Saturday, February 11, 2017

Beyond Austin: Lockhart, Texas

One of my best friends escaped the grey Seattle weather moved to Austin six years ago. I have visited her four times since then, including the first time in 2011, her wedding in 2016, and a road trip to West Texas. Austin is awesome, but as the most rapidly growing city in the United States, traffic is getting predictably worse and the cost of living is rising far faster than income.

Turns out there are a lot of great small towns outside Austin that still have fast and easy access to the city. Last year my friend and her husband decided to buy a home in Lockhart, a small town 30 miles south of Austin. Lockhart is the self-proclaimed barbeque capital of Texas with several well-known, long-established joints in town. As this article, Lockhart Turns the Key claims, Lockhart is up-and-coming for more than its barbeque. I visited my friend a few weeks ago to do a writing retreat (more on that later) and here's what I found.

Barbeque:

Due to friends recommending this place, and the fact that it's in Top 5 Austin from the Travel Channel and this Foodie Post about Smitty's Market, we had to go there.

You walk in to the back first, and all the meat is cooking over old school grills with wood fires. It feels like you've stepped into a medieval market. You pick whatever weight and whatever assortment you want of brisket (lean or fat), ribs, and sausage, and then they wrap it in brown butcher paper plus paper for each person. From there, you jump forward 700 years and enter a brightly lit, 1950s-feeling cafeteria where you order your drinks and side dishes (potato salad, beans, pickles, coleslaw, and bread) separately. I'm no expert on Texas barbeque but it was pretty ridiculously delicious.
Lockhart on the big screen:

Randomly, a lot of movies and TV shows have had scenes shot in Lockhart.
Courthouse in the background, used in the 1993 film,
What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
Here's a partial list of more recent films, snagged from the Lockhart Wikipedia page.
It's just cute:

There is a lot of other charm to the town, like a great little coffee shop, a handful of good restaurants, shops, and bars. The city center is very walkable, and on a Wednesday night we noticed live music in two different venues--pretty impressive nightlife for a town of this size. There are a lot of empty storefronts but I don't think it will take long for tenants to come in and new businesses to crop up.  There is a beautiful old library from the late 1890s, which is the longest continually operated library in Texas. 
Eugene Clark Library
Pecan trees are really common and you find
pecans on the streets and sidewalks
It's a sweet town and I predict that it will be radically different in 10 years as more and more people more there from Austin and beyond.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top 10 of 2016

It's been quite a year. A lot happened, but it turns out that my 2016 Top 10 is pretty similar to my 2015 countdown. The highlights are still outdoor excursions, weddings, hanging with family, and writing.

10. Texas adventures
In January I decided to visit my friend Lindsey in Austin in March/April to celebrate our birthdays together. Two days after I bought my ticket, her boyfriend proposed to her and they planned a June wedding. So I ended up going to Texas twice!

Our spring birthday road trip to West Texas was amazing. We had a blast and got great weather, mostly in the high 60s and low 70s, with a few sprinklings of rain.
Lindsey and I in Big Bend National Park 
The weather didn't cooperate so well when I went back for the wedding the first week of June. The area around Austin had been experiencing terrible spring flooding and the wedding day was no exception. The pretty venue at an old mill was right on a river that rose swift and brown in the torrential rain, and the ceremony was moved indoors.
But the rain did not dampen anyone's spirits, and it was still a warm day and raucous celebration.

9. Birthday hike
In April I organized a group hike for my birthday with my mom, a few siblings, and some friends. It was my first time hiking with my nieces and nephews--aged 7, 3, 2.5, 1, and in utero. It was slow going, but really fun and short enough to be reasonable. If you're looking for a short but steep walk off Highway 2 suitable for dogs and little ones, check out Heybrook lookout.
The whole posse:10 adults, a 7 year old,
3 kids under 3, and one in utero at 8 months

8. The birth of Faith
One of the absolute highlights of my year was witnessing childbirth for my first time when my younger sister had her third daughter. It was an amazing experience, especially since mama and baby were healthy and it was a short, uncomplicated labor. Little Faith even decided to come out on a weekend, so I didn't have to go to work a zombie the next day after being up all night for the 4 a.m. delivery.

Later in the year I started watching the BBC 1950s period medical drama "Call the Midwife." It's about nurse midwives in London's east end, and in season 2 episode 1, this line stood out to me: Birth was, and will always be, the most commonplace of miracles, an event at once familiar and phenomenal, timeless and immediate, briefly making angels of us all.
Faith, a few hours after being born (May 2016)
The newborn with her oldest sister
and a tired dad in the background
Faith at five months, a super
happy, healthy, chunky baby.
7. Snoqualmie farm wedding
One thing I love about weddings is that they are similar but different in ways that lets the couple's personalities and values shines through. One of the more unique, truly-theirs weddings I've ever been to was in June when my friends Rowan and Nate got hitched. It was at her family's farm property in Snoqualmie, Washington, and so full of intention, from the very first moment we arrived and got to pick our party favor: a ceramic mug handmade by the bride, to use for the night and take home. Next to the cup table was the drink table with ice, gin, seltzer water, and your choice of an array of homemade kombuchas in glass gallon jars to mix with, many of which had been brewed with ingredients grown on the farm.
Mugs for the wedding all handmade by the bride
The groom; four of us who met in college on a semester of 
backpacking in California; and our illustrious instructor
Speeches and toasts, in the greenhouse
The ceremony was in a field, and the reception was in the yard woven between barn, the house, and greenhouses. Dinner was delicious burgers of beef raised on the property (vegan quinoa patty option, too) with a dizzying assortment of home-canned and pickled condiments and accoutrements. The first dance was a square dance with all the guests, complete with a skilled caller and live string music.

6. Taking the month of August off of work
It's hard to even know where to start with this one. First of all, I'm so, so grateful that I have a job that allowed me to take this extended vacation. Second, you can read more about before the month and after the month. I traveled all over the Cascades, drove hundreds of miles of forest service road, and did a ton of hiking and backpacking.
Driving east on Highway 20 toward Okanogan at 6 a.m.
Central Cascades hiking
5. Hiking with Mom
In August during the month off, my mom and I went to Hidden Lake Lookout for our third-annual mother-daughter backpacking trip. She is such a trooper: she's nearly 60, only backpacks once a year, and is up for anything. This year, even though the hike was relatively short, it was a lot of elevation gain and also requires crossing snow and scrambling on rocks.
We hiked in to a mile below the fire lookout to set up camp. It was a stunningly beautiful evening and we had a clear view west and watched the sky change color around Mount Baker.
 In the morning we headed up to the fire lookout, passing Hidden Lake on the way.

4. Hiking with my oldest niece
I taught high school students back in 2006 and I really love that age group. My oldest niece is now 15 and a half, and just a joy to hang out with, hilarious and curious and so engaged with the world around her. She lives in Bellingham and I see her fairly often at family gatherings, but have hardly ever spent a full day hanging out, just her and me. I had a hike I wanted to do down the Mount Baker highway, and invited her along since it's close to where she lives and she was on summer break. We had a blast.
It was a short hike, but certainly not easy. It's steep and shadeless, and the day we went was well into the 80s. We stopped often to catch our breath and drink water, and it was all the more rewarding when we made it to the 1930s fire lookout at the summit, with sweeping views of the North Cascades all around.

3. California Coast Wedding
In September I went to Mendocino county to visit a friend and attend a wedding. I flew into Santa Rosa (just north of the Bay in Sonoma County) and stayed with a dear friend in Ukiah, who moved to down there from Seattle about five years ago. We went to a mutual friend's wedding together on the Menocino Coast.
Wine tasting on the way to the coast
Near the wedding: stunning coastline, even in the fog

2. October Seattle Wedding
In October, I went to a super local wedding of a college friend. It was a lovely ceremony in South Seattle on a sunny fall day, and a fantastic reunion of college friends who came from all over the U.S. to be there.

1. Writing a book and taking writing retreats
I am writing my first book and have devoted almost every weekend since October to writing. I sometimes work from home or coffee shops in Seattle, but I also love getting out of town to have a secluded place to focus, away from the dishes in the sink or other home projects.
Writing retreat: friend's place on a lake outside Olympia.
He graciously let me stay while he was out of town for a month.
Friend's lakeside cabin
View of Rainier from the cabin
Cheers to 2017, to more of what you already know you love, and the joys you have yet to discover. Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thankful for Texas Road Tripping and 20 Years of Friendship

Lindsey's birthday is two days before mine in early April, and we celebrated together all through high school and college, starting when we were 14. We've lived in different cities ever since 2005 so it's been more rare to be together, but this year we realized that we were coming up on 20 years of friendship.
"Did you know there are mountains in West Texas?" Lindsey asked. And just like that, a joint birthday road trip was born. I flew down to her place in Austin in late March, and we signed off from work, loaded up the car with provisions, and took off driving west on open road for hundreds of miles.
Our destination was Big Bend National Park which borders Mexico in West Texas. Never heard of it? I hadn't either. That's probably because (according to Wikipedia) "Big Bend is one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited national parks in the lower 48 United States. In recent years, only 300,000–350,000 visitors have entered the park annually."

It makes sense that it's not heavily visited because it's not really near anything. It's a haul from any direction to get there, but it's easy to spot on a map. See the big bend in the Rio Grande with the green park around it?
On our way to Big Bend, we stopped for a night in the desert art town of Marfa. It's a one-of-a-kind place that's hard to describe, but this fascinating, in-depth Vanity Fair article from 2012 is a good start. The sub-title says: The tiny West Texas border town of Marfa is 200 miles from anywhere, but after the late minimalist artist Donald Judd acquired dozens of its buildings, filling them with everything from Rembrandts to light sculptures, art-world pioneers and pilgrims made it their playground. Sean Wilsey and Daphne Beal channel the mix of tumbleweeds, talent, and iconoclasm that is key to Marfa’s mystique.
We drank cocktails in the courtyard of a fancy bar, happy to stretch our legs in the warm afternoon sun after the 450-mile drive. We walked around town and checked out some art before grabbing dinner. When night hit, we drove nine miles out of town to try to see the Marfa lights, unexplained orbs of light that have been seen in that area since the 1800s. There is an official viewing area and we saw them, balls of yellow and red in the dark desert, rising up from the ground and disappearing. Lindsey found it underwhelming but I thought it was crazy.
Train tracks in Marfa, Texas
It rained that night but cleared up by late the next morning. We veered south, stopping in the mining ghost town of Terlingua just outside the national park.
Ruins in Terlingua
Then we made it to Big Bend! It's the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the United States and the only national park with a whole mountain range (the Chisos) inside.
We drove to the Chisos Basin, a bowl valley that is a gateway to the heart of the mountain range, and backpacked in a few miles. The next day, we hiked up to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park at 7,825 feet. It's the 13th highest peak in the state and the most prominent peak in Texas.


On the Emory Peak trail

View from the top of Emory Peak

Hiking out of our campsite
The next day we drove to the far southeastern corner of the park to check out a hot spring right on the Rio Grande. Or rather, in the Rio Grande. There are rocks sectioning off the hot pool, and the water surface is probably two feet above the river, but you're essentially sitting in the river with Mexico 20 feet away.
Natural hot spring in the Rio Grande
We had a lot of time together in the car to talk, nap, watch scenery whiz by, and listen to music. We mostly listened to Texan singer/songwriters, but also had to play Car by Built to Spill in homage to a drive Lindsey and I took in 2000 to the Lake Wenatchee area right after graduating high school.

You get the car
I'll get the night off
You'll get the chance
to take the world apart
and figure out
how it works.
Don't let me know
what you find out.

We talked about the last 20 years, especially the last 5where we are now and all the things we couldn't have predicted for ourselves or for friends and family. There had been many hardships, like dealing with heartbreak, career struggles, traumatic brain injury, cancer, miscarriage, divorce. And there had also been so much beauty and joy. Lindsey was getting married in a few months, and had found a home in the unlikely state of Texas. Friends were starting families and businesses and buying homes and going to grad school. I had done a lot of things professionally and personally that I was passionate about and that made me really happy. We both worked at jobs that we enjoyed and where our skills were put to use and appreciated.

It was serendipitous that a good mutual friend called in the first hour of our road trip, just was we were getting into the heart of the hill country outside of Austin. We put him on speaker phone and he told us big news: after years of writing in his spare time, looking for a literary agent, and sending his book to publishers, he had just gotten his first book deal from a major publisher. And not just for the one book, but a sequel that wasn't even written yet. Lindsey and I both got teary immediately, and I had to make an extra effort to focus on the road, grinning and bleary-eyed and feeling overwhelmingly proud of him. We had believed in him, and it was like an affirmation of so many other things: love the heck out of your friends and keep trusting in what you know to be true and don't get discouraged as you plunge into the unknown. It was a reminder that the good will come, even if it takes years and wrenching disappointments and strength you didn't know you had. 
Looking into Mexico at the Chihuahua Mountains 
It was pretty much the best birthday ever. Cheers to another 20 years of friendship, and countless other things to be grateful for.