Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Texas is a huge state, with lots to see and do. I've been there twice now, and each visit has been a unique and joyful experience.


My first trip to Texas was in 2009, when my comedy group Dirty Water performed as part of the Out of Bounds Improv Festival in Austin. Many would have chosen to fly from Chicago to Austin, but the Dirty Water boys were road warriors. We were in the habit of driving to all of our destinations, having previously driven from Chicago to places as far away as Boston, Toronto and Florida. When we were invited to perform in Austin, we hardly batted an eye at the prospect of the eighteen hour drive to get there. 

We left on a Wednesday afternoon, and after driving all night through Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas, we arrived in Texas early Thursday morning. Our stomachs were growling by the time we hit the Texas border, and we found the perfect place to stop - a town called New Boston. Our show was a Boston-themed show, so the town's name made us feel strangely at home despite being in a state known to be quite different than Massachusetts. 

We found a diner in New Boston that would surely satisfy our hunger, but we weren't quite prepared for the scene waiting for us when we breezed through the door. The restaurant was full of smoke, much of which was coming from tables full of senior citizens. We were clearly strangers, and they looked at us sideways as our gang of large, smelly improv nerds shuffled into the nearest table. Fortunately, the divide between the regulars and out-of-towners didn't last long. After we ordered our breakfast, an old man with a wrinkled, leathery face and a tattered cowboy hat moseyed on over to our table and asked us where we were from. This led to our story of heading to Austin for the improv festival. With that, he became noticeably excited and asked us which route we were taking to get there. We were planning on following the GPS's directions, so we said we didn't know. He started describing his preferred route into the city. When others overheard the conversation, they joined in, offered their opinions and insights, and argued with each other about which was the most optimal route. Before long, half the restaurant was involved in the discussion. Maps were drawn, then re-drawn. Routes were debated and rated on a variety of criteria. This continued as we listened, nodded, and ate our breakfast. As the conversation came to a close, the old man looked at us with genuine concern and asked, "You got all that?" We said we did. After paying our bill, we thanked our new friends, and headed back out on the road. We followed the GPS directions and made it into Austin just fine.  

After some naps and showers, we headed out for an early dinner. We were hungry again and anxious to experience some real Texas BBQ. Our friend Bill, who was from Austin originally and was in town for the festival, recommended we meet him at his favorite BBQ joint, which he declared to be the best in the city. We hopped into a cab and asked the driver to bring us to Sam's BBQ. When we gave him the address, he looked at us strangely. "You sure?" he asked, wondering if we knew what we were getting into. 

When we arrived, we immediately understood why he questioned us. The neighborhood was sketchy, full of abandoned buildings, and inhabited by hookers shamelessly flaunting themselves. The BBQ joint itself was a beat up, rusted, old shack. We were reluctant to get out of the cab and seriously considered bailing on the plan and turning around. However, Bill was waiting for us inside, so we reluctantly got out and made a beeline for the shack. 

Photo courtesy of Bill Stern
Photo courtesy of Bill Stern
Once we ordered our food, settled into a table and dug in, we realized why it was worth risking our lives to visit this joint. The BBQ was absolutely delicious. The ribs, pulled pork sandwiches and sausages were all juicy and perfectly cooked, and the sauce that was lightly drizzled over everything was tangy and delicious. We definitely felt we were eating something special, despite the off-putting surroundings. I’ve heard the food there has since gone downhill, so keep that in mind before venturing over there. 

With dinner over, it was time to head over to the Salvage Vanguard theater for our show.  

We were part of the 11:00 pm show that was declared "One of the most unique improv shows on the docket" by the Examiner. I wish I could say we lived up to the billing. One of the things we prided ourselves on as a group was the ability to deliver quality performances consistently, which was tough to do considering our show was improvised. However, this show was a real clunker. We failed to connect with the audience despite reaching deep into our bag of tricks. We actually felt we had delivered a good show, but the audience clearly didn't agree, offering nothing more than a subtle guffaw or two during our forty minute set. To make matters worse, we were totally upstaged by the other group that performed that night, an absurdist improv group from New York called FUCT. We didn't see their show, but we could hear the thunderous laughter and generous applause from the green room. Ah well. Can't win em all.

We learned the next day that nothing takes the sting out of a lousy show like a good float. We were off to New Braunfels, TX, where we would rent inner tubes from Texas Tubes and float down the Comal River. It was an hour-long drive to get there from Austin, and well worth it. The setup was brilliant. A flat fee of $20 included an inner tube, access to the river from their launching point, and a ride back to our van when the float was over. We paid an extra $20 for a tube that held a cooler full of beer. Say what you will about Texas, but its liquor laws certainly afford a good time that most other states can't offer.

The float lasted about three hours, and we enjoyed every second of it. I am a big fan of lazy rivers in water parks, and this was like riding one long lazy river, only wholly natural, longer, and generally more awesome. The beverages helped the cause. The only thing better than gently floating down a beautiful river with your buddies is gently floating down a beautiful river with your buddies with a cold beer in your hand. There were lots of people in the river that day as the weather was gorgeous, but even so, it did not feel crowded. Just the opposite. It was relaxing, freeing, and a ton of fun.

The one snafu of the day came during a section of the river that required riding down a cement passageway that looked a bit like a waterslide. While this was not a problem for most of us, one person in our group (who will remain nameless to avoid embarrassment) somehow managed to get stuck. This held up traffic considerably as he pushed, flailed to tried to get himself free. We were cracking up watching him squirm. Eventually he got himself loose and we continued on down the river.

The whole experience was such a blast. I would have floated for twice as long if I had the chance. I can honestly say it was one of the best days of my life. I will definitely go back if I get a chance, and I highly recommend it for everyone who loves the water.

By the time we got back to Austin, we were quite tired from being in the Texas sun all day, and also a bit drunk, so we took naps before rebounding and preparing for the evening. There was another fantastic destination ahead. We were headed to Chuy's, an outstanding Tex-Mex restaurant that our Austin friends swore by, mostly because of the award-winning queso and delicious Margaritas. Sold! Chuy's has several locations now, and each one is unique. The one we went to had a huge outdoor seating area, and we enjoyed the hell out of sitting there, eating delicious food (the queso lived up to its rep), joking and laughing. It was a great night.

With another full day in Austin ahead of us, we decided to spend Saturday getting the true Austin experience. We started in the South Congress neighborhood (aka SoCo), a hip part of town that features many unique stores and several bars, restaurants and food trucks. An outdoor market there offered many unique pieces of artwork and clothing. Pete found an amazing shirt there that featured an image of a gorilla punching a shark. It was really sweet, but really expensive. He hemmed and hawed over whether to purchase it for a good forty-five minutes. Adam watched anxiously, and when it became clear Pete would never make up his mind, Adam decided to buy the shirt instead. They've been arguing over that moment ever since. The image of the shark and the gorilla has become a theme for Adam, even appearing on the cufflinks in his wedding. Pete will never live it down.

Adam sporting his new find
From there were wandered down Congress Street, where we encountered many fascinating shops offering unique items.

Funky Latin American art at Mi Casa
A sample of the strange treasures at Uncommon Objects
After perusing the shops and purchasing some gifts for our wives/fiancées/girlfriends, it was off to grab some food and sample a few of SoCo's finest watering holes.

We found ourselves right at home at Little Woodrow's, a great bar with a huge beer selection, a kick-ass juke box and lots of character and charm. We spent a couple of hours there and really connected with it. It didn't hurt that there was a Boston Red Sox sticker on the front door. Unfortunately we missed the turtle racing, a regular occurrence there.

We all really liked SoCo, a sterling example of Austin's charm that was a ton of fun to explore and honored the pledge to "Keep Austin Weird."

From there, our group split up. Adam and Matt headed over to the University of Texas to catch a Texas Longhorns game featuring cult hero Colt McCoy at QB. The rest of us took one of Austin's many bike rickshaws to the Congress Avenue Bridge, home to Austin's famous bats. There are upwards of a million bats that live under this bridge, and at dusk, they make their presence known to the world, much to the delight of the many spectators. We met up with some of our Austin friends, and they had the skinny on the best spot for bat watching, a grassy knoll with a great view. We waited as darkness descended, and at a specific moment, we saw one bat fly out. Then two more. Then the entire colony of bats started streaming their way out from under the bridge. There were so many bats, it looked like they were one solid mass. The crowd cheered as they flew, and it was a good twenty minutes or so before all of the bats were gone. Watching the procession was both chilling and enthralling. Dusk is a tough time for photos, so please forgive the sub-par images below. 

Meanwhile, Adam and Matt had a great time at the UT Austin game, and they really got into the Hook 'em Horns spirit.

That night we went to see Bill perform with Computer, one of his improv groups from Chicago. They were fantastic, and they earned every clap in the sea of applause they received. Afterwards we went on to the festival afterparty, which featured lots of laughs, some lousy pizza and a couple of rides on a dude's scooter.

We had one more item on the to-do list before we left Texas: the annual Out of Bounds Miniature Golf Tournament. This was a festival tradition that took place at Peter Pan Mini Golf, an awesome putt-putt course. During the tourney, costumes were encouraged, as was creative cheating. It was a blast, and a great way to end our time in Austin.

We hit the road right after the tournament and made the long drive back to Chicago, stopping in Oklahoma and Kansas along the way. We had a hell of a time on the return trip - more fun than we probably should have. But that's a different story for a different blog post.

Austin is a fantastic city to visit. There's so much to see and do there, and anyone can have a marvelous adventure within this city regardless of age or interest. I would go back in a heartbeat.


Photo by G. Scott Olson
It took me almost thirty years to make my first trip to Texas, but it only took six months to get to visit number two. This time, Mrs. Tires and I went to Mercedes, TX to witness the wedding of our friends Scott and Beka. Mercedes is a strange place on the southern tip of Texas that featured some odd quirks, such as a schizophrenic GPS. We learned that the hard way when we followed the GPS directions and ended up driving down a muddy dirt trail that cut through someone's farm. The GPS insisted that that was the way to get to our destination. Not only was the whole experience very confusing, but we got our rented Toyota Yaris stuck in the mud several times while navigating the "road" and made a total mess of the car. Mrs. Tires was quite upset by this sequence of events, as she was convinced it would enrage the Texas farmer whose land we were trespassing on, prompting him to do the only logical thing he could do - come out with a shotgun and shoot us. Fortunately, we made it out of the mud alive and got to our destination by calling for directions.

Photo by G Scott Olson
The wedding rehearsal dinner occurred in a different country. Mercedes is just a few minutes from the Mexican border, and the bride's family was a regular at a wonderful restaurant on the Mexico side called Arturo's. In my previous experiences traveling internationally, crossing borders had always been a big, drawn-out ordeal. However, this time it was remarkably easy. I couldn't believe how casual it was, just driving ten minutes down the road and then arriving at a border crossing that was more like a souped-up toll booth than an international border.

We had a couple of hours to spend in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico before the dinner, so we wandered in and out of a few shops that sold authentic southwestern gear, and then spent some time at a nearby bar.

The best man, all decked out in his new authentic southwestern garb. 
The rehearsal dinner that night was fantastic. Arturo's was a charming, down-to-earth restaurant, and amazing energy was building up. I gave an impromptu toast wherein I relived one of the early meetings between the bride and groom. It was well received, and I was so happy to be able to contribute a meaningful moment to the proceedings.

The scene inside a boot shop in Mercedes
The wedding was the next day, and since all of our friends were in the wedding party and were therefore steeped in wedding prep, Mrs. Tires and I entertained ourselves by going to the nearby Rio Grande Valley Outlet Mall, a huge outdoor shopping center. There were a ton of stores there with great deals, but in the end all we bought was a large collection of fake mustaches.

The wedding that evening was elegant and beautiful. It was easy to see why they wanted to get married at the bride's grandmother's residence - it was a charming setting with plenty of space they could set up as they pleased. It truly was one of the most wonderful ceremonies I had ever witnessed. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, especially when the bride's parents serenaded the new bride and groom with In My Life by The Beatles.

The ceremony in Memaw's back yard. 
Bobbie Kay and David serenade Beka and Scott
The happy couple says "I do."

The dance floor was hoppin' that night. It was clear that we were all feeling the love, and we had to collectively express it by dancing our hearts out. Friends and family mixed effortlessly. Our faces hurt the next day after smiling non-stop the entire night. 

Texas is a really cool state to travel through. I’ve had wonderful experiences there, and I’ve only scratched the surface. With any luck, I’ll explore Texas more thoroughly in the future. 

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