We discovered the beauty of combining camping and sightseeing a long time ago. When we first got married, camping trips were just weekend getaways. Then Jeff suggested a trip to Yellowstone. Ever since that whirlwind trip during the early years of our marriage, we have frequently used camping as our home base for nearly every kind of sightseeing adventure: Gettysburg, Mammoth Cave, the Bourbon Trail, New Orleans, Disney, and the list goes on and on.
So it seemed only natural that when our daughter said she wanted to do Austin for her fourth grade city project, that we would combine our spring break camping trip with time in the city. Austin has at least four state parks within reasonable driving distance and it would allow us to still get time out of the city and into nature.
After we left our short drive through Buescher State Park, we decided to make that night our night to eat dinner in Austin. We were on a schedule and weren’t sure that we would be able to fix dinner and get into town on time, so we were going to do some early exploring of the city. The last time we had taken our kids to Austin (so that we could see the flight of the Mexican Freetail Bats) we hadn’t done much, if any, exploring. In fact, Austin is known for its barbecue and food trucks and we had rushed our kids through Whataburger before settling in for a boat ride across Lady Bird Lake. We were determined to do better this time.
When we arrived downtown we drove right into traffic. When we finally found parking, we discovered that we had arrived in Austin at the very beginning of South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the largest conferences in the south. I had seen all sorts of people posting about SXSW on Instagram for over a week, but somehow I didn’t put two and two together. The city is normally busy, but this was crazy, people of all kinds walking along the streets with different colored badges hanging around their necks.
We found where we needed to go for the ghost tour and then continued on our way to find food that was both traditional Austin and something that all of us would eat without paying an arm and a leg. We came upon Iron Works Barbecue at just the right time. We feasted on chicken, brisket, beef ribs, and a healthy serving of side dishes. I know that it was no Franklin Barbecue, but it may be the best restaurant barbecue we’ve ever tasted.
Since we still had time, we wandered around, taking pictures of the SXSW signage at the convention center, stopping by the Hypersciences Inc. booth (staffed by UT engineering students which delighted our 7-year-old future engineer), reading the signage and taking pictures at the O. Henry house, and then sitting outside our meeting spot for the ghost tour.
I’m not the scary movie type at all. I don’t do the Halloween haunted houses. I’ve read two Stephen King books and one was his book On Writing. I am afraid of the dark, especially when I’m unfamiliar with the territory. When I was three, my parents took me to see a re-release of Snow White and I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence scared of dark basements because I was convinced the Evil Queen was going to come after me saying “Mirror, Mirror on the wall…”
But I enjoy ghost tours.
I was both a history and English major in undergrad, so any chance to learn more history about an area is a good opportunity. When I visited Edinburg during my junior year semester abroad, I enjoyed the ghost tour that took my friends and me through the old streets and revealed the less well-known history of the city. When Jeff and I went to Key West before we had kids, we discovered the same thing when we took a ghost tour there. When we were in New Orleans for Campsgiving this past November, our kids tried to convinced us to let them join their aunt and uncle on a ghost tour of the city, but we said no. We told them that we would do it another time when we didn’t have to worry about a late night and when we were sure they wouldn’t be scared. After all, for us taking a ghost tour has never been about the supernatural (since we really take the stories with a grain of salt) but instead about hands-on learning about the city we are visiting.
So when our daughter asked if we could do a ghost tour of Austin as part of her research for her project, we agreed. I tried to find what I thought would be the least spooky of the tours, we double-checked with both kids multiple times, and I booked the tour.
Our tour guide was an informed and entertaining story teller. She stopped us behind the Susanna Dickenson house, in front of the O. Henry house, in front of the fire station next door to the O. Henry house, and then on the front steps of the Driskill Hotel, where she told us the most (and probably the spookiest) ghost stories. Truth be told, it was probably much scarier than we had anticipated and by the time we got our sleepy kids back to the truck, they needed to talk out the entire experience. Our son fell asleep before we were out of the city, but we spent the whole ride back to Bastrop talking about all the different aspects of the tour, what was the scariest, and what concerned our daughter the most. Jeff, proving his mad fathering skills, had her laughing by the time we got “home.” When both kids woke up the next morning, I sat with them at breakfast and reminded them that there are things that can’t be explained and that we can’t understand and that we have to leave those things to God, because He is the one ultimately in control. They then proudly told us that they didn’t have nightmares and they continued to talk about the experience in the safety of daylight.
But I still don’t think we need to do that again any time soon.
After spending all of the next day exploring the park, we spent our last day camping at Bastrop by driving into Austin to do some more in-depth exploration of the city. We drove past the capitol and then through the UT campus so that we could show the kids a college campus and drive them past the stadium. Once we finally found parking, we walked right to the visitor’s center and our daughter picked up more research for her project. Then we headed towards the state capitol, making stops to take daylight pictures in front of both the Susanna Dickenson and O. Henry houses and inside the Driskill Hotel, although getting both kids into the hotel was a challenge because our son didn’t even want to walk on the same side of the street as the hotel. More than anything, we wanted to show him that there was nothing for him to be scared about.
We walked up Capitol Avenue but struggled to find something to eat that was not ridiculously expensive, that both kids would eat, and that would be unique to Austin. We finally returned to 6th Street, stopped at Voodoo Doughnut to get our son’s blood sugar back up so that he wouldn’t turn into a walking Snicker’s commercial, and then found Roppolo’s Pizzaria, a pizza-by-the-slice joint that was voted 16th best in America by Yahoo in 2012. After lunch we were finally ready to explore the state capitol.
I firmly believe that experience is the best educator. It is one thing to learn about a place or a historical event, but when we can see the place and experience things in person, those lessons more firmly stick with us. As we approached the state capitol, we discovered that a large group of Texas public school teachers were protesting our legislature, which is currently in session. Suddenly we weren’t just getting a tour of the place where laws were made; we were showing our kids what it means to exercise our First Amendment rights. It also opened up discussion about issues facing public education. Our kids have always attended a Lutheran school and I’ve almost always been a Lutheran school educator. While I have always made less than my public school counterparts, my current school does a good job of taking care of me and my complaints are much bigger than my salary and how much money I’m getting for my classroom. However, I don’t spend a lot of time complaining about my issues with American education around my kids. But this was a chance for me to share with my own kids my personal support for my public school colleagues and to help them start to see the issues that face my public school teaching peers and their students. As we tried to listen to the tour guide over the chants of the teachers circling around every level of the rotunda, I didn’t complain but proudly took a picture of them working for the betterment of their students and Texas schools.
We eventually broke from the tour guide because 1) we could barely hear her and 2) the kids just wanted to explore on their own. We walked into the Senate chamber and watched the Texas senate at work (although to be frank it appeared that the senators were about as attentive as teachers are during the end-of-year meetings). We took pictures all over the capitol building and made sure that our daughter had everything that she thought she wanted and needed for her project. Before we left the area of the capitol building, we walked past the governor’s mansion and took a quick picture and then headed back towards 6th Street.
Before we headed home we needed to make one more stop along 6th Street. We promised the kids that we would get some more donuts from Voodoo to take back with us for breakfast the next morning. Along the way, we made a stop at the Driskill Hotel for a free SXSW event, convincing our son to put his fears aside so that he could not only go into the hotel, but go up the dreaded grand staircase. We returned to the truck exhausted but satisfied. Our daughter had everything that she felt she needed to complete her project and we all got a good taste of the capitol city.
Chicago has always been my favorite American city, but while we lived just outside of Chicago for three years, I could never be convinced to live there. I just love to visit. I’m slowly beginning to feel the same way about Austin. In the nearly four years that we’ve lived here I have been there three times, and each time I found something about the city that I appreciate. And while I’m glad that we were able to quickly escape the crowds that descend upon the city for two weeks every March, I’m also glad that we visited when we did.
And maybe I’ll give SXSW a shot another year, just without the kids this time.