The Great American Road Trip: Texas
// June 14th Tucson, AZ → Guadalupe Mountains, TX //
After one of the most-needed sleeps of my life, Lyndsey and her mom treated us to homemade breakfast burritos bright and early at 7am. They even went out to get us deli meat and fruit so we could have a hearty meal on the road. It felt like I was at home, like when my mom used to pack my lunch for school. We gave big hugs goodbye and hit the road again, off to New Mexico and Texas. But first, I had to stop along the side of the road to get a photo with one of the giant cacti. I’d never seen anything like them before. I ran across the road to the neighbor’s lawn and got my photo.
The landscape gradually changed from dry desert peaks to slightly greener plain grass that blanketed the New Mexican ground. We were so excited to see the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign right across the highway from the “Welcome to Arizona” sign since we were on a mission to collect selfies with all the signs from every state, but had missed the Arizona one. We waited for a pause in the traffic (of which there were many… it was a pretty slow road), and ran across the freeway and climbed up the sandy hill to get the other sign. It was an adrenaline rush as we hopped back into the car and got it up to speed to match the highway pace.
Driving through Texas was also somewhat uneventful and we passed plenty of small scattered towns that seemed to only serve the purpose of providing a rest stop for the highway drivers. During our trip, we tried to cut down on the number of stops we made, so we created a mini pantry in the back of the car with canned food and snacks. Whenever lunchtime rolled around, whoever wasn’t driving reached into the back and pulled out a “tin meat” (tuna, chicken, etc.), a loaf of bread, and some peanut butter crackers. They then delicately opened the can, careful not to spill, and then spooned out portions of the meat onto the bread in bite sized amounts for whoever was driving. It wasn’t gourmet, but it worked and saved time.
We knew the Carlsbad Caverns accepted their last entry to the cave at 4pm, but we also knew that our campsite was first-come-first-serve and we were afraid if we waited until after the caverns, we wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep that night. As the Guadalupe Mountains came into view over the desolate highway, we started to debate what our next move should be, since the clock said 3:15. We pulled into a ranger station and they told us the campsite we were going to (Dog’s Canyon) was over two hours away, past the Carlsbad Caverns. Somehow we had missed that on the map. However, there was a perfectly fine campsite right at the station in the Guadalupe Mountains, and it was only half an hour away from the caverns. We pulled into the campsite and struggled to interpret their antiquated system of claiming and paying for a spot. It involved an orange traffic cone, slipping money in an envelope, and popping it into a drop box. We figured it out and hit the road to Carlsbad Caverns, back over the border to New Mexico (and a different timezone), just three minutes before they stopped accepting people into the cave.
Once inside the cave, we could relax and take in the atmosphere with all our senses. As you start your descent, a pungent smell attacks your nostrils and you look up and try to make out the black figures flying around. The bat guano was strong. It’s amazing how valuable this stuff used to be back when the US harvested it for fertilizer. It felt like walking into an industrial cooler, with a constant temperature of 56 degrees–a welcome change from the 102 degree heat outside. It took at least ten minutes until I could actually see the path in front of me as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Walking down into the cavern reminded me of when Byron and I visited Jenolan Caves with his family in Australia, with similar limestone rock formations in folds and delicate icicle shapes, caused by sulfuric acid. However, this cavern was enormous and just kept going down and down and then opening into massive rooms with ceilings hundreds of feet high. It was moist and eerie and every time a drop of water dripped from the ceiling onto my bare shoulder, I jumped.
Eventually, the descent evened out at about 1,000 ft underground into the Big Room, which is the largest cavernous room in the world. The path took us around a range of formations, like the “draperies”, “fairy land”, “caveman”, “dolls theatre”, “totem pole” and the bottomless pit. It felt like when you look at clouds and try to make out various shapes–very much open to personal interpretation. There were small pools of water collecting drips, and we saw one of the largest continuously growing formations, meaning the drips cause a rock mound to grow ever so slightly. I was fascinated with the early exploration narratives, and cringed when I saw an old broken ladder, lashed together with some sticks and a few metal chains, leading down into a dark bottomless pit. I admired the bravery of the early explorers. Apparently, instead of a nice shiny elevator, they used to be lowered down in a metal bucket. Yikes.
Emerging from the depths below into the gift shop above was a bit disorienting. The miserable heat was actually welcome as we were hit with a blast of warmth on our way to the car. Back on the Texas side, we attacked mosquitoes while setting up the tent on the white gravel nestled among yucca plants, scraggly trees, and other desert flora and fauna with the massive peak of Guadalupe Mountains (the highest point in TX) towering over us. Our dinner of canned beans and pork counted as sustenance , and that’s about it. The campsite was filled with couples, families, boy scout groups, a couple from CT on a road trip, and a couple from Florida, who also quit their jobs in search of adventure. The sun dropped down and we finally had relief from the heat. The atmosphere was mellow as a calm breeze ruffled over all the nylon tent flaps and the couple next to us strummed some acoustic guitar chords. It was too hot for the rain cover, so we had just the mesh material covering us, leaving a clear view up to the starry sky. We fell asleep with one of the most incredible views, almost as if we were sleeping under the stars without the tent at all.
// June 15th Guadalupe → Austin TX //
I woke up with the sun streaming into the tent and a cool breeze ruffling the flaps. Everything was calm and still, as if everyone else in the campground was also savoring this tranquil moment before collapsing the tents and preparing breakfast. The mountain rose to my left as the light illuminated one peak at a time. The pure white stones crunched under our feet as we packed the car up, ate some granola bars, and headed out on the Devil’s Hall trail.
The path wound through desert scrub brushes and scrawny trees. I was careful to look down constantly to avoid cactus spikes and potential snake encounters. We didn’t see any other hikers, even as the trail took us into an old washed up river bed littered with massive white stones. We got an hour into the hike but decided to bail since the rocks were getting harder and harder to traverse and we still had a long day of driving ahead of us. Back at the car, we realized that the low tire pressure light was on in one of the tires. We were in the middle of a national park, surrounded by nothingness, so even the park ranger couldn’t point us in the direction of the closest gas station. By some miracle, across the street from the campground, there was an industrial looking building that just happened to be a branch of the Texas Department of Transportation. Byron pulled in through the gates and asked politely if we could use their air hose that was conveniently located out front. With air in our tires, we were good to go again and headed on to a monotonous drive, past oil field after oil field. Our SUV felt out of place amongst the massive tractor trailers and oil equipment-toting vehicles that we had to pass every few miles.
The only part of our drive that stood out was a stop at Buc-ees, the Walmart-sized gas station that falls under the “you need to see it to believe it” category. We looked at our gas pump number and were shocked. #222. It was massive. Inside, the bathrooms were luxuriously clean and abundant, and the store shelves were stocked with a range of Texas spices, hunting gear, Buc-ees Fan Gear with the crazed looking beaver logo, and more. We ordered food to go from the electronic kiosks and hit the road again.
Once in Austin, we pulled up to Firehouse Hostel and were immediately impressed. Every inch of the lobby was carefully designed with distressed wood, vintage artwork, and curated literature to create a hipster-meets-southwest vibe. The rest of the hostel was immaculate too, and so well designed that it felt more like a boutique hotel than a hostel. We socialized with some Australians and Kiwis down in the kitchen while we made pasta and canned veggies, but decided to stay in for the night after the long day of driving. We got some work done on the laptops in our cozy private room that the owners were so kind to provide. Being in the hospitality industry definitely has its perks.
// June 16th Austin, TX //
Breakfast was a pleasant surprise of coffee and egg and vegan chorizo scramble (just adding to the hipster vibe), so we started our day off well and felt prepared for our meetings with hostel owners. With our spare time before the meeting, we braved the 95 degree heat and humidity and visited the State Capitol building. From the heart of the building, we looked up to ceiling and saw the underside of the massive dome filtering in natural light. On the floor below was a series of seals that gave tribute to Texas under many different authorities. In addition to Texas under the US, there’s also seals for Texas under Spain, France, Mexico, and the Confederacy. Apparently Congress is only in session for a maximum of 140 days of the year. The rest of the time, the building is used for tours and other purposes. Today there was a Model UN event in the Chamber Room.
Back at the hostel, we talked with the owners for over an hour about their huge success and their decision to expand to Houston for a second hostel. It was inspiring to see in just five years they started with the empty shell of the city firehouse building to one of the most popular hostels and bars in Austin. Back out in the heat, we drove to Barton Springs Pool, inside of Zilker Park, to beat the heat in local style. It was packed and even the overflow parking lot was filled. The pool was more of a lake, with natural water, but enclosed by cement and garnished with a diving board. I realized it had been over a year and a half since the last time I went swimming, which was an utterly unacceptable thought to bear. It reminded me of the finicky weather in San Francisco that makes the beach virtually un-swimmable. It was so relaxing there, so we hung out for a while and watched the line of divers show their stuff on the diving board.
After heading back to town for another hostel interview at a different location, Drifter Jacks, we met up with our Semester at Sea friend Natalie. She picked us up and drove us through the city to Terry Black’s BBQ for a true southern meal. It was cafeteria style, so we waited in line and grabbed our sides of potato salad, mac n cheese, and corn bread and stepped up to the meat counter to order ¼ lb each of brisket, rib, shredded beef, and sausage to share. The beer was cheaper than the iced tea, so we helped ourselves to some Lone Star brews. I’d say Byron was pretty much not a member of our table conversation as he reveled in the juicy bites of beef, zoning out on all his surroundings. It was incredible, and not too expensive either. We both waddled out of there for less than $35 total. It was great hearing what Natalie’s been up to while exploring Austin and how excited she is to head back to her home of San Diego in the near future.
We walked off our meal along the river bank with a view of the city skyline. Crowds of tourists were gathered underneath one of the bridges in anticipation for the infamous bats of Austin. Every night, just as dusk falls, thousands of black bats swoop out from under the bridge and into the night sky. Byron and I decided to wait with all the crowds to experience this, which seemed like an eternity because it was stiflingly hot and humid and the salty meat made my mouth feel like a desert. A few bats started trickling out and the crowds went crazy, getting their phones ready for the grand moment. Those must’ve been some early risers because their crew didn’t follow until a good five minutes later. Kayakers and tour boats eagerly awaited the magic from the river. Soon, the sky around us was covered in little black spots moving in sync with each other, as if this were a choreographed dance the bats rehearsed all their lives for. It just kept going and going and finally I couldn’t bear my thirst anymore and ran into the Marriott to steal some refreshing cucumber water from the lobby.
We walked back downtown, over the bridge, and met up with some of Byron’s UConn friends that moved down to Austin after graduating. We started the night at the bar underneath Firehouse Hostel, which was a speakeasy you entered through the hostel lobby bookshelf. It was like stepping back in time with classy ornate booths and brass light fixtures and velvety accents. We took it up a notch for a rowdier experience by walking through “Dirty 6th” street. Every weekend the street is closed off to cars and instead, drunken college students take over, enticed by cheap neon drinks, drinking games, and electronic music. If only UConn had a street like this when I was in college.
We didn’t pause to join the crowds, but kept walking to Rainy St, which is the post-college crowd favorite. The street is lined with residential houses that have been renovated on the inside to accommodate bars, dance clubs, and restaurants. The street still has a neighborhood vibe with picket fences and cornhole in the backyard, so it feels like you’re just walking down a street filled with house parties. It was low key but so crowded. The “houses” continued for blocks and blocks, each one with a different theme or decor. We hung out for a while but realized that we had to leave Austin early in the morning and said goodnight. Our Lyft home to Drifter Jack’s was impossible to find among the crowds, but I had a lovely life chat with the woman that stumbled into the car after us. She claimed to be in the “Entertainment Industry” and congratulated me on not having children. Austin certainly knows how to throw a good party.