneath the cold water. To be honest with you, I can’t remember whether I did or didn’t, but my wife was certainly wishing every living thing that she swam by “Happy New Year,” including fish, turtles, and whatever that green stuff is that grows in the springs.

Another element of the annual event is for the visiting swimmers, or should I say, “Polar Bears,” to bring food to share with everyone. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but a lot of people I saw in the chow line never made it down to the springs for a dip. I can understand it I guess, why would anyone forgo another bratwurst covered with mustard for the opportunity to jump into some icy water?

Outside the springs, gawkers looked down at the swimmers, and the S.O.S. Alliance provided free coffee, sold commemorative shirts, and dispensed literature supporting its cause. Of course the event being in Austin, with that “Keep Austin Weird” philosophy, attracted a few others, who it seemed, had a different point of view. But, that did not stop the small children from having fun riding the small gauge “Zilker Zephyr” train around Zilker Park. I love trains, and have ridden this train before. After my swim, I would have liked to ride it again, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket, and deprive some small innocent child of the opportunity for a ride. But, I must admit, the thought did cross my mind, and not just once, but several times.

Given all the silly costumes I saw today, nothing was sillier than someone who wasn’t trying to be silly at all. A young bearded version of Ringo Starr, wearing those expensive “get darker as the sun gets brighter” sunglasses, walked around the pool for hours cloaked in an expensive white bathrobe, with a white towel slung over his shoulder talking on his cell phone. Perhaps he finally did, but I never saw him get into the water. My recommendation for his New Year resolution is quite simple, try to spend at least one hour a day without your cell phone smashed against your ear.

As in the past, I had a lot of fun today, and I’ll miss the event until it arrives again exactly one year from now. It’s for a good cause, and, hopefully someone from the S.O.S Alliance, or, quite frankly anyone else will actually acknowledge reading the posting about the “Splash” this year. “Green” is the new buzz-word apparently, but in my experience, “Old" and "West,” are tried and true buzz-words, and words which people actually like reading about.