The weekend that Jeff and I went to Austin to celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary, we decided that we needed to return to the city, bringing both kids with us so that we could experience the flight of the Mexican Freetail bats during the summer months. Our son has been in love with bats, or at least the idea of bats, ever since a park ranger-led talk in an Indiana barn at Potato Creek State Park several years ago. From the moment we saw all of the tourist information about the bats in Austin, we knew that this was something we needed to do with our kids, so we made early June reservations at McKinney Falls State Park, hopeful that we would be able to beat the summer heat, at least a little.
Apparently we still hadn’t learned our lesson about Texas summers. By the time we pulled into our site right before sunset, it was still in the 90s, our Midwest appropriate air-conditioner struggling to cool off the camper enough to make sleeping for the night comfortable.
We took the trip shortly before our son’s seventh birthday; Jeff decided that it was time to start teaching him more about camper care and how to set up our campsite. Our son insisted on helping me put the wheel chocks into place and then helped Jeff remove the hitch and lower the front jack. My heart dropped as I watched my little boy proudly walk around the camper with a drill in hand, taking sole responsibility for putting down the stabs that would keep our camper steady while we were parked. There was something unexpectedly grown up about the moment, something I was not ready to face, and while I may not have been ready for the image of my little boy pretending to be a little man, it helped to emphasize three of the many things we hoped both of our children would learn during our many family camping trips: responsibility, teamwork, and independence.
When we woke up the next morning, we could finally see the pretty campground at McKinney Falls State Park, right outside of Austin. It’s a beautiful state park and one that we wanted to explore further, but we made plans to camp on a hot June weekend specifically so that we could take our bat-loving little boy to downtown Austin on Saturday night to watch 750,000 pregnant Mexican Freetail bats fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue bridge at sunset. The weekend was unseasonably hot, even for Texas, and so we decided that exploring in one of the most popular state parks in Texas would have to wait. After spending the day enjoying the water and slides at the waterpark Typhoon Texas, we rushed downtown and settled into one of the many boat tours that take tourists and Austin residents for a direct view of the bats in flight.
The Congress Avenue Bridge is home to the largest urban colony of bats in the world. In early June, visitors can see a colony of hungry pregnant females who returned from Mexico in the late spring, ready to give birth to their offspring in the middle of Texas’s state capital. Bats were not new to us, but watching thousands upon thousands of bats fly right past us into the night was a spectacle unlike any we had ever experienced.
After the sun had set and most of the bats had taken flight, we landed back on the shore and walked through the Hyatt Hotel, right on the shores of the lake. We rarely stay in hotels, so our kids looked up at the glistening hotel with awe, wondering what it must take to stay in such an establishment. When Jeff and and our son stopped in the bathroom on our way out, our son chattered away, asking what people do in the hotel and why they would want to stay there when they could just go camping.
“Well, there are some people who just don’t like camping.”
Our son, in mid-pee, exclaimed, “Well, that’s just preposterous.”
Clearly he didn’t agree with the hypothetical people who didn’t believe that they would like camping. Ever since buying our first camper, whenever possible has been our preferred option over hotels. The few times we have had to stay in hotels while traveling, our normally well-behaved kids don’t know what to do. They talk too loud, jump on the floor, stomp from one room to the next, and turn up the television. When we are camping and we need to keep our kids occupied we send them to the playground, tell them to ride their bikes, encourage them to get out their sidewalk chalk, and tell them to grab a book if all else fails. If they stomp on the floor they are getting yelled at for shaking the camper, not because they are disturbing the people below us. If they are hungry, I’m not looking through our scant supplies and running to the overpriced vending machine. Instead, I just grab them something from our refrigerator or pantry. They can’t claim they don’t have anything to entertain themselves, because they get to pick their toys and clothes before they leave the house for any given trip, and they have plenty of room for the small number of personal items that we let them bring.
Clearly, we are not hotel people.
The next morning I headed to the front gate to buy our campground magnet to add to our growing collection of magnets from nearly every place we have camped. Hopeful I would be able to find a location that my family could quickly hike to before the sun got too hot, I headed to both of the main waterfalls in the park, discovering that both waterfalls were a quick walk from each parking spot. I returned to the camper and got the whole family out for a quick excursion out to the waterfalls before we had to head home.
It was hot, but school was out and I could take my time once we were unpacked and settled back home. Even though our camping spot had been more a place to sleep than a destination for rest and relaxation, we enjoyed the weekend of bonding together as a family and Jeff and I regretted that we hadn’t stayed there when we went to Austin to celebrate our anniversary. As cold as our December anniversary weekend had been, we wouldn’t have been any worse off than the weekend that we spent camping for our trip to New Orlean’s a year and a half before.
Oh well. At least we got there eventually.