Cowboys Russian

In a far-reaching adventure in late November, I led another small group of Russian professors half-way across the Lone Star State. On a Wednesday and Thursday, we went east and west and south and back for nearly 700 miles in all directions. Once more, they enjoyed the benefit of a translator, Natalia K., their associate from Moscow.

Day one was a drive from Austin to the Houston area with a visit to NASA being the main attraction. ‘Twas a fair, cool morning on US 290 as we crossed the Blackland Prairie and Post Oak Savannah into quiet cotton gin-famed Burton, our first rest stop. Here besides the museum are a couple of handsome bed-and-breakfast establishments and a tiny town grocery. This section of the state contains much history from the Mexican colonial period and sites significant to the subsequent Texas Revolution. In Burton branches Scenic Highway 390, the old La Bahía Road from Nacogdoches to Goliad, a venerable thoroughfare from Spanish days.

We continued southeastward and soon encountered the suburban sprawl that is Houston. Where does our society put 5.5 million people except in endless strip shopping centers, never-finished freeways, identical housing subdivisions, tall office buildings, and boisterous amusement complexes? We cruised into the heart of downtown, where my clients snapped digital pictures of the Big Onion’s skyscrapers.

In keeping with Texpert Tours’ policy of flexibility, these travelers first opted to see the Gulf Coast at Galveston. After photo stops along the sandy beach of that historical resort island, we took lunch in nearby Fish Tales Seafood Grill. These courteous Easterners raised their glasses to toast the 6,000 who died in the city’s 1900 hurricane. Raise GlassesThey were equally impressed by the period homes and mansions as with the Texas Heroes Monument and Moody Gardens pyramids.

Done with lunch and salt sea spray, we headed north on I-45 to NASA’s Space Center Houston. Part interactive museum, part children’s flying circus, this cavernous room holds a space shuttle mock-up, Space Lab replica, astronauts’ survival suites, science experiments, and the inevitable gift shop. Here a visitor gets to touch a moon rock, experience weightlessness almost, and grab a bite to eat in the Zero-G Diner. Most ironic is the display of a life-size X-wing starfighter and Jedi knight uniform—er, uh, costume—from Star Wars. Art imitates life.

The daylight was rapidly waning as we left that microcosm and threw ourselves into the maw of an evening commute in America’s fourth-largest city. In an effort to avoid the worst traffic, I glided the mighty ‘Burb onto the Sam Houston Tollway. It’s an all-elevated road ringing the metro’s outer sections, first west, then north. After paying five transit fees, we were back on 290. My weary clients returned to their northwest Austin lodging by 10:00 p.m., nonetheless excited about the morrow’s prospects.

Thursday dawned chilly and crisp. Using one of Central Texas’ new toll roads, we climbed west and north onto the Jollyville Plateau, angled over to Bertram, and dropped south to Colbert Ranch.

These guests would not leave Texas without gaining the true cowboy experience. The lovely Kali, a life-long riding enthusiast, instructed the Stetson-hatted novices on horse-handling basics, and off they trotted on a 90-minute saddle trip through this picturesque equestrian facility. I stayed behind, interacting with a friendly dog and raucous geese.

Kali Horsewoman How To Horses

The pavement from the ranch leaps off the relatively flat upland into deep canyons skirting Lake Travis. Ranch Road 1431 here is part of the Texas Hill Country Trail and leads to Marble Falls. Lunch choices quickly narrowed to the Bluebonnet Café, where I just might have discovered the world’s best chicken-fried steak. My companions enjoyed the same entrée, but I had to clarify it was beef, not poultry. This down-home eatery is famed for its fresh-bake pies; selections included pecan, apple, cherry, lemon meringue, and chocolate. Our feast was had on a table of solid pink granite, the same material facing the Texas Capital Building and probably coming from the same quarry. We were so well-fed and served, one of our number didn’t want to leave. But we did and then browsed a nearby local western wear store.

Dessert in Bluebonnet

U.S. 281 happens to be one of the prettiest routes through Central Texas, and it led us to the Alamo City. We drove directly into downtown, and I dropped my group at the Alamo. After parking, I joined them inside the Shrine of Texas Liberty. With others gathering, I stood over a model of the fortress in 1836 and told the story of events leading up to the Texas Revolution, the 13-day siege, 45-minute battle, Runaway Scrape, and victory at San Jacinto. From there, we strolled the Long Barracks exhibits and gift shop, then strode down to the Riverwalk for supper.

This time of year, holiday lights festoon the trees, bridges, and businesses of Paseo del Rio in every imaginable color. At our favored BBQ restaurant, the clients sampled Herradura, my suggested tequila. They thought the stuff tasty, but ordered another round of shots just to make sure. Right as their grilled chicken salads arrived, a river barge full of caroling costumed kids floated past.

Singing Kids Riverwalk Lights

With this Alamo City adventure at a close, I returned the happy travelers to Austin via swift interstates. The Russian professors also beheld Old Pecan Street in a quick drive-by of Austin’s party central before continuing northwest to their suites. Ah, Texas—such diversity in culture, history, and landscape!

– HR