“Deep In The Heart of Texas” *
My breakfast is still cool when I rise. This motel room is adequate. There are none of the usual extras like tissues, shampoo or pen & paper. I guess I’m lucky there’s some soap! I commented last night that the bed sheets were clean. The hardwood floor is not though, despite looking so. I’m about to get in the shower this morning when I discover the soles of my feet are black – literally – from walking barefoot in the room last night and this morning. Ugh!
I do some diary catch-up before hitting the road south to Austin, my penultimate stop on the trip. The road unfortunately reverts back to flat, straight and uninteresting. There are cotton fields again with a few fields of maize here and there though. Through the town of Brady and I’m now on TX-71 S to Llano, where I stop in a gas station for a ham and cheese sandwich. It’s hot and sunny again, 84º F, with scattered white clouds: a nice day. The speed limit is again 75 mph and there are few cars around but a few trucks, who all travel at around 70 mph. I can’t believe how fast they are allowed to go. In the UK trucks are limited to 56 mph.
Highway 71 is more interesting the further south I go and it’s another good fast drive. Sweeping bends, some tighter than others, and the landscape becomes more interesting as well. After the intersection with Highway 281, TX-71 S becomes 2 lanes each way. There was very little commerce by the roadside between towns before to Llano, the same as yesterday: no gas stations, traffic signals, billboards, just open countryside. And for the first time on this trip, I lose mobile phone coverage for significant periods.
Austin Here I Come
Gradually the roadside outlook changes as Austin gets nearer but I’m still quite a distance away though. The traffic on the road is starting to increase as well. The highway goes through some reasonable scenery but the increasing street furniture spoils the views and there’s nothing worth taking a photo of.
I’m dropping the car off at Austin airport. I figured I didn’t need it for the 2 days I’ll be there and there were good options to transport me from the airport to the hotel. Ditto when I leave Austin to fly to San Jose on Saturday. So I decide to buy the breakfasts I’m going to need before losing the car, as the hotel might not be near a 7-11 or deli. The price of gas will be higher near the airport as well so I need to fill up on the outskirts of Austin then do a splash-and-dash top-up at the airport before returning the car.
The traffic’s getting very heavy as TX-71 joins up with US-290 E but I can’t see anywhere I can get gas or food. I’m now only about 15 miles from the airport. TX-71 goes straight on as I turn left onto I-35 N towards the airport, along with US-290. This is getting bad as there will be nothing on I-35 itself so I take the first off-ramp and drive along the perimeter road looking for shops. I finally find a gas station selling reasonably priced fuel. I’d noticed some big variations in price and wanted to get a good deal, which this one had at $2.25 a gallon. Some were above $2.40! But the gas station doesn’t have much in the way of food.
I ask the attendants where I can buy food and they tell me there’s a Randalls supermarket just over the road. Result! It’s a tricky junction however so I leave the car and walk a couple of hundred yards over the street. Not only is it hotter now, there’s very high humidity as well. I get everything I need for about $12 and return to the car.
Back on I-35 and the airport exit soon arrives. I’d seen in the car rental agreement this year that I had to provide a gas receipt when handing the car back, to prove when I filled up. I’d found a Shell garage on Maps last night at the top of the airport spur road and head towards that. My recent fill-up was 10 miles from the airport so I knew I wouldn’t be putting much gas in here. The gas station is rammed with cars filling up, so I join a queue. The gas is more expensive here so I did the right thing earlier. I fill-up again and it costs me $1.55, plus I get my two receipts.
It’s Hot at the Airport
Into the Budget rental car return area and it is very busy. There are two lanes of cars to be checked in before they’ll get to mine. It’s about 10 minutes before a guy arrives to process me – and when I offer him the gas receipt, he doesn’t want it! I ask why and he says some cars these days have chips in the windscreens that they can scan to get all of the car’s relevant data like mileage – and including if the gas tank is full. I figure though that in future I’d still need to get a receipt because I’d not know if my car had a windscreen chip or not.
Bags discharged from the trunk and I’m off to the terminal building. It is very hot and humid, not pleasant at all. A 5 minute walk later and I’m in the air conditioned sanctuary of the terminal. I seek out the SuperShuttle desk to get my pre-booked minibus to my hotel. It’s $12 one-way and I’ll get dropped directly at the hotel. Public transport was cheaper but there would have been at least a 10 minute walk and in this humidity, I’m now glad I opted for the minibus. A taxi would have been at least double the shuttle price.
It is supposedly a shared ride shuttle but when the minibus arrives about 10 minutes later I’m the only person on it. It’s about 20 minutes to the Super 8 Downtown Capitol motel. The driver says its not technically downtown but I know it’s not far away, which is why I booked it. The hotel is right by I-35 and I can see the office blocks of downtown across the Interstate. Maps told me it was a 20 minute walk away, so not too bad.
There was very little choice of downtown hotels when I booked. Of those available, they wanted over $400 a night before taxes! Airbnb was, amazingly, just as expensive for a good downtown location. Even so, this place is costing me $200 a night and it’s only a motel. I didn’t realise at the time but it is the Austin Formula 1 Grand Prix this weekend…
When I walk into my room, the air con is off and the hot sun is streaming directly in. The room is like a sauna. It takes nigh on an hour for it to cool down. I asked the check-in guy about a taxi to downtown and he says it will be about $5-6. When it’s time for dinner I decide to splash the cash, and call reception – they order the cab for you – and it arrived 3 minutes later. After a short ride I’m soon walking down 6th Street in search of food and, of course, music in the self-styled Live Music Capital of the World.
In Search of Music
I’d found a famous blues bar call Antone’s Blues to go to tonight but discover before leaving the hotel that it’s closed for a private function. Bugger! It’s supposed to be a really great club. I walk up and down for a while looking for a bar that serves food plus has some music going on. But I can’t find one. I find out later that I’ve hit the time when bands changeover, when the early slot has finished and the later ones haven’t started yet. The changeovers vary by bar and by day, so I must have been unlucky tonight.
So I enter Chupacabra Cantina, a Mexican bar with sports on TV. I have a pork taco, which the barman said two of which would make an entrée. But as I’m not sure how hungry I am, I just order one. It’s very good when it arrives. About 10 minutes later I order chips and salsa as it’s cheap at $2, which graze on until I’m full.
Back out onto 6th Street and most bars have their front windows wide open, as well as the doors, so the music cascades out onto the street, hoping to entice you in. This tactic worked for The Bat Bar. On hearing Johnny Fury and his band, it sounded good. Inside, it was even better. In fact, it was excellent. Johnny and his band really rock. He’s a great guitarist, playing original material mostly. I catch the last 45 minutes or so of his set, and it’s great music that the rest of the crowd in the bar love as well. He closes the show with a rocking version of Sweet Home Chicago, after which the audience demand an encore. In response the band play What’d I Say, another superb version, highlighting again Johnny’s virtuoso guitar playing.
Sadly this finished around 10 pm and so I leave for pastures new. And directly across the street is the Chuggin’ Monkey where Sonny Wolf and his band are ripping it up something great as well. It’s hard playing, blues-orientated rock, mostly covers, but none the worse for that. It’s great music again but after about half an hour I decide to move on in search of something else, just so I sample as much as I can.
“Where do we go now?” **
I pass bars with solo singer-guitarists, some country twanging bands and quite a few bars with DJs playing decks of hip-hop, rap and other urban sounds. Not my scene I’m afraid, but they’re all very busy. Outside BD Riley’s, an “Irish pub”, something catches my ear. So I go in now. There is a lady on stage playing a harp. Not a harmonica, a harp. And not one of those full size versions you see in an orchestra that are about 6 feet tall, but her’s is just over half that size. But it is a real harp, with strings and no electronic wizardry that I can see. It’s Kristen Gibbs – plus a double bass and drums – plucking the strings.
She’s playing rock, pop and soul songs, almost anything in fact. And it sounds absolutely amazing, just like a guitar band. I hear the last hour of her set until she closes around 11.30 pm. Now I thought I’d seen most things on a stage in the name of rock’n’roll but this takes the biscuit. A harp playing rock music?! Who cares. She’s excellent. I’m sitting at the bar and a couple of guys pass comment, and we all agree: it’s weird, but great. The sound, vibe and sonics of the harp add something bizarre and wonderful. And they are making soooooo much noise. It’s loud but not overly so, they’ve got their microphones setup perfectly.
I never thought hear a harp belt out Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Clocks by Coldplay, a Bruno Mars song I missed the title of (not really a fan of his so I didn’t know it), Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine (I kid you not…) and much, much more. She even closes the set with Woolly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs! Truly bizarre but wonderful. It’s absolutely bloody brilliant. So much so that after finishing my beer before leaving, as the band are packing up, I walk over to Kristen and tell her how great it was and take her picture.
What a great night. Fabulous music. Brilliant stuff. So I celebrate some wonderful music by getting a taxi back to the hotel. It’s lights out just before midnight.
* Sweet Little Sixteen by Chuck Berry
** Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses