Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 98: Colossal Jack

Austin. 20.8 miles/1813.9 total

Friday, March 26, 2010

I start in Del Valle, at the far southeastern edge of Austin, walking north through the city to the northwestern end.

It’s a cloudless day, about 50 degrees, climbing up into the low 70s. I have a feeling I’m going to be saying “it’s a cloudless day” more frequently as I head out toward west Texas.

Yesterday I visited the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of UT. Nice looking building with an beautiful Moorish style atrium and staircase to the upper level. Quite a few Italian paintings from the renaissance and later, but also some American western stuff by Remington, Bierstadt, and others.

I spent last evening with friends Joy and Ron Felt, who took me out to dinner and to spend the night at their beautiful house over by Lake Travis, west of Austin. Thanks to them for their hospitality.

And now it’s back to the road. After I get past the airport and the morning haze burns off I begin to catch glimpses of the skyline. And a clean and modern one it is. I daresay that twenty years ago at least half the skyscrapers weren’t there, and a decade before that most of the rest weren’t either, and the state capitol and University of Texas tower dominated the view. But no more. And speaking of the university tower, that’s the one where a guy named Charles Whitman killed and wounded a bunch of people back in 1966, holed up for much of the time on the 29th floor observation deck, before being killed himself.

One of the avian phenomena I observe frequently around here is these black birds—grackles, I think, that have a bluish sheen in certain light. What makes them distinctive here in central Texas is their impressive tails, which are often as long as their bodies and stick up at a rakish angle. People evidently consider them to be nuisance birds, but I must say I find them quite beautiful. Perhaps the birds consider humans to be nuisance mammals, or maybe they're more charitable than that.

I turn right onto Riverside Drive, which will take me to Congress. Here it’s a six-lane boulevard. Gradually the skyline gets larger. If there’s a low-rent district in Austin, it’s probably Del Valle, where I started, given over to trailer parks, a prison, and the airport. But it’s not bad, and from what I can see Austin is a pretty clean city. Not that there aren’t cans and bottles here and there, but nothing like the uniform trashiness of whole sections of Memphis and New Orleans (there are some things you just can’t blame on Hurricane Katrina). Of course I’m merely making an observation. I don’t dislike garbage. I’ve said it before. Everything we humans build and stick into or on the ground is just trash. We create an artificial hierarchy, calling some of it “litter” and “debris” while terming other things “infrastructure” and “buildings,” but it’s all just matter we’ve ripped from Mother Earth and rearranged to suit our purposes. And when we’re done with it we have to put it somewhere. So relax and toss that coffee cup out the window. Hell, toss a piece of plutonium out while you’re at it.

I turn right and cross the Congress Street Bridge into downtown, toward the formidable gleaming business district and the capitol beyond. This is the bridge under which those millions of bats live, sleeping now in the early afternoon. At the north end of the bridge I come to a historical marker talking about what happened in Austin during the Civil War. Not much, really.

Across from the capitol grounds there’s a marker commemorating Andrew Jackson Hamilton, the first Republican governor of Texas. A. J. Hamilton came from Alabama in 1846. He was called Colossal Jack because of his big stature. He went to Congress from Texas in 1859, then came back to serve in the state senate. But when the Civil War broke out he took a Union stand, for which he was forced to flee to Mexico in 1862. He then made his way north, and Lincoln appointed him a brigadier general and military governor of Texas in 1862. However, he served in this position from outside the state, in New Orleans, because the Union didn’t yet control Texas. Small detail. During reconstruction he was appointed civilian governor of Texas and served from 1865-66. Later, when white southerners began to regain control of the south and reimpose strict racial apartheid, he tried to run for governor, but lost.

Texas is once again in the hands of the Republicans, but they are not the Republicans of yore. They are in fact the old racist southern Democrats with a new name, and minus any progressive elements the Republican Party may once have possessed. They are the official party of fear and loathing.

On up Congress I go, around the capitol on the west side, making my way to Guadeloupe Street, which goes north past the UT campus. There’s nothing more invigorating than being around thousands of young people. Not just because of their pulchritude and energy, which is certainly enjoyable, but also to see these kids in what is the prime of their lives. Although, as I have mentioned before, they’re often less insouciant than they should be--far too serious and driven and regimented and busy discovering grave truths about the world and themselves and each other, when they should be living it up. (On the other hand, if you hear shots, hide under something.)

On up Guadeloupe I pass the spacious grounds of the Austin State Hospital, whose main building is made of limestone and looks like it dates from the mid-1800s. A chain link fence surrounds the institution, with rose bushes planted every few yards inside the fence. Today the branches and flowers reach out to the sidewalk passerby as if they are trying to escape from the asylum.

At 45th Street I turn west and soon pass by the Texas School for the Blind, Visually Handicapped, and Able to Play Pinball by Sense of Smell. At Burnet Street I turn north again, continuing uphill and out of the center of the city.

I pass a succession of Walgreens, CVSs, H.E.B.s, then Tom’s Dive and Swim and the Capital Music Center, and the Dragon’s Lair, purveyors of comics and fantasy, where the geeks congregate.

Finally I climb no more, turning west onto Anderson Lane, where I begin to head downhill a bit. I’m in the wide-open suburbs now. Anderson turns into Spicewood Springs Road, and gets narrower and shadier. Apartments and tasteful office buildings perch atop the rocks, amid cedars and oaks.

Suddenly I can’t see the road in front of me any more as I reach the top of an amazingly steep hill. While from a purely aerobic standpoint walking down a steep hill is easy, it is relatively hard on the legs, which were designed to support the body when walking flat or uphill. Walking downhill therefore taxes the knees, which brace with each step, as toes jam themselves up into the front of shoes. And I really don’t want to contemplate the consequences of tumbling forward and down such a hill.

I reach the bottom and approach the Capital of Texas Highway, where I turn right, heading for U.S. 183. Off in the distance on the many hills expensive-looking houses interrupt the trees.

Slowly I walk by the nearly-gridlocked traffic moving in the other direction. I feel almost as if I’m reviewing a long parade of late-model vehicles. Like a politician at a rally, I'm tempted to point and wave. I can see the people clearly as they inch along, moving no faster than I am. It’s a great chance to admire them and check out their kids. Some talk to themselves, some are on the phone, some rock out to music. Many seem to be smiling at me, until I realize they’re facing the late afternoon sun and are probably just squinting and grimacing. But maybe they’re happy to be going home on a Friday to their villas in the hills of Lake Austin or Lake Travis.

After crossing 183 I turn left onto the access road for the last quarter of a mile to Target parking lot, where the motor home comes into view, shaded by some oak trees.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Austen sounds like an oasis--I get the feeling you enjoy the city--I always thought it is one of the few places in Tx that would be nice to visit--see the coeds, talk longhorn football and listen to the Austen sound,ie, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett.
I remember Whitman and his rifle shots from the Texas Tower--it was a real big deal for awhile--something unreal; before school shootings nomalized in the 90s----Art