It’s a strange but wonderful sight — paddle boarders, kayakers and canoers gliding down the Colorado River, with Austin’s glass-and-steel high rises standing starkly in the background. It takes a minute to reconcile this contrast — a scene that I didn’t expect to find deep in the heart of Texas.
But being off-kilter has been Austin’s mission since 2000 when “Keep Austin Weird” became the unofficial city motto. (It originally was used to promote small businesses.)
The “weird” might be getting a little diluted these days as the Austin metro area, especially the suburbs, continues to burgeon at an amazing rate. Between 2010 and 2015, the population grew 16 percent. This is faster than any other metro area in the country except Charlotte, North Carolina, which grew 38 percent during the same period.
Austin’s population recently passed the 2 million mark, aided in part by Californians who are looking for quality of life with a less-expensive price tag (no state income tax, and $400,000 in the ‘burbs will get you a wow-of-a-house). Then there are those of us who are just passing through and enjoying the weird and mainstream sights, sounds and eats that Austin and environs has to offer.
Our guides for three days are friends from Valley Center who are relocating to Austin and have made getting to know Hill Country a priority. So here we are, taking in this stellar view of downtown of our wooded vantage point in Zilker Park. This leafy, 350-acre, longitudinal park with its many amenities hugs the Colorado River as it snakes through Austin, creating an urban oasis that is always buzzing with boaters, swimmers, cyclists, strollers and dog-walkers.
Before I go further, let me explain about this Colorado River. It is NOT the same Colorado River that borders Arizona and California. This one has its source near Lubbock, Texas, and flows southeast until it reaches Matagorda Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, this Colorado moves through a series of dams and reservoirs, creating a series of lakes. Hence downtown Austin has Lady Bird Lake, named after President Lyndon Johnson’s wife and early environmental advocate. Austinites populate the lake with all kinds of watercraft (motors are prohibited), and every fall, thousands congregate on its shore for the world-famous Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Not far from the river/lake is Austin’s auspicious state capitol building, notable for its red granite exterior, manicured grounds and spectacular rotunda with the terrazzo mosaic depicting the six flags of Texas. At 360,000 square feet, this capitol building tops all others in size (are we surprised?), including the national capitol in Washington, D.C.
Four blocks north is the University of Texas and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. As a welcoming docent told us, it would be difficult today to find someone who has not been touched by Johnson’s presidency. We visit national parks, wear seatbelts, enjoy the benefits of Medicare, watch PBS, and apply for financial aid for college educations. And thanks to his wife, Lady Bird, the Texas countryside and other landscapes are blanketed with wildflowers every spring.
The library does not gloss over the painful aspects of the Johnson presidency, namely the Vietnam War, which caused him to drop out of the 1968 presidential race.
Our friends insisted on taking us to Whole Foods corporate headquarters and mothership store in downtown Austin. It is as grand as you might imagine. High ceilings and a distinctly chic-industrial motif is the perfect setting for mountains of colorful produce, towers of cheese, a massive olive bar, an endless buffet of every ethnic food imaginable, a mile-long meat counter, a succulent and floral boutique, fresh-fish restaurant, pre-packaged gourmet meals-to-go, bread and pastries ad infinitum and a restaurant that caters to meat eaters, vegans, vegetarians and the gluten-free crowd. Oh — and ice cream. Lots of ice cream.
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E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.