We headed for Texas at the beginning of December, with the idea of arranging for Elsa's cataract surgery. Internet research had convinced us that several world-class eye surgeons Texas Wildflowers were in the state, and we opted for Steven Dell (brother of Michael Dell, the computer developer) who has a practice in Austin. We had never spent time in the state capital, which made the city an easy choice for spending a few weeks, or however long it would take. As it turned out, we spent five months here.
One reason for making such a long visit is that we found affordable and pleasant living accommodations at the south end of Austin at the Staybridge Suites Hotel. This chain is designed to serve long stays and we were able to live comfortably in our one-bedroom suite where we could set up all of our electronic gear in the living room, leaving the bedroom for sleeping or reading books. The second reason was Dr. Dell's routine. Elsa had four visits prior to surgery, to take many measurements and tests, to explain the procedures, and for final pre-op; she also had four visits after surgery, at one day and one, two, four, and twelve weeks. The office also schedules another visit at six months, which we may skip. We were grateful for all these doctor visits, and would recommend Dr. Dell to others. The actual surgery was done with a laser tool and took about five minutes under a local anesthetic. Zilker Botanical Garden
Winter in Central Texas required us to haul out our heavier coats and bundle up in wooly hats, at least on some days. By the time we arrived, the winter landscape had taken over, with leafless trees and not a lot of green about. From our hotel window one morning we spotted four deer in the next door vacant lot. They had apparently managed to cross the freeway but were stuck temporarily between our motel an the next -- they disappeared in just a couple of days.
As we counted down the days till the first eye surgery we explored the city of Austin. We were staying on the Southeast side, just a few miles from the airport. Work crews (who also stayed at our hotel) are widening one of the major highways through South Austin. The only shop within safe walking distance is the convenience store at the local gas station, but once across the highway a little cluster (Denny's Starbucks, a Tex-Mex and a Subway) can be found. This provided an excuse for us to explore dining options throughout the city. We learned that Austin is a party city, a San Antonio Bibliotech festival and sports city, a music and dance center, and a working and growing city -- a city, it seems, designed for the millennial generation.
One of our standard explorations is a tour of the State Capitol. Here, we went twice. The first tour, in mid-December, was designated a special holiday tour, which turned out to be an extended commercial for the Texas holiday ornament collection. They are pewter representations of architectural elements from the Capitol building made in a limited edition each year. The Texas State Capitol is a huge and handsome building, with an underground expansion larger than the original building. We decided that our curiosity had not been fully satisfied the first time, and made a repeat visit which was quite informative. We were surprised to learn that the legislature meets only every other year, although the govenor may call a special session at any time.
The grounds surrounding the Capitol are spacious and pleasant, green with many interesting plantings which looked inviting even in mid-winter. The old custom house (Texas was briefly an independent republic, didn't you know?) and state library were added nearby attractions.
Austin also contains the University of Texas, including the stadiums for football, baseball and softball; the many Caldwell County Courthouse downtown parks are usually filled with pickup games on any sunny afternoon and the riverside paths contain walkers, joggers, bicyclists. just about anything one could expect. The river itself is often filled with watercraft, mostly canoes and kayaks. Residents of Austin enjoy the outdoors, and many restaurants have outdoor seating.
Within the campus of the University is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, which is becoming a major attraction. Exhibits cover the expected subjects of his presidency, including civil rights and education and the war in Vietnam. After a visit to the library we understand better this man's struggles to put his own mark on the office after he suddenly was called to be president.
Having visited the museum, we wanted to see where he grew up and where he and his family spent their family time, so we and our friend Rita drove to nearby Johnson City for a day of exploration. The small farmhouse has been preserved much as it looked when he was a child, when his mother would teach the neighbor children reading and rhetoric, telling them stories and introducing them to literature. Johnson was first and foremost a Texan, and did not have much grounding in foreign relations, which may have helped him to get in over his head in Vietnam. Downtown Bastrop
For an understanding of the entire State and its history, we think the Bullock Texas State HIstory Museum is great. The complex, often brutal and violent story of making Texas part of the United States is told vividly, with artifacts which include everything from old flags to rocking chairs. More gently, Lady Bird Johnson's project to plant wildflowers on all national highways is still going strong; we visited the Wildflower Center in the middle of Austin, now under the auspices of the University of Texas, where there was plenty of activity even in the midst of winter.
An even more beautiful setting, to our way of thinking, is the Zilker Park Botanical Garden, which contains several specific garden spots, the most dramatic being a Japanese garden where a stream traces its course downhill from top to bottom, winding sometimes almost on level ground, sometimes with steep and dramatic falls. Naturally there are some fish and some frogs, too. Street Rods
We are officially Texans these days, sporting Texas driver's licenses and a Texas-registered truck. We were happy to learn that this entitled us to Austin Public Library cards (and has probably curtailed some of our sightseeing because there are just too many books to read right now!). We did make a day trip to our most favorite Texas city, San Antonio, where we visited the new BiblioTech, a library with no books but a multitude of electronic devices and digitized materials. They provide training and materials, including e-readers for loan, and even maintain a kiosk in the Jury Assembly Room for prospective jurors who can borrow both a reader and some reading material.
We've taken drives to some of the outlying towns here in Central Texas. Most of them follow the traditional pattern with a courthouse square surrounded by shops and restaurants. Texas courthouses are usually elegant and a pleasure to see, and even better is the sight of the surrounding streets, with porches and balconies on some of the shops and businesses and people bustling about. The farmers' markets may not have much in the way of vegetables during the winter, but they will have packages of pecans, and jars of homemade jams, and various pickles.
We have seen decorated pumpjacks (the oil rigs which dip down and up in oil fields) and we passed through Hutto Hook 'em Horns which has hippos as mascots. We have admired the lots filled with food trucks (but not sampled any). We have learned that Austin is home of the breakfast taco which is just what you think it might be (eggs and beans and cheese in a tortilla). We attended the best Hot Rod and Car and Truck show we have ever seen, made even more memorable because the vendors included beauty stylists who provided 1940s-style hair and makeup for those who wished it.
Perhaps our most remarkable experience was attending a couple of University of Texas baseball games. Their team name is Longhorns, and as probably everybody already knows their slogan is "Hook 'em, 'Horns!" We joined with the players and our fellow spectators to make the traditional salute, fists raised with the first and fourth fingers extended, while standing to sing (?) the college song, "The Eyes of Texas are Upon You."