Thursday, June 23, 2011

Of Cartoonists, Alligators, And Ravenous Minnows

Despite yesterday’s much needed rain, the Texas Hill Country continues to be in the clutches of a fairly severe drought. As I observed during our last severe drought in 2009, when the waters of Lake Travis recede, all kinds of strange things come to the surface (Lake Travis Time Machine). This year, however, in addition to the usual collection of old tires, dated beer bottles, and lost anchors, there was something quite unusual which made its appearance -- a dead alligator.

A fisherman made the discovery last Tuesday somewhere around Emerald Point. The Lower Colorado River Authority has apparently confirmed it was, in fact, an alligator. It appears that the unfortunate creature was hit by the propeller of boat engine.

TPWD: American Alligators in Texas
Alligator sightings this far west into Texas are extremely rare, yet, in a report on the “Distribution of American Alligators in Texas,” prepared by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) in 2002, while Travis Country was portrayed as being outside the “general range” for alligators, it was included in a so-called “pocket habitat” range (Alligators). In this range, the TPWD asserted, small populations of alligators “may represent remnant populations from a former range or from released American alligators.”

The report seems to verify what local officials believe to be the case about the dead alligator found last week in Travis County. That being, that the alligator was probably released into the lake by someone. When this story came to light, a friend of mine reminded me about the last time there was a commotion about alligators in Lake Travis.

Back in the 1970’s, a young University of Texas student wrote an article in a campus magazine which claimed that another student had released hundreds of small alligators into Lake Travis. This caused quite a stir around the lake community, and the young author finally admitted it was a spoof when he was besieged with concerns from anxious property owners and federal agents. That type of creativity eventually brought that young student fame as a cartoonist. He was, in fact, Berkeley Breathed, who went on to create the popular newspaper cartoon, Bloom County.

Whether or not there are additional alligators in Lake Travis is certainly not going to stop me from taking my traditional evening swim in the lake. In my opinion, there are other things in the lake which are far more troublesome, like those pesky little minnows that like to nibble on my arms and back when I’m in the water. I personally think those ravenous little nibbling fish should be the main topic of discussion around the lake instead of all the fretting about a single stray alligator with its big razor-sharp teeth.

Monday, June 20, 2011

“Will Ride Train For Grilled Cheese”

On December 13, 2009, I published a less than flattering article about Austin’s attempt to get its light rail commuter train up and running (MetroRail). Among other things, I pointed out that both the “Austin Rail Project and the Transcontinental Railroad took six years to complete. The Transcontinental Railroad was built from scratch and covered over a thousand miles. The Austin project used an existing rail line and covered a little more than thirty miles. The Transcontinental Railroad spanned the Great Plains and mountain ranges. The Austin Rail Project, well, to be kind, did not.” Finally, after experiencing one delay after another, Capital MetroRail finally began service in March of 2010.

Despite the fact that I really like trains, and was looking forward to riding MetroRail once it started service, for one reason or another it took me over a year to decide to climb aboard, but last week, I did just that. And, I must tell you, I enjoyed the experience.

The rail system essentially runs from Austin’s Convention Center downtown north to Leander, a distance of some 30 miles. There are a total of nine stations along the way at which passengers can purchase tickets and get on or off the train. I decided to head downtown from the Lakeline Station, one stop south of Leander. The Lakeline Station had ample parking in its Park & Ride Lot, and the ticket vending machines were easy to use, even to a first-time rider like me. For $5.50, I purchased a MetroPlus Day Pass, which gave me a day’s access to the rail, as well as the bus rail connectors located at the various stations along the route. That’s not a bad price, considering the cost of a gallon of gas is currently between $3.50 and $4.00. Oddly, there is no gate or turnstile to pass through and nobody checks to see if you’ve purchased a ticket. With such an “honor system” in place, I wonder how many people just hop on board for a free ride. Perhaps they have random checks, but there was no evidence of it on the day I took a ride.

Capital MetroRail passed the most important test in my mind when the train arrived exactly on time. And, once it arrived, it didn’t stay long. Based on my experience, a word to the wise is probably in order. Arrive on time for this train or you’ll find yourself without a ride.

I purposely chose a schedule which avoided the so-called rush hour, so I could have a more relaxing ride. Not that the rush hour experience on this train would be anything like in New York or Tokyo, as this is Austin, and things are more than a little laid back down here. But, everything is relative I suppose, and I wanted to be as relaxed as I could possibly be to fully enjoy the experience.

Inside, the cars are squeaky clean, air-conditioned, and have large roomy cloth seats. There is plenty of overhead storage space, and the over-sized windows afford great views. There is a small section in each car with fold down tables. Apparently, this section was designed for people who, unlike me, actually want to get some work done and weren’t just along for the ride. Free, on-board Wi-Fi is available, and the cars accommodate bicycles.

The train was nearly deserted when I came aboard at the Lakeline Station, but with each subsequent stop, it became increasingly more active with people. As the speaker announced the arrival at each station in both English and Spanish, young professionals with laptops, musicians carrying guitars, young mothers with small children, and seniors all shuffled on and off the train. Initially, the rail line from Lakeline Station is mostly in the country. Every once in a while, the train would pass by some freight cars parked on side tracks. Given the fact that MetroRail shares the same track that the freight trains utilize, I was surprised by how smooth the ride was.

 As the train left Howard Station, the country scenery began to disappear and was replaced by urban views. Once past Kramer Station, it seemed as though we were passing right through the middle of people’s back yards. Upon arriving at MLK Jr. Station I got off and jumped on a connector bus, which was already waiting in the parking lot, and rode it to the Texas State Capitol Building. If you haven’t visited the place, it’s well worth a visit. Unlike most state capitol buildings around the country, this one is actually quite popular as a tourist destination, but then again, this is Texas!

The reason for my visit to the building had nothing to do with me playing tourist or having some important political matters to discuss with state legislators. Rather, the purpose of my visit was strictly about food. Simply stated, the cafeteria in the capitol building serves up the best grilled cheese sandwiches around Austin, and you can wash it down with an ice cold bottle of Dublin Dr. Pepper. It really doesn’t get any better than that. And so, I stood in line, got my sandwich and drink, and had a great lunch at about 10:30 in the morning. Now then, I know what you’re thinking. Did this guy really drive from his home to a train station, get on a train and ride downtown, and then take a bus to the capitol building for a grilled cheese sandwich? Yes, I did just that, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

My “official business” at the capitol building having concluded, it was now time to find my way back home. I walked to the nearest rail connector bus stop, and took the bus to the Convention Center Station, where I boarded the train and headed back to Lakeline Station where I had parked my car. All in all, my little trip was a satisfying experience. And, as you can see, I’m very easily amused.

As for now, Capital MetroRail has only the one line, and does not run on weekends or in the evenings. There are discussions underway about possibly rectifying these drawbacks, but politics and money will ultimately decide whether anything is ever done. In the meantime, those who would like to use the rail at times other than normal weekday business hours are out of luck. Nevertheless, I’m really impressed with the way MetroRail has worked out.

My day on the train would have been perfect had it not been for one out of control grandmother on the ride back. Boarding the train downtown with her two small grandchildren, and, presumably her grown daughter, she literally never stopped talking the entire time. She was loud, obnoxious, and had an opinion on everything. She had three conversations going at once, and, if she didn’t know something, she would call someone on the phone to get the answer. She kept fussing at her grandchildren when, in fact, she just needed to close her mouth and relax. I had to chuckle when she told them, “This is the last time Grandma goes on a train ride.” I’m quite sure that her grandchildren were delighted to hear her say that, and, by the way, so was I.