Spring of 2003 V

I had to stop at the DRISKILL HOTEL, a splendid late 19th Century edifice a block off 6th Street. The dining room had a supplementary sidewalk patio for lunching alfresco, and as I walked into the spacious lobby, I could only marvel at the ornate woodwork detailing and the massive mahogany columns. I climbed the grand staircase up to the second floor where I could observe a spacious plushy carpeted hallway that had intermittent seating areas with two cushioned chairs seated around a small table with an ashtray. I mentally took a step back in time, visualizing a more genteel time when gentlemen gathered after a superb dinner to converse over a cigar and a glass of brandy, a period in time that preceded the isolationism of watching TV (One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho!”).

Before exiting the hotel, I ventured into the liquor lounge that had one of those endangered species known as a piano bar. I hoisted myself up on a bar stool, and the bartender asked, “What’s your pleasure, sir?” I replied in jest, “Nothing for me. I’ll just have water on the rocks. It’s too late in the day for a stiff one.” The gentleman next to me guffawed, saying, “Hey, that was a good one. I’ll have to remember that come backer.” My bar buddy happened to be a traveling salesman, so we swapped some road adventures before I parted with a “It’s been nice talking with you” farewell.

I biked a few blocks over to Congress Avenue, which had to be one of the most dramatic urban vistas in the country with its axial alignment with the imposing state capital building at the avenue’s terminus. It was tres grande, Texas-style. There was a plethora of pedestrian traffic up and down the avenue, and retail stores, bistros, and restaurants all seemed to be doing an active business. As additional amenities, the city planted shade trees, benches, and even phone booths along the sidewalks that only contributed to the ambience of downtown Austin. Of course, the proximity of the University of Texas campus with its 45,000 students had a lot to do with all the vibrant activity, especially along 6th Street.

After biking back to Ol’ Blue, which incidentally was relatively comfortable inside after sitting in the shade, I drove down Congress Avenue across the river where a multitude of onlookers were gathered on the bridge to watch an aerial display of remote-controlled miniature flying machines. I was thinking to myself, “Does Austin ever lay back and take a rest? Probably not.” The city was blessed with the natural environs of Lake Austin and the remarkable ice-cold, spring-fed waters of nearby Barton Springs, a haven for summer-time dippers.

The traffic around the lakeside parks was abominable, but I managed to squeeze through and extricated myself from the gridlock via several residential streets. I finally found U.S. 290 and headed west until merging with TX 360 and eventually exiting at TX 71, which led me to the shopping center where The Market was located. Inside the store, a saleslady greeted me, and I said, “I’m a friend of Jan Walner. I called earlier about getting directions to her house. Can you help me?” She obliged with some general directions, but at the same time, warned me that it wouldn’t be easy finding her house because the area where she-lived was a maze of meandering streets. I did make a call to Jan, but all she could say was, “I’m afraid it’s hopeless trying to tell you how to get here. I suggest you stop at a gas station. They might have a map of the town.”

After thanking Becky for her help, I got back on State Hwy 71 for several miles until making a right turn onto a rural road that led me a few more miles to a retail strip. I spotted an EXXON sign (a Mini-Mart with pumps) and immediately pulled in. Not surprisingly, the proprietor was obviously of Middle East descent, but that certainly didn’t hinder us from communicating with each other. I explained to him my predicament, and lo and behold, he surfaced with a street map of the area. After perusing the map for several minutes, we finally found Crescent Bluff, Jan’s street address. Since Amad couldn’t let me have his only map, I prevailed by sketching a map of my own on a scratch piece of paper. I gave him a head bow and handshake and said, “You don’t know how much you’ve helped me.”

As I ventured into the upscale community of Lakeway, I had the feeling that I was about to embark on some sort of treasure hunt. Even with my fabricated map, my wanderings were turning into a labyrinthine nightmare. It was like my superb sense of direction had suddenly vanished into thin air. To compound the adversities, there was not a soul walking about from whom I could maybe get directions, plus all the MacMansions were about as inviting to a knock on the front door as a mausoleum. At the farthest end of Lakeway’s peninsula, I finally found an “inviting” residence with a full-length front porch and an open front door, a house completely out-of-character with the rest of the community, obviously built long before the insurgence of the Euro-Trash Mega-Houses. A middle-age man came to the door, and I showed him my fabricated map, which he studied for a minute, and then fortunately was able to give me the right directions. I thanked him for his help, and added, “You know, you’re the only front door I’ve seen open in this entire community.” He replied, “Yeah, it’s a pretty up-tight community. I built this house back in 1972 long before all this development came rushing in.”

Well, it turned out to be an extended game of seek and find, but I persevered and finally found 208 Crescent Bluff. I was delighted to see that Jan’s house was a one-story, contemporary-style dwelling, a pleasant departure from the mammoth MacMansions in the neighborhood. I rang the doorbell several times without a response, and as I started back to the van for paper and pencil to leave a note, Jan answered the door in her nightgown, and asked me to wait outside while she changed into something more suitable. Once I gained entry, she explained, “After you called, I went back to my nap time. I was up ’till 4 A.M. negotiating an estate sale, my little moonlighting job for extra income since I don’t make that much at The Market.” I said, “You were always an independent woman, a real trooper.” We had a fun time one-hour visit, which I cut short anticipating she needed more nap time. Before leaving, Jan obligingly sketched out an escape route for me.

Believe me, it was a lot easier getting out than it was going in. I stopped at the junction of TX 71 at the H.E.B. super market for some more chicken fried thighs. I imagined an amusing hypothetical situation where customers entering the market were asked, “How can you buy food from a store whose initials stand for Harry Butts?” It was fun guessing what their reactions might be, but I was willing to bet the majority of them would have said, “Harry who? I couldn’t care less. I love shopping at this store.” That type of response wouldn’t have surprised me one bit, since Mr. Butts had put together inarguably the best chain of super markets in the Lone Star State with its superb delicatessens, a wide range of specialty items, and excellent produce and meat departments in which the seemingly unlimited variety of selections was overwhelming.

I continued west on TX 71 for about 25 miles until turning right and heading north on U.S. 281. I was definitely in the heart of the Hill Country that had to be the most picturesque part of Texas with its rivers, lakes, and rolling hills blanketed with lush-green live oaks. There was a serene calmness about the drive with no buffeting north wind and a gorgeous sunset off to my left. It was about time to start looking for an overnight parking space off the highway. Goodness knows, there were more wayside picnic areas along the road than you could shake a stick at. Between Marble Falls and Burnet I found just the right pull-off – several tables and ample parking shrouded by a grove of oaks – it was perfect.